Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

238. The Guard at the Tomb (Matt. 27:62-66)

There is no peace for the wicked. All through that weekend the minds of Annas and his colleagues were plagued by the thought of dreadful possibilities. So much concerning the Nazarene had seemed to happen that day exactly according to familiar phrases in the prophets! More than that, all that he had foretold to his own disciples concerning his own fate (they had had it all from Judas; Mt. 16:21; 20:19) had come about precisely as he said, even though they themselves had originally planned it otherwise. Then would his other words come true as well? — how he had mysteriously said: 'the third day he shall rise again." Had they not themselves heard him speak of raising a destroyed temple in three days? — and they knew right well that it was not the temple on Mount Zion that he meant. Linking that with his scornful word to them about the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 16:4), they might well wonder uneasily what strange impossibilities that Passover might yet hold for them. The idea was in their minds, but not one of them dared frame it in words. Yet they separately knew, each in his own heart, that this was the Heir and they had killed him that the inheritance might be theirs (Lk. 20:14).

Men in a quandary

There was nothing else for it now but to carry the thing through consistently. Even though this Nazarene Messiah was already a cold corpse they must nevertheless take every possible precaution to stifle any strange tale which might be put about concerning him. The sooner he and the memory of him rotted together, the better.

In a way the defection of Joseph, the counsellor, to join the disciples of this pseudo-Messiah was a good thing. Their morale was too low to gain much from his accession to their numbers, and the fact that Jesus had been interred in his new tomb, the making of which had been a familiar feature of recent activity outside the city wall, made it comparatively easy to take precautionary measures. If this Jesus did "rise" —and Lazarus in Bethany had been a hard pill to swallow! — they would be ready for him.

But what could they do without Pilate's approval. Yet the man's uncertain temper was at its worst that Passover; and no wonder, when one considered how they had bullied him, as they could never have hoped to do, in order to get the condemnation of Jesus signed and carried through that day. They had best leave him alone for a while. In any case, there was no immediate threat of trouble, for this was Passover night, and everyone - disciples and all — would be indoors. It was the one night in the year when there was not a single crime in Jerusalem. The third day would be the time of crisis. That was what they must prepare for.

Even so, relaxation on that Sabbath was an impossibility for them. Their Sabbath rest, had they but known it, was now taken away for ever. Matthew intimates as much by the way in which he refers to it as "the next day that followed the day of preparation". So it was with light regard for Sabbath desecration that these men, who earlier had shown such public abhorrence of Pilate's judgement hall (Jr. 18:28), and who had railed at Jesus for his "flouting" of Sabbath law, now went, in secret to the governor once again — this time unworried about defilement.

It may be safely presumed that they took with them an adequate "persuader", for they knew well enough that Pilate was no longer disposed to oblige them. Their approach was both suave and respectful: "Sir" — the word is literally "Lord", and contrasts sharply with the total omission of any title of dignity in their encounters with Pilate on the day of crucifixion: "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." It almost seemed that they believed what his disciples didn't (Mk. 9:10). Yet it would not do to let Pilate think that they had any serious fear of this really happening (though indeed, this was the stark truth of the matter), so they dressed it up in a way that would represent them as zealous for the common good:..." lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead." In twenty four hours this was the most plausible cover-up they could concoct. Even if panic-stricken leaderless disciples were to attempt such a hare-brained imposition on public credulity, would it not be sufficient to expose their desperate folly by a public challenge: "If your Jesus has risen from the dead, give us evidence, other than your own word, that he is alive again."

Aware that they were on the thinnest ice imaginable, these Sadducee priests and their Pharisee rivals (adversity makes strange bedfellows! Jn. 18:3) rushed Pilate on past the absurdity of their postulates to the inconvenience and embarrassment of the outcome: "So the last error shall be worse than the first." It was bad enough to have this "deceiver" claiming for three and a half years to be the Messiah, but to have the claim published that he was now risen from the dead would be vastly worse — worse in its effects on the people, and thus in its consequences for both Pilate and themselves. The vileness of these men comes out in their choice of phrase: "The last error shall be worse than the first," they actually quoted the words of Tamar, raped by her abominable brother Amman (2 Sam. 13:16) — as though the gracious ministry of Jesus fell into the same category as such wickedness!

But now, in fact, the last truth — his resurrection -was to prove greater than the first —his virgin birth.

Bribed or not, Pilate received their plea for precautionary measures with brusque lack of sympathy: "Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can." The Greek expression is peremptory and contemptuous: "Away with you. Be off!" As recently as the previous morning, Pilate had been pushed around by these men more than enough, and he was still fuming over it.

The reference to a watch is commonly interpreted as meaning the temple guard, a squad of Jewish policemen under the authority of the chief priests. But this view ignores what was said to the guard next day: "and if this come to the governor's ears (RVm: to a hearing before the governor) we will persuade him, and secure you" 28:14). Had they been the temple police Pilate would not have used the Latin word for "a guard," nor would he have been interested in the affair at all, much less in applying discipline.

Nor will it do to read the words: "Have a watch" - RVm: take a guard — as though offering them a squad of Roman soldiers. This is a rather forced unnatural reading of the Greek word.

It seems likely that for the duration of the great Feasts, a detachment from the Roman garrison was assigned to the Jewish rulers to help in time of emergency in maintaining order among the crowds of worshippers. Some of these had already been on duty at the arrest of Jesus and at his crucifixion. Now Pilate reminded the chief priests: "You have some of my men at your disposal already; then why bother me about this business?"

It was tacit approval, but coupled with a strangely enigmatic observation: "Make it as sure as ye know." Was this a sardonic derisive way of showing that he had seen through them? 'You know what a formidable problem those chicken-hearted disciples of Jesus are. So by all means take the most stringent precautions against them.'

Or is it possible that Pilate was saying: You know he will rise from the dead, and you are scared of the consequences; so by all means do all you can to stop him! Such a surmise is less improbable than it seems at first sight. The previous day Pilate had spent much time in the presence of Jesus, and had conversed with him a good deal. There was also the portentous dream which his wife had had. And, not least, there was the astonishing sequence of awesome events coinciding with the crucifixion. Pilate himself was nearer to believing in Jesus than he cared to admit to anyone. Yet what he had written he had written!

So the priests went their way. They sealed the stone — presumably by the time-honoured method of tape and sealing wax, or by the copious use of cement. And the Roman soldiers who had been on duty at the crucifixion were again more close to Jesus than anyone.

It was a measure of the distraught and anxious frame of mind of these priests that they could deem their seals adequate to prevent either theft or resurrection, certainly the seals, carefully affixed, were a clear evidence that they did not trust the soldiers! Nevertheless, next morning, when these men came to them, all bewildered and shaken with a circumstantial tale about earthquake and angels, their story was never questioned for a moment! Of the obvious reaction: "Liars, all of you!" there was never a sign.

As these priests lay sleepless on their beds that night did it occur to any of them to wonder whefher perhaps they had made a mistake? Could it be that in sealing the stone they had actually provided evidence, which they themselves would not be able to deny, that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead?

NOTES: Matthew 27:62-66

What a dramatic contrast between the preceding narrative with its record of sorrowing devotion and the scheming fearful hostility of these rulers!

The day of the Preparation. According to Edersheim a standard expression for Friday (Mark explains it; 15:42). At this Passover the usual Sabbath and the special Passover Sabbath (Lev. 23:5-7) coincided.

Came together. Gk. passive surely implies that they were specially convened by the Sadducee chief priest, who doubtless hod disturbing memories of the Lazarus episode.
We remember. They tell Pilate that Jesus made this prophecy. Then in 28:14, they probably told him of its fulfilment! Gk. suggests 'we were reminded' — by whom? Was it the last act of Judas? Or a specially brave word of witness by Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea?

That deceiver. There is no instance in the gospels of the enemies of the Lord referring to him as "Jesus". "He is called deceiver for the consolation of his servants who shall (also) be called deceivers". (Augustus).

Said -When? Jn. 2:19; Mt. 12:40 - which they evidently understood.

While he was yet alive. A crass pleonasm! Could Jesus have said it after he was dead? The use of these words betrays the intense agitation of these men. His enemies knew him to be dead. Why do his modern enemies (e.g. Shonfield) think they know better?
The third day. This interprets the idiomatic: After three days. Cp. Mk. 8:31; 10:34. See, for details, 'Passover", HAW ch. 10. Jerusalem Targum: "A day and a night together make up a night-day, and any part of such a period is accounted as the whole."

The last error worse than the first. Here first (Gk. protos) implies not just one initial evil, but many (his miracles and his teaching). Instead, that truth (resurrection) is better than the first (virgin birth). What a smear it was to quote such a passage as 2 Sam. 13:6 about Jesus!

Error (deseil) is virtually s.w. verse 63: deceiver.
Three curt verbs here make evident Pilate's impatience and lack of sympathy. Contrast here his marked willingness to oblige Joseph of Arimathea; v.58

A watch. Roman,- s.w. 28; 11; Jn. 18:3,1 2
Made the sepulchre sure. The plural use of this word in three vereses - they made sure also that there would be yet more witnesses to the resurrection, unwilling witnesses, too! In a Messianic prophecy Is 41:10 LXX) the same word has a drastically differed context: "Uphold thee."

Sealing the stone. Jn. 6:27 s.w, but what a contrast there! Not onlyin his ministry but again in his resurrection Jesus showed his disregard for protocol and red tape, cp Job 5;12, 13, 12-17 Consider also Acts 5:23; 12.10; 16:26. Dan. 6:17 provides a remarkable type.

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