“So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly, Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They cam to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'” — Matthew 28:8-10 (NIV)
Matthew’s account of the first resurrection appearance is very different from John’s. We need not try to harmonize them or make them fit together, as they each have a different message for us to learn.
“Do not be afraid” is probably one of the most frequent commands in the whole Bible. Did any angel appear in the Old Testament without saying that? Jesus himself said it in various contexts throughout all of the gospels.
What about the well known necessity to fear God? Reverential awe is never the same as being afraid. Reverence makes us want to draw near even though we have an acute sense of unworthiness. Being afraid make us want to flee or want what we’re afraid of to go away.
Sometimes, we become afraid not of what something or someone might do to us, but afraid of some task we must do. Sometimes we fear to pick up the phone and ask a favor or confront a problem. Fear can cause paralysis if we become afraid of what someone else will think or of what kind of rejection or other upset might occur.
In verse 5, an angel had already told the women not to be afraid and to go tell the disciples that Jesus had risen. They were on their way to obey the angel, but still afraid, when Jesus met them. Were they afraid that they would seem like fools? After all, men of that time universally considered a woman’s testimony worthless. Were they afraid that perhaps their report would indeed turn out untrue?
So Jesus met them, and they not only fell at his feet to worship him, they clasped on to his feet. Were they afraid he was not real? Were they afraid if they let go, he would vanish and they’d never see him again? No matter. Jesus told them exactly what the angel had told them, and once again they got up to obey.
What does it mean not to be afraid? It certainly does not mean, “screw your courage to the sticking point.” It does not mean for us to work up courage or work up anything else. And it does not mean that outward circumstances do not threaten some kind of harm.
It means to rest in the Lord, to trust him to do the heavy lifting while we do whatever part he has assigned to us. It means that we are responsible for living as he commands, but not for the final outcome. It means that if we obey, he will take care of us.
If the women feared ridicule, they got it. None of the disciples believed their testimony–until, of course, Jesus appeared to them, too. The women did not even have to defend themselves or say, “We told you so.” According to Mark 16:14, Jesus “upbraided them [the disciples] with their unbelief and hardness of heart” (KJV) because they had not believed the women’s testimony.
So it is with us. If we act in obedience, not being afraid means that even if something unpleasant happens as a result, we can trust that it will do us no permanent harm. Jesus will take care of those who trust him enough not to act against his instructions.