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The Chief Priests' Story

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 19, 2000

Matthew 28:11-15

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If you have your Bibles I would invite to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 28. We come today to our ultimate message in this series on the gospel of Matthew. Next week will look at the great commission next time we’re together and then into the gospel according to the apostle Paul in the book of Romans.

And we continue today to look at the theme of the resurrection. We looked last week at Matthew, chapter 28, verses 1 through 10 and the story in which Matthew recounts the events of power surrounding the resurrection itself, the reaction of the guards, the reaction of the faithful female disciples who were there at the tomb to anoint, to continue to prepare Jesus’ body. And in so showing us those events, Matthew gave us an important testimony to the truth of the resurrection and the meaning of the resurrection. And he continues that lesson in a surprising way today. So I turn your attention to Matthew 28, verse 11, and we’ll read through verse 15. This is God’s word.

“Now while they (this is speaking of Jesus’ female disciples) were on their way, behold some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and counseled together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers and said ‘You are to say His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble. And they took the money and did as they had been instructed, and this story was widely spread among the Jews as it is to this day.”

Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray.

Father, as we continue to consider Your word, we pray that You would teach us Your truth, we would grow to embrace it more strongly and fully and with more understanding. We pray as well that you might take the scales off of the eyes of those who may be skeptical of the truth, and that You might draw them to Jesus Christ. We ask these things in His name, Amen.

As we approach this short passage today. Today, I want to focus your attention on two things. First of all, I want you to think about the sovereignty of God in this incident. The sovereignty of God in securing a testimony to Jesus’ resurrection in spite of the schemes of the Sanhedrin, the chief priest, the scribes and Pharisees. Secondly, I want you to think for a few moments about the importance, the nature and the significance of the resurrection itself. It seems to me that Matthew not only wants to strengthen our confidence in the historical account and truthfulness of this great event by recounting this story; but he also wants to explain to us, yet again, more about what the resurrection itself means. What it was, what it means for us. So let’s look at this passage together.

And before we look at verses 11 through 15, I would like you to turn back to Matthew 27 and look at verses 62 through 66. We said that that passage really formed a prologue to the story of the guard’s report and the Sanhedrin’s lie that’s recorded here in Matthew 28, verses 11 through 15. In Matthew 27, verses 62 through 66 Matthew is preparing us for the objection to Christ’s resurrection which is going to come from the Jewish religious leaders, and he’s preparing us for the deception which is going to be carried out by the guards themselves.

I. The prologue.

And I want you to see God’s sovereignty in all of this. As you remember, Matthew is the only one of the gospel writers that tells us about this Saturday meeting of the Sanhedrin with Pilate. After Jesus had been crucified and laid in the tomb, they were still concerned about claims that might be made by His disciples. They wanted to make sure that whatever they did they ended the Jesus movement. They wanted to make sure that this particular heresy, as they considered it, would not continue. And so they met with Pilate and they said look, this man has made claims in His ministry that He was going to be raised from the dead. Perhaps they remembered that as far back as Matthew, chapter 12, verse 40 Jesus had been reiterating to them as the religious leaders of God’s people that He was not going to give them a sign. You remember they kept saying, do a sign for us. Do a miracle for us and then we’ll believe that You’re the Messiah. You remember what He said? I’m not going to give you a sign. The only sign that’s going to be given to this wicked generation is the sign of Jonah. Three days Jonah was in the belly of the whale. And so three days the Son of Man will be in the belly of the earth, but He will be raised again. And perhaps they had remembered from that very initial encounter with the Lord Jesus of these constant words about His upcoming resurrection.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that they seem to know and to expect more about Jesus’ resurrection than His own disciples do. But at any rate they remember this prediction and so they want to make sure this doesn’t happen. And so they secure from Pilate the permission to put an imperial Roman seal upon the tomb and to establish a guard there. The temple guard or perhaps some Roman guards then go to the tomb. They station themselves at the tomb. They seal the large stone which has already been rolled in front of the grave, and they set watch. And by this stratagem the chief priests think that they’re going to forestall any plot to say that Jesus has been resurrected and any attempt to continue the Jesus movement.

Now the irony of all this is all that that ends up doing is two things. First of all, it means that non-disciples will be among the first witnesses to the resurrection. What would have been your first objection if you were a skeptic? Had there only been disciples present at the time of the resurrection, the first thing you would have said is, Well sure, I mean, you’re His disciples. What else would we expect you to say?

But by this particular stratagem the chief priest managed to make sure that there were non-disciples present to witness the initial events of the resurrection. The earthquake, the angel, the angel’s message, the rollaway tomb, the rollaway stone, the empty tomb. Non-disciples are there and they can confirm it. The second thing that this manages to do is it shows us that the empty tomb is an absolute reality. These folks had to be forced to acknowledge the empty tomb. They didn’t want to acknowledge the empty tomb. And the fact, and we’ll find out when we study Matthew 28, verses 11-15, the fact that they admitted the empty tomb speaks volumes. It’s interesting that Matthew records no one anywhere saying that the tomb wasn’t empty. They didn’t have that particular trick in their pocket. They couldn’t say well, He’s still in the grave. Nobody was saying that. Nobody was saying well, He was put in the wrong grave. He found the wrong tomb. Nobody was saying that. Everybody had to admit the emptiness of the tomb, and we’ll see that when we get into Matthew 28, verses 11-15 in a minute. But the very actions of Jesus’ enemies here, the very actions that they had taken prior to the resurrection now serve to confirm the fact of the resurrection itself. And so we see in that, God’s sovereignty even in the actions of Jesus’ enemies. Then we continue to see that theme.

II. The irony of the chief priests’ deception

Now turn back with me to Matthew 28, verses 11 through 15. Here we continue to see ironies in the chief priest’s deception. God is vindicating His Son in this passage, even in the face of the deception He is continuing to consternate the enemies of the Lord Jesus in His sovereignty. While the overjoyed female disciples are making their way to find the male disciples of Jesus who were scattered hither, thither and yond in verse 11, we’re told that the same time that some, not all, but some of the guards who were at the tomb had regathered their wits and they were making their way, not to Pilate, not surprisingly, but directly to the chief priests who were behind the plot. Now the story that they are about to tell, any of you who have ever been in the military will be immediately suspicious of the story that they’re going to tell after meeting with the chief priests. But follow it up.

The interesting thing is here, of course, that Matthew has in verse 11 the women going to tell the truth while the soldiers are going to tell the account of what happened and then are going to be asked to spread a lie. And so we already see these interesting ironies in the passage.

At any rate, the religious leaders of Israel’s worst nightmare has now come to pass. Jesus is gone. He’s not in the tomb, and their response is, however, not to say well, just like He said. He’s shown us the sign of Jonah. Just like He said, He’s been raised from the dead. Therefore, we need to repent. We’ve been wrong in our attitude. We were totally wrong about Him. We repent. We want to acknowledge Him as the Messiah of Israel. That’s not their response. Their response is oh, so He’s not there. Okay, well what you’re going to do is you’re going to tell people that His disciples stole Him away while you were sleeping. Their immediate response is not to admit that they had been wrong in their attitudes towards Him, not to admit that He was right in telling them that He would be raised from the dead, but in fact to devise a scheme to cover up the truth. By the way this is one of the contrasts that Matthew wants to show you in this section. They’ve rejected the sign of Jonah, and this is yet another way in which Matthew is showing you that unbelief of the truth of God is not the product of a lack of evidence for that truth. It’s a product of a heart that will not see what is plain as the nose is on your face.

Throughout this passage, Matthew makes it clear. It’s a lot easier for the believer to believe the truth than it is for the unbeliever to deny the truth. The unbeliever has to work really hard to come up with some sort of explanation of how this thing is working out. The believer doesn’t really have to work very hard at all. And Matthew’s point is there’s something perverse about unbelief. The chief priest, we are told in verse 12, paid the guards a very large sum of money. And then in verse 14 we are told that they promised them protection. This was important for a military man to admit that he had fallen asleep on the watch was a serious thing. For a military man to lose his prisoner, even if his prisoner happens to be dead, as in this instance, was something that could garner him a capital punishment. This is documented in the days of the Lord Jesus, that military guards in these kinds of circumstances very often faced capital punishment. So the chief priests, giving them this particular story to tell, realize that they are endangering these guards’ lives, and so have to promise to give them protection. They intimate in verse 14 that Pilate himself was amenable to a bribe. He could be made to be very understanding of their circumstance, and so they tell them to lie. They provide them with the following story. You see it there in verse 13. Say to everyone — it’s interesting that the chief priests used the word teach this. Just remember that because that word is going to appear again in the gospel of Matthew before it’s done. But they say teach this, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.”

Now needless to say, that account of what had transpired is enormously problematic. Matthew, by recounting for us this story that had been circulated, is actually showing us the ridiculousness of the denial of the resurrection. There are at least five problems with that particular story, and I just want to raise them with you very briefly. Here’s the story we’re telling. We fell asleep. His disciples came by night. They stole the body away. Here are five very significant problems. First of all, is it likely that Jesus’ disciples who had abandoned Him upon His arrest would come back and risk their lives in order to steal His dead body? Taking a body was a capital offense. To come back and remove the body from the grave, is it really likely that the same disciples who had abandoned Him at His rest, would now come back to steal His body when they themselves by their own admission were not expecting His resurrection. Secondly, could they have really accomplished that kind of a task without disturbing the Guard’s sleep? Let’s just assume for sake of argument that the guards were asleep. Could the disciples really have made their way to Joseph’s tomb, rolled away a heavy bolt, made their way into the tomb, removed a body, neatly placed the grave clothes back in place undisturbed and spirited a corpse away without any of the twelve temple guards waking up? If so, these were the soundest sleeping guards in history.

Thirdly, is it really likely that all of the guards would have fallen asleep. Can you imagine this story being told. Well, we fell asleep. All of you fell asleep? All twelve of you fell asleep at the tomb. This is an act which could have yielded the death penalty for them. This is to say the least an unlikely story.

Fourthly, if this story, let’s assume again for the sake of argument, if this story of falling asleep and the disciples snatching away the body. If that’s what really happened, why didn’t the Jewish leaders prosecute the disciples of Jesus? By stealing a body, especially a body which had been sealed in a tomb with an imperial seal, they had committed a capital crime. Why not prosecute them?

Fifthly, if the guards were asleep, how could they have confirmed that it was the disciples who came by night to take away Jesus’ body? There are enormous problems. That’s just the beginning. I was met at the door after the first service with about fifteen other suggestions of problems with this particular story. We’re just skimming the surface with this story. But Matthew goes on to tell us that the guards carried through with it. They were given the money. They carried through with this particular scheme. And this rumor, Matthew says, was still around when he was writing the gospel of Matthew thirty years or more later.

Now it’s interesting that Justin Martyr, a century later, in his dialogue with Trifo the Jew can say that the Jewish people still believe that same particular rumor. Now you see in God’s wisdom and sovereignty He has deployed even the schemes, even the story of the Sanhedrin in order to confirm and vindicate His Son. The story itself that they concocted is so full of holes that it actually begins to vindicate and confirm the truth of the Son’s resurrection. Matthew inserts this story to vindicate Christ’s resurrection against this stolen corpse theory. But he also has a broader pastoral concern. Remember Matthew is a Jewish Christian writing not simply to other Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians who are part of the early Christian community. He’s writing to his own people. He longs to see his own people embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as the Messiah. And he wants to say look, I know the story that’s told in your community about what happened to Jesus Christ, and do you really want me to believe that you believe that? Do you really want me to believe that you intelligent people embrace that as a sufficient, adequate explanation of what happened to Jesus Christ? He’s holding the story before them and he’s saying look how ridiculous this is. This is your own story. Couldn’t you have come up with something better than this? Your working very, very hard to believe something that’s a lot harder to believe that the truth. And the truth is he was raised again from the dead. And so Matthew is showing them the ridiculousness of this particular rumor and he’s holding it up before them to expose their unbelief and to draw them into saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Matthew is also doing something else with this story. He’s highlighting the character of the Jewish religious leaders and contrasting it with Jesus Christ. Look at this passage for a minute. In this passage we have the last commission given by the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day recorded in the gospel of Matthew. And you know what it is? Here’s the commission. You go and teach this. You go and teach that Jesus’ body was stolen, and we’ll pay you well for it. Do you see the two parts of the commission? Go ye therefore and lie and we’ll pay you well for it. You know what’s coming next. Jesus’ great commission. And what’s His great commission? You go therefore and you teach this. You teach the truth of the gospel. You teach the ends of the earth and you teach it not for money. In fact, you risk your whole lives to do it. But you do it because all authority has been given to Me, and because I’ll be with you always. Do you see the contrast that Matthew lines up. We have the religious leaders of Israel saying go ye therefore and lie, and we’ll pay you well for it. And you have Jesus saying, go and tell the truth for My sake and be ready to lay down your life for it. What a contrast between the character of Jesus and His disciples and the Jewish religious leaders and these guards.

Now you see this passage lays to rest the so-called swoon theory of Jesus’ empty tomb experience. He wasn’t really dead. And it lays to rest the denial of the empty tomb. Matthew would not have reported a charge against the resurrection that had not actually been made. Matthew is appealing to people because he wants to evangelize them. He wants to bring them into the Christian community. And he would not have raised an objection to Christianity, a rejection to the doctrine of the resurrection that they themselves were not already aware of. And so the very fact that Matthew mentions that they themselves did not deny that the tomb was empty but tried to come up with another explanation of why it was empty, lets you know that nobody in Matthew’s day was suggesting that the tomb wasn’t empty. That was an absolutely established fact and reality. And that’s why B.F. Westcott can say things like this: “Taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no single incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” If you can deny the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb, you can deny anything in history. You can deny that George Washington was our first president. You can deny that we have landed on the moon. You can deny that there was a Holocaust. You can deny anything in history if you can deny the reality of the empty tomb. It is too well attested. But what about this? Let’s get even more skeptical. What if somebody said, “Yeah, but Matthew made the whole thing up. He made the whole story up, everything up. He made up not only the resurrection, he made up the guards, he made up the empty tomb, he made the whole thing up”? Well, again, there are several problems with that. If you believe that, you have to believe that Matthew devoted his whole live and eventually gave it for something that he knew was not true. Now you say, “Yeah, I know deluded people who do things like that.” Yes, but this Matthew also, as he was doing that, in the recording of the Sermon on the Mount, recorded what is universally recognized as the highest expression of human ethical behavior ever penned by man. So you have to believe that the man who recorded the greatest expression of human ethics ever was a deluded liar. That is a stretch.

Secondly, you have to think that Matthew himself is committing a pious fraud in making up all this. When he has spent the whole gospel of Matthew doing what? Accusing the Jewish and religious leaders for doing what? Making pious frauds. And finally, you have to discount this story. And there are just too many things that check out. It is a lot easier to accept the facts of this story than to try and come up with an alternative. The alternatives are all more problematic than the story itself. The reason people reject the resurrection is not only because of their inherent inveterate rejection of the supernatural, it is because of a moral rebellion against God. The truth is easy to see. It’s hard to reject, but there are a lot of people that are willing to work very hard to reject it. The believer doesn’t have to work so hard. In this passage, God in His wisdom and sovereignty has destroyed even the schemes of His Son’s enemies to glorify His Son. Now, I’d like you to think about that second thing that I mentioned when we began. We’ve seen God’s sovereignty and giving testimony to Jesus’ resurrection.

III. The importance and implications of the resurrection.

Let’s think for a moment about the importance and the implications of the resurrection. I can’t even begin to do justice to this. Let me just say that the biblical testimony to the resurrection is extensive, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Not only do the gospel writers - are they interested that you understand the reality of the scope of the witness to the resurrection. Do you realize that there are at least twelve eye-witness account of the resurrection recorded in the gospels and in the epistles. Now there’s a reason for that. The gospel writers know that the resurrection is central to your faith. It’s central to their proclamation. And so over and over they affirm it.

Let me just give you a few examples. Luke 23, verses 55 through Luke 24, verse 9 tell us about the three women who were witnesses to the resurrection at the tomb. Then John, chapter 20, verses 3 through 10 tells us about Peter’s and John’s seeing of the empty tomb. Then in Matthew, chapter 28, verses 9 and 10, last week we saw the women who were encountered by Jesus after being at the empty tomb. These women encountered the Lord Jesus Himself. That’s the third eye-witness testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. Then Luke tells us in Luke 24, verse 34 that Peter was met by the Lord Jesus on that same day. Luke also tells us in Luke 24, verses 13 through 31 that two disciples who weren’t expecting the resurrection and who were totally demoralized were on their way to Emmaus, and that Jesus met with them on the say day of His resurrection. Then Luke tells us in Luke 24, verses 36 through 45 about the eleven disciples gathering on an occasion when Thomas was not present. So it was really the ten disciples, but the eleven at that time, minus Judas, gathered without Thomas present, and the Lord Jesus met with them. And then John, in John, chapter 20, verses 24 through 29 tells us about the eleven disciples with Thomas present on another occasion seeing the risen Lord Jesus Christ. John in John, chapter 21, verses 1 through 23, the whole of the chapter, tells us about the meeting of seven disciples with Jesus at the Lake of Tiberius. And then Paul in I Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 6 tells us about 500 disciples who saw Jesus in Galilee where He had told them to go meet Him. James in Jerusalem, Paul also mentions in I Corinthians, chapter 15 verse 7, James saw Jesus and there were many, Luke tells us in Acts, chapter 1 verses 3 through 12 who saw Jesus at the time of His ascension. And finally, Paul himself in Acts, chapter 9, verses 3 through 6 was met by the risen Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus where he was planning to persecute Christians. All twelve of those incidents are recorded because the gospel writers, the writers of the word of God, the writers of the New Testament, want us to be absolutely certain about the truthfulness and the importance of the resurrection.

Now we only have time for one example of this. So let me ask you to take your Bibles and let me ask to turn first to Romans, chapter 4. The resurrection is important for a variety of reasons. By the resurrection Jesus shows Himself to be the Son of God. He satisfies divine justice. He vanquishes death. He vanquishes Satan. He shows Himself to be the Lord. He supports us against our enemies. He assures us of our resurrection. But one thing that Paul emphasizes is that it is by the resurrection that we are justified. We love the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The apostle Paul says the doctrine of resurrection is directly connected to that doctrine. Why are we justified? Well, look what Paul says in Romans, chapter 4, verse 25. He who was delivered up because or for the sake of our transgressions was raised because or for the sake of our justification. He was raised for our justification, the apostle Paul says. Now turn with me to one other passage.

Turn forward to I Timothy, chapter 3, verse 16. I Timothy, chapter 3, verse 16. Paul says here in I Timothy 3, chapter 3, verse 16, “He who was revealed in the flesh was vindicated in the spirit.” Some of your translations even say justified by the spirit. Either way the translation works. The point is in Jesus own resurrection and ascension eventually, Jesus was vindicated or justified by God. That is God publicly declared Him to be righteous; and in Him, the apostle Paul says you, too, are declared to be righteous.

Jesus’ resurrection, you see, is not just a proof, it’s not just an evidence of His deity. Jesus’ resurrection is something which is absolutely essential for your justification. He had to be raised in order to be vindicated by the Heavenly Father. As He was raised and vindicated, so were you. Now Paul just says that baldly in Romans, chapter 6. He says, “If you have died with Him, so you will be raised to Him. And you will be raised in Him in newness of life.” And so the doctrine of the resurrection is not just something that is important to confirm something else in the Christian faith, it’s at the very heart of our salvation, even our justification.

And so I want to challenge you to study the doctrine of the resurrection in the New Testament and to learn its significance. Because it is not only significant for all time, it’s significant for you day by day by day because the same power that raised Christ from the dead, the apostle Paul says is at work in you. Let’s pray.

Our Heavenly Father, we ask that You would enable us to taste and to sense and to realize and to appreciate and to praise You for Your resurrection power. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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