At the sight of him the guards shook with fear and lay like dead

Easter Resurrection Rev. Antony W. Ball

by Rev. Antony W. Ball

The ‘him’ in that text is an angel1. All the Gospels tell the story of Joseph of Arimathaea going to Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judaea) to ask for permission to take the body of Jesus down from the cross in order to give it a ‘decent burial’ in a nearby tomb which Joseph had already prepared, perhaps for himself2?. Once Pilate had been assured by a centurion that Jesus really was dead, he gave the necessary permission; but the chief priests and Pharisees feared that Jesus’ disciples might steal the body and then make up some fictional story about Jesus having been resurrected. So Pilate agreed that they should make the tomb as secure as they could, and he also agreed that a guard of Roman soldiers should be posted to keep watch over the grave3. The above cartoon is intended to illustrate a few verses from Matthew’s Gospel4 where an angel is said to have rolled the stone away from the entrance to the tomb before sitting down on it and having a conversation with two women who had gone to visit the grave.

We’re not told quite where the tomb was relative to the hill of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, although I doubt it was as close as would appear from the painting on the right – the only clue we have is that it was “near at hand”5. We’re also told that it was in a ‘garden’ but, of course, in those days a ‘garden’ simply meant a patch of land that had been cultivated, not necessarily anything more formal.

Such details confirm that the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection – incredible as they are from a human perspective – are not fictional accounts of a story that has been invented for any reason: the Gospel writers have clearly not got together to agree details amongst themselves. Any judge or magistrate will confirm that, whenever any incident occurs, the accounts of eye-witnesses will differ – sometimes markedly. We shouldn’t seize upon discrepancies between the Gospels as evidence that they are untrue. It’s no good arguing, for example, that dead people don’t come back to life. As the Son of God, Jesus was unique – His birth, His life, His teachings, His miracles and therefore, of course, His death and resurrection were all unique. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church:

…how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?If
there be no resurrection, then Christ was not raised;
and if Christ was not raised, our gospel is null and void, and so is your faith;
and we turn out to be lying witnesses for God…
If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all men are most to be pitied.
But the truth is, Christ was raised to life…6

1 For what it’s worth, speaking personally, I’ve never been ‘happy’ with angels – but that’s just me. They play significant roles, as God’s messengers, in both the Old and New Testaments.

2 Such tombs were routinely ‘sealed’ by rolling a large stone – requiring several men to move it – in a channel across the entrance.

3 Mt xxvii 66

4 Mt xxviii 2 – 4

5 Jn xix 42

6 1 Cor xv 12b,13,14,15a,19

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