It’s a fact that without Jesus’ resurrection there would be no Christianity.
There would be no New Testament. No church. There would be no forgiveness of sins. No St John Passion or Easter Oratorio. No Augustine or Luther. No Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. No Charles Wesley or William Wilberforce. Probably, no abolition of slavery, no gender equality, no education for any but the rich, and no health service.
Yet Easter is unrecognised in post-christian Britain: 3 out of 4 people say that Easter is primarily about a long Bank Holiday weekend and guzzling lots of chocolate, and less than 1 in 4 say it marks the resurrection of Jesus.
Read the eyewitness account of the apostles, and you cannot miss their absolutely clear belief:
The resurrection changed everything. Yes, the cross is the climax of each gospel, but without the resurrection the gospels would not have been written. It’s too important to celebrate for one day and not all year round.
So here are four key facts (following just Matthew’s account in his chapter 28), and what they mean today.
Fact one: The first witnesses
v1 “after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, May Magdalen and the other Mary went to look at the tomb”.
Four women are mentioned – John tells us this “other Mary” is the wife of Clopas, uncle of Jesus – the other gospel writers also mention Salome and Joanna.
You will notice that none of these four are men.
But they are the first witnesses of the empty tomb, the stone rolled to the side, the first to see the angel and be told the message in v5,
“you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is risen, come and see where they laid him…go quickly and tell his disciples that they will see him in Galilee”.
they get another surprise, in v9 – Jesus appears to them.
He is there in risen and physical form. They see him first.
Peter is not there. Nor is John. Only the women.
Their gender only matters for one reason: it underlines the historical accuracy of the resurrection gospel story of Matthew.
He writes primarily for Jewish readers, to convince them that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
In Jewish tradition at that time, women did not count as witnesses in court. Josephus writes that the evidence of a woman in court counts about the same as a convicted criminal.
But all Matthew can find as witnesses for the first events of Easter morning is a group of women.
The fact that Matthew has women as his witnesses made the resurrection story less believable to his first readers. Had he been making this up he would have used men. He uses women because that is what actually happened.
Fact two: The empty tomb
But an empty tomb could have several explanations, and Matthew knows this.
It could be that the women were confused in their grief and went to the wrong one, when in fact Jesus’ body was round the corner.
Matthew anticipates this theory by telling us in 27:61 that when Joseph of Arimathea, a believing Jew, buries Jesus in great honour in his own tomb, precisely these two women were there watching opposite the tomb.
Besides which, had Jesus still been in a grave, it would have been easy for the authorities to produce his body when the Church started preaching he had risen, which they never did.
Or the tomb is empty because the disciples stole the body in order to start the false rumour of resurrection. Ancient historians confirm that guards were sometimes placed because grave robbery including body snatching was common.
Matthew has seen this one coming, too. He tells us at the end of chapter 27 that the Jewish council were worried about grave robbery leading to rumours of resurrection, as Jesus was known to have predicted. So they got Pilate the Roman governor to agree to them placing a guard outside the tomb and a seal on it to guarantee no rumours
After the resurrection the guards rush breathlessly back to the Jewish leadership to say the tomb is open and the body gone, and they have seen an angel. Do the chief priests believe their story and ask how they can become Christians too? No, they do what stubborn people trying to hold onto power always do when confronted with evidence they do not like – they dismiss it.
They pay the soldiers what Matthew says is “enough” to keep them quiet.
V13 “you are to say “his disciples came in the night and stole him while we were sleeping”.
Matthew says the story was still circulating among the Jews when he wrote.
Tertullian, in 200, says this theory was as likely as the idea that “the gardener moved the body, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitors to the empty tomb!”
The only explanation that fits the facts is that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ body had been raised.
Fact three: The first appearances
An empty tomb and a shining angel are guaranteed to make the most courageous people more than a little nervous. No wonder the angel’s first words in v5 are “Do not be afraid”.
But remarkably he continues, “He is not here, he has risen, see where he lay, he will see you again”. What a mood-changing sentence! So in v8 Matthew says
“the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him” (literally they knelt before him).
One thing is clear from this account: Jesus is dramatically risen in bodily, physical form.
Sceptics have suggested that the vision of Jesus is a dream or hallucination of the women, a spiritually uplifting message that somehow caught on as “resurrection”.
But for Matthew the resurrection of Jesus is a physical reality not a spiritual idea.
Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is a powerful truth that can give joy to sad hearts.
But it was not a happy dream that Jesus was somehow alive in their hearts that changed the women that morning, it was the appearance of Jesus with them in such real form that he could speak to them and they could kneel before him and hold his feet.
Fact four: The changed lives
We are told earlier in the passion story that Peter denied Jesus – three times – Judas betrayed him, and the other 10 including Matthew, scattered and left him as soon as he was arrested. Even the loyal women follow to the side of the cross, but are not saying “he will rise again, so we just have to wait as Sunday’s coming!”. They are grieving and full of regret.
But within minutes their sadness becomes joy and they are running to tell that the tomb is empty, an angel has appeared, and they have met Jesus alive.
Within hours, Peter and John have visited the tomb for themselves, the disciples have met Jesus and heard him breathe peace over them. These events turn fearful men into courageous preachers who live and die to share the news that Jesus died but has risen.
Experts agree1 that the moment which made his followers realise that Jesus IS the Messiah whose resurrection vindicates his death for our sins, and the Son of God, not just a great human teacher, is Easter morning (see Romans 1:3-4 and 10:9-13). New Testament Christology – and Trinitarian Christian faith – arises from Easter.
The joyful conviction that Jesus is risen would shake the city, conquer the Empire, and change the world with the love and hope of Christ. Resurrection is for life, not just for Easter.
1 See NT Wright “Surprised by Hope” (SPCK, 2007) or his longer “Resurrection of he Son of God” (SPCK, 2003). Also LJ Hurtado “Resurrection-Faith and the ‘Historical’ Jesus” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 11 (2013) 35–52