(Reading time: Approx. 4-5 minutes.)
The men who pushed and manipulated the governor into delivering a death sentence on Jesus went back to the governor after the execution with an odd request. They asked that a guard (the word is koustodia in Greek) be stationed at the tomb to protect it from would grave robbers. The last recorded words of Pilate are given in Matthew’s Gospel are: “‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’”
“So, they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” We owe these men a great debt. By sealing the tomb and posting a guard they gave the lie to their own story. They made ridiculous the idea that the disciples could have stolen Jesus’ body. Those who make plans against God find their own schemes turned against them. I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist: “They spread a net for my feet . . . They dug a pit in my path – but they have fallen into it themselves.”
So, the guard (which the original language calls the koustodia) was posted at the tomb. If Matthew means us to understand a koustodia proper, this was a special forces unit comprised of sixteen men. These were some of the toughest men in the empire. They had no doubt about their ability to fulfill their duty. They certainly had no fear a few Galilean fisherman.
And yet, put yourself in their place. On the day of the crucifixion uncanny things had happened. There had been an eclipse of the sun. At the moment Jesus died, an earthquake convulsed Jerusalem and did damage to the temple. Everyone was still talking about it. There were even rumors that the quake had collapsed the ground around the local cemetery, breaking open a number of the graves – and now the bodies were missing! (Matthew 27:52). They knew that the ranking officer on duty at the crucifixion was telling people that the executed man was surely the Son of God. And now, for some mysterious reason, the governor himself had assigned a koustodia the duty of guarding a dead man. It was enough to make even a battle-hardened soldier a little jittery.
Early on Sunday morning, for the second time in three days, an earthquake shook the ground, and tossed these men around like toys soldiers. But that was nothing. With the earthquake came the sudden appearance of an angel. Verse 2: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.” The word the NIV translates as “going to” (proserchomai) is often used in a hostile sense: of one combatant approaching another to do battle. This angel came at the soldiers, and he was combat-ready.
We think of angels as effeminate, wispy-haired creatures that look as though they wouldn’t hurt a fly. But verse three says that “his appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.” Have you ever looked at lightning up close – say, within a hundred yards? I did once, and I hope never to do so again. The effect is unnerving, to say the least. So, it was with these guards. They “shook (Matthew 28:4) and became like dead men.”
That shaking, I think, was not just fear. It was more like a seizure. God, the scripture says, “makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire” (Hebrews 1:7) When this being that looked like lightning and burned like fire, came toward them, the guards short-circuited. His presence caused their nervous systems to overload, the way an electrical surge that will overload a computer or TV when lightning strikes nearby. I doubt they even knew what happened to them. These soldiers, who would choose death before dishonor, simply came undone.
And just think, if it is so terrifying to stand before an angel, one of God’s servants, what will it be like to stand in the presence of God himself? Before him Isaiah was undone, mighty seraphim cover their faces, and heaven and earth flee away (Revelation 20:11). When you stand before him, you had better have an advocate—the Advocate—or you will not stand at all.
By the time the women arrived, the entire koustodia was out cold, and the tremendous stone had been tossed away as though it were a pebble. The first thing the angel said to the women – who, though not subject to attack like the guards, were still scared stiff– was, “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid,” he says (Matthew 28:5), “for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.” The Greek here is interesting. Matthew uses a perfect tense verb, which indicates an action in the past with continuing consequences. “I know that you are looking for Jesus, the crucified one.” Jesus is ever the crucified one. We might seek Jesus the healer, Jesus the teacher, Jesus the example, Jesus the Friend, but we will only find him in Jesus the Crucified One. If we will not know him in that way, we will not know him at all.
“I know you are looking for him, but he is not here,” the angel says. “He has risen, just as he said.” One day we will discover that he has done everything “just as he said.” Not one word of his has ever fallen to the ground. He said, “I will be with you,” and he meant it. He has been with us every step of the way. He said, “Do not be afraid,” and we need never be afraid. He said, “I will give you rest,” and that offer still stands. His word is as good as gold—or rather, is better “than much fine gold.” If he said, “I will come again and take you to be with me,” then we should stand watch, for he is coming. It will be “just as he said.”