Formations 04.20.2014: TV Show Asks Us to Consider the Possibility of Resurrection

Matthew 28:1-10

James Tissot, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb, 1886–94

James Tissot, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb, 1886–94

ABC’s mid-season replacement series Resurrection invites viewers to consider what would happen if their loved ones came back from the dead.

The series premiere introduces us to Jacob, an eight-year-old boy who wakes up in a field in China after having died thirty-two years previously. The drama unfolds as his father and others try to understand what has happened and what it means. Soon, others begin to “return,” bringing with them deep mysteries not only about how they came back but the mysterious circumstances of their deaths.

Resurrection is not an overtly religious series—although a member of the clergy figures rather prominently. Its focus is on human interactions, how people would respond to the apparent “return” of a departed loved one: Is it really him? Is it some kind of trick? Different people handle such an incredible occurrence in different ways.

At the heart of Christianity is a similar—though by no means identical—mystery. What does it mean that Jesus has come back from the dead after three days in the tomb? What emotions swirl around us as we contemplate this mystery? How might this world-transforming event change our lives forever?

The resurrection of Jesus is the central confession Christianity. On this Easter Sunday, explore how Matthew tells this compelling and inspiring story.

Kristen Acuna, “ABC Is Getting People Hooked on a New Show that Will Probably Get Cancelled,” Business Insider, 26 March 2014 .

“TV Series Resurrection Asks What Would We Believe?” The Chronicle, 8 Apr 2014 .


• How can fiction, even fantastical fiction, help us better understand our world and our faith?
• With whom do you identify most in Matthew’s story of the resurrection? Why?
• What unanswered questions do you have about the resurrection?
• How has your encounter with the risen Christ changed your life?

Reference Shelf

Easter Sunday

The Gospels indicate that the events culminating in the death of Jesus took place during the period of preparation for Passover, a Jewish festival which commemorated the exodus from Egypt, and which was celebrated on the evening of 14/15 Nisan. The Gospels indicate further that the death of Jesus occurred on a Friday, “the day before the sabbath” (Mark 15:42). The women to whom the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection was first made brought spices “when the sabbath was past,” and arrived at the tomb “very early on the first day of the week” (i.e., Sunday; Mark 16:1, 2). Hence, the first day of the week—the day of resurrection—early became a customary time for Christians to assemble for worship and homage to their risen Lord.

Yet while the resurrection was a central conviction, proclaimed and celebrated from the days of the earliest disciples of the risen Lord, there are very few references to an annual festival prior to 300 C. E. Such references as do occur relate to the Christian Pascha (Passover), with apparent primary emphasis upon the death of Jesus, in keeping with Passover imagery and terminology. By the fourth century, however Pascha clearly referred to celebration of both the death and resurrection of Jesus. According to Eusebius (ca. 260 ca. 340 C. E.), there was dispute as early as the mid-second century regarding the day of the week and of the year on which Pascha should be celebrated. Churches in Asia Minor (following the Johannine tradition that the death of Jesus occurred at the time of the slaying of the Passover lambs) celebrated the Christian Pascha on 14/15 Nisan, regardless of the day of the week on which this date might fall. Other churches (following the chronology of the synoptic Gospels, and with emphasis upon the Friday/Sunday death/resurrection sequence of events) employed a different method for calculating the date of the annual festival.

Noting the discrepancy in Christian practice, the provincial Synod of Arles (314 C. E.) had deemed it desirable “that the Pascha of the Lord should be observed on one day and at one time throughout the world.” The Council of Nicaea (325 C. E.) fixed the date of Easter as “the Sunday immediately following the so-called paschal moon, which happens on or first after the vernal equinox (March 21).” Accordingly, by our present calendar, Easter Sunday may occur as early as 21 March or as late as 25 April.

Raymond Hargus Taylor, “Easter,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 224.

Sunday Morning Surprises

It needs to be noted that neither in Matthew nor in Mark, our two earliest Gospels, do we have an account of the resurrection event itself. The writers are not interested in the miracle for its own sake. What we do have are accounts of the results of the resurrection of Jesus, namely his appearances to various disciples. Unlike the sealing and guarding of the tomb stories, this story is not apologetic in character, or at least not in the same way as the sealing stories, because no appearances of Jesus to Jewish or Roman authorities or non-disciples are ever recorded. This is not a small point, especially when Matthew 28 is going to stress that the followers of Jesus must be missionaries to the nations.

Matthew 28:1 omits the Markan remark about the women coming to the tomb to anoint the body. Here the two Marys are said to come and look at the tomb. This is followed in the uniquely Matthean v. 2 by the report of an earthquake caused by the angel of the Lord coming down to Jesus’ tomb, rolling back the stone, and sitting on it, a sign that God is in control of what is happening, and no obstacle is going to stand in the way of vindicating Jesus. This is the first time we have heard about this special angel since Matthew 1:20-24 and 2:13-19. Angels are almost always a sign of divine activity either in progress or about to happen, and when it is “the angel of the Lord,” we are talking about some major work of God. The First Evangelist not surprisingly then omits Mark 16:3-4 where the women wonder how they will gain access to the tomb since it is closed with a big stone in front of it. Verse 3 says his appearance was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow (cf. Dan 10:6; Matt 17:2), and not surprisingly the guards became so afraid that they shook and became comatose. “The irony is not to be missed: the ones assigned to guard the dead themselves appear dead while the dead one has been made alive.” Also unlike the Markan account, the women do not enter the tomb, but rather according to v. 5 the angel speaks to them and tells them not to be afraid, “for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he is risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He is risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” The angel has not opened the tomb so Jesus may come out; indeed no one has seen Jesus come forth from the tomb in this story, unlike the later apocryphal Gospel of Peter. One of the remarkable aspects of this speech is that Jesus is called “the crucified one” even though now he is “the risen one.” The participle “crucified” is in the perfect tense, indicating an event in the past that has lasting impact on an ongoing basis. Jesus is now permanently the crucified one, while at the same time being the risen one, and this is so not least because he was raised in the body that had been crucified.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 527–8.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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  1. Sallie Carter, M. Div., M.D. says

    I welcome the opportunity to tell you how much I have enjoyed studying and teaching the Formations literature since its inception. I like the unapologic mixture of bible scholarship, inspiration, and application. I have been teaching SS on and off for 40 years. I taught toddlers when my children were toddlers, fith grade when my children were elementary school age, but mostly I have taught adults. Formations is the best literature I have used. There is always plenty of material for historical education, theological inquiry, inspiration, sometimes humor, and self-evaluation. One of the many inspirational paradigms I have used throughout my adult life was presented by John Claypoole in a sermon about 35 years ago; from the Desert Fathers – the faith journey is described by love of self for self’s sake, love of self for God’s sake, love of God for God’s sake, and finally, love of self for God’s sake. That is the tone of Formations literature, and I appreciate it so much.

  2. Sallie, Thanks for taking the time to express your thoughts. It feels good to be appreciated–especially by a Sunday school teacher who obviously has the résumé to know what she’s talking about!