We are studying Matthew 28:1-15 for Sunday, April 21 – Matthew’s account of the events of the first Easter morning, just in time for Easter Sunday. [Some questions for the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is the next-to-last text in a series from Matthew’s gospel.

What we’ve skipped since last week’s reading, about the anointing woman, is Matthew’s account of the various events Christians commemorate during Holy Week: Judas’ arrangements to betray Jesus, the Last Supper, Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, followed by his arrest, trial or “trial,” torture, and ever more excruciating torture, death, burial.

Matthew includes a unique short report (Mt. 27:62-66) of the machinations of First Century CE institutional administrators, who arrange to quash reports of Jesus’ resurrection before they arise. Pun intended.

All that will be left after what happens in this text will be the [remaining] disciples’ encounter with Jesus in Galilee, and their final [Great] Commissioning by the risen Christ.

CLOSER READING: Focusing specifically on Matthew’s account, here are a few observations:

There’s a pair of women (v1). This might remind us of the pairs of individuals in chapter 10 (:2-4). The women are specifically Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”. Matthew’s first readers presumably would have known right away who “the other Mary” was; we don’t seem to know for sure.

The women are going “to see” the tomb. Matthew doesn’t mention any other purpose for their action. The seeing part of the story, however, seems to be emphasized by the repetition of words related to sight: “behold” in vv2, 7 (twice), 9, 11; a detailed description of the angel’s appearance in v3; the repetition of the message that the disciples will “see” Jesus in Galilee (vv7, 10).

The angel of the Lord plays the lead role, doing a lot – with great drama, in fact – and saying a lot. His arrival is literally earth-shaking, as he traverses the distance from heaven to earth, moves the stone, and sits on it, brilliantly.

The angel’s speech incorporates commands or instructions (“Don’t be afraid.” “Go quickly and give a message to his disciples …”) and clear indications that the angel has really good intel (knowing what the women are doing, and what has happened to Jesus).

There is some repetition of “message”/“messenger” language in these verses: the angel is mentioned twice, and then a Greek verb that contains the same root as the word “angel” (apangellō, “to report, to announce”) occurs several more times (vv8, 9, 10, 11). Maybe significantly, what the guards do in v11, which NRSV translates as “told,” is this action of reporting or announcing. In this story, this verb applies to telling the truth.

What the chief priests and presbyterians elders do in v13 is not the same action, nor is what the guards are instructed to “say” in v13, nor is the spreading of the word in v15.

Speaking of the guards, it seems significant that they, though alive, are like dead at the appearance of the angel, when Jesus (who we thought was dead) is alive. Contrast, and expectations confounded.

There is a good deal of explicit fear in vv4-10: the guards are afraid (v4), the angel tells the women not to be afraid (v5), but they are (v8), but Jesus tells them not to be afraid (v10), too.

Whether it is a good thing to remember that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 111:10) here, I don’t know.

There seems to be some implicit fear in vv11-15. Maybe not enough of the right kind of fear. And too much reliance on money.

[I confess to feeling bad for the guards in vv11-15, even though I can’t honestly think of the Romans as the “good guys” in this story, because it feels like watching a spy thriller on Netflix, where you just know the small-time villain who’s walking away with that gym bag full of money is about to get shot in the back …]

Jesus’ appearance and speech in vv9-11 is in a way much less dramatic, warmer, and more familiar than the angel’s. He greets the women, and calls the disciples his brothers.

Why does Jesus need to tell the two Marys not to be afraid? Could the sense of “don’t be afraid” in v10 be a little different from the sense in v5? Could it be Jesus’ response to the women’s holding on to his feet (v9), which seems to have the sense of hanging on, tight? This makes me suspect: in v5 they’re afraid of the scary angel; in v9 they’re afraid they might lose Jesus again.

This is assuming they really are afraid. We’re told so in v8; which also tells us that, at the same time, they have great joy.


Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew