Commentary on Matthew 28:1-10
The resurrection accounts in the four gospels have similarities and differences. They are similar in that in each case the event is on a Sunday morning (two days after the crucifixion), Mary Magdalene is present at the tomb, and the tomb was found to be empty.
But there are differences. (1) In the Synoptic Gospels the women arrive at the tomb early in the morning, either at dawn or after the sun had risen. In the Gospel of John it is still dark. (2) There is a difference in the number and names of women present (except that Mary Magdalene is present in all four accounts). In Matthew’s account there are only two women (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary); Mark names three; Luke names three and adds that others had accompanied them to the tomb as well; John has Mary Magdalene alone. (3) Finally, there is a difference concerning the placement of the stone at the doorway of the tomb. In three of the gospels the stone had been rolled away prior to the approach of the women. Matthew’s account is the exception. There an earthquake takes place, and an angel descends from heaven and rolls the stone away after the women arrive. Clearly, it is impossible to harmonize the details to everyone’s satisfaction.
Various proposals have been made to account for the differences. Perhaps the most satisfying one is that each of the four evangelists had a tradition from early times that had developed in different geographical and church contexts. In other words, while Matthew and Luke depended on the Gospel of Mark for the writing of their gospels in general, when they arrived at the Easter narrative they used the stories that they had known from their respective communities. They laid the Gospel of Mark to the side and used their own versions. To be sure, one can notice some identical wording between Matthew 28:5-8 and Mark 16:6-8, and there it is likely that Matthew took some material from Mark (including the speech of the angel and the flight of the women from the tomb), but otherwise Matthew used his own material.
Matthew’s account is the most dramatic of the four resurrection narratives. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb; no reason is given. The earthquake takes place, and the angel rolls back the stone. As a story, the stage is now set for a marvelous event. We might expect Jesus to rise and come out of the tomb (as Lazarus does in John 11:41-44). Yet that does not happen. The resurrection has taken place already, while the tomb was sealed. The tomb is empty (28:6). In this gospel, as in the others, we do not actually have a “resurrection account” in the strict sense, but a “post-resurrection account.” The transformation of the physical to spiritual body has taken place (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:42-57), an act of God that took place apart from human view.
The angel commissions the women to tell the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and to let them know that they shall see him in Galilee (28:7). This is anticipated by the promise of Jesus himself in 26:32, and it is fulfilled at 28:16-20.
Galilee has special meaning for Matthew. At Matthew 4:15-16 (quoting from Isaiah 9:1-2) it is called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Galilee is, we might say, the “doorway to the world.” In both Isaiah and Matthew the light of divine revelation is to extend to the Gentiles. The gospel is for the nations, not just Israel.
At 28:8-10 the risen Jesus appears to the two women as they are on their way to tell the disciples. This is actually a strange turn of events. The angel has just commissioned them (28:7), and now Jesus blocks their path. They recognize and worship him. The reason that they take hold of his feet might simply be a gesture to assure them that he is not a detached spirit, but the actual Jesus. These women are the first witnesses to his resurrection. The words “Do not be afraid” (28:10) recall the words of the angel (28:5). Then Jesus himself commissions the women to inform the disciples that they will see him in Galilee. That is fulfilled at 28:16-20 where he commissions them to make disciples of all nations.
There are themes that run through this text that can be the basis for a sermon. First, that Christ is risen from the dead is central. It is at the core of our belief as Christians. We may have disagreements about many things, but this is at the heart of our common faith. It is the faith of Christians of every denomination around the globe, whether we are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestants.
Although we cannot prove the resurrection of Jesus, it follows from the nature of who God is. The God we know in the story of Israel and in the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry is a God who has created us, loves us, and wants to have us for eternity. This life is not sufficient.
Second, the commissioning and promise of the angel in 28:7 and of Jesus in 28:10 that his disciples are to go to Galilee, and that there they will find the risen Christ, is important. It is important in the story; it has been important in the history of the church; and it is important yet today. Since Galilee is the “doorway to the world” in the thinking of Isaiah, Jesus, and the Gospel of Matthew, the light of the gospel is then for the whole world, not just the Jewish people, not just the original disciples, and not just for us. It is to be taken to the world. God seeks to have fellowship with all people, not just us.
Finally, Jesus makes use of flawed people in his mission. He wants the disciples to know that they will meet him in Galilee. What is so amazing about that is that Jesus thereby forgives them for their failures. He even calls them his “brothers” (28:10). They betrayed him and deserted him at the time of his trial and death. But now he restores them as his emissaries and trusts them once again to represent him. And so it is with us. We are like the disciples. We are flawed persons and have failed him often as individuals and as a church. But Jesus continues to call his disciples to follow him into the world and to represent him.