11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:11-20 ESV
Of all the gospel authors, Matthew provides us with the most abbreviated version of the events surrounding Jesus’ last hours on earth. For whatever reason, he chose to leave out all the appearances Jesus made after His resurrection. We know from the accounts penned by John, Luke, and Mark, that Jesus appeared to His followers repeatedly during the hours between His resurrection and His ascension. There was the occasion when He had walked alongside the two distraught disciples on the road to Emmaus as they discussed the recent death of their master (Luke 24:13-32). Initially, they had been unable to recognize Jesus. But when they eventually realized they were talking with the resurrected Lord, they made a beeline to the room where the 10 disciples were gathered together, informing them of their encounter with Jesus. And as they were sharing the exciting news, Jesus suddenly appeared among them (Luke 24:33-40).
John records that Thomas had not been in the room that day, and when his fellow disciples told him what had happened, he expressed his reservations. So, eight days later, Jesus revealed Himself to Thomas, telling him, “Do not disbelieve but believe” (John 20:27).
The apostle Paul provides a succinct summary of all of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.
He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. – 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 NLT
But Matthew chose to leave out all of this. Not only that, He doesn’t even mention the ascension of Jesus. Dr. Stanley Toussaint provides us with a compelling explanation for Matthew’s decision to leave out this seemingly vital part of the narrative.
The reason for Matthew’s diligence in approaching the resurrection in such an apologetic manner is evident since so much is dependent upon the resurrection of the Messiah. It authenticated His person. To the nation of Israel, His resurrection was the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 12:38-49) attesting the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. The reason Matthew says nothing about the ascension is bound up in this point. If Jesus is the Messiah, then an account of the ascension is both unnecessary and self-evident to the Israelite. He would yet come in clouds of glory. What mattered to Matthew was that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and the resurrection proved that fact; therefore he goes no further. – Toussaint, Stanley D. Behold the King: A Study of Matthew. Portland, Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1980.
For Matthew, the resurrection said it all. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, which Matthew clearly believed, then His ascension would have been an undisputed fact. Matthew’s primary point was to prove the Messiahship of Jesus. That’s because, as a Jew, Matthew had written his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind. He had been out to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world. And, for him, the resurrection was clear evidence and conclusive proof of that claim.
The tomb was empty, and news of that reality had already begun to spread. In fact, the temple guards who had been tasked with protecting the tomb had already delivered their report of the missing body to Caiaphas, the high priest, and his father-in-law. The Jewish high council had placed these guards at the tomb of Jesus in order to prevent the disciples from stealing His body. The members of the Sanhedrin had been informed of Jesus’ bold and blasphemous claim that He would rise from the dead. So, they assumed His fanatical disciples, in a pathetic attempt to keep their little revolution alive, would try to steal the body of Jesus and declare Him to be alive. Much to their surprise and chagrin, that is essentially what the guards reported. And Matthew records that the guards told the high priest “all that had taken place.” That would have included exactly what Matthew had reported.
…there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. – Matthew 28:2-4 ESV
These guards would have feared for their lives. They had failed in their assignment. The body they had been instructed to guard was no longer there. If anything, these men could have fabricated a lie that provided them with a plausible alibi. But instead, they told the truth – as crazy as it may have sounded. Not only had they failed to secure the tomb, but they had also fallen asleep on the job. So, they most likely told their bosses exactly what had happened in great detail.
But Matthew records that Caiaphas, after having heard the unwelcome news, assembled the rest of the high council. Amazingly, Caiaphas determined that the best strategy was to pay off the guards and spread the rumor that the disciples had stolen the body – the very thing he had hoped to prevent. It seems evident that he knew something else had taken place, and this decision was nothing more than a poor attempt at a coverup. The last thing he wanted was a rumor of Jesus’ resurrection spreading throughout the city.
And yet, that fact was Matthew’s primary point. Jesus was alive. He had risen from the dead, just as He had promised. He was the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. Matthew had opened up his gospel with the encounter between Joseph and the angel.
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21 ESV
Matthew had followed that story with the one involving the arrival of the wise men, who had come in search of “he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2 ESV).
Next, Matthew recorded Herod’s attempt to eliminate the infant Jesus as a threat by having all the male babies executed. He reported Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and the divine pronouncement from God, stating, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV).
Matthew had been out to prove that Jesus was Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23 ESV). And the resurrection of Jesus was the final, conclusive piece of evidence.
Jesus had directed His disciples to meet Him at a mountain in Galilee. We are not told which mountain, but it may have been the very place where Jesus had given His sermon on the mount recorded in Matthew 5-7. But regardless of the exact location of their place of rendezvous, Jesus appeared yet again to His followers. Matthew reports that while all 11 of the disciples worshiped Him, some still harbored doubts. He doesn’t explain what he meant by this. Did they doubt Jesus’ resurrection? That seems hard to imagine, based on the fact that He was standing right in front of them. Did they doubt that He was the Messiah? Perhaps. It could be that they were still harboring hopes that He would reveal Himself to be the King they had long hoped for.
The Greek word translated as “doubted” is edistasan, and it refers to a spirit of hesitation. It is likely that they were uncertain and fearful of all that was going on around them. They probably harbored concerns about the future. They were in unchartered waters. The events of the last few days were not what they had expected, and they had no idea what was going to happen next. What were Jesus’ plans? What would happen to them? The Sanhedrin had already proven just how far they would go to eliminate Jesus as a threat, and they were not going to give up easily.
But Jesus attempted to calm their fears and doubts by telling them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18 ESV). This statement was meant to assure His wavering, fear-focused disciples that He was in complete control of the situation. The very fact that He was standing before them, alive and well, was proof that He had authority from God Almighty. He had done what no other man had ever done before – He had conquered death and the grave. And they had no reason to fear.
But they did have work to do. And Jesus, according to His God-given authority, commissioned His followers to continue His work in His absence.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 ESV
No more hiding. No more fearing. They were to boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus’ Messiahship. He was the Son of God. He was Immanuel, God with us. He was the King of the Jews and the Savior of the world. And that remarkable news was to be proclaimed throughout the world. While the temple guards and the Sanhedrin were busy spreading lies, the disciples were to spread the truth about the death-defeating, sin-forgiving power of the resurrected Savior.
And Jesus assured His followers that, though He was leaving, He would still be with them. This promise was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came to dwell in them on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit would be their constant companion and source of divine power. And, while Jesus would soon depart and return to His Father’s side in heaven, the Spirit of God would remain with them all the days of their lives. And He will remain with all those who make up the body of Christ, the Church, until the end of the age.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.