A Meditation on Matthew 27:62-66
Jesus said to the twelve, on at least three separate occasions, “‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise’” (Lk. 18:31-33; cf. 9:22, 44). Jesus’ impending suffering, death and resurrection weren’t shrouded in the mysterious symbols of an obscure parable. These events were spoken of plainly and repeatedly.
Consequently, following Jesus’ crucifixion His disciples were filled with excitement and anticipation as they waited for the dawn of the third day. No doubt they were eagerly counting down the hours, right? Wrong! Jesus’ teaching was like quantum physics to a first grader; it went right over their heads. The disciples didn’t have the theological categories to understand a dying, let alone a rising Messiah.
The irony is that while the third day meant nothing to Jesus’ disciples, the Pharisees and the chief priests looked forward to the third day—albeit with fear and trembling (Matt. 27:63, 64). This is why Jesus’ tomb, which he borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea for three days, was sealed and carefully guarded by armed soldiers. Once again, the religious establishment employed the services of Pontius Pilate and the Romans to stop their greatest adversary, Jesus. This time, however, their concern was that Jesus remains dead and buried.
Matthew begins by telling us that this interaction between the religious leaders and Pilate occurred on the Sabbath. “Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate” (Matt. 27:62). The day of Preparation is the day before the Sabbath. It’s a time of preparation, since no work or business is to be conducted on the next day, the Sabbath. The Pharisees especially were notorious for their scrupulous observance of the Sabbath, even going above and beyond the intended meaning of the Law, yet here they blatantly violate the Sabbath by engaging in business with Pilate. Why? What would motivate these self-righteous leaders to break the fourth commandment? It’s simple; they didn’t have time to prepare for Jesus’ resurrection until the Sabbath, because Friday they were preoccupied with His execution.
Now with the threat of a possible resurrection looming on the horizon they are forced to set aside Sabbath observance and ask Pilate to seal and secure Jesus’ tomb. How will they get Pilate to oblige? The chief priests and the Pharisees said 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, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first’” (vv. 63, 64). Pilate granted their request, and without delay they went to work securing the tomb (vv. 65, 66). Of course, these leaders weren’t going to say to Pilate, “Our souls are stricken by the mere possibility that what Jesus predicted about His resurrection will actually occur.” They would look like utter fools. But I believe that is precisely what is tormenting them deep down in their heart of hearts. The story of the disciples stealing the body and proclaiming His resurrection is just a smokescreen to mask their true fears, for at least three reasons.
First, the disciples never comprehended Jesus’ teaching about rising on the third day. In fact, after one such prediction by Jesus, Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him (Matt. 16:21, 22).
Second, following Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion the disciples all fled. As Jesus’ lifeless body lies in the grave they aren’t strategizing as to how they can acquire His body and say that He has risen. The cowards are still in hiding. Finally, even if the disciples understood Jesus’ teaching about the third day, and even if a few of them were somehow emboldened to steal the body and then for some unexplainable reason proclaim the message of His supposed resurrection, would the people enthusiastically embrace it? Hardly. People would demand to see the body.
The religious leaders aren’t appealing to Pilate for protection from the disciples, but for protection from Jesus, who is a day away from the dreaded third day. We might think that at this point the chief priests and the Pharisees would be uncorking bottles of Champagne, celebrating their victory over their fierce opponent. Instead, these leaders are behaving as if they are a day away from defeat—and they are. Their worst nightmare comes true as, in their words, “the last fraud will be worse than the first.”
A final irony to consider is that, even today, there are times when God’s enemies exercise more “faith” in the power of His Word than His own people do. This explains their rabid hostility. “Unbelievers” know deep down that the gospel has the power to transforms lives and cultures. May their “faith” challenge and inspire us to get the message out.