|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
John 20:1-18 is an optional text.
One might want to use John's account, since most of the readings in Lent have been from this Gospel and most of the readings in the Season of Easter are from John. This reading would naturally follow the Passion account from John that was read on Good Friday.
On the other hand, if the Passion from Matthew was read on Passion Sunday (and probably heard by more people than the one from John on Good Friday), it could be beneficial to continue using his account of the resurrection. Also, all of the Gospel readings during the Pentecost Season will come from Matthew.
A short-coming of either of these arguments is that many of the Easter worshipers are not people who have been hearing the Matthew texts since Advent or John texts during Lent; or will be hearing John throughout the Easter Season or Matthew during Pentecost. So, you can preach on whatever text you want.
There are two biblical themes related to the resurrection: (1) finding the empty tomb and (2) appearances of the risen Christ. There are no canonical accounts of the actual resurrection (although there is one in the Gospel of Peter).
The canonical accounts of the empty tomb are fairly similar. Women (names and number of women differ) come to the tomb early on Sunday morning. The stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty. The synoptics also have a messenger (or two) speak to the women.
There is great diversity in the accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ. It is difficult to harmonize any of them. Perhaps there is a message in that: Our contemporary experiences of the risen Christ will differ. There are those who visibly see a white light and others don't. There are those who experience Christ in a radical transforming, "born-again," event in their lives. There are those for whom Christ as been such a reality throughout their lives that they can't think of a moment when Christ wasn't present to them or when there was a great turning point in their lives. How the risen Christ comes to people differ. Our stories about the risen Christ's presence in our lives differ.
In addition, Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) quotes from Sander's argument that "a calculated deception should have produced greater unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: 'I saw him first!' 'No! I did.'" But the divergent details suggest independent traditions, thereby underling the likelihood of details the accounts share in common. [p. 697]
As I noted in the introduction note, there are two themes related to the resurrection. Both are part of this lesson.
A. Two Marys Discover the Empty Tomb (28:1-7)
B. Jesus Appears to the Two Marys (28:8-10)
Throughout Matthew's Passion, women have proven to be the model disciples. There is the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus for his burial (26:6-13). The men argue about the waste of the expensive ointment. Jesus commends her for her "good work" for him. (Note: that the women come to the tomb not to anoint the body as in Mark, for the anointing has already taken place.)
After all the men have run away and Peter who had followed, but then denies knowing Jesus, the women remain through the crucifixion (27:55-56). We are told that they had "provided" for Jesus, which could also be translated "served" or "ministered to" (diakoneo). This same word is used of the angels serving Jesus after the temptation (4:11) and of Peter's mother-in-law serving them after her healing (8:15).
Jesus had said: "Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant (diakonos) (20:26b) and "The greatest among you will be your servant (diakonos) (23:11). It is only angels and women who actually serve Jesus in Matthew.
Seemingly out of nowhere these women appear -- and they had been with Jesus since Galilee. They had been invisible up until this point. Perhaps they illustrate the truth that the last will be first (19:30; 20:16).
In the first century, women were not allowed to testify in court. They were not considered reliable witnesses. Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) writes:
Most of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries held little esteem for the testimony of women; this reflects a broader Mediterranean limited trust of women's speech and testimony also enshrined in Roman law. By contrast, the guards' report that the disciples had stolen the body (28:11-15) might command much greater respect then, and in an antisupernaturalistic culture like much of modern academia as well. [pp. 698-9]
A little later he notes: "In view of the prejudice against women's testimony in antiquity, no one would have invented the testimony of the women attested in all four Gospels; indeed, Paul even omits it" [p. 702].
Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew) also writes about the contrast between women and the guards:
Both the guards and the women are confronted with the same situation, which involves the earthquake, the rolled-back stone, and the presence of the angel of the Lord who is "from heaven," whose appearance clearly shows his supernatural origin: His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow" (28:3). It is clear that Matthew here contrasts two responses to the divine manifestation in the action and person of the angel. [p. 394-5]
The contrasting responses become even clearer in the next section (28:7-15) of Patte's comments:
Matthew sets another narrative opposition by contrasting what the woman are supposed to do according to the angel's (28:7) and Jesus' (28:10) command -- announce Jesus' resurrection to the disciples (as they start to do, 28:8) -- and what the soldiers are supposed to do according to the Jewish leaders' command (28:13) -- tell that the disciples have stolen Jesus' body (as they do, according to 28:15). ... [p. 295]
Both have seen the same thing. Both are commanded to speak about the event. Both are to report more than what was (originally) seen. For the women, the events at the empty tomb happened because Jesus has been raised. For the guards, the events at the empty tomb happened because they fell asleep and the disciples stole the body.
A great irony in all of this is that the guards were posted and the tomb sealed with the large stone so that there would not be a deception about a resurrection following the burial. Now it is clear that it is the chief priests who have devised the deception.
Patte, in commenting on 27:62-28:2 writes:
The point made by the opposition between being raised (27:63b, 64b) and stealing the body (27:64) -- two actions that would result in an empty tomb -- simply contrasts what God and human beings can do. God alone can fulfill what has been announced by Jesus: "After three days I will rise again." Acting on their own, human beings perform only fraudulent actions, as reflected by the use of the verb "to steal." Similarly, the opposition between sealing the stone (27:66) and rolling back the stone (28:2) contrasts divine action with human action. The earthquake manifests, as in 27:51, the awesome character of God's power, while the description of the "angel of the Lord" descending "from heaven" (28:2) makes clear what is the origin of this power. All that human beings can do is attempt to safeguard a situation as it stands, to preserve the status quo, a futile attempt because God's intervention is of an earth-shaking proportion, and intervention that shatters the status quo.
In sum, these two oppositions underscore that human beings by themselves can only do two things: they can either transform a situation in a fraudulent manner or strive to maintain the status quo. In contrast, God through his intervention radically transforms a situation and shatters the status quo. In short, the resurrection can be understood and accepted only insofar as one abandons a human perspective, which can lead one either to contradict the will of God (as stealing does) or to refuse God's intervention by striving to maintain the status quo that it would shatter. [p. 393]
In both the crucifixion and resurrection, Matthew has a greater eschatological flavor: the earthquakes, the splitting of rocks, the opening of tombs. Boring (Matthew, NIB) writes about this emphasis:
The resurrection is an eschatological event, the ultimately decisive event for human history, not merely something spectacular that happened to Jesus. Thus resurrection faith is not merely believing that a dead body came back to life, or that the tomb was empty on Easter morning. Those who believed that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead did not have resurrection faith (14:1; 16:14). The soldiers and chief priests who knew the fact that Jesus had "come back to life" did not have Christian faith in the resurrection (28:11-15). [p. 504-5]
Boring doesn't seem to spell out what is needed for resurrection faith. I think that it is the shattering of the status quo that Patte talks about. Women, who can't be witnesses, are called by God to be witnesses of the resurrection. All of the disciples who had run away and Peter who had denied Jesus, are called "my brothers" by the risen Jesus (28:10). The women also become agents of reconciliation! Not only is the believers' attitude about death radically changed -- there is life beyond death, just as Jesus said; but also their attitude about people whom society considered "least," such as women and children, was transformed.
How long would the disciples have to rely solely on the women's word and witness? However long it would take to walk from Jerusalem to Galilee. That is where Jesus promises they would see him (and they do in 28:17).
It is when the women respond to the angel's command to go quickly and tell (v. 7) -- and they leave quickly, running to tell the disciples (v. 8) -- that the risen Jesus appears to them. (Does stopping to talk with Jesus mean that the women had been sidetracked from obeying the angel's command?)
Part of Matthew's purpose in this account is to show the reality of the physical resurrection as the women grab his feet; and the proper response of worshiping the risen Lord (v. 9).
This scene is an illustration of Jesus' comment: "Just as you did it to the one of the least of these who are members of my family, [lit. "these my brothers"] you did it to me" (25:40). Jesus is encountered in the doing of ministry. Boring notes even more passages:
They [the women] are already en route on their mission when they are joined by the risen Christ, a paradigm of Matthew's understanding of the reassuring presence of the risen Christ in the missionary activity of the church (cf. 1:23; 10:40; 13:37; 14:22-33; 16:18; 17:17; 18:5, 20; 28:20). [p. 500]
Keener seems to deal with the question of "Did it really happen?" when he writes:
Those inventing an empty tomb tradition would hardly have included women as the first witnesses, and "Jesus' resurrection could hardly have been proclaimed in Jerusalem if people knew of a tomb still containing Jesus' body" (quoted from Schweizer).
Those who witnessed Jesus alive from the dead (e.g., 1 Cor 15:1-8; virtually all the narrative accounts also suggest significant conversation with him rather than fleeting appearances) were so convinced of the veracity of their claims that many devoted their lives to proclaiming what they had seen, and some died for it; clearly their testimony was not fabricated. Supposed pagan parallels to the resurrection stories are weak. Most pagans would have preferred to play down a savior's human death. [pp. 704-5]
I'll end with a reflections from Boring.
Resurrection faith does not arise on the basis of evidence, of which the chief priests and soldiers had plenty, but on the basis of the experienced presence of the risen Christ (28:8-10, 16-17), by testimony of those to whom he appeared (28:10, 16), and by his own continuing presence among his disciples (28:20). [p. 503]
We need to proclaim a radical resurrection faith in the present, not just a historical event.
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