Explosion of Life
A Life Nuke?
We have come at last to the final chapter of our study in Matthew. We’ll take a couple weeks to cover this chapter, and we may do a summary overview after that to wrap it all up. If you were reading the biography of anybody else, their story would be over. The main character died last week, anything beyond that is just epilogue. Of course, that’s not the case with Jesus! We know that what happens in Matthew is truly just the beginning, the origin story of Christ’s ministry to and through the church, that has continued unbroken for thousands of years. Our passage today, in Matthew 28, is in many ways the climax of the whole book, though it may come across rather understated, typical of Matthew. We’ve followed the life of Christ and his disciples from his birth in Bethlehem to his death in Jerusalem, and ALL of that, everything Jesus did and said claimed to be, is riding on what happens next. If the story of Jesus ended with the grave, then the story of his life would be meaningless. His claims would have no foundation, no proof of authority.
Birth and Early Life
Matthew started this book with a genealogy. And while it may seem tedious to read, it establishes Jesus as a descendant of Abraham (father of all Jews, through who God promised to bless the whole world), as well as of King David, to whom God promised a perpetual, divinely appointed monarchy.
This means that from the beginning, Jesus is associated with the Old Testament concept of the “messiah” or “christ,” a human through whom God would rule the whole world. A chosen, appointed king to carry out the original purpose God designed humans for when he placed them in the garden.
Matthew also takes time to point out the widespread affect Jesus had, eliciting responses that ranged from worship and adoration to hatred and opposition. Even while he was still an infant! He’s recognized as a newly born king by foreign sorcerers who come to pay him their respects. Meanwhile, the so-called “king” of the Jews at the time perceives this as a threat to his job security and orders a sickening massacre of all male infants born around that time and place. Ironically, Jesus and his family find refuge in Egypt, where Moses once escaped a similar massacre to free his people from slavery and flee to the land God promised them. To the land that Jesus’s family now has to flee, back to Egypt, which ironically enough, is now a safe and hospitable place in comparison to where God’s people are.
After briefly accounting for Jesus’s childhood and growth, Matthew introduces John the Baptist, who serves as a hype man of sorts, the opening act that gets the crowd warmed up for Jesus, if you will. John baptizes Jesus, which is a major milestone event, affirming Jesus as God’s Son in the presence of the Holy Spirit. This affirmation of his identity is then tested by the devil in the wilderness, of course to no avail.
From there, Matthew describes the early days of Jesus’s ministry and calling his disciples, and records several sections of teachings from Jesus, the longest of which is the sermon on the mount, and all of which are given in the context of what Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God” or “The Kingdom of Heaven” or simply “The Kingdom.” Jesus seems to claim the authority of the throne of said kingdom, and yet devotes very little attention or teachings that have anything to do with the existing kingdoms and structures of human authority.
Conflict Approaching Jerusalem
Nevertheless, his speech was absolutely loaded with hot-button buzz words, double-entendres, and poignant relevancy to the lives of his listeners.
Can’t Not Click
If you were scrolling through headlines on your phone, the titles of his speeches would probably be the ones to actually make you bite, for one reason or another, even if you just love having something to hate and complain about. The algorithm figured out exactly the right words or images to trigger a response. Literally, you know how sometimes the advertisements we see online seem like they are tailored exactly to us and what we’ve been shopping for? Because they are! Jesus had a similar way of making people feel uncomfortably like he’d read all their mail and spoke things directly into their lives, not just on the outside but to their hearts.
The fact is his rhetoric drew crowds, whatever their motives, and his popularity targeted him as a threat to the Jewish and Roman authorities, however misguided their fears of losing their clutch on power
The leading scholars, politicians, professors and ministers (as we might think of them) all question his authority and criticize his departure from some of the traditions they hold so dearly. They take great offense to his bold, blatant criticism of their competency. Some punk with no ivy-league experience is suddenly showing up to debates, acting like he owns the place, actually says his dad DOES own the place, and he’s here to turn everybody’s world upside down. And the crowds love it. It would make a great movie. (I think it has).
He Saw it Coming
Throughout all this, Jesus does teach his closest students about the later events leading up to his death and resurrection, and even alludes to his continuing ministry beyond the ascension, but his disciples don’t really fully grasp any of that until after they see it all happen for themselves.
Death and Resurrection
Over the last few months, we’ve read and meditated on the week leading up to the cross, the final events leading to Jesus’s death. Jesus enters Jerusalem the way a conquering king would, with a victory parade of people hailing them as their savior. He spends a few days in the temple, teaching, though not quietly, and continues to upset the religious leaders simply by understanding scripture better than them and calling them out on their fake, surface-level religiosity.
After sharing a traditional passover meal, his last supper gathered with his disciples, he’s betrayed, arrested, and tried. He’s falsely accused and found innocent, but sentenced to be cruelly beaten and eventually executed publicly, held up high alongside criminals for all to see, with a sign even mockingly declaring his crime: Jesus, King of the Jews.
When Jesus dies on the cross, there are supernatural, scary signs that take place. There’s an earthquake, the sky gets dark, the huge, massive curtain in the temple is torn from top to bottom, and dead people crawl out of their tombs to terrorize the city!
Mike covered the disturbing and humbling events of Christ’s death last week, in chapter 27, and it’s clear throughout everything that takes place, in light of everything else Matthew has told us leading up to this point, that Matthew is presenting Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, and inaugurating the kingdom of heaven, albeit in a way that is very different and confusing and unexpected.
And I don’t know if you noticed, but Mike skimmed right over the zombies coming to life last week! He saved that juicy little detail for me to come back to, because Matthew kind of puts it in there along with everything else supernatural and weird, rather than saving it for when it actually happens chronologically in the story. So, we are going to come back to that in a minute.
What happens in chapter 28 is CRUCIAL! It doesn’t take up many words, Matthew is pretty straight to the point here, but the resurrection is really the fulcrum upon which rests any sane and rational decision to follow Jesus. Whether in 50 AD, or 2023, or ten thousand years from now, Jesus is the present and manifest promise of life eternal, and his spirit is a taste of our place in it alongside him.
Let’s read, before I get too far ahead of myself:
Matthew 28:1–15 (CSB): After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to view the tomb. 2There was a violent earthquake, because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and approached the tomb. He rolled back the stone and was sitting on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. 4The guards were so shaken by fear of him that they became like dead men. 5The angel told the women, “Don’t be afraid, because I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here. For he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there.’ Listen, I have told you.” 8So, departing quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, they ran to tell his disciples the news. 9Just then Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” They came up, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there.” 11As they were on their way, some of the guards came into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12After the priests had assembled with the elders and agreed on a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money 13and told them, “Say this, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him while we were sleeping.’ 14If this reaches the governor’s ears, we will deal with him and keep you out of trouble.” 15They took the money and did as they were instructed, and this story has been spread among Jewish people to this day.
Now, once again, like with the previous passage if we compare with the other gospel accounts, and even just seeing how few details he does give, we know there’s a lot he’s leaving out. There are a lot of details even Matthew gives that we could focus on, but I’m going to try to stay mostly looking at the bigger picture today. That said, let’s look back in chapter 27 for that casual zombie detail.
Matthew 27:50–53 (CSB): But Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. 51Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.
Alright, so they don’t actually come out of their graves until after Jesus does so first. But their tombs were split open by the earthquake that happened on Friday, when the veil was torn and everything. So, it’s all connected, but Jesus is the FIRST to raise form the dead, and these others follow.
People who saw this happen recognized the power of Yahweh, and, as we saw last week, many recognized and confessed Jesus as the son of God as a result.
I can’t help but think of how this parallels Ezekiel's vision of “dry bones” in the Old Testament (Ek 37)
Against the background of a disenfranchised and hopeless exilic Israel, Ezekiel received the vision of 'Dry Bones', predicting an eschatological resuscitation and resurrection to life and restoration to the land of Yahweh's covenant people.
Ezekiel 37:1–28 (CSB): The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by his Spirit and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them. There were a great many of them on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry. 3Then he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I replied, “Lord God, only you know.” 4He said to me, “Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5This is what the Lord God says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. 6I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8As I looked, tendons appeared on them, flesh grew, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man. Say to it: This is what the Lord God says: Breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these slain so that they may live!” 10So I prophesied as he commanded me; the breath entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army. 11Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Look how they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished; we are cut off.’ 12Therefore, prophesy and say to them, ‘This is what the Lord God says: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, my people, and lead you into the land of Israel. 13You will know that I am the Lord, my people, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I am the Lord. I have spoken, and I will do it. This is the declaration of the Lord.’ ” 15The word of the Lord came to me: 16“Son of man, take a single stick and write on it: Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him. Then take another stick and write on it: Belonging to Joseph—the stick of Ephraim—and all the house of Israel associated with him. 17Then join them together into a single stick so that they become one in your hand. 18When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you explain to us what you mean by these things?’—19tell them, ‘This is what the Lord God says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel associated with him, and put them together with the stick of Judah. I will make them into a single stick so that they become one in my hand.’ 20“When the sticks you have written on are in your hand and in full view of the people, 21tell them, ‘This is what the Lord God says: I am going to take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them into their own land. 22I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel, and one king will rule over all of them. They will no longer be two nations and will no longer be divided into two kingdoms. 23They will not defile themselves anymore with their idols, their abhorrent things, and all their transgressions. I will save them from all their apostasies by which they sinned, and I will cleanse them. Then they will be my people, and I will be their God. 24My servant David will be king over them, and there will be one shepherd for all of them. They will follow my ordinances, and keep my statutes and obey them. 25“ ‘They will live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your ancestors lived. They will live in it forever with their children and grandchildren, and my servant David will be their prince forever. 26I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be a permanent covenant with them. I will establish and multiply them and will set my sanctuary among them forever. 27My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28When my sanctuary is among them forever, the nations will know that I, the Lord, sanctify Israel.’ ”
This vision came at a time of desperation and hopelessness, to a desolate and divided people, to provide hope of renewal, rebirth, of resurrection. Like with many of the prophets, this vision held some messages for the people in the short term, but also spoke of a much larger picture, of a NEW covenant, of a NEW kind of temple/sanctuary, that somehow impacts the whole world.
And the image that God gives to Ezekiel is about as dramatic and memorable as any I could possibly imagine! Bones coming together and forming flesh, it would be terrifying and awesome! And I LOVE the visual details we actually get from Ezekiel!
We don’t get all that visual detail in Matthew, do we? But the parallels are clear, are they not?
And, in this case it’s not just a vision, it’s actually happening! The details of exactly how they came to life, or even what they did or said or experienced when they did, none of that is really important in the context of Matthew’s gospel account. I know I have dozens of questions, and it can be fun to think about, but the focus, both in Ezekiel and Matthew, is the power of God to restore humans, both physically in the flesh, and with the breath of life, the two steps that went into creating humans in the first place.
Christ allowed himself to be physically destroyed, and gave up his very life, only to have BOTH restored to him, and both his death and resurrection seem to have had residual affects all around him.
The picture being painted is like an explosion of LIFE happening at the cross. God so loved the world that he sent his son to nuke it with life.
Again, just describing how I visualize it, it’s not a perfect analogy, maybe not even a good one, but it’s all I can picture!
Later, in Acts, we see how when God sends his spirit, it’s described like flames, which first set the apostles alight, then spreads like wildfire. There, on Pentecost, the affect is a bit more targeted and precise, and at least somewhat more predictable (though certainly no less powerful).
Throughout the events of the crucifixion and resurrection, it’s more like a dirty bomb goes off! But the only thing that was really destroyed was the barrier of hostility between God and humans, represented by that big fat curtain in the temple. And the fallout of this nuclear blast site, whether you look at the acute short term affects or the chronic global impact it has made, is that the radiation set off a highly contagious and pure form of life that has been replicating profusely ever since. New life, for a new humanity, and a new “ancestry” that transcends biology or geography to unite God’s family across the globe.
1 Corinthians 15:20–22 (LSB): But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
Jesus Is Life.
Jesus is life. Those three words are easy to say, and, for me, at this point in my life I have no problem believing that it’s true, but I think I will continue learning and wrestling with what it means for the rest of my life. John, one of the disciples closest to Jesus likes to talk about him in terms of light and life quite a lot, so here are a few excerpts that pretty much say it all:
John 1:1–4 (LEB): In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2This one was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and apart from him not one thing came into being that has come into being. 4In him was life, and the life was the light of humanity.
1 John 4:9 (CSB): God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
John 6:51 (LSB): “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and also the bread which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
1 John 5:11–13 (LSB): And the witness is this, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have that life. 13These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
(Interesting to think about having it without even knowing it, isn’t it? A different perspective on sharing the “good news.”)
1 John 5:20 (LSB): And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.
Much Has Been Given...
Humans were first born into freedom, to be eternally free. To be the representatives of heaven and stewards of the earth.
We were warned of self-righteousness and pride yet ate our fill of it anyway. We became slaves to corruption. Tyrannical oppressors to ourselves, each other, and the earth.
Now we have all been born into captivity and ought to have the utmost compassion for our fellow slaves. In ignorance, we wear shackles round our necks that we dare not remove for fear that our heads may fall off. Our throats are obscured from us, and we wonder if our souls are a myth. The tragedy of this is greater than the subsequent suffering which plagues all beings, for it is a vile and putrid corruption of the divine purpose with which all beings are imbued.
It was necessary for a human to be once again born into freedom. That is, a new Adam, a new human, a new firstborn, for a human or any other creature to truly know freedom once again. Though that man promised freedom to any who would follow him, they feared him and killed him. But a king cannot be shackled by a peasant's slaves, so he returned from the depths of death below, ascended to the throne on high, and eternally lives to be followed
His way is the way of life. Of light. Of truth. Of love. Of goodness. Of beauty.
Therefore, let us not cling to our captors but to the one who sets us free.
To those of you who believe, do you know? Do you know that you are free? Or are you clutching some vestige of captivity because it is familiar? Comfortable? Easy?
So long do we abide in the cold clasp of our captor's shackles that so often their removal is a painful process. Some of us struggle with that process, kicking and screaming to get away from our liberator and run back to captivity where at least we had food we liked. We complain to our liberator that he should have just killed us quickly rather than starving us slowly of our all-important desires, and causing our skin to itch and chafe beneath our loosening shackles.
Yet, ever patient as he has been for millennia, he quietly, gently, pulls us along. Like a parent gently scraping sleep out of the corners of my eyes, while I scream “OUCH, TOO BRIGHT, LET ME GO BACK TO BED!” Patiently, he waits, and gradually, my eyes are starting to focus. Some days I see more clearly than others, and comparing notes with others is key! But more and more I see the truth that is in him, and how it’s reflected, (or not!) in me.
If we are to find true freedom, we must submit to Jesus as his spirit pulls on our hearts and renews our souls, rely on his power to free us, and follow him on the narrow path through the narrow gate to paradise and freedom. True paradise and freedom are established not by conquest and violence, or marked by wealth and influence, but rather established by love and selflessness, and marked by grace and truth.
Then, upon our eyes alighting with truth and our mouths watering with the taste of paradise and freedom, let us share the hope that is the promise of liberation. Of being reborn, not as slaves but as truly free humans to fulfill our true identities as the family of God, representatives of heaven and stewards of the earth, in community with each other.
Ephesians 5:13–14 (LSB): But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. 14For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.”