Note: Ordinarily I don’t favor a teacher inventing his or her own lesson in lieu of teaching the lesson — however modified — appearing in the manual. In this case, though, our ward discussed Lesson 27 less than three months ago, on Easter Sunday, and then the bishop or Sunday School president decided to repeat that lesson today. Even though I would have taught it quite differently from the way my alternate teacher gave it, I still couldn’t see it being a successful lesson following so closely on the heels of the last time it was taught. So I’ve departed from my usual support-the-curriculum pattern and written my own lesson to suggest ways to enhance our scripture study, using one of the accounts covered in Lesson 27 as the basic example. I’m sorry if that offends any strict stick-to-the-manual readers. These are exceptional circumstances.
Lesson 27: “He Is Not Here, for He Is Risen”
Purpose: To help class members feel gratitude for the Savior’s Resurrection and the blessings it brings us.
1. Mary Magdalene and other women are witnesses of the resurrected Lord.
2. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus are witnesses of the resurrected Lord.
3. The apostles are witnesses of the resurrected Lord.
4. Some of the Apostles see Jesus again at the Sea of Tiberias.
(3. Other witnesses to the resurrected Lord.)
Today’s lesson concerns the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the witnesses to his resurrection, with accounts drawn from all four of the New Testament gospels. Our ward discussed this lesson in April, on Easter Sunday, when we reviewed the accounts of the women meeting the resurrected Lord near his empty tomb, and the reunions Jesus had with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, when they were gathered in Galilee, and on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius when Jesus commissioned Peter and the other apostles to “Feed my sheep.”
Rather than reviewing again so soon what happened in the hours and days following the Resurrection, I’d like us to look at a single account – Matthew 28 – and look at how we know what we know, how the Scriptures, Matthew, at least, tell us about the Resurrection.
Matthew 28 is relatively brief, only 20 verses long. To start with, could I please have a volunteer read those 20 verses to us. Notice that there are three distinct stories told in this chapter – try to identify those stories as [he] reads. [Or, to save time, ask the class members to glance over the chapter and identify the three stories. The paragraph symbols give good clues to distinguishing the stories in this chapter.]
The Resurrection of Jesus
1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. 2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. 3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: 4 And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. 5 And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. 6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. 7 And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. 8 And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. 9 And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. 10 Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.
The Report of the Guard
11 Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. 12 And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, 13 Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. 14 And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. 15 So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.
The Commissioning of the Disciples
16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. 17 And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Now, most of the time when we read scripture, we read straight through a chapter or two without pausing. Oh, we might look up an unfamiliar word, or glance down at the footnotes if there’s a Joseph Smith Translation, but generally we read the scriptures as if we were reading a newspaper or a history book, concentrating on understanding the story: first this happened, and then this, and then this other thing.
We’re really good at that. And we’re also really good at answering the standard questions that we discuss year after year in Gospel Doctrine classes. That is, if I were to ask you why the women went to the tomb that morning, you would no doubt tell me that Jesus had been very hastily wrapped for burial because of the approach of the Sabbath, and these women were going to the tomb as early as they could to finish preparing his body for a proper Jewish burial. Someone would no doubt point out, too, how women, rather than the apostles, were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and explain how important that detail is to you.
These are things that we talk about all the time when we reach this part of the Gospel. But if we only read the scriptures to read familiar stories, and we ask and answer all the same questions, by rote, year after year, what good does it really do us to read the scriptures?
Before reading the chapter, I asked you to watch for the three distinct stories that were covered in this chapter. What stories did you identify?
Resurrection of Jesus
Report of the Guard
Commissioning of Apostles
As I’ve mentioned before, the dividing of scripture into chapter and verse makes it easy for us to cite scripture – I can ask you all to turn to Matthew 28:1, and almost instantly all of us will have our eyes on the same words. But having scripture divided into verses also can be distracting: we tend too often to read each verse as disconnected to what goes before or after.
I also find it mentally exhausting to reach scripture that is divided into verses. It’s like my mind is trying to juggle 20 separate ideas all at once, trying to keep them straight.
Just for fun, let’s look at Matthew 28 as it might appear in a history book, written in paragraphs rather than verses, so that each story is presented distinctly. Take a minute to look at this handout. What advantages – or disadvantages, if there are any – do you see in looking at the scriptures organized in this way?
Ordinarily, our Sunday School classes center around a particular gospel doctrine, and we discuss and testify to each other both about the truth of the doctrine and how it plays a role in our lives. Sunday School also needs to be about learning how to study the gospel on our own, because class time and opportunity are so limited, even for those of us who have attended Sunday School for decades.
May I recommend this technique to you as one that can be useful in your personal study? If you’ve having trouble understanding a passage of scripture – perhaps in the prophetic books of the Old Testament – or when a passage of scripture just seems to be a jumble of details – perhaps in some of the discourses of Jesus recorded in the New Testament – make the effort to organize your reading by figuring out which details go together as if they belonged in the same paragraph, and where the transitions from thought to thought, or story to story, come in. You can even go to an electronic copy of the scriptures, such as that found on lds.org, and do what I’ve done on your handout – copy the verses into a word processing program, and then organize them into units like this, and see if that doesn’t help clarify and bring new understanding to what you’re reading?
Now let’s look at some specific verses from Chapter 28 and talk about ways we can actually study the scriptures rather than merely reading them as if we were reading the newspaper.
Verse 1: “… came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.”
“The other Mary” – who is she? How do you know? Can you find the verse in Matthew 27 (directly across the column in our LDS edition) that tells us something about that “other Mary” to identify her?
56 Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.
So who is this other Mary? How do we know? We have a footnote that tells us that “Joses” is a variant form of “Joseph,” but that’s the only help our footnotes give us. Where else might we look for help in knowing who that other Mary is?
Let’s go to the Bible Dictionary. Some of you look up James, and some Joses, and see what they tell us. Among other verses, those entries point us to Matthew 13:55-56:
55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?
56 And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?
So are you convinced that the “other Mary” is Mary, the mother of Jesus? Yes, I know, you were convinced before. Is there any value, though, in chasing down the evidence yourself, rather than making assumptions or repeating what you’ve been told in Sunday School in past years?
This example may be a very easy one, and one that you ordinarily wouldn’t bother to track down this way. Do any of you have examples from your own study of other scriptures, in any of the standard works, where you have made the effort to do a little scripture chasing, and where it has helped you better understand the scriptures?
By the way, when I have tracked down something like this, and note that it doesn’t appear in the footnotes of my scriptures, a cross-reference to a relevant verse – like Matthew 13:55-56 – is something I like to add in the margins of my copy.
Let’s look now at verse 2: “And, behold, there was a great earthquake …”
We don’t have time today to carefully compare the accounts of the resurrection in all four gospels – if we did, you would see that Matthew is the only one of the evangelists to mention an earthquake at this point. You would also note that Matthew refers to a single angel, while Mark, Luke, and John refer to two angels (the JST confirms the presence of two angels). When your close reading of the scriptures identifies discrepancies like this, what do you think? How do these discrepancies happen? What do they tell you about the nature of scripture?
I’d like to take a closer look at one particular scriptural discrepancy that is closely related to the history of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
39 But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:
40 For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
How many days and nights was Jesus’s body in the “heart of the earth”?
If half of the equation “three days/nights in the whale = three days/nights in the grave” is not literally true, are we justified in insisting that the other half of the equation is literally true? Are we justified in insisting that the verse is of no value whatsoever?
This kind of scriptural problem reminds me of the illustration that is often used in youth classes to explain the need for continuing revelation and the Book of Mormon in addition to the Bible. [Demonstrate, using fingers and whiteboard eraser.] If we have a single account, or a single detail, it’s like using a single nail to attach this eraser to the wall. But even though the eraser is attached, we can still freely swing it around the point of attachment. It takes two nails to hold the eraser firmly to the board, with no wiggle room. In the same way, we need two or more witnesses, ongoing revelation, additional scripture, in order to be certain our interpretation of scripture is accurate. We need the humility and wisdom not to insist on our understanding of any single point in the gospel, based on one witness alone. We need to be sure our understanding is in harmony with the entire body of revealed and discovered knowledge.
Another way of getting more from the scriptures than merely reading the stories is to look at not merely what a writer says, but how he says it. Scripture writers very often quote or paraphrase earlier scripture in their writings. Why do they do that (why do we do it today)?
There are many more obvious quotations of Old Testament scripture than this one, but the only one in Matthew 28 that I was able to spot seems to link back to a prophecy of Daniel, where he prophecies that the kingdom of God will be given to the Son of Man:
14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
Take a look at the story we have called the “Commissioning of the Disciples” and see if you can spot a line that seems to fulfill that prophecy of Daniel.
18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
If the Jews of Jesus’ day who were intimately familiar with Daniel recalled that prophecy when they heard Jesus assert that all power was given to him, how might it have affected the apostles? How might your own scripture study be enriched by seeking out the quotations and allusions that appear in them?
Sometimes writers of scripture arrange the details of their stories to call attention to certain details. Hebrew poetry, for instance, very often takes the form of two lines saying virtually the same thing in different language. For example:
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
2 And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
You might also be familiar with the concept of chiasmus, where Hebrew writings repeat a number of ideas in reverse order [sketch on board] A very simple example is found in Psalms 124:7
We have escaped as a bird
From the snare of the fowlers
The snare is broken
And we have escaped.
What purpose do you suppose these kinds of arrangements served the Jewish people? Well, in traditional English poetry, what purpose is served by the repetition of sounds in both rhyme and rhythm?
Matthew 28 includes some interesting parallels linking Christ’s resurrection with his crucifixion. They don’t fall into the same poetic patterns of parallelism or chiasmus, at least in English translation, but if you’re alert to them they are still quite obvious.
Let’s turn back a page to Matthew 27:50-56. As I read these verses, let’s see how many repetitions we can find between this account of Jesus’s death, and what we’ve read in Matthew 28:
50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
54 Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
Earthquake 27:51 / 28:2
Opening of the tomb(s) 27:52 / 28:2
Resurrection(s) 27:52 / 28:6
People go to the holy city 27:53 / 28: 11
Appearing to witnesses 27:53 / 28: 1
First of all, were these saints resurrected immediately upon Jesus’s death, as the arrangement of the verses seems to imply? No, Jesus was the first fruits, as many scriptures testify – they had to have come forth after Jesus’s resurrection, even though the arrangement of written details seems to say otherwise. But if we untangle the timing of the written account so that the earthquake mentioned in both chapters is the same earthquake, then the resurrected saints were showing themselves in Jerusalem at virtually the same time that Jesus was showing himself to the Marys and to his apostles.
Are those parallel events – emphasized by the repetition of details – just a coincidence, or might it have any broader meaning?
What if we link these events to the vision Joseph F. Smith received in 1918 concerning the spirits in prison? In Doctrine and Covenants 138 we read of Jesus’s ministrations while his body was in the tomb, elaborating on what Peter wrote in the New Testament. We read that there were hosts of faithful spirits waiting for Jesus to come and open the door to their deliverance from death.
19 And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.
But not all of the spirits of mankind had been righteous, and not all were looking forward to the coming of the Savior. Later verses tell us:
20 But unto the wicked he did not go …
21 Neither did the rebellious … behold his presence, nor look upon his face. …
29 … and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth …
30 But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed his messengers …
Does that add any insight into the parallel accounts in Matthew?
We have been repeatedly counseled to study the scriptures – which to me suggests that we need to do more than merely reread the same familiar verses and have the same familiar discussions from year to year. We live in an age that most of the Saints of the past could only dream of – we can each have our own, personal copies of the scriptures to study whenever we wish. We have some excellent study aids in the edition of the scriptures prepared by the Church. We have access to books and studies and scholars – both LDS and not – whose love of the scriptures can introduce us to points that we might overlook on our own.
And if we will only take advantage of these blessings, we can understand the word of God better than ever before. We can do more than hold the same trite Sunday discussions that we have held so often in the past. We can know for ourselves, and help enlighten each other, of the truthfulness of the scriptural accounts, including the reality of the Savior’s resurrection.
In two weeks, if all goes as planned, I’ll be teaching a lesson drawn from Acts 6-8. Won’t you please take the time to read those three short chapters before coming to class, and see if you can’t ask the kinds of questions and make the kinds of discoveries that we have talked about today? let’s see what a difference it makes in our class discussion.