I’ve posted this before, but now—on Good Friday—it seems appropriate to think about the Resurrection deeply.
After the Resurrection, the Romans—as well as those in the Jewish hierarchy who opposed Jesus and his ministry—said that his disciples had stolen his body away from the tomb. It came about when the chief priests bribed the soldiers who had guarded the tomb.
Matthew 28 tells the story:
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now, I have told you.”
8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, 10“Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
What a story. The part about the Roman guards is amusing—in a way. There had to be a number of them, not just one or two. Notice the quote, “…some of the guards…” Also, given the high-profile nature of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, these weren’t just ordinary men. These guards, I would imagine, were handpicked, tough legionnaires.
The fact that they were so terrified when the angel came and rolled the stone back that they “…shook and became as dead men…” takes on more significance when we consider the nature of the soldiers themselves. Those hardened warriors were shaking and paralyzed.
I’m reminded of a comment made by a preacher I knew long ago. He was talking about what happened in Gethsemane when Peter drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Jesus, rebuked Peter, telling him to put away his sword. Luke 22:51 says, “But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.” The old preacher’s comment was, “I’ll bet that man left Gethsemane and went home!”
Notice that Matthew’s Gospel says that the angel rolled the stone away and then sat on it. How long he had been there, sitting on the stone when the two Marys arrived, we aren’t told. During that time, the Roman soldiers were in a state of shaking paralysis. That was the scene that the two Marys found when they arrived at the tomb. It must have been shocking and frightening, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid.”
A central theme in Christianity, not just in the story of the resurrection, is embodied in the admonition, “Do not be afraid.” Notice that Jesus said these words to the Marys as they met him. Remember that the angels, when announcing the birth of Jesus, told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” The angel, Gabriel, said to Mary, “Do not be afraid…” We need to remember those words and root our faith in them. Our faith needs to be strong enough to keep us from fear. Although the women were still frightened by what they’d seen, the voice of the angel and their trust in Jesus had made them stronger than the guards who were paralyzed with terror.
It has been pointed out, by the way, that the stone was not rolled away for Jesus to leave the tomb. He had already departed. The angel rolled the stone back from the tomb to show the world that “He is not here; he has risen…” We can imagine the angel pointing to the empty tomb as he spoke. We can only wonder what the trembling, catatonic Roman soldiers were thinking.
Some of them went to the chief priests and reported everything that had happened. Notice, that they did not go the military authorities or directly to the governor. Why? They’d probably have been flogged or executed—or both. Imagine a hard-bitten sergeant of the guards reacting to their story. “An angel, you say, came and rolled back that rock? That rock took five strong men and a donkey to put in place! Have you been drinking on duty?”
Needless to continue, but it would not have been pleasant. Now going to the chief priests was a different affair. These were the people who feared Jesus so much that they had demanded his death. The guards correctly guessed that they, who had the most to lose from the resurrection of Jesus, would pay for the guards’ silence. And pay they did. The chief priests apparently paid the guards handsomely to parrot a story they concocted about Jesus’ disciples stealing his body away while they were asleep. They even—probably at the insistence of the guards—promised to provide a cover story for them with the governor if he should hear the story.
Why? In most military organizations, falling asleep at one’s guard post is an extremely serious offense. In this case, the guards could—and probably would—have been executed. Pilate himself was personally involved. “Take a guard.” Pilate answered, “Go, and make the tomb as secure as you know how.” (Matthew 27:65) They not only posted guards at the entrance, they tied a cord across the rock and put a clay seal on each end so that if anyone disturbed the rock, the seals—doubtlessly imprinted with a official signet—would be broken. For the soldiers to be so asleep that all the commotion involved in moving the rock didn’t wake them would have been serious dereliction of their duty.
We aren’t told what happened to the guards, but I’d imagine that they took their money and became very, very quiet men. Those who were directly paid would have had to share the money with the guards who didn’t go with them to the priests. They would also have had to tell the others the official line, and cautioned them to stick to it. The story concocted by the chief priests was, however, extremely thin.
Consider: They were saying that they slept through the racket of the disciples rolling back the rock. All of them!
Consider: If the disciples—those men who had run away in fear at Gethsemane and had denied Jesus in public—had planned to steal his body from the tomb, what they’d have had to take into account. First, there were a number of soldiers guarding the tomb and most of the disciples probably didn’t have swords much less shields and armor. The disciples certainly wouldn’t have been able to count on the guards being asleep! And, they were demonstrably not all that brave in the face of soldiers. They had run away from and left Jesus alone in the garden. Second, if there had been enough of Jesus’ disciples to pull off robbing his tomb, there’d be enough people who knew of the theft that the story would get out sooner or later.
No, the angel did not roll the stone away so that Jesus could leave the tomb. He was already gone. When we look into the empty tomb, we see that it was there where the empty body of Jesus had been placed. Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, and because he was a prominent citizen, Pilate granted the request. “So Joseph brought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.” (Mark 15:46) Joseph was a wealthy and well-connected man. He would have hardly done the physical labor of moving the stone himself. Later, Mark mentions that the stone was quite large. No problem for an angel, though.
Luke is the only gospel that describes the reaction of the apostles when Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James told them of the empty tomb and the words of Jesus and the angel. “Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away wondering to himself what had happened.”
We call Peter, “The Rock,” and refer to “doubting Thomas.” It appears that there was enough disbelief among the apostles to go around. We consider the apostles, sometimes, as saints above us all. They were men. These men ran away when the soldiers came to Gethsemane. Their greatness came through their faith in Jesus. Peter’s wondering what happened was later replaced with a steadfastness that deserved the name, “The Rock.”
The empty shell, that had been body of Jesus when he was alive, was placed in the rock cave and lay there waiting until He returned and gave it new life. Jesus’ ministry and miracles included raising several people, recounted in the gospels, from the dead. A major theme of His ministry was resurrection from death—the conquering of death. Of course, the crowning event was His resurrection. Those He raised from the dead during his life on earth were people who were physically dead. Their resurrection is a bright symbol for the millions upon millions whose souls have been dead, but who may come alive again, for eternity, once Jesus enters their hearts.