Pastor Scott Andrews | April 9, 2023
Opponents of Christianity would have you believe it was all a hoax. Conspiracy theories have abounded for 2000 years as to what really happened on that first Easter Sunday morning. In fact, the first spin on the story began that very morning – we call it the “stolen body theory.”
Only Matthew records it. Apparently, after the tomb was found empty, the soldiers made their way to the chief priests to report what happened. The chief priests then called an emergency session of the Sanhedrin who decided to put their spin on the story. They bribed the soldiers with a lot of money to say the disciples had stolen the body while the soldiers were sleeping. We find this story continued to be circulated for a long time – to “this very day,” Matthew says, meaning, when he wrote his gospel some thirty years after the resurrection. Justin Martyr, who lived during the middle of the second century, recorded the legend in his writings – it was around for a long time.
In addition to the stolen body theory, which, by the way, hardly anyone accepts today, there have been many other theories through the centuries. In fact, you can even divide the theories under two main categories – those which suggest Jesus really did die – the problem was in locating the body; or second, Jesus didn’t really die at all. The Stolen Body Theory comes under, Jesus Really Did Die – just can’t find the body.
One of the most popular of the Jesus Didn’t Really Die theories is the swoon theory. You’ve no doubt heard it before. It was first suggested by Karl Venturini around 1800. The idea is Jesus didn’t really die, but rather went into a deep coma, or swoon – He fainted from the severe pain and trauma of the beatings and crucifixion and blood loss. But, while in the cool atmosphere of the tomb along with the stimulating aroma of the burial spices, Jesus revived. And then in His weakened state, with no medical treatment, He was somehow able to unwrap Himself from the burial cloth and the 75 pounds of spices, roll the large stone up the hill which would normally require several men to move, and perhaps even subdue the soldiers. Then, with His flesh in ribbons, weak from loss of blood, no food or water for days, bearing all the marks of beatings, the crown of thorns, the spear in His side, nails in His hands and feet, He went to the disciples, who were so impressed with His appearance they began to preach He was the glorious victor over death. Sign me up.
One of the biggest problems with the swoon theories is the first theory didn’t come until 1800 years after Jesus died. You see, everyone then knew He was dead – the soldiers, those who buried Him, the women. You can’t come along 1800 years later and say, “Aha, I know, He wasn’t really dead.” You’re too late.
There have been so many swoon theories, it’s hard to keep up with all of them. In 1929, a D. H. Lawrence suggested that after Jesus miraculously survived the resurrection, He ended up in Egypt where He fell in love and married the priestess Isis. In 1972, Donovan Joyce published The Jesus Scroll, in which Joyce explained that a doctor was planted in the tomb before the so-called burial – oh, so He did get medical treatment. This doctor was assisted by Jesus’ uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. I guess that would be His uncle on Jesus’ mother’s side – if it was on His father’s side, then there would have been Joseph, and his brother, Joseph – kind of like Daryl, and his other brother Daryl. Anyway, in this scroll, Jesus was married to, you guessed it, Mary Magdalene, became a revolutionary zealot who warred with the Romans, and who retired as a monk in Qumran.
Another recent swoon theory came in a book entitled The Passover Plot written by Hugh Schonfield, published in 1965. It was a runaway bestseller in which Schonfield contends that Jesus deliberately plotted His own crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. Quoting from the book, “Jesus contrived to be arrested the night before the Passover, fully aware that he would be nailed to the cross the following day, but taken down before the onset of the Sabbath in accordance with Jewish law. He would survive the agony of but three hours on the cross.” Thus, rather than suffering fatal torment, Jesus just swooned.
The story actually gets better. Joseph of Arimathea – he’s in a lot of these conspiracy theories – Joseph and an unidentified young Jew were both in on the whole deal. They made sure Jesus got this drugged drink on the cross that would render Him unconscious and make Him appear dead. He was then removed from the cross in His deathlike trance, taken to a cool tomb which served as a hospital room where He was to be nursed back to health and resurrected. He wasn’t resurrected, but resuscitated.
That was to be the plan – but, there was a problem according to Schonfield. After Jesus drank the drug, the soldiers messed it all up when they pierced Jesus’ heart with a spear. So, despite the best efforts of Joseph and this young Jew, Jesus died in the tomb. So now, they were in a quandary. But not to worry – these quick-thinking deceivers came up with a new plan. After disposing of Jesus’ body, the unidentified Jew appeared to the disciples, claiming to be their resurrected friend and Savior. You say, but, how could he convince them – hadn’t they been with Jesus for three years? Good question – but Schonfield has an answer. Notice, even in the gospel record, there were times after the resurrection that His own disciples didn’t recognize Him. It took some convincing, and grand delusion. This unidentified Jew was apparently a really good actor.
In addition to the stolen body theory and the swoon theory, there have been others: the no-burial theory, which says that Jesus was never really buried in a tomb, but rather, His body was thrown into a common grave for criminals, and subsequently eaten by wild animals. This, by the way, is held by the Jesus Seminar.
Then there’s the twin theory – this one’s kind of interesting. During a debate in 1995 with Christian apologist William Lane Craig, philosopher Robert Cavin suggested that Jesus actually had a twin brother named Hurome. The twins were separated at birth, and Hurome didn’t see Jesus again until he was in Jerusalem for the Passover. There, like a mirror, he saw his twin brother Jesus hanging on the cross. He then concocted a messianic mission for himself and carried it out by stealing the body and pretending to be the resurrected Jesus. Where does Cavin get his stuff? I have no idea – it’s easier to believe the Bible.
There’s also the Muslim theory – I had never heard this one. A sect within Islam says Jesus was never crucified, let alone resurrected. Rather, Allah made one of Jesus’ disciples, probably Judas, look like Jesus, who was then crucified. Jesus then made His escape to India, where He was buried in Kashmir. But, the good news is, one day, Jesus will come back to earth, kill the Antichrist, kill all pigs, break the cross, destroy the synagogues and churches, establish the religion of Islam among His followers – I was just kidding about Christianity, live for forty years, and then be buried in Medina beside the prophet Muhammad – isn’t that special?
That’s not all folks – there’s the wrong tomb theory promulgated by Kirsopp Lake in 1907, the mass hallucination theory – kind of interesting – 500 people had the same hallucination at the same time – the delusion theory, on and on they go. It would take days to deal with all of them, but I want you to notice something in common with almost every explanation: almost everyone accepts that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried, and later, mysteriously, the tomb was empty. Not only that, many acknowledge that either Jesus, or someone who looked very much like Jesus appeared to His closest friends and even family. In fact, either Jesus or this incredible impersonator appeared to many people after the empty tomb.
Which means, in the words of Josh McDowell, that “the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, or it is the most fantastic fact of history.” I want to say to you as followers of Jesus Christ who believe the testimony of Scripture, that the evidence is irrefutable. A close examination of the gospel accounts of the resurrection can leave only one reasonable, logical conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, buried, and raised again the third day. Frankly, it really takes more faith to be believe the fabrications of those who try to disprove the resurrection then to accept the story in the Bible – it’s easier to believe.
Let’s look at the story found in our text this morning in our continuing, and almost finished study of the book of Matthew. I invite your attention to Matthew 28:1-15. Read.
Over the last few weeks, we have looked very closely at the death and burial of Jesus Christ. Last week, we saw the burial was the capstone – it proved definitively that Jesus really was dead. By the way, there are two books which I highly recommend to you for your reading on this topic – they are apologetics, or a defense of the truth that Jesus really died, and He really raised from the dead: The first is The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, and the second is Resurrection by Hank Hanegraaff. Both are great books.
But for now, let’s look at even a greater work, the book of Matthew, to see what really happened on that first Easter Sunday morning. Our outline will go like this:
- The Proclamation of the Resurrection (1-8)
- The Proof of the Resurrection (9-10)
- The Denial of the Resurrection (11-15)
- Let’s begin with the Revelation of the Resurrection. It was now early on the first day of the week – after the Sabbath. Jesus had been in the tomb for three days now, by Jewish reckoning – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We read that the women – that is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, came to look at the tomb. Mark adds the additional detail that they came to anoint the body of Jesus, which was common practice back then – you would anoint the body for three days, because then you would know for sure the body was really dead. Which is significant – perhaps that’s one reason Jesus waited for three days to rise from the dead – so all would be convinced He was really dead.
Look at verse 2 – behold – one of Matthew’s words – in fact, he uses it five times in chapter 28. It’s an exclamation that means behold, or look! Remember, we said it was like saying, “Holy Cow!” The point is, this is a significant event – the event of all history – the climax of redemptive history – and Matthew wants us to visualize it – you gotta see this, it’s unbelievable – it’s really cool.
Now, it appears that an earthquake had occurred right before the women arrived. An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled away the stone to sit on it. There are some things I want you to notice about that: first of all, the angel rolled the stone away not to let Jesus out, but to let others look in to see that Jesus was gone – the tomb was empty.
Secondly, the soldiers, not the disciples, not even the women, the soldiers were actually the first to see some evidence of resurrection reality. I want you to get that, because we’ll come back to it later. They were the first to feel the earthquake, to see the angel, to see the stone rolled away, to see the empty tomb. This was irrefutable evidence of something supernatural happening.
Thirdly, I love the way Matthew says it – the angel rolled away the stone and sat upon it. This disk-shaped stone had been specially prepared as a seal for the tomb – but now, the tomb was empty – the stone had served its purpose – it was no longer needed. Now, it was only useful as a seat for the angel.
We are told the angel had a rather startling appearance – like lightning, with his clothing as white as snow. Notice the absence of any wings. When the guards – you know, the ones posted to prevent a deceptive resurrection – when they saw all that happened – the earthquake, the stone rolled away, and the angel, they shook for fear. That word “shook” is a great word, by the way – it’s the same one used in 27:51 when the earth shook at the death of Christ. The soldiers quaked for fear of the angel, and became like dead men. These soldiers were literally frozen in a catatonic, deathlike state.
Now notice, and I love this part, the angel ignored the soldiers and said to the women – “Do not be afraid.” The guys were scared to death – frozen stiff, lying on the ground, and the angel said nothing to them. But to these precious women, devoted, committed followers of Jesus Christ, he spoke words of comfort, “Don’t you be afraid – and don’t worry about these guys.”
Then come the verses we’re all familiar with – we hear them almost every Easter, “for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. [Jesus had been telling them for months He was going to be handed over to the Jewish leaders, be mistreated and crucified, but, He would rise again on the third day.] Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.”
At this point, they left the tomb quickly with fear – after all, they just met an angel – and with joy – they had just found out Jesus was alive – to report it to His disciples. I commented on this last week, but it’s so good, I’m going to say it again – these women were the only ones present at the death, at the burial and at the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And as such, they were given the supreme privilege of announcing the resurrection to the eleven. They were the first witnesses, the first to proclaim the truth of the gospel.
Which brings up a very interesting point. As I said earlier, many skeptics have tried a number of different ways to dismiss the resurrection. They suggest it was all made up, that it didn’t really happen this way. But let me remind you of something critically important. Back then, women were near the lowest rung of the ladder. They were not considered credible witnesses – they could not testify in a court of law. Even if they saw a man committing a crime, their testimony alone was not enough to convict him. Knowing that, if you were going to make up a story about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you would never make this one up. You would have had Peter or James or John – better yet – you’d have all three at the tomb first. They saw the empty tomb first – they spoke to the angel – they declared the truth as credible witnesses to everyone else. Who would believe these women? But you see, this is the way it happened, as Jesus continued, and continues, to elevate women within His kingdom.
- Which brings us to the second point, the Proof of the Resurrection in verses 9-10. Read it again with me.
Not only were these women the first to see the empty tomb; not only were they the only ones to hear from the angel; these women were also the first to see Jesus. He came up and greeted them. There was no mistaking Him – they didn’t have to be convinced – this was no impersonator. They came up and took hold of His feet, and worshiped Him. Proskuneo is the word – they bowed at His feet, and worshiped. They knew they were in the presence of someone different, someone other, someone divine, someone who deserved their love, their adoration, their worship.
Notice, they took hold of His feet. Matthew is emphasizing the bodily nature of the resurrection. Some want to suggest that Jesus was only raised spiritually from the dead – but from His first appearance, and may subsequent appearances, we see it was a physical resurrection as well. And not, by the way, a delusion or a hallucination.
Jesus told them basically the same thing His angel had – Do not be afraid – go and tell My disciples – notice, He calls them, my brothers – tell them to leave for Galilee – they will see Me there. Now, it is true the disciples saw Jesus in Jerusalem before they left for Galilee, but it is also true, they saw Him in Galilee as well. In fact, I Corinthians 15 indicates there were a number of post-resurrection appearances – more proof of the reality of the resurrection.
- But not everyone wanted to believe it which brings us to our third point. It didn’t take long for the first fabricated story to arise – it appears in verses 11-15.
You know the story, we read it a little bit ago – the stolen body theory. It’s a rather ridiculous story for at least three reasons:
- First, the guard was posted to prevent this very thing – to prevent the deception of a resurrection. Now, when they had prevented the deception and the reality happened, they still wanted to deny it – and used the very story they wanted to avoid.
- Second, and this important – the story we’re supposed to believe was that the soldiers fell asleep. You need to understand something: if they fell asleep, they were in serious trouble. To fall asleep during a night watch could result in the death penalty. That’s why the chief priests had to pay them lots of money, and why they promised to keep the soldiers out of trouble with Pilate. The point is, the soldiers didn’t fall asleep – the consequences were huge to do so, and they didn’t.
- Which leads to a third very serious problem with their story. If they fell asleep during the night, and those pesky disciples snuck in and stole the body of Jesus – how did the soldiers know? How’d they know – they were sleeping. The whole story is absolutely ludicrous, but it was widely disseminated.
You know, there’s something I never noticed before in this story. It’s both fascinating, and very sad at the same time. Look at verse 11 with me again, “Now while they [that is, the women] were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened.” Stop right there.
What had happened? The earthquake, the angel, the empty tomb. We don’t know if they heard what the angels said to the women. We don’t know if they saw Jesus appear to the women – I kind of doubt that. But they saw the miracles – they saw the same empty tomb. They knew the stolen body theory was a lie. They knew something supernatural had happened. And they didn’t care – they didn’t believe. They propagated a lie for money.
Not only that – when they went back and told the chief priests, the religious leaders of Israel, what had happened, did they believe? No. Now wait a minute – remember what they said at the cross? “Let Him come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him.” Liars. Jesus didn’t come down from the cross – but He performed an even greater miracle – God raised Him from the dead. And they still refused to believe. Instead, having heard all about it, the just bribed the guards. These guys had heard about Jesus’ miracles – they had even interrogated some whose lives had been temporally and eternally changed by Jesus. They never tried to deny His miracles – remember that? What’d they do? They attributed His power to Satan. They had heard it all, seen it all – they actually talked to Jesus Himself. And they didn’t believe.
What’s my point? Knowing all the right stuff will not make you believe. Knowing the right stuff will not automatically make someone a follower of Jesus Christ. Does that bother you? I’ve always thought if they just listened, if they just had the right information, if I could just say it right, in the most compelling way possible, then people will believe. Listen, you can go and get those great books – those great apologetics – and you can get real smart and know all the facts and present them to your family and friends. You can answer every question, every objection. You can give them rock solid proof of the resurrection. And I encourage you to do that – but… that is no guarantee that will believe. We must do more. Telling them the facts alone, in the most convincing, compelling way possible, will not do it. These guys were there, and didn’t believe it. They had the evidence, they had clear information. They had more proof, more evidence than any Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel or Hank Hanegraaff book would ever reveal – ever. And they didn’t believe. You see, they had another problem – it was a spiritual problem.
Paul said in I Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
A few verses later, in 2:1-5, he said:
1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.
2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,
4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom [knowing every argument, answering every question], but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
And then in I Corinthians 2:14 says, “But a natural man [that is, an unsaved person] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
What does all that mean? It means a person cannot be saved by knowing the facts alone. There must be the work of the Spirit of God. Paul said in his second letter to the Corinthians:
2:3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing,
4 in whose case the god of this world has blindedthe minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Ephesians 4:17-18 says that, “the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; [not because of a lack of evidence. Not because of a lack of information. Folks, we have more information than has ever been available in the history of mankind – TV, radio, too many books to read, great evangelists. The problem is not a lack of information, it is a spiritual problem.]
If people are going to come to faith in Jesus Christ, then it’s going to take more than the right words. It’s going to take more than a perfect, flawless, logical presentation of the gospel. It is going to take the Spirit of God to remove the blinders from their hearts to see, and believe. It is going to take the supernatural moving and power of God – nothing less than that will work. In Acts 16:14, we read these words, “A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” Do you see that? The Lord opened her heart – He did His work so that she could respond to the message.
Should we know the facts? You bet. Should we learn the Scripture? You bet. Should we study apologetics so that we can give a good defense of the gospel? You bet. But first and foremost, we should pray that God will do His work, by His Spirit, to redeem people. The work of evangelism, the work of the gospel must begin and end on our knees. We need the power of God released on this community. And the good news about that is even the most simple among us can be the most effective in the work of the kingdom – we don’t need smarter people, we need people who will pray – pray that God will bring supernatural sight to blind eyes.
I close with this very encouraging story. Last week, Doug and Dean and I went to lunch at Chic-Filet where we saw some ladies from the morning Bible study having lunch. One of them was Sherri Knox, and she was practically exploding with excitement. She told us how she had prayed for her mother-in-law for 37 years to be saved. You ever feel like giving up? Last Sunday, her mother-in-law, at the age of 82, prayed to receive Christ. Why? Because Sherri finally had the arguments down? After 37 years, she finally figured out the right words to say? Because she could present a compelling case for Christ? I don’t know if she did or not – what I do know is that she prayed for 37 years. And God took the blinders off – and this dear woman was gloriously saved. It takes more than the facts – it takes a supernatural work of the Spirit of God – do you pray for that?
They can be eyewitnesses to the resurrection – but we still have to pray for God to open their hearts to respond to the message. Must they respond? You bet. Must God open their hearts? You bet. The work of evangelism is done first and last on our knees. (Do Not Stand)