Commentary on Matthew 28:1-10
Donald Juel, reflecting on the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark, once wrote that:
“[N]one of the Gospels can really end the story of Jesus. The whole point is that it continues–and that its significance continues.”1 Juel’s concise statement is a pretty fair summation of the meaning of Easter. Christ’s resurrection means that the story of Jesus is “to be continued” in you, and in me, and in every life that is touched by the power of the good news that, “He is risen.”
The logic of the “continuation” of the story is present already in Matthew’s account of the Easter good news. The two Marys approach the tomb, expecting to see the tomb–the final resting place of Christ, the last sad chapter in his once promising story, the closing scene in the saddest story ever told. Instead, a message greets them.
First, they feel a message–a great earthquake, that shakes the foundations. Then, they see a message–quite literally. They see a “messenger” (as is well known, the Greek term angelos, like the Hebrew term mal’ak, literally means a “messenger”–in this case the “angel” being a divine messenger), who descends and rolls away the stone.
Finally, they hear a message: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” But this original message about the good news is only the start of a chain of messages. The messenger commands, “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him this is my message for you.'”
As is also the case in the Gospel of Mark, the narrative does not actually let us listen in on the scene where the women fulfill the command and tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised. Matthew reports that they “ran to tell his disciples.” But Matthew does not actually describe the scene to us. Indeed, Matthew reports that while they were on their way to find the disciples to deliver the good news, Jesus himself appeared to them and repeated the command, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
But as is obvious, the women fulfilled their task and delivered the message, as Matthew reports in verse 16 that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee.” Thus, Matthew’s resurrection narrative is about the first announcement in what was to become a continuous chain of announcements, with one messenger repeating the message to the next, down through the ages that, “He has been raised from the dead.”
It is interesting that Matthew, like Mark, does not elaborate on the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. In an elegant act of narrative succinctness, the Gospel announces and does not explain: The good news of his resurrection is announced. The command is given to go and spread the word. This act of narrative brevity is fitting. To try at this point to explain the meaning of Christ’s resurrection would wreck the telling of the greatest story ever told. It would be like wrecking a great joke by explaining it. Or souring a great musical performance by describing the music while the performance is still taking place.
The reason for this is that no amount of explanation can adequately explain the meaning and significance of Easter. The Gospel of John famously ends by saying that all the books in the world could not fully describe all of the signs that Jesus did. In a similar vein, the Gospel of Matthew, perhaps aware that all of the words in the world could not explain the meaning of the resurrection, simply announces: He has been raised.
This isn’t a bad clue for preachers. Easter sermons are most likely not the moment to try to explain the meaning or significance or theology of the resurrection. Easter sermons are more likely the time to let the good news of Christ’s resurrection ring.
But for those who might want to hear just a little bit about the significance and meaning of Easter, let us turn again to the trustworthy words of Donald Juel. Juel is commenting here on the resurrection narrative in Mark, but what he says of Mark is equally true of Matthew:
Jesus is full of surprises. Old skins cannot contain the new wine. The world’s uneasiness in the presence of Jesus is fully justified. He will not be found by tradition that defines human life; even death has no final power over him. The end only marks a new beginning–a beginning of the good news that Jesus, the one who is the ultimate threat to our autonomy, now becomes our source of life.
It is only fitting that just as the tomb will not contain Jesus, neither can Mark’s story. Jesus is not bound by its ending; he continues into the future God has in store for the creation. In the meantime there is only the Word, the bread, and the wine, and the promise that “you will see him.” We walk by faith and not by sight. We can only trust that God will one day finish the story, as God has promised.2
1Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990) 234.
2 Ibid, 235.