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THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST; THE APPEARANCE OF CHRIST ALIVE; THE SANHEDRIN'S FALSEHOOD; THE FINAL INTERVIEW; AND THE GREAT COMMISSION
Matthew in this place obviously used the Roman method of counting days, making the first day of the week begin at dawn, contrary to the Jewish usage which made it begin the night before at sunset.
The Emphatic Diaglott makes clear that the earthquake in this place was different from that while Christ was upon the cross and which tore the rocks apart. The earth is not mentioned, but it says, "There was a great shaking." The other passage notes that the earth "trembled." Just what the difference was is not known. F1
Poetic reference to this place was made by Whittier:
Ah well, for us all some sweet hope lies Deeply buried from human eyes; And in the hereafter some angel may Roll the stone from its grave away. F2
This passage plainly reveals the power that broke the governmental seal on the tomb of Jesus. The flimsy falsehood of the Pharisees to the effect that the disciples did it while the soldiers were asleep is preposterous. G. Frederick Owen noted that:
Soft, moist clay was placed about the stone and the entrance to the tomb; the official seal was pressed into this clay, thus sealing it officially. It would be a great crime to break this seal fixed by government authority, and would bring severe punishment. F3
Nor should it be supposed that the angel rolled away the stone to let the Lord out, but rather to let the witnesses in! The proof of the statement that an angel rolled the stone away is in itself. If an angel did not do it, who did? After the custom of such things, the stone was larger than could have been removed by less than several men. If any group of men had done it, one may be certain that the Pharisees would have found it out, preferred charges, and pressed them to the limit. That even a whole group of women could not have removed the stone is seen in Mark's account that "They were saying among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb?" (Mark 16:3). Apparently they had no knowledge of the seal and the guard.
This description of the heavenly visitor corresponds with other such descriptions in the Scriptures. The glory, holiness, and celestial nature of the angel were apparent in his garments. Jesus' glorification on the mount of transfiguration also exhibited the same luminosity and splendor.
Only a single angel was required to render impotent a whole band of armed men; in view of this, it was an almost incomprehensible power that was available to Jesus who might have called for twelve legions of angels to rescue him from the cross (Matthew 26:53). How easily were the designs of the Pharisees countermanded by the Eternal. A solitary messenger from heaven appeared, and his simple presence struck the whole band into the semblance of death.
Criticism of the gospel narratives in their various accounts of the angels is well known, being founded on the fact that Matthew mentions "one angel seated," Luke mentions "two standing" (Luke 24:4), and John tells of "two seated" (John 20:12). All such fault-finding ignores the truth that none of the gospel writers gave all the incidents attending the wonder of our Lord's resurrection. On the other hand, the divine accounts are supplementary, each to the others, and focused upon different people, at different times, and totally void of that glib, verbatim parroting which unspiritual men seem to expect, and which, if it existed, would be the occasion for far more serious objections than may be fairly lodged against such wholesome and natural variations as necessarily occur in the writings of independent witnesses. Haley properly noted that:
Ebrard, with other critics, has made it clear that these passages relate to different persons and times ... One angel appeared at one time, two at another time. The position assumed, also, may have varied at different times. F4
Could not an angel have sat down?
It is a grave fault to overlook the tremendous significance of the wonderful events here by concentrating on so-called difficulties. The big news and revelation of this verse is to the effect that the crucifixion of Jesus was of the utmost concern and widest possible observance even in heaven, that the angels of God were intent and diligent in their following of the sublime events of Calvary, and that they knew even the hearts of those who were participants in that awesome battle for the redemption of man. The admonition of the angels for the women not to "fear" shows that, in all ages, those who truly seek him have nothing to fear.
"He is not here" is a message worthy of angelic transmission and is the most important fact, outside the resurrection of Christ, and is itself an essential portion of it. The empty grave is the one incontestable proof which has confounded every futile effort to cast doubt on the resurrection, and is an impregnable rock of truth upon which every attack of skepticism has invariably been shattered. What became of the body of Christ if he did not indeed rise from the dead? Let any candid mind examine the question honestly, and it will be seen that there is no satisfactory alternative. The theft of any dead body would require motivation, but there was no possibility of any such motivation relative to the body of Christ. IF the disciples stole, would that last one of them have then proceeded to go up and down the earth preaching his resurrection, denying every worldly consideration in order to do so, and suffering at last martyrdom and death to seal a lie with their blood? Indeed, THAT would have been a greater miracle than the resurrection. Did his enemies steal it? If so, they would have produced it to confound his disciples and put an end to the doctrine they hated.
"He is risen!" The risen Christ belongs to the realm of history.
The Christian church exists and has existed and grown since the year of the crucifixion. So enormous a fact cannot be explained without an adequate cause, and it is impossible to find an adequate cause if the resurrection of Christ from the tomb is rejected as fiction. F5
To all insinuations against the historical Christ, it is replied that we know more about the last week of Christ's residence upon this earth than is known of the last week of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy all put together! Christ belongs to history, and is indeed the center of history, and so does his resurrection. We know his ancestry, where he was born, where he lived, the craft he learned, the names of his parents, brothers, and kinspeople, the names and motivation of his enemies, the names and successes and failures of his disciples, their weaknesses, sins, and even their fears. Monumental evidence of the historical Christ is more impressive than that of Rameses II, or Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. The Lord's Day, the Lord's ordinance of baptism, and the Lord's Supper are great and universally observed historical monuments to the historicity of Christ, more convincing than any that ever existed to honor the memory of any other. Those great memorials, to say nothing of the New Testament itself, flow down through history in an ever-widening stream of influence; and it is simply unbelievable that they were set in motion by a lie! As for the suggestion that Christ is a myth, such a presumption dies in the light of the genealogy of Jesus which is given both in Matthew and in Luke, one of them through his mother Mary (Luke) and the other through his legal father, taking his ancestry back to the very gates of paradise. Now, will someone give the genealogy of Santa Claus? or of Beowolf, or of Paul Bunyan? Advocates of the "myth" hypothesis have far more to deal with in Christ than will ever fit into any such monstrous and evil supposition as making the record of Jesus of Nazareth to be a mere myth. There is far too much to fit into such a small thimble.
Moreover, the testimony of the calendar is irrefutable. The dates inscribed on buildings, the dates of newspapers, legal documents, letters and the agendas of parliaments, congresses, and legislatures, as well as the chronology of kings and presidents throughout the world and throughout history, are all intelligible only when related to the Christ and the number of years since he appeared among men. Here is a mountain fact so high that all the infidels on earth, standing on top of each other, cannot see over it. Whatever the date, it is "The Year of Our Lord," (Anno Domini.) Oh yes, there are other methods of reckoning time. There were the Olympiads, and the Chinese Calendar, and the Jewish Calendar; but, for example, in that stronghold of international Jewry which is New York City, the synagogues along Fifth Avenue make the Jewish dates inscribed thereon intelligible to modern man only by writing the equivalent (Anno Domini) underneath; and so it is for the Chinese Calendar, and the Olympiads, and every other method.
He is risen!
Yet we know that Christ died. We know the name of the man who signed his death warrant. We know how he died, and what were his last words, and how they mocked him, and how his side was pierced, and how Joseph of Arimathaea took the body and where he laid it, and how it was wrapped, and in what spices, and that the grave was sealed and a watch posted. And we know that an angel of God announced his resurrection, that at first his disciples did not believe it, and that later, after they had seen him, they truly believed, and that they sealed their testimony with their blood. We know that he was seen after his resurrection, that he appeared no less than ten times to a wide variety of persons in different places, and that it was the overwhelming certainty that Christ was alive again that motivated the early church and impelled it in a world-girdling revolution of religious zeal and fervor. Never was a more important word spoken to men than that of the glorious angel who said, "He is not here; he is risen, even as he said"!
Even as he said!
Christ made at least three grand prophecies of his death and resurrection (16:21; 17:22,23; 20:17-19), besides many other detailed references to it. See notes on those passages. The true gospel is not merely that Christ arose, but that he did so "even as he said, and according to the Scriptures" (see 1 Corinthians 15:3,4).
Come see the place where the Lord lay.
That admonition indicated something profoundly important and observable was to be seen in the tomb, and such is a necessary inference from an angel of God in calling attention to it. See more on the undisturbed grave-clothes under the title of "Phenomena Attending the Crucifixion," as outlined in the preceding chapter. Those undisturbed grave-clothes were themselves incontrovertible evidence that Christ had risen through them and through the tomb to life again.
The angel in this passage summoned the disciples to a prearranged meeting place with Christ in Galilee, upon a mountain (Matthew 26:32). Robertson identified the appearance there with the one mentioned by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:6) in which Christ was seen by more than five hundred brethren at one time. F6
THE TEN EPIPHANIES (APPEARANCES)
The first five of those appearances occurred on the day of his resurrection, and the other five later, during the interval before his ascension. Of overriding importance is the appearance to "above five hundred brethren at one time," mentioned by Paul who stated that many who had seen the Christ on that occasion were still living when he wrote 1 Corinthians. It has been observed that such a statement was a monstrous error on Paul's part unless it had been widely known as true. His mention of it, therefore, makes it certain that his words were provable. Certainly they were never challenged by the only generation that could have done so, namely, Paul's.
Christ never once rejected worship offered to himself. As God incarnate, he was fully entitled to it; and the worship of him is truly fit and proper at all times, as here and throughout the New Testament.
The triple mention of that appointment in Galilee, twice by Jesus and once by the angel, underlines its importance. Far removed from the turbulent hatreds of Jerusalem, Christ would give his Great Commission and establish his disciples in their world-wide task of soul-winning, amid the peaceful scenes of that sacred rendezvous upon a mount in Galilee.
THE BIG LIE
Then was the opportunity for the chief priests to have made good their boast that they would believe Christ if he came down from the cross. It was an even more wonderful thing to come up from the grave, but still they did not believe him. No one is so blind as one who will not see. The sequence of events mentioned in this verse is exactly such as should have been mentioned. Not all the guard, but some of them, left their post to report to the chief priests in view of the changed situation.
Having attempted to convict Christ with suborned testimony, the same men, in perfect character with their evil nature, then made use of bribery to deny the resurrection after the event. The fact that money was paid labels their report as false; no bounty would have been required to tell the truth. One can only marvel at the callous disregard of the soldiery which, for money, agreed to circulate a lie, denying the resurrection of Christ.
The falsehood was its own refutation. Certainly no man can be trusted when relating what took place while he was "asleep"! There is always a cleft in the foot of a falsehood; it can never walk uprightly but must limp, hobble, and drag itself, leaving the tell-tale evidence visible to all. Further consideration against the plausibility of such a lie is the fact that if any such thing had occurred, the men who went to sleep would have been liable to the death penalty for having permitted it. In fact, Herod Agrippa I put to death sixteen soldiers at one time for their failure to keep Peter on that occasion when an angel delivered him (Acts 12:19).
There was a small chance, of course, that Pilate would intrude into the thing, especially since it was a Jewish matter; and the governor had had more than enough of such things already.
Thus it came out why Satan wanted a watch in the first place. By that means, the evil one provided suborned testimony to deny the resurrection after the fact. The resurrection seems to have been fully anticipated by Satan. Why, in all ages before or since, has there never been another case of guarding a grave to prevent a report of resurrection from the dead? There is a uniqueness about this solitary case of grave-guarding that truly identifies it as a part of that supernatural struggle between light and darkness on Calvary.
Second only to the betrayal by Judas was this conduct of the soldiers of infamy. For money, they circulated a lie concerning the most important truth the human race would ever know, even if the race of man should continue a million years. That the lie was not even contrived by them but by the priests, and that it was scandalously implausible even on its face, and actually unbelievable, made no difference.
So they took the money!
What an indictment! How perfidious was their shameful compliance with the mandate of the priests! There would, of course, be men in all ages who would consent to believe it. There at the grave of Jesus, the BIG lie was born; and it is the ancestor of every big lie since then. Holy men, fired with heavenly zeal, would girdle the earth with the "good news" of the gospel! They would endure hardships unspeakable and finally seal every word with the blood of martyrdom; but alongside the apostles, there always slithered that child of the serpent, the lie that the disciples stole the body. For men who WILL disbelieve, Satan provides more than enough opportunity.
Matthew in this place recorded the official appearance of Christ to his disciples after the resurrection. There were other appearances, as already noted; but the others were more personal or incidental. This meeting, scheduled in advance, at a prearranged place, mentioned twice by Jesus and once by an angel - this meeting was the great appearance. It was attended by over five hundred disciples, as related by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:6), and even infidels have been impressed by Paul's affirmation of that stupendous fact. He mentioned it as an undeniable truth and appealed to the hundreds then living who were witnesses of it, conceding at the same time that some had "fallen asleep." If Paul could so boldly affirm Christ's appearance to so many, it had to be true. The enemies of the Lord and of his holy religion would have welcomed nothing so much as a statement that they could challenge and prove to be false. They certainly would have challenged Paul's statement if they could have done so, but they could not; and it is a mountain fact that all of the denials of Christ's resurrection came long, long after the death of that entire generation that witnessed it. It is not certainly known where that mountain in Galilee was located, nor, for that matter, why Christ should have selected any location in Galilee.
Christ made an appointment to meet his disciples in Galilee, and that appointment HE KEPT. He kept it in spite of: (1) his sleeping disciples, (2) his betrayal, (3) their forsaking him, (4) his death, (5)his burial, (6) Peter's denial, (7) the big lie, and (8) the unbelief of many. The only persons who did not meet Christ on that mount in Galilee are those who did not go there to keep their appointment. In like manner, now Christ keeps his appointments with his disciples, in spite of similar lapses on their part; and what are those appointments? They are: (1) to meet him in baptism, (2) at the Lord's table, (3) in the trials of life, (4) in death, and (5) in the judgment to come. Only those who will not obey him shall miss the joy of meeting the Lord in those appointments; but in the case of the judgment, all shall keep that appointment, whether they desire to do so or not.
It is a strong witness to the candor and accuracy of Matthew's account that the doubters should have been mentioned at that particular confrontation with Jesus. Only one passionately concerned with giving all the facts would have done so. The reason for their doubt was not recorded, but one probable explanation of it is in the next verse.
This indicates that Christ was first visible from a distance, and then "came to them," leaving the probability that some recognized him at once while some doubted, and that as soon as he came to them, all believed. All present on that mountain were there for the specific purpose of meeting Christ, as he had appointed them; and it is a safe conjecture that as soon as he came near, all believed.
THE GREAT COMMISSION
The surpassing magnificence of this grand conclusion to Matthew's gospel is unrivaled by anything even from the sacred pages of inspiration. This Great Commission, as the saints of all ages have consented to call it, constitutes the marching orders of his church for a day and to all eternity. It is a whole galaxy studded with many of the biggest stars in the firmament of Christian doctrine. It may well be doubted if many passages of similar length are more freighted with divine truth than are these words of the Commission. They are exactly what one should have expected, only far more, from the lips of a supernatural, divine Saviour, on point of departure to the eternal world of the spirit, and uttering one last comprehensive command to his disciples for all generations to come.
One may observe the stormy band of Orion reflected in a drop of water at night, because both were created by Almighty God and there is a unity in all his creation. That strange interrelation of all created things was marked by the poet Tennyson who said,
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower, - but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is. F7
It need not, then, be thought a strange thing that this Great Commission should contain embryonically so many of the distinctive doctrines of the faith that is in Christ, Among them, and there is no pretense of exhaustiveness, are noted the following:
All authority in heaven ...
This teaches the divinity of Christ. If these words were spoken by a mere man, they are nonsense; and therefore in this statement Christ lays claim to status as a member of the Godhead. Ten times in the Greek New Testament, Christ is actually called God. This says nothing of the countless passages in which he laid claim to attributes of deity, as for example when he said, "Before Abraham was, I am!" Christ is God come in the flesh. That is the central meaning and message of Christianity. Anything less than this regarding Christ is blasphemous.
And upon earth.
Christ is head of the church upon earth as well as in heaven. There is no true head on earth, otherwise the church is a two-headed monster. This indicates the reign of Christ is now going on. These are the times of the regeneration when he is reigning with the Twelve in his kingdom, the Israel of God. Christ was not defeated on Calvary but was there victorious over death, hell, and the devil. He will continue to reign until all his enemies have been put under foot, notwithstanding, the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:24,25).
Go ye therefore and make disciples ...
Disciples can be made only by teaching; therefore the KJV did no violence to the meaning with the translation, "Go teach all nations." Mark's account makes it crystal clear that that is what was said. Thus, teaching, as a prerequisite of discipleship, is evident as one of the basic principles of the faith. Infants cannot be taught, and therefore, in the true view, they cannot become disciples until they are old enough to be taught. The Great Commission is clearly opposed to infant church membership.
Of all nations ...
Here is the world-wide missionary program of the church. Here is the world-wide brotherhood of all nations and races in Christ. God made of "one" all the families of the earth (Acts 17:26), and that universal kinship and brotherhood appear in the Great Commission. No limitation or abridgment is permitted. All the nations ... not merely all "the English-speaking nations" or "all the white nations," but all the nations!
Baptizing them ...
If nothing else appeared in all the Bible relative to the ordinance of baptism, Christ's mention of it in this circumstance would have been more than sufficient to bind it upon all people for all time to come. That Jesus Christ, the Head of our holy faith, in this grand finale of his earthly teaching, should be charged with having introduced secondary, subordinate, non-essential, and unnecessary commands is a reflection upon his divinity. Added to that is the sacred triple name of "Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" in which baptism was commanded to be administered. Where else in all the Scriptures is there another commandment that enjoys the distinction conferred by those solemn words? The commandment of baptism, subjoined by the sacred name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is in this Great Commission elevated to a priority that men have been very reluctant to allow; and yet the inclusion of baptism in this Commission dispels any view that it can be considered optional or permissive; it is commanded, not for one or for a few, but for all, "every creature" (Mark 16:15).
Into the name ...
Three names are given, yet they are one name. God's unity and oneness are taught by this. There are three persons in the Godhead, and each has a name; but their name is one!
Of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Here is the doctrine of the Trinity. Although not stated in the Scriptures under that terminology, the doctrine of the Trinity is nevertheless a true one, and appears throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The pronouns for God in Genesis are plural, as in "Let us make man in our image" (Genesis 1:26). Even the passages affirming that God is "one" employ a word which means a compound rather than an abstract unity. That Hebrew word is ['echad] and is also used in such passages as that which says a man and his wife shall be "one" flesh (Genesis 2:24), and in "the people is one" (Genesis 11:6). Thus, the "oneness" of God is like the "oneness" of a man and his wife, or of the people. In the New Testament, the doctrine of the Trinity appears in this passage, and at Christ's baptism (Matthew 3:16). Also, the benediction of 2 Cor. 13:14 likewise establishes the Trinity.
Teaching them to observe all things ...
The perpetual mission of the church as a teacher is implicit in these words. Here is the necessity for indoctrination and grounding all the disciples in the Saviour's teaching. Here is the divine authority for the Bible School, the cottage meeting, the mid-week service, the evangelistic campaign, and whatever else may be useful in carrying out the divine injunction to teach the taught and to teach the baptized to do all that Christ commanded.
Whatsoever I have commanded you ...
This establishes the identity of the true doctrine; it is what Christ commanded, nothing else. The most important fact of Christianity is that it is "of Christ." The true faith was "first spoken" by him (Hebrews 2:3), and not by any other: Whatsoever was not first spoken by the Lord and confirmed by those who heard him can have no valid claim as a part of Christianity. Not even the Holy Spirit came to reveal new truth to the apostles but to "bring all things to their remembrance" (14:26; 16:13). In practical fact, this limits true Christianity to what is taught in the New Testament, for that is the only book that contains the authenticated teachings of the Master. With the death of the last of the apostles who heard and confirmed to others what Jesus taught, the revelation of God's true will for mankind was concluded. Many passages in the New Testament make that crystal clear. People are commanded not to go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6); the apostles gave all "things that pertain" to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3); the true faith was "once for all" delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3), etc. In the light of this, how much of present-day Christianity is valueless? Auricular confession, baptizing of babies, countless innovations in the worship, the doctrine of purgatory, penances, redemption of penances, and literally scores of doctrines, devices, and presumptions of men, are all identified as forming a part of Christianity, but it is not so. Christ knew none of those things. They were not first spoken by him; on the other hand, we know the place, and the time, and the name of the man or men who initiated those things and brought them into God's worship. Therefore, all such things must be rejected by those who would walk after the oracles of God.
And lo, I am with you always ...
This teaches the providence of God. God has not wound up his universe, or his church, and left them to run of their own accord. He "upholdeth all things by the word of his power" (Hebrews 1:3). Christ promised to be with his disciples always. A solicitous and loving providence always watches over the fortunes of God's church.
Even unto the end of the world.
This teaches immortality. It would have been a vast comfort if Christ had promised to be with his disciples until they die; but this promise far exceeds that. He is still with Peter, James, and John, and all who ever truly served him in all generations. He is the God of the living and not of the dead; he brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10).
The end of the world.
This is the doctrine of the final liquidation of the entire material creation, specifically of the earth and all that is in it. The apostle Peter elaborated on this (2 Peter 3:1-13). This earth is destined to burn, whether by nuclear fires kindled by man himself, or by some catastrophic judgment of God, is not known. Even as recently as a generation ago, men scoffed at the idea that the earth could burn; but in the light of what is now known, it is safe to say that scientific knowledge has finally caught up with revelation. The sun itself is a "nova" and is a type of star that is capable of exploding to a million times its present size and intensity (see National Geographic magazine, November, 1965, article on the sun by Herbert Friedman). When and if such a thing happens, our poor earth will be millions of miles deep in the flaming periphery of the sun itself. In the light of Christ's word in this place, and in view of Peter's words on the same subject, the end of this world is certain. "No man knoweth the day nor the hour" (Matthew 24:36). The conclusion that thoughtful men should derive from these considerations is well stated by Peter who said, "Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace" (2 Peter 3:14).
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.