They Stole the Body
- Sunday, April 20, 2003
Matthew 28:2-4, 11-15
First light came to Golgotha on Sunday morning, but nothing stirred there. Trash was scattered over Calvary-a broken ladder, a few pieces of rope, some rotten, bloodied clothes. Golgotha had never been a pretty sight and on this morning it was still ugly, though the dawn promised to wash away memories of days past.
This was the beginning of a new day, the beginning of a new week and unknown to the few awake and walking the streets of Jerusalem, it was the beginning of a new era-the Age of Grace.
Light had not yet pierced the deep shadows of the nearby garden where Jesus had been entombed. Darkness crouched beneath trees and bushes. The eyes of those guarding the tomb had become acclimated to the darkness, but a new arrival would have needed a torch to find his way about the garden.
It came slowly. The Roman soldiers watching in the garden did not feel it at first. Leaves on the trees began shimmering, then bushes began shaking. Then came the low moan of dirt and rock being awakened from their bed. A gentle earthquake rumbled through the garden, dislodging the small stone holding the larger stone in its place covering the opening of the tomb. The Roman seal, stamped in a handful of cement that held the stones together, cracked and splintered into small pieces.
Out of the darkness-out of nowhere-stepped an angel. The brilliant light emanating from the angel's garment flashed through the garden, and the darkness hiding under the bushes scampered away. The two soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the tomb trembled at the sight and immediately fell over as if dead. Before the others nearby could even detect the source of the dazzling light shining about them, the angel put his shoulder to the stone and with one mighty shove, rolled the stone away from the tomb. The angel then sat upon the stone and smiled as if to say, This stone cannot keep the Lord in, and it cannot keep me out.
The four remaining Roman soldiers, who had stood shoulder to shoulder in battle, did not fear death, but they were shaken by the brilliance of the angelic being and intimidated by the heavenly power he had displayed. With a whimper, these courageous soldiers-seized with mortal terror-began to run.
"Quick! To Antonia! We must get reinforcements!" one shouted as they stumbled into the city.
"No, wait!" another called, suddenly stopping. The others pulled up and turned to hear him. "If it is known we ran away from this man," he cautioned, "we will be put to death."
The dew of the morning had settled on the trees, and Jerusalem still lay silent. Indeed if they reported that one warrior had driven them away, they would at the very least become laughingstocks. Certainly they would be beaten and imprisoned. They could even be executed, depending upon the mood of Pilate.
"Let's go to the Jewish leaders," one of the guards reasoned.
"Yes!" another of the soldiers liked this idea. "Technically, we were at the tomb under their authority, though they have no power over us. And it is said they know of the supernatural."
With that, they headed toward the Temple living quarters. They aroused the Levites residing in the Temple, who in turn quickly summoned the chief priests and members of the Sanhedrin.
The sun still had not risen when a handful of religious officials walked toward the Temple. Dressed casually-not in their official robes-they brushed sleep from their eyes as they quickly assembled. This was an emergency.
With skeptical hearts, they listened to the soldiers tell about the earthquake and the heavenly being who rolled the stone away from the cave. They all doubted the earthquake for they had not felt it. The Sadducees among them did not believe the soldiers, for they doubted the supernatural. The Pharisees believed in miracles, but their hearts told them God would not come to the rescue of a man convicted of blasphemy.
Finally, a leader of the Sanhedrin stood and waved his hands in a gesture calling for silence. "This second evil is worse than the first," he said, for he considered the crucifixion of Jesus to be a necessary evil. He explained that although the death of the Nazarene was meant to crush the movement that had sprung up around him, such wild, unsubstantiated stories about his resurrection would only bolster his fanatical followers and lead more people to believe in his teachings.
The leader turned to the Roman soldiers and asked, "Did you actually see this 'person' roll away the stone?"
"Yes," they answered.
"Did you actually see Jesus of Nazareth walk out of the tomb?"
"Well, then. There is your answer!" the leader said to the Sanhedrin. "He did not rise from the dead. No one saw him come out of the tomb." Then he smiled at the gathering. "The body of Jesus was stolen by his disciples while the guards lay sleeping."
"But ... ," the soldier protested.
However, before the soldiers could get the words out, they were cut off by a loud CLUNK. A bag full of coins had appeared on the table before them.
"We understand that hardworking soldiers have certain needs," the leader of the Sanhedrin said benignly. This was clearly more money than the soldiers had seen in a long time.
No one in the room dared say what they all were thinking, for it was a serious offense to bribe a Roman official. It was also against Jewish law to offer a bribe. So the word "bribe" was never mentioned.
A chief priest finally broke the silence. "This money is simply a token of our appreciation for your diligence. Consider it a reward for information that will lead to the destruction of a criminal conspiracy."
"But . . . we will be punished for sleeping on our watch," a soldier protested.
"Pilate is our friend," the leader of the Sanhedrin said, dismissing his concerns. "If this report gets to the governor, we will talk to Pilate and keep you out of trouble. You will not be punished."
Once the ruling council reached agreement on their fictitious account of the disappearance of the body of Jesus, they quickly spread word throughout Jerusalem that his disciples had robbed the sepulchre during the night and had stolen the body of Jesus.
Those who had rejected Jesus in the Temple were quick to believe the lie, but others were not so sure.
"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 28:15
Excerpted from The Son, by Elmer Towns. Copyright © 1999. Regal Books. Ventura, California 93003. Used by permission.
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