The second appearance of Jesus is to the group of women who clasp his feet and worship him. The Temple guards are bribed to say that the disciples stole the body.
The second appearance of Jesus is to the group of women who clasp his feet and worship him. The Temple guards are bribed to say that the disciples stole the body.
Hello and welcome to Series 14 and Episode 2, in which 'Jesus appears to the women' near the tomb. This is the second in our series which covers the accounts of the resurrection.
Introduction and Recap
We'll discover as we go along that in the Gospels, in Acts, and 1 Corinthians with extra material, there are ten different resurrection appearances described. Most of them are, of course, in the Gospels and that's where we're going to be focusing our attention for the most part. We are now going to move the story forward, having heard the astonishing story about Mary Magdalen. The events that have taken place in the days immediately before the resurrection are remarkable, and incredibly intense. Events moved so quickly that the participants found it very very hard to come to terms with what was happening. On Thursday evening, Jesus was a free man with his twelve disciples, sharing the Last Supper. Immediately after that, through the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and immediately taken, in the middle of the night, to the High Priest's house. Caiaphas, the High Priest, gathered the Sanhedrin - the Jewish ruling council - and adjudicated that Jesus was a blasphemer and a false messiah who deserved to die. It was decided at that point that they would seek to obtain his execution at the hands of the Roman authorities, as soon as possible. No time was lost and at the very earliest opportunity, early on Friday morning, of that final week of Jesus' life, the Sanhedrin members, and a crowd associated with them, were at Pontius Pilate's palace and headquarters, asking him to execute Jesus. He hesitated but under intense pressure, he gave in and agreed that Jesus should be executed, and instructed his soldiers to carry out the execution, which took place just outside the walls of the city - a very short distance away.
A large crowd gathered. Two others were executed with Jesus and we described the death of Jesus, looking at it closely in two episodes, in Series 13. We ended Series 13, with the account of Jesus' burial in a tomb, cut out of the rock on the side of the hill, and with a stone placed in front of it. Jesus was placed in this tomb by two men - Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea - between 3 pm and 8 pm on Good Friday evening. Jesus died at 3 pm and it was the Jewish law that burials, and any other work, had to be carried out before sunset when the Sabbath day was officially beginning, in which no one could do any work, and no one could carry out any burials. The crucial thing about this burial was that it must have taken place fairly near the site of the crucifixion. A number of women were present at the crucifixion. They're going to feature strongly; they're the main characters in our story today. They watched at a distance as Jesus died. They supported Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was there and crucially they observed the location of the tomb. That enabled them to return to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Mark 15: 47 says,
‘Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joseph, saw where Jesus was laid.’Mark 15:47, NIV
In our first episode, we looked at the story, as told by John, in John 20: 1 - 18. John told us the story of Mary Magdalene, one of this group of women who was at the crucifixion site, who observed the location of the burial site, and who came early in the morning on Sunday - what we call Easter Sunday morning - just as dawn was breaking, and came to the tomb to find that the stone had been rolled away. The tomb was empty. John tells us the story of what happens to Mary, who rushes back into the city to tell Peter and John that the tomb is empty. They rush down to the tomb. Peter enters, John enters and they find the tomb empty and the grave clothes laid there. John ends his story, verses 11 - 18, which we discussed in the last episode, by describing an appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, while she was on her own. This is the first resurrection appearance.
The Group of Women
In John's account, Mary refers to ‘we’ - a group of women. They are not described in any detail, they are not named. She probably came down to the tomb on her own, and she left on her own to go and find Peter and John. But the other women were around at a similar time window. We're now going to follow the story of the other women in the group. If we look at the accounts of the different Gospels, we find slightly different descriptions of who this group of women were. Matthew describes Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, Matthew 28: 1. Mark describes Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, Mark 16: 1. Luke describes in Luke 24: 1 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others with them. John describes just Mary Magdalene, John 20: 1, and a group which Mary describes as ‘we’ in verse 2. Putting all this evidence together. We can suggest that a group of about six women came to the tomb. They probably didn't all come together. Probably Mary Magdalene came separately. We don't know in what groups the others came.
They had made a decision, no doubt, on Good Friday in the evening, when they saw the location of the tomb, that they would return at the earliest possible moment. For them, the earliest possible moment was dawn on Sunday, because the day in between was the Jewish Sabbath - Saturday to us. On the Sabbath, no one was allowed to attend to graves or tombs because work was forbidden on the Sabbath, according to the Law of Moses and the Ten Commandments, as revealed in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The Jews still followed those principles and were quite strict about what was allowed to be done; even walking out of your home could only be up to a certain distance before it became a form of work; you could only go a Sabbath day's walk - a very short distance. On the Sabbath day, they couldn't do anything. They had to stay in the places where they were living, during the Passover. They weren't, of course, in their own homes because they were all visiting the city of Jerusalem. So they waited, and no doubt they discussed discreetly, what they were going to do and they made a decision they were going to come as early as they could to the tomb.
These women were disciples from Galilee. They had been travelling with the male disciples all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. If you've followed the story of the earlier episodes, you'll know that Jesus spent quite a long time on the last journey between Galilee and Jerusalem. He travelled all the way round Samaria, Judea and other districts in the centre and the southern part of the country. He was seeking to get the word about the Kingdom of God out into all those areas. That took time, and the disciples went with him, and these women were with him, at least some of the time. We don't know all the details. We do know from Luke 8 in the first few verses, that a group of women travelled around in Galilee with Jesus, of whom Mary Magdalene was one. She shows incredible devotion to Jesus, to travel so much to support him.
This group of female disciples from Galilee become critical players in the story of the resurrection. They suddenly come into the centre of the story. They had been in the background, hardly visible in the story - supporting and helping Jesus and the other disciples. They were witnesses of the crucifixion. Not all the male disciples were witnesses of the crucifixion. We only know of John's presence at the site of the crucifixion. The other male disciples were scattered, were traumatised, distraught and confused. The women were observers of the site of the burial in the tomb and they came on that Easter morning to the tomb.
Easter Sunday Morning
We're going to take up Matthew's account. John's account featured Mary Magdalene but Matthew describes a group of women together, and how Jesus appeared to the whole group. This is a separate appearance from the appearance to Mary. Let's read the story: Matthew 28: 1 - 10.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. 2There 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. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. 5The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then 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.” 8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”Matthew 28:1-10, NIV
There were more than the women described in Matthew in this group because the other Gospel writers indicate the presence of other women in the group. If we gather the evidence together, that gives us a full picture. They arrive at the tomb but there has been a violent earthquake, which we mentioned before. ‘An angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat upon it’, according to verse 2. If we look at the accounts in Luke and Mark, we find that they indicate that this earthquake, and this rolling away of the stone, had taken place before the women arrived. This angel had an appearance like lightning and clothes white as snow. We'll comment on that a little later on.
This was a terrifying experience for the guards who were there, and we're going to talk about the guards a little later as well. These are Temple guards which the Sanhedrin had sent on the Sabbath, to guard the tomb, to make sure that it was secured against all possible grave robbery, or anything else.
Jesus Appears to the Group of Women
The women go to find the disciples in various homes, and if we take John's account into consideration, we realise that Mary Magdalene has gone separately from some of the other women. If we take Luke and Mark into consideration, we know there are more women than Matthew mentions. As we gather the accounts together, we get a fuller picture of what is actually happening. There's a group of women here heading away from the tomb, just as Mary Magdalene had done, probably just a few minutes earlier, on her own. They are going to find the disciples. They have to go to various homes in the city to find them because they were probably housed in different places across the city. As they go, suddenly Jesus appears to them, as they're heading away from the tomb - as they are going into the city - perhaps just before they enter the city gates, Jesus appears to them and says, ‘Greetings!’ - an incredible moment. The second resurrection appearance, according to the combined testimony of the Gospels. Mary's had her own individual appearance from Jesus, and now the other women are seeing him.
They came to him, clasped his feet and they worshipped him. The sheer physicality of the resurrection is emphasised here - something we mentioned last time, and we'll keep mentioning. This is not a hallucination; this is not a mystical experience; this is not a psychological experience; this is not a dream that they were having while they were sleeping. This was a literal physical appearance and, of course, the first thing that occurs to them is to try and be sure that this is a physical Jesus. They touched him, holding his hands or his feet. The physical nature of Jesus was immediately apparent to them. This was Jesus risen from the dead. This wasn't a ghost, this wasn't a spirit; this was the physical Jesus. This was the body of Jesus. Jesus says ‘Don't be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee there they will see me.’ He wants them to prepare to leave the city, although he is going to appear to them before they have the opportunity of leaving. There's going to be a further series of appearances, in Galilee, in days to come, which we'll study in subsequent episodes. There are two sides to this story. We are looking at it from the point of view of the women. They've experienced the resurrection of Jesus; they've spoken to him; they've seen him; they've touched him. That's the main storyline here.
The Temple Guards
There's a second storyline. What about the guards? They've been mentioned in passing, in verse 4:
‘the guards were so afraid of him, they shook and became like dead men when they saw the angel sitting on the stone, and the angel's clothes white as snow and his appearance like lightning’.Matthew 28:2-4, NIV
The brightness of the glory of the angel was an overwhelming experience for these guards - these Temple guards who come from the Sanhedrin, and were carrying out their duty. What were they going to do? Where do you go? You're supposed to guard a tomb which is now empty. There's nobody in the tomb; you can walk in and out of the tomb; you can see for yourself the stone's been rolled away by someone else. The stone that you're supposed to protect; the stone which had been sealed. They're completely confused, humiliated. Do they stay there? Do they go back to the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leaders? Do they go and talk to the Romans? Do they run away? Do they go to their homes? Are they going to be blamed for this occasion? No doubt they had some very intense discussions about what to do about the situation that they found themselves in, because they were going to be in the spotlight. Jesus was such a central character in Jerusalem at the time and if something had happened to his tomb, and no one could find the body, then the finger would be pointed very firmly at these guards. Had they fallen asleep and someone just came and stole the body while they were falling asleep, or drinking alcohol, or disappearing from duty? All these questions would be flooding through their minds. It appears that they decided that the best thing was to go back to their overseers, to those who employed them, and tell them what they'd found. So we have the story, in Matthew 28: 11 - 15.
11While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15So 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 28:11-15, NIV
This was a moment of some despair for the Jewish rulers. Just as the women were going to tell the disciples in Jerusalem that they'd seen Jesus, that he had risen from the dead, the guards were going to tell the religious leaders that the tomb was empty and there'd been a strange appearance of an angel there. The chief priests and the elders thought about this carefully and decided they needed to take strong action. They bribed the guards with a large sum of money and the guards had to tell the story that they fell asleep during the night and the disciples came, stole the body and that they had got the body hidden somewhere. The story of resurrection, that may be going around the city, would be countered with a story that the disciples had taken the body and hidden it away and it's just a pretence.
The problem with this story is, it seems incredible to think that guards, given such a huge responsibility, would just fall asleep. It also seems incredible to think that the disciples would come and steal the body. They were so demoralised, utterly broken by the traumatic experiences of Thursday evening and Friday morning, and knowing that Jesus had died. They hadn't even been at the site of the crucifixion, apart from John as far as we know. Would they have gathered themselves with such courage, on the Sabbath during the night, to steal the body, or the following night, the Saturday night? It seems so incredible. How would they have moved the stone, if it had been sealed. It would have been a very difficult thing for them to do. How would they have moved the stone, without waking the guards if the guards are in the vicinity? The whole story is so unlikely, in practical terms, and in psychological terms, that it seems to us somewhat absurd. But it was the story that they put out, having been bribed. This story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Let's reflect on a few things that we can learn from this amazing story. This is the second resurrection appearance of Jesus. The first to Mary Magdalene on her own; the second to the rest of the group of women, who initially came with Mary, or a similar time to Mary, to the tomb. Mary got separated from them but they had a remarkable experience of Jesus Christ.
Thinking of the women, our concluding reflection that I would make, is to say that the utter devotion and courage that they showed, to turn up at the tomb at dawn on Easter Sunday, is remarkable. They were still suspects for being associated with Jesus. They expected a guard there. They didn't expect to get into the tomb. They weren't strong enough to move the stone away. They had experienced terrible trauma, watching Jesus die and yet, still they came - tremendous devotion and tremendous courage.
My second reflection would be this: here, again, we see the utter physicality of the resurrection. They clasped his feet and worshipped him. They touched his feet, in order to affirm and be sure, this is a real physical person. The resurrection was a truly physical event.
Another reflection would be concerning the appearance of angels. Luke 24: 4 says this,
‘While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them’Luke 24:4, NIV
This is a very similar description to the one we read in Matthew 28. The Gospel writers describe angels without much explanation. All Jews, at that time, had been taught about the existence of angels and most Jews apart from the Sadducee group, believed in angels; believed that God had another type of creative being who worshipped him and served him in the heavenly realms, and that these beings were God's agents, amongst other things, who could be sent into the world to fulfil God's purposes. Jews believed that and they saw examples of that in the Old Testament Scriptures which they were familiar with. Angels are real beings and these Jewish writers who write the Gospels had experience of angels, and they had heard stories about angels. There were many stories about angels associated with the birth of Jesus, and the women told vivid stories of experiencing angels at the tomb. They appear like human beings, in some way, and yet supernaturally powerful and filled with glory, or brightness. This is why the Gospel writers describe this incredible brightness about them. They had some of the glory that heavenly beings have, and which Jesus demonstrated, for example, in the transfiguration, when his whole being was filled with divine glory. Some of that glory was there, some of that bright whiteness was there, with the angels. They're not to be worshipped. They are created beings. They serve the living God and crucially they also serve the Church, and believers, and the redeemed. This is stated explicitly in Hebrews 1: 14,
‘Are not all angels ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit salvation’.Hebrews 1:14, NIV
‘sent to serve those who will inherit salvation’ They're doing the will of God, for the benefit of those who are saved. That is exactly what happens here. Angels are dispatched from heaven, to roll the stone away and to appear to the women, to speak to them, to indicate to them what is happening, and prepare them for the resurrection appearance that is about to take place.
As we go through the resurrection accounts, we quickly become aware of the weakness of alternative explanations that have been offered for the resurrection of Jesus. Let me just make two comments about this that are relevant to what we studied today. The concept of the stolen body of Jesus is clearly what the Jewish authorities passed around the community, as an explanation for the empty tomb. We've already explained a number of reasons why this is improbable, but there's an even greater reason which is that how come six weeks later, when the church starts, the disciples so confidently proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, and convince so many people, if they know it's not true, and they know where the body is, and they know that Jesus never rose again from the dead, and they know that the cost to them could be their lives for proclaiming this fact. The stolen body theory of the resurrection of Jesus, to explain resurrection by an alternative explanation, is weak. It is also very weak to suggest this is a hallucination, or mystical experience. The physicality of the event is firmly emphasised in the gospel accounts as, for example, when the women clasp the feet of Jesus and worshipped him, when he appeared to them near the tomb. We're going to continue our story and see what else happens on Easter Sunday, in terms of resurrection appearances in our next episode.