LUKE 23-24. THE CONTEXT
Chapter 23 told of Jesus’ trial (23:1-25), crucifixion (23:26-49) and burial (23:50-56). Luke tells us that “the women who followed with him from Galilee” witnessed the crucifixion (23:49). He also tells us that they “saw the tomb, and how his body was laid” (23:55). In other words, the witnesses to the open tomb (24:2-3) first witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
Chapter 24 tells of the discovery of the empty tomb (24:1-13), Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13-35), Jesus’ appearance to the disciples at large (24:36-49), and his ascension (24:50-53). In this Gospel, these events all take place on a single day.
Luke is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, which will take up where his Gospel left off. Acts begins by describing the events of Easter day (Acts 1:1-5) the ascension (Acts 1:6-11) and the selection of Matthias to take the place among the apostolate vacated by Judas (Acts 1:12-14). Peter will then assume his role as leader of the apostles (Acts 1:15 ff.).
All four Gospels tell us of women coming to the tomb on the first day of the week and finding the stone rolled away. However, there are a number of differences among the four accounts:
• The names of the women (with the exception of Mary Magdalene) are not consistent.
• In Luke’s account, the angel does not command the women to tell anyone about the open tomb, but they tell the apostles anyway (24:10)—but in Mark’s account the angel says, “He (Jesus) goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you” (Mark 16:7), but the women “said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
• In Luke’s account, Jesus tells the disciples to remain in Jerusalem “until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), while in Mark’s account the angel tells the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee (Mark 16:7).
LUKE 24:1-3. ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK, AT EARLY DAWN
1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they and some others came to the tomb, bringing the spices which they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb. 3They entered in, and didn’t find the Lord Jesus’ body.
“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn” (v. 1a). All four Gospels tell us that it was on “the first day of the week” that events took place (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; John 20:1, 19). The first day of the week, of course, is the day following the sabbath and corresponds to our Sunday. Luke will soon tell us that the early church worshiped on Sunday (Acts 20:7; see also 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10).
“they and some others came to the tomb” (v. 1b). This verse says “they,” but 23:55 tells us that it was “the women” and 24:10 provides their names. They are Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the women who were with them. Matthew’s Gospel has Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” going to the tomb (Matthew 28:1). Mark has Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome going to the tomb (Mark 16:1). John has Mary Magdalene going alone to the tomb—and then running to tell Peter and the other disciple—the one whom Jesus loved—and those two men then go to the tomb (John 20:1-10).
The women bring “the spices which they had prepared” (v. 1c). Unlike Egyptians, who embalmed to preserve the body, Jews anoint the body with perfumes to mask the odor of decomposition. Usually the embalming takes place soon after death, because decomposition would begin soon after death. In this case, however, the sabbath prevented the women from visiting Jesus’ tomb until a day and a half had passed. After that amount of time, the smell of decomposition would be overwhelming, so the willingness of these women to proceed with the anointing is a sign of great devotion.
The other Gospels record a woman anointing Jesus’ body for its burial (Matthew 26:12; Mark 14:8; John 12:7) and John records Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointing Jesus’ body at the time of burial (John 19:38-40).
“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb” (v. 2). The stone would be a large disk placed in a groove in front of the tomb opening. This arrangement allows the stone to be rolled back to permit entry to the tomb (tombs would be reused as other family members died), but the stone would be difficult to move.
“They entered in, and didn’t find the Lord Jesus’ body” (v. 3). The phrase, “the Lord Jesus’,” is not found in two significant manuscripts. However, the phrase is found in a number of other manuscripts, and many scholars think that it should be included (Stein, 604; Tannehill, 349).
LUKE 24:4-7. WHY DO YOU SEEK THE LIVING AMONG THE DEAD?
4It happened, while they were greatly perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling clothing. 5Becoming terrified, they bowed their faces down to the earth. They said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6He isn’t here, but is risen. Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee, 7saying that the Son of Man must be (Greek: dei—it is necessary that) delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again?”
“It happened, while they were greatly perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling clothing” (v. 4). White or dazzling clothing is often used to denote heavenly beings—i.e., angels. Luke makes it clear in 24:23 that the women believe these “two men” to be angels. Matthew has only one such being, and calls it an angel (Matthew 28:2, 5). The fact that Luke has “two men” might be related to Deuteronomy 19:15, which requires two male witnesses (in that culture, women cannot serve as witnesses).
“Becoming terrified, they bowed their faces down to the earth” (v. 5a). Consider their emotional state. They are caught up in terrible grief. It is very early in the morning. They have gone to the tomb expecting to encounter nobody, but find themselves suddenly in the presence of two angels dressed in dazzling clothes. It is no wonder that they are afraid. Fear is a common response to the divine presence (1:12, 30, 65; 2:10; 7:16; 8:25, 35, 37).
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (v. 5b). This sounds like a gentle rebuke. The women should know better than to look for Jesus in a cemetery.
Earlier Jesus said of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him” (20:38). Now Jesus is also among the living—not only in God’s esteem, but also as a physical reality.
“He isn’t here, but is risen” (v. 6a). These words are missing in two significant manuscripts, but most manuscripts include them and most scholars agree that they should be included here. When Luke speaks of the resurrection elsewhere, he makes it clear that it was God who raised Jesus from the dead (Luke 9:22; Acts 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 37) rather than Jesus being the power behind his own resurrection.
These women did not anticipate this outcome—they came bearing spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Their surprise (and the later surprise of the disciples) shows that they had not understood that Jesus would be resurrected on the third day (Bock, 379).
“Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be (dei—it is necessary that) delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again?” (vv. 6-7). Jesus had spoken several times about his impending death and resurrection:
• After Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus told him not to tell anyone, and said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up” (9:22).
• Shortly thereafter, at the Transfiguration, the disciples witnessed Jesus discussing with Moses and Elijah “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31).
• Then he told the disciples, “the Son of Man will be delivered up into the hands of men”(9:44).
• When some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was looking for him, Jesus said, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I complete my mission. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the next day, for it can’t be that a prophet perish outside of Jerusalem'” (13:32-33).
• Shortly before his entry into Jerusalem, he told the twelve, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all the things that are written through the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be completed. For he will be delivered up to the Gentiles, will be mocked, treated shamefully, and spit on. They will scourge and kill him. On the third day, he will rise again” (18:31-33).
The angels act as if the women should be aware of these passion predictions, even though Jesus directed his words at his disciples and the Pharisees rather than the women. It would be natural for the women, in their association with the male disciples, to overhear conversations about matters such as this.
“must be” (dei—it is necessary) (v. 7a). Luke uses this little word, dei, often—both in his Gospel and in the book of Acts (Luke 2:49; 4:43; 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 19:5; 21:9; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44; Acts 1:16, 21; 3:21; 4:12; 5:29; 9:6, 16; 14:22; 15:5; 16:30; 17:3, 19:21; 20:35; 23:11; 24:19; 25:10; 27:24). This word reflects the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled OT prophecies and were in accord with the will of God.
“and be crucified” (v. 7b). In his passion predictions, Jesus said that he would be killed, but did not divulge the manner of his death. We first heard the word, “Crucify,” on the lips of the crowds after Pilate suggested releasing Jesus (21:21).
LUKE 24:8-11. THEY REMEMBERED HIS WORDS
8They remembered his words, 9returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest. 10Now they were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them told these things to the apostles. 11These words seemed to them to be nonsense, and they didn’t believe them.
“They remembered his words” (v. 8). This confirms that the angels were correct in assuming that the women had been privy to Jesus’ passion predictions, even though Jesus had addressed them to the male disciples. See above for Jesus’ passion predictions.
When Jesus predicted his own death, the disciples didn’t understand what he was saying, because it was hidden from them (9:45; 18:34). Since they didn’t understand Jesus—and since the idea of Jesus dying soon was so foreign to their thinking—Jesus’ predictions of his death seem to have “gone in one ear and out the other.” However, these troubling words did make an impression—enough so that the disciples could recall them after seeing God’s plan come to full fruition.
“returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest” (v. 9). As noted above, in Mark’s account the angel says, “He goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you” (Mark 16:7), but the women “said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
The number of apostles is eleven rather than twelve because of the death of Judas. “All the rest”probably include the two disciples to whom Jesus revealed himself on the road to Emmaus. Luke tells us that, after recognizing Jesus, “found the eleven gathered together, and those who were with them” (24:33). There is a good possibility that “all the rest” also include some or all of the 120 mentioned in Acts 1:15.
“Now they were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them told these things to the apostles” (v. 10). Mary Magdalene is the only name mentioned by all four Gospels as a witness to the open tomb. Matthew and Luke both mention another Mary (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:10). “Mary the mother of James” is literally (in the Greek) “Mary of James.” If this were our only reference, she could be the wife, daughter, or mother of James, but Mark 15:40 specifies that she is the mother of James.
“These words seemed to them to be nonsense, and they didn’t believe them” (v. 11). Part of the problem is that the women’s tale is incredible—everyone knows that death is final. Another part of the problem is related to the fact that these witnesses to the open tomb are women. Jewish law requires male witnesses, and men in a patriarchal society are not much inclined to take the testimony of women seriously.
In the book of Acts (also written by Luke), men will emerge as the preachers—the ones proclaiming the Gospel.
Later the disciples will see the risen Christ, and Luke will describe them as disbelieving because of their joy (24:41).
LUKE 24:12. PETER DEPARTED TO HIS HOME
12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Stooping and looking in, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he departed to his home, wondering what had happened.
This verse is not included in two significant manuscripts, but it is found in many manuscripts and most scholars agree that it should be included here.
“But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.” Always a man of action, Peter cannot sit still when he has the ability to check what the women have told him.
“Stooping and looking in, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves.” These would be grave clothes, but not wrappings like the Egyptians used when mummifying bodies (Culpepper, 427). We are not told whether the linen cloths were neatly folded or simply collapsed as they would be if the body disappeared beneath them. In any event, they serve as testimony to the risen Christ—although far less dramatic testimony than that rendered earlier to the women by the angels.
“and he departed to his home, wondering what had happened” Peter is amazed, but there is no indication here that he believes that God has raised Jesus from the dead. That will come later when he sees the risen Christ.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (New York: Doubleday, 1985)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 18:35 -24:53 (Dallas: Word Books, 1993)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
Copyright 2010, 2015, Richard Niell Donovan