Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 28:11-15 Sermon
March 27, 2005
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
105 "The Day Of Resurrection"
387 "I Know That My Redeemer Lives"
100 "Alleluia! Jesus Lives!"
99 "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"
92 "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today"
THE GREATEST LIE EVER TOLD
TEXT: “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. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, his disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep. If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated amongst the Jews to this very day.”
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Have you heard that expression before? I would imagine that most of you have. Sir Walter Scott wrote those words back in 1805, and indeed how true they are.
The practice of deception—trying to make people believe something is true when it isn’t. Most commonly, we would call this telling a lie. Has anybody here ever told a lie before? Now I’m not going to ask for a show of hands here, but there’s an old saying which goes, “98 percent of the people will admit to telling a lie at sometime in their lives, and the other 2 percent will lie about it.” And I think that we all could come up with an instance, perhaps from our childhood, where we told a lie, it was found out, and we had to bear the consequences for it.
Lies come in all shapes and sizes, and are perpetuated for a variety of different reasons. You don’t have to look too far back in history to discover the various lies that came out of Washington D.C.—lies, cover-ups, more lies, and more cover-ups. We see big lies told by big government, and it makes us angry when it happens.
But then there are the small lies. “Who broke my vase?” asks mom. “Who left my tools out in the rain?” asks dad. “Why didn’t you get your homework done?” asks the teacher. And the list goes on.
One of the best lies I’ve heard about was the mother who told her children that when the ice cream man drove down the street ringing his bell, it meant that he was all out of ice cream.
Nobody likes to be lied to. It really irritates us when somebody tells us a bold-faced lie. We just have no use for lies, regardless of who they come from—whether it be our government officials, our spouses, or our children. We like to hear the truth, and we want to be able to rely on someone’s word.
As you are all gathered here for worship this morning, I feel it is safe to assume that you didn’t gather her to listen to lies being proclaimed from the pulpit. You want the truth, and not a pack of lies.
However on this Easter Sunday, I’m going to preach the biggest lie that has ever been told, that has ever been perpetuated and spread. Are you ready for that lie? Well here it is, and it’s found in Scripture: “His disciples came and stole him away.”
Now that’s a lie, isn’t it? For every Christian, that’s the lie that would top all other lies. We couldn’t confess the Apostles’ Creed if we believed that lie, could we? Had the disciples come and stolen Jesus’ body from the grave, where would our faith be? So, as we examine this, let’s first have a look at the situation which started that lie.
Let’s picture that garden tomb early on that first Easter Sunday morning. The women go to the tomb, and discover the stone rolled away, the grave clothes folded neatly, and no body in sight. What had happened? An empty grave—how could that be explained? The Bible gives us the true account of what happened; however in our text for today, Matthew records how Jesus’ enemies tried to explain, or rather explain away the empty tomb. What they said was a lie, and they knew it when they told it.
But do you realize that even this lie preaches a sermon? It does, because this lie reinforces the real truth for us. “His disciples came and stole him away.” This was the lie of the Chief Priests and Elders, and they bribed the soldiers to tell it.
As you consider it, think about this as well: For this lie to be true, it would have required some rather unlikely characters—not the likes of people that Jesus’ disciples were. That lie would have also contradicted some unalterable evidence. And thankfully, this lie has enjoyed a rather unsuccessful history.
The first real difficulty with this lie requires the disciples to have acted in a manner most unlike the people they were. Now I don’t want to sound too derogatory here, but the disciples weren’t really the most clever people in the world. And when I say that, I mean that they weren’t the conniving, scheming, or deceiving types of people.
They also weren’t overly perceptive either. Their ability at being perceptive is reflected in the fact that Jesus had to be very clear and explicit in explaining parables to them. They were simple by nature, and essentially good, honest people.
And so we see these disciples. The only thief in the group had gone out and hanged himself. They were off by themselves grieving over Jesus’ death. From all evidence, the furthest thing from their minds was how to perpetuate some sort of hoax.
Besides not being very perceptive or clever, they never (at least to this point in time) displayed any extraordinary signs of bravery either. On the night before Jesus’ death, they’d all voiced agreement with that reckless vow that Peter made in Mark 14, 31: “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” Then in Luke 22, 38 we read where the disciples say to Jesus, “…see Lord, here are two swords…”—spoken as if they might have been prepared to use them.
But we know how it all came out. They all ran. Peter was scared off by a mere servant girl who had insisted he’d been with Jesus. Only John was at least fearless enough to return to be with Jesus and his mother Mary when he died.
From all indications, it is clear that the disciples weren’t expecting a resurrection. Whatever hopes they had for this Messiah and his kingdom were completely crushed when he died. They thought he had died just like any other man.
When Jesus said that he would rise on the third day, Mark 9, 10 records that “they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant.”
And then Luke 24, 11 tells us that when the women hurried away from the empty grave to tell the good news, the disciples “did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
And just a bit further on in Luke 24, 21 we read about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and their rather pathetic comment: “We had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
Finally, Mark 16, 14 records the embarrassing truth of what happened later with the disciples: “Later Jesus appeared to the 11 as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.”
The disciples hadn’t wanted him to die. They weren’t expecting him to rise either. It would be absurd to think that they would have been the type of people to have stolen his body in order to try to fool people into thinking he had arisen.
It took an actual and a very real resurrection to turn these disciples from being cowards into courageous spokesmen, who would make testimony before councils and kings; and with the exception of John, all would eventually die a martyr’s death.
Now think about this. A person doesn’t die for something he knows is a hoax. After all, if you were peddling a lie, if you knew it was a lie, if you knew that somebody crucify you, or behead you, or stone you, or skin you alive; if you knew you were going to be tortured or put to death for that lie, then you’d give it up, wouldn’t you? Myths do not make martyrs.
There’s an interesting quote by a modern Jewish scholar, named Pinchas Lapide; and although not a Christian, he has caught the absurdity of the lie that the chief priests and elders made up. He writes: “If the disciples were totally disappointed and on the verge of desperate flight because of the very real reason of the crucifixion, it took another very real reason in order to transform them from a band of disheartened and dejected Jews into the most self-confident missionary society in world history…it was an act of the will of God with all the New Testament authors call the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”
The disciples were indeed very unlikely candidates to support the lie, “The disciples came and stole him away.” However, there is also some other unalterable evidence surrounding this, that, if one were to scrutinize carefully, wouldn’t hold up either.
Even if the disciples HAD wanted to steal the body, they wouldn’t have been able to do it. The Chief Priests and the Pharisees had asked Pilate to put a guard on the grave, and Pilate did as they requested. Matthew 27, 65 tells us: “Take a guard…Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” And they did exactly that.
Now a “guard” wasn’t just one person, rather a Roman “guard” consisted of at least 16 soldiers, on 3 shifts, 4 at a time. And a Roman soldier was literally dressed to kill. Each one had a 6 foot stick with a heavy iron head. He also had a shield measuring 4 by 2 ½ feet, as well as a 3 foot long sword. As they were doing their guard duty in shifts, it would have been impossible to catch them all asleep at the same time. The stone at the entrance, which weighed several tons, was sealed; a rope was stretched across it, plus a handful of wax was pressed on top of it, and it was stamped with an official seal.
How could the disciples steal the body when there was this kind of guard at the tomb? How could they even suppose that the guards were going to sleep through their shifts? How could they have opened the grave and left the seal undisturbed? That’s a lot of unalterable evidence.
In addition to this, there was eyewitness testimony. The guards saw the angel come out of the sky, roll back the stone, and sit on it. They saw that the tomb was empty. The guards were so afraid of the angel, Matthew 28, 4 tells us, “They shook and became like dead men.” In other words, they fainted. After they regained consciousness, Matthew 28, 11 says that they “…went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.”
Okay now, let’s consider some very important facts here: Jesus’ enemies were the first to hear the news of the resurrection. They heard it from reliable witnesses. The Chief Priests and Elders made no attempt to discredit the guards’ testimony. They knew Roman soldiers didn’t sleep on the job; they might as well sign their own death warrants if they did!
But yet, not one of the Chief Priests said, “Jesus rose on the third day exactly as he said he would.” Not one Elder spoke up, “If he rose from the dead, then all the things he said about himself must be true.” Not one Pharisee lamented, “We have executed the Messiah!” Not one member of the Sanhedrin prayed, “God have mercy on us!”
Instead, they devised a plan, which cost them a large sum of money, which was to tell a bold-faced lie: “You are to say, the disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.”
That was the authorized answer they were to give, in spite of such unalterable evidence! And there’s also a contradiction in that lie as well. How could the soldiers testify that the disciples stole the body, if they were in fact sleeping, and couldn’t see it happen?
But the empty grave is the most telling evidence of all. It was only seven weeks after this event that the disciples began preaching that Jesus was true God. If anybody had wanted to silence the apostles’ teaching, all they would have had to do was produce a body. But they didn’t, and they couldn’t. The body was gone.
It is unfortunate that Jesus’ enemies are still telling the same lies 2,000 years later, despite the unalterable evidence of Easter Sunday.
Theologians, who should know better, call it a “myth,” and not an “historical fact.” Some say, “A literal resurrection could not have happened” and “the resurrection presents a very serious pastoral and teaching problem…we are not committed to conceive of it as a physical event…the Christian faith doesn’t rest on an assertion that Jesus rose physically from the dead.”
Such people try to explain away the resurrection with such things like, he didn’t rise physically, but that he rose in the minds and hearts of his followers, and that his ministry had such an awesome effect on people, that it’s as though he still lives through his followers who carry on his work.
Just think what people like this are threatening to steal from you and from me when they tell this same 2,000 year old lie! Paul says it most clearly in I Corinthians 15, 17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins.”
At the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the lie that Jesus’ disciples had come and stolen him away was being widely circulated. In AD 150, Justin Martyr reported that Jewish authorities even sent specially commissioned men across the Mediterranean to counter Christian claims of Jesus’ resurrection with that same lie.
But yet, this lie has had an unsuccessful history in the centuries since it was first concocted. Oh yes, some still believe it and spread it; but many millions of people know it as a lie, and don’t believe it! Why?
As Christians, who believe in the resurrection of Christ, our faith isn’t based only upon the empty tomb. That’s only part of it. Rather, it is primarily the fact that Jesus appeared again alive. He appeared to the women at the grave, to Mary Magdalene, to the two on the road to Emmaus, to Peter, to the 10 apostles without Thomas, to the 11 apostles with Thomas, to the 7 by the seashore, to James, to the group of 500 at once, and to the 11 in Galilee.
Luke records the following for us in Acts 1, 3: “After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days…”
Early Christians believed because they saw him. And what a difference it made! Dorothy Sayers writes, “Those who saw the risen Christ remained persuaded that life was worth living, and death a triviality.”
What they saw, they proclaimed. They didn’t say, “We found his tomb empty.” They said, “He’s alive! He has risen!”
Seven weeks after Easter, Peter preached his Pentecost sermon. In Acts 3, 15 we read: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” And some 35 years later, Peter begins his first general epistle with these words, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (I Peter 1, 3) Indeed, the resurrection and the testimony of the eyewitnesses to the living Jesus are stronger than the lies of Jesus’ enemies.
Well, this morning you’ve heard it. You’ve heard the biggest lie ever perpetuated: “His disciples came and stole him away.” But we can see the wisdom behind God the Holy Spirit causing Matthew to record that lie. It not only puts us wise to the stories being spread about Jesus’ resurrection not being factual, but it helps to further entrench us in the truth of Jesus’ actual, physical resurrection from the dead. Knowing the lie helps us underscore that which is truth.
You and I are eyewitnesses, through the eyes of Scripture. Paul writes in Romans 10, 9: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That is truth with power over any lie to the contrary. That’s what we believe. Our sins are forgiven by grace, through faith in the resurrected Christ.
And so, as forgiven sinners, with the hope of the resurrection alive in our hearts, we have a task to do. Jesus wants us to bear witness to the truth of the resurrection. He wants us to tell others what he has done. He wants us to tell others who he is, and what he means to you and me. We are to be living witnesses to him in all that we do. Come and see…and then, go and tell. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!