The Resurrection as Historical Event


Matthew 27:62-28:15

Text Comment

v.62     Preparation Day was Friday, the day before the Sabbath – and in this case, the day Jesus had died – so it was on the Sabbath day that the religious leaders went on their errand to Pilate.  Such an errand almost certainly violated the rabbinical Sabbath regulations of that time.  The chief priests – Sadducees – and the Pharisees, usually at odds with one another, are still united in their concern to quell Jesus’ influence.

v.64     Matthew 12:40 is the only instance Matthew recorded of Jesus making a public prediction of his resurrection after three days and it is not terribly explicit.  But Judas or some other informer may well have briefed them on the Lord’s more explicit private predictions of his resurrection on the third day.  [France, 404] In any case there is high irony here, for it was the furthest thing from the minds of the Lord’s disciples that he was about to rise from the dead, no matter the many times he had said he would. The Lord’s enemies took his words more seriously than did his own disciples! The final sentence of v. 64 mentions two frauds: the first, apparently, was the Lord’s claim to be the Messiah; the second a false claim to have risen from the dead.

v.66     The language used here, together with 28:14, indicates that the guard in this case was composed of Pilate’s own auxiliary troops and not the Jewish temple guards.  That is important because, later, it made it more difficult for the religious leadership to deny the report of the Lord’s resurrection:  the soldiers who were witnesses were not directly under their control.  In any case, a guard and a seal on the tomb would certainly have frustrated any designs that the Lord’s disciples could have had to take the body of Jesus from the tomb.

v.2       The earthquake at the time of the crucifixion split the curtain of the temple from top to bottom. Here it seems to have been the means by which the stone was moved away from the door of the tomb.

28:1     It has often been pointed out that the presence of women in this narrative has the ring of truth, for in a fictional account women would not be given the role of witnesses as they were not accepted as witnesses in society of that time.

v.2       There is no suggestion that the removal of the stone was necessary for Jesus to get out of the tomb.  Verse 6 indeed suggests that he was already risen by this time.

v.4       The New Testament never describes the actual resurrection of the Lord.  It gives us rather some circumstantial details, such as we have here, and then emphasizes the consequences of it:  viz. the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Lord to his disciples.  This is the first reference to an angel in the Gospel of Matthew since the first two chapters where an angel gave instructions both to Joseph and the magi.  As always, human beings cower in the presence of such supernatural beings.

v.6       It is significant that those who saw where the Lord Jesus was laid (as we read at 27:61) should be shown the same tomb now empty.  In other words, there is no mistaking the fact that it is the same tomb.

v.7       In 26:32 Jesus had told his disciples that, after his resurrection, he would go ahead of them to Galilee.  He did exactly that, as we learn later in the chapter and in the other Gospels.  But he was, in fact, better than his word, and met with his disciples that very evening in Jerusalem.

v.9       Clasping the feet is an act of homage.  Cyrus, the great Persian king, says of his subject kings on one of his clay cylinders, “they brought me their full tribute and kissed my feet.”  [Morris, 739]  This detail of the narrative reminds us again that Matthew is not recording a vision, but a physical encounter between real persons.

v.10     This is the first direct reference to Christ’s disciples as his brothers.

v.14     The guards took the money because they had no choice but to hope that the story would not reach Pilate’s ears – so that he would learn that they had failed to keep an adequate watch – or that the unconcern of the religious leaders about the empty tomb would make Pilate uncaring as well. After all, it was a Jewish matter; Pilate would be back in Caesarea, his headquarters, as soon as the feast was over.  There was a good chance that he wouldn’t hear and wouldn’t care much if he did. He was irritated with the Jews enough already.  If Jesus continued to cause them problems it was of no concern to him; probably it would have been a satisfaction. The alternative was to tell the truth which they would immediately understand neither Pilate nor the religious leaders wanted them to do.  The history of the world is chock full of accounts of people keeping their mouths shut about the truth or spreading stories they knew to be untrue because of the financial or political advantages to be gained.  The glorious thing they saw and the fabulous thing they knew had happened they did not – as multitudes do not today – think had any bearing on their own lives and circumstances.  They were more concerned with their jobs and the money being offered.

In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

[Aurora Leigh]

v.15     So, those who predicted deceit on the part of Jesus’ disciples instead practiced deceit themselves.  [France, 409]  The religious leadership here was involved in what we in the 21st century call “spin-doctoring”.  This was a classic cover-up, a kind of Watergate cover-up that would unravel in the same way.  They thought they were containing the damage. Tomb-robbing is known to have been a problem in the first century, so the story they concocted would have had some plausibility.  What all of this does, of course, is to confirm that the tomb was empty.  No one denied; no one could deny that the tomb was empty.  The question is now: which explanation of that fact is plausible?  Justin Martyr, in the middle of the second century, mentions that Jews were still telling this story in his time.  What that means, of course, is that no one was ever able to produce the body of Jesus or to come up with a more creditable explanation for what happened.  It is not surprising, after all, that the early church preached Christ’s resurrection with such confidence and that large numbers of people believed their report in defiance of the denials of the religious leadership.  The alternative, the sole alternative, was to think the apostles thieves and frauds.

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me an article by Mark Steyn published in the British weekly, The Spectator.  It begins this way

Peter Watson, the author of a new book called Ideas: a History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, was interviewed by the New York Times the other day, and was asked to name ‘the single worst idea in history’. He replied:

‘Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on Earth determines how we will go into the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.’

Later in the same article, we read:

In the Guardian last week, Polly Toynbee launched a splendid broadside against The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: ‘Here in Narnia,’ she sneered, ‘is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America, that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right.’ The first half of that sentence I don’t particularly disagree with, the second is just plain sad: no one who trades in language for a living should bandy phrases like ‘neo-fascist’ so carelessly. But Miss Toynbee went on to cite a more sober objection to Narnia.

Aslan, she writes, ‘is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on Earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can.’

In the remainder of what was a very interesting article, Steyn points out the obvious: not only that atheism must ignore the fact that most of what is truly good and beautiful in human history is the product of a monotheistic faith, and that the unspeakable carnage and suffering of the 20th century was the result of the ambitions of secular and atheistic states, but it must also ignore the fact that atheism not only provides no foundation for altruism and genuine humanity but does not, in fact, have a record of producing it.

Steyn continues: “All [atheism can] do is manage to defer [human problems] till after you’re dead — which is pretty much the post-Christian European electorates’ approach to their unaffordable social programmes. I mentioned in the Daily Telegraph a couple of weeks back the amount of mail I get from British readers commenting with gloomy resignation on various remorseless trends in our island story and ending with, ‘Fortunately I won’t live to see it.’ When you think about it, that’s actually the essence of the problem: hyper-rationalist radical secularism reduces the world to one’s own life span. Why try to ‘settle disputes’ when you’ll be long gone? Faith is one of those mystic cords that binds us to our past and commits us to a future.

In other words, Polly Toynbee’s atheism has done nothing for us and will not; Aslan’s promise of eternal life has brought light, life, hope, and love to the world.  So far Mark Steyn.

But it is well for us to ask ourselves why people like Peter Watson and Polly Toynbee – the granddaughter of the famous historian Arnold Toynbee – (and a great many others like them among our culture’s elite) have such hard words to say about our Christian faith. And one very simple answer to that question is this:  these people don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead!  And if Christ did not rise then, as Paul himself admitted, Christianity is and must be a fraud.  If they came to believe that Jesus did rise, that he was alive again on Sunday after being dead and buried on Friday afternoon, their entire view of Christianity, its truth, its importance to the life of mankind, would be stood on its head.  If she believed in Christ’s resurrection, Aslan’s resurrection would be for her the perfect symbol of the hope of the world.  I couldn’t help but think of C.S. Lewis when I read Watson and Toynbee because, of course, he had precisely their views about Christianity when a young student at Oxford and as a young scholar at Cambridge.  He would have thought and would have said quite similar things about religious faith and Christian faith in particular – not only its being out-of-date, irrelevant to the modern world, but actually harmful in its tendency to keep people from facing the hard facts about life.  Lewis thought then as Polly Toynbee thinks now.

And, very interestingly and importantly, it was a growing sense that the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus was real history that led up to the tipping point in Lewis’ mind.  He tells us, in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised By Joy, that reading G.K. Chesterton’s famous argument for the historicity of the Gospels’ account of Jesus Christ, The Everlasting Man, had already chipped away at the foundations of his unbelief.  Christianity, Chesterton showed Lewis, made sense of man and his life, of the riddles of human existence, and it made sense of history.  What is more, it laid down an unanswerable challenge to serious thinking people.  It rested its case on what the writers of the NT regarded as incontrovertible history and challenged anyone and everyone to prove it wrong. It was Chesterton who taught Lewis to think that the case for Christianity was much stronger than he had been led to believe.  It was Chesterton who gave to Lewis the outline of the argument that would eventually become Lewis’ BBC wartime radio lectures which then became his book Mere Christianity.

And then another rude and unexpected shock to the young atheist’s system.

“Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good.  ‘Rum thing,’ he went on, ‘all that stuff…about the Dying God [rising again]. Rum thing.  It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’  To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity).  If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not – as I would still have put it – ‘safe,’ where could I turn?  Was there then no escape?” [223-224]

The resurrection of Christ from the dead is reported by the four Gospels, as is the Lord’s prediction of it many times beforehand.  It is taught as fundamental to the entire Gospel message times without number in the rest of the New Testament.  Early Christian preaching among the Jews is characterized in the book of Acts as a message about the resurrection.  When Paul spoke to the philosophers in Athens he spoke to them of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  When he presented the Gospel to the Roman governor, Felix, it was of Christ’s resurrection that he spoke and then threw down the gauntlet:  the things of which he spoke, he said to the govenor, “were not done in a corner.” Appealing to the historical fact of the resurrection was the strong suit of early Christian preaching. So it is no surprise that Paul summarizes the summons to faith in Christ in just this way:

“…if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.”

The same Apostle Paul also famously admitted that if Christ were not in fact raised from the dead, then Christianity is untrue and Christians’ hopes for their own resurrection are obviously a pipe-dream.

The Christian church and the gospel message of salvation rest on the resurrection of its founder.  Without this fact the church would never have been born, or, if born, must soon have died a natural death.  The resurrection and the Christian faith are so intimately connected and irretrievably bound together that they must stand or fall together.

As the contemporary German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, wrote:

“If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, it would be impossible to ascribe any saving meaning to his death, for that death could then only have meant the failure of his mission and nothing else.

“In the resurrection of Jesus we have…to do with the sustaining foundation of the Christian faith.  If this collapses, so does everything else which the Christian faith acknowledges.”  [Apostles Creed, 96-97]

What the gospel promises – staggering as this promise is – is that people who give their lives to Christ, trust in him and what he has done for their peace with God, and follow him while they live in this world – such people will live forever.  When they die their souls will be with God in heaven but when Jesus comes again their bodies will rise again, will be recreated as Jesus’ body was, and that they will live forever in the full integrity of their God-created humanity: body and soul in perfect unity and moral perfection.

That promise, that expectation, what the New Testament refers to as the Christian’s hope, is not a bare promise, even a bare promise of the Living God that must come true because God is truth itself.  It is a promise founded on an historical event, something that happened in space and time: Jesus, a dead man, came alive out of the tomb on that first Easter morning. And he rose – he said and his apostles after him – just as he had died the Friday before, for his people, on their behalf, representing them.  Just as he died as our representative – suffering the penalty of our sins – so he rose as our representative, overcoming the power of death on our behalf.  The Christian’s life and experience will be a recapitulation of the life and experience of Jesus himself.  That is the Gospel, the good news.

If someone says today – and many people in positions of cultural leadership say this – that death is the end and that it is unscientific to hope for life after death, the Christian says: well, no; that can’t be true because a man did rise from the dead; and not just any man, but the Son of God who came into the world precisely to give the hope of eternal life to his people.  And if someone says – and a great many more people say this in our pluralist and relativist day – that people will go to heaven as a matter of course and to go there it is not required that you be a Christian, the Christian replies: well, no; it is only Jesus Christ who conquered the grave and he said unmistakably and his apostles after him that if and only if one calls Jesus Lord, and believes that God has raised him from the dead, if and only if one calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will one be saved. No wonder, it is Christ who rose from the dead; Christ who proved his power over death; Christ whose death for sin was followed by a resurrection of his human body to eternal life.  Other religions, other philosophies claim some form of existence after death – but Jesus rose from the dead.  There is a great deal of difference between wishful thinking and an actual resurrection!

It is precisely the resurrection as an historical event that remains the strong suit of Christian preaching and Christian apologetics today.  We are not embarrassed to make such a claim; we make it confidently; triumphantly.  We do not do so only because the historical argument is so good – though it is very good.  When the historicity of the resurrection is subjected to debate, the case for the resurrection is always stronger than people thought it would be.  Whether we are speaking of Frank Morrison, the English attorney, who set out to write a book disproving the resurrection of Christ and ended up a Christian writing the book Who Moved the Stone? setting out the evidence that convinced him of the historicity of that event, or we are speaking of Antony Flew, the then prominent English philosophy professor and public atheist who got plastered in a formally refereed and scored debate on the historicity of the resurrection in May of 1985.  That sort of thing happens all the time. By the way, Flew was in agreement with his opponent, Gary Habermas, on one thing: that “the current view of religion is nonsense [this is, the view that it doesn’t matter what the historical facts are or what really happened] – [they both agreed, as the Bible so clearly teaches and logic demands] that there is no meaning if there is no event.” [Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?, ix] But his case against the resurrection – and no one should have been able to make a stronger case than the professional skeptic, Antony Flew – was far weaker than Habermas’ case for the historicity of the event and even no Christian philosophy professors and debate judges admitted that it was.

We lay so much on this historical claim not only because of the strength of the historical evidence and not only because of the strong argument for life after death and resurrection that can be mounted on other grounds, such arguments as one finds so powerfully presented in the arguments of Chesterton, Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias, and others.

Most of all, we lay such stress on the resurrection because Christ himself has proved it to us directly, immediately, in precisely the same way in which he proved it to the two Marys and eventually to the other disciples. The risen Christ made himself known to them.  In the same way the fact of the resurrection has become a fact of our own personal existence.  Some of you can remember very well when Christ first appeared to you, how confusing, fearful and wonderful it was.  Your experience was not so different from that of the two Marys.  We have come to know Jesus as a living person, this same Jesus who died and rose again.  We did not see the resurrection; none of Jesus’ disciples did.  But everyone saw and no one denied the empty tomb, and Jesus appeared to many, and has continued to appear to them by his Holy Spirit.  And among those to whom he has made his appearance are many, I hope most, if not all of us.

Admit the resurrection and everything changes, must change. Admit that death has been conquered in history, by this one man, in this one event and the greatest questions of human life are immediately answered. To a  very great degree the whole issue of human existence and of any particular human being’s existence reduces to this:  do I know and have I reckoned with this one event in human history: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead on the third day after his death on the cross for the salvation of the world.

Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air relates the terrible difficulties and dangers that plagued climbers on a climb up Mt. Everest in the spring of 1996.  That year the effort to reach the summit cost a number of lives.  Some of the troubles the climbers faced were beyond their control but fundamental mistakes cost them dearly.  One of those who lost his life was Andy Harris, one of the expedition’s leaders.  Harris stayed at the summit beyond the deadline that the leaders themselves had set.  On his descent he ran out of oxygen.  He radioed his predicament to the base camp and mentioned that he had come upon a cache of oxygen canisters left behind by previous climbers but that they were all empty.  Those who had already passed by that cache of oxygen on their own return from the summit knew that they were not empty, in fact they were full.  They plead with him over the radio to make use of the oxygen that lay at his feet but to no avail.  His mind already starved of oxygen, Harris continued to argue that the canisters were empty.  The lack of what he needed so disoriented him that, though he was surrounded by a ready supply of what he needed to live, he could not be made to believe it was there.  He had life within his grasp but refused to believe the fact.  [Taken from R. Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods, 86-87]

It is as almost perfect picture of the world around us in the face of the resurrection of Jesus.  He did rise to life and did so for us!  His eternal life will be shared by anyone and everyone who confesses him as Lord and believes in him: believes his death for the forgiveness of sins and believes his resurrection for eternal life.   It is a fact for Christians to rejoice over and to proclaim boldly to the world.  It is fact for unbelievers to ponder and then accept.  It is, the resurrection of Jesus is, preeminently, the truth that sets men free.