Guarding the dead (Matthew 27:55–66)

Burial is a sign of respect. Even today in the Middle East, there’s an urgency to burying someone, not leaving them unburied (Deuteronomy 21:23). As Jesus was crucified on Friday of Passover week, no one wanted his body lying around during one of the holiest Sabbaths of the year.

So, the burial was a very public affair that many observed, including:

  • Mary (Jesus’ mother), Mary Magdalene and many Galilean women (27:55-56; 61).
  • Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy disciple who owned an unused tomb and preformed the burial of Jesus (27:57-60).
  • Pilate who authorized the execution and therefore the release of the body (27:58).

As if that’s not enough, the observation of the tomb is intensified the next day.

It’s the Sabbath of Passover week. You’d expect the temple leaders to be devoted to their nation’s foundational story of God rescuing his people from slavery to a foreign power and forming them into a nation under his leadership and Law. Instead, they meet with Pilate —representative of the kingdom that’s holding them captive. It’s hard to imagine anything more incongruent with what Moses intended.

The purpose of this urgent meeting was to shore up Rome’s power over them. They want Pilate to authorize forces to guard the tomb, to ensure the dead man stays there. They advise Pilate that it would not be in Rome’s interest if the King of the Jews, crucified by Rome, was believed to be alive.

Jesus was right about the leaders: acting as if appointed by God (23:1-28), their power came from death (23:29-35). Now they want to guard the dead. Pilate’s response is ambiguous: You have your guard could mean “I grant your request,” or it could mean, “Use your own temple guard.” Since they’re both on the same side, it makes no difference.

I wonder if it occurred to them that Passover was all about death passing over God’s people? I wonder if they taught on this holy Sabbath about captives going into the Red Sea, the forces of death being defeated, and emancipated people coming out of the water celebrating salvation and redemption in the Lord’s reign (Exodus 15:2, 13, 18)?

By adding a seal to the stone and posting a guard, they ensure that no one tampers with the tomb, providing continuity of evidence. Death is powerless when life bursts onto the scene next morning.

The text

Matthew 27:55–66 (my translation, compare NIV)
55 There were many women watching from a distance. They followed Jesus from Galilee, serving him. 56 In the group were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

57 As evening came, a wealthy man from Arimathea arrived. His name was Joseph, and he was a follower of Jesus. 58 Approaching Pilate, he asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate authorized the release.

59 Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen 60 and placed it in his new tomb that was cut into the rock. Rolling a great stone over the doorway, he left. 61 Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting across from the tomb.

62 The following day (i.e., after the Sabbath Preparation), the chief priests and Pharisees met together with Pilate. 63 “Master, we recall that deceiver saying, ‘I will yet be raised to life after three days.’ 64 Order the tomb to be secured until the third day, so his followers cannot come and steal him and tell the people he was raised from the dead. That deception would be worse than the previous one.”
65 Pilate told them, “You have your guard. Go and make it as secure as you know how.”
66 They went and secured the tomb, sealing the stone, posting the guard.”

What others are saying

Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 89.1 (around AD 400):

Everywhere deceit recoils upon itself and against its will supports the truth. Observe: It was necessary to believe that he died, and that he rose again, and that he was buried and that all these things were brought to pass by his enemies. Note, at any rate, these words bearing witness to every one of these facts. “We remember that that deceiver said, when he was yet alive” (he was therefore now dead), “‘After three days I rise again.’ Command therefore that the sepulcher be sealed” (he was therefore buried), “lest his disciples come and steal him away.” Since the sepulcher was sealed, there could be no funny business. So then the proof of his resurrection has become incontrovertible by what they themselves have put forward. For because the tomb was sealed, there was no deceitfulness at work. But if there was no sleight of hand and the sepulcher was found empty, it is clear that he has risen, plainly and incontrovertibly. Do you see how even against their will his enemies contend for the proof of the truth?
— Quoted in Matthew 14-28, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 301.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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