Easter: History or Fairy Tale?
Series: Easter 2021
Is Easter a fairy tale or a remembrance of something that actually happened in the world in which you and I live? In Jesus’ day, there were many who thought His claims to rise from the dead were phony. But in this passage, we see God’s answer to the question.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a fairy tale as “a children’s story about magical and imaginary beings and lands.” Is that what the story of Easter is? Many today think so: Maybe they wouldn’t call it a children’s story, but it seems to many to be about a magical and perhaps even imaginary being called Jesus, who, as the story goes, rose from the dead. Before Jesus died, He said this was going to happen, but there were people, it turns out, in Jesus’ day, who also thought this was something of a fairy tale. Yet for thousands of years, Christians, and many highly intelligent ones at that, have believed that it’s not a fairy tale or the product of imagination. We’ve believed and still believe today that it really happened. What if it’s really true? If it’s at least possible that God exists and that therefore He could raise the dead, wouldn’t you have to at least examine the evidence, rather than assuming it’s a fairy tale? Today we’re looking at the Gospel of Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples’ first-hand accounts of the resurrection, and we’re going to see in it that it is no fairy tale. Jesus truly has risen from the dead. How do we know? We’ll see from this passage that we know because of who the angel was, what the angel said, and what the women saw.
Who the angel was
At this point in the story, Jesus has died and been placed in the tomb. The tomb has been covered by a heavy stone, the stone has been sealed to the tomb, and a guard has been set on the tomb. The reason all this was done is because the chief priests and pharisees wanted to guard Jesus’ disciples from coming and taking the body, so as to claim that Jesus rose from the dead. They viewed Jesus as an impostor, did not expect him to raise from the dead, and therefore did not want his disciples to be able to fake it. They had already schemed to have Jesus killed, and they were not going to let their scheme be thwarted by Jesus’ disciples.
Now the sun rises on the first day of the week, three days after Jesus’ death, the day Jesus said He would rise, and the guards are ready for the disciples to come and snatch the body. Only instead of Jesus’ 11 disciples coming, two women approach: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who was referred to earlier in chapter 27. More surprising though, was the next being to approach: He didn’t approach the guards from the front nor sneak up behind them. He came from above them. Verse 2 tells us there was a great earthquake and an angel descended from heaven. Earthquakes are a common sign in the Bible of God’s presence, and the text explicitly tells us that the angel came from heaven. The angel isn’t God, but he comes from heaven, the place of God’s dwelling, as a representative of God, with the power of God behind him.
So the angel pays no mind to the guards, or to the seal they had placed on the tomb. He simply rolls back the stone and sits on it. There is a far greater power than the power of the chief priests and the pharisees that has arrived on the scene. The angel’s appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow, common images of those who dwell in God’s presence in the heavens. On Good Friday we saw a debate taking place between Jesus and His opponents: Is He truly the Son of God? After His death, there were signs from heaven to indicate the heavenly verdict: Truly He was the Son of God. Now there is another debate: Will he truly rise from the dead? Or, from our vantage point, has he? The chief priests and pharisees said no; he’s an impostor. This time God gives His answer by not only sending the sign of an earthquake, but by sending a messenger from heaven.
And when the guards see the angel, they know a power is now confronting them for which they and all their schemes are no match. Verse 4 tells us for fear of him the guards tremble and become like dead men. Those who put Christ to death and wanted to make sure His body remained in the tomb became like dead men themselves in front of heaven’s messenger. And we’re going to get to what the angel said in a moment, but notice what he doesn’t say here. He doesn’t address the guards and say, “Do not be afraid.” The implication is they have good reason to be afraid! They’ve opposed the true Son of God, and even after the signs that followed His death, they’ve continued their opposition. You can feel safe doing that for a time; they did, and you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon before too: You sin against God, you kinda know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway…and nothing happens. In fact, it feels kinda good. That is, until you get caught. You probably know that feeling too, right?
Malcolm X once spoke of the fear white America has that one day the chickens will come home to roost. Well, for these guards who opposed Christ, the chickens had come home to roost, only this was no chicken or even a human. It was the messenger from God Himself. If you are opposing Christ today, you actually have good reason to be afraid. Do you feel it? It’s an uncomfortable feeling and one we generally avoid, but it’s better to face that feeling today and do something about it than to wait until the day when the chickens come home to roost, and the heavenly judge comes for you. Don’t double down on your opposition to Christ. Don’t double down on sin. Turn from it, so that on the day heaven renders its judgment on your life, you are found in Christ, rather than opposing Christ. Because to those who are seeking Jesus, the angel has a different word. Let’s look at what the angel said.
What the angel said
Speaking now to the women, the angel said: Do not be afraid. Why the different response to them? Keep reading in verse 5: For I know that you seek Jesus. Not, “I know that you are righteous,” “I know that you have suffered much,” “I know that you are wealthy enough, smart enough, religious enough, attractive enough.” I know that you seek Jesus, unlike the guards who opposed Him. It’s not about how far down the track you are or how well you are running, it’s about which direction you’re heading. You can be a very religious person while seeking selfish gain, but even if you are the most immoral, irreligious person you know, if you will just turn and seek Jesus, you have nothing to be afraid of. You don’t have all the answers, but are you seeking Him? You’ve failed Him, but are you seeking Him? Seek Jesus, and wherever you presently are, wherever you’ve previously been, you have nothing to be afraid of.
The fears of the women now assuaged, the angel delivers heaven’s message. Jesus said He would rise from the dead after three days. The chief priests and pharisees said He was an impostor. The message of heaven is: He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Jesus was not an impostor. He truly has risen from the dead, just as He said. And this is no myth, no fairy tale either. It’s not that Jesus lives on in our hearts and if we’ll just think positive, we’ll keep his memory alive. No, the angel says, “Come, see the place where he lay.” The body wasn’t there. The tomb was sealed, the guards were set, the disciples never came. If the tomb was empty, there could only be one explanation: Jesus truly has risen from the dead. It actually happened. A guy died; everyone saw it. These women saw it. He was then buried; these same women saw that too Matthew tells us in chapter 27. Now they see an empty tomb.
Jesus had no shortage of opponents; His execution and burial were very public. If anyone wanted to prove that He didn’t rise from the dead, all they would have had to do was produce the body. How could Christianity have grown from here the way it did on the testimony that Jesus rose from the dead if the body was still in the tomb? It couldn’t have. And so the best explanation is that it wasn’t, for the reason the angel gives: He has risen, just as He said. And this message was not intended only for the women. Rather, they were to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that they should go to Galilee and see Him there.
This is noteworthy for a few reasons at least. First, it speaks to the historicity of the account. Women at this time were not considered credible witnesses. So if you were making up a resurrection story and you wanted it to be convincing, about the worst way to do it would be to make women the first witnesses. But Matthew writes the story that way because he’s not making it up; that’s how it happened, and so that’s how he writes it. That it happened that way also shows us that God does not feel bound to popular attitudes toward women in a particular culture. He doesn’t care that the first century didn’t consider women credible witnesses; He chooses to use them as the first witnesses and first human reporters on earth of the message of Christ’s resurrection, even to Jesus’ own disciples. Ladies, whatever messages you’ve heard from our world or even from other Christians, if you will seek Jesus, God will use you too, whether single, as Mary Magdalene appears to have been, or the mother of many, as the other Mary was.
So verse 8 tells us they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples. It’s interesting that after the angel told them not to be afraid, they depart quickly from the tomb with fear, only now the fear is accompanied with great joy. You might say this: They were no longer afraid of God, but they did still fear Him. Getting beyond the fear of God is never the goal, but neither is being afraid of Him. The appropriate response to the news that Jesus has truly risen from the dead is a kind of fear, because who could do such a thing? He’s so not like us. He’s so much greater, so much more powerful, so much more glorious, that the only way to have no fear of Him is to not be dealing with Him at all. Yet it’s a fear that still seeks Him, that draws nearer to Him, that wants more of Him, not a fear that makes us run farther from Him, because it’s a fear accompanied by great joy.
Jesus isn’t dead! Wow; He must be powerful. Jesus isn’t dead! Wow; there must be hope. The one we’re seeking hasn’t lost. Not the schemes of the chief priests and pharisees, not the mighty death sentence of Rome, not death itself, a tomb, a seal, or some guards, could stop Him. Death is not the final word. Do you see what joy it might bring to your life if you believed that? Tim Keller, a pastor in Manhattan, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a year ago, a form of cancer with a low survival rate. He’s only 70 years old, so this news took him by surprise, and he wrote about it in The Atlantic. In that article he admitted frankly that he didn’t respond to the news of what was likely his pending death with the kind of poise he thought he would have. His faith didn’t provide a quick fix.
There are multiple reasons for this, but one is that many of us live in a culture that shields us from all thoughts of death. We acknowledge theoretically that one day we’ll die, but we pretty much go on living as though that’s not the case. So when the chickens do come to roost and the threat of death comes to us as more of an actual possibility, we’re woefully unprepared. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed that, didn’t it? It’s a disease with about a 1% mortality rate, and even I admit as a 32-year-old healthy individual, I had weeks where I was panicked over the past year, because there were stories of 32-year-old healthy individuals who died from this, and there are now over 500,000 Americans who have. I don’t at all mean to say it wasn’t serious; I do mean to say we are typically not prepared to really deal with death.
And odds are, none of you here today will die from COVID-19. But the certainty is, something will get you eventually. And there is great joy available to you in the face of it. It won’t come automatically Keller said, but it did begin to come to him as he spent time thinking about the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus truly has risen from the dead, it means there is something more powerful than death, which has already overcome death. And if you seek Him, though death is still a certainty for you, so also is resurrection. Jesus is no impostor. Heaven has delivered its verdict: He has risen from the dead, just as He said. And the women would not only see an open tomb. They would see Him. The final reason we know Jesus has risen from the dead is because of what the women saw.
What the women saw
As they are going to tell the disciples the message of the angel and about the empty tomb, verse 9 tells us Jesus met them. He met them with a simple, kind greeting, which could even be translated, “Hello!” The mighty Jesus, now having overcome death, with all authority in heaven and on earth given to Him, is still gentle and lowly in heart. That’s all the more reason to worship Him, so the women don’t respond with a simple, “Oh hey, good to see you.” They bow down at His feet and worship Him. We’re talking about the guy who just conquered death. We’re talking about the one greater than the angel. They never bowed down and worshiped the angel. In fact, there is a story in the book of Revelation where someone tries to bow down and worship an angel, and the angel tells him he must not do that!
But Jesus doesn’t do that here. Why? Because He is truly God, and now risen from the dead, the glory of His divinity is revealed, and He is therefore the proper object of worship. Do you relate to Jesus like this? If someone could look at a snapshot of your prayers for example, would they say, “Wow, this person is amazed by Jesus?” If not, you must not be seeing Him clearly. You must have some domesticated Jesus in your mind, rather than the one revealed in the pages of Scripture. When these women see that Jesus, they fall down at His feet and worship Him. And they did take hold of His feet. Notice once again it is a bodily resurrection. He could be seen with the eyes you and I have now, touched with the hands you and I have now. If you had been alive and with these two women on that day, you could have seen and touched Jesus alive after He had clearly been dead. That’s how true this resurrection was.
Then, similarly to how they saw the empty tomb and were told to go tell Jesus’ disciples, Jesus tells them once again not to be afraid, but to go and tell his brothers to go to Galilee where He will meet them. The women need not be afraid; though Jesus is a mighty, conquering King, He’s their mighty, conquering king. And apparently, Jesus’ disciples need not be afraid either. The angel called them Jesus’ disciples, but Jesus calls them His brothers. The last time these disciples appeared in the story, they were falling asleep on Jesus while they were supposed to be standing guard. In the end, they abandoned Him, and their leader famously denied Him. But who are they to Jesus now? They are still His brothers. How could that be?
It could be because before Jesus rose from the dead, He died for the sins of His brothers. And though we have failed Him just as they had, He is not ashamed to call us brothers. He became our brother by taking on our human nature, obeying the commands we were supposed to obey, and suffering the death our sins deserved. Now even His enemies can become His brothers if they will simply turn and seek Him. If you are still opposing Christ today, be afraid, but let that fear drive you to seek Christ, not to run farther from Him. There is no neutral position with respect to Christ. If you aren’t seeking Him, you’re running from Him. Don’t try to make yourself better; just turn. He sought us when we weren’t seeking Him. And as He became our brother in birth, life, and death, we will be made like Him, our brother, in resurrection. If He is your brother, none of your fears will have the final word in your life. Even the greatest fear, the one that will be realized in all our lives, will give way to everlasting life. Fall at His feet and worship Him with fear, and with great joy.