Wayne Grudem is a professor of New Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He is author of “Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine“, a well-crafted tool that I continue to refer to for answers. Before moving to Arizona some years ago, Dr. Grudem had a long tenure at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. That’s where I experienced his New Testament class. He brought the amount of energy that is expected when a football coach huddles his team together before a game. Every class began with a hymn, a very different, but memorable way to bring the Gospel down into our hands and to ready our hearts for its study. From that point on, it was go time. One particular day, he gave a seemingly easy assignment: take all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and systematize them. In other words, make them flow as one story… because it is one story.
Jesus’ Resurrection: How Each Gospel Records the Resurrection
It took me forever, but what it forced me to do was to fill in the details while keeping the biblical account and its inerrancy solid. As we all know, the resurrection of Jesus is everything to our faith and to the completion of God’s story, then, now, and at the judgement seat. How we instruct our congregants on defending and keeping the doctrinal truth of Jesus’ resurrection is pivotal in today’s post-Christian world. I would encourage you to take on systematizing the stories of resurrection, dividing your church members into four groups in a Bible study session, or preaching it from the pulpit (with a detailed handout in the bulletin, perhaps).
Here is a synopsis of each account and my notes on how I bring the stories together. It might be helpful reference as you explore cementing the truth of Jesus’ resurrection into the hearts and minds of your congregation.
Sunday at dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to look in the tomb. They encounter a violent earthquake and then see an angel come down from the sky and roll back the stone. The angel sits on the moved stone, looking like lightning with his clothes as white as snow. This made the guards faint. Then the angel speaks to the women telling them to not be afraid because Jesus is no longer dead. He is risen! The angel invites them to see the emptiness in the tomb and instructs the two women to hurry along to tell the disciples of the great news. They are also to instruct the disciples to go to Galilee to see Jesus, who is already on his way there. They leave to do what the angel instructs. Along the path, they meet Jesus! “Greetings,” he says as they nearly tackled him in their joy and begin to worship him. He tells them the same thing as the angel. Meanwhile, the guards who fainted wake up and go tell the chief priests what just happened. The chief priests consult with the elders and they come up with a believable lie. They give the soldiers a lot of money and instruct them to say, “During the night, someone stole Jesus’ body while you were sleeping.” The story seems to satisfy many because it becomes something many people hear. The disciples go to Galilee to meet Jesus on a mountain and he gives them the commission to go and make disciples.
On Sunday, just after sunrise, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb with spices. They want to anoint Jesus’ body. Along the way, they ask each other, “How are we going to do this? Who’s going to roll away the stone from the tomb?” When they get there, they look up and see that the stone is already moved. They enter into the tomb and see a man in a white robe sitting down. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells them, “You are looking for Jesus but he’s not here. He was crucified but is now risen! See right here. This is where he was laid. So, go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is alive and going to Galilee to meet them.” The women are bewildered and frightened by the news. They run from the tomb and don’t say anything to anyone. [Cut to Mark’s second ending.] Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and she goes ahead and tells the disciples who are weeping and mourning. Jesus then appears to two others on a country road. The two return and report what they see to the other disciples who still are reluctant to believe. Later on, Jesus appears to the Eleven as they eat dinner. He rebukes them because they don’t believe the accounts that he certainly is risen from the dead. Then he gives them the call to go and preach the news to the whole world (and mentions something about snakes and poison, too).
Very early on Sunday morning, the women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and others) go to the tomb. They enter and see it’s empty. While they wonder why, two men in clothes like lightning appear before them. The women panic and bow down in reverence. The men say, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here. He’s alive! Didn’t he tell you this?” They remember Jesus’ words and go to tell the disciples. The disciples don’t believe the story. They think it’s nonsense. But Peter stands up and runs to the tomb. He goes inside and sees strips of linen lying by themselves. He wonders what is going on. Two disciples leave for Emmaus, seven miles away. Along the road, Jesus appears to them in disguise. They are baffled that the strange man hasn’t heard about Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection. Still in disguise, Jesus says they are foolish not to believe and explains God’s plan from Moses onward, especially about himself. Only when they sit down to eat, and Jesus gives thanks and breaks the bread, do they realize Jesus’ identity. Jesus disappears and they return to Jerusalem to tell the others. While they tell the Eleven the story, Jesus enters the room. He asks them why they are troubled. He knows they think he’s a ghost. “Don’t doubt,” he says. “Look at my hands and feet. Touch me and see for yourself. A ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones.” He then asks for some food and eats. He tells them again about why he suffered and rose from the dead, and commands them to go and be his witnesses.
Early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and discovers the stone moved from the entrance. She is frightened and runs to get Simon Peter and John. She says, “Come quickly. They’ve taken his body.” So Peter and John race to the tomb. John gets there first and looks inside the tomb. He sees the strips of linen but doesn’t go inside. Peter finally arrives and barrels past John. He sees the linen and also the cloth that was around Jesus’ head folded up by itself. They leave and still don’t understand what is going on. Mary returns to the tomb on her own and is weeping when she looks inside. To her amazement, she sees two angels in white, one seated at the foot and one at the head of where Jesus’ body once laid. They ask her why she’s crying. She’s honest with them. “They’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where.” She turns around in grief and sees who she thinks is a gardener. He asks her who she’s looking for and she explains the same thing, asking him if he knew anything. Then Jesus simply says, “Mary.” Mary turns to him and cries out, “Rabboni!” Jesus asks her to go and tell the others. She runs back and exclaims, “I have seen the Lord!” That evening, Jesus enters into a locked room of frightened disciples. Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” and breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus leaves before Thomas arrives. (He isn’t with the others). Thomas says to his fellow disciples that he doesn’t believe their stories about the resurrection. A week later, Jesus returns to the upper room and says to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Later on, Jesus appears to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias (or Galilee). The fishing isn’t going well so he shouts from the shore to try the other side. When they do, the catch begins to break their nets. Jesus cooks and eats fish with them on the shore. He also tells Peter, “Feed my sheep,” three times.
First, who came to the tomb? All accounts include Mary Magdalene, but Matthew adds “the other Mary,” Mark gives reference to James’s mother and Salome, and Luke adds Joanna without Salome. John alone includes only Mary Magdalene. If all these women come to the tomb, why aren’t they all mentioned in each Gospel? One explanation might be that they each come at separate times, but this seems unlikely since the reference to early morning is in all the accounts. A more probable reason is that there was even a larger group of women and a few are of particular significance to the authors. For example, Mark includes Salome because she’s also listed among the women at Christ’s crucifixion (15:40). Similarly, Matthew gives reference to the women he cites earlier when Jesus is buried (27:61). Luke helps us link this to a group. He say that the women who follow Christ to the grave are those, “women who had come with Jesus from Galilee” (23:55). In Luke 8:1-3, he says, “The twelve were with [Jesus], and also some women… Mary (called Magdalene)… Joanna… Suzanna, and many others.” Mark also helps us. In 15:41, he says, “In Galilee, these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.”
Second, how many angels are at the tomb and where are they located? We could surmise a similar explanation to the women: there is a “great company of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:3) and only several are mentioned. It’s easy enough to infer the same victory party in the skies of Incarnation as in the skies of Resurrection. Another explanation begins with Matthew’s account. Matthew says an angel is outside the tomb and instructs them to first see where Christ was laid. Matthew never reports the women entering the tomb where other angels are seated. Similarly, Mark only reports an angel, “as they enter the tomb” (16:5). This may be a reference to the same angel in Matthew’s account. Luke and John only write about what is seen in the tomb, not outside it. We can conclude that there must be at least three angels, one guarding the entrance and two inside the tomb.
Third, when did the disciples find out about the news and to whom did Jesus appear first? Matthew and Mark tell us that the women go immediately to the disciples and Jesus is already walking toward Galilee. Matthew also adds that they are greeted by Jesus on the road. Luke says Jesus appears on the Emmaus Road and then to his disciples. John says Jesus appears to Mary, then the disciples, again to Thomas who missed it, and finally out at the seashore. It might be best to put this in proposed chronological points:
- Mary and the other women leave the tomb for Galilee. They encounter Jesus. (Matthew)
- Mary returns to the tomb with Peter and John. She’s crying because she doesn’t understand and Peter and John and the rest of the disciples don’t believe it. Perhaps this makes her doubt the truth too, that the appearance on the road was only a vision of Jesus. (John)
- Jesus appears to Mary. (John)
- Jesus appears to the two on the Emmaus Road. (Luke)
- Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room. (Mark, Luke, John)
- Thomas encounters Jesus along with the others in the upper room. (John)
- The disciples go fishing in the Sea of Galilee and eat with Jesus. (John)
- The disciples stay in Galilee and meet Jesus on the mountain to receive final instructions. (Matthew)
- The disciples return to Jerusalem and stay there until Pentecost. (Luke-Acts)
There is more that could be said. Concerning Jesus’ resurrection, Paul sums up the details, saying, “[Jesus] was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time” (I Corinthians 15:4-6). The good news is that Christ is risen! He is no longer in the tomb! We have witnesses to this Truth!
However we harmonize the accounts, we may not reach a satisfactory placement of all of what occurs. Remember, we have the beginning of Acts, too. The conclusion we want our congregations to resonate with is the reliability of Jesus’ resurrection as it is accounted for in the Gospels. We need not shy away from perceived inconsistencies. Rather, with faith and the truth of Jesus’ saving work, let’s discuss them and reason together.