“Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.” Matthew 27:62-66
Jesus was dead. He had been crucified at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, the very day of the Passover. By 3:00 p.m. the same day He had commended His spirit to His heavenly Father in death. With permission from Pilate, the Roman governor, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had buried Jesus’ body in the tomb of Joseph.
But now certain of the chief priests and Pharisees came to Pilate requesting a watch to be placed at Jesus’ tomb. They remembered Jesus’ words that in three days He would rise from the dead. They feared that His disciples might steal away Jesus’ body and claim that He was risen. And so they requested a watch of soldiers at Jesus’ tomb. This Pilate granted.
How vain this watch was. The last thing on the minds of Jesus’ disciples was to steal His body. Besides, Jesus not only would rise from the dead, but He must rise from the dead. The perfect atonement for sin Jesus had just offered on the cross demanded His resurrection.
But this watch served a good purpose. On Sunday morning this watch of soldiers served as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection as the angel rolled away the stone from the mouth of Jesus’ tomb.
A requested watch!
It was “the next day that followed the day of the preparation.” This means that it was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath day. Because it followed the day of Passover, this particular Sabbath was considered a high Sabbath. As solemn as the Passover day was, it was the day of preparation for this Sabbath day. It was the day to prepare meals for the high Sabbath that was to follow. This little tidbit is added to contrast the unholy work of the Jewish leaders that day to the holiness of this particular Sabbath day.
The chief priests and Pharisees came together to Pilate. Remember that the Jewish day started at sundown. Jesus’s burial had just taken place. These individuals were members of the Sanhedrin that the day earlier had brought Jesus to Pilate to be condemned.
They had a concern: “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.” This goes back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when Jesus drove out the buyers and sellers from the temple. When challenged as to His authority to do this, Jesus responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Jesus said this concerning the temple of His body (John 2:21). However, the Jewish leaders twisted this to mean that Jesus said He would destroy the physical temple and raise it up in three days. And even though they knowingly misquoted Jesus to discredit Him, they evidently knew the true meaning. “We remember that that deceiver said….” The deceivers charged Jesus with their own sin.
And now their concern. What if “his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.” These hypocrite deceivers expressed concern about another error being made! The first supposed error was that the people believed Jesus’ claim to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. The last error would be that the people would be deceived into thinking that Jesus was risen from the dead. That error would be worse than the first. Being deceived by the grave-robbing disciples, the people would become permanent followers of Jesus, with supposed word from Him through His disciples.
As so these deceivers had a request.
“Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day.”
This was a request that Pilate secure Jesus’ tomb from His grave-robbing disciples by posting a contingent of Roman soldiers at the tomb.
A vain watch!
Pilate granted the request of the Jewish leaders, ordering most likely the normal detachment of sixteen soldiers to the tomb.
And then this: “Go your way, make it as sure as ye can.” There appears to be some doubt in Pilate’s mind that the tomb could be secured. And understandably so. Some very unusual and terrifying events had just taken place in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion and death. There were the inexplicable three hours of darkness that descended over the whole land at noon the day before. And then, at the moment of Jesus’ death, there was a giant earthquake that tore apart the land, opening up a large number of graves. And there were reports that at the same time the main curtain in the temple separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies had been torn apart from the top to the bottom. How troubling! So much so that all the people that came together at the cross returned smiting their breasts (Luke 23:48).
But orders are orders. Pilate’s soldiers went and made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone and setting a watch.
How vain was this watch!
First of all, stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb and claiming a resurrection was furthest from the disciples’ minds. The Gospel accounts make very clear that the disciples had completely forgotten Jesus’ instruction that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer death at the hand of the leaders and then rise from the dead on the third day. They were taken completely by surprise at Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Neither, therefore, did they look for a resurrection. The women that made their way to the tomb on Sunday did not come with their lawn chairs to witness a resurrection. They came to anoint Jesus’ body. Clearly, all of Jesus’ disciples were devastated, not having any idea what to do in response to their Master’s death. What vanity it was to set a watch to prevent a grave robbery and claims of a resurrection!
But, secondly, this watch was an exercise in futility because Jesus would and must rise from the dead. This was demanded by Jesus’ perfect sacrifice at the cross. God sent Jesus to the cross on account of the sins of His people. God had laid upon Jesus the guilt of all their sins. And since the wages of sin is death, Jesus must die the accursed death of the cross in the place of His people. In perfect obedience Jesus endured this hellish punishment to the bitter end. Just before He commended His spirit to the Father in death, Jesus in triumphant victory cried, “It is finished!” But that means that death could no longer hold Him. His perfect sacrifice demanded His resurrection. God in His justice must and would raise Jesus from the dead. The Jewish leaders could not prevent it. Pilate with his soldiers could not prevent it. Not even the devil himself could prevent it. How vain was this guard!
A significant watch!
This watch of the Roman soldiers was significant in that it was used by God further to substantiate the fact of Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection is of greatest importance. It is God’s seal of approval on Jesus’ atonement at the cross. It is God’s pledge that He will one day also raise us up from the grave as He did Jesus. And we need a living Savior who can shower upon us the blessings of the cross for our salvation, beginning with the spiritual resurrection of our dead hearts. As the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthian church, if Christ be not risen, then is our faith vain and we are yet in our sins (I Cor. 15:17).
But Jesus’ resurrection was so different than any resurrection before. His resurrection was not a return to this life to remain here a little longer and then to die again. His resurrection was an advancement from the earthly to the heavenly. His mortal, perishable body became immortal and imperishable. His flesh and blood body, adapted to live here on the physical earth, was changed into a spiritual body adapted for heavenly glory. This is why no one saw Jesus rise from the dead. Earthly eyes cannot behold the heavenly.
But because the fact of Jesus’ resurrection is so important for our salvation, God left behind many infallible proofs of the resurrection. There was the empty grave discovered by the women. There were the grave clothes left undisturbed, through which Jesus had simply passed. There was the explanation of the angels to the women that Jesus is risen as He said. And then there were the ten appearances of the risen Jesus to His disciples in the forty-day period between His resurrection and ascension into heaven. These all were necessary to convince the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection.
But now with the Roman soldiers set to watch Jesus’ tomb, there is something added. To let the women in to discover the empty grave, the Lord sent an angel from heaven to roll away the stone that sealed the grave. Not only did the soldiers witness this, but it terrified them so that they became as dead men. After gathering their wits, they returned to Jerusalem to inform the Jewish leaders of what had happened. This only verified the truth of the witness of the disciples to Jesus’ resurrection. Even Jesus’ unbelieving enemies had concrete proof of His resurrection.
The unbelieving leaders would not accept the fact of the resurrection, even in the face of clear proof. In fact, they paid the soldiers money to spread a false report that, while they slept, the disciples stole His body. That and other preposterous lies have been perpetuated by the unbelieving world to explain away the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. The unbeliever will accept the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion. But he will not and cannot accept the fact of His resurrection. This is because Jesus’ resurrection exposes his unbelief for what it is. It is an evil and foolish rejection of the greatest reality of history—God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself (II Cor. 5:19).
Let us by faith embrace and confess the resurrection of Jesus Christ!
By that faith we will find the great salvation of God.
Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior!
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!
Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes.
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever with His saints to reign. He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose!
Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus, my Savior! Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!
Death cannot keep his prey, Jesus, my Savior! He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!