On the morning of the feast of the first fruits, the first day of the week following the first Sabbath after the Passover, Jesus was raised from the dead and so became the first fruits of them that slept (Lev. 23:9-14; 1 Cor. 15:20, 23).
His resurrection is the proof that redemption has been accomplished. Because of His perfect satisfaction in the work of His Son, God raised Him from the dead (Acts 4:2) and seated Him at His own right hand, thus acknowledging Him as Lord and Christ (Acts 2:33, 36). Had the body of the Lord Jesus Christ never come forth from the tomb, it would have been silent evidence that He was either a deceiver or deceived when He declared that He was to give His life a ransom for many (20:28). He would have been simply another martyr to what He believed to be the truth, or else to His own ambitions. But His resurrection, in accordance with His prediction that the third day He would rise again, confirmed His claims and proved that His death was an actual propitiation for sin and that God had accepted it as such.
On Calvary, as we have seen, the Lord Jesus Christ took the sinners place and bore the judgment that we deserved. That judgment involved eternal separation from God for the wicked. As made sin, the Lord Jesus cried to God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Because He is infinite and we are but finite, His sacrifice and suffering were a sufficient propitiation for the sins of the world. When expiation had been made, it behooved God the Father to bring Jesus Christ back from the dead, thus fully vindicating Him from any charge of personal failure for which He should be “stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4). All His atoning sufferings were for others, not as penalty for any ill desert of His own. In raising Him from the dead, the Father attested the perfection of the work of His Son.
The empty tomb of Jesus is the silent yet effectual witness to the fact of His resurrection. Had it been possible to find His body, His disciples would have received it and given it careful burial again. And if His enemies could have produced it, they would have displayed it in fiendish glee as a positive proof that His prediction—that He would rise again the third day—had been utterly falsified. But neither friend nor foe could locate it, for God had raised His Son from the dead in token of His perfect satisfaction in the sacrifice of the Cross. The tomb was empty on that first Lord’s Day morning, not because the disciples had come by night and stolen the body while the soldiers slept (an unheard-of proceeding), nor yet because the chief priests and their emissaries had dared to break the Roman seal upon the stone that covered the entrance to that rock-hewn grave, but because Jesus had fulfilled His words when He declared that if they destroyed the temple of His body, He would raise it again in three days. The Resurrection is attributed to the Father (Heb. 13:20), to the Son (John 2:19-21; 10:17-18), and to the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:11). The entire Trinity had part in that glorious event, the supreme miracle of the ages, when He who dies for our sins rose again for our justification. Joseph of Arimathea little thought of the honor that was to be his when preparing the new tomb that was to be the dwelling-place for a few hours of the dead body of Him who is now alive forevermore.
In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: and for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me. (vv. 1-10)
“In the end of the sabbath.” The Jewish Sabbath was now ended. A new era was about to begin, to be characterized by a new day. “As it began to dawn toward the first day of the week.” It was the early morning of the day following the Sabbath when the two Marys went out “to see the sepulchre,” preparatory to taking steps for the embalming of the body, which had been so hastily laid away on the day of death.
“The angel of the Lord descended from heaven … and rolled back the stone.” This stone was not rolled back to let the risen Lord out, for He had left the tomb already. No barriers could restrain Him in His resurrection body. It was to let the women and the disciples in that the tomb was opened.
“His countenance was like lightning.” Angels are supernatural beings, pure spirits, who assume the human form at will and can disappear suddenly. “Like lightning” is suggestive of those who are said to be as “a flame of fire” (Heb. 1:7).
“For fear of him the keepers … became as dead men.” In their fright at the appearance of this celestial messenger, the hard, sturdy soldiers of the guard fainted away, unable to look upon his terrifying countenance.
“The angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye.” Quieting the fears of the women, the angel gave them to understand that he knew their quest exactly. But he had good news for them.
“He is not here: for he is risen.” This is the foundation of all our hope. It is not true, as Arnold wrote, that the body of Jesus still sleeps in a Syrian tomb. That tomb is empty. “The place where the Lord lay” bore mute evidence of His resurrection in the presence of the unruffled grave clothes that had enswathed His body (John 20:3-8). The attention of the two Marys was directed to the empty crypt, where that precious body had reposed as it lay cold in death. No earthly hands had removed it. Jesus arose at God’s appointed hour and left the sepulcher behind forever.
“Go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead.” These godly women had the privilege to be the first evangelists of the new dispensation—to carry the glad news of a risen Savior to the sorrowing, because unbelieving, disciples. Before going to the cross, Jesus had told them, “After I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee” (Matt. 26:32). To this appointed rendezvous the women were commanded to tell the disciples to repair, that there they might, as a group, meet their risen Lord.
“They … did run to bring his disciples word.” Love and joy gave wings to their feet as they hastened to carry the glad tidings. There was no doubt in their minds as to the truth of the angel’s message.
“As they went… Jesus met them, saying, All hail.” He appeared to them Himself, so that now they had not only the word of an angel and the sight of the empty sepulcher to rely upon, but they could also testify that they had seen the Lord Himself in the body of His resurrection, and thus their faith had turned to sight. Jesus directed them to convey the good news to the disciples and to bid them to go into Galilee to the rendezvous appointed, where He had promised to meet them.
While the women were hastening to carry the news of the Lord’s triumph over death to the apostles, the Roman soldiers were in a state of great perturbation over the events of the early morning and had made their way to the city to tell the chief priests what had occurred.
Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day. (vv. 11-15)
There are no depths of deceit and chicanery too low for religious bigots who are determined to pursue a chosen course to the bitter end, no matter what may be involved. When the soldiers explained what had taken place, these priests, and the elders, who soon joined them, counseled the soldiers to say that the disciples of Jesus had come by night, while the guard slept, and stolen the body away.
Such an acknowledgment, if true, would have exposed them to severe penalties, but the chief priests promised to intercede for them if the matter came to the ears of the governor. They gave large bribes to the soldiers to ensure their collaboration in the matter. So they went away and gave out the story as they were instructed, and that was commonly reported, Matthew tells us, “until this day”—that is, for some years at least after the Resurrection.
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (vv. 16-20)
“Into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.” During His last days with His disciples, as they were drawing near to Jerusalem, Jesus had told them of His approaching death and His resurrection, and He mentioned a definite mountain in Galilee where He would meet them after all had been consummated (Matt. 26:32; 28:7; Mark 16:7). Though He appeared earlier to individuals and to various groups, it was in Galilee that He manifested Himself to “above five hundred brethren at once” (1 Cor. 15:6). At least, most commentators consider this to be the case, though He evidently met first with the eleven apostles on this occasion, before appearing to the larger number.
“They worshipped him.” When they beheld Him and knew it was indeed the risen Christ they were looking upon, they worshiped Him, knowing Him to be the Son of God come forth in triumph from the tomb (Rom. 1:4). “But some doubted.” What a proof of the incorrigible evil of the human heart! Unbelief can be overcome only by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was some time before all the little group believed (Mark 16:14). This helps us to understand Mark 16:17. It was promised only to the believing apostles that miraculous signs would follow and thus authenticate their testimony.
“All power [authority] is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” As the obedient One, who had humbled Himself to the death of the cross, Jesus was exalted as Man by the Father to the place of preeminence over all things (Phil. 2:9-11). He is set as Son over His own house (Heb. 3:6), to whom all God’s servants are to be subject. It is He Himself who is the General Director of the missionary program of the present age.
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” This gives the primary commission. The command is to teach, or make disciples, of all nations. The words “baptizing them” are secondary. It was not to baptize that they were sent, important as that is, but to instruct the nations in the way of life. Those receiving the Word were to be baptized as the outward expression of their faith.
The baptismal formula was in the name of the Trinity, as was their preaching and teaching—not in the names, but the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Godhead had and still has a part in the work of salvation, therefore all are recognized and confessed in Christian baptism. The Father sent the Son, who gave His life in the power of the Eternal Spirit.
“All things whatsoever I have commanded you.” During the forty days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus unfolded to His disciples the program He would have them carry out and gave the commandments that they were to teach to the people of all nations (Acts 1:2-3). “Lo, I am with you alway.” His presence by the Spirit was promised to all who sought to carry out His commission. “Even unto the end of the world.” The last word is really “age.” It refers to a time-world, rather than the material universe. Strictly speaking, the age to which He was referring will not end until He appears in glory to set up His kingdom over all the earth, but the period of the calling of the church from Pentecost to the Rapture is included necessarily in that word unto. During all that time, from the hour in which He spoke these words to the bringing in of the kingdom age, the gospel is to be preached, and His Spirit will be with His faithful messengers to enable them to proclaim the message in power for the blessing of mankind.
The Great Commission to evangelize the world is not given as a whole in any of the Gospels, but we need to take all related passages in the three Synoptics and in Acts 1 to get it in its entirety. There are different aspects of the commission which are emphasized in each place. Then, in addition, we have the Lord’s command to the eleven as given in John 20. These all agree in this: that it is our responsibility to carry the message of grace to all men everywhere while we wait for our Lord to return, according to His promise. In keeping with the character of Matthew’s gospel as setting forth the King and the kingdom, the commission as given here has specially in view the bringing of all nations to acknowledge the authority of Christ and proclaim their allegiance by baptism into the name of the Holy Trinity. In its fullest sense, this commission has never been fulfilled as yet. It will be completed after the church age has ended, and a Jewish remnant will carry out the Lord’s instructions preparatory to setting up the kingdom. But this does not relieve us of our responsibility to carry it out as far as possible in the present age. Mark stresses the importance of faith on the part of those who carry the message, which was to be authenticated by “signs following.” Luke, both in his gospel and the Acts, links the subjective with the objective—repentance on the part of the sinner; forgiveness on the part of God. John dwells on the authority of the risen Christ who commissions His servants to proclaim remission of sins to all who believe and retention of sins to those who spurn the message.
But all alike declare the urgency and the importance of carrying the witness-testimony, the proclamation of the gospel, unto all the nations of the world in the shortest possible time. Alas, how sadly has the church failed in this respect! It is an appalling thought that after nineteen centuries of gospel preaching there are many millions of men and women still sitting in darkness and the shadow of death (Isa. 9:2) who have never heard the name of Jesus, and know nothing of the redemption that He has purchased by His atoning death upon the cross.
The program as set forth by our Lord has never been modified or repealed. It still constitutes what the Iron Duke (Wellington) called the “marching orders” of the church—orders which have, however, been very largely ignored by the great bulk of professing Christians. The first six centuries of the present era were characterized by great missionary zeal, when, at times, whole nations were brought to at least an outward profession of faith in Christ. But the next thousand years, which Borne calls “the ages of faith,” but which instructed Christians rightly designate “the Dark Ages,” were marked, in great measure, by an eclipse of true gospel activity. With the coming of the Protestant Reformation came a new interest in missions, in which the Moravians were the pioneers. Later, within the last century and a half, there has followed a great awakening as to the responsibility of the church to evangelize the regions beyond. Today there is no excuse either for lack of information or lack of zeal as to missionary activity.
Some there are who deny that we of the church age are to act at all on this commission as given here, insisting that it was intended for a Jewish testimony in the coming era of the Great Tribulation. This is fanciful in the extreme. Far more important than any quibbling as to the exact character of this commission is the truth of our responsibility to carry the story of redeeming love to all men everywhere. It is given, not alone to those we may think of as official ministers or specially designated missionaries, but to every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make Him known to others and so to win as many precious souls as possible while the day of grace is continued. This is the first great business of every member of the church of the living God. All are called to be witnesses, according to their measure. It is ours to “go” (v. 19), to “pray” (9:38), and to help send forth (Acts 13:3) and sustain those who are able to leave home and friends as they hasten forth into distant lands to carry the gospel to the regions beyond (3 John 6-8). The command to teach, or disciple, all nations, does not mean that it is our responsibility to educate the heathen along secular lines. This may come in as a by-product of missionary service, but it is not the supreme work of the herald of the Cross. It is a lamentable fact that much missionary money has been devoted to founding and maintaining schools and colleges which have turned out bitter enemies of the cross of Christ. Had the same money and energy been devoted to preaching the gospel, the results would have been far different. School teaching is a laudable profession, but it should not be confounded with gospel testimony, though it would be a happy and blessed thing if each schoolteacher were also a proclaimer of the glad tidings of grace.
The Lord’s instructions never yet have been fully obeyed, and we know that not all the nations will accept the message in this age of grace; but we are commanded to go forth in the name of the Triune God, proclaiming the authority of the risen King and bidding all men yield to Him in glad surrender, and so enter into peace and blessing while waiting for His return from heaven.
Matthew closes with the Lord sending forth His messengers. We do not read of Christ’s ascension here. This is significant, for it is the King commissioning His ambassadors that the Holy Spirit desired to emphasize. The last we see of Him, He is directing His representatives to go to all nations, calling upon men and women everywhere to acknowledge Him as their Savior and become subject to His will.
When the commanding officer speaks, a loyal soldier has but to obey. The “captain of the host of the Lord” (Josh. 5:14) has said, “Go ye!” It is ours to act upon His instructions. The blessing of God has always rested in a very special way upon the individual or the church which was missionary minded. None ever lost out by obedience to our risen Lord’s command.
When we say there are plenty of heathen at home to whom we should give our attention rather than to seek the lost in distant lands, we forget that all at home are within easy reach of the gospel, if interested in it, whereas there are untold myriads dying in heathen lands to whom the way of life is unknown, and who have never heard of the Bible or the Savior it reveals.
There were no missionary societies in the early church because the entire body of believers was supposed to be engaged in the great work of evangelizing the world. It was after the church as a whole lost this vision that societies were formed to arouse interest in and forward missionary activity.
Sending out men and women as missionaries who do not themselves have a definite Christian experience is folly of the worst kind. It is but the blind leading the blind, and both are headed for the ditch (15:14). No one is fit to be a missionary abroad who is not a missionary at home. An ocean voyage never made a missionary of anyone. There must be a divinely implanted love for lost souls before one is ready to go forth in Christ’s name to carry His gospel to the heathen world. One of the first evidences of genuine conversion to Christ is the desire to make Him known to others.
It has been asked: What right has anyone to hear the gospel hundreds of times when millions have never heard it once? We may well be exercised as to this, for we are called to be ambassadors for Christ. This is the title Paul gives to those who seek to carry out our Lord’s instruction as to evangelizing the nations (2 Cor. 5:20). While our Savior Himself is personally in heaven, seated on the right hand of the divine Majesty (Heb. 1:3), we are called to represent Him in this world, going to rebels against the authority of the God of heaven and earth, and pleading with them to be reconciled to Him who sent His Son in grace that all men might have life and peace through Him. We are unfaithful representatives indeed if we fail to respond to the command laid upon us, and allow our fellow men to perish in their sins unwarned and knowing not the way of life.