Monday, December 3, 2018

29. Resurrection

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 29: Resurrection!

Our journey through the gospel according to Matthew has reached it's final chapter. Chapter 28 is all about resurrection. Resurrection has been mentioned time and time again throughout the previous chapters. Just as He has often spoken of His death, so Jesus has taught His disciples 'On the third day I will be raised to life'. Just as, until it happened, they did not accept He would die, so, until they encounter His risen presence do they accept that He would be raised to life.

The resurrection is not simply an afterthought. It is not a happy ending tagged onto the end of an otherwise tragic story. It is the culmination of all that Matthew has taught us about Jesus. If there be no resurrection then the rest of what he has told us has only limited meaning. There are many accounts of people with lofty ideals who came to tragic ends. There are numerous historical instances of people who worked wonders and taught eternal truths, but their graves are their shrines and they live only in memories.

An oft used Christian formulation is the phrase; 'Christ died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again.' Such a formula reminds us that the gospel is not that we have, in Jesus, a hero to emulate, but that we have a God who, in Christ, is with us, yesterday, today and forever. A God who sends the presence of His Holy Spirit to lead us, guide us, comfort us and renew us. For Christianity resurrection is not what happens when we die, it is the atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being. Because He lives, we live.

The accounts the different gospels give us are not consistent with each other. The authors offer us what may be best described as  'theological tableau' (using the word tableau here to speak of something that is 'a graphic description or representation'). They do not provide us with a historical reconstruction, nor do they seek to explain the event, but rather insist that the resurrection took place and seek to demonstrate what it means both for the individual and for the church community.

They accounts read more like the description of a volcanic eruption than something that happened in a graveyard. Exactly who saw what and when, and the precise sequence of events is obscured by the magnitude of the revelation. Jesus died. Now He lived. This was unprecedented , and, even though Jesus had told them it would turn out that way, it was also completely unexpected. Let us read verses 1 – 7.

Matthew 28:1-7 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. 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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay.  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."
One of the huge tectonic shifts made following the earthquake of the resurrection was that the Christian church decided that the Sabbath should not be observed Saturday (the seventh and last day of the week) but Sunday (the first – or eighth day of the week). That this change came within a community Jewish in origin, whose founder and first adherents were all religious Jews who had Sabbath observance rooted in the very core of their identities makes that shift all the more unlikely. Unlikely that is, unless something had shifted in the nature of their reality to justify such a radical change. It is not by coincidence Matthew, writing predominantly for a Jewish audience tells us that the resurrection takes place on 'the first day of the week'.

The first day had become the day that Christians worshiped their God. Matthew wants his readership to know that the reason why, was not accidental, but had everything to do with their belief that the resurrection of Jesus was an earth shaking historical event. Just as he tells us that the earth quaked when Jesus was crucified, he tells us the earth shakes at the revelation of His resurrection.

At the birth of Jesus angels play an important part in the drama. They largely disappear from the story, except to minister to Him after His wilderness temptations. Now, in the accounts of His rebirth, an angel reappears. As with the angelic appearances in the birth narratives the angel appears in a way that is so dazzling that it is unnerving. 'Fear Not' were the words of angelic address to both Mary and the Shepherds. In this account we have soldiers fainting and falling to the ground as dead men.

By the time the women appear, it seems the angelic glory has become muted and the angel is pictured as sitting atop of the stone that he had rolled away. Matthew Henry views the fact that it is an angel, and not Jesus Himself who rolls the stone aside, as being a glorious picture of all heavens approval and joy at the resurrection of Jesus. He compares it to the way a jailer is dispatched to open the prison door for an inmate who had been declared innocent of all charges, an admission by the earthly powers that they have been thwarted by a greater truth.

However that may be, there is an almost whimsical quality to the image of the angel sitting on the stone, relaxing in the morning sun, almost in a 'Hey ladies! What's happening' kind of mode! For some reason whenever I read it the Otis Redding song 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay' comes to mind.

Some commentators see a significance in the fact that there are two women in attendance. There was a legal ruling in the Book of Deuteronomy that, in the case of a crime, at least two witnesses had to be present to make the charges stick.  Deuteronomy 19:15 "One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Matthew has previously referred to this law when he was speaking about church discipline in chapter 18.

There is also significance in that the angel describes Jesus to them as being the 'crucified one'. In Greek the grammatical sense of the phrase ('ton estaursmen'  - crucified one) indicates a completed act with ongoing consequences. To quote from the New Interpreters Bible 'Jesus crucifixion was not a temporary episode in the career of the son of God, a past event nullified, transcended or exchanged at the resurrection of heavenly glory. Even as the risen one, He bears the mark of His self-giving on the cross, as His permanent character and call to discipleship.'

In John's gospel we are given the account of Thomas, who has severe doubts about the claims of the rest of his fellow disciples that Jesus is alive. When he eventually encounters Jesus for himself, he is invited to touch the wounds left by crucifixion. He recognizes Jesus, not because of His radiance or beauty, but because of His scars. In the Book of Revelation the image of Jesus is not only as the conquering King, but also as the 'lamb who was slain.'  The two great themes of Christian theology are the cross and the Resurrection. They cannot be separated as neither makes much sense without the other!

The women are reminded that the resurrection had taken place 'just as He said.'  This underscores the point we made earlier that the resurrection is not a happy ending tagged onto the end of the story, but an intrinsic part of Matthews message throughout his gospel.

They are told to go and share the message with His disciples. As well as the fact of His rising, they are instructed to tell them that Jesus 'is going ahead of you' . The image of the Risen Christ being one step ahead of us, leading us to new encounters with His life and love, is a positive one that stirs us to action. Which is exactly what happens! Read verses 8 thru 10.

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell His disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," He said. They came to Him, clasped His feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

This moment is beautifully captured in the second verses of the Easter hymn “Thine Is the Glory”

    Lo! Jesus meets us, Risen from the tomb;
    Lovingly He greets us, Scatters fear and gloom.
    Let the church with gladness ,Hymns of triumph sing,
    For the Lord now liveth; Death hath lost its sting.

Verse 8 gives us this wonderful image of those who are first called to proclaim the resurrection as being  'afraid yet filled with joy'. It is not simply the angel that they are fearful of, but the very fact that Jesus has been raised. Whilst I'm sure the full implications of the event had yet to sink in, the dead coming back to life is definitely up there on the 'scary' scale.

When eternity breaks in it upsets our whole apple cart. If Jesus lives, then it calls us to re-evaluate everything we are living for. It places life in a whole new framework. It calls us to think of our existence not as being from birth to death, but as something that begins before the womb and continues long after the tomb.

It affects our values and puts meat on the flesh of Jesus teaching. Only if eternity is reality does it make sense to take up a Cross and follow Him. Seeking His Kingdom over and above all other things is only an option if we believe that His Kingdom is a greater prize than all that the kingdoms and powers of earth can offer us. Either we adopt the philosophy “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” or we build upon the notion that what we do on this earth has eternal consequences.

If there be no eternity, then there is no final reckoning. Whilst we may choose to adopt a moral code, because life is a lot easier if everybody gets along, ultimately there is no imperative to do so and no matter how much pain or trouble we may cause we answer to nobody but ourselves. Unless, that is, something actually happened in that tomb that is a game changer!

A blogger by the name of Rick Rice writes 'If Christ is risen, that proves He is Who He said He was; God in the flesh. What could possibly be more important than that? And if Christ is NOT risen? What is the point of life, the universe and everything? Life only means what I say it means to me. And I have but a few years of existence and then; nothing.'

One of the most celebrated scholars of the 20th century, Jaroslav Pelikan; author of 30 books, Yale University professor, President of the American Society of Arts and Sciences, died of lung cancer in 2006. But before he died, he said, "If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen – nothing matters.

It is a fearful notion that everything we thought about life could be wrong. Yet it is also a joyful thing. Resurrection life is so much more than just getting by. In John's gospel Jesus is recorded as saying "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."(John 10:10). We are constantly pushed to make our choice. As one preacher told his congregation in an Easter service; “What do you want? Life in Jesus name or just more of the same?'

I guess folk sometimes wonder why we make such a fuss about worship. Well, here we have the example of the women. 'They came to Him, clasped His feet and worshiped Him.' If we genuinely believe Christ died for our sins, that without His love we haven't got a hope in hell and that Jesus is not only alive, but with us every moment of our existence, then the only right response to make is to bow down in worship, in such a way as to get a grip on His reality. We 'take a hold of His feet', that we may learn how to walk His way. We worship Him because He is worthy of our worship, the Son of God, come to redeem us and who sends His Holy Spirit to be with us and continue His world changing mission.

The joy comes as we follow where He leads. Then we discover His presence is with us. The disciples are invited to go to where Jesus tells them so that 'there they will see' Him. We used to have a phrase in Great Britain that the 'proof of the pudding was in the eating.' The reality of the resurrection sometimes only dawns upon us as we seek to do the things we believe Jesus is calling us to do and be the people we believe He is inviting us to be.  But, of course, not everybody sees things this way!

In our last chapter we saw how guards were posted at the tomb to prevent the spread of any rumors about a resurrection having taken place. Matthew gives us a follow up on that story. Read 11-15.

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. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money,  telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.'  If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." 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.
William Barclay comments on this passage;

It is interesting to note the means that the Jewish authorities used in their desperate attempts to eliminate Jesus. They used treachery to lay hold on Him. They used illegality to try Him. They used slander to charge him to Pilate. And now they were using bribery to silence the truth about Him. There is a Roman proverb that declares, 'Great is the truth, and it will prevail”. It is the fact of history that not all humanities evil machinations can in the end stop the truth. The gospel of goodness is greater than the plots of wickedness.

The guards were in an awkward position. They had failed at their task. Matthew doesn't tell us they witness the resurrection, only that they fell, as if dead, at the appearance of the angel. Yet regardless of what they had seen or heard they still have to report to their superiors that the tomb was now empty.

In the light of their report the chief priests do what religious folk always do when there is a threat to their system. They call a meeting of the elders. At this meeting they devise a plan to stop the rumor of resurrection from spreading. 'As in the case of Judas, money oils the wheels of hypocrisy, but here the sum is greater. It costs more to suppress the resurrection message than it did to engineer the crucifixion.' (NIT Commentary)

They promise the soldiers that there will be no repercussions following their failure, just as long as they spread a rumor that the disciples came in the night and stole the body. Even today people use exactly the same story to explain away the resurrection. Or they insist that if He was seen alive, then He couldn't possibly have ever died. The Qur’an, composed some 600 years after the New Testament, though insisting that Jesus will be raised, in a general resurrection at the end of all things, skirts around the story of the empty tomb by claiming that Jesus was never actually crucified.

'That they said [in boast], "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah," but they killed him not, nor crucified him. Only a likeness of that was shown to them. And those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no [certain] knowledge. But only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not' (Surat Al-Nisei 4:157).

Such is one of the more difficult passages to deal with in Christian/Islamic dialogue. When our statement of faith claims 'Christ lived, Christ died and Christ is Risen' having only two of the three acknowledged makes it a little tricky! But the dialogue must continue and at the end of the day the best we can bring to the table in any discussion of faith is to say “I totally respect your opinion, and I even understand where you are coming from. This is what I believe....”

Like the women who run from the tomb, our sense of awe and joy cannot be taken away just because others don't understand it. Neither should we feel we have to apologize for our enthusiasm to anybody. As the inspirational hymn of John Newton, 'Amazing Grace' explains; “I was blind, but now I see.” That's not something you can't give expression to!

Matthew Henry makes the point that conviction of the reality of Christ's resurrection can only come to a person by revelation of the Holy Spirit. That all the arguments and discussions in the world never quite get to the core of the matter. That it all boils down to a question of faith. Only the action of God's Holy Spirit creates the faith needed to believe, but as we seek to do and be disciples the door to faith is opened wide.  He suggests that there is a deep connection between action and experience.

Meanwhile, back in Galilee... let us read our closing verses 16 -20.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
The closing words of the gospel according to Matthew give us a blueprint of the churches mission and  capture Matthew's vision for what the church should be.

Church is a Place 'Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go”

The disciples go to the place where Jesus has invited them to meet Him. Geographical locations have significance. Gathering together for worship and service  is important. Christianity is not an individual spiritual quest, but a pilgrimage made in the company of others. We learn of the Kingdoms ways  from each other. One of the dominant images in the New Testament is of the church being a body, with every part being necessary for the health of the whole.

In an age of rampant  individualism, in which people are urged to seek self fulfillment, the corporate nature of true Christianity is often obscured or laid aside. You don't have to go to church to be a Christian. We are saved by grace through faith. But if you want to be faithful to Scriptures teaching you will understand that you can only do that in the company of others. The place you will find that company is in a physical location... usually a building we call a church.

Jesus did not die just for you. I'm sure He would have done if you were the only human being alive, but Paul tells us that Christ 'died for us'... plural. Jesus invites us to pray; beginning our prayers with the phrase 'Our Father'.  The central celebration of Christian faith is the communion service, the word 'communion' obviously so closely related to the word 'community.'

The disciples are invited by Jesus to meet him, as a community, at a definite physical location. That, for Matthew, is part of what the church is meant to do!

Church is a place for Worship 'When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.'

We rightly call our meetings on a Sunday 'services of worship.' It may feel some weeks that we get side-tracked from our primary reason for existing. Everything from endless announcements to disruptive children may distract us. We may not even always be in the right frame of mind when we walk through the door. So it is good to remind ourselves that the reason we come to church is to worship God. Not to catch up on the news, not to publicize some future event or campaign we are involved in, not to see friends, not even because that's what we always do on a Sunday morning and it's become a habit.

There is a gospel chorus that says: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace”. It is as the disciples see Jesus that they worship Him. It is hard to turn our focus away from ourselves to our Savior, but when we do, when we consider the many blessings that are around and within our lives, we find worship comes so much easier.

I love the fact that Matthew includes the phrase 'but some doubted'. There is room in his vision of the church for those who aren't quite sure yet. He sees church as a place not just for those who think they have got it, but also for those who know that they haven't got there yet. I feel that includes most of us!

Church is a place where we can be empowered by encountering Jesus. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

As they are in the place Jesus has invited them to be, and as they bring Him their worship and doubts, so there comes to them the word they need to hear, the word about the authority of Jesus over all of life. The oldest Christian affirmation of faith is the statement 'Jesus is Lord'.

The dominant theme of the gospel according to Matthew has been that Jesus is a King, a King nothing like Herod, a King like no other King on earth. He is the Servant-King, the High Priestly-King, the Risen King and we are invited to live as citizens of His Kingdom, building into our lives the principles of the Kingdom He outlined in the sermon on the mount. Throughout the gospel Jesus has demonstrated His authority over sickness, over evil, over the created order, even over death itself. Now He comes to His disciples and tells them "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

As we gather for worship we seek to place ourselves under His authority. We seek to lay aside our personal claims and prejudices and be transformed by the authority of Jesus love, that impacts our lives through the action of the Holy Spirit. We seek to be empowered. We need to be empowered, because we have a job to do.

Church is a place where we learn to serve. 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,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Our Church Worship Service lasts maybe a little over an hour (though if you are in choir or teaching Sunday School or serving in some other way it may take a couple more hours). We are not given a time scale on their meeting with Jesus at Galilee that the disciples experience. However we can assume it didn't take all day, all week or all year. The point being that most of our Christian life is lived outside of the church building.

We come together in church to worship, we go out into the world to serve. We go, because Jesus tells us to go! Many moons ago I entered a song writing competition hosted by a mission agency. I didn't win. My over the top disco based mission hymn was not what they were looking for. (LOL) But I still think the words I came up with for the chorus were appropriate.
Go! Take my message to the world
Tell them what you've seen,
Tell them what you've heard,
Go! in the power of my Spirit,
With a love that has no limit,
You can conquer the world!
You can conquer the world!

We are invited to go and make fellow disciples of others throughout all creation. This is not because we are in competition with any other agency in the world (except for the devil and all his minions) but because our lives our being transformed by the love of Jesus Christ and it's such an amazing thing it just doesn't seem right to not let others in on it. As the late Larry Norman penned in one of his songs;
 'When you know a wonderful secret, you don't let it go unsaid,
You tell it to your children as you tuck them into bed.
When you know a beautiful secret, you tell it to your friends,
Tell them that a life time filled with Jesus is like a song that never ends”

There is both a sacramental and Trinitarian aspect to our mission. Christian practice and doctrine are important to Matthew. We are to baptize people. Not just with water, but deeply immerse them and ourselves in the message of the Kingdom. We do this in the name of One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We are given a mission of teaching. We are to fulfill that mission in the way Jesus fulfilled His, namely that it is not just about the words we speak but about the way we live our lives, the deeds we do and the people we share our lives with. 'All the world' includes those bits of the world we don't always want to have anything to do with.

We are to teach people what Jesus has commanded us to teach them. We know from Matthew that Jesus  gave us two commands that summed up all the others and  were both equally important and equally focused.  Very simply... “Love God' and “Love our Neighbor”. Finally, if we do all of this we receive a precious promise.

Church is a place of Assurance. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
In our first session I compared the gospel according to Matthew to a movie. We have reached the final scene. If it were a Western, the music would swell, Jesus would ride off into the sunset, and the words would come up onto the screen, 'And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.' And we would leave the theater inspired to never live in the same old boring way ever again in our lives. At least until next week!

Seriously, this is one of the great promises of Scripture and its truth has been confirmed by countless numbers of God's faithful people throughout the generations. When we apply ourselves to living lives of worship and service that welcome the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we learn that we are not alone, but He walks with us. It's not always easy. Taking up a cross isn't meant to be easy. It's not that we are always sure. We always have those moments of doubt. But at the end of all things, we are assured that Jesus is with us. At the end of all things, that's all we need to know.

So our journey through the gospel according to Matthew has reached it's end. What an amazing book! From the opening credits to the final words it never ceases to challenge us and instruct us. We have been taught about Kings and Kingdoms, we have heard of great wonders, we have walked up mountains that have been transfigured by light and through times of deep darkness and suffering that culminated in the betrayal, torture and death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross. We stood by and heard a Roman soldier declare “Surely this was the Son of God”.

In chapter 28 we have heard about the resurrection and seen how Matthew envisioned the church. Over 2000 years later, here we are. Still discovering, still studying, still praying, still serving, still worshiping, still seeking to be renewed and empowered to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

My prayer is that this study has not simply been an academic exercise but that through it we have come to a deeper appreciation of God's word and God's purpose for our lives.

And to God's name be all glory. Amen.

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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