New Horizons

The Resurrection Plot

Thomas E. Tyson

"The chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 'Sir,' they said, 'we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, "After three days I will rise again." So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.' ... 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." ' ... And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day" (Matt. 27:62-64; 28:12-15).

Sometimes folks miss the forest because of all those trees in the way. For instance, take Easter—our nation's big springtime holiday. You'll know it's coming (even though the exact date is always a bit of a mystery) by the supermarket decorations: pastel-colored eggs, soft baby chicks, and floppy-eared bunnies. Familiar and graphic icons of ... of what? Why, nature's rebirth, of course! Not what God the Father did once when he raised his Son Jesus Christ from the dead.

Now, the truth is that every Sunday commemorates Jesus' resurrection. So also Sunday, April 7, 1996. It was at dawn on the first day of the week (Matt. 28:1) that the angel said to the women, "He is not here; he has risen, just as he said" (vss. 5-6).

How would Jesus' enemies cope with his resurrection? The answer comes in two scenes, one before the event and the other one after it. In each scene we're confronted by a plot. The first, devised by Jewish religious leaders and implemented by Pontius Pilate, was intended to prevent a faked resurrection.

Preventing a Faked Resurrection

Notice their hatred as they approach Pontius Pilate: "He ... that deceiver ..."—they will not even name him! They remember what Jesus had predicted (Matt. 16:21): From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Then, the record goes on to say: Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (vs. 22).

It's interesting that the Jewish leaders don't say, "Relax, he's dead—now we can get back to business as usual!" No, they believe what Jesus said, even if Peter doesn't! They don't believe that he will actually be able to pull it off, of course, but they are convinced that he fully intends to try. And failing, he will have arranged to have a resurrection faked. Probably, they figure, he has set up his disciples to steal his dead body away from the tomb!

Jesus' enemies, if not his friends, remembered well what he had predicted. They had taunted him with his prediction as he hung on the cross (Matt. 27:40). And, unlike his disciples, the chief priests and Pharisees clearly understood what he meant. But note their hypocritical concern over possible deception (vs. 64). They were the deceivers! They were jealous of Jesus' popularity, even after he was gone!

Oh, the irony! Notice what they accomplished with their little bar-the door-scheme (vss. 65-66): their plot actually did prevent the disciples from stealing the body. But that was God's objective, of course! In the process, their plot produced more witnesses of the Resurrection when it occurred! Roman guards—objective, unbiased witnesses! How marvelously God makes the wrath of men praise him. He employs the services of his enemies, hiring them for his own purposes.

Resurrection day is a time for hilarity! Pure and solid glee at what God did—it ought to give us goose bumps. In the amazing providence of God, the resurrection of his Son was confirmed by those bent on denying it! Yes, there was a resurrection plot. Any other word would be too weak. God Almighty had a plan for his Son—it was not a plot of fiction, but one of fact. It was ever his eternal purpose and will to re-create from fallen men a race of living testaments to his saving power through the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

God's resurrection plot has a wrinkle—if I may put it that way—a marvelous wrinkle! He uses the best laid plans of men who hate the thought of a living Savior, so that they only serve to establish beyond all doubt that Jesus truly lives! Can you imagine a better way to prevent a faked resurrection than to seal the stone and post a guard? That should do it!

But I said that there were two scenes and two plots. The first, to prevent a faked resurrection, succeeded. But the second, which was meant to cover up the real Resurrection, failed.

Covering Up the Real Resurrection

You must understand that the guards both had, and accepted, the facts! When Jesus was crucified, in humiliation, it was upon false testimony. But now he is raised, in exaltation, and this time the witnesses are true witnesses! Whatever Jesus' enemies do from now on will have to be done in the aftermath of this stupendous event: Jesus Christ has risen! Whether they like it or not. They can try to cover it up, if they want—but it will not go away. It is an irrepressible fact. The guards went into the city and reported ... everything that had happened (Matt. 28:11). That had happened, mind you. Not: we observed his disciples make off with Jesus' dead body. But rather: the earth shook, and we were scared silly—but not so silly that we couldn't see an angel roll away the stone and sit on it. Some women came to the tomb, and the angel told them that Jesus had risen. And sure enough, the tomb was empty.

Those were the facts.

Then we get "Jerusalemgate": bribe the guards to lie—to say that while they were sleeping some of Jesus' disciples came and stole his body away. But, what a sorry, pitiful, plot! Manifestly untrue, false on its surface! All the Roman guards would not have been asleep; and if they had been, they wouldn't admit it! But, even more: if they were asleep, how did they know it was the disciples who removed the body of Jesus? If you were asleep, then your testimony about what happened is something less than compelling. Perry Mason would have made mincemeat out of those prosecution witnesses.

When those guards gave their testimony, there must have been some chuckles among the heavenly host—if angels have a sense of humor—and, why not? The Bible does include, in that great apostolic confession of faith (1 Tim. 3:16), as a cardinal point of salvation truth, that Jesus, who appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit. Vindicated by the Spirit—yes, resurrected! And immediately after that statement come the intriguing words that he was seen by angels. It is they who ought to be in the dock. They saw what happened; one of them was very close to the action.

Let the heavenly host testify; they are competent to sign any affidavit thrust before them. They will tell about the wide-awake guards with the dropped jaws! They will tell about the stone rolled away by one of their colleagues—not to let Jesus out, but to let the human witnesses in! And they will tell about the absence of any grave-robbing disciples! They know, because God had given them a ringside seat when he, by the eternal Spirit, raised up his Son from death to resurrection life! That's why I suggest that God's marvelous pun would not have been lost on them. Certainly the pitiful cover-up served only to fulfill the word of the psalmist long before: The Lord will have them in derision.

Wrapping Up

The question is pertinent: what's the basis for your belief in Christ's resurrection? Have you come up with the right conclusion after an unbiased and objective investigation of the facts? Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and often much harder to believe. But the truth is often covered up, and totally obscured by the time it gets to us via human channels. In fact, that route ends in ignorance and unbelief, not in faith. Isaiah heard the Lord commission him: Go and tell this people: "Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving" (Isa. 6:9).

No, faith doesn't come via human might or wisdom. People do not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead because they've done a good job of sorting out the information and arriving at a sober and satisfying conclusion. Apart from God's grace, no man, woman, or child, seeing, will ever really perceive. The guards testified to the great fact—they even reported it—but they didn't really see. Neither did the chief priests. Neither did Mary, for that matter—even when she stared Jesus in the face near that garden tomb. No, this is the truth: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29). They believe God's report, because they have God's Spirit testifying to God's word. They don't ask, Did it happen?

The Heidelberg Catechism has only one question on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and it's not whether it happened or not. Rather, it asks (Lord's Day 17): "What does the resurrection of Christ profit us?" And it gives this answer: "First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, that he might make us partakers of the righteousness which he has obtained for us by his death; second, we also are raised up by his power to a new life; and third, the resurrection of Christ is to us a sure pledge of our blessed resurrection."

Isn't that a wonderful way to treat the Resurrection? There are no questions about whether it happened or not. We want to know about the wondrous blessings of grace that come our way through the work of Jesus, and particularly through his resurrection. And, we want to know about them not so much because it makes us feel good, but because it makes him look good.

Mr. Tyson serves as the general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 1996.

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