It was Sabbath. A sacred day of rest. But the chief priests and Pharisees had business to take care of. They had succeeded in condemning Jesus of Nazareth to a grotesque and torturous death on a cross. The chief priests and Pharisees had watched Jesus hang there for hours. They had mocked Him as He suffered. They had heard Him call out, saw Him die, and witnessed the soldier pierce His side. There was no way He was lying in some kind of coma in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Jesus was dead. He couldn’t come back from this.
But the chief priests and Pharisees needed to make sure He wouldn’t come back, whether in bodily form or some myth or legend the disciples cooked up. Jesus had foretold his death on several occasions, telling his disciples in Matthew 16:21 and 17:22–23 that He would be killed at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and would be raised on the third day. While Jesus’ disciples seem to have forgotten His words about resurrection, the Jewish leaders remembered and were worried. And so, on the Sabbath day, they approached Pilate.
This article follows Matthew’s account of what happened after Jesus’ death. Matthew is the only gospel that records this post-crucifixion scene between the chief priests and the Pharisees and Pilate. Their request is recorded in Matthew 27:63–66: “Sir, we remember how that imposter said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.” Pilate had narrowly avoided a riot by crucifying Jesus, doubtless, he had no desire for Him to come back to life. The soldiers dispatched to guard the tomb were likely a special contingent assigned to the temple authorities who reported directly to the chief priests, rather than Pilate (Matt. 28:11).[i]
In the misty hours of Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” probably Jesus’ mother, made their way through the city of Jerusalem to the tomb where Jesus lay. Different gospels add other women to this pair—Salome (Mark 16:1), Joanna, and others (Luke 24:10)—but Matthew names only these two. What should have been a joyful time—the feast of Passover—had become a time of anguish and mourning. Jesus, their Jesus, was dead. Now they alone of His followers ventured out to His tomb; the rest, it seems, were in hiding (John 20:19).
It seemed so very final. Let’s put this situation in modern terms: the body is in the coffin, the coffin is sealed, lowered into the ground, and buried. The funeral has taken place. There is no way back. And yet . . .
On Sunday, Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother arrived at the tomb just in time to witness something extraordinary. “And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him, the guards trembled and became like dead men” (Matt. 28:2–4). The angel could have just rolled back the stone, but he sat on it! What an image of Jesus’ victory over death!
Ironically, the guards became like dead men, but the dead Jesus came alive! Imagine standing at the fresh grave of a loved one and watching an angel come down out of the sky, unearth the coffin, open it up, and show you that it was empty. That is approximately what these women witnessed.
The angel spoke: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matt. 28:5–6). Jesus who was crucified—this emphasizes that this was the same Jesus who had been dead. Jesus had died. But He wasn’t dead anymore. Now, the angel invited them to look inside the tomb as evidence that Jesus was alive.
The angel continued with a command: “go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you” (Matt. 28:7). Tell his disciples. These women now had a message to carry to the disciples: first, that He had risen from the dead, and second, that the disciples should meet Him in Galilee. Matthew 4 tells us that Galilee was where Jesus first called His disciples. Now, Jesus wanted His disciples to return to the place where it all began.
The women obeyed and, as they ran to tell the disciples, they were met by Jesus Himself. Up to this point, they had to take it on faith that the absence of a body meant that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. The angel sitting on the tombstone was certainly some proof but seeing Jesus really solidified things. I think it is worth noting that these women believed, obeyed, and then saw Jesus. Other gospels mention that some of the followers doubted until they saw Jesus. Matthew 28:17 says that even those who saw him doubted. But not Mary Magdalene or Jesus’ mother. They knew He was alive. Jesus repeated the angel’s command, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
Meanwhile, the guards at the tomb roused themselves. Faced with a stone that had been rolled away and a tomb with nobody inside, they did the only thing they could think of: they went into the city and told the chief priests what had happened. “And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (Matt. 28:12–15).
This was the second bribe paid by the chief priests and elders. The first was to Judas Iscariot for the betrayal of Jesus. The second was to make sure that the man they had killed stayed dead, by spreading false rumors. Regardless of what the guards, priests, or elders thought happened, they knew the disciples didn’t come to take the body. But they weren’t interested in the truth.
Tell. There are two “tellings” in Matthew 28. The women were commanded to tell the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection. The guards were commanded to tell the city about the theft of Jesus’ body. As the news circulated among Jesus’ disciples that Jesus was alive, rumors circulated in Jerusalem that Jesus’ body had been stolen from the tomb.
One group of messengers, the women, saw an empty tomb and believed. The other group, the guards, saw an empty tomb and deceived. The women took away hope, the guards took away lies.
Stories have always been a powerful medium of communication; no less today when globalization and the internet have multiplied the stories we read and hear. As long as there have been stories, there has been the question of their veracity (think Gen 3). Stories have a habit of taking on a life of their own and it is easy for suspicion to become a rumor and a rumor to become “fact.” Two competing narratives emerged following Jesus’ resurrection and, by and large, those two narratives exist today: either Jesus did rise from the dead or His life, death, and resurrection were a fraud.
The truth about the resurrection, next to the sacrificial death of Christ, is one of the most important Christian beliefs. If we do not believe in a resurrection, there is no hope. 1 Corinthians 15:17–19 says: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” As Christians, we do believe in Jesus’ resurrection, and 1 Thessalonians 4:14 says: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Resurrection fundamentally changes the equation of the human situation. Jesus had to die for our sins, yes, but He also had to rise from the dead in order for us to have any hope beyond this life.
If we do not believe in the resurrection, there is no hope and the only thing left is fear. That is what motivated the guards and chief priests and elders. They were afraid. But both the angel and Jesus told the women not to be afraid. The resurrection gets rid of fear. 1 John 4:18 says that “perfect love casts out fear.”
The women and the guards had stories to tell. The stories they told were polar opposites. The story the women told was the fulfillment of thousands of years of promises. It was the assurance that Christ’s sacrifice was enough to cover our sins and that death had been defeated once and for all.[ii]
The story of the risen Christ is the story of redemption. It is the Gospel. When the disciples preached, they preached about the risen Christ. The Christ who died and rose again.
What story are you going to tell the world? Are you going to live your life in fear, so caught up in the concerns of this world that you might as well be one of the guards who told the city of Jerusalem that Jesus was still dead? Or are you going to live your life in the reality of the empty tomb and the risen Christ?
The book of Matthew ends with one last command from Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20). What will you tell the world?
[i] Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew,” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 184.