Date: 27 Mar 2016 (Easter Day)
Text: Matthew 27:57-28:10
Today is that great day in the Christian calendar, the day that the Lord rose from the tomb defeating both death and sin in one fell swoop. It is the day when we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, the Person Who died in our place to pay the price for our sins. I hope and pray that as a result today will be a day of great rejoicing for all Christians.
I’m sure that by now we all know the basic story of Easter and we know that Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten up and hung to die on a rough wooden cross on Good Friday. He died more quickly than expected and so His body was released to Joseph of Arimathea who gently placed Him in a freshly prepared tomb. When Mary Magdalene and others came to see the tomb on the third day they found the stone covering the entrance rolled away and the tomb empty; Jesus wasn’t there because He had risen. That is the bare story and not what I intend to think about too much this morning as I want to look in a bit more detail at the burial and the events surrounding the tomb being found empty.
As I mentioned last week when we thought about Palm Sunday, there are subtle differences between the accounts in the four gospels of the third day with some providing more or different details than the others. These aren’t contradictions since each of the gospels reports the same basic events. However, regardless of these differences I have chosen this morning to focus on Matthew’s account whilst at the same time referring to the other gospels as appropriate.
As I mentioned a moment ago, Jesus died far more quickly than expected. Most of those who suffered crucifixion took at least 24 hours to die and often had their legs broken by Roman soldiers in order to speed up the process. This didn’t happen to Jesus and in accordance with David’s prophecy in Psalm 34:19-20 not a bone in His body was broken. David had this to say, “The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.” We also learn from both Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12; that whilst the animal was to be sacrificed as a sin offering at Passover it was to be killed with none of its bones being broken. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that Jesus was to be “our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7) and whilst He was to be the sacrificial lamb slaughtered to pay the price for our sins for all eternity, none of His bones were to be broken. It is true however that a rather violent and vindictive Roman soldier did pierce Jesus’ side with a spear just to make sure that He was indeed dead. The action of that soldier meant that yet another prophecy was fulfilled. God’s words are quoted in Zechariah 12:10 where we read, “They will look on me, the one they have pierced”. None of these events that happened at Easter took place by accident or unexpectedly; each one of them was prophesied at various times in the Old Testament.
As soon as Jesus had died, a wealthy man from Arimathea by the name of Joseph went to Pilate to ask for the body so that Jesus could be buried in accordance with Jewish Law, and although Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead he acceded to Joseph’s request. It was important that this was done quickly for two reasons. Firstly, it was against Jewish Law for a Jew to ‘work’ on the Sabbath and burying a body counted as ‘work’ which is why shortly before sunset on that first Good Friday Joseph took the body, wrapped it in burial cloths and placed it in a tomb that had been freshly hewn from the rock and had never been used. I suspect that Joseph intended it for himself but as a believer in and follower of Jesus he seems to have been happy to place the Lord’s body in it instead. As was the custom a large stone was rolled across the entrance. The second reason stems from the need to adhere to another part of Jewish Law which makes it very clear in Deuteronomy 21:23 that, “you must not leave his body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God's curse”; for that word “pole” we can also read “cross”.
It is now that we come to a subtle twist in the story. The Pharisees didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah nor did they believe anything that He had said. However, they were extremely worried that in order to prove a point Jesus’ disciples would come in the dead of night and steal the body thereby allowing them to claim that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. So worried were they that they went to Pilate and asked him to “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 than the first” - (27:64). Pilate was anxious to keep the peace and so he agreed to their request and provided guards to keep watch. As a sort of belt and braces, just in case approach, the stone over the entrance was also sealed. By putting these extra precautions in place at sunrise on the Saturday the Pharisees hoped to thwart any attempt by the disciples to remove the body. They deliberately carried out these additional security tasks on the Sabbath presumably on the basis that Jesus’ Jewish followers wouldn’t do anything on their special day.
It’s amazing to think that the Pharisees were so scared of and worried about Jesus that even in His death they did all that they could to deny Him and disbelieve Him. Sadly there are still too many people today who don’t believe the events of that first Easter despite there being both Biblical and historical reports that support these incredible events. Yes, the thought of someone rising from the dead and escaping from a sealed and guarded tomb may seem fantastic to us, but then so is God’s power. If God was capable of creating the universe and everything in it then surely He is also capable of raising His Son from a cold, stone tomb.
When Joseph had originally cared for Jesus’ body he only had time to wrap it in burial cloths whereas it was normal to anoint a body with perfume and spices before wrapping it in such cloths. Consequently some of the women got together and at sunrise on the day after the Sabbath decided to go to the tomb and anoint Jesus’ body with spices that they had prepared.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that women went to the tomb to tend to Jesus’ body. They differ on how many and who, with Matthew telling us it was “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (28:1); Mark saying it was “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome” (Mark 16:1); with Luke simply referring to “the women” (Luke 24:1). Just to be different, John tells us that Mary Magdalene was on her own (John 20:1)! I’m personally not too worried about precisely how many women there were, or which ones actually went to the tomb. The important thing is that it was the women who went rather than the men. Mark has already told us in Mark 14:50 that when the guards went to arrest Jesus, “everyone deserted him and fled”. Remember that only a few days earlier we know from Mark 14:31 that these men had vowed never to leave Jesus and yet now they had fled and gone into hiding.
Sticking to Matthew’s account however, we read that, “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.” (28:1). Regardless of which women it was who went to the tomb, I want you to imagine the scene as they walked towards the tomb. The women were sad and upset at the death of a dear friend just as we are today when we lose a close friend. It was early dawn, cool and damp. You can almost taste the freshness and the dew and maybe hear some birds singing somewhere as if they didn’t have a care in the world. However these women only had one thing on their minds and that was death, the death of their friend Jesus and the fact that they wanted to anoint and care for His body. Maybe they were worried about moving the stone away from the entrance to the tomb; maybe they were wondering whether there would be guards present to hinder their access. It is difficult for us to discern, we just have to try and put ourselves in their place. Imagine their surprise then when they got to the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved and the tomb was open. I wonder if, just for a very brief moment, they thought that it may have just been possible that Jesus had risen; or would they have wondered if someone had come and stolen the body; right then they had no idea at all as to what was happening. Given the subtle differences between the gospel accounts it is difficult to determine, but I wonder if they had any knowledge of the actions taken by the Pharisees to seal and guard the tomb.
Having arrived at the tomb and seen that it was empty, they may have also wondered how the stone had been moved. As we move on in Matthew’s account though, he tells us that there was a violent earthquake which was caused when an angel came down from heaven. He “rolled back the stone and sat on it” (28:2b). I love the picture that those words conjure up. The women had been worried at what they might find and they were worried about how they were going to move the stone and lo and behold there was an angel sat nonchalantly on it having moved it for them! As for the guards that they were probably unaware of any way, they were so scared of the angel “that they shook and became like dead men” (28:4). By sending a single angel to help them, God had solved the women’s problems before they even asked Him. We all need to be assured that He will do that for us as well if only we would believe in Him and trust Him. As we see repeatedly in the New Testament, when an angel appears people tend to be a bit scared and so the first words the angels utter are always along the lines of “do not be afraid” (28:5). This angel knew precisely why the women were at the tomb and that they were looking for Jesus. Notice the angel’s words in 28:6, “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said”. It is that final phrase that is important, “just as he said”. In Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus had been talking to His disciples about Who people thought He was. Peter’s reply was as ever to the point and was that Jesus was “...the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). At the end of that conversation Jesus “ordered His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah” (Matthew 16:20). Jesus then went on to tell His disciples what was about to happen to Him and Matthew tells us in Matthew 16:21, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Cast your minds back to what we thought about on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday. The disciples found the colt for Jesus to ride on “just as he had told them” (Luke 19:32). When two disciples went to prepare the room for the Passover Meal they found it “just as Jesus had told them” (Mark 14:16). These events weren’t coincidences; they were all part of God’s carefully laid plan that unfolded over the week. To me they are also examples of Jesus’ words always being true, He never told a lie just as the prophet Isaiah tells us when he says, “They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man, even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true” (Isaiah 53:9b The Message).
Having told the women that Jesus had indeed risen; the angel then told them to hurry back to the disciples and tell them what had happened and also to tell them that they should make haste to Galilee where they would find Jesus. The women didn’t need telling twice and hurried off as instructed. They hadn’t gone very far when they were met by Jesus Himself. Being told that He had risen was one thing but now to see Him face to face was something else altogether. Matthew tells us that they “clasped His feet and worshipped Him” (28:9). That can only mean that they fell at His feet in awe, wonder and total joy at being with Him again. On this wonderful Easter Day it is only right and proper that we should follow the example of these women and, metaphorically if not physically, fall at His feet to offer Him our worship and praise.
The day before the Sabbath, known as the Day of Preparation, was the saddest day that any of Jesus’ followers had ever experienced. Of those who followed Jesus only Joseph of Arimathea seems to have been able to pull himself together enough to claim Jesus’ body and organise His burial. That was before sunset on the Day of Preparation and the only action on the Sabbath came from Pilate and the Pharisees who arranged for the tomb to be sealed and guarded. Because they didn’t believe or accept anything that Jesus told them, they obviously didn’t account for the power of God to overcome the constraints of a sealed and guarded tomb. As the women hurried to the tomb to tend to Jesus’ body God sent an angel on ahead of them to deal with the guards and move the stone away; or did he? Did the power of God move the stone or was it the earthquake that preceded the angel’s arrival that caused it to move and caused the guards to be disabled? I’ll leave you to think about that. Suffice it to say, “He has risen, just as he said” (28:6) and the precise mechanics of how He escaped the tomb pale into insignificance alongside the fact that on that first Easter Day Jesus defeated death and sin once and for all. Let us all rejoice at that.