Summary of the Text
Earthquakes & Cosmic Animation
In Matthew 27:51, we read of an earthquake that occurred the moment Jesus breathed his last breath. Matthew wants us to note that the following chain of events (including the earthquake) are catalyzed by Jesus’ death: 1) curtain torn in the holiest place of the temple, 2) earth shaken and rocks split, 3) unearthing of deceased “saints” from their tombs, 4) resurrection appearances of these saints within the city, and 5) the profession of the centurion keeping watch over the crucified Jesus, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (v. 54).
Matthew’s point? Jesus’ death is cataclysmic. Its impact is not merely confined to family and friends, disciples and detractors, but it involves nature itself. It evokes a response of wondrous belief, and why wouldn’t it? But, that is not all. There is more shaking.
As we are all well aware of seismic activity, there are aftershocks. Just such a shock occurs on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew does not report the quake with the geological precision of a California Institute of Technology Seismologist pinpointing the location of fault lines and epicenters, but once again, associates the movement of the earth with this supernatural occurrence, this reversal of death. In Zeus-like fashion, the messenger of the Lord is hurled from heaven with the appearance of lightning to roll away the “resurrected one’s” tomb.
What is going on with all the cosmic intervention? Doesn’t it sound a little “Marvel-ous”? My son has an Action Bible that he received when he was a little tyke. It depicts the stories of the miraculous, including Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the flare and flavor of a comic book. While some might find such a comparison sacrilegious, it is hard not to think of the larger set of stories from Greek mythology and our modern Hollywood take on its pantheon of gods and their heroic works (older German theology made such comparisons of heroic archetypes with perhaps often less-than satisfying conclusions). We all long for a superhuman hero: Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor, Hercules, and Prometheus.
Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ passion and resurrection gives an animated impression, but rather than tapping into a mythology that serves human beings in their understanding of the nature around them or a modern sentiment that wishes for something “greater than” in its entertainment, the story of the resurrection does not serve our fancies, but those of the God who became one of us in the first place. In Jesus, we have more than a heroic figure, we have a God who resets the course of human history and ushers in an enduring kingdom.
Matthew’s preferred reference to Jesus throughout his Gospel is “Son of Man.” Daniel 7:13-14 says,
…there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and kingdoms should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which will not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed
The cosmic reverberations of the death and resurrection of the Son of Man usher in the kingdom reign that Jesus predicted. The resurrection “vindicates Jesus’ identity and mission,” as put by NT scholar Jeannine K. Brown in her Teach the Text Commentary on Matthew by BakerBooks.
In his Matthew for Everyone, N. T. Wright says,
Take away the resurrection of Jesus…and you leave Matthew without a gospel. The cross is the climax of his story, but it only makes the sense it does as the cross of the one who was then raised from the dead. The great discourses of the gospel–the Sermon on the Mount, and all the rest–are his way of saying that Jesus is…Israel’s Messiah. He is the one who is giving Israel and the world the new Law through which God’s new way of being human has been unveiled before the world. But all this is true only because the one who proclaimed God’s blessings on his followers, the one who announced God’s woes on those who went their own ways, and the one who spoke God’s kingdom-message in parables, is now the risen Lord.
Preaching the Resurrection When Destruction Still Reigns
With all that said, how does this preach just months removed from the devastation experienced in Anatolia and the continued shaking of the earth by artillery shells in Ukraine?
It is difficult to think of a massive earthquake being associated with anything good in light of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey-Syria. What is the good news? One earthquake and its aftershocks caused the burial of tens of thousands and the other the removal of the stone that once covered the tomb of Jesus. One produced death and the other life. How do we speak of earthquakes to announce the reign of God? How do we preach the resurrection when death and destruction still reign?
Perhaps that is easier than one thinks. Like the story of Mary and Martha who weep for their entombed brother in John 11 while wondering why Jesus tarried across the Jordan, but waiting with expectation, numerous people long for some glimpse of hope in the face of the current disaster. It is for hope that there actually is some “good news” when the presses seem to print only the propaganda of death; that flattened buildings, crushed bodies, saber-rattling warmongers, and the aching hollowness of pandemics, endemics, and loss of life are not the final word.
When we preach the resurrection to a people ensconced in pain, we preach the words of Psalm 30 because of the victorious work of the Son of Man, “weeping may linger for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 31:5). We declare to devastated, discouraged, and depressed people that because of the empty tomb, God will turn, “our mourning into dancing…and clothe us with joy,” (Ps. 31:11).
Paul Chappell says, “Because of the empty tomb, we have peace. Because of his resurrection, we can have peace even during the most troubling times because we know he is in control of all that happens in the world.”
One final word that needs repeating. God chose two women to be the primary witnesses of this history-altering news of God’s kingdom reversal. While the patriarchy of their culture declared them unworthy, Jesus thought otherwise. They are pivotal to the proclamation of the Gospel as its “first evangelists.” Not only does Jesus’ kingdom take away the sting of death, but it will right the wrongs of history and in time take away that which separates Jew from Greek and male from female for all are one in Christ Jesus.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California.
He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
We live and die; Christ died and lived!
A Little Less Dark
In C.S. Lewis’ famous “children’s story,” The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan and Lucy mourn the death of the great lion king Aslan, who sacrificed his life for the kingdom of Narnia. The narrator describes the somber tone as the two weep over their lost leader:
I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been—if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you—you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. . . . But at last Lucy noticed two other things. One was that the sky on the East side of the hill was a little less dark than it had been an hour ago. The other was some movement going on in the grass at her feet.