Matthew 28: 1-15 Two Stories of an Empty Tomb

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Piero della Francesca (1463)

Matthew 28: 1-15

Parallel Mark 16: 1-8, Luke 24: 1-12, John 20: 1-18

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.

12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

 Matthew’s description of the empty tomb shares significant elements with the other three gospels, but Matthew’s narration also includes several distinct elements that illuminate Matthew’s message in this critical scene. Matthew continues to integrate elements that highlight this story’s connection to the imagery and narrative of the people of Israel in the scriptures. Matthew also continues to use imagery that indicates the impact of the resurrection on the creation itself. Finally, only Matthew continues to pay attention to the continued resistance of the religious leaders to the message of the resurrection as they continue to peddle false narratives about Jesus.

The two Marys who sat opposite the tomb at the entombment of Jesus now return on the morning of the third day to see the tomb. Gone are the anointing spices in Mark’s gospel and the mission to anoint the body, in Matthew they merely come to see the tomb. Perhaps Matthew wants to have these women coming in expectation of the resurrection and have these women disciples understand, or perhaps better for Matthew’s language have faith, where the male disciples did not. Matthew is the only gospel that narrated an earthquake at the end of the crucifixion scene and now Matthew again narrates an earthquake as the angel of the Lord descends. In Matthew the crucifixion and resurrections are cosmic events that impact the creation and again the creation reacts to the movement of God in the resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew continues to narrate the story of Jesus in a way that links this story to the Hebrew Scriptures. While Mark and Luke narrate the messengers as men and John has two angels that sit where the body of Jesus was laid, in Matthew the messenger is an angel of the Lord. Throughout scriptures the angel of the Lord is used as a mouthpiece of God, a mediated way for God’s message to come to God’s people. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph multiple times in a dream to direct him at the beginning of the story, and now at the end this angel directs the women with a message for the disciples of Jesus to gather in Galilee. The description of the angel also echoes the description of the Ancient One in Daniel 7:9 or the description of Moses’ shining face in Exodus 34:29-35 but is more subdued than the description of the Transfigured Jesus in Matthew 17: 2.

Only Matthew narrates the presence of the guards at the tomb, and their reaction to the appearance of the angel of the Lord forms a paradox for this scene. The guards placed by the religious leaders to ensure the crucified one remains entombed now become ‘like the dead’ themselves. The brute force that the religious leaders can muster and the power of death that Rome can wield are now inverted as the crucified one is announced as alive and the emissaries of the ones who called for Jesus’ death now find themselves paralyzed by fear. Some of these guards, though not all in Matthew’s narration, will later report to the chief priests what has occurred at the tomb and this will require another false narrative and another payment of silver and promise of protection to the guards. Perhaps those in Matthew’s community have heard this false explanation from other Jewish people who do not have faith in the resurrection and Matthew felt compelled to include this second story in his narration of the resurrection.

The women in Matthew, unlike in Mark’s strange ending, obey and depart to spread the message to the disciples. These women who came with the sad purpose of confirming the entombment of Jesus and perhaps paying honor to him now depart running for joy with the purpose of announcing his resurrected life only to have the joyous interruption of encountering the resurrected Jesus. The grab hold of his feet and worship him. They are told a second time not to be afraid and to depart to the brothers (disciples) of Jesus and to have them journey to Galilee where they will also see him. These two women become not only the first messengers of Jesus but also the first to worship their risen Lord. The story ends with two different groups telling two different reports of what occurred at the tomb of Jesus. The two women tell a joyful story relayed to them by both the angel of the Lord and the risen Jesus about life.  Jesus said to the Pharisees and the scribes that the only sign this generation would receive would be the sign of Jonah.[1] The guards, after being paid in silver, tell a story that comes from the religious leaders and attempt to hide this sign for their generation. These chief priests, in Matthew, who feared Jesus’ disciples coming to steal the body and providing a greater deception than the first now once again prove to be deceivers and unfaithful shepherds of the people.


[1] Matthew 16:4

1 thought on “Matthew 28: 1-15 Two Stories of an Empty Tomb

  1. Pingback: Matthew 28: 16-20 A Sent Community and a Present Lord | Sign of the Rose

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