Matthew 28:1-20

The Meaning of Easter

         April 16 2006    Copyright © 2006, American Journal of Biblical Theology    Vol. 7 Issue 7.    Scripture quotes from KJV    

Twas the day before Easter and all through the woods, The bunnies were busy packing their goods.
The eggs were all colored so pretty and bright, All things were "go" for the big special night.
The baskets were waiting, all decorated with care, In hopes that the Bunny soon would be there.
My little brother Sam was asleep in his bed, While visions of Easter eggs rolled round his head.

And I in my pajamas with the cat on my lap, I had just settled down for a quick little nap.
When outside the window I heard a great noise, I sprang from my chair and jumped over some toys.
As quick as a flash to the window I flew, I pulled up the shade and , OH, what a view.
The moon on the meadow cast a bright golden glow And the wind blew the flowers to and then fro.

Then all of a sudden from out of nowhere, Came some lively bunnies, hopping here, hopping there!
Leading the group with ears long and funny, Was a plump , all-white rabbit... That's right, the EASTER BUNNY!
The bunnies hopped past, one, two , three, four, The rabbit called out and then there were more.
"Come Peter! Come Flopsy! Come Benny! Come Joe! Now hop along! Hop along! Hop along! GO!"

So up on each doorstep the bunnies did hop, With baskets of eggs. (Let's hope they don't drop)!
Just at that moment, on the porch down below, Came the stomping of feet 'Twas the rabbit I know!
As I stepped from my window I heard a loud sound. Through the door came the rabbit with a leap and a bound.
He was furry and soft from his head to his feet. To see him so close was really quite neat.

He was surrounded by eggs that had been carefully dyed. Easter eggs galore he soon would hide.
His eyes were all twinkles, His nose was so pink, And I can't be too sure but I think he did wink.
He had a kind face and a big fluffy tail That bobbed up and down like a boat with a sail.
A twitch of his nose and a flick of his ear Was his way of saying "You've nothing to fear."

He uttered no sound as he hopped all about, Hiding the eggs and leaving no doubt.
That the Easter bunny had come like he does every year... Bringing baskets of happiness to children so dear.

Why is Easter celebrated with a focus on a rabbit that delivers eggs?  Is this the meaning of Easter?

If you go into any store, you will find no lack of variety in candies shaped as Easter rabbits or eggs. Children expect the Easter bunny to deliver candy just like they expect Santa Claus to deliver toys. Where did this tradition come from? Also, there is a connection between the Easter bunny and April Fool's day, April 1.  Note that the word, "Easter" never appears in scripture, nor is it derived from any Christian source.2  The name Easter comes from Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn who was honored each Spring by a festival. The Spring festival was treated as the start of a new year by the predominant Anglo-Saxon pagan cultures. The rabbit and eggs were icons that represented the new life that comes with Spring since both would appear after the thawing of the winter snow. When the Gregorian Calendar, under commission by Pope Gregory XIII, was devised in 1582, the traditional lunar calendar was dropped for the more accurate calendar that kept pace with the change of seasons by including varying length months, including the regular use of February 29th as a leap year adjustment. Furthermore, the beginning of the year was moved from April 1 to January 1. Most of western civilization adopted this new, more accurate calendar. However, the English were slow to accept this change, and many continued to use the old calendar and celebrate the new year on April 1. These who kept to the old calendar became known as April's fools who started their year at the celebration of Eostre.

The resurrection of Christ followed the celebration of the Jewish Passover, a celebration held following the start of the Spring season.  In AD 325 the church council of Nicaea decided that the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ should take place on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox of March 21, linking it with the start of the Spring season.  Easter can come as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25.  This simultaneous celebration of the resurrection to the pagan celebration of Eostre has served to confuse the difference between the holidays because the world has forgotten the distinctive history of each and has merged the two celebrations together. The celebration of Easter as a rite of Spring, worshipping the goddess Eostre, is not appropriate for the Christian. Why do we, as Christians, celebrate Easter?

In December of 1995, Cho Shung-chul of Seoul, South Korea decided to celebrate the new year by partying, and became quite drunk. He fell into the city sewer through an open manhole and was knocked unconscious by the fall. When he awoke, drunk and in total darkness, he was disoriented and started to wander.  He spent eight days in the total darkness, wandering through the sewers calling for help.  Cho Shung-chul could not find his own way out of his immersion in his world of darkness and decay.  Jesus, the Messiah and Creator, came to this world to save the lost Cho Shung-chuls of this world; to save people who had fallen into the sewers of sin and apostasy.  Just as Cho Shung-chul could not find his own way out of the dark sewer, there is nothing that a person can do to cleanse themselves of the consequence of their own unrighteousness: separation from God.  People have tried any number of rites and rituals to attempt to cleanse themselves of sin's impurity.  The Jews ceremoniously washed themselves in an attempt to remain ritually clean, but no manner of cleansing or sacrifice was sufficient, even in their legalistic system, to cleanse one from a sin that was willfully committed. 

The Jerusalem Jews were obsessed by their own purity and the impurity of all who did not practice as they did.  They despised the impure, believing that they would become defiled simply by speaking to or touching them.   The Jerusalem Jews criticized and condemned Jesus for hanging out with sewer rats when he plunged into the muck of humanity's need to so that He might pluck sinners from their self-made cesspools.  They could not see that Jesus' ministry of redemption was for them too.  They could not see that they were like Cho Shung-chul, wandering in stinking darkness, separated from the light of true redemption. 

Matthew 28:1

In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

Jesus, who came with a message of hope, and a message of love has just been crucified by the Jerusalem Jews and placed in a borrowed tomb.  Because of the controversy surrounding this execution and burial, a roman guard was placed at the opening of the tomb to assure the stolen body could not be used to incite an uprising against Rome.  It is the morning of the third day after Jesus died.

Who were these women?

Each of the gospels mentions the presence of Mary Magdalene.  Magdala was an important agricultural, fishing, and trade center of ancient Galilee. Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2 indicate that Mary of Magdala was exorcised of some seven demons by Jesus.  In antiquity, demon possession was an indication of physical or spiritual illness; obviously, Mary Magdalene was quite ill before her encounter with the LORD. Mary eventually became part of an inner circle of supporters of Jesus. She was a witness of His crucifixion (Mark 15:40; Matt. 27:56; John 19:25), His burial (Mark 15:47; Matt. 27:61), the empty tomb (Mark 16:18; Matt. 28:1-10; Luke 24:10), and she was a witness of Jesus resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:1-18). A tradition, especially prevalent in western Christianity from about A.D. 500 onward, identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50. The text gives no reason for such an association, as the introduction of Mary in Luke 8 is quite removed topically from Luke 7:36. To confuse the interpretative tradition further, the sinful woman in the anointing scene of Luke 7:36-50 is often identified incorrectly with another Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. On all accounts, no evidence exists that the sinful woman of Luke 7 should be identified as Mary of Magdala.

A second Mary that is mentioned is believed to be the mother of James the Younger and of Joses and Salome. This Mary would appear to be part of Jesus following from Galilee who followed Him during His itinerant public ministry (compare Mark 15:40-41). She witnessed Jesus crucifixion and was part of the group of women who encountered the empty tomb (Mark 15:47; 16:1-8; Matt. 27:55-56; 28:1-8; Luke 23:56; 24:1-10). Mary, the wife of Clopas, witnessed Jesus crucifixion (John 19:25) and may be the same individual as Mary, the mother of James, Joses, and Salome in the Synoptic Gospels accounts.

Mark tells us that Salome was also with them. Why did the women come to the tomb? Mark 16:1-2 identifies that they went to anoint Jesus' body with spices. Though they knew that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took the body to the tomb, they were apparently unaware that His body had already been prepared. John's Gospel records that the women took about 70 pounds of Myrrh and aloes with which to prepare the body. Such was the preparation for a King.

Matthew 28:2-6.

And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. 3His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: 4And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. 5And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. 6He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.

The women had worried about how they would move the Stone that Joseph had put in place over the entrance to the tomb (Mark 16:3), and was protected by a guard of Roman soldiers. However, there was no such need. The second earthquake in three days took place, as an angel of the Lord appeared at the tomb entrance and rolled away the stone, revealing that Jesus was not there. The removal of the stone was done in the presence of both the women and the Roman guards, demonstrating that Jesus' body was not stolen, and that Jesus did not walk out of the tomb, surviving the scourging, the crucifixion, the sword, and the embalming that took place when He was initially buried.

How were the angels described?  They had faces that shone brightly, and their clothing was a bright and pure white.  By the way, the only heavenly beings that are described in scripture as having wings are the cherubim (Ezekiel) and seraphim (Revelation) at the throne. The concept of winged angels is a product of pre-renaissance European artwork.

Earthquakes are not uncommon in this part of the world, yet they are often used in the Old Testament to demonstrate the presence of God.  What effect did the earthquake and the presence of the angels have on the Roman guards, the keepers? They were frightened, much like the shepherds who received the announcement of Jesus' birth who also saw a similarly described angel.  As men trained to fight, they were struck by their inability to respond.  They were presented a conflict for which they were completely unprepared.  The angel is not an armed soldier to be fought, and they are too stunned by his presence in the earthquake for them to prevent his opening the tomb.  Charged with the protection of the prisoner's body, they would recognize their failure could bring about their own execution.  This was not a good day for these Roman soldiers. 

The women were frightened also, but the angel spoke the same words that the angels spoke to the shepherds several years before: "Do not be afraid." The angel then invited the women to enter the tomb and observe the place where the body was laid. Why did the angel invite them to do this? The women needed to see for themselves that Jesus was not there, and had risen like He said He would. It's likely that some of the Roman guards also entered the tomb since they were charged with its keeping. They also saw that the body was gone, and that the shroud in which His embalmed body was wrapped was still there.

How, do you suppose, the women felt at this time? They had personally experienced the darkest hour in history, one for them that brought deep shock, grief, and mourning.  The last few years of their lives were dedicated to following Jesus who seemed totally invincible, yet he succumbed to such a sudden, miserable and agonizing death without any resistance. They were left with no direction, and seemingly no explanation. Now they learned that He has risen, just as He said He would. The joy of the women was probably not yet complete, since they did not see Jesus, but certainly they experienced a glimmer hope and their grief came to a subtle end, probably replaced by wonder, awe, and fearful joy.

Matthew 28:7-10.

And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. 8And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. 9And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. 10Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.

The women were given a mission by the angel.  They were to tell the disciples, those who had followed Him in faith and trust, what they had seen and heard: that Jesus was risen from the dead. They were also to go to the disciples with the message that Jesus would meet with them in Galilee, a message that would cause them to leave the danger of Jerusalem and the vicinity of its leadership to return to a place of safety that was familiar to them.

It might be interesting to note that word used for tomb, the dead in verse 1 (taphos) is different from the word used in verse 8 (mnemeion). The first word refers to a morbid place of the dead, and the second refers to a place of caring remembrance. Many Christians place their focus on the taphos, worshipping the Christ of the Cross, venerating Him for the agony he endured. This second use of the word reminds us that, though Christ suffered, He rose again and that the purpose for His coming was not to suffer, but rather through suffering to save. We remember what Jesus has done, yet we are still free to fully celebrate the risen Savior and the salvation He brings.

What happened when the women left the tomb? They met Jesus on the road. The different gospels record slightly different versions of the meeting, as seen from the perspective of different witnesses. This account emphasizes that their meeting with Him was sudden and unexpected. Imagine the conversation that must have been taking place during their journey. They may have even questioned if Jesus could really be alive. Suddenly he appeared to them with a very simple and common greeting. The Greek word used is chairo, which is a common greeting and means literally, "Be of joy," or "Be cheerful."

How did the women respond? They fell at his feet. However, they did something unusual for such a worshipful setting: they grasped His feet. They had to touch him to know He was really there. Also, they already knew Him well enough to know that this act was not disrespectful, that Jesus would certainly allow them to do this. We can learn a lesson from this. Our relationship with Jesus can be personal enough that we can approach Him without fear. When we see Jesus, our response may to be to fall in worship, but we are also free to stand before Him, approach Him, and even touch Him. Imagine what it would be like to cross over Jordan and be met by Jesus with a hug. We will probably find our meeting with Jesus to be a mixture of worship and relationship, much like that which the women experienced.

Jesus gave the women a mission, the same as that given by the angel.  This would certainly eliminate any remaining doubts they might have and would certainly empower their confidence when they do share the good news that Jesus is risen, He is not dead. Jesus was merciful to these women, coming to them in their time of need.  Jesus would meet with the disciples in Galillee, but these faithful women who stayed by His side at the crucifixion and who were prepared to stand up to the Roman guards at the tomb were rewarded for their virtue.  It would be they who met Jesus first, and it would be they who would announce the good news.

Not everyone's response to the risen Christ was the same.

Matthew 28:11-15.

Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. 12And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, 13Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. 14And if this come to the governorís ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. 15So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.

How do you suppose the guards responded to this experience? They knew that the body had neither been stolen, nor had Jesus left on His own power through the sealed entrance. The soldiers did not go to their centurion. Why? Had they done so, they would have faced certain death. Instead, they went the chief priests who had already demonstrated authority over this particular crucifixion, and they might be able to explain what was going on.  The soldiers had no religious bias in their witness to the chief priests, and as soldiers they would report to the priests an accurate account of what took place.  The priests probably received a far more complete and accurate report of the situation than anyone has had either then or since.  Did the priests respond through faith and finally believe that Jesus was, indeed, who He said he was?  Did they praise God for the power of the resurrection? True to their ilk, their first response was to form a conspiracy, a plan to create an alternate explanation for what took place.  With their authority as challenged by this dead Jesus as the live one, they brought the guards into their coup, offering the guards (1) a large sum of money, and (2) protection from punishment for a confession of falling asleep during their watch.

Through the years since the resurrection many people have likewise developed alternate explanations for that took place that weekend. People have tried to rationally explain away the miracle of grace that took place, only to find themselves in conflict with the truth of the scriptures. Many explanations are continuations of the account related in verse 15.  Each alternate explanation simply mimics the Jerusalem Jews who, given a truthful account of what transpired that morning, still refused to believe and instead worked to contrive an alternate explanation so that they would not have to confront a truth that would dramatically change their lives. 

Matthew 28:16.

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.

Why were there eleven disciples and not twelve? Judas' suicide took place prior to the resurrection. The scriptures describe that Judas was so despondent as a result of his own act that he later went to a field that he had purchased with his blood money and hung himself from a tree. It appears that Judas thought that he would force the hand of the Roman authorities by initiating the confrontation, and that Jesus would arise victorious over them, bringing in the new kingdom. The worldly Judas did not understand the nature of Jesus' kingdom.  Judas did not understand that Jesus had to suffer as He did, and before Judas could witness Jesus' victorious resurrection, he was dead, unable like the denying Peter to experience Jesus' forgiveness. The scripture states that "Satan entered Judas. (Luke 22:3)" Much conjecture has been stated as to whether Judas should be hated for what he had done. However, we, as Christians understand that all people sin and come short of God's glory and are in need of forgiveness. Was Judas forgiven for his sin? Certainly Jesus loved Judas as he loved the others, and Judas' turning his back on Jesus was little different than Peter's denial, or the absence of the others at the trials.  It is my hope that Judas' sin was not a product of his apostasy, but rather a product of his own sinful ignorance and pride.  If this is true, Judas would have found forgiveness and be restored to Jesus as were the other disciples.  Before we condemn Judas of Iscariot for his sin, we might consider our own, and how we, with Judas, are in desperate need of Jesus' healing touch.

Outside of Galilee is a small mountain, Mt. Tabor. It is on this mountain that the transfiguration took place. A few writers suggest that this may also be the place where Jesus told the disciples to meet him. If this were the case, it would have particular significance to Peter, James and John who witnessed the transfiguration. The other eight disciples would have doubts, and Thomas' doubts are recorded. Peter, James and John had already seen Moses and Elijah, and had seen the transfigured Christ. To them there would be no reason for doubt and it would be very easy for them to lead the disciples to the place. There may have even been some discussion of the transfiguration if this is true.

Matthew 28:17.

And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.

It's understandable that the Roman soldiers and the chief priests would have doubts about the risen Messiah. How could some of the disciples still doubt? It might be useful to look at the word used for doubt, distazo. This word is used only one other place in the New Testament, in Matt. 14:31 where Peter tried to walk on the water with Jesus but feared the storm and began to sink. Jesus rescued him and said, "Why do you doubt?"  The word implies hesitancy or uncertainty, not a lack of belief or commitment. Also, the disciples had seen Jesus before coming to Galilee (John 20:19-31). Though Matthew focuses his account on the eleven, the text does not say that they went to the mountain alone. Paul tell us that over five hundred followers saw the resurrected Christ before His ascension (1 Cor 15:3-6).

Matthew 28:18-20.

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

Matthew 28:18-20 presents us not just with the conclusion of Matthew's Gospel, but with the climax of its message. An announcement of the Lord's authority is followed by His commission to His disciples and to us.

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given..." Who gives such authority? There is only one Authority over this entire universe, and that is God.  Some may believe that God is worthy of Worship, but Jesus is somehow secondary in level and not so worthy. He is the son, not the father. That somehow the Father's authority supersedes that of the Son. Jesus states clearly that all authority has been given to Him, not some subsidiary part of it. He declared his rightful position as Lord, following his demonstrated position as Savior. Many have tried to divide the trinity because they can not explain its unity. Some would worship Jesus to the point of eliminating the authority of God or that of His Holy Spirit. Others worship only God, thinking that to worship the Savior is to worship two Gods. Jesus states that the authority He has was given to Him. It is the same authority as the Creator, not a different one. Jesus is one of the three persons of God, the three substantive ways in which God has revealed himself to his creation. Each of the three persons of God are fully the same, carrying the same authority, and consequently, fully God.  When we see the human Jesus we sometimes overlook the Creator and Messiah who He was and is prior to Jesus' birth.  To worship Jesus is to worship God.  To worship God is to worship Jesus.  There is only one God.

What was the commission given by the LORD to the disciples? The word used for "go" is in the Greek aorist verb tense, a tense we do not use in English.  The aorist tense refers to an on-going action.  We can understand the concept to be "as you are going."  Wherever we go, we are to make disciples.  This is not a one-time commission, but a continual Christian lifestyle.  As Jesus is speaking to disciples, commanding them to make more disciples, He is speaking to everyone who has placed their faith and trust in Him.  Consequently, it is more than instructive for every Christian to understand these final words spoken by Jesus during His earthly ministry.

The basis of this command is to make disciples. Disciples are learners, learners who accept the authority and teachings of a leader.  Christians are to be actively engaged in the ministry of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, raising up learners who also accept the authority and teachings of Jesus, and as learners, continue to grow in the knowledge of those teachings.  How does one raise up a learner?  We often use the word, "discipleship" to describe the process of learning in this context, and Jesus continues in his command as He gives a very clear methodology for discipleship.

Jesus commanded the disciples to baptize those learners.  However, what did Jesus specifically tell them to baptize them in?  The word "baptize" refers to the act of immersion, such as immersing someone or something in water.  However, note that Jesus did not tell the disciples to baptize in water:  they are commanded to baptize them, or immerse them, "in the name."  When scriptures specifically refer to a name, it is a reference to the authority and character represented by the one who is named.   Note that all three persons of the Godhead are identified here. We don't baptize one only in the name of Jesus. We don't baptize one only in the name of the Father. We don't baptize one only in the name of the Holy Spirit. To reject one of these is to reject the Godhead, to reject who God is and the very purpose for his revealing of Himself to us.  We are to immerse learners in they study of who God is and what He has done for us.  It is though this method that we continue to obey Jesus command to teach them.  When will we have learned everything that God has for us to learn? When will we know everything there is to know about God and His plan for us? We must never cease to be involved in learning more about God. We should be faithful in prayer, in attendance in Sunday School, in worship, in personal Bible study, and any other opportunities to learn more about God.

The practice of baptism by immersion in water is a powerful and appropriate personal testimony of one's faith and trust in Jesus Christ who was also baptized by immersion in water.  It is a testimony to His death and resurrection as one of faith who, like Jesus, is raised to new life.  Immersion in water is a fundamental ordinance in many of our Christian denominations. However, immersion in water can never be a substitute for immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for without discipleship there is no learning, and little spiritual growth.  The command to disciple is an integral part of this great commission that Jesus has given all of His disciples.  Christians are to be learners who by submission to Jesus as Lord are also submitted to His word, and we cannot be obedient to that which we do not know or understand.

Jesus also promises to be with us always, until the end of the age. When is the end of the age? Jesus promised that He would return to usher in the end of the age when both the church, both dead and alive would meet Him.  Until that time comes on earth, we can be confident that Jesus will always be here with us, exercising his work through the Holy Spirit.

This command, this commission is given to all Christians, who by their obedience to it are each ministers of the Gospel, called to obedience to Him. Christians are called to love one another, care for one another, be witnesses of His gospel, baptize and teach disciples, etc., all under the Lordship of Jesus.

Remember Cho Shung-chul who wandered in the sewers under Soule, facing a desperate death, separated from the world he knew. All who have not yet met Jesus are like Shung-chul, needing a Savior to lift them out of the sewer and into the light of a life with Him.

To the Christian, Easter is not a time of bunnies and candy, though Easter does celebrate a new beginning.  When we celebrate Easter we are celebrating Jesus' resurrection from the grave, the act of atonement that provides grace for every believer.  We cannot lift ourselves out of the sewer, but God has promised that sin will no longer condemn to separation those who place their faith and trust in Him.  If sin has lost its power to condemn the faithful, no manner of sin will condemn.  Sin will no longer serve to separate us from God, so though we do continue to commit sin, that sin is powerless to cause us to lose our salvation.  This gift of grace came, not when Jesus was nailed to the cross, but when Jesus completed the task of atonement and was risen from the grave to return to His place in Glory, again as Messiah, Savior, and LORD. 

With Easter we celebrate Jesus.  With Easter we celebrate life:  not a season of spring to be followed by another winter, but a gift of life that lasts eternally.

It is up to us to be sensitive to the needs of others so that we can be used of God to lift these souls from the mire and celebrate, with us, God's love through Jesus Christ, the risen Savior.

1 Fuller, Tammy.

2 The KJV utilizes the word "Easter" in Acts 12:4 as a rendering for the Greek word pasca, pascha, more literally translated Passover. William Tyndaleís translation, one of the sources for the KJV, rendered this word. There is considerable evidence that much of the KJV was drawn from Tyndale's monumental work. This says much about a man who probably deserves much more recognition that we often give to him.