So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews, and continueth until this day (Matthew 28:15).
Stories attempting to deny the truth often take much more faith to believe in than the truth itself.
As Jesus arose from the dead, the Roman guard had trembled and became as dead men (Matthew 28:4); they later report to the Temple authorities the things which had taken place (Matthew 28:11). The chief priests had no desire to believe them; their power and influence were centered on the Temple, and as good Sadducees, they denied even the potential of the dead to be raised (Matthew 22:23). They did not disbelieve the Roman guard, but instead attempted to suppress the evidence, giving them financial incentives to claim that the disciples came and stole the body while the guard slept (Matthew 28:12-14). Thus they did so; Matthew inserts himself into the narrative to declare that this story had circulated among the Jews for years after, even unto the time he was writing his Gospel (Matthew 28:15).
Such is the way it has gone ever since among those who would deny Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For generations many maintain great disincentives from maintaining confidence in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. If Jesus is risen, as Peter would make it clear in Acts 2:14-36, then Jesus is Lord and Christ, the King. If Jesus is King, then Caesar is not as powerful as he would imagine himself to be. If Jesus is King, and His people represent the temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 3:16-18, 6:19-20), then the Temple in Jerusalem has but a short time left, and its authorities are soon to be obsolete. If Jesus is the Christ, the hope of Israel, then His teachings must be true, and all must submit to Him, and not heed the Pharisees, scribes, and other professed teachers of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). If Jesus is the risen Lord, the one like a Son of Man who received an eternal Kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 1:12-18), then He will bring to nothing the kingdoms of this world, and He is the true and full revelation of the One True God, a light in the darkness to those who persist in idolatry (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:1-3). Those who benefit from the philosophies of men, idolatry, who exercise authority in governments, and who receive honor and respect as teachers, religious or otherwise, have much to lose and little to gain from the truth of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Throughout time some have maintained their integrity, have conceded their error, and submitted themselves to Jesus as the Risen Lord. We praise God for such good and honest hearts. Unfortunately, far too many have responded to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus like the chief priests did. They have found it easier to make up stories which deny the resurrection, no matter how fanciful or incredible, so that they can persist in living as they had formerly.
Some have claimed that Jesus did not truly die, but only fainted on the cross. They would have us believe that the Romans were not as effective as we might have imagined they were at executing people; that He was pierced in His side but made no movement or provided no indication of life (John 19:33-37); that He was wrapped in linen with many pounds of spices and aloes and remained merely unconscious (John 19:38-40); and then, after all that, to “awake” on the third day in full strength, roll the rock away, and fend off or cause great fear to come upon a whole Roman guard (Matthew 28:1-4). A truly incredible story! It takes far more faith to believe this than to accept the resurrection of the dead.
Some have claimed that the Apostles and others suffered from a mass hallucination. It strains credibility to suggest that more than five hundred people would suffer the same hallucination at the same time (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Beyond this, those who claim to see things in hallucinations persist in them, and yet the Apostles and their associates claimed to see Jesus in the resurrection only over a forty day period, and then no longer (Acts 1:3). Claims of hallucinations cannot make sense of the story as written.
Yet perhaps the most commonly held view is the story circulated by the Roman guards and among the Jews in Matthew 28:13-15: the disciples stole the body of Jesus away while the Roman guard slept. First of all, the Roman army was nothing if not disciplined. Far less serious infractions than sleeping on the job led to decimation; if it were not for the chief priests’ intervention, this entire guard would have no doubt been executed (cf. Acts 12:18-19). The Roman guard would not have been sleeping, and they certainly would not have stayed awake had the disciples come, rolled the rock away, and took the body of Jesus!
Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let us carry out this “story” to its end. Why would the disciples have taken the body? They would have wanted to do so in order to claim that Jesus was risen from the dead. According to the modern point of view, the death of Jesus would have led these disciples to some kind of religious experience or enlightenment so as to begin to claim that Jesus is actually Lord in heaven, that through their own study and observations they were able to re-tell the story of Israel and its hope in the Messiah along the lines of Jesus the crucified but risen Messiah, and this all on their own.
Such is a fabulous tale, and again takes far more faith than to accept the Gospels as written! Who among the disciples expected Jesus to rise again? They did not understand what Jesus meant when He had told them so beforehand (Matthew 16:21-23, 20:17-28). Simon Peter claimed to be ready to die with and for Jesus, ready to establish the Kingdom on earth, and struck a slave to that end (Matthew 26:30-35, 51-54). The disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26:56); they even doubted when they saw Jesus in the resurrection (Matthew 28:17). Beyond all this it was apparent to everyone that the Apostles, particularly Peter and John, were “unlearned” and “ignorant” men from Galilee (Acts 2:7, 4:13): are these the men who on their own will devise a most compelling and novel re-imagination of God’s purposes of His Messiah?
The greatest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is His disciples. Before the resurrection they are everything you would expect from proud but uneducated Galilean Jews, fervent in zeal, expecting the Christ to come, defeat the enemies of Israel, and ultimately usher in the day of resurrection, and ready to rule with him in that Kingdom. As Jesus is tried, executed, and raised from the dead, the disciples accept the truth of what is going on, yet still do not understand what it is or what it represents (e.g. Acts 1:6). Yet, after the Holy Spirit falls upon them in Acts 2:1-4, they are transformed into proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, boldly indicting those who crucified Him, standing firm where they had once shrunk back, declaring that God raised this Jesus whom they had crucified from the dead, that He was the Servant of whom Isaiah spoke, He is begotten of God in the resurrection, He has all power and authority and will return one day to judge the living and the dead (Acts 2:17-10:41). The Gospel they preach, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus of Nazareth, is something no human would imagine from the pastiche of messages given in the Law and the Prophets and yet does embody and fulfill them; so it is that Paul can say that God has revealed the mystery of the Gospel in his time (Ephesians 3:1-6).
The Apostles and the Kingdom of Jesus they worked so hard to affirm only make sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection. Denying the resurrection leads only to stories more fabulous and more incredible than the sober testimony preserved in the New Testament. Ultimately no disincentive against belief in Jesus the Risen Lord is worth condemnation and eternal separation from God (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). We do well to trust the testimony of the Apostles, trust in Jesus the Risen Lord, and seek to live according to His will!
Ethan R. Longhenry