The Resurrection of Jesus

Why Seek Ye the Living Among the Dead?

Why seek ye the living among the dead?—Luke 24:5

Verse by Verse study of Matthew 28

Perhaps no event in history so affected the people of its own time than the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It became the theme that attracted thousands to the cause of Christ, and the cornerstone around which the early church was built.

In three and a half years of preaching, Jesus Christ, a perfect man who spoke "as never man spake" (John 7:46), and who attested his words with all forms of miracles, only some 500 became adherents of his beliefs. Within a very short time after Pentecost, the apostles, "unlearned and ignorant men" (Acts 4:13) added thousands to the fold.

The significant difference was the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Jews could not deny it. They had taken every precaution to make sure the body could not be stolen from the grave. Yet, despite the seal of Pilate and the elite guard of the Sanhedrin, the grave was empty. Given the importance of this event, it is surprising that the Bible gives only sketchy accounts of the details of some eleven post-resurrection appearances which were taken by the church as "infallible proofs" of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:3).

Word spread rapidly. One account, somewhat muddled in translation, reads thus: "And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many" (Matthew 27:51-53).

It is unlikely that this refers to a temporary resurrection of some who had died before Christ, or there would have been additional references to these remarkable individuals. There have been many attempts to answer the difficulties presented by this text. We suggest that the problem may not lie in the translation, but in the manuscript itself. A paraphrased translation of the fifth century Codex Bezae (D) reads: "And many bodies of the holy ones which slept were tossed upright in their graves where they were manifest to many after his resurrection at the holy city."

This act of tossing buried bodies into an upright position in itself would be a highly symbolic demonstration of a coming resurrection and would certainly have been widely noised about in the marketplace.

The last chapters of each of the gospels deal with the details of the appearances of Christ to prove to his disciples that he had indeed risen from the dead. We will take a look here at those mentioned in the last chapter of the gospel of Matthew.

The Messengers—Verses 1 to 7

"In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you."

Earthquakes frequently have aftershocks. So it was in 33 AD. The earthquake on Friday afternoon that rent the temple veil and threw bodies upright in the graves on the slopes of Olivet was followed by an aftershock on Sunday morning which rolled back the stone from the tomb where Jesus was buried. As the first quake illustrated the twin effects of Jesus’ death—both opening up "a new and living way" of life into heaven, represented by the Most Holy of the temple, and paving theway for the eventual resurrection of all mankind, prefigured by the breaking of the graveyard tombs —so the second shock revealed the method by which these would be accomplished—by the raising of Jesus himself from the dead (Hebrews 10:20).

At Jesus’ second advent there is also a pair of symbolic earthquakes. In Revelation 6:12 and again in Revelation 11:13 we read of a "great earthquake" in the period of the sixth seal and sixth trumpet. Many commentators agree that this is symbolic of the French Revolution. But there is still a greater aftershock in the period of the seventh trumpet and seventh plague (Revelation 11:19; 16:18). This earthquake is an apparent reference to the final battle preceding the full establishment of Christ’s kingdom—the Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16). These two quakes are the parentheses on either side of the great transitional trouble which will fully remove the old world order in preparation for Christ’s Mediatorial kingdom.

Archaeological evidence of the earthquakes at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection may still exist today. The Essene community at Qumran, some twenty miles from Jerusalem, was destroyed in an earthquake in 31 BC and was rebuilt shortly thereafter, surviving until its final destruction by the Romans in 68 AD. Visitors to the site can see a sharp break in the steps to the ceremonial baths that can only be attributed to an earthquake. Since the entire complex was rebuilt after the quake of 31 BC, it is probable that this damage was done by the same quake which is recorded in our text in 33AD.

Whether the stone was actually moved by the angel or whether it was the earthquake that actually did the moving, it was no small thing. These stones were usually rolled into place at an incline and it took as many as twenty men to move them.1

The supernatural appearance of the angels with their radiant countenance and brilliantly white raiment may well have been designed to accomplish the very thing it did—strike the keepers of the tomb with such awe that they literally fainted. Not only their appearance, but their position—sitting on the moved stone as though in conquest—were all designed to have the maximum effect on the keepers.

The Message – Verses 8 to 10

And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.

The angel, more likely two angels, apparently changed position before the women arrived, for we read in Luke 24:3,4 that they were standing within the tomb at that time. After being invited to witness with their own eyes the fact that the tomb was indeed empty, they were sent on a mission to quickly inform the other disciples of the fact.

Mary Magdalene ran to tell Peter and John, who came quickly. The account in John’s gospel has her seeing the same two angels sitting, one at the head and the other at the foot where Jesus had lain. It was at this time that she saw one she perceived to be a gardener and inquired if he knew where they had placed the body of Jesus. His familiar mannerisms soon revealed to her that she was talking to the resurrected Lord himself (John 20:11-16).

A difference in the appearance of Jesus to the women from his appearance to Mary at the tomb is that the women freely embrace Jesus without reproof, where John says Mary Magdalene’s attempt to embrace him is met with a rebuff, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (John 20:17). Perhaps he wished Mary to proceed with her fresh testimony to Jesus’ resurrection, whereas on the previous occasion Mary was already ahead of the others en route to bringing them back to the tomb.

It is perhaps noteworthy that the privilege of being first witnesses of his resurrection and given the rare privilege of becoming its first messengers was granted to women. This may indicate a readier acceptance of a near-unbelievable occurrence than would have been true with their male counterparts, or it may merely show a special reward for their early morning act of devotion in preparing the spices and rushing to anoint him as soon as legally permissible under Sabbath rules.

The message they were to deliver had two parts: first, that Jesus had indeed been resurrected and was alive; and second, they were to meet him in Galilee. They must have wondered why. He had been tried in Jerusalem. He was crucified in Jerusalem. He was buried in Jerusalem. Why did he not accompany them to Galilee if that was where he wished to go? How would he get there?

In fact many of the appearances to follow were in the Jerusalem area. Galilee was a three-day journey and they could not help but wonder at this strange request. The first Galilee appearance is mentioned in the last chapter of the book of John. It takes place at the sea shore and is specifically mentioned as being the "third time" Jesus showed himself to his disciples. Since the other gospels mention four before he went to the north, it is assumed that this count does not reflect the personal appearance he made to Mary Magdalene as the gardener nor the one to the other women as they ran to inform the disciples of the good news. The John account was his third appearance collectively to a group.

However the appearance which John records is by the sea shore, and the command of the women is that he would meet them in "a mountain." This must have been, therefore, after the sea shore meeting. Perhaps there were two reasons for sending them to Galilee. First, it would test their obedience to instructions from an unseen Jesus. Second, though there were many of his disciples in Jerusalem for the Passover, there may have been numerous others who were not able to go and remained in Galilee. It was probably on this occasion that he appeared to "five hundred brethren at once" (1 Corinthians 15:6).

While the name and location of the mountain are not given, it may well be that this final sermon to a number of his followers was in the same mountain where he began his ministry with the "sermon on the mount" (Matthew 5-7).

The Cover Up – Verses 11 to 15

Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.

The Scribes and Pharisees felt threatened by the ministry of Jesus. They had expressed this fear before his crucifixion. "If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation" (John 11:48). They recognized his abilities of persuasion, that he spoke "as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matthew 7:29). They knew that he had predicted his own death and assured his disciples that he would rise from the dead on "the third day" (Matthew 27:63). They concluded this probably not from his references to raising the temple "in three days" (John 2:19) but from his reference to the "sign of Jonah" who was in the whale’s belly for three days (Matthew 12:40).

They suspected a plot on the part of his disciples to steal his body from the tomb and make the claims that he had been raised from the dead. Thus they obtained permission from Pilate to specially secure the tomb with a seal and place their own guard at its doors. Now their best laid plans were foiled. The seal had been broken. The heavy stone had been rolled away. Their guards had fainted in the brightness of the angel’s appearance. The body had been removed and, worst of all, word was spreading rapidly that Jesus had risen from the dead.

The only counter-measure that remained was to form a cover up. This they did by offering the guards a bribe to make a false statement that the disciples had somehow overcome them, broken the seal, rolled away the stone, and taken the body. They added an additional incentive to the guards—protection in case of a Roman judicial investigation.

According to Jamieson, Fausett, and Brown, the grammatical form of the Greek in the clause "we will persuade him" (verse 14) implies the anticipation that there would be just such a judicial investigation, but that they were confident Pilate could be bribed to accept the report of the guards. They need have no fear if they gave false evidence. It might be noted that there are those even today who accept this lie which the guards were bribed to give. A recent example exists in the book The Passover Plot. However the lie was not popularly believed in its own time as evidenced by the rapid growth of Christianity, largely due to the acknowledged fact of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day just as he had promised.

The Great Commission—Verses 16 to 20

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

The fact that only the eleven are mentioned as journeying to Galilee to the appointed mountain (probably either the Mount of Beatitudes or, possibly, Mount Tabor), does not mean that there were only eleven who saw Jesus on this occasion. This is most likely the incident to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 15:6 when he was seen by "above five hundred brethren at once." This was the only general meeting with his disciples which the Master was to hold during the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension.

This small body was to form the nucleus of his ambassadorial corps to spread the message which Jesus had introduced. He begins his commission to the assembled group by assuring them that he now has "all authority2 in heaven and on earth" to give them a commission.

This great commission foresees the time, perhaps some three years distant, when the gospel call would broaden out to the Gentiles. However, even then they were to spread the word to the Jewish population already dispersed throughout the Roman empire. Later, when he appeared in their midst in Jerusalem for the last time, he gave them similar instructions, commissioning them to be his witnesses "both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." Again, on the day of Pentecost, the word was spread to the assembled Jews from some fifteen parts of the empire (Acts 2:9-11).

However it was the apostle Paul who, as the "apostle of the Gentiles" (Romans 11:13), applied a truly global approach to this commission. This missionary function of the followers of Christ continues to this day.

They were not only to teach the message but to baptize converts into this faith, acknowledging them not merely as believers of the word but doers also. These new followers were to be taught the same precepts which Jesus had taught the five hundred, namely, those principles laid down in the New Testament.

The baptismal formula—"in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"—is of doubtful authenticity. Although most trinitarian theologians use this text as a strong support for a triune God, the formula as given was not so used by the early church fathers3 whose writing predated our earliest manuscripts. Some scholars openly challenge these words.4

The close of the commission is the encouraging words, "Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world." This promise is to be distinguished from that of his personal presence at the end of the Christian age, for the apostles Paul, John, and Peter—all writing well after this promise—encourage the anticipation of the personal return of Christ.

In the context of Matthew, the meaning appears not only to be a general promise of Christ’s spiritual presence throughout the age, but a specific one related to the given commission. In this, it is similar to Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:18-20, "And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you."

Jesus, like his Father, makes no requests of those who follow him without giving them the wherewithal to carry them out. What greater assurance can we ask than that, leaning on him in our weakness, we seek to use his strength to do the Father’s will.

Although the closing word, "Amen," is of doubtful authenticity and, if not spurious, was probably added by Matthew, it is a fitting response for us today. As he has commanded, so may it be ("Amen"). May we each respond to the requests of our Lord with such a fervent agreement and assent.


1. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Digital Edition, article on Strong’s word #617, apokulio: "For a small grave, about 20 men were required to roll a stone downhill to cover the door of the tomb. The Bible tells us that the stone covering the door of the tomb was a large stone. The women would have needed more men than even a full Roman guard of 16 men to roll away the stone."

2. The Greek exousia, translated "power" in the King James is better translated "authority." Vine’s Expository Dictionary, both Robertson’s and Vincent’s Word Studies and most newer translations so agree.

3. Eusebius cites Matthew 28:19 eighteen times in his work, always in the same form: "Go ye and make disciples of all nations in my name, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I commanded you." Aphraates, a Syriac writer of the middle-fourth century, cites the text in yet a different manner, "Make disciples of all nations, and they shall believe in me." Even Adam Clark, a devout Trinitarian, demonstrates that the Jews were baptized only in the name of Jesus, the Messiah. For a thorough treatment of this matter we refer the reader to Beauties of the Truth, January 1991, in the article "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit" by Leonard Griehs.

4. James Martineau in his Seat of Authority and Adolph Harnack in his History of Dogma are two of these.