This Sunday is Easter, and of course I've been thinking quite a bit about what Jesus accomplished on the cross and by his resurrection (not just because of Tony Jones's latest heretical rantings, either). As often happens, when meditating on a familiar passage of scripture again, something strikes me differently than ever before. This time, I've really been thinking a lot about the first witnesses to the resurrection.
All across America tomorrow, many preachers will mention that the first witnesses to Christ's resurrection were women. They'll give the usual spiel about the view of women in that culture, how they weren't regarded as reliable witnesses, how if this was a fictional account there's no way they'd make up women as the first witnesses, etc etc. All well and good. What hit me recently, though, is that there's one thing not quite right here.
They weren't the first.
Oh, they were the first to respond positively. The first who saw Jesus and believed. The first to tell the apostles and start proclaiming the marvelous truth that Jesus had conquered death and had risen to glorious life. But they weren't the first ones to know about the resurrection.
That honor fell to an even less likely group - the Roman soldiers. And what they did with this amazing knowledge is a sad commentary on us. That's right, us. You and me. How so? Let's set the scene...
Jesus had been performing his public ministry for about three years. In that time he'd shown through miraculous signs and authoritative teaching that he was the long-awaited Messiah, and had gathered a large enough following. The Jewish ruling authorities, knowing full well that he was the Christ, but treasuring their wealth and power above God's promise, became increasingly jealous until they finally plotted to murder Jesus (as well as those who gave indisputable evidence of his divine power). All through his ministry, Jesus clearly and publicly claimed that he would be killed, but would rise again on the third day. So after they successfully orchestrated his murder, the Jewish leaders also wanted to ensure that his body would stay put. They axed Pilate for a guard, and he granted their request, ordering a group of soldiers to seal and guard the tomb to make sure none of his disciples stole the body.
The soldiers no doubt knew why they were to guard this tomb. Most likely Pilate or the Jews had explained their mission to them, but even if not, they surely had heard of this latest would-be Messiah. They had heard of his ministry, the miracles, the claims to divinity. They would have known that he had talked about his own resurrection, and would have been on high alert for anyone who would steal the body and pretend he had risen. The city would go berserk if that happened, and that was something Rome just wouldn't allow. These soldiers would have been determined - nothing like that was going to happen on their watch! This man who claimed to be God in the flesh, who claimed he would burst forth from the grave victorious over death - they would make sure his corpse stayed right where it was.
That was before they ran away.
We don't know exactly how long they stuck around or what all they saw, though it seems they were gone long before the women got there. We can only imagine what their conversation that night was like - probably mocking Jesus, laughing at the idea that someone could come back from the dead. Possibly ridiculing the idea of anything supernatural at all - why, all those healings and miracles he did were probably just parlor tricks. He was just a man, and he was just as dead as all the other would-be saviors of Israel, and he'd stay that way. But then:
And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.
Can you imagine? Assigned to guard a tomb to make sure someone stays inside of it. Mocking the very idea of someone coming back to life. Cursing the backwoods hicks of Israel that would actually believe such a story, making this stupid waste of time assignment neccesary. And then - an angel descends from heaven. Their reaction is the typical response to an angelic appearance, absolute dread and despair. No doubt there was an added element of incredulity - can this truly be happening? They watched as the terrifyingly awesome angel descended from heaven. They got out of his way as he walked to the tomb, grabbed the multi-ton stone, and effortlessly flung it aside. We don't know exactly when they fled. Did they wait to see Jesus actually walk out of the tomb, fully alive in his glorious resurrection body? Did they run away before then, when they saw the angel and knew what was coming? We don't know for sure.
We do know this: they knew that Jesus had risen, just as he said. They were the first people to know that Jesus had conquered the grave and had broken the power of sin and death. They had beheld irrefutable proof that Jesus is who he said he is, that God's word is absolutely sure, that Jesus is truly the Son of God. They knew all this, and yet what was their response?
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, "Tell people, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
Yikes. In the face of irrefutable proof that God's word is absolutely true, that all Jesus said would come to pass, they despised it all, agreeing to lie about it in exchange for money. And the priests, who knew even better than the guards what the resurrection meant, gladly paid them to lie. Now that is depravity!
And the truly sobering thought is, we're not any different. Apart from God's saving, sealing grace, every one of us would gladly deny God for money or power or acceptance. Starting with Adam, who knew God but didn't care and threw it all away, down through the Pharisees and priests of Jesus' day, who knew who Jesus is and refused to accept it, we all would find some excuse for not believing, Unless, that is, God's regenerating grace makes us alive. But for the grace of God, that would be me. This Easter as we reflect on what Jesus did on the cross, as we celebrate his triumph over the grave, as we praise him for all his wonderful works, take some time out to truly thank God for making you alive. Because without his grace poured out on the elect, we would be there with the crowd shouting for his crucifixion, or knowing full well he had risen yet offering to lie for money, or knowing the truth yet trying desperately to distract from it or pretend it never happened. Let it sink in - if not for God's grace, we'd gladly trade his promises for our fame or power or wealth or just because we felt like it. We are as depraved as the soldiers or priests who killed him or wished to keep his rising a secret. If you've come to genuine faith in Christ, the praise for this belongs to God alone.
Which leads to the next point. "Skeptics" are seemingly everywhere nowadays, showing up on blogs and all other media, pretending that they'd believe if only there was some evidence. The guards shoot a massive hole in that idea. They were in the best position to examine the evidence, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that what Jesus had said was true. They received the best evidence imaginable, and still refused to believe. If the preponderance of evidence here wasn't enough for the soldiers, how can any amount of evidence available today convince a modern skeptic? It simply will not happen - apart from God's grace. "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."
Of course, the gospel must be proclaimed boldly and cleanly. We must present it clearly, as it should be. And when necessary, we must be apologetically prepared. But we must never fall into thinking that our argument or evidence will win over someone who is lost. Compared to the tomb guards and high priest, no evidence we could present is as compelling. A skeptic will not be won over any more than the guards were. If one is to come to faith, it won't be from a clever argument or awesome evidence. It will be the work of God in them, convincing them of sin, bringing them repentance, and making them alive through faith. Apologetics and stuff have their place, but true conversion only comes from the regenerating grace of God.
So praise God that he made you alive. Praise him that he has set you free from sin and death. And pray for those still blinded by the darkness. God is their only hope, just as he has been ours. And don't get too worked up over apologetics or methods, as if your words had the power of God to save. God alone can bring conversion, not your words or promises. Never stop praising God, for he has done the same and more for you.
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