Easter comes along every year. It’s the basis of our faith, but if we’re not intentional, the celebration can become tired and altogether expected. Some of it should be. Longstanding liturgy or a traditional form of ceremony is a significant way to invite us into the work and wonder of God. For example, many keep the tradition of a passion play or a Good Friday service called Tenebrae which is Latin for shadows. However, in an effort to continue to share the story with fresh eyes, sometimes tying details together or linking moments to other parts of Scripture can help. In that vein, here are 12 significant death and resurrection details that have the potential to preach.
12 Significant Death And Resurrection Details That Preach
Dreams (Matthew 27:19)
Pilate’s wife sends a message while he’s sitting on the judge’s seat. “Don’t do anything to this innocent man,” it reads. “I’ve had a tormenting dream about him.” Matthew records the incident which allows a moment whereby Pilate can exit the scene. As we know, dreams are important in Scripture. They carry the story of God’s communication from at least Jacob onward. Even Joseph, the husband of Mary, experiences a dream to go to Egypt until Herod’s death. Here, in the crisis of Jesus’ trial, a dream enters. Why? It’s a curious detail that might link us to I Corinthians 10:13 (“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”), as well as new ideas about how God might communicate to us.
Myrrh reappears (Mark 15:23)
When we look back in the Old Testament, we see myrrh mixed with other spices to create an anointing oil for the Holy of Holies (Exodus 30:22-29). The wise men bring myrrh to the holy family soon after Jesus is born (Matthew 2:11). Now we see it in Mark 15 again. It’s mixed with wine and is used here to help with pain. Jesus doesn’t accept the mixture. Whatever Jesus’ reason for not accepting the mixture – perhaps it’s to feel all the pain of our sin – myrrh’s reoccurrence is interesting. I like that Nicodemus brings, “a mixture of myrrh and aloes,” to the tomb for Jesus’ body (John 19:39). If we connect Exodus with Matthew, Mark and John, the idea of anointing can enliven our view of Jesus’ holy sacrifice.
Top to bottom (Mark 15:38; Matthew 27:50-51)
The Temple’s curtain which separates the Holy of Holies is torn in two. The curtain is presumed to be 60 feet high and at least 4 inches thick. We can presume that since Mark and Matthew report it to happen “from top to bottom”, God is behind the timing and the doing. It’s a minor mention that shatters the formulaic access to God via the Temple and through a priest. In one sentence, the Gospel writers sum up all of Hebrews and give us confidence that with Jesus’ last breath, the sacrificial system dies. Now, Jesus invites us into a unique place. We are to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2).
Waiting for the Kingdom (Luke 23:51)
Joseph of Arimathea does not go along with the decision to crucify Jesus. Instead, we learn from Luke that he is, “a good and upright man,” and, “waiting for the kingdom of God.” His posture is right; he has his lamp full of oil and waiting with purpose. I like the word waiting here. It reminds me that patience is part of our lives as believers. Joseph is in the middle of the handiwork of God and he only sees in part what he will know more fully a few days later. He acts inside his waiting, daring to go to Pilate, hoping to ask for Jesus’ body, willing to give his barren tomb to the one he didn’t have the ability to save from death. What are we doing inside our waiting for the kingdom of God?
Pilate was surprised (Mark 15:44)
Why was Pilate surprised? The easy and straightforward answer is the extrabiblical sources that say crucifixions can take up to three days, often ending with breaking the bones of the victim to cause suffocation. Jesus dies in a few hours. Perhaps Pilate is surprised because he had a hope there would be a way to prevent his death or do it a different, more expedient way. Perhaps at the moment Joseph of Arimathea asks for Jesus’ body, his wife’s fears are validated. We don’t know fully why Pilate is surprised, but we can use this detail to ask ourselves if we are surprised – at Jesus taking on our sin and dying so horrifically in our place.
The tombs broke open (Matthew 27:52)
These are no zombies, but seeing tombs breaking open with dead people resurrecting would be horrifying. It’s during a strange afternoon that went dark early. This strange phenomenon adds to a chaotic, unique day. We don’t know why the tombs open, but we can assume it’s tied in with Jesus declaring, “It is finished!” No longer will death sting. The resurrection of many holy people is a tangible sign of the curse being lifted. In contrast, I think of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs, “which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). When we think of the things that make us die, the entanglements and entrapments of the world, are we working toward resurrection or hiding behind a facade?
Folded clothes (John 20:7)
Jesus is in no rush to leave the tomb. I like to imagine God nudging him alive with a soft, fatherly voice, “It’s time.” The folded clothes placed to the side of where he lay, paints a picture of providence. Jesus knows when and how the next events will play out. There is no shroud of mystery; it’s all victory. Are we confident in that victory? Are we calm in life’s challenges? Are we singing the hymn pinned by Fanny Crosby in 1875: “All the way my Savior leads me / Cheers each winding path I tread / Gives me grace for every trial / Feeds me with the living bread. / Though my weary steps may falter / And my soul athirst may be / Gushing from the Rock before me / Lo! a spring of joy I see.”
The sitting angel (Matthew 28:2)
When have we heard about an angel sitting? Angels are bustling up and down Jacob’s ladder and hover overhead at Jesus’ birth. They enter dreams and visions with messages all through Scripture, but here, at the final act before our long waiting until his return again, the angel sits. Likened to the folded clothes, this angel at rest is a prompt for us. Remember it is, “by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The Ark of the Covenant (John 20:12)
The Ark of the Covenant has a place of mercy, an atonement cover, between the two angels, one at its head and the other at its foot (Exodus 37:6). It’s a beautiful picture of God’s holiness and presence. We see the atonement cover referred to again in Hebrews 9 when the author connects the tabernacle to Jesus himself, the blood of bulls completed by the blood of “Christ… the mediator of a new covenant.” In John, a clear picture of the Ark is seen with the position of the angels. In between, the atonement of Jesus’ body rested for three days before the mighty work of resurrection.
Don’t hold onto me (John 20:17)
Have you ever held onto an embrace just a little longer than the other person? This is what I imagine Mary does to Jesus. He wants to keep him close. She doesn’t want to lose him again. Jesus tells her to let go in a tender way, and then instructs her to go tell the disciples about his resurrection (and close-at-hand ascension). Mary needed to let go and work for Jesus. How often do we hold onto Jesus because it’s safer than working for him? It’s good to go and be refreshed on the mountain, like in the Transfiguration of Jesus in Mark 9, but recall what Jesus does when the disciples want to stay and build an altar. He leaves immediately and goes to minister, namely to the boy with an unclean spirit.
Taking captivity captive (Psalms 68:18; Ephesians 4:8-9)
I add this one because it makes it into the creeds: ” He descended into Hell, and on the third day rose again…” We don’t know exactly what occurs between the death of Jesus and his Sunday resurrection. The tradition of the church is to keep silent in between, in part because of Jesus’ journey to Hell. We know he takes “captivity captive,” a phrase from Psalm 68 that Paul quotes in Ephesians. The Psalmist says, “You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive.” We have no more chains to weight our careless feet to the captivity we once knew. We now can, “Stand fast… in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).