In the Gospels there’s a lot written about Jesus’ last days, his entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the trial, crucifixion and entombment. And of course, there is resurrection, the empty tomb, appearances, a doubting Thomas putting his finger in the marks in His side. But here we are on Saturday, the great “inbetween” day, somewhere between Good Friday and Easter.
If you said to yourself, “I don’t remember much of anything that happened on Saturday,” you would be right. After all, Jesus is in the tomb and it’s the Sabbath; no one is doing anything. Well, almost no one.
There is one and only story from the Gospels that takes place on the Saturday between tomb and rising (Matthew 27:62-66). The Chief priests and Pharisees have an audience with Pilate and ask that special security be put on Jesus’ tomb.
It’s ironic, to begin with, because they are doing this on the Sabbath, one of the criticisms they always leveled at Jesus. But other than that, why the big deal?
Some scholars have noted that the secretive removal of Jesus’ body was one of the claims made by detractors attempting to refute his resurrection; he was just moved. And so this story shows up to make the point that the tomb was carefully watched and nothing like that could have ever happened.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the story is included. But I think the real truth runs deeper than that.
Matthew makes it clear that Jesus has been labeled an imposter by his antagonists, a pretender messiah. They wanted to make sure that nothing validated his claims. That would be terrible, to have him justified in death. Imagine what might happen if they couldn’t silence him, eliminate him, or erase him.
And they will go to extreme measures to do just that, even going so far as to violate the Sabbath and collaborate with a pagan governor! They will do anything to make sure that the cover-up is held tightly in place. And that’s the extent to which the powers and principalities of this world will go repress the truth.
The answer, of course, is that no amount of force can ever repress the power of God. No soldiers stationed at a tomb, no gag order, no propaganda campaign, no silencing of the revolutionary voice can stop it. And that’s the terror that people carry when they have attempted to thwart God’s purposes and plans; that eventually they will be revealed as the imposters. And that happens all the time.
One of the strategies of the human evil inclination is to invert the truth; to turn a virtuous belief or action on its head and present it as sinister. Innocent people are slandered all the time. Great spiritual leaders are attacked because they threaten the status quo or challenge cherished assumptions.
We have ways of silencing their kind, of stationing soldiers at the tomb.
Nelson Mandela speaks against apartheid in South Africa and we send him off to Robben Island to rot for years. Sir Thomas More is sent to the Tower of London and his eventual death for not agreeing that King Henry is head of the church. Martin Luther King, Jr., tells the truth about race in America and we kill him for it. It’s an old, old story that repeats itself over and over. Soldiers are stationed at the tomb to silence the truth. But the truth won’t be silenced; it never is.
And that’s what we find on the Saturday between Friday and Sunday, that even after the terror of crucifixion it’s not enough and they’re not done, because they are just as fearful after he’s been killed as when he was living. What we fear most is that which is out of our control. And whenever we encounter something or someone that is out of our control we turn to force, lock down the lid on the pressure cooker, and silence all dissent. That’s what happens.
The saving grace is that people don’t get what they want. The efforts and designs of Jesus’ detractors will come to naught because you can’t repress the things of God. In the end they will triumph. And though it sometimes looks like the battle is lost, it never really is.
Later in Matthew’s story we are going to meet these soldiers that Pilate dispatched to guard the tomb again. They are the ones who, when the angel appears to roll away the stone, are so shocked and scared that they become like dead men, immobile, frozen in place. The stone is rolled away and the soldiers become like stones. Those who attempted to silence Jesus are silenced themselves. The ones who called him an imposter are shown to be imposters.
Vindication is often a long time coming. It frequently doesn’t come in our lifetime, while we’re still living to know it. But it does come in God’s time. And when it does every stone of falsehood is rolled away from the tomb of truth so that it may see the light of day, the tomb setting free its captives.