“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” (Matt. 27:65).
“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” (Matt. 28:15).
In my first article in this series that I initiated last year, “Soldiers in Scripture – Warriors in the Word”, I unpacked what soldiers were doing on Good Friday. It was fascinating to discover that soldiers were stationed at every critical juncture on the way. They were directly involved in Jesus’ crucifixion and even fulfilled Old Testament Scriptures. I invite you to read the article here.
In the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew and Mark, soldiers were mentioned several times. They were there in the events leading right up to and after Jesus rose from the dead. One leader of Soldiers verified that Jesus had actually died. Other soldiers were scared to death by the angel at the tomb. Later, these same soldiers were ordered to lie about what happened to Jesus and took a bribe.
Mark observes one Soldier’s involvement
To start our discussion, there is a scene which included one special soldier who had been present at the cross. This scene is also mentioned by Luke and John, but they chose to not mention the soldier.
A brief conversation took place between Joseph of Arimathea and Pilate right after Jesus died (Mark 15:43-45). Joseph boldly asked Pilate for Jesus’s body so that he could bury him. Pilate asked the centurion (a leader of 100 soldiers) to confirm that Jesus was actually dead. This was the same one who had witnessed Jesus’ death and had proclaimed that He was the Son of God (see Mark 15:39). He sent a message to Pilate that Jesus had in fact died. Pilate then released his body to Joseph.
Matthew reports soldiers were ordered to guard Jesus’ tomb
Matthew’s perspective includes two other instances where soldiers guarded Jesus’ tomb. However, before we dive in, it is important to learn why there was a need for a guard force in the first place.
We read in Matt. 27:62-66 that the chief priests and Pharisees were more than a little concerned. They asked Pilate to give an order to secure Jesus’ tomb for three days. The Jewish leaders did this out of fear that His disciples would steal His body and claim that He rose from the dead as He said He would. Jesus’ prediction of His death and resurrection that He taught to His disciples was recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels; see Matt. 20:18-19; Mark 10:33-34; and Luke 18:31-33. Pilate granted their request. They put a seal on the stone that covered the entrance and posted guards.
David Turner, in his Baker Exegetical Commentary on Matthew explains that “these soldiers and the sealed stone constitute imperial authority over the tomb. The seal would be clay or wax pressed into the crack between the rolling stone and the tomb’s entrance. The imperial seal stamped on the clay or wax signified Rome’s authority . . . but a higher power would arrive on the scene when dawn came.”
At dawn on Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary visited Jesus’ tomb (see Matt. 28:1). Matthew reports that there had been a violent earthquake, that an angel had come down from heaven, had rolled the stone away, and then sat on it (v. 2). The angel’s appearance was like lightning. His clothes were as white as snow (v. 3). This caused quite a reaction amongst the soldiers who were guarding the tomb. They were so afraid that they went into shock; they were “like dead men” (v. 4).
Turner observes, “How much the guards saw and comprehended is not clear. The angel’s appearance caused them to faint (28:4), and they regained consciousness to discover the empty tomb.”
These soldiers were mentioned again in Matt. 28:11-15 after the women ran to tell Jesus’ disciples. This time, they were tempted to violate their integrity and took a bribe. Let’s take a closer look.
Matthew reports soldiers were ordered to lie about what happened
Some, but not all, of the guards went to the city to report what they had seen at Jesus’ tomb to the chief priests. Turner indicates that the soldiers were “unintentional evangelists”, proclaiming that Jesus had risen. They met with the elders and concocted a hoax. (Ironically, this is exactly what they were trying to prevent Jesus’ disciples from doing and why they put guards in place.)
These soldiers were instructed to tell people that Jesus’ disciples stole his body at night while they were sleeping. To motivate these soldiers to tell this lie, they gave them a large sum of money. The chief priests promised to keep them out of trouble. The soldiers took the money and did as they were told to do.
How should Christian soldiers act now?
There are several applications that Christian soldiers can learn from the soldiers at Jesus’ tomb:
- Fulfill your duties as a soldier, even when no one is looking, whether it be guarding your post, cleaning your rifle, filing routine paperwork, or leading soldiers into harm’s way
- If you have encountered the risen Christ, tell someone about it
- Do the right thing, even if those in authority encourage you to violate your integrity; if you are given an unlawful order, get some outside advice before you blindly obey them
- Don’t take a bribe; the price you pay later will cause you to regret your short-term gain
I trust that this devotional helped you understand the role that soldiers played in the events around Jesus’ resurrection. I hope that you will also experience God’s presence during this Easter season.
About the author:
Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 110 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.