Thursday, December 01, 2011

Matthew 28:11–15

Matthew 28:11–15 (ESV): The Report of the Guard

Synopsis

In a previous passage the religious leaders had worried that someone might steal Jesus’ body and fraudulently claim that he’d risen from the dead, so they took steps to have the tomb sealed and put a contingent of guards there to guard it and prevent that from happening. However, as we know, Jesus actually did rise from the dead, and his body really is gone from the tomb.

So in this passage some of the guards go and report to the religious leaders what has happened. At this point the religious leaders decide to double down: they bribe the guards, and tell them that if anyone asks, the guards should tell them that his disciples really did come and steal Jesus’ body. They also let the guards know that if the governor hears about it the religious leaders will keep the guards out of trouble.

The guards take the money and do as they’re told, and, “… this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (verse 15 (ESV)—and these days I’d say it’s not just among the Jews, but probably all people).

Thoughts

When the guards went to the Jewish religious leaders and told them what had happened, I have to assume that they told them the entire story; that there was an angel, and that Jesus had walked out of the tomb in person. Maybe they might have downplayed how scared they were at the sight of the angel, that would be human nature, but they’d have to be able to explain how Jesus’ body got past them. So this just makes me wonder all the more: What were the religious leaders thinking when they made this plan? And I don’t mean “what were they thinking” in the metaphorical “they’re so stupid” way we use that phrase today; I mean literally, what were they thinking? Did they assume the guards were lying? If so, then how did they think the body got past the guards, without, at the very least, a battle happening? (These were Roman soldiers, after all.) And if they thought that the guards were telling the truth, and that Jesus really did rise from the dead, then what did they expect to accomplish by attempting this cover-up? I know this probably isn’t the expected Christian response to passages like this, but I sometimes get caught up in the logistics of the situation more than the morality; it seems self-evident that it was wrong for them to lie about this, but I’m more concerned with what they hoped to accomplish by doing it…

The ESV Study Bible points out that the guards would have been in danger of execution for dereliction of duty, and says that this was the guards’ motivation for going along with the religious leaders. I’m not so convinced, though; if they go along with the religious leaders’ story, wouldn’t that make them more in dereliction of their duty? They couldn’t even stop a couple of measly disciples of Jesus?!? What kind of soldiers were these? But I guess the story about being confronted by a heavenly being wouldn’t go over that much better; people would assume that they were lying. In either event, it’s win-win to go along with the religious leaders’ plan: there is the promise of intervention with the governor—so no execution—and the bribe money on top of that.

As for the fact that the story has spread “to this day” (technically, to the “day” that Matthew wrote this book, but I’m sure it’s still believed), it doesn’t surprise me at all that a story like this would spread because it just seems to make more sense than the truth. Imagine that a controversial figure died, and then a few days later you started hearing two conflicting stories:
  1. He rose from the dead! But he’s not here anymore, he went to heaven, so you can’t see him.
  2. Some of his followers stole the body, and claimed he rose from the dead.
I’d believe the second one, and I’m sure most of my readers would too. Anyone who isn’t saved who reads this passage would probably think that the story that was spread was actually more realistic than what Matthew claims really happened; they might even think that Christians are foolish for believing this, when a more believable story is given us right there in the passage.

Jesus rising from the dead was an unusual event, and we’re sometimes in danger of forgetting how incredible this story is because we’re simply too used to it; at the very least we hear about it every year (at Easter), and many of us probably read it more often than that in our own devotional time. Just like we can get too used to the fact that Jesus came to earth in the first place, because we hear about it over and over at Christmas, but we start to lose sight of the fact that this is God, come to earth as a human. The birth of Jesus and the death (and resurrection) of Jesus are probably the two most amazing events that have ever happened, or will ever happen, in the history of… of history! We should not let these stories wash over us, and lose their impact.

For similar reasons, I don’t necessarily blame people who are not Christians for disbelieving these stories. They are incredible stories—that is, they’re stories that are not credible. They’re outside the realm of what’s actually possible in the physical universe; only God could cause such things (and other miracles in the Bible) to happen, and one has to believe in a God who is bigger than physics to believe such stories are true. If you are confronted with people who don’t believe these stories are true, try not to get worked up about it; I understand your frustration, but I also very much understand where those people are coming from. So instead of—or in addition to—trying to convince people that these stories are real, let us also live lives that are so pleasing to God that people will start to ask us how or why we’re living the way that we do. Let’s set examples for people, and spread the Gospel through not only our words, but also our deeds.

Let us, in other words, be Christians.
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