Session #27  (Most quotes are NIV)


A careful reading of Matthew 28:4-5 might make you say “huh?”  It says “The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.  The angel said to the women,Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.”  It makes it sound like the men were catatonic but the women were still able to converse with the angel.  Matthew is compacting the story here, with good reason.  You can tell from my “now-27 sessions” that each writer cannot cover every little detail, or the Gospel gets too long and unwieldy.  The angel may have presented a frightening visage to the guards, and changed into a more calming personage for the women prior to their arrival at the tomb.  To expect to be given every little detail is unreasonable—and, for some people, every little detail which is missing is an opportunity to start a new religion!

One thing the reader might notice about many of the Easter morning stories is that one theme keeps showing up:  the imperative phrase “Stop being afraid!”    Psychologists will tell us that fear can impact our ability to think properly AND to maintain information in our memory banks.  Whether it is an angel or Jesus saying something, we need to hear someone say “Snap out of it!” before we can process new information.  We need to settle down and focus.  Otherwise we would have a narrative like this about the women’s report to the disciples:  “There was a guy at the tomb.”  “What guy?”  “I don’t know.”  “What did he tell you?”  “I don’t know.”  “Why did you come to us?”  “I don’t know.”

  Confusion is going to be the order of the day on Easter morning.  Nothing has gone right for anyone!  The Jewish leaders were upset because the grave is empty and they don’t understand why.  The crowds from Galilee are still reeling from seeing their hoped-for Messiah killed.  The women are weeping at the loss of Jesus.   The disciples are not only confused and grieving, but they are worried that they are next on the hit list.  We can only guess what’s going through Pilate’s mind.  And the population of Jerusalem has a temple veil torn to bits and dead people walking around in the streets.  Now throw in a second massive earthquake, and, as the saying goes, “If you can remain calm under these circumstances, you just don’t understand the situation!”


Do you remember the words of the creed?  The Apostle’s Creed (our baptismal creed) says “He was crucified, dead, and buried.  He descended into hell…” The Roman Catholic Church calls this Descensus Christi ad Inferos (which is Latin for “The Descent of Christ into Hell.”)  This belief has been a part of the Church creedal doctrine since VERY early (strong evidence as early as the 2nd century A.D.)

The Biblical passage I Peter 3:18-20 is the leading passage for our creed:  “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

This doctrine is expressed in the definitive statement of Lutheran Faith called the Book of Concord.  Within it is found the following:  The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration IX, sub-points 2 and 3, states “We believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his might.  We should not, however, trouble ourselves with high and acute thoughts as to how this occurred.”

This belief is part of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal and Eastern Orthodox doctrine.  Calvinists (today’s so-called “Protestants and Evangelicals”) claim to believe it, but they do not!  Calvin (always trying to “make sense” out of everything) put Christ’s descent into hell as a part of Jesus’ suffering PRIOR to his death.  In other words, Calvin sees it as part of Christ’s payment for our sins.  The Bible, AFTER Jesus said “It is finished” and died on the cross, presents Jesus’ trip to hell as a “victory march,” not suffering:  He announced to the Devil and those in hell “I WON!  This place no longer has any power over my children!”

This trip to hell occurred after Jesus’ death on Good Friday and before the Easter morning resurrection.  The Bible does not choose to give us more detail, and the Gospel writers omit this detail from the weekend—there’s a much bigger story to tell about Easter morning!

What is the point of going to hell?  The point is that Jesus—both God and man—strolled in and out of hell like He owned the place, and declared that this horrible place holds no terror over you and me any longer because He has broken its chains forever.  It really IS finished!


If we try to compare all the details of all the stories in the four Gospels, it can get pretty confusing.  But it would appear that the description of the very first sighting of the Risen Christ goes to Mary Magdalene, as told to us by John’s Gospel, chapter 20.  The Gospels interweave the stories of the open tomb, and the women and the disciples going to the grave site.

The order of events seems to be:  the women arriving with the spices are told by the angels that Jesus has risen; the women run away and report this to the disciples; Peter and John run to the grave; apparently the two don’t see any angels but they do see the grave linens very neatly folded (Jesus doesn’t leave a mess!  Mom taught him better than that!); the disciples take off scratching their heads and head home; but Mary Magdalene, summoning some courage, has returned to the grave site crying her eyes out; now Mary bravely sticks her head into the tomb where she spots two angels who ask her why she is weeping; she then explains she doesn’t know what happened to the body.  When she turns around, “the body” has been standing behind her but isn’t nearly as dead as she expected!  She thinks it’s the gardener until Jesus speaks her name.  She then recognizes Jesus through her tears, and he converses with her.   

John 20:18 says “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.”  Touchdown!  Mary Magdalene “gets the game ball” for the first one to see Jesus!


John 20:17 “Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

It is often asked what Jesus meant by the words “Don’t touch me” or “Don’t hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended…”  Ray Brown, Anchor Bible: John, Vol. 2, p. 1012 gives a reasonable answer:  The imperative refers to an on-going clinging, and Jesus wants Mary to get it out of her mind that Jesus is back permanently and things will be like they were before the crucifixion. 

But the more interesting question is this:  why does Jesus say “to my God and your God?”  The entire Gospel of John has tried to demonstrate that Jesus really is God in the flesh.  Therefore, if Jesus IS God, why does he talk like this?

This is so typical of John’s Gospel.  We’ll speak more about this when it comes to “doubting Thomas” and his meeting with our Lord.  But for now, just ponder this:  John keeps giving us hints about what’s really going on with Jesus, and then snatching the idea away with potentially confusing phrases that can lead to more than just one interpretation of who Jesus is.

John puts his reader in the hot seat:  “Here are the events.  These are the facts!  I’ve given you hints.  Do you REALLY understand?  Have you got the right answer yet?”