Matthew 28:16-20

The Great Commission

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us of this particular appearance of Jesus to the Eleven. Jesus had more disciples than just the apostles, and he did appear to disciples who were not apostles, such as the two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32, blog). But this appears to have been a private meeting with the apostles only. Jesus had told them to meet him at this specific place, on a mountain in Galilee. I suspect that this was a place that Jesus and his disciples had gone often during his ministry, a familiar place where he had taught them. He wanted them to come back to this specific place to teach them this vital lesson, this principal command to his new church which they were to lead.

Much of this final passage in Matthew is dedicated to establishing that Jesus is God, starting with the fact that they worshiped him. As he had done before, Jesus accepted their worship. No mere prophet or holy man would accept the worship of men. Even angels will not accept the worship of humans. Only God is worthy of our worship.

Since Matthew often condensed events for his gospel, and sometimes did not place events in chronological order, I think verse 17 must be a reference to Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples in Luke 24:36-49 (blog) and John 20:19-29, where the disciples at first thought Jesus was a ghost until he let them touch his wounds and he ate in front of them. Thomas comes to mind when I read the phrase some doubted, but except for John, all of them were slow to believe at first. John saw and believed at the empty tomb (John 20:8). Luke and John both indicate that the Eleven were convinced of Jesus’ resurrection at that first meeting, so I think that must be what Matthew is referring to in verse 17. There were no doubters left among the apostles by the time they met Jesus in Galilee.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew’s gospel is the only one that has a reliable account of the Great Commission. It also appears in Mark 16:15, but Mark 16:9-20 is not found in most reliable early manuscripts. It seems that the last part of Mark’s gospel was lost or destroyed somehow, and that the last eleven verses of Mark in our Bible were added later by taking material from the other gospels. So I didn’t comment on that passage in my post on Mark 16. But we need not fear that Jesus didn’t really give this Great Commission, because Matthew reliably records it here.

Jesus begins this new command by stating that all authority had been given to him, both in heaven and on earth, which means the entire universe. Only God has all authority in the entire universe. Therefore, Jesus is God, and his commands have the same authority as the Ten Commandments, or any other commands of God. Therefore, the apostles were to go and make disciples of all nations. Since Jesus has the same authority as God the Father, he has the authority to give this new command, and when we obey his commands, we do so with the authority of God behind us. We do the things we do in his name.

Jesus had ended the old covenant, and was establishing the new covenant. The old paradigm was over, and the time had come for a new paradigm. The command to go and make disciples of all nations was the complete opposite of what Judaism had been about. The old covenant was all about exclusion. All Gentiles, and even the ceremonially unclean among Jews were excluded from salvation. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was to completely separate themselves from the surrounding nations, and for good reason. When Israel got too friendly with the pagan nations around them, they tended to become “infected” by the pagan religious practices of those peoples. But under the new covenant, in the kingdom of God, we’re the ones who are “infecting” them. We are not to try to separate ourselves from the sinners around us, as Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and weeds (13:24-30, 36-43, blog). With the power of the risen Christ working in us, we are to go in his name to where the Gospel needs to be preached most.

And we’re not only supposed to go a preach salvation to the lost, we’re to go and make disciples. Becoming a disciple is more than becoming a believer. It’s leaving everything behind, taking up our crosses and following Jesus. How are we to make disciples? Well, first, we have to make that commitment ourselves. But the apostles had already done that. They had left everything to follow Jesus. He was their rabbi. In the culture of the time, once a disciple had studied under his rabbi for long enough and was ready, he became a rabbi himself and took on disciples of his own. He taught his disciples what he had learned during his time as a disciple. But Jesus wasn’t sending the apostles to become rabbis in their own right and have disciples of their own. They were to continue being disciples of Jesus, and instruct others in how to become disciples of Jesus also.

The way they were to do that, and the way we are to do it too, is first to baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to do something in someone else’s name? The example that comes to mind for me is when a donation is made in someone’s name to a charity. If a donation is made in my name, I get credit for the donation, though I didn’t make the donation. When we win others to Christ, we may be the ones who witness to them, love them and pray with them, but we don’t get the credit when they accept Christ. God gets the credit for everything we do in ministry, because we’re doing it in his name.

Verse 19 of this chapter is the only place in the Bible where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are named together like this. The nature of the Trinity is discussed elsewhere in the New Testament, though the word trinity does not actually appear in the Bible. By putting it like this, Jesus is again placing himself on the same level as the Father. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the resurrected Jesus, therefore the Holy Spirit is also equal with the Father. Jesus is God in the form of a man. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God working in us and among us. When we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are acknowledging that God is our God, that Jesus is our Lord, and that the Holy Spirit is our counselor and guide. As the old hymn says, he is God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

Then we are to teach those who are converted to obey everything he has commanded. Again, we have to put the teachings of Jesus into practice ourselves before we can presume to teach others to do that. Being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as part of accepting Jesus as our Savior is sufficient to save us, but becoming a disciple requires us to do everything he has commanded us, and if we are to go and make disciples, we have to teach others to obey the commands of Jesus in all things. This requires us to know the teachings of Jesus well enough to teach them to others. The Great Commission is not just about preaching salvation to the world, it’s about making disciples.

And surely, he is with us always, to the very end of the age. We are still in the same age as the apostles were when Jesus spoke these words. The age of Law and sacrifices for sin was over. The age of the Church of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God, had begun. We are still living in the age of the church and the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. God sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13, blog), and it’s in the form of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the resurrected Christ, that Jesus is with us always. He is Emmanuel, God with us. And when the age of the church ends, and Jesus returns in the body, we will rise to meet him in the air, to be with him forever.

Matthew 28:11-15

The Guards’ Report

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us of this deception. It shows just how far human beings are willing to go to protect themselves and their interests. Some of the guards, probably the commanders of the guard at the tomb, went to the chief priests and told them what had happened. Why did they go to the chief priests, and not to Pilate? When the Pharisees went to Pilate to ask that the tomb be sealed, in the NIV, Pilate’s answer is given, “Take a guard, go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” But some translations of 27:65, like the New King James, translate the first part of Pilate’s answer as you have a guard. Some scholars believe that refers to the Roman guard that was assigned to the Temple, or perhaps extra guards were placed under the chief priests’ authority during the Passover. The guards at the tomb may been part of those under the chief priests’ authority at that time, and that was why they reported to the chief priests after the resurrection.

Imagine the fear that struck the chief priests when they heard the news that angels had rolled the stone away, and that the body of Jesus was missing. In verse 4 of this chapter, Matthew says that when the angel rolled the stone away, the soldiers at the tomb “were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.” The soldiers may not have actually seen the risen Jesus. They may have been unconscious, and did not know what happened to him. But they knew that all of their precautions were for naught, and that they had been overpowered by some kind of divine force. To the chief priests, this could have only one meaning: God had raised Jesus from the dead, just as Jesus had predicted. God would not have sent angels to roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb just so Jesus’ disciples could steal his body. God does not work that way, and the chief priests knew it. They knew they had to consult with the elders, which probably means the whole Sanhedrin was called into session to decide what to do.

The chief priests, together with the elders, the ruling council, decided on a course of action. I think it’s entirely possible that the fate of Jerusalem was decided once and for all at that meeting. This was the same group that had convicted Jesus of blasphemy on Friday morning. But we know that some among them, namely Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, had not consented to the group’s decision (Luke 23:50-51). They had voted innocent when the council voted to convict Jesus. I imagine that, when this discussion took place after the guards’ report, there were a few who recommended that if Jesus really was raised from the dead, the leadership should acknowledge him as the Messiah. The tearing of the curtain in the Most Holy Place probably came up in the discussion. God was clearly at work. But as in the trial of Jesus, they were in the minority. I can’t help but think that if the religious leadership of Judea had embraced the truth in that moment instead of bribing the soldiers to spread a lie, Jerusalem might have been saved. But they decided to protect their own status and position rather than do what was right, and Jerusalem’s fate was sealed.

In the Roman army, the penalty for falling asleep while on guard was death. So it must have taken a significant amount to persuade the soldiers to spread the rumor that they had been bested by some relatively unarmed Jews, that they fell asleep while on guard, and slept so soundly that a group of men breaking the Roman seal and rolling the stone away didn’t even wake them! Now that I think of it, that’s probably another reason the soldiers went to the chief priests instead of Pilate. If Pilate heard about it, they would be much more likely to suffer punishment for allowing this to happen. That’s why the chief priests promised to smooth things over with Pilate if he heard about it. Pilate was corrupt, and would gladly have accepted a bribe himself. It’s pretty obvious from the gospels that Pilate really wanted nothing to do with this matter to start with, and only participated in the trial of Jesus because he was pressed to by the chief priests and elders. He would soon be going back to Caesarea, and probably wouldn’t want to be bothered with this matter anyway.

Matthew says that the rumor that Jesus’ body had been stolen by his disciples survived among the Jews to the time he wrote his gospel, some 30 years after the resurrection. The chief priests and elders succeeded in maintaining their power for another 37 years or so, until Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 A.D. The thing that strikes me most from this account is the fact that the religious leaders of Israel knew that Jesus was risen. They heard about it before most did, and from the most credible witnesses. What did they choose to do with this information? Instead of admitting their error, repenting and accepting that Jesus really was God’s Messiah, they chose to pay bribes and spread a lie. The only reason they would do this was to protect their own position. If the Messiah was indeed risen from the dead, if the curtain in the Most Holy Place was really torn in two, then the whole system that had made them rich and powerful was coming to an end. Rather than acknowledge that and accept whatever God had for them, they decided that what they wanted was more important than what God wanted. Before we condemn them for that decision, we need to ask ourselves how many times we have done the same.

But many thousands did believe Jesus was risen, and at least 500 actually saw the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:6). Aside from all the other evidence that we have that Jesus is risen, one of the most compelling is the testimony of the apostles. Most of them were imprisoned, tortured, and martyred for preaching the resurrection of Jesus. Yet none of them recanted. People will not die for that which they know is a lie. The testimony of the apostles proves that Jesus is risen.

Before I close today’s post, I want to acknowledge the fact that yesterday, August 21st, 2011, was the three year anniversary of this blog. I am very grateful to God for all that studying the Bible in such depth has done for me over the past three years. And I’m grateful for all of the people who have read it. I hope it continues to be helpful to you, as it has been to me.

Matthew 28:1-10

Jesus Has Risen

1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The resurrection of Jesus is, of course, reported in all four gospels. It’s the central doctrine of our faith, and without it, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:14) See my posts on Jesus’ resurrection in Mark here, and Luke here. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” whom I believe must have been Mary the mother of Jesus, went to the tomb, not just to see the tomb, as Matthew implies, but to complete the ritual embalming that was supposed to be performed by family members, as both Mark and Luke clearly state (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1). The way the language of verses 2-4 are translated in the NIV make it seem like the earthquake happened when the women arrived, but that is not in the original language. As Mark and Luke say, the stone had already been rolled away when the women arrived at the tomb (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2).

It looks to me like the account of what the angel had done, and what happened to the guards is a sort of “flashback.” When the women came on the scene, the tomb was open and the guards were either unconscious or gone. I can’t help but wonder if one or more of the guards were converted as a result of this experience. If so, they are very likely the source of this account. We know now that the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire was greatly helped by believers in the Roman army. At least four Roman soldiers witnessed the resurrection of Christ. How could they help but be changed by that experience?

The description of the angel’s appearance (we know from Luke 24:4 that there were actually two angels, though Matthew and Mark only mention one) is very similar to the description of Jesus at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:29). The implication is not of a light shining on them, but a brilliant light shining out from within them. This is an example of what I call the light of Jesus (blog).

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

As always seems to happen when an angel appears to someone in the Bible, the first thing they say is, “Don’t be afraid.” But I don’t think the women were just afraid of the angels, though the appearance of angels is enough to strike fear into anyone. Mark seems to say that they were alarmed that the body of Jesus was gone (Mark 16:4-6). John says that Mary Magdalene thought Jesus’ body had been stolen (John 20:2, 13). Imagine the shock of visiting the grave of a loved one, and finding the grave dug up, the casket open, and the body missing! But the angel reminded them of what Jesus had promised, and that he had risen, just as he said. Our greatest sorrow can be turned to joy if we will only remember the things Jesus said, and believe that he will do what he said he’d do.

The angel showed them the place where Jesus’ body was laid. They saw the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped. John gives a detailed description of them. From the appearance of the grave clothes, it was obvious that the body had not been stolen. If it had been, the thieves would not have unwrapped the body first, nor would they have taken the trouble to fold up the cloth “by itself, separate from the linen,” as John  describes (John 20:6-7). Since John made a point of describing the grave clothes, and said that he saw and believed (John 20:8), I have had the belief for decades that Jesus left them that way for a specific reason. I believe that when Jesus rose, he folded his grave clothes the way he had always folded his clothes during his life. I believe he left them that way for John’s benefit, because John was his best friend. John would see the grave clothes folded the way only Jesus would have done it, and would know Jesus was alive, because he had traveled and lived with Jesus for three years. John had seen Jesus fold his clothes that way many times.

But what had not occurred to me until now is that Jesus must also have done this for his mother’s benefit. It would have been Mary who taught Jesus to fold his bed clothes neatly every morning when he got up. Mary was one of the first to see the place where Jesus was laid. She saw the grave clothes folded the way she had taught her son to do. She must have known he was alive the moment she saw that. Of course, I know this is all just speculation. But you can’t prove me wrong! Mary also had personal experience with angels. She knew that what they said was always true. Her son was risen.

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. Then Jesus said to them, 9“Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10“Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

When Jesus appeared to the women, they immediately fell at his feet and worshiped him. That is the only appropriate response to the risen Lord. One might think his mother would run up and throw her arms around him, but Mary knew that this wasn’t just the boy she had raised. This was God himself, the only one who is worthy of our worship. And Jesus accepted their worship, which proves that he is God. Jesus told them the same thing the angel did, to go and tell his disciples that he is risen, which they did (Luke 24:9-10). They were the first to tell the Gospel, the good news that Jesus is risen from the grave.

We know from Luke 24:36 that Jesus appeared to his disciples that same day in Jerusalem. He didn’t wait until they went back to Galilee. But Matthew is simply condensing the story, as he did elsewhere. But the essential facts are the same in all four gospels. Jesus is no longer in the grave. He is risen!

Matthew 27:62-65

The Guard at the Tomb

62 The next day, on the Sabbath,[n] the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. 63 They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ 64 So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.”

65 Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” 66 So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it.

Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us about this part of Jesus’ burial. The sun had gone down, and the Sabbath had begun. The phrase the next day at the start of verse 62 probably does not mean the next morning, as we would think of it. In the Jewish mind at that time, a day could mean any part of a day, not necessarily the whole day. It wouldn’t make sense for the chief priests to wait until morning to ask this of Pilate. If they were really afraid Jesus’ disciples would steal his body, they would have wanted the tomb protected on the very first night. The next day in this context probably means as soon as the Day of Preparation ended at sundown, and the Sabbath had begun.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I believe that Jesus had Pharisees who followed him around, who were more or less part of his group. Doctrinally, Jesus was closer to being a Pharisee than a Sadducee or an Essene, so it makes sense to me that there were Pharisees who were interested in what Jesus taught, because Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead, and in the authority of the whole Old Testament, not just the first five books, like they did. I think it’s likely that many of the complaints Jesus got from Pharisees came from the Pharisees in his group. They would have heard Jesus tell his disciples on multiple occasions that he would rise from the dead. After Jesus was crucified, it seems likely to me that they were the ones who told the chief priests that Jesus had said this. On Easter morning, Jesus’ disciples had to be reminded by the angels at the empty tomb that Jesus had told them he would rise again (Luke 24:6-7). Jesus’ enemies had a better memory of the things he had said than his disciples did. How good are we at remembering the promises of Jesus when things seem hopeless?

It occurs to me now that Joesph of Arimathea, as a member of the Sanhedrin and a secret disciple of Jesus, may well have volunteered the use of his new tomb to the chief priests. I can imagine a discussion among the chief priests and elders after the Pharisees reported what Jesus had said to them, where they discussed the importance of a secure burial for Jesus, so his disciples could not steal his body. I imagine, at that point, Joseph spoke up and said he had a new tomb that had not been used, and that was hewn in rock. His tomb could be used for Jesus, and the rest of the leadership, unaware that Joseph was a believer, thought this was a fine idea. But it wasn’t quite good enough. A Roman seal and guard were also necessary to keep Jesus’ followers from rolling the stone away from the entrance, which eleven strong men could certainly do. So they went to Pilate to ask for a seal and a guard. What they did not count on was that the more secure they made the tomb, the more undeniable Jesus’ resurrection would be if it actually happened. No one believed that Jesus really would rise from the dead at that point; not his enemies, or his followers.

So Pilate had a Roman seal placed over the stone. A seal was a rope over the stone attached on both ends with a glob of wax, stamped with the imperial seal of Caesar or Pilate the governor. You couldn’t move the stone without breaking the seal. The seal could be easily broken, but if it was broken, everyone would know the tomb had been broken into. On top of that, the seal carried the authority of Rome. To break the seal was to violate Roman authority. Only the guard that sealed the tomb had the authority to remove it. Roman soldiers would watch carefully while the seal was attached, because they were responsible for whatever was sealed. Their careers, and possibly their lives, depended on making sure that seal wasn’t broken. A Roman guard consisted of four soldiers, fully equipped with swords, shields, spears, daggers, and armor. This would be sufficient to scare off any attempt to break into the tomb.

But as we all know, all of these precautions were powerless against the resurrection power of God. Four fully equipped Roman soldiers were more than a match for a group of frightened disciples, but even the entire Roman army was no match for the angel of the Lord who rolled the stone away (28:2), much less the risen Son of God. When Jesus rose, he conquered far more powerful enemies than the Romans. He conquered death itself, and hell itself.

We know from the next chapter that, after Jesus rose, the chief priests did, in fact, spread the rumor that his disciples had stolen his body (28:12-14). They had taken all of these precautions, and yet they still had to put out this cover story. The irony of all of this is that if the authorities had not gone to such great lengths to secure Jesus’ burial, their cover story would have been much more believable. But because they insisted on a Roman seal and a Roman guard, the rumor they spread was laughable. God used Jesus’ enemies to make his resurrection an undeniable fact.

Matthew 27:57-61

The Burial of Jesus

57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

All of the gospels give attention to the burial of Jesus. (Mark 15:42-47, blog, Luke 23:50-56, blog, John 38-42) They were making sure that we know the details of his burial so that the credibility of his resurrection would be solid. This is where we are introduced to Joseph of Arimathea. Mark calls him a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43). John simply calls him a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). Luke says that Joseph was a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action (Luke 23:50-51). This probably means that, when the council voted to convict Jesus of blasphemy, Joseph had voted “not guilty.” When those who were accused went on trial before the Sanhedrin, the members voted on their guilt or innocence by casting pebbles into an urn, white for innocent and black for guilty.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all call Joseph a wealthy man. Only the wealthy could afford tombs cut out of rock like this one. This was a tomb that Joseph had prepared for himself and his family. Matthew says it was new, and Luke says that no one had yet been laid in it (Luke 23:53). Why is it important that Jesus was buried in a tomb that had never been used? Because family tombs like this often had more than one body in them. Since it’s made clear that there were no other bodies in the tomb, there can be no case of mistaken identity later.

It’s hard to describe how generous this was on Joseph’s part. Family tombs were for family members, and Joseph was not related to Jesus, as far as we know. It’s not impossible that they were related, however. If they were, that would at least partly explain Joseph’s offer. To place the body of a non-family member in a family tomb would have been very unusual. On top of that, there was the matter of defiling the grave. Anyone who was crucified was considered cursed. By placing the body of Jesus in this new family tomb that had not even been used, according to tradition, Joseph was allowing that family tomb to be defiled, which meant no righteous member of his family could be buried there.

As I mentioned in my posts on the crucifixion of Jesus, it usually took much longer for people to die of crucifixion than it took for Jesus. It sometimes took days for people to die, and normally, the Romans wanted crucifixions to last as long as possible. And once the victims died, their bodies were normally left on the crosses to rot and be eaten by animals. This was all done to terrify the local populations where the Romans ruled, and it happened with great regularity all over the empire, not just in Judea. But, as John says, the next day was a special Sabbath, the Passover Sabbath in Jerusalem (John 19:31). The Jews would not stand for the horror of crucified bodies left on crosses just outside the Holy City during the Passover Sabbath. According to John, it was the Jewish leaders who asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed for the Sabbath. Pilate granted their request, but because Jesus had died so quickly, it was unnecessary to break his legs. Mark says that Pilate was surprised that Jesus had died so soon, and confirmed it with the centurion before releasing Jesus’ body (Mark 15:44-45).

In order for Jesus’ body to receive a proper burial, someone had to go and request the body. So that is what Joseph did. John tells us that Nicodemus was there as well. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, and he is the one who came to Jesus by night and the one to whom Jesus famously said, “You must be born again.” (John 3:7) Nicodemus provided 75 pounds worth of myrrh and aloes to use in wrapping Jesus’ body (John 19:39), and Joseph provided the tomb. They were both men of means doing for Jesus what his family and friends could not do for him. Though Joseph and Nicodemus did embalm Jesus’ body as best they could, apparently there wasn’t time for Jesus’ mother Mary to perform the embalming that was normally done by family before the sun went down, and the Sabbath began. Jesus died around 3:00 PM, and this was early in April, when it starts getting dark in the late afternoon. So Mary, Mary Magdelene, and the other women there observed from a distance. They had to wait until Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body, but they never got the chance!

Luke says the women saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it (Luke 23:55). John says there was a garden there (John 19:41). The gospel writers made sure that we knew these details so we would know that the women’s testimony on Sunday morning was true. They knew exactly where and how Jesus was buried because they saw it for themselves. Because it was a brand new tomb in a garden, it was easy to identify later. There could be no mistake about which tomb Jesus was buried in. The stone that was rolled over the entrance was set into a groove, making it very secure. The stone was heavy enough that it could only be moved by several strong men. In my next post, we’ll see how a Roman seal was placed on the tomb, and a guard posted. The burial of Jesus could not have been more secure, which makes his resurrection undeniable.

But for me, this passage is about Joseph of Arimathea. A man who gave up a precious and sacred family possession for Jesus, who risked his life and reputation to give Jesus a proper burial. And because he did, Jesus’ resurrection had much more credibility than it would have otherwise. Though the chief priests did spread the rumor that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body, any reasonable person could see that that was impossible, because of how secure Jesus’ burial was. Jesus really is risen from the dead.

Matthew 27:51-56

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[e] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Mark and Luke also tell us that the curtain in the temple was torn in two when Jesus died (Mark 15:38, blog, Luke 23:45, blog). But only Matthew mentions the earthquake, and he and Mark add the detail that the curtain was torn from top to bottom. The veil or curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the temple (Exodus 26:31-35) was large (60 feet long and 30 feet wide), and as thick as a man’s hand. I’ve always pictured the invisible hand of God tearing the veil in two from the top down. But it’s also possible that the earthquake caused the fall of one of the lintels that held the curtain up, starting the tear at the top. Josephus, the Talmud, and others do describe a catastrophe of this type in the sanctuary at this time. They took it as a sign of the coming destruction of the temple. But Christians see it as a sign that we can all now enter into the presence of God. We don’t need a High Priest to approach God for us. Jesus is our High Priest. (Hebrews 9)

Like the darkness at noon, this earthquake was not just a local event. It too was felt and reported all the way in Rome. Since people were buried in caves, or tombs hewn out of rock, the earthquake probably also caused the tombs to break open. Only Matthew gives us this strange account of the dead rising from their graves, walking around and appearing to people. Though the wording may make it seem like the dead were raised at the same moment as the earthquake, when Jesus died, it seems more likely that, as Matthew says in verse 53, they came back to life when Jesus was resurrected, then left their broken tombs, rather than rising from the dead when Jesus died, then waiting around until Sunday morning to come out.

Those who were raised were holy people. Why would God have done this? The most likely reason to me is that they were raised to be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. But I don’t believe they were resurrected as Jesus was, in glorified bodies. I believe that they were merely revived like Lazarus was, and eventually died again. Jesus was the first to be truly resurrected, and those who belong to him will also be resurrected when he returns in glory (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23).

Not long before, the Pharisees had demanded that Jesus provide a sign from heaven to prove that he was the Messiah. The kinds of miracles Jesus had been performing were, in the minds of the religious leadership, confined “to the earth.” Healings, exorcisms, and the like were considered signs on earth. Tradition held that a sign done on earth could be a counterfeit from Satan, but signs done from heaven (in or from the sky) were assumed to be from God. Jesus refused to give them a sign of that type then, because if he had done so, they would have accepted him as Messiah, and tried to make him king. He never would have been crucified, and none of us could be saved. The only sign Jesus promised to give them was the sign of Jonah, the sign of his resurrection (16:1-4, blog).

But once Jesus was on the cross, everyone there got more signs from heaven than they wanted to see. First, the sky grew dark from noon until 3:00 PM. Then, at the moment of Jesus’ death, an earthquake. The curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. And at his resurrection, many holy people were raised from their graves to testify about him. Now that Jesus’ mission on earth was accomplished, signs from God were everywhere, but the leadership still did not believe. They could not accept a Messiah who had allowed himself to die such a shameful death, and they certainly would not accept that God had replaced the system that had made them so powerful. If Jesus had caused darkness at noon, an earthquake, and revival of many holy people from the dead when the Pharisees had asked for a sign, I think they would have accepted him as Messiah then, because in their minds, the temple would have become even more powerful with a Messiah King on the throne. But to accept him as Messiah after his death and resurrection, even with all of the signs they had seen, would mean they would lose all of the power they thought they had. Do we believe in a Jesus who is only there to give us what we want, or the one who tells us to take up our cross and follow him?

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

Despite what some have said, I don’t believe that this amounted to a confession of Christ from the centurion. In the original language, he really said something more like, “Surely he was a son of a god!” That seems like a more likely response from a polytheistic Roman. But this centurion had been in charge of many crucifixions in his time. He could clearly see that this Jesus was different from all the others he had executed, and the darkness and earthquake that accompanied Jesus’ death clearly indicated that he was divine. In his way, this Roman centurion showed more faith than the leadership of the temple did, and he was a pagan.

55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph,[f] and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

John tells us that, in addition to the three women Matthew names here, Mary the wife of Clopas was there at the crucifixion (John 19:25). Clopas, or Cleopas, was one of the men Jesus met on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:18, blog). Mary the mother of James and Joseph was Mary the mother of Jesus. The mother of Zebedee’s sons, James and John, was named Salome. The only apostle who is recorded as having been there at the crucifixion of Jesus is John (John 19:26-27, 35). All the others were hiding in fear for their lives. These same women would be the first to witness the resurrection. They stayed with Jesus until the end, and they were the first to know when he rose.

Matthew 27:45-50

The Death of Jesus

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[c] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[d]

Now we come to the key moment in Jesus’ life, the moment for which he came. The moment when he drank the cup of his Father’s wrath for all of us, and became the perfect sacrifice for our sins. See my posts on Mark’s account of the death of Jesus here, and Luke’s account here. It’s been said by many that the darkness that occurred from noon to 3:00 PM was a solar eclipse, but that’s impossible. Passover is always held during a full moon, and a solar eclipse is impossible during a full moon, when the moon is opposite the sun in the sky. Besides, solar eclipses don’t last for three hours. But something blocked the light of the sun for three whole hours that day, and it wasn’t just a local event. It was seen all the way in Rome. The Roman historian Phlegon recorded this:

“In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (the same time that Jesus was crucified), there was an extraordinary eclipse of the sun: at the sixth hour, the day turned into dark night, so that the stars in heaven were seen; and there was an earthquake.”

The popular theory about this is that God was turning away from his Son, that he could not look upon Jesus because he bore all of our sin. Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would seem to support that idea. But Jesus was not accusing God of forsaking him. He was quoting Psalm 22:1, which is Messianic prophecy. He was declaring that prophecy fulfilled. Ironically, those who taunted Jesus on the cross fulfilled other prophecies in that same psalm (Psalm 22:7-8), which I pointed out in my updated post on verses 32-37 of this chapter. Jesus used some of his last breaths on earth to quote scripture, and fulfill prophecy. Read Psalm 22, which is packed with Messianic prophecy, and see how it describes both the agony of Jesus on the cross, and also the victory he won with that sacrifice. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know in this life what the darkness at noon that day really was. The amazing thing to me is that Jesus endured that darkness for three hours before he cried out. He didn’t say this until three o’clock, just as the darkness was ending, and he was dying.

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

None of the gospels tell us who mistook Eloi for Eli, and said this, whether it was his accusers who were taunting him, or soldiers who didn’t understand Aramaic that well. I suspect that it was the former. They would have been familiar with the idea that Elijah was supposed to precede the Messiah. Maybe they thought, since God was not rescuing Jesus from the cross, Jesus was asking Elijah to come and help him, since he claimed to be the Messiah King. They misunderstood what Jesus had said about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days, and used it against him at his trial. It seems likely to me that the same people misunderstood him here, and used it to taunt him further.

The wine vinegar they offered him was different than the wine mixed with myrrh that was offered to him as an anesthetic. This sour wine was a soldier’s ration, and also a common drink among laborers because it was cheap. This might seem like an act of kindness, but it was kept there and given to victims of crucifixion in order to keep them alive as long as possible, to prolong their agony.

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

Though Matthew does not tell us what Jesus cried out in a loud voice, John 19:30 says, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Luke 23:46 says, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” I have stated in other posts on the death of Jesus (as have many others) that this shows that no one took Jesus’ life from him, that he was in control of when and how he died. This is an elegant thought, but unsupported by scripture. There is, however, medical evidence in the gospels to indicate exactly what caused Jesus’ death.

In my post on verses 32-37 of this chapter, I talked about how scholars believe that Jesus fell on the road to Calvary, and that was why Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the crossbeam for him. The crossbeam weighed from 75 to 150 pounds, and was tied to his arms, across the back of his shoulders, forcing him to fall forward. With his arms tied to the crossbeam, Jesus had no way to break his fall. He hit the cobblestone pavement of the Via Dolorosa on his chest and face, with a 75-150 pound weight on his back. This probably bruised his heart, which would cause an aneurism. An aneurism is a weak spot, like a balloon, which would have expanded and filled with blood with every heartbeat. The physical exertion of crucifixion is extreme, and that, along with the significant blood loss from the scourging he had endured, forced Jesus’ heart to beat faster and faster to try to keep up. His heart grew weaker by the minute.

At the moment of his death, Jesus called out with a loud voice. In his weakened state, he should not have been able to shout at all. Most victims of crucifixion were exhausted or unconscious when they died. They died of suffocation, and when you’re suffocating, you can’t cry out. So Jesus did not die of asphyxiation. He was lucid and able to cry out right up until the moment of his death. The most likely explanation is that the aneurism on his heart finally ruptured, and his heart burst within his chest. Jesus would have been able to feel this coming on, like a heart attack. Many people (and animals, for that matter) know when they are about to die, and it seems that Jesus knew that death was imminent for him. So he said, “It is accomplished.” He had paid the debt for our sin. The Greek word Jesus used literally means paid in full.

When Jesus’ heart ruptured, the pericardial sac around his heart filled with blood. That membrane is normally filled with clear fluid, which protects the heart. John 19:34 says that one of the Roman soldiers there pierced Jesus’ side with his spear, and blood and water flowed out. That means that the spear pierced the pericardial sac, and blood from his heart, followed by the pericardial fluid, which resembles water, flowed out in a stream, under pressure. The only way blood and water flows out of a wound like that is if Jesus’ heart burst within his chest. Jesus literally died of a broken heart.