NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 1: The day after the Sabbath was the first day of the week. That day at dawn Mary Magdalene and the other woman named Mary were going to visit the tomb.
It is important to know that Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon and that the Sabbath began at 6 PM that same day. Visiting the grave or doing any work such as bringing spices would have been against Sabbath Day laws. So the women waited until the Sabbath was over at 6 PM Saturday evening. But by this time, it would have been too late to go out to where Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was located, deposit the spices and perfumes, and then get back to town before dark. So they waited until early the first day of the week which was Sunday. While the Sabbath (Saturday) held a very holy and special place in the Jewish calendar, at that time Sunday was not revered as highly. We find a very interesting story that is tied to Sunday for those who decided to fast that day.
In the main Jewish study guide for the law, there is a section that deals with certain people who fast that are called “ma’amadot.” It says, “On Sunday [they read]: ‘In the beginning’,1 and ‘Let there be an expanse.’”2 They list Sunday as the first day of the week. It goes on to say: “Maʿamadot, (Hebrew: ‘pillars,’ or ‘posts’), were 24 groups of Jewish laymen that witnessed, by turns of one week each, the daily sacrifice in the Second Temple of Jerusalem as representatives of the common people. Gradually, maʿamadot were organized in areas outside Jerusalem, so that the people could hold special services in their villages while their representatives were present in the Temple. Some scholars view these village maʿamadot as the first step toward regular synagogue worship.”3 Little did they know that on this particular Sunday when they stood to read, “In the beginning…” they were speaking symbolically about a new beginning of a new covenant between God and mankind. And when they read, “Let there be an expanse,” it signified the divide between the Jews and Christians in the family of God.
Also, some people believe that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb was rolled away to allow Jesus to exit, but later facts prompt us to conclude that this was not necessary. After He died He was no longer restricted to the physical realm. So, the stone may have been rolled away so that those who came later to attest to His resurrection were able to enter the tomb to verify that it was empty; to find His burial cloth and know it was His way of saying that He left of His own accord.
Verses 2-4: Earlier, an angel of the Lord had suddenly come from the sky, and there was a huge earthquake. The angel went to the tomb and rolled the stone away from the entrance. Then he sat on top of the stone. The angel was shining as bright as lightning. His clothes were as white as snow. The soldiers guarding the tomb were very afraid of the angel. They began to shake with fear and fainted and as they fell to the ground.
We could say, the angels rolled the stone away to let Joseph of Arimathea know he could have his tomb back. Matthew tells us that the Roman soldiers stationed there were awestruck when only one angel appeared. The Psalmist clearly stated, “You make the winds your messengers and flames of fire your servants.”4 One Jewish compiler of Rabbinical sayings adds: “And how is their fire nourished? By the flame-like splendor of God’s presence, for it is written: ‘In the light of the King’s countenance is life5.”6 What a wonderful message for believers today who are considered to be God’s messengers. The flame in our souls and in our message can only be maintained by God’s continuous presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit.
Daniel saw a similar celestial being. He wrote: “His body was like a smooth, shiny stone. His face was bright like lightning. His eyes were like flames of fire. His arms and feet were shiny like polished brass. His voice was loud like a crowd of people.”7 I don’t find it surprising that they all fainted and fell to the ground helpless. We read where Rabbi Judah ben Il’ai had a practice that on the eve of the Sabbath, they filled a basin with hot water and brought it to him, and he washed his face, hands, and feet, then he wrapped himself and sat in fringed linen robes. It was said by those who saw him, “…and was like an angel of the Lord of Hosts.”8
And further on, the Rabbis talk about ministering angels with this comment: They are “…distinguished in dress, being robed in white and turbaned.”9 So what Matthew was describing could not be scoffed at even by the Jewish leaders, lest they offend their revered brethren. After Daniel told about seeing the angel in his vision, he says, “I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision. The men with me didn’t see the vision, but they were still afraid. They were so afraid that they ran away and hid.”10 We find that later on a skeptic and opponent of this New Way, named Saul of Tarsus, would have a similar experience. So the reaction of the soldiers certainly was no surprise to those who knew about such appearances in the past.
Verses 5-7: When the women arrived and saw the angel sitting on the stone, the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus, the one who was crucified on the cross. But He is not here. He has risen from death, as He said He would. Come take a look at the place where His body was laying. Then go quickly and tell His followers, ‘Jesus has risen from death. He is going into Galilee and will be there before you. You will see Him there.’” Then the angel said, “Now I’ve given you the message.”
It was now the third day after Jesus died on the cross. There may have been more than one reason why these women came on Sunday, other than it was the first day after the Sabbath, which allowed them to walk the distance from where they were staying to the tomb. One of the earliest copies of the Jewish Verbal Law states clearly: “For the first three days after death, the soul flutters over the body, thinking that it will return to it. When it sees that the appearance of the corpse deteriorates, it leaves the body and goes its way.”11 It is also noteworthy, that the women came at dawn. Not only does this represent the beginning of a day, but in the context of prophecy, it would be the dawn of a new era. This is what Daniel saw in his vision.12
In other words, since our Lord said He would rise the third day, could it be that these women knew this would be the day on which He had His last chance to fulfill His prophecy? So they came to see it happen? If so, their anticipation was rewarded immediately. But why so early in the morning? We may have a clue from what the Rabbis’ said that was part of their Verbal Law. They implied: “Evidence of the identify of a corpse may be given only during the first three days after death.”13 To put it another way, had they come later on in the week, they may not have been able to identify Jesus in order to anoint His body as they had planned to do. And one more thing to think about, could that angel who rolled the stone away and gave the message to the women that Jesus had risen and told her to tell His followers, have been Jesus Himself?
1 Genesis 1:1
2 Ibid. 1:6
3 Mishnah, Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Ta’anit, Ch. 4:3
4 Psalm 104:4
5 Proverbs 16:15
6 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op. cit., Piska 6:1, p. 167
7 Daniel 10:6
8 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 25b
9 Ibid. Seder Nashim, Masekhet Nedarim, folio 20b, footnote (5)
10 Daniel 10:7
11 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit., Second Division: Tractate Mo’ed Qatan, Ch. 3:5, [I:7 E]
12 Daniel 12:1-2
13 Mishnah, op. cit., Third Division: Nashim, Ch. 16:3