Truth or a Lie – Matthew 28:11-15
By: Alistair Brown
Living in denial of the truth is – I’m sad to say – a fairly ordinary, everyday event for many of us.
People say things like:
“I’ve smoked thirty a day since I was a teenager. Cigarettes won’t kill me.”
“A few extra pounds doesn’t do anyone any harm.”
“Never mind the speed limit. My driving is safe at a hundred.”
Well, I’ve conducted the funerals of people who died young thinking cigarettes would never do them any harm, and the funerals of people whose “few extra pounds” was a euphemism for being massively obese and who died suddenly of a heart attack. And the man who said he was safe driving at a hundred found that the police waiting down the road didn’t share his opinion.
People just like us have a way of ignoring or denying inconvenient truths.
In his gospel Matthew recorded what may be the greatest denial of truth ever in human history, and it happened just after the resurrection of Jesus.
The background to the story is outlined in the early verses of chapter 28 of Matthew’s gospel. He describes a violent earthquake and an angel rolling away the stone that blocked the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. Earthquakes are terrifying and the angel no less frightening.
The tomb was being guarded by the governor’s soldiers. They were stunned by the earthquake and the angel. They shook visibly with fear, and then collapsed to the ground (Matt. 28:2-4).
The angel spoke to women at the tomb, told them Jesus had risen from the dead, and sent them to tell his disciples.
And then Matthew continues the story of the guards who had been at the tomb.
11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Matthew is giving the background to a rumor which still existed at the time he was writing his gospel, the rumor that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus.
The story is ludicrous on several levels:
1) What motive would the disciples have had to steal the body of Jesus? Grave robbing was a serious offence and might even result in a death sentence.
2) If the guards were asleep, are we really to believe a group of men, without making a single sound, could have rolled away a massive stone in front of the tomb and lifted out the corpse of Jesus?
3) If the guards were asleep, how could they have known who had stolen the body?
4) If the guards were asleep why did they not suffer the usual penalty for failure to protect the body entrusted to them, the penalty of being put to death?
5) If a guard did identify the disciples stealing the body, why did that guard not raise the alarm at the time and stop the theft?
6) If the authorities had any evidence at all that the disciples had stolen the body, then surely they would have had them arrested immediately and put on trial.
7) Within weeks the apostles were being persecuted and put on trial for preaching that Jesus was alive. Why would they accept death if they knew all along that Jesus was not raised and in fact they had taken the body?
The disciples had not taken the body.
The guards had not been asleep.
Instead, the stone had been rolled away and Jesus had emerged from the tomb alive and triumphant over death.
The chief priests tried to cover up that inconvenient truth with a convenient lie that the disciples had stolen their Lord’s body.
But why that lie?
There are two main reasons.
1. The chief priests could not believe it was true that Jesus had risen from the dead.
They despised Jesus. They saw him as a rabble rouser, a disturber of the peace, a radical who could upset the social order. For them Jesus was no more than a country boy come to the big city of Jerusalem with grandiose ideas and an ability to get a following. They had no reason to think he was special. He would not be someone who would rise from the dead.
But their main issue was far more basic: how could anyone rise from the dead? People of ancient times were not stupid. Whether someone died of a fever or an injury or death on a cross, they were dead. And then they were buried. And then – as far as this world was concerned – nothing more. Dead people did not come back to life. In those days they may have lacked modern medical knowledge, but the basic laws of life and death were no mystery to them. When someone was dead, they stayed dead.
Therefore, for the chief priests, whatever those guards thought they saw, that grave stone could not have been rolled back by an angel and Jesus could not have walked out of that tomb. They invented another story because the real one was impossible.
When I studied theology, I had an assignment to explain the various reasons the story of the parting of the Red Sea was written into the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (Ex. 14). I read all the set text books and then I wrote about all the very human explanations the scholars gave. Then – using all the courage I had – I added one more explanation in my assignment. “Of course,” I wrote, “it could have been recorded this way because God really did part the waters and the Israelites passed through to safety.” I developed that argument some more, finished the assignment, handed it in, and waited nervously for it to be returned.
The professor had a reputation for being liberal in his theology, so was not likely to be sympathetic. I got back my paper and saw positive comments against all the theories I’d got from the books. Then, beside my “it might really have happened that way” answer, the professor had written, “Good point, often missed by other scholars!” I loved that. I don’t know what the professor actually believed about the Red Sea crossing, but he agreed that the miraculous should not automatically be excluded as an explanation.
The chief priests back in the first century, and people down through every century since, have wanted to deny the resurrection of Jesus because their starting point was that the miraculous had to be excluded. For them, Jesus cannot have risen back to life. But the tomb was empty, so how could they explain that? And, like the people down through the centuries who cannot believe that God’s mighty power had raised Jesus from the dead, they created a lie.
2. The chief priests could not face the implications of the truth.
They knew that many people believed in Jesus. The crowds had heard his teaching and believed he had authority. Many of those people had seen and even experienced his miracles and knew God was with him. And at least some considered Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the one God would send to save his people. That is what many believed, and the priests knew it.
And what if it was all true? What if Jesus really had risen from the dead, proving he was God’s Messiah? If he was the Messiah, then they, the religious leaders in Israel, had handed God’s anointed Savior to the Romans to be crucified. In the apostle Peter’s first sermon, on the Day of Pentecost, that’s exactly what he said they’d done: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).
Did the chief priests ask themselves obvious questions:
- Had they missed what God was doing?
- Had they misunderstood the one God was sending?
- Had they mistaken the Messiah for a rabble rouser?
If they asked, they didn’t want the answer ‘yes.’ The thought that they had got everything wrong about Jesus was too dreadful and too significant. They could not let it be true that Jesus was the Messiah and had now risen from the dead. So, like many leaders through the ages, they tried to suppress the truth with a lie.
They had reasons for doing that, reasons to protect the status quo. To accept the resurrection had implications for them:
- They would lose their prominence. They would not bow the knee before this Jesus. They were the leaders in Israel. They determined the teaching, the rituals. They would not surrender their place over the people.
- They would lose their authority. The Romans gave them freedom to go about their business, latitude to manage the people according to their usual customs. The Roman rulers did not care what religion Israelites had providing they kept quiet and served Roman interests. The priests could ensure that happened. But not if the people believed this itinerant preacher and miracle worker called Jesus was thought to be alive. People would follow him, and their place of authority would be lost.
- They would lose their reputation. If Jesus was alive, any and all respect the people had for these religious leaders would be gone. How could people who said they spoke for God reject and ultimately kill the Messiah promised for hundreds of years?
No one can be sure the chief priests analyzed their thoughts in neat categories like these. But their prominence, authority, and reputation did control their thinking.
And the marketing people among them said, “Here’s what we do: we pay the guards to say that while they were asleep the disciples stole Jesus’ body. That explains why the tomb is now empty and no one need think Jesus has been raised from the dead.” And they all agreed the marketing people were geniuses.
Except they weren’t. For the testimony of the disciples that they had seen Jesus after he was raised to life was believed, their preaching carried the same authority as Jesus’ preaching; and they did miracles in the power of the Spirit like Jesus had; and the gospel spread through Jerusalem, out to Samaria, and gradually to the ends of the earth. The truth about Jesus, the Christ, could not and would not be contained by a hastily-concocted lie.
The chief priests chose self-interest over truth. The evidence about Jesus was right before them. It had always been before them. They knew that Jesus had healed blind, deaf, and lame people. They knew he’d fed five thousand with a small boy’s lunch. They knew he’d raised back to life the daughter of a synagogue leader called Jairus. They knew he’d called a man called Lazarus, dead in his tomb for four days, to come out and everyone saw he was alive. And now they knew that the disciples had not stolen the body, but an angel from God had rolled the stone away and pronounced that Jesus had been raised.
They knew… but chose a lie instead of the truth.
That must not be our choice.
I believe Jesus has saved me from my sins.
I believe God raised him from the dead and he is with me always.
I believe he is my Lord and all my life – every thought, word and deed – must now be his.
I believe his Spirit lives in me, and by his Spirit even I may do great things.
I believe he is the Savior for all people, and therefore all must know of him.
I believe he is coming again, and I must be ready for his return and be urgent in all he gives me to do before his return.
I believe all this and much more. This is truth.
And every time I step outside that truth, when I choose less than God’s best, when I use time wrongly, or skills for unworthy purposes, or my energies to prosper myself or boost my reputation, or ignore the needs of others, or fail to speak out as a witness for Jesus, or live as if this world and not heaven is my home… Any time I know what’s true, but think or act differently, I too have chosen a lie rather than the truth.
“Live what you believe,” I tell myself often. For I must. Truth is not an optional extra, nor a commodity to be owned when convenient and set aside when inconvenient.
Jesus is risen. He is really risen. I believe that, and therefore I must live what I believe. So must any Christian. Not self-interest nor any other unworthy motive can be allowed to control our thinking over against that great truth. He is risen, he is with us, he is to be honored and served every moment of every day.
No other goals. No lifestyle displeasing to him. No ambitions other than those he places in our hearts. No purpose to life other than to glorify him each day. We are those who choose the truth. It’s challenging and it’s costly but it’s also wonderful and for all eternity glorious. We choose truth over all lies, and we live out that truth day by day by day.
 Or possibly by temple police.