For the further proof of the resurrection of Christ, we have here the confession of the adversaries that were upon the guard; and there are two things which strengthen this testimony—that they were eye-witnesses, and did themselves see the glory of the resurrection, which none else did—and that they were enemies, set there to oppose and obstruct his resurrection. Now observe here,
I. How this testimony was given in to the chief priests (Matt. 28:11); when the women were going to bring that news to the disciples, which would fill their hearts with joy, the soldiers went to bring the same news to the chief priests, which would fill their faces with shame. Some of the watch, probably those of them that commanded in chief, came into the city, and brought to those who employed them, the report of their disappointment. They showed to the chief priests all the things that were done; told them of the earthquake, the descent of the angel, the rolling of the stone away, and the coming of the body of Jesus alive out of the grave. Thus the sign of the prophet Jonas was brought to the chief priests with the most clear and incontestable evidence that could be; and so the utmost means of conviction were afforded them; we may well imagine what a mortification it was to them, and that, like the enemies of the Jews, they were much cast down in their own eyes, Neh. 6:16. It might justly have been expected that they should now have believed in Christ, and repented their putting him to death; but they were obstinate in their infidelity, and therefore sealed up under it.
II. How it was baffled and stifled by them. They called an assembly, and considered what was to be done. For their own parts, they were resolved not to believe that Jesus was risen; but their care was, to keep others from believing, and themselves from being quite ashamed from their disbelief of it. They had put him to death, and there was no way of standing to what they had done, but by confronting the evidence of his resurrection. Thus they who have sold themselves to work wickedness, find that one sin draws on another, and that they have plunged themselves into a wretched necessity of adding iniquity to iniquity, which is part of the curse of Christ’s persecutors, Ps. 69:27.
The result of their debate was, that those soldiers must by all means be bribed off, and hired not to tell tales.
1. They put money into their hands; and what wickedness is it which men will not be brought to by the love of money? They gave large money, probably a great deal more than they gave to Judas, unto the soldiers. These chief priests loved their money as well as most people did, and were as loth to part with it; and yet, to carry on a malicious design against the gospel of Christ, they were very prodigal of it; they gave the soldiers, it is likely, as much as they asked, and they knew how to improve their advantages. Here was large money given for the advancing of that which they knew to be a lie, yet many grudge a little money for the advancement of that which they know to be the truth, though they have a promise of being reimbursed in the resurrection of the just. Let us never starve a good cause, when we see a bad one so liberally supported.
2. They put a lie into their mouths (Matt. 28:13); Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept; a sorry shift is better than none, but this is a sorry one indeed. (1.) The sham was ridiculous, and carried along with it its own confutation. If they slept, how could they know any thing of the matter, or say who came? If any one of them was awake to observe it, no doubt, he would awake them all to oppose it; for that was the only thing they had in charge. It was altogether improbable that a company of poor, weak, cowardly, dispirited men should expose themselves for so inconsiderable an achievement as the rescue of the dead body. Why were not the houses where they lodged diligently searched, and other means used to discover the dead body; but this was so thin a lie as one might easily see through. But had it been ever so plausible, (2.) It was a wicked thing for these priests and elders to hire those soldiers to tell a deliberate lie (if it had been in a matter of ever so small importance), against their consciences. Those know not what they do, who draw others to commit one wilful sin; for that may debauch conscience, and be an inlet to many. But, (3.) Considering this as intended to overthrow the great doctrine of Christ’s resurrection, this was a sin against the last remedy, and was, in effect, a blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, imputing that to the roguery of the disciples, which was done by the power of the Holy Ghost.
But lest the soldiers should object the penalty they incurred by the Roman law for sleeping upon the guard, which was very severe (Acts 12:19), they promised to interpose with the governor; “We will persuade him, and secure you. We will use our own interest in him, to get him not to take notice of it;” and they had lately found how easily they could manage him. If really these soldiers had slept, and so suffered the disciples to steal him away, as they would have the world believe, the priests and elders would certainly have been the forwardest to solicit the governor to punish them for their treachery; so that their care for the soldiers’ safety plainly gives the lie to the story. They undertook to secure them from the sword of Pilate’s justice, but could not secure them from the sword of God’s justice, which hangs over the head of those that love and make a lie. They promise more than they can perform who undertake to save a man harmless in the commission of a wilful sin.
Well, thus was the plot laid; now what success had it?
[1.] Those that were willing to deceive, took the money, and did as they were taught. They cared as little for Christ and his religion as the chief priests and elders did; and men that have no religion at all, can be very well pleased to see Christianity run down, and lend a hand to it, if need be, to serve a turn. They took the money; that was it they aimed at, and nothing else. Note, Money is a bait for the blackest temptation; mercenary tongues will sell the truth for it.
The great argument to prove Christ to be the Son of God, is, his resurrection, and none could have more convincing proofs of the truth of that than these soldiers had; they saw the angel descend from heaven, saw the stone rolled away, saw the body of Christ come out of the grave, unless the consternation they felt hindered them; and yet they were so far from being convinced by it themselves, that they were hired to belie him, and to hinder others from believing in him. Note, The most sensible evidence will not convince men, without the concurring operation of the Holy Spirit.
[2.] Those that were willing to be deceived, not only credited, but propagated, the story; This saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day. The sham took well enough, and answered the end. The Jews, who persisted in their infidelity, when they were pressed with the argument of Christ’s resurrection, had this still ready to reply, His disciples came, and stole him away. To this purport was the solemn narrative, which (as Justin Martyr relates in his dialogue with Typho the Jew) the great sanhedrim sent to all the Jews of the dispersion concerning this affair, exciting them to a vigorous resistance of Christianity—that, when they had crucified, and buried him, the disciples came by night, and stole him out of the sepulchre, designing thereby not only to overthrow the truth of Christ’s resurrection, but to render his disciples odious to the world, as the greatest villains in nature. When once a lie is raised, none knows how far it will spread, nor how long it will last, nor what mischief it will do. Some give another sense of this passage, This saying is commonly reported, that is, “Notwithstanding the artifice of the chief priests, thus to impose upon the people, the collusion that was between them and the soldiers, and the money that was given to support the cheat, were commonly reported and whispered among the Jews;” for one way or other truth will out.