Robert Russell Drake
Luke says that, on Easter morning, women went to the tomb of Jesus with spices (24:12). That means they expected to find Jesus dead. They weren’t just honoring him with their spices. They wanted to help preserve his body from disintegrating and going the way of all flesh.
The women went seeking the dead one among the dead, which is perfectly natural. They thought he was dead and going to stay dead. Instead, they found the body of Jesus gone from that already opened tomb and heard two men asking a profound question and making a profound declaration: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (vv. 5–6).
Of course, these men at the tomb were actually angels. They were angels who knew what Jesus had said. They were even able to say to the women, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be…crucified and on the third day rise” (vv. 6–7).
I think my initial response to the angels would have been, “If you know what Jesus had said and how his words have been fulfilled, why don’t you angels go tell everyone? After all, who will people be more likely to believe: a group of women or angelic beings?”
So, why don’t angels preach, and why has that assignment been given to us?
In the Gospels, angels do three things. They are messengers, from the beginning of the story until the end. They tell Zacharias, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds that the Christ will be born. They also tell the women that Christ has risen from the grave.
Angels are also servants to Christ. They minister to him in the wilderness after he resisted Satan and again in the garden of Gethsemane after he determined to go to the cross.
Angels are escorts for those in Christ. They take a person’s soul to heaven, and they round up the believers in the last day.
They are also like members of the heavenly court, hearing the testimony of Christ about who has confessed him.
What they are not are preachers.
In Luke 24, the angels function as messengers. In fact, they are very impressive messengers. It seems to me that this whole witnessing thing would have been more successful if God had just sent angels like these to preach to the nations and skipped human beings. After all, the angels at the tomb of Jesus appear in dazzling apparel (v. 4), which frightens the women. I can just see some guy coming around a corner downtown and bam! There is a dazzling angel. Odds are that guy would be afraid enough to listen. I know I would.
But maybe fear was exactly the issue. God ordained not to use fearsome beings. He uses beings like you and me, and nobody is afraid of us. The gospel will not go forth from fearsome messengers but from those who resemble the crucified.
God ordained that the only ones who will get to witness to redemption are those who claim to be the redeemed. There will be no secondhand testimonies. Angels can’t say, “I was lost but now I am found.” Only fallen human beings, image-bearers of God, can say that. Humans will hear preaching from other humans. The disciples hear it for the first time not from angels but from women, the ones at that time on the low end of the social ladder of esteem.
Think about it for a moment. Who first told you the message that Jesus was alive? Odds are it wasn’t some senator or governor. For me, it was my Sunday school teacher, a little old lady who sold shoes in the bargain basement of a department store in Minneapolis. God uses lowly people before he uses great people—and then brings the great people low so that they can tell the message. That is how God has determined to work. It is why not many noble and not many wise in the eyes of the world are called (1 Cor. 1:26). We represent the humility of God that he displayed in his incarnation and crucifixion.
Was not the heart of God revealed right from the beginning on Christmas Eve? One angel appeared to the shepherds, and those men were terrified as the “glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). That one angel said,
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (vv. 11–12)
And as soon as that one angel said the word “manger,” Luke says, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest!’” (vv. 13–14). May I respectfully say that the angels were beside themselves? They burst out in worship because the Lord God Almighty was in a manger! They knew what this humiliation signified: a great Savior coming for his people.
Christ’s humility is praised by the angels, but it is not represented by them. Angels won’t be assigned to preach, because they don’t know redemption and because they just are not lowly enough. They are servants, but their glory is too obvious. Ours isn’t.
So, if angels can’t preach, what can they say? At Jesus’s tomb, they began with that profound question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
They mean, of course, why do you look among the tombs for the one who said that he was going to rise from the dead the third day? That question was a rebuke, because the women were not looking for a living Jesus, only a dead one. They brought spices for the dead body. They hadn’t believed Christ’s own words.
The women had the “facts.” Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet, was crucified. He was thought to be the redeemer of Israel. He said something special would happen on the third day. But now he’s dead, and death ends things. It yields sadness. You can’t build anything on rumors.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” That angelic question may still be asked today, because many people are still looking for Jesus among the dead, in at least two senses.
Some think that they can understand Jesus the way that they understand the other dead people of history. They think that the history channel will find his corpse. Religion courses at secular universities, if they acknowledge the historical reality of Jesus at all, assign him a place among the other dead religious leaders, like Buddha and Muhammad. They’ll never find the living one among the dead ones.
There is another sense to looking for Jesus among the dead. The word “dead” doesn’t just refer to those in the physical tombs. In the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the father says, “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (v. 24). If one is looking for life, a source of life, a new and better life, why would one seek that life among the spiritually dead and lost? They don’t know about life. We may think that our cool neighbors can tell us about life or that the kids at school who claim to be having more fun than we are can be the source of our enjoyable life. But looking to them is looking for the living among the dead.
We need to listen to the angels’ profound declaration: He is not here. He has risen.
Did you notice that the angels don’t give new information? They just call us to recall what Jesus had said. The angels did not go on to say that forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in Jesus’s name. Their job was to call attention to the resurrection and the fact that Jesus means what he says. And if he promised he would rise and he did, then you can believe everything else he promised. If he promised to forgive you, you can believe him.
Luke says that the women remembered Christ’s words. They became the first human witnesses to the resurrection. When they told the men, however, the masculine response was something like, “Aw, go on now.” For some, it takes more time. It took more time for Peter, who went back among the dead to see if the living one was there. The women were seeking the dead and were surprised by life; Peter was seeking the living and had to first eliminate the dead.
When Jesus later appeared to the disciples, he said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you” (Luke 24:44). Yet no one in the Easter accounts sees the empty tomb and just believes that Jesus is alive. An angel must remind them of Jesus’s words. Jesus himself must tell them. It is God who says that Jesus is alive. And if you believe, you yourself have heard from the Living One.
The author is a retired minister in the PCA (and former minister in the OPC). New Horizons, April 2020.