April 15, 1990
Before His death, Christ foretold His resurrection, but the Pharisees and Sadducees thought that they could thwart God’s plan with human intervention. Alistair Begg walks us through several scenes surrounding the tomb in which Christ was buried—and from which He arose—and encourages us to weigh the evidence of a risen King for ourselves. True, saving faith hinges upon belief in this glorious resurrection, for when we bow before Jesus as our King, we no longer have to face Him as our Judge.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’re going to read together the verses that we’re about to study from the Gospel of Matthew, in the ending of the twenty-seventh chapter and in part of the twenty-eighth. Matthew 27:62:
“The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’
“‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
“After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
“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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.”
“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. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ 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.”
Amen. And may God bless to us his Word as we share it together.
Risen Lord Jesus, it is to you we turn our gaze. For certainly, in the beauty of the music we have praised you, and in the reading of your Word we have sought you. But now we need for you to speak in the words of a man—beyond the words of a man. Lord, unless you come by your Spirit and turn our hearts to you, then we engage in a futile exercise. It is to the Word of God that we turn our attention in these moments, seeking the help of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Here at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we’re introduced to a group of soldiers who were given an impossible assignment. An impossible assignment.
Now, the very phrase itself finds a point of identification for many of us. Some have been on spring break this past week and are about to return to school tomorrow. Sorry to mention it, but you might as well face facts. And as you do, you’re going to come home, and something like this is going to take place again this week, as it’s taken place other weeks: Your father will come in, and he’ll ask you, “And what homework do you have this evening?” And you’ll say, “Well, I have to read two books—185 pages—and write a ten-page report on each one.” The father then says, “And when was this assignment given?” Child stumbles and bumbles around, trying to disavow the fact that he’s had it for seven weeks. As the father undoes his tie and his top button, he says, “That sounds like a pretty tough assignment.” To which the child responds, “It’s not tough; it’s impossible.”
Traveled home this week on the Rapid from downtown. (Special experience. It’s a trip, for some.) My wife, myself, my three children, as we came home in the rush hour, we were amused by the amount of men who fell asleep on the Rapid. Be careful, gentlemen, who travel that route regularly. People do watch. And some of the noises and some of the faces are best left somewhere between Shaker Square and Green Road. But as I watched various men fall asleep, I took note of their briefcases. Many of them were bulging. Some of them didn’t even zip on the top. Metaphorically, they were marked, stamped, “Impossible Assignment.”
But there’s much harder assignments that we could give. For example, I could enlist someone this morning and say, “What I want you to do is to get up early tomorrow morning, and simply by shouting, ‘Stop!’ I want you to prevent the sun from rising in the sky.” Now, I recognize that that’s easier in Cleveland than some places. But in most American cities on an average spring morning, it is an impossible assignment. Or perhaps when the tide has ebbed, and we’re at the shore—it has ebbed, and it’s already begun to return—I draw a line on the sand with a stone, and I instruct you to inform the tide that you do not want it to pass that point. An impossible assignment. In fact, a ridiculous assignment.
And equally ridiculous and equally impossible is the assignment that we discovered here in Matthew 27 that is given to these soldiers. Did these Pharisees and scribes really believe that they could contain this Christ and the story of this Christ as a result of their futile plans? Jesus had already said to his disciples, “We are going up to Jerusalem,” and he did, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed,” and he was, “to the chief priests and teachers of the law.” Exactly. “They will condemn him to death,” and they did, “and they will turn him over to the Gentiles,” which they did, “who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him,” which they did, “and three days later, he will rise again.” And the Pharisees were bright enough to realize that so far, everything had happened just as Jesus said it would. And so they assign this platoon of men to an impossible task.
I want you to notice with me, if you would, three scenes—the first scene from Matthew 27:62 and following, where we discover that the guard is stationed. The guard is stationed.
Notice in passing in verse 62 that these religious figures were really quite unscrupulous characters. A few days before, if you read the record, you will discover that they wouldn’t even enter the court of the gentiles. When a big crowd was watching them, they said, “Oh no. We are very devout, religious people. We don’t go in the court of the gentiles.” And the people said, “My, my, what religious people they are!” But where are they on this morning? They’re in the court of the gentiles. And why are they there? They are there because they need to be there, as they understand it. And so their religious scruples are foundering on the rocks of pragmatism. And one commentator says of them, as we discover them in this place, addressing Pilate as “sir”… They didn’t regard Pilate as “sir.” They hated the Roman governor. He was no sir to them. He was a dog to them, as far as they were concerned. But when you need something done, you can call somebody by whatever name it takes. And so they came and said, “Sir! Pilate, sir!” Quote: “Men who had stooped to murder would certainly be capable of lesser transgressions.” And so it was.
Now, notice, will you, the possibility which they accepted. They go to Pilate, and they say to him—verse 63—“We remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said”—no mention of Jesus, the Christ—“‘After three days I will rise again.’” So, what’s their problem? Did they believe he was going to rise again? Well, they say they didn’t. The reason that they give for this order is in verse 64: because they’re concerned that the disciples might come and steal the body away. Well, we know, don’t we, that they credited the disciples with more than that which they were capable of. Because the disciples had no thought of stealing the body away. The disciples were more concerned about somebody stealing their bodies away. They weren’t out there just waiting for a chance to storm the tomb. They were gone! They were history books! They all deserted, and they fled. “Let’s get out of here,” they said to one another. “We may be the next ones that go through this cruel fate.” And so the Pharisees credited them with more than they were worthy of, and yet still they said, “Maybe they’ll come.”
You know, I don’t think that the Pharisees were cutting it straight here. I think the Pharisees thought that Jesus just might rise from the dead. Because the Pharisees believed in the resurrection. They taught the truth of the resurrection. It was orthodox for a Pharisee to believe in an afterlife and for the reality of resurrection. And so written into their teaching and into their thinking was the notion of this afterlife. But they had a problem: they had the Sadducees with them. And the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, who were scoffers about it all—which is why, in the standard Easter Sunday–morning joke, “They were sad, you see.” And they had these individuals who had no notion of a resurrection. They believed in a resurrection. How could the Pharisees convince the Sadducees that they needed a guard at the tomb? Why would the Sadducees want a guard at a tomb? It was ridiculous. The only way that the Pharisees could get these other fellows to come with them was to press the power button. You see, because the Sadducees liked power, and they liked being able to rule and control the people.
And so the Pharisees said, “You know what? If we don’t stamp this down, the gains that we have made we may lose. So we’ll go to Pilate together, and we’ll face the possibility of this kind of plot on the part of his disciples.” And they say to one another, “You know, if the notion of him being a Messiah caused trouble”—this is verse 64—“it’ll be nothing compared to the havoc which will ensue if the idea of a resurrected Messiah gets out.” So they’re real smart guys. “We’ve got a big problem, gentlemen. You will agree to that, right? Jesus has been a major problem for us. Agreed?” “Yes.” “Well, let me tell you this: if you think that was a problem—just the idea that he was a Messiah—you ain’t seen nothin’ when they hit the streets saying he’s a resurrected Messiah. So be sensible, and let’s appoint the guard.” “Fine.” The Sadducees are convinced, and so they take the action.
And there is a security that they arrange. The task is straightforward: make the body as secure as is humanly possible. A large stone had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb. We’re told that in verse 60. And now it is sealed. We should not think of them taking concrete, as it were, and making it impossible to roll away the stone, but rather, the picture we ought to have in mind is that of the ancient approach to letter writing, where you would attach a seal on the back of a letter and, with a cord or something and a little bit of wax and with an insignia, you would mark it for the opening only by a certain individual. And that’s exactly what took place. They went, and they took twine or cord, they covered it with pitch or with clay or with something, they attached it to the face of the tomb—they attached it to the front of the stone—so that they would know in a moment if anybody tampered with it.
And so, having taken a stone, and taking a seal, they then took a group of soldiers. A guard could be as many as sixty. We’re not told how many, but a “guard” in Roman terminology could amount to as many as sixty men, and they were posted to provide continual surveillance of the scene. If it were in modern times, they would have used infrared technology, they would have used scanning cameras, they would have used all the microtechnology of the day, set up in surveillance over the tomb. Here was man at his best shot, with this Galilean carpenter over and done with for sure. It’s a ridiculous sight, I put it to you. It’s man at his most foolish. It is as stupid an idea as trying to contain a lion, the king of the jungle, in cardboard boxes picked up from the local grocery store. They had as much hope of keeping Jesus in here as you or I would have containing Mike Tyson or Buster Douglas by tying their wrists together with spaghetti noodles. That is as much chance as they had of holding him down. And nevertheless, they went about the business. The guard was stationed.
Secondly, turn over into chapter 28, and notice in verses 2–4 that the guard was stunned. The guard was stunned.
Notice the reality that they encountered. This is the second earthquake in a matter of days. Matthew 27:51 tells us that at the “moment the curtain [in] the temple was torn in two from top to bottom[,] the earth shook and the rocks split.” So these days were marked by strange and extra-dimensional events—the darkness in the middle of the day, and the rocks moving around, and all of these things going on. And so the guards take their place, and God speaks. Jesus’ lips are silent, but God speaks.
And when you read in the Bible about earthquakes, you discover that earthquakes display God’s power and his greatness. They denote his presence and his intervention among men. Read about it all the way through the Old Testament. God only needs to cough, and he can stop the World Series for a week. God in a moment can arrest the attention of the totality of humanity and reveal its inability to control itself or its circumstances. And when that curtain tore, the earth shook. And now, again, the earth shakes.
And so these guards—man, they’re in deep trouble. Isn’t it significant that we have no description of the resurrection anywhere? No detailed accounts. Come on, you liberal scholars that tell me that the first-century church made up the resurrection. Come on! I read you in the Plain Dealer, with all your advanced learning, supposedly. They made it up in the first century, did they? There was no resurrection? Okay, well fine. If they made it up, why did they not give us a detailed account of it, blow by blow and piece by piece? If you were wanting to fabricate a mythology, you’d provide as much detail of the event as possible. There is no detail of the event. There was no detail of the event given. It was not made up. It is, in fact, reality, even as the Scriptures tell it. And why was there an earthquake? Because an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, a heavenly messenger with an easy task: to roll back the stone in order that people might be able to go to the tomb and find it empty. And he sits in a triumphant display of victory.
Meanwhile, what are the guards doing? Well, there is a reality they experienced, and there is also an insensibility that overtook them. Notice what happens: “His [presence] was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.” And “the guards were so afraid of him that they shook,” and they “became like dead men.”
You know, big, tough soldiers are big, tough soldiers. Right? They’re not put off by these kind of things. And this was an easy one for them. This was a pancake job.
“What do we have to do?”
“Well, it’s easy. This is what you do: you go to a tomb where there’s a dead man, and you guard it.”
“Fantastic! Good! You know, I was saying to one of—‘Hey, bring the dice, man. This is easy.’ You know? ‘Let’s bring something to drink. This is a trip.’”
“Well, there are a few followers, but they deserted him. They fled. We can’t find them anywhere in Jerusalem. They’re holed up somewhere.”
So they look at one another, and they say, “We have it made. What a lovely way to earn some money and spend a few days. It’s nice in the garden, in any case. We don’t like cemeteries that much, but after all, every job has its problems.” And so there they sit, not expecting anything to happen at all.
The earthquake was one thing. They’d already got used to that. But this angel really freaked them out. Look at this, what we’re told. In the Greek, the word for “earthquake” is seismòs, from which we get our English word seismic. The same word is used of the shaking of these individuals—the same root, eseísthēsan. And the question is: What was shaking most, the earth or the soldiers? These guys were the original Shakers, I put it to you. There ought to be a plaque for these fellows in Shaker Square. These are the originals right here. They were scared. They were so afraid of him, and they shook, and they became like dead men. They were scared stiff. That’s what it says. Stiff! Stiff as boards!
So they went and said, “Hey, you know, guard the tomb. What’s that? That’s no problem.” And suddenly, they’re flat on their backs, zonked. The stone, the seal, the soldiers—what a sense of security they’d provided. And in a moment, as the psalmist says—Psalm 46:6—God speaks, and the earth melts. The Father looks from heaven, and he laughs. “Is this your best shot?” he says.
Thirdly and finally, scene three: the guard’s stifled.
You can pick it up at verse 11. The women are on their way now, the event having taken place concerning them. The women are on their way to tell the disciples. And who is God going to use to tell the chief priests? I love this: the guards. The Jews put the guards there to confound the purposes of God. God put the guards there because he needed somebody to go tell the chief priests that Jesus was actually alive from the dead. And in all the affairs of time and man, God remains in control.
And so, to “some of” them—not to all of them. These guards have begun to scatter themselves. “Some of the guards went into the city.” I can just imagine them saying to one another, “Hey, we got a big problem now. You go.” They say, “No, no, no. Why don’t you go? I mean, you’re better with those Jewish guys. I mean, I don’t even like all their robes and stuff. They annoy me.” And eventually, they must have worked it out that somebody went, whoever it was. And “the guards went”—verse 11—“into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.” Now, the Sadducees were scrambling for their own explanation, ’cause they didn’t believe in a resurrection. And the Pharisees, now, were in big trouble, because they knew that resurrection was possible and real, and now it would appear that exactly what he said had happened.
So what did they do? Well, they’d used treachery to arrest Jesus. They’d used illegality to try Jesus in a mockery of a trial. And so now they use bribery to attempt to silence the truth about him. They had assigned the soldiers, and part one didn’t work. They somehow weren’t able to make sure that the tomb was sealed. And now so they try plan B: “What we’ll do is we’ll send them out with this cock-and-bull story about the fact that the disciples came during the night and stole him away while he was asleep.” Do you think they could, with a blatant lie, silence the greatest story ever told?
Notice these soldiers, the money they took. Verse 12 tells us it was a large sum of money. These religious leaders were quick with the money when it proved to be the key to fulfilling their evil plans. Actually, the word here for money is argúria, which is silver money. Do you remember silver money being used before? Yeah, they were quick with silver money. They bought Judas cheap. Thirty pieces was all it took for Judas. Must have cost them a lot for a whole Roman guard, because everybody’d want their cut. “Make sure,” he said, “when you negotiate it—make sure it’s a big pot, because this has got to go around, you know.” And so they had to shell out. They were prepared—notice this—to pay dearly for an explanation of the empty tomb which denied the resurrection. And loved ones, this morning, nothing very much has changed. Men and women this morning are still prepared to pay dearly for an explanation of the empty tomb which denies the truth which Scripture proclaims. They gave them the money, and they gave them an insurance policy that if the governor found out, they would take care of him.
And so they took the money, and they told the story. Verse 15: “[And] so the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed.” You know, it wasn’t easy for them. They had to weigh the pain of admitting that they fell asleep. If you’re a crack soldier, you don’t want to go out and tell people you fell asleep! “Well, but there’s all that lovely money. Well, I got the pain of saying I fell asleep, but I got the profit that comes from this. Pain, profit, pain—profit.” “So, what happened down there?” “Ah, we—fell asleep.” They went out and tell a blatant lie, which gained wide circulation. Even as Matthew writes, we read at the very end of the verse, 15, there, the story was still going around among the Jews to the very day of Matthew’s writing. Even in the twelfth century, people were saying that Judas had stolen Jesus from the tomb—that he was the thief. The story was prevalent then. It’s been prevalent through history, and it’s prevalent this morning. It’s the same kind of story, the same kind of nonsense. Men and women remain in the twentieth century with a vested interest in explaining the empty tomb without admitting a risen Jesus.
I don’t have time, nor is it my purpose in the orb of this study, to rehearse all of this. But for example, in 1907, an individual called Kirsopp Lake wrote a book which was immediately and warmly received in which he argued that the reason people believed in a resurrection was because the ladies went to the wrong tomb—despite the fact that they had been there the previous evening; despite the fact that Joseph of Arimathea presumably, since it was his tomb, knew where his tomb was. So they could have said, “Hey, Joseph, we don’t know if we’re at the right spot,” you know. He would have taken us there. But in 1907, the book hit the tables, and people gobbled it up. Why? Because it suits men and women’s interests not to believe that Jesus is alive. It suits their interest to be able to thumb their nose at God and go on their journey. It suits their interest to believe that Easter is a mythology—it’s something that we should just give credence to once a year and roll ourselves through. It suited them in 1907, and it suits them this morning.
And down through the years, people have argued, “Well, you know, his body was stolen”—the Roman soldiers’ theory. “He was stolen by the Jews.” Well, listen, if he was stolen by the Jews, why didn’t the Jews produce the body? ’Cause they were the ones who were saying he was dead, right? So if they were interested in affirming the fact of his death, all they had to do was take the body and put it in the middle of Jerusalem and say, “Look, don’t let anybody live with any nonsense. Jesus is dead.” Some said the disciples stole the body. That’s such an amazing notion, isn’t it? That these disciples, who had split immediately he was crucified, somehow mustered up enough courage to go steal the body. And despite the fact that the body was dead, they dragged it away and hid it somewhere else—despite the fact that it was in a very nice tomb provided by Joseph; it was in a very suitable spot. And then they went out, and they got themselves executed on the basis of this notion. They would never have stood up to the persecution and death which was theirs if they had simply removed the body and buried it somewhere. John Blanchard said, “They might have risked their lives for something they’d imagined, but not for something they’d invented. Men are sometimes prepared to die for convictions, but not for concoctions.” So it does not answer the question for us. John Stott: “Hypocrites and martyrs are not made of the same stuff.”
Now, do you see why Matthew records this? He doesn’t record this just as an interesting story. He records it to say to his readers—and we are his readers this morning—“Listen, it is utterly ridiculous to deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Let’s give it a concrete feel, shall we? Here’s the soldier as he comes now out into the streets of Jerusalem. One of his friends asks him, “Hey, George.” (George is my fictitious character of the weekend. For some reason, I’ve been referring to everyone as George this weekend. But that’s by the way.) “Hey, George, I hear the tomb is empty. What in the world happened?”
“Hey, I’m embarrassed to tell you, but we fell asleep, and they came and wheeched him.”
The guy said, “Aw, that’s fine. Yeah.”
He goes a little bit further, and somebody else says, “Hey, what’s that stuff about the empty tomb?” Gives him the same standard response. The guy stands back in amazement; he says, “You know what? You guys are something else. How many of you were there in there? Somewhere between a dozen and sixty, right?”
“Uh-huh. You fell asleep?”
“Everybody fell asleep?”
“Everybody fell sound asleep?”
“I mean, so sound asleep that eleven guys come clattering and battering through the graveyard, roll this big stone over on its side, go in, undress Christ, fold up all the grave clothes in perfect position, and then manhandle him back out through the garden, and not one of you jokers woke up?”
When he dipped that man, he jingled his silver coins in his left-hand pocket, ’cause he realized what an idiot he sounded.
And somebody else who was listening to the story said, “Hey, wait a minute. Were you sleeping as well, George?”
“Yeah, I was.”
“And everyone was sleeping?”
“Yeah, they were.”
“Well, hey, George, I’ve got a question for you: How do you know the disciples stole him? If you were all sound asleep, where do you get the evidence for the theft? Who told you that’s what happened? Or did you guess? Or did you make it up?”
And in a moment, the mythology was obvious to all.
You know, here’s the thing this morning, men and women. It’s not so much that here, in this great land, men and women have been sifting the evidence for the resurrection and rejecting it. Rather, it is that they’ve never even considered the evidence—either that they have never heard it presented or that they have been unwilling to listen to it.
What about you this morning? Have you considered this evidence? Certainly, evidence in and of itself doesn’t compel belief. If evidence in and of itself compelled belief, then there would be no smoking now in America, for it is incontrovertible evidence that smoking and lung cancer are linked. Everybody knows that. It is absolutely documented proof. But do people still smoke? Yeah. Why? Is the problem with the evidence? No. The problem is with, really, the response of the individual.
The problem, I put to you this morning, concerning Jesus Christ is not with the evidence. We’re the problem. We’re the ones who don’t want to believe. We’re the ones who say, “I’m agnostic and proud of it.” Do you know what the Latin translation of agnostic is? Ignoramus. So if you want to admit to being an ignoramus, that’s your problem. That’s fine. So you’re an ignoramus. Fine. You admit to being totally ignorant of the things of Jesus. Then I say to you this morning: Don’t live with that label over your head. Consider the evidence.
Admit the fact that some of the greatest atheists knew exactly what they were doing. Aldous Huxley, in his book Ends and Means, says this: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning.” Why? “Because it allows the philosopher to do what he wants. It is essentially an instrument of sexual and political liberation.” So there’s Huxley’s truth. He doesn’t want to believe the world has meaning, he doesn’t want to believe in God, he doesn’t want to believe in Jesus because he wants to be able to do his own thing sexually and politically. And if the truth were told, that is the case in many lives here in Cleveland this morning. It is not that the evidence has been examined and rejected. It is that the evidence remains untouched, and the reason being that men and women have a sneaking suspicion that this Christ has a claim upon their life. And I want to tell you this morning: yes, he does. Ultimately, belief in Jesus and belief in the resurrection is a matter of faith, but it is not a leap in the dark. It is based on evidence that is powerfully persuasive.
So I ask you this morning: What, then, will you do with this Jesus who is called the Christ? Please do not walk out from here believing for one moment that somehow it’s kind of an irrelevancy, that somehow it’s a kind of esoteric interest for just a small group of people. Loved ones, if Jesus is alive from the dead this morning, we will one day reckon with him as our Judge. And because of his love and his mercy, he speaks into our hearts, saying, “Would you not bow before me as your Savior so that you need not meet me as your Judge?”
That is the message of Easter. That’s good news. And the response is there for each of us.
 Matthew 20:18–19 (paraphrased).
 See John 18:28.
 See Psalm 2:4.
 See Matthew 26:14–15.
 Kirsopp Lake, The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (London: Williams and Northgate, 1907), 250–51.
 John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 50.
 Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for Their Realization (New York: Harper, 1937), 312, 316. Paraphrased..
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.