Matthew 28:11-15 (NIV) 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 among the Jews to this very day.
Roman soldiers were the best-trained, most disciplined military force of the time. When they were assigned to guard something, even a body in a tomb, they did so knowing that if they failed in their duty, their own life would be forfeit.
These soldiers failed, not because they were remiss in their duties, but because they were assigned to stop God’s plan, to stand in the way of His will, and all such efforts will ultimately prove to be futile. They absolutely could have stopped any human plan to steal Jesus’ body, but they could not stop God’s power from causing Him to come back to life, nor could they stop the angel from rolling the stone away from the tomb.
Some of the guards stayed at their post, not sure exactly what to do since their charge was now missing, but unwilling to leave the scene unguarded. The rest went into town. They did not go to their commander to admit their failure to carry out their duty – death would be the only outcome of that path. Instead, they went to the chief priests, to tell them all that they had experienced.
The priests listened to their story, exchanging troubled looks between themselves. When the guards finished, these religious leaders had two clear options: they could admit that they were wrong and believe in Jesus, or they could try to take control of the situation. The first course would be a rejection of all that they stood for, all that they held as dear and true. To turn to the truth about Jesus in repentance would be an admission that, for at least the last three years, they had not been following God at all, but had actually been fighting against Him. Even though this path was the one that clearly followed the truth, it was too costly to them personally, so was rejected out of hand.
The other course was to preserve both their reputation and their positions by controlling the message. So they concocted a story of these elite Roman soldiers all falling asleep on watch and, while they were asleep, the disciples of Jesus coming through and stealing His body from the tomb. To them this seemed perfect. No one believed that a dead body could suddenly spring to life, so credibility was on their side. Stealing Jesus body to fake His resurrection seemed like exactly the kind of thing His followers would do. And it had the added benefit of putting the disciples entirely on the defensive. Breaking an imperial seal and stealing something that imperial guards were charged with protecting was a capital offense for anyone even remotely involved. The threat of their own crucifixion would keep Jesus’ followers in their holes for months; maybe even drive them out of the area for good!
There was one fly in the ointment: if the soldiers admitted to falling asleep on watch, it would be their own lives that would be forfeit. There was no way that they would be willing to stick to the fabricated story when a swift beheading would be the inevitable result. So they turned to a reliable solution, used by liars for long ages past: they gave the soldiers a LOT of money, and promised that they themselves would explain things to their higher-ups (in this case, Pilate), so that they wouldn’t suffer any harm or disgrace. To a group of soldiers who had fainted at the sight of the angel, and then run away in fear, this option seemed very attractive!
The plan worked as far as getting the corrupting message out. And, of course, those who didn’t’ want to believe that Jesus was the Messiah lapped up these “alternate truths” completely. But the truth is still the truth, even if everyone is taught to believe a lie.
Father, it is amazing to me to see these men, religious leaders, clearly know the truth, and then consciously decide to invent a lie to save their own positions and reputations. This was no instance of being mistaken or uninformed, but of purposefully turning people away from what was clearly true, and making them believe a lie instead. Jesus’ earlier assessment of these men in His parables and denunciations turned out to be altogether correct, and His pronouncement of their awaiting doom was well-merited. Help me, Lord, to never turn away from Your truth, to never seek an “alternate story” in order to save my position or reputation, but to simply cleave to the truth wherever it many lead me. Amen.