Jesus wouldn’t let the angels (or humans) fight back when He was being killed. But at His resurrection, the angels get to show up and be helpful again. God’s power raised Jesus from the dead, but there were smaller jobs like a large stone that needed to be moved, some guards that needed to be knocked unconscious, and some terrified people who needed to be given an explanation of why the tomb looked robbed but not vandalized, a rendezvous message from Jesus to pass on, and/or a head’s up that they might run into a not-dead Jesus in the next few minutes. The angels got to help with those jobs.
And the main point of this episode is, of course, as usual, not about angels. The main point is that JESUS IS ALIVE! with all its glorious implications. But I do see a few things we can observe about the angels in the story.
I noticed that the angels are gentle. Well, I guess they weren’t very gentle with the armed guards. Matthew’s gospel does make it sound like the angel was showing off a little:
“There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven
(apparently this guy causes violent earthquakes just by showing up?)
and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it
(I always want to laugh when I read Matthew’s detail that the angel rolled back the stone “and sat on it.” Doesn’t that angel just sound so pleased with himself?).
His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4).
(So in other words, he fully immobilized his opponents through the sheer intimidation factor of his appearance. That angel has some SPARKLY clothes).
But once the guards have been dealt with, the angels know they will only interact with human beings today who are HURTING. The human beings who loved Jesus have just seen Him be tortured and killed, and they are grieving, traumatized, and trying to face imagining Life After Jesus. In their minds, this is Day 1 of Week 1 of life without Jesus anymore. So the angels don’t sing and show off, because they know that this is not the time for that. The news they have to give, they need to break gently.
Meanwhile, the women in the Jesus Movement have made a plan to deal with Week 1, Day 1 by anointing Jesus’ body for burial. Three of them buy the spices as soon as the sabbath is over (Mark 16:1), and at least five of them show up at the tomb as early in the morning as they can possibly come (Luke 24:10). It’s a crazy idea. There is a large rock and hostile guards, and the guys in the group (who fear they are wanted for crucifixion themselves) have not decided to come along and try to help with either of the above. But these women are desperate to show their love for Jesus one final time before they have to face Life Without Him.
Their far-fetched plan doesn’t work, of course. They never get to put any of their spices on Jesus’ body. But it’s not because of the guards or the giant rock–the Earthquake-And-Lightening-Angel has dealt with those. These devoted women are just Too Late. Jesus never planned to stay dead this week, and He has already left the tomb for a stroll. The only woman who ever got to anoint His body for burial was the one with the prophetic insight to do it over dinner last week, six days before He died! (John 12:7).
Mark tells us the angel appearance was like one “young man dressed in a white robe” (Mark 16:5) while Luke describes them as looking like “two men whose clothes shone like lightning” (Luke 24:4) The angel Matthew described was sitting on the stone, Mark’s is sitting inside the tomb on the right side, and Luke’s two angels suddenly materialize standing in front of the women. The plotline they share in common is that angels have been hanging out around the tomb waiting for the women so they can explain the lack of Jesus’ body and also pass on the message Jesus is trusting them with: I’m alive, go tell My disciples to meet Me in Galilee.
In addition to the angels being gentle, I see that they are humble. They live in the kingdom culture that Jesus was always talking about, where last is first and first is last and the way to become great is to be like the youngest is in many cultures, last and least and the servant of all. When the angels have a big announcement to make, they seem to be sent to the disenfranchised. The only time the angels put on a show with fanfare was for a group of forgotten night-shift shepherds on a lonely hillside where nobody else saw (Luke 2:8-20). The angel choir told the shepherds the big news, and the shepherds told everybody else. The shepherds got to hear it from angels, and the rest of Bethlehem got to hear it from shepherds.
Now the angels have big news again: God has raised Jesus back to life from the dead! And so a couple of angels hang out around the tomb waiting for the women to show up. Again, the angels come to a group of people that in the human culture were the lower ones. And again, those women got to hear it from angels, and all the rest of us got to hear it from those women!
I found a writer who expresses well why I find this interesting:
All four [gospels] are unanimous in recording that the first witnesses were female. This has led some throughout history to discredit the resurrection accounts. As if a claim of a man rising from the dead isn’t hard enough to believe in the first place, that it was a tale originally spread by women simply made it seem preposterous (Clifford Yeary).
The angels don’t seem to care. They even disappear when the guys show up at the tomb to check it out and then reappear again as soon as Mary Magdalene looks in! (Of course, maybe Jesus had told them not to appear to Peter because He wanted to tell Peter Himself, who knows?)
It is when Mary Magdalene looks into the tomb that we really see the gentleness of the angels. Mary is crying her guts out. The tomb has been mysteriously emptied. Peter and John came to look at it as soon as she ran to tell them, but they are as confused and helpless as she is. Mary looks in again and sees that now there are two angels inside the tomb, sitting on the slab where Jesus lay, one where His head was and one where His feet were. Peter and John couldn’t see them a moment ago, but they appear to her.
John himself is the one who wrote this story down later. He doesn’t tell us whether these two angels were now shining like lightning or just wearing white robes. But whatever they looked like, Mary doesn’t seem to react at all. While the other women were, as is common in human-meets-angel stories, terrified, Mary has no reaction. Is she past the point of caring whether she lives or dies or hears angels talking to her?
These angels don’t make the speech about Jesus being alive or planning a rendezvous in Galilee. That message has already been delivered. They have no message assigned to give her. And presumably, they are fully aware that Jesus is standing just outside the tomb now, waiting to reveal Himself to her in the next thirty seconds or so. They know her sorrow is about to turn into joy in the new kind of sorrow-to-joy nuclear reaction that will hit the whole world (John 16:20-22).
Sensitively, the angels do not spoil His carefully planned surprise.
They just ask her gently, “Woman, why are you crying?”
And since angels just asked her a question, Mary just answers them as if conversing with angels-in-a-tomb-who-weren’t-there-a-moment-ago is normal now. Or maybe life is so messed up there is no longer any such thing as normal.
She tells them what she thinks is the truth:
“Because they have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put Him.”
The angels say nothing, but I think they are thinking, Oh no Mary, that is not why you are crying. You are not crying because His body is gone, but because He died at all. But Mary had no hope of being able to do anything about the loss of His life, the loss that really ended her world. She did at least have hope of being able to take good care of His body. And now she can’t.
And how unbearable it must feel to lose one more thing, however small, that she was looking forward to and hanging onto when she had already lost everything.
So Mary shares with the two strangers the manageable-level sorrow: she’s lost Jesus’ body. She doesn’t talk to them about the greater sorrow, the one they know has already been reversed by a resurrection about to revealed.
The angels don’t correct the lie she believes, that somebody took Jesus away, even though they know that Jesus walked out on His own two resurrected feet (and that He is now walking back in). They don’t probe for her deeper confidence. They just let her turn around and see a third stranger.
Mary thinks the third stranger is the gardener. That seems logical, except I keep wondering, if she thought Jesus is the gardener, who does she think these two angels are? Gardeners’ assistants? Friendly ghosts? Figments of her imagination?
Now the angels just sit back and watch the surprise Jesus has been planning since the garden of Eden: this woman in a garden meets a gardener who is actually Adam the Second come back from squashing the serpent’s head, and He can put all wrongs right in an instant just by saying her name.
She recognizes Him with a scream of joy, and hugs Him so tight He has to finally beg her to let go of Him. Then He authorizes her to take His message to His grieving “brothers”, and sends her out to live Week 1, Day 1 of the New Normal, Life with Jesus Resurrected. I picture the angels whispering to each other,
“There, I knew that was why she was really crying. She didn’t really want to anoint His dead body with those spices, she really wanted to give Him a big hug and have Him twirl her around like that. Sometimes these humans have no idea what is in their own hearts.”
You and I live in that New Normal that Mary found that day. We live in the world where Jesus is Alive. Where the serpent is defeated. Where our lives can be defined by the Second Adam’s victory instead of the first Adam’s Defeat. Where death has a rewind button. Where the happy ending of the story of all things has been revealed in a Giant Spoiler where the Hero came back from the Next Age to tell us about it. We live in the New Week of the New Creation, and every Sunday exists to remind us that everything is new now.
Many of the songs we start our weeks with celebrate the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and God’s power in us today:
And should I ever need reminding
What power set me free
There is a grave that holds no body
And now that power lives in me. (“Another in the Fire,” by Hillsong)
The same power that rose Jesus from the grave
The same power that commands the dead to wake
Lives in us, lives in us. (“The Same Power,” by Jeremy Camp.)
These songs are, of course, based on many Bible verses that say the resurrection of Jesus should affect our lives the way an engine affects a car! (Ephesians 1:19-20 & 3:20, Romans 8:11.) And if angels showed up to attend and assist God’s Resurrection Plan, or to just sit on the stone and watch the show, I wouldn’t be surprised to run into them doing the same thing as God resurrects the dead things in your life and mine.
So expect the Living Jesus to show up in your life the way He showed up in Mary’s. In fact, I invite you start a conversation with Him today about what in you heart and life needs His resurrection power, because He’s already standing there beside you. And if in the painful moments of your life on earth, an angel ever gently asks you why you are crying, know that that angel can see Jesus is sneaking up behind you, just a moment away from making all things new.