Laughing with God at the Empty Tomb
T. Nathan Trice
The resurrection of Jesus was a great victory by our Lord over his enemies. This victory calls for, among other things, laughter! The apostle Paul certainly saw it this way. In his sermon in Acts 13, the apostle sees in the resurrection of Christ the fulfillment of Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, "Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us." He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, "As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill." (vss. 1-6)
In response to the efforts of men and demons to thwart his redemptive purposes, God himself laughed at his enemies on the day he raised his Son from the dead.
But may we too join in God's triumphant laughter? We certainly may, inasmuch as Christ the King was in his resurrection "restraining and conquering all his and our enemies" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 26). In fact, it would seem that the gospel writers included certain details in their accounts of our Lord's death and resurrection in order to provide the people of God with cause for laughter in light of Christ's resurrection. With the empty tomb in mind, one can scarcely read texts like the following without laughing:
Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise.' Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can." So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Matt. 27:62-66)
In this text, the folly of the Lord's enemies and the futility of their plots against the Lord's anointed provide us with three things to laugh at from our gloriously retrospective vantage point.
In the first place, we can laugh at how our Lord's enemies incriminate themselves before Pilate. The day after our Lord's death and burial, the leaders of the Jews have an unsettling thought: "Suppose one of Jesus' disciples were to steal his body from the tomb, and announce that he had risen from the dead? Then where would we be?" They probably felt especially vulnerable to such a move, knowing that Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, had gained permission from Pilate to take Jesus' body and have it buried in his own tomb.
What could they do to prevent such a fraud? Their only recourse was to appeal to Pilate to secure the tomb against potential raiders from among his disciples. But as they appear before Pilate and make their case for this course of action, they incriminate themselves in the eyes of all of us who rejoice in the Resurrection. They say to Pilate: "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise.' Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people."
What is fascinating about this testimony by the rulers who opposed Jesus is that it provides us with some of the clearest evidence in Scripture that he quite openly foretold his resurrection from the dead. To be sure, he often did so in veiled terms, such that friend and foe alike were at times unsure of his meaning. In John 2, after our Lord "cleanses" the temple, the Jews ask him, "What sign do you show us for doing these things?" Jesus answers them: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Later, during Jesus' trial before Caiaphas, false witnessesseeming to take Jesus' words very literallytestify that Jesus claimed, "I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days" (Matt. 26:61).
But here before Pilate, in order to gain their objective, the enemies of Jesus are willing to be very honest about what they understand Jesus to be saying about himself. They incriminate themselves as those who have fully understood his claim to have power over death. It is indeed laughable that in order to forestall a "resurrection fraud," the enemies of Christ betray a far greater understanding of our Lord's teaching about himself than apparently even some of his own disciples had.
In the second place, we can laugh at how our Lord's enemies unwittingly foretell his triumph over them. In their discussion with Pilate, the Jewish leaders say something which, although intended as a slur against Christ, ends up as an unwitting "prophecy" of his glorious future. They speak of Christ as an "impostor," referring to his claim to be the Messiah, which they reject, and they raise suspicion in Pilate's mind that his followers might perpetuate the deception by claiming that he has risen from the dead. They are attempting to play on Pilate's political instincts when they reason, in effect (27:64), "If he was a fraud while alive, and himself claiming to be a Messiah, how much more of a fraud will he be while dead, with his disciples claiming that he is the still-living Messiah!"
Of course, the words of these men are riddled with unbelief and error, yet there is more than a grain of truth in them as well, and a delicious irony for those who rejoice in the Resurrection. From our vantage point nearly two thousand years later, we can see that precisely what they feared has taken place. By means of what they would have called a colossal "hoax," this "dead" Jesus has since that time gained a vast, innumerable following of those who are convinced that he did indeed rise from the dead. The "last fraud" has indeed become far "worse than the first" in a way that surely would have astonished them.
But, of course, the very scope of this supposed deception casts grave doubts upon the story of the rulers. The rise of worldwide Christianity can scarcely be attributed to a clever hoax. But in this we may agree with the enemies of our Lord: our Savior gained dramatically more followers after his death than he did before it. Because the Resurrection did occur, we can seewith no small amusementthat in the words of the Jews are an unwitting prediction of zeal for a risen Messiah, spreading like a forest fire out of control.
In the third place, consider how our Lord's enemies devise a futile plan to bind God himself. The Jewish leaders knew how to play on Pilate's fears of Jewish unrest, and how to make a compelling case for Roman intervention in Jewish affairs. Pilate consents to their request, ensuring that there are an appropriate number of soldiers to secure the tomb. This language of "making the tomb secure" is repeated three times in close succession by Matthew in his account: that is what the Jews request (vs. 64), that is what Pilate orders to be done (vs. 65), and that is what is actually done "by sealing the stone and setting a guard" (vs. 66). The seal would likely have been a cord of some kind with an official government seal in wax, the effect of which would have been to forbid anyone from opening the tomb. The stationing of a guard, of course, would have enforced the prohibition.
When the friends of the Resurrection look back upon the extreme measures taken by Christ's enemies to "secure the tomb," there is room for a little hilarity. In retrospect, it is indeed hilarious to think of the enemies of Christ setting themselves so earnestly and with such a show of strength to keep the tomb of our Lord sealed. In their view, it was only necessary to intimidate and thwart the efforts of a few demoralized disciples of Jesus. They did not fathom that they were setting themselves against the omnipotent God of all the earth, whose redemptive purposes were soon to be focused on the opening of that tomb and the releasing of what it held.
Soon that seal would be broken by the very angel of the Lord as he rolled back the stone, and the armed guards would be lying like dead men in a faint of fright. Surely, to think of the feeble authority of that Roman seal, and the futile strength of those Roman guards, in light of the power that raised Jesus from the dead, rejoices the heart of one who has experienced the benefits of Christ's resurrection: a comparison above all guaranteed to get a laugh!
If, then, "he who sits in the heavens laughs," surely this is an appropriate response of faith by us as well as we contemplate again the resurrection of Christ this Easter season. It may not seem gentlemanly or "sportsmanlike" to our modern sensibilities to laugh over a victory in which we have a stake. But, of course, the contest of the cross was no mere sport between gentlemen. It represented the decisive conflict between an infinitely holy God and his evil and implacable enemies. With the stakes so high, the victory so pure, and the enemy so unworthy, laughter willfor all eternitybe the fitting response for both Christ and his people at the remembrance of his resurrection.
The author is pastor of Matthews OPC in Matthews (Charlotte area), N.C. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2005.