Witnesses: A Meditation on the Passion
The pivot of history is the life of Jesus Christ; the capstone is His resurrection. To take His resurrection seriously we need good witnesses to His death. Some opponents claim that Jesus’ followers fabricated the resurrection out of wishful thinking. Others claim that Jesus didn’t really die, particularly Muslims.
Jesus’ Followers: Oddly, the disciples were among the missing, gripped by despair and fear – real fear, not mere paranoia. They met in secret, doors locked, since they were the next likely target (John 20:19).
“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So said two despairing disciples, reflecting on what might have been (Luke 24:21-23).
It is psychologically unbelievable that His followers cooked up a plot. They were beyond hope – whipped, exhausted by fear and despair. They hadn’t listened closely enough to Jesus’ teaching![i]
The Centurion: He was the first to acknowledge something unusual about Jesus’ death, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God.” He couldn't have explained the theology, but spoke more than he knew. (Matthew 27:54)[ii]
Creation: “And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (v. 51) Jewish and Roman sources independently confirm that the temple shook and a lintel collapsed. They set the date at 40 years before its destruction in 70 AD. In the Bible, earthquakes often accompanied special activity by God (Exodus 19:18, Isaiah 6:4).
God Himself: Historians add that the bronze gates of the inner court opened of their own accord. God welcoming His people? Once inside, access to His inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, was now possible through the curtain, torn at Christ’s sacrifice.
Righteous Dead: The earthquake unleashed a crowd of human witnesses. The tombs opened and many holy people came to life, entering Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection. The population must have found it unnerving! You didn’t know whom you might meet! Those once-dead witnesses testified that Death’s power was exhausted (vv. 52-53).
Soldiers: Not dead? Ha! Roman soldiers knew their business. They thrust a spear through His lungs to His heart. He truly died that Friday (John 19:34).
Joseph and Nicodemus: Jewish law required that an executed man be buried before sundown. Jesus’ Galilean family had no tomb in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 21:22-23, John 19:38-39).
So wealthy friends buried him.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph…. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him (vv.57-60).
Joseph and Nicodemus were rulers on the Sanhedrin council. Joseph’s discipleship was secret, reason unknown. But something changed! They brought lavish provision for the burial of Jesus’ body, surely not expecting resurrection. Like other followers, they hadn’t listened.
Jewish Leaders: Even dead, the Jewish authorities were afraid of Him, lest Jesus’ disciples steal the body and spin a story. So they went to Pilate, the Roman governor, a Gentile ‘dog’. That alone is amazing! Religious Jews went to see a Gentile, defiling themselves, on the highest of holy days, Passover! But I suppose, once you’ve broken the Mosaic Law earlier, you might as well break it again in the evening (v.62).
They tell Pilate. “Sir, we remember” – His disciples forgot; they remembered – “how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’” So we need ‘to be sure to be sure’ that He stayed buried or “the last fraud will be worse than the first” (vv. 62-65).[iii]
They asked Pilate for a seal on the entrance and a guard posted for three days. “Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers. Go; make it as secure as you can.’” (v. 65)
The Women: “And Joseph… rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” (vv. 59-61) Those who ministered to Jesus during His lifetime, again stood ready. Knowing exactly where to go, they bought spices for anointing dead bodies. But again, there was an earthquake. The stone was rolled back. Jesus was missing. They believed someone had move His body (Mark 16:1, John 20:2, 13-15).
The Guards: So much for careful planning! When the angel appeared, the guards trembled in terror and became “like dead men.” The seal was broken. One wonders how much the Jewish leaders paid out in bribes to keep that secret – unsuccessfully (Matthew 28:12-15).
His enemies were chagrined, their plan counter-productive. The resurrection is all the more credible because the tomb had been under the watchful eye of Roman soldiers. We're grateful they did that!
All these witnesses are God's joyous shout of vindication, His great “Amen!” to the work of Christ. The plan of salvation was accomplished!
This good Man put to death by bad people did us a world of good. So that dreadful day becomes for us the happiest day! The idea of resurrection took time to sink in. When He first appeared, the disciples were frightened, then incredulous! But the power of the resurrection sent them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:37-43).
Jesus Christ’s resurrection was the ‘firstfruits’, a promise more convincing than once-dead people wandering around Jerusalem. Those people died again, but He did not and we will not (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)!
Now, when God asks us, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” we have an answer. We point to Jesus, crucified, dead and buried – raised on the third day.
Many will answer, “I lived a good life. I gave to charity. I was in church regularly.” How pointless, unless I can say with Paul, “The Son of God… loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20b).
Thanks be to God!
This is based on a message called “After the Passion.” from the audio set TRINITY: The Two Natures of Christ. Though this text is from Matthew, the set largely addresses Hebrews 2, delivered by Liam Goligher, Senior Minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia PA, in early 2017.
He is also the host of the broadcast No Falling Word on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals site. They have produced two sets of his TRINITY messages. “The Highlights of the Trinity Debate” page includes the blogs he wrote, which set ablaze a wide-spread discussion of the Trinity, beginning in June 2016, and is ongoing.
[i] Matthew 12:40, 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Luke 9:22, 18:33-34, John 2:19-21
[ii] This message was derived from Matthew 27:32-66. Any verse-only references are from this passage. All other Scripture references will specify the book of the Bible and chapter.
[iii] Matthew 12:40, 26:61; Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34; John 2:19-21