Controversies around the Passion of Christ are numerous. Some people are desperate to find evidence that would prove the story false. Was there really a man named Jesus? Did He actually die on the cross (or did he swoon or faint or pretend)? Was there a substitute on the cross who just looked like Jesus? Were His followers complicit in a cover-up to steal the corpse and then spread wild rumors of His resurrection? You get the idea.
Often we speak of the first witnesses to what happened at the garden tomb. How many were there? Who was first to arrive? Were there two angels or just one? The gospel writers convey a chaotic scene but one common element is that women were the first to witness the empty tomb. From His birth to His resurrection, there is irony as to those who were the initial witnesses. In Luke, we are told that the angels announced to a band of shepherds that the Savior was born. In all of the gospel accounts, women came first to tend to the hastily buried Jesus.
The irony is that shepherds were held in low regard and were not trusted to give testimony in court. They were too unreliable. Women were thought to be unworthy and unable to bear witness. God chose a surprising audience for world-changing events!
But who were the first witnesses? In Matthew 27, the Jewish Temple leadership approached Procurator Pilate with a request: “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while He was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’” They wanted Pilate to station guards at the tomb because they feared the disciples would steal the body and then claim the words of Jesus had come true. It seemed they put more weight in those words than His own followers did!
Pilate agreed to the guard and placing a seal on the tomb. Some combination of Roman soldiers and Temple police formed the guard. The seal would have been Roman, meaning that breaking the seal would have been a capital offense.
Matthew 28:1-4 explains the events at the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea on that Sunday morning. The guards were at their posts when an angel of the Lord rolled away the stone then sat on it. So much for the power of Rome. The text reads: “The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint.”
Have you ever wondered what happened to those men? Later in the chapter, some of the guards reported to the leading priests what had happened. They were given “a large bribe” to spread the news that the body was stolen while they slept. How interesting. If those were Roman soldiers, they would have been executed for being asleep at their posts. The priests promised the soldiers that they would take care of them if they would participate in the cover-up.
They fade from the historical record but they were the first to know that death could not hold Jesus. How could they witness such a miracle and not have been changed? It seems that there are still many who seem unfazed by what occurred. Here it is: Jesus died on a Roman cross, bearing the sins of the world. His battered and desecrated body was buried in a borrowed tomb. On the third day, JUST AS HE PROMISED, He broke the power of sin, death, and evil. His resurrection gives any who would believe the assurance of life eternal. Happy Easter!!