Matthew’s Perspective on Our Risen Lord (Matt 28:1-20)
Today I want to direct your attention to remember the Lord Jesus Christ as our risen Lord by looking again at the resurrection appearances with primary attention on Matthew’s perspective.
1A.Matthew’s account reveals our risen Lord as Sabbath king
When we say that the resurrection appearances reveal Him as Sabbath king, we mean that they direct our thoughts to a distinct day, the day on which He began to rule in keeping with His office as Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8).
1B. A rough and ready list
There are various ways of numbering the resurrection appearances if we try to set them down in a list. But if we use the criterion of narration, and if we combine the appearances to the women, and if we restrict our time frame to the period between His death and ascension, then we can speak of just seven appearances. As I begin to enumerate the seven appearances pause for a moment and try to recall what they are. When we get back to Matthew, we will find that he only records two appearances. We can begin each account with the phrase, "Jesus presented Himself alive from the dead to": 1) Mary Magdalene and some other women (Jn. 20:11-18; Matt. 28:1-10), 2) to two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35), 3) to the apostles without Thomas (Jn. 20:19-23), 4) to the apostles with Thomas (Jn. 20:24-29), 5) to the apostles at the Sea of Tiberias (Jn. 21:1-23), 6) to the apostles/disciples in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20), and to the apostles in and about Jerusalem at the time of His ascension (Acts 1:1-11). We have to speak of this as a rough and ready list because the time of occurrence of some of the events is undefined. The fact of specificity in contrast to the lack of it is an important part of the record and an important element in understanding the Gospels.
2B.Some rough and ready observations
1) Matthew is selective
Another obvious point that emerges from these narratives is the significant fact that the Matthew did not try to give us the kind of historical record that we might expect. The important lesson here is that all the Gospel writers are selective; there were many appearances of our Lord over a period of forty days and we have only seven accounts and they are relatively brief. Being selective means that the writers had goals that were reached by including some things and omitting other things. They had theological goals that guided what they reported. Gospel history is theological history. Gospel narrative can be called theological narrative. This does not mean that the Gospels are theology and not history. Nor does it mean that historical fact and truth are compromised. It simply means that things are recorded the way they are recorded to drive the gospel message home to the reader with particular emphases. The writers "include this and omit that" leaving a definite element of ambiguity regarding details. To get their message we must not try to remove all ambiguity but work with it to see the impressions as on a sculpture that ambiguity helps to create. The shaded areas created by depressions help give shape to the sculpture; what is missing sets what is there out in relief.
2) Particular attention is given to the apostles.
Even the appearances to Mary and the two travelers draw a direct line like an arrow to the apostles/brothers (cf. Acts 1:3; Jn 20:17; Matt. 28:10). Notice how this is the case in Matthew 28. Two women are named: they "went to see the tomb" (v.1). They do not see the Lord and we have no statement that says they looked into the tomb and saw it empty. Assuredly they did look into the empty tomb as they were told to do by the angels (v. 5). But the next thing that is recorded concerning what they did is that they departed quickly and ran with fear and joy to tell the disciples (v. 8). Undoubtedly, they obeyed the word of the angels to look into the tomb but attention is given to the directive to "go quickly and tell his disciples" two things: "that he has risen from the dead" and "behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him" (v. 7).
Remarkably, when the women ran off to find the apostles Jesus met them and only two things He said are recorded: "Greetings" (v. 9) and a similar directive to go and tell: "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me" (v. 10). The fact that the tomb was empty is stated by the angels (v. 6, "he is not here, for he has risen"). And they surely peered into the tomb. But their actual looking is not recorded and whatever they may have said or thought are not recorded. When they meet Jesus, not one word they spoke is recorded: all we have is "they took hold of his feet and worshiped him" (v. 9). Thus Jesus greeted the women, comforted them ("do not be afraid"), and most of all He directed them to tell His brothers, the apostles to go to Galilee to see Him there (v. 10).
It is set up this way by the Lord Jesus since we are told that "Jesus met them, and said" (v. 9). They did not run into Him. They were not seeking Him but set out quickly to do what the angels told them to do, to find the apostles and tell them about the resurrection of Jesus. But Jesus was seeking them; He purposed this encounter by seeking them out and interrupting them as they hurried their way to the apostles. We are thus directed in thought to the meeting of Christ and the apostles that took place in Galilee (v. 16). In between, Matthew takes a moment to recount how the false story got started that the body of Jesus was stolen (vs. 11-15, v. 11: "while they were going" bridges to the final section).
3) Matthew presents Christ as Sabbath king
All that happens is forcefully presented as a continuation of the first Sunday (Matt. 28:1, "after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week," vs. 2, 6-7, "and…go tell his disciples he has risen from the dead, and…he is going before to Galilee," v. 8, "so they departed quickly," vs. 9-10 "Jesus met them…then Jesus said to them…tell my brothers to go to Galilee," v. 11, "while they were going," vs. 16-20, "Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee…and when they saw him they worshiped him…and Jesus came and said…go…make disciples of all nations…teaching them…and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age").
The book closes with these words, "to the end of the age." The ascension is not recounted. It is as if the story ends on the first day of the week, on resurrection day, and all the remaining days of history to the very end depend on what happened on that day. The day after the Jewish Sabbath, the first day of the week or Sunday, is the day that set the rest of history on earth in motion. It was a special, unique, hallowed, and sanctified day. It was a day like the seventh day of creation week. It was a day that is comparable with His second coming. Of what day in history can it be said that all of the remaining days of history depend on it?
Not surprisingly then, NT writers speak of the resurrection of Christ as His exaltation to the throne on high. Thus Peter says that He became Lord and Christ and was exalted by God when God raised Him from the dead (Acts 2:36). Therefore, new covenant Sabbath kingship is rooted in the "ambiguity" of the Gospels regarding our Lord’s resurrection appearances. This is simply another way of saying that Jesus was made Sabbath Lord by the resurrection. Indeed, He was already Sabbath king when He literally ascended from the earth into the heavens to the right hand of the throne on high.
2A.Matthew’s account reveals our risen Lord as head over all to the church
So with a broad brush, we can paint a picture of our exalted king. But when the brush hits the canvas what appears is not what we might expect. We may be like the disciples who asked; "Will you now restore the kingdom to Israel" (Acts 1: 6). They did not yet understand that the coming of the kingdom is like a Sower going forth to sow (Matt. 13).
1) He is Head over all things
By "Sabbath king" I simply mean that Jesus is "head over all things to the church" (Eph. 1:22). This is interesting language: "head over all…to the church." To be the head is to be the ruler, king, or sovereign. His is sovereign over all things and as such He is given by the Father of glory and by the Spirit of wisdom (Eph. 1:17) to the church, "which is his body" (Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:18, "he is head of the body, the church).
Look more closely at Matthew 28:18. Jesus says that all authority has been given to Him. He has it. It is His. And notably, it has been given to Him. But if He is God the Son who was with God in the beginning then He always possessed divine prerogatives. He always had all authority. That being the case we must still seek to do justice to the statement here that all authority was "given" to Him. As Stonehouse puts it, Matthew has the distinct aim of disclosing a "stupendous revelation, a revelation of the divine investiture of the risen Christ with universal sovereignty, of the consequent commission of the disciples, and of his continuous presence with them until the consummation" (The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, 186-87). This passage must be seen in the context of the incarnation. It is the man born of Mary, God the incarnate son that suffered in the days of His humiliation, that learned obedience through suffering, and that was exalted by the resurrection to be Sabbath Lord. That He was made Sabbath Lord is indicated here in this passage by the absolutely universal authority that was given to Him: all authority in heaven and all authority on earth have been given to Him (28:18).
The metaphor from the OT that comes to mind to illustrate the place that Christ came to occupy is the metaphor of the throne and footstool. After finishing the work of original creation in six days, the Lord sat down to rest with His feet elevated on a footstool. He sat down on the heavens as His throne with the earth as the footstool under His feet. That is the picture of universal sovereignty that shows that when God completed the work of creation He then took up the work of sovereign rule over all that He created and made. The seventh day was set apart because it was an inaugural day of God’s kingly rule. It became His holy day that man was to always remember and keep holy in honor to the Creator.
Likewise, after Jesus completed His work of redemption, He became both Lord and Christ by the resurrection (Acts 2:36). As a man He was appointed judge of all men by the resurrection (Acts 17:31), as the seed of David He was marked out (declared) to be the Son of God with power by the working of the Spirit in His resurrection (Rom. 1:3-4). In other words, on resurrection day Jesus entered into a royal rest. He ceased from the redemptive work of humiliation and began His redemptive rule of exaltation. He became universal sovereign on that unique day in history. The first day of the week, Sunday, was set apart because it was an inaugural day of Christ’s kingly rule. It became His holy day (the Lord’s Day) that man is to always remember and keep holy in honor to the Redeemer as universal sovereign. The one we remember by means of these brief events with all their ambiguity is the one who had already been exalted above every name that is named (Phil. 2). He is to be recognized as Lord (Sabbath Lord/universal sovereign/king David, and King of kings). Most appropriately then, we are told that when the disciples saw Him "they worshipped Him" (Matt. 28:17).
2) Second, He is the Head of the church
What was promised to Him (Jn. 17:2) was given by the resurrection. He is Head over all things to the church. It has to stand out in a striking way that what applied to God in the OT now applies to Christ in the NT. They worshiped Him. He is an object of worship. God is now known by the new name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is Jesus who commands the church to go to the nations discipling them and baptizing them. The church will not fail to be brought out from the nations one by one until all are gathered in because He is the builder of the church as universal sovereign: "Ruler of the nations, my soul’s glory, joy, and crown." He does not tell us to go and try to baptize the nations. He simply says to go and do so because He is the master builder as sovereign God, ruler of nations, and Lord of history.
3) Third, He is our covenant companion
What we get is a wonderful, precious, marvelous, and awesome picture the universal sovereign Lord Jesus as our covenant companion: "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (v. 20). His blood is the blood of the new covenant and covenant fulfillment comes through a process. In this process that moves steadfastly to the end of time, He abides with us in covenant fellowship as our constant companion (cf. God’s covenant with Jacob: I will be with you wherever you go to fulfill all I have promised to you, Gen. 28:15). I love this way of remembering Jesus: He is universal sovereign and loving friend. He is our traveling companion that makes our hearts burn within us (cf. Lk. 24). He is the greatest and best friend that anyone could possibly have. He is our very life now, day in and day out whatever we face. And He is our life forevermore for in Him we have spiritual, eternal, and resurrection life!
Matthew is geared also in a way that conveys something about the first day of the week in relation to universal sovereign, head of the church, and providential presence and rule to the end of time. He is ruler of time as well as of the church and the nations. Thus every day belongs to Him as stages in weekly cycles of the outworking of His purposes. The entire ordering of time under the rule of the sovereignty of God is put into His hands. Thus, the rule of the weekly cycle and the rest day to which it moves and the rule of the entire process of weekly unfolding of history that is moving toward eternal Sabbath rest belongs to Him. Time, space, the nations, the church, all things, all principalities and powers are put in subjection to Him and the accomplishment of His will. Thus He will conquer the nations. His will is absolute. The authority given to Him to give eternal life to those given to Him in the eternal covenant of redemption is absolute and efficacious. He will bring His covenant children out of darkness and to the adoption of sons. Whatever befalls the nations as they rise up one against the other in international conflict, wars and rumors of war, He rules the nations. He rules and directs and governs to bring His elect home to the Father’s embrace. Therefore, His Sabbath kingship means that the accomplishment of His death that is sealed in His resurrection will certainly be applied to each one for whom He died. Thus the work being done by the Spirit continues what He began. It is Christ continuing His work in the Spirit who is the gift of His saving accomplishment.
A gap of time is more easily inferred in the reading of Matthew than in the reading of Luke. But it is not explicit that there was a gap of time. No attention is given to the gap of time or to any intervening events. The forty days are skipped over in absolute silence. All the attention is centered on what emerged from resurrection day and the promise of the risen Savior to the disciples. All kinds of things happened but Matthew shoots a straight arrow from resurrection day to the mountain in Galilee.
To be sure, the fact of the resurrection is attended to by Matthew. But that is not his ultimate purpose in his selection of things to narrate. His purpose is to capstone his Gospel with a special accent on what flowed directly from the first day of the week. Jesus made a promise on that first day and when He kept His promise He gave a resurrection proclamation. This proclamation, usually called the Great Commission, was a proclamation that emerged from resurrection day. It is a proclamation of the risen Savior. It is a statement of the exalted Lord that Matthew chose as the closing word of his Gospel: He is Lord of all and as Lord of all He is given to the church to the end of time.