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Impact of the Empty Tomb
Yet on the third day of His burial, on the morning of the first day of the week, the body was no longer there, and the empty tomb still stands today as an unanswerable proof that the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. There are other proofs, of course. The ten or more recorded appearances of the resurrected Christ to His disciples, the amazing change of demeanor of the disciples from that of fearful hideaways to fearless evangelists, the worldwide spread of the Christian faith as founded on the resurrection, and so on.
But the impact of the empty tomb was the foundation and bulwark of all the rest. As we consider its impact on the world, and on us today, it is instructively fascinating to consider first its impact on those who first encountered it. A watch possibly a "quaternion" of four Roman soldiers--compare Acts had been designated by the Roman Governor Pilate to guard the tomb after Jesus' body had been buried there by Nicodemus and Joseph. The account is in Matthew Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.
Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.
John 20 NIV - The Empty Tomb - Early on the first day - Bible Gateway
So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch. The "great stone" had already been "rolled Then they took their guard positions for the rest of the three-day period. Probably they took turns at sleeping, one sleeping while three remained awake on guard. Certainly none of the hiding disciples or anyone else would have dared to try to invade the tomb for any reason. The soldiers had probably been selected from that "whole band of soldiers" Matthew that had stripped Jesus in Pilate's hall and scourged Him and mocked Him and then taken Him out to crucify Him.
They had watched Him suffer and die, but then they had also experienced the great darkness and the great earthquake Matthew , 51 , and had heard their centurion cry out: "Truly this man was the Son of God" Mark They had no reason to fear the disciples, but they must have had some concern about what God might do to them, if indeed, Jesus was the Son of God, as their centurion had cried. In any case, they certainly would not be lethargic and careless about their assignment, or about to fall asleep while on duty. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men Matthew As soon as they recovered and were able to move, they scattered from the site, rightly deciding that the mighty angel was more to be feared than the priests or even Pilate. But what to do next?
They realized that the happening at the tomb would soon become known, including their flight, and they realized Pilate might well have them put to death for leaving their post. Their best hope would be the priests, who seemed to have some kind of influence with the governor, and perhaps would be able to understand their plight. Therefore, some of them what happened to the others is not recorded headed for the temple, to tell Caiphas and the others that the tomb was empty, though it was not because of the disciples, who were still somewhere in hiding.
And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day Matthew Under other circumstances, the soldiers would have been afraid to say they all four had been sleeping on duty.
But they were also greedy, and the "hush-money" convinced them. They were in mortal danger anyway, and they realized that Pilate might be amenable to bribery too, and they really had no other choice. Roman officials were indeed known to take bribes to render desired decisions note the reputation of the governor Felix as implied in Acts The idea that the disciples had stolen the body while the soldiers slept circulated for a while, but it was so unreasonable that it could not survive very long.
In the first place, if the soldiers really were all asleep which is practically inconceivable , they could not have known what happened. Secondly, the work of moving the stone, stripping the grave clothes off the body, and carrying the body away, would surely have awakened at least some of the soldiers. Finally, the disciples could never have persisted in preaching a lie about resurrection when it began to cost them all their possessions and finally their lives to do so. Thus the story circulated by the soldiers was basically unbelievable and could not convince people very long.
But it served the immediate purpose, presumably, of sparing the soldiers' lives for the time being. They did know that the tomb was empty, however, and we can at least wonder whether some of them also might have eventually come to believe that Jesus was really the Son of God, and to seek His forgiveness and salvation. When the priests and Pharisees heard the report of the soldiers, they could tell that these hardened and callous men were telling the truth, and that the tomb really was empty--not opened up by the disciples but by a mighty angel of God.
If they had been skeptical, they would surely have gone to the tomb themselves to investigate. They did not do so, however, but instead bribed the soldiers and possibly Pilate later to lie about the matter. One would think that these respected religious leaders, now that they knew that Christ really had risen from the dead, would have been willing to confess their mistake and receive Christ gladly as their long-awaited Messiah. Instead they became more determined than ever to oppose Him and His disciples, denying the almost undeniable truth of His victory over death and the grave.
They had known about His miracles and His wonderful teachings for over three years, yet they still bitterly opposed Him and sought for some means to destroy Him, still deluding themselves and others with the notion that He was a "deceiver," doing His mighty works by the power of the devil. Just three days earlier, before the assembled Sanhedrin Council, Jesus had acknowledged that He was indeed the very Son of God and that "ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven" Mark They should by all reason have fallen down to worship Him, but instead they accused Him of blasphemy and "they all condemned him to be guilty of death" Mark , still convincing themselves that He was a deceiver.
When the soldiers came back to them with their amazing report of mighty angels and an empty tomb, thus confirming that He was back from the dead as He had promised, they surely must have realized that He was all that He had claimed and could do all that He had promised. No one but God could defeat death, for it was God who had pronounced the judgment of death on all who sin. No one but the Creator could bring life out of death, for it was He who had created life in the beginning. Jesus was, therefore, as He had claimed, "the bread of life," "the light of the world," "the resurrection, and the life," "the way, the truth, and the life" John ; ; ; , and He could, indeed, "give unto them eternal life" John if they would only believe that He was Lord and had been raised from the dead.
As the Apostle Paul said later: "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" Romans They surely must have realized all this by now, for He had risen from the tomb. Instead, like old Pharaoh, they "hardened [their hearts]" Exodus yet again, and proceeded to do everything in their power to deny His resurrection and to prevent His followers from proclaiming it.
They may once have thought Jesus was a deceiver, but now knew He was not.
They themselves became conscious deceivers, bribing the soldiers also to deceive. The sad thing is that many Jews to this day still believe this impossible lie. Pilate had no sympathy or agreement with these Jewish elders when he gave them the watch they requested for the tomb, but possibly through fear of their political influence with King Herod or other authorities reluctantly agreed to do so. He knew that Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God and his wife had, because of a dream, warned him not to have anything to do with "that just man" Matthew Yet he gave in to the Jews anyway, and consented to have Jesus executed.
Three Days and Three Nights: Did Jesus Keep His Word?
Then, once he had delivered Jesus up to be crucified, his fears must have been increased by the supernatural darkness and the great earthquake. Next, Joseph of Arimathaea, known to Pilate as a rich and godly member of the Council, had come to request the body of Jesus, and Pilate knew that this would mean Joseph's expulsion from the Council and ostracism and persecution by his colleagues there.
This was bound to make a deep impression, and then here came his own centurion with his conviction that Jesus had been the Son of God after all. Very soon after the soldiers' report to the priests, the news must have reached Pilate also about the empty tomb. He could hardly believe the story that the disciples had stolen the body, nor would he have appreciated the part that his soldiers had played in its fabrication.
It is doubtful that the soldiers escaped punishment after all, not because of sleeping on their watch, but because of the obvious lie that they had done so, no matter how much money the priests may have offered Pilate. He would surely have forced the truth out of his soldiers when he questioned them. That means that Pilate, as well as the soldiers and the priests, also realized that "that just man" whom he had sent to the cross, had risen from the dead.
There is a rather doubtful tradition that Pilate, as well as some of the soldiers, eventually accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. If so, it was a remarkable testimony to the grace of God, and an answer to His prayer on the cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" Luke In any case, Pilate knew that the tomb was empty and there is no record that either he or the chief priests ever tried to find the body.
Beyond any doubt, they would have tried diligently to find the body if they really thought there was any chance at all that it was somewhere on Earth. After the great conversion on the day of Pentecost, with the flame of Christianity rapidly spreading through Jerusalem and into other regions, the Jewish leaders did everything they could to stamp it out.
Displaying the dead body of Jesus would have done this instantaneously, because the preaching of Peter and the others centered on the triumphant fact of the resurrection. This they could not do, however, and they knew they could not do it, because they knew the tomb was empty on that first Lord's Day morning. Other than the soldiers, the first ones to learn about the empty tomb were faithful women who had watched Joseph and Nicodemus bury Him there. Matthew and Mark both mention Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" evidently the "mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome," and possibly also "Mary the wife of Cleophas"-- Matthew ; ; Mark ; John Luke gives a more complete account in Luke as follows:.
And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?
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He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered his words, And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.
It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not. These faithful women thus were privileged to see that the tomb was empty before any of the apostles did. In fact, when the women hurried back to tell the apostles, the latter did not believe them. However, Peter and John were not with the others at the time, and neither was Mary Magdalene, who had run back to tell Peter and John as soon as she noted the stone rolled away from the sepulchre John The other women did see the emptied tomb and they heard the angels tell the glorious news that Christ had risen from the dead.
Great must have been their dismay and disappointment when the disciples would not believe them. These dear women, just a few hours before, had been as despondent as the disciples, sure that the Lord they had loved and served was gone forever.