THE TALE OF THE GUARDS
An Easter sermon based on Matthew 28:1-10
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
April 12, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Sir Edward Clarke was one of the most prominent lawyers and members of Parliament in Great Britain during the late 19th and early 20th Century. Among the many honors bestowed upon him, Clarke was designated as KC, or “King’s Counsel”—which means that he had been designated as the king’s own personal lawyer. He was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant legal minds of his generation. (One of his most famous trials had to do with the defense of the famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in a libel case.) Concerning the Christian faith’s astonishing claim that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead on that first Easter, Clarke wrote these words:
As a lawyer, I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day. To me, the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. Inference follows evidence, and a truthful witness is always artless and distains effect. The Gospel evidence for the resurrection is of this class, and as a lawyer I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts they were able to substantiate.1
Each of the four gospels gives an account of that first Resurrection Sunday. To tell the truth, each of them is slightly different. But that is to be expected from four different eyewitness accounts of anything. However they all agree on the basic parts of the story: women going to the tomb early that morning, the discovery of the empty tomb, the women being greeted by angels who announce that Jesus had been raised just like he said, and the women hurrying away to tell the disciples the amazing news. Those are the essential parts of the story. The fact that the four gospel stories do not exactly harmonize with one another should not be cause for alarm…
Eyewitness accounts are like that sometimes. For example, suppose that there are four people, each standing on a corner of a particular street intersection. And as they are standing there, an automobile accident occurs right in front of them. The police come to take their statements regarding what they saw when the accident occurred. The basic facts would most likely be the same in each case: one car coming from one direction, the other car coming from another, and the fact that the two cars collided. But if you were to compare each of the four statements with the other three, each would be somewhat different in the way they described the accident. It would be dependent upon what each person noticed and on what each observed from his or her vantage point.
1 Quoted in John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 1958), 46.
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One witness might make mention that she saw one of the cars speeding. No one else might have noticed that. Another might mention that one of the cars failed to stop for the traffic light when it turned red. Still another might mention that the road was slick due to a torrential rainstorm some 15 minutes earlier. One might notice the maneuvers of one car to attempt to avoid the other. One might mention that the sun was low in the sky and that there was a glare that hampered their vision. A witness could recollect what she heard one of the drivers say when they emerged from their vehicle. One driver may have been talking on his cell phone…There are lots of different details of the accident that would likely vary from one witness to the next. Given the difference in the eyewitness accounts that each one would give, the question might be asked, “Well, okay—so which one is true? Which of the reports by these eyewitnesses is the real story of what happened at the intersection?”
The answer to the question is this: they are all true. Just as the four eyewitness accounts of our hypothetical traffic accident would be different and yet all be true, so it is with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection on that first Easter morning. They might be dissimilar in some of their details. They might differ on what they included and what they omitted. All would tell different aspects of the story. The differences in the accounts really do not matter all that much…because they are all still true.
Matthew, in his telling of the Easter story, gives us some details that none of the other three gospel writers include. One of those details concerns the guards that were posted at Jesus’ tomb and what happened to them. And that is what I want to focus our attention on for the remainder of our time together.
In Matthew 27, Matthew tells us the story of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial. He tells us that, after Jesus had been buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the chief priests of the Temple and the Pharisees paid a visit to the Roman governor Pilate. (You remember that he was the one who had sentenced Jesus to death.) They came to Pilate to ask him a favor. They said, “Sir, 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 that the first.” (Verses 63-63).
Pilate agreed to their request. A guard (probably a squad of four Roman soldiers) was posted at the tomb. The tomb was made even more secure by putting a seal on it to make sure that no one disturbed it. They wanted to make doubly sure that Jesus stayed in the grave.
By my count, Matthew tells us that Jesus told people on five separate occasions that he would rise from the dead after three days. Obviously the chief priests and Pharisees had been taking notes…even if the disciples hadn’t…
In Matthew 12 (and later again in Matthew 16), the Pharisees came to Jesus and demanded that he show them a sign to prove that he truly was sent from God. Not surprisingly, Jesus refused their
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request. (The gospels record that Jesus never took kindly to being told what to do by anyone…And when people demanded something of him, he rarely complied…)
Anyway, in both of these instances, our Lord responded to the Pharisees’ request by saying, “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”2
[Side bar here: I find these two exchanges between Jesus and Pharisees to be fascinating. In the first 15 chapters of Matthew, Jesus had already performed PLENTY of signs that proved who he was. He had cured people of the dreaded skin disease of leprosy. He had healed people oppressed by demons. He had walked on water. He had healed men who were blind and mute. He had healed a man with a withered hand right in front of the eyes of the Pharisees. He had miraculously fed five thousand on one occasion and four thousand on another. And this was in addition to other healings that he performed whose stories are just mentioned in passing. To me, it begs the question: Exactly how many more signs from Jesus did the Pharisees need to see before they would accept him for who he obviously was?! But then again, that was probably not the point…]
Now it must be said that Jesus’ response to the Pharisees demand for a sign was admittedly a bit cryptic—vague even. In both cases, he replied that no sign would be given except “the sign of Jonah.”Jesus used “the sign of Jonah” to compare his story with that of the Biblical prophet Jonah. You remember the story of how God caused a great fish to swallow Jonah whole and, after three days in the belly of the fish, he emerged alive. Jesus said that he would be in the tomb for three days, presumed dead, and then he would emerge alive once more. Maybe that was a puzzle that the Pharisees could not unravel. That is fair enough. But the other three predictions that our Lord gave concerning his resurrection were as plain as day…
In Matthew 16:21, Jesus told his disciples that they would be going to Jerusalem where the authorities would have him be killed and that he would be raised again on the third day. In Matthew 17:22-23, he said the very same thing. And then, on the day before they entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus told his disciples, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matthew 20:18-19) Could he have been any plainer? That final explanation, which was maybe a week before his crucifixion, was as unambiguous as it gets…
Here is one of the supreme ironies of the Easter story. Notice that it was the Pharisees—those who were Jesus’ enemies—who recalled that Jesus had said that he would rise from the dead on the third day. Accordingly, they did what they could to prevent it from happening. They requested that Pilate post a guard and to seal the tomb.
2 Matthew 12:39ff and Matthew 16:4.
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On the other hand, the disciples—the ones who followed Jesus for three years—the ones who were his closest friends—the ones who had heard him predict that he would rise from the dead at least five times—they were the ones seemingly caught off guard by the news that he had arisen. None of the eleven remaining disciples showed up early in the morning on Easter. Not a single one of them. They somehow missed it. Apparently they had not been listening to Jesus very closely. Or maybe their faith was lacking. Or perhaps their memories were not as sharp as those of the Pharisees. In any case, all four of the gospels record that it was only the women who were there to greet the newly Risen Lord. But having said that, even they were unsure of what they would find in the cemetery on that first Easter morning. The evidence seems to indicate that they did not expect to find an empty tomb either…
If that part of the tale of the guards at Jesus’ tomb was not enough, Matthew points us to another delicious irony surrounding the guards on Easter morning…Another unique detail…
Matthew tells us that two women—Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”—went to see the tomb that morning. (Matthew does not tell us the reason why they came. The other gospel writers say that the women came with spices to complete the embalming process…but Matthew does not include that information.) Matthew then records that there was a massive earthquake. An angel of the Lord descended and rolled back the stone that covered the entrance to the tomb and sat on it. He was described as “His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow.” Then Matthew makes a telling comment in verse four: “For fear of him [that is, the angel] the guards shook and became like dead men.”
Isn’t that rich?! The guards were there to make sure that the one who was in the tomb—whom they supposed was dead—would stay there. But now it is the one in the tomb who is found to be alive…And the soldiers assigned to guard the tomb? They have now become like dead men at the sight of the angel…Nothing went as planned. Everything got turned around on that first Easter Sunday…
And maybe that’s a word for us to hear on this Easter 2020. All of our lives have been turned upside down over the last several weeks. We have all been affected. With “shelter in place” regulations being enforced, a 25% national unemployment rate, stores and businesses closing, and news of hundreds—if not thousands—of COVID-19 virus deaths being reported every day, this is surely one Easter celebration for the books.
No worshiping together in the First Baptist sanctuary—its normal majestic beauty enhanced by the addition of Easter lilies. No joining of our hearts together as we sing the great hymns of the season like “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and “Up from the Grave He Arose.” No hearing Caleb stir our souls and bless us with his musical skills at the piano. No coming together in Jesus’ name to enjoy the warmth of fellowship with other believers. No gathering with friends and out-of-town extended family to enjoy the annual Easter dinner feast. None of that happened this Easter.
But in the midst of our troubles, joy comes in the morning. In spite of everything and the changes that we are going through, God is still on the throne. His tender mercies endure forever. Jesus
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is still the Savior. He is alive and lives to bless us with his everlasting love. The Holy Spirit is still within us. He is at work to make us more into the people that God has called us to be in Christ. Yes—just as joy came with the morning on that first Easter, so joy will come again with the new morning when it dawns and this pandemic is over.
This sermon closes with an Easter blessing for each one of you. I pray that the Lord will guard and keep you safe until we can meet together again—
May the glad dawn
Of Easter morn
Bring joy to thee.
May the calm eve
Of Easter leave
A peace divine with thee.
May Easter night
On thine heart write,
O Christ, I live for Thee.3
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
THE TALE OF THE GUARDS