When Jesus rose from the dead, there was “a great earthquake” (Matt 28.2). No doubt like the earthquake that accompanied the death of Christ, “the earth shook and the rocks split” (27.51). Nature itself testified to the earth-shattering nature of the resurrection. As befits the underlying Greek word for great (megas), in every sense of the word, this was a ‘mega’ event.
Today many feel embarrassed by this peculiarly Matthaean addition to the Easter story. Indeed, many dismiss it as a legendary accretion to the Easter story. But in fact it is a great symbol of the effect that the resurrection of Jesus has had on the world stage. For although the tremors of this particular earthquake may have been localised and would have rated perhaps only a minor reading on the Richter scale, the tremors of the after-shock of the resurrection are of the greatest magnitude and continue to reverberate down through the course of history. In a sense the very foundations of the world were rocked, and the world has never been the same. For the resurrection of Jesus was no one-off isolated individual feat, but rather its repercussions are there for all to experience. What’s more, unlike any other earthquake which normally leaves havoc and devastation in its train, the ‘seismic’ repercussions of the resurrection are life-creating and hope-inducing. For in rising from the dead Jesus broke death’s defences once-and-for-all. The only destruction brought about the resurrection is the destruction of “him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” (Hebs 2.14).
Unlike the earthquakes mentioned by Jesus in his ‘sermon on the end of the world’ (Matt 24.7), this mega event marked not just the end of the world as it was, but also the beginning of a new world brought into being through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew’s recording of this earthquake anticipates the theologising of Paul: “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15.22). On Easter Day the claim of Jesus to be the resurrection and the life (John 11.25) is vindicated. The resurrection of Jesus has cosmic significance. All this is symbolised by the earthquake.
Not only was there was a great earthquake – there was also “great joy” (Matt 28.8) that Easter Day. Within the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this phrase is reminiscent of the “great joy” the wise men experienced when they saw the star of the new-born child (Matt 2.10). ‘Mega’ joy was the hallmark both of the coming of Jesus into the world, and also of the coming of Jesus from the dead. Yet the women who experienced “great joy” that day had little inkling of the difference the resurrection had made to life and to death. Neither were the disciples initially any wiser: they were simply “overjoyed” to see the Lord (Jn 20.20: see also Jn 16.22). Only later did the full implications sink in. Peter, for instance, began his first letter on a paean of praise to God for “the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” and for the “living hope” of eternal life which is inherent in the resurrection for those who believe. Not surprisingly he went on to write: “You believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Pet 1.8). Yes, the resurrection brings “great joy”. As a result Frederick Dale Bruner was right to describe Sunday, the day of resurrection, as “the church’s day of joy par excellence”; and so too William Tyndale was right to describe the Christian gospel as “good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that makes a man’s heart glad and makes him sing, dance and leap for joy“.