April 11, 2004

GRAVE ROBBER

“He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” Matthew 27:65

The men were worried. Security was a big problem. What if some thieves broke in and robbed the place? That would be awful! Better play it safe and post armed guards around the clock–and not just any old security guards for hire. This assignment called for tough, experienced professionals, smart enough to detect any sign of trouble, deadly enough to scare any would-be thieves away. A squad of career soldiers, armed to the teeth, would be ideal. But how could a group of civilians get soldiers for a security detail? They would need a government order. So they went straight to the governor himself and asked for government troops.

What sort of place did they want to protect? A bank? A jewelry store? A museum? A top-secret laboratory? No, they were trying to protect a grave! They weren’t worried about losing money or costly jewels or priceless art or secret invention. They were worried about losing a dead body. They themselves had arranged for the dead man to be killed, and now they wanted to make sure he stayed dead. The day after Jesus died, a group of worried religious leaders went to the governor, Pontius 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. (Matthew 27:62-66)

That’s how the Bible describes the security measures taken by Jesus’ enemies. They were scared to death of a grave robbery and phony resurrection. Nothing troubled them more–except, perhaps, the unmentionable possibility of a real resurrection. But they couldn’t afford to consider that. So they wanted to take every precaution to make sure nobody could get at Jesus’ body.

Pilate gave them their wish. He couldn’t care less about dead bodies and grave robberies, but it was easiest for him just to give those paranoid people what they wanted. They’d keep bothering him if they didn’t get what they wanted, and they had enough political clout to cause him trouble. Better just keep them happy, Pilate figured. The previous day he had ordered the murder of an innocent man to please these religious leaders. If they now wanted one last favor, why not give it to them? Still, Pilate couldn’t help being sarcastic: “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” It seemed silly to Pilate, going to all these extremes to make sure a dead body stayed put. But if that’s what they wanted, why not? Let them do whatever they could think of to keep things from getting lively in the graveyard.

So the religious leaders went out and put an official government seal on the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. That made it a federal crime to break the seal and move the stone. Then they assigned the squadron of soldiers to stand watch in shifts, guarding Jesus’ tomb around the clock.

Imagine what those soldiers must have been thinking. They were combat veterans. They had battled ferocious armies and forced rioting crowds to back down. It must have seemed tame and a bit silly to stand guard over a tomb. Oh well, at least the job was easy. The potential robbers were no more than some ragtag fishermen and wimpy women. With that official government seal on the tomb, all the soldiers needed to do was stay nearby with plenty of weapons in plain sight, and nobody would dare to try anything. That body wasn’t going anywhere. Right?

Inside Job

It might have worked if the only threat had been robbers breaking into Jesus’ tomb from outside. But this was going to be an inside job. The man inside the tomb would rob the grave. There was nothing the soldiers or religious leaders could do to stop this grave robber.

“Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how,” Pilate had said. But how secure was that? Can a sword stop the sunrise?

Jesus’ enemies found it easy to kill him but not so easy to keep him dead. All their precautions, all their official seals and heavily armed soldiers, couldn’t keep Jesus in his tomb.

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 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.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him. Now I have told you” (Matthew 28:1-7).

When the angel came down and rolled away the stone, it wasn’t to let Jesus out of the tomb but to let everyone else in so that they could see he was already gone. The grave robbery had just taken place, and it was an inside job. The one inside the grave had engineered the whole thing. The angel came simply to show and tell what Jesus had already done.

How that angel must have relished his job! A few days earlier, the angel armies had been ordered to stand back while Jesus was tortured and murdered. How hard it must have been for the angels to watch wicked humans torture and murder the great King of angels and ruler of all creation! How easy it would have been to destroy the Lord’s enemies! But the Lord had something else in mind, and so the angels could only watch as Jesus suffered and died and was placed in the tomb. But now all that was finished. Jesus had overcome death and emerged from the tomb, leaving his burial wrappings behind and going out through the stone as though it wasn’t even there. Jesus then gave the angel the go-ahead to make it clear that death was defeated.

Overjoyed at this assignment, the angel flashed down from heaven with earthshaking power and dazzling brightness. He saw on the tomb a seal of officials who thought themselves powerful, and he shattered that silly seal in the name of the all-powerful Lord. The angel saw a massive stone the shape of a giant hockey puck, standing on edge in its groove, blocking the entrance to the tomb. Very strong men would have to grunt and sweat to roll that stone at all, but the angel seized that heavy stone as though it were a feather and flung it away from the entrance with such force that it came out of its groove and landed flat on the ground. Then the angel sat on it. That huge barrier for keeping Jesus in and his friends out of the tomb had suddenly become nothing but a handy chair for an angel. That stone, now lying flat, wouldn’t be blocking a doorway any time soon. Now anyone could walk into the tomb and see Jesus wasn’t there.

What a turnaround took place on Easter morning! Jesus, the dead man, was alive and unstoppable, while the big, strong soldiers who were supposed to keep him in the tomb lay as though dead. In fact, the women who loved Jesus ended up in better shape than the soldiers. In the usual stereotypes, women are the ones who are supposed to be weak and tremble and faint when something shocking happens. But when God’s angel appeared, it wasn’t the supposedly wimpy women but the tough guys, the soldiers, who trembled and fainted dead away. Meanwhile, the women, astonished and frightened but still standing, gazed at the angel and heard the news that Jesus had risen.

Jesus’ resurrection reversed everything. His friends had been slinking around, gloomy and defeated, wondering what to do next. But when Jesus came back to life, his friends were filled with joy, eager to spread the news. Jesus’ enemies, on the other hand, had been confident and in charge. But Easter morning knocked them out cold and made their weapons useless. The ringleaders were left scrambling for ways to cover up and control the damage caused by the great grave robbery.

Do Not Be Afraid

After hearing the angel’s message, “the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell [Jesus’] disciples” (Matthew 28:8). No wonder they were afraid! An angel of God, fearsome enough to make veteran soldiers faint, had just spoken to them. And his message was almost too much to take. God’s power had broken into the usual course of events and reversed everything. That’s exciting, but it’s also scary. Still, the women’s fears couldn’t match the joy that filled them and sent them racing to tell the disciples. As they hurried along, they ran into an even greater joy.

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came 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).

Several things are striking about the women’s encounter with Jesus. One is how casually Jesus greeted them. “Greetings,” he said, as though everything was normal. The word in the original language is the equivalent of “Hi” or “Hello” or “Good morning,” a word for greeting someone on any ordinary day.

The women, though, didn’t just offer a casual “Howdy” in return. They threw themselves toward Jesus and hugged his feet and worshiped him. Jesus said a casual “Hello” to let them know he was still the same person who had befriended them and eaten with them. The risen Jesus was still conducting himself as their friend, but the women knew he was also their Lord, worthy of worship. They were overwhelmed with love and reverence.

Jesus, knowing their joy but also their fear, said, “Do not be afraid.” The angel at the empty tomb had told them, “Do not be afraid,” and now Jesus said the same thing. Jesus may have said that simply to calm them down, but those words, “Do not be afraid,” wonderfully express the impact of Easter for all God’s people. Do not be afraid of God’s enemies. Do not be afraid of death and the grave. Do not be afraid that God’s won’t have any place for you in the new order that began with the resurrection. And do not be afraid that the risen Jesus is now too great to consider himself one of us.

“Do not be afraid”–the full beauty of that statement shines out in Jesus’ very next words: “Go and tell my brothers.” Now, Jesus could have said, “Go and tell those ornery guys who always quarrel with each other.” He could have said, “Go and tell those lying cowards who said they’d be willing to die for me but fled at the first sign of trouble.”  He could have said, “Go and tell those blockheads whom I told in advance about my resurrection but who think I’m still dead.” Jesus could have said any of those things—they were all true—but instead Jesus said, “Go and tell my brothers.” There he was, the Son of God, conqueror of Satan and death; and there they were, quarrelsome, cowardly, doubting losers. And yet Jesus called them his brothers, beloved members of his own family, children of the same Father. Jesus did not disown or reject them. They were his brothers. He wanted them to know he was alive again, and he wanted to meet with them.

If you feel afraid and alone, you need to meet Jesus. Listen as he says, “Do not be afraid,” and let your heart be at peace in him. Listen as he calls you a brother or sister, and know that he will never leave you nor forsake you. If you fear death, fear it no longer. Jesus has defeated death. The great grave robber rescued himself from the grave, and he can rescue you. Even when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, fear no evil. For Christ is with you, and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Damage Control

But what about those who had tried to keep the grave robber in his tomb? What about the soldiers? And what about the leaders who were so eager to prevent a robbery? The Bible says,

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 (Matthew 28:11-15).

How pathetic! While the women were joyously racing to spread the news of Jesus’ resurrection, the soldiers were coming back to their senses and picking themselves off the ground. The tomb they were supposed to be guarding was empty. How could they explain that? If they said that a blinding light and a heavenly visitor were the last things they saw before they fainted, who would believe them? It doesn’t work to blow an assignment and then blame it on something that sounds like a UFO. The guards couldn’t agree on what to do, but finally some of them went to the priests and told them there had been a bit of a problem in the graveyard.     Those poor religious leaders! They had managed to kill Jesus, they had taken measures to prevent a grave robbery, and now their flunkies came straggling back with the news that Jesus’ body was gone. Did the religious leaders experience an instant conversion? Did they say, “Amazing! What if Jesus really is the Son of God, like he said?” No, they did what many religious leaders do when there’s a problem: they held a meeting.

At their meeting, they tried to come up with a plan to deal with the empty-grave problem. The options were limited. The best option, of course, was to produce Jesus’ dead body and put it on display. That would surely stop the rumors that he was alive again. But the body was gone, and they couldn’t find it anywhere. So their only other option was damage control. If they couldn’t come up with the body, they would have to come up with a story. Then they had to make sure the story would spread around.

They needed three committees: a committee on secret funding, a committee on propaganda, and a committee on government relations. All three committees had experience.

The committee on secret funding had recently paid Judas 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Now the funding committee had to dig deeper and come up with enough money to make it worthwhile for the guards to change their story.

The committee on propaganda had recently spread stories among a mob and whipped them into a frenzy, demanding the crucifixion of Jesus and the release of a terrorist named Barabbas. Now the propaganda committee had to concoct a story that would sound convincing to the general population. The best news release they could think of was to have the guards say they fell asleep and Jesus’ disciples stole the body.

The story had huge problems, of course. How could the guards all have slept through an earthquake and the sound of that huge stone crashing on its side? And if they were sleeping so soundly, how did they know Jesus’ disciples stole the body? Did they see Jesus’ disciples through their eyelids as they slept? The story got even flimsier as time went on, for Jesus’ disciples were willing to go to prison or be killed rather than deny they’d seen Jesus alive. If they were just grave robbers, why would they die for the sake of a hoax? The story about disciples stealing the body was full of holes, but it was the best the propaganda committee could do. Perhaps they counted on the fact that when people are determined not to believe something, they will believe almost any other explanation, no matter how ridiculous.

One more committee was needed, the committee on government relations. What if the story got back to the governor? Pilate could court-martial the soldiers for sleeping on duty. No soldier would want to risk a court-martial. The soldiers wouldn’t tell a story about falling asleep unless they were sure it wouldn’t get them in trouble. Here’s where the committee on government relations came in. Pilate? No need to worry about him. The committee knew how to deal with Pilate. They had gotten Pilate to kill Jesus, they had gotten got Pilate to give them a squadron of soldiers, so they could surely handle Pilate one more time. The committee promised the soldiers there would be no trouble with the governor. Besides, would the guards rather try to convince Pilate of a story that sounded like a UFO sighting?

All in all, it was as good a plan as anyone could expect. It kept the soldiers out of trouble and made them richer. It offered the general population the chance to believe that Jesus’ disciples were grave robbers rather than having to deal with the frightening possibility that the man whose crucifixion they had cried out for was himself the grave robber. It offered Pilate a chance just to look the other way, as usual. And it offered the priests a theory to save them from believing the unthinkable. Jesus couldn’t possibly be alive! His disciples must have robbed the grave! It must have been them!

Big Lie or Great Commission

Still today there are religious leaders who would rather believe almost anything about Easter except the fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Pseudo-scholars and phony preachers try explain the resurrection away. Still today there are people like Pilate who just couldn’t care less what did or didn’t happen on Easter, as long as they don’t get hassled and their career keeps moving ahead. Still today there are crowds of people who would rather believe that the Lord they sin against is dead than that he is alive and coming to judge the living and the dead. Still today there are business-as-usual types like the soldiers who care more about staying out of trouble with their boss or making some extra money than about the fact that the greatest event in the universe has happened right before them.

But still today there are also people to whom God reveals the truth. Still today there are people who react to Easter with joy. Still today there are women who rejoice that Jesus lives and worship him. Still today there are men who, despite their sins and failures, find out that Jesus calls them his brothers.

One of the great ironies recorded in the Bible is that when Jesus’ tomb turned up empty, people on both sides—Jesus’ enemies and some of his friends—both said the body was stolen, and each blamed the other side. Jesus’ enemies blamed his disciples for stealing the body, while some of Jesus’ friends at first blamed his enemies for taking the body away (John 20:13)—until Jesus himself came to them and showed them the truth. The fact is that a grave robber was indeed to blame. And that grave robber won’t ever be caught or put into prison. Jesus’ disciples didn’t rob the grave. Jesus’ enemies didn’t rob the grave. Jesus himself robbed the grave. He plundered the powers of death and got away. In leaving the grave, he took with him millions of believers who will have glorious bodies like his resurrection body.

The religious leaders responded to the empty tomb by making up the big lie that his disciples stole the body. But Jesus countered the big lie with the Great Commission. He sent his disciples out to tell the truth. The risen Lord came to the, convinced them he was alive, and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Which do you accept, the big lie or the Great Commission? Do you believe the Jesus’ disciples stole his body and lied about his resurrection? Or do you believe that Jesus rose and commissioned them to preach the truth to the world and to write it in the Bible? Don’t accept the lie; that’s digging your own grave. Trust the risen Christ, be baptized, obey his commands, and join the great grave robber in defeating death.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.