Good religion is never convenient. It calls upon its adherents to sacrifice what is easy so that they may listen to a call that is more real. So it was with the Jews’ religion. Of all the observances that were observed with meticulous care throughout the year, none was more frequent than the weekly Sabbath. Shabbath was sacred. The Torah said so. The prophets said so. The rabbis said so.
By the first century, Judaism had developed to the point where all kinds of regulations attended Sabbath observance, but over them all was the basic directive of the Ten Commandments: Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but on the seventh day you shall not do any work. Almost anything could be construed as work, and that rule certainly included caring for the dead. So, it was a long Saturday for the women who had stood near the cross of Jesus late Friday afternoon. Sabbath began at sundown on Friday evening, and after Joseph had secured permission from the authorities to bury Jesus’ corpse, there was barely enough time to complete the simplest of details. The traditional anointing that the women had wanted to perform had to be postponed. By the time darkness had fallen, they had left the garden tomb, pausing only to watch as the huge rolling stone was fixed over the entrance. Later, of course, it was sealed with a heavy Roman seal and placed under guard.
It must have seemed strange to the soldiers at the tomb. They had been called many times to guard prisoners, but this may have been the first time they had ever been called to guard a dead man. Meanwhile, at home the women prepared spices and perfumes. Their intentions were clear. When the Sabbath ended, they would go back and complete what they had been forced to postpone on Friday evening.
So, it was a long Saturday. They determined to return to the tomb in the gray of Sunday morning before full daylight. The Sabbath ended at sundown on Saturday, but there was little they could do in the dark. In the half-light of early Sunday morning, they would be able to do what they could not have done on Friday night. One thought, above all others, occupied their minds. It was the huge rolling stone that blocked the entrance. Whether or not the women even knew about the guards at the tomb, we don’t know, since the guards were more-or-less an afterthought. But they knew about the huge rolling stone. They had watched as it had been rolled into place. Could the three of them move it? They weren’t sure. The sun was just breaking over the Mt. of Olives as they entered the garden. They asked each other as they went, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” When they arrived, they discovered to their amazement that the stone was already rolled away. Upon entering the tomb, they discovered to their further amazement that the body of Jesus was not there. While there, they were confronted by a young man who said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He’s not here! See the place where they laid him.” Trembling, bewildered and afraid, the women fled from the garden and ran to tell the others.
The problem of the rolling stone is one of those small intersections between faith and history that is often overlooked but that give the account the ring of truth. All four gospels speak of this great stone. Stones large enough to cover the entrance to a tomb would weigh several hundred pounds. The problem of moving one of them is obvious. Yet, the stone had been moved! Who had done this?
Skeptics, as we all know, have had a field day with the resurrection narratives. All sorts of suggestions have been offered as alternatives to the biblical account. Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea secretly removed the body to another place. But why would he? The tomb had been sealed and protected by a Roman guard. In any case, the garden tomb had been selected by Joseph in the first place. Why would he want to change the burial site? Maybe the authorities moved the body, some suggest. But again, the question looms. Why should they? Pilate had no reason to do so, since, after all, he ordered the guards to protect the tomb. In any case, Roman prefects were not known to be fearful of dead men! And as for the Jewish authorities, the last thing they would want to do would be to move the corpse. This crucified man was the one who said he would rise again, and the worst possible course of action would be to remove their very proof that he was still dead! Then, there is the “passover plot” theory that crops up every few years or so. Here, Jesus did not really die. His disciples drugged him, or he drugged himself, and later he would revive in the cool atmosphere of the tomb and stage a resurrection. The really surprising thing is that anyone with a knowledge of Roman crucifixion would ever buy such a thin argument. Romans were not known for bungling their crucifixions. The executioners were consummate professionals in the most grisly sort of way! Then there is the suggestion that in the darkness the women went to the wrong tomb. This version sounds suspiciously like a subtle form of the chauvinism that Jesus rejected—the three women were so stupid they couldn’t be trusted to find the same place twice in a familiar city.
So, who moved the stone? No one had even the slightest reason to move it! Not Pilate, not Caiaphas, not the disciples, nor anyone else. It is Matthew, of course, who tells us that an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. He is the young man that the women mistook for the gardener. Regardless, even for someone who doesn’t believe in angels, the remarkable fact that the stone was rolled away is a single feature of the story that is never debated. Sometime between the hour that Joseph and the women left on late Friday evening and sunrise on Sunday morning, this great blocking stone had been moved!
I do not think it has been sufficiently realized how this simple circumstance—this one indisputable fact, unimportant as it may seem at first sight—contributes to the veracity of the story. The sealing of the stone had been a Roman action, prompted by the high priest but ordered by Pilate on Saturday. The women knew nothing of it, since it had occurred after the burial and on the Sabbath itself, when the women and the other disciples were sequestered in their homes. Had they known of the guard, they might never had gone to the garden tomb on Sunday at all. But they didn’t know—and their only concern was about the great rolling stone and how they might move it! But before they arrived, that stone had been moved! The Roman guards were no longer there. They had fled into the streets of Jerusalem early on Sunday morning to report to the high priests that something was amiss at the tomb of the Nazarene! Indeed, it was this feature of the story that years ago drove the English reporter, Frank Morison, to reexamine the gospels’ Easter story in such meticulous detail. And Morison, who began with the assumption that the accounts rested on very insecure foundations, found that in the end he had landed on an unexpected shore—a firm and unshakeable conviction that Jesus had truly risen from the dead.
Now, I don’t for a moment expect that faith in the resurrection of Jesus rests only on a single issue, the issue of who moved the stone. Nor do I suppose that those who do not already accept Jesus’ resurrection necessarily will be persuaded to do so in view of this small point. At the same time, this is one small window of credibility in the witness of three women who came to the garden tomb early on Sunday morning. While their witness may not have carried much weight in the patriarchal culture of their own times, it has carried considerable weight in the judgment of Christians ever since! And it is surely in keeping with Jesus’ revolutionary evaluation of women that he would choose them to be the first witnesses of the gospel. And so, I say as Christians have expressed it since the very beginning: Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!