As we have seen, the OT and the words of the Lord Jesus before He went to the cross bear testimony to the reality of the resurrection. Let us now turn to the event itself. We will not consider the many “explanations” that men put forward in attempting to deny the resurrection. We will deal, however, with one exception: the theory that the disciples stole the body, which we will look at for two reasons. First, it is recorded in Scripture and, second, since it was the explanation that the enemies of our Lord propagated, it must have been the best they could come up with. If we can see how untenable it is, we need not concern ourselves with the even more outlandish ones.
Matthew records: “Some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole Him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (Matt 28:11-15, KJV).
That this account concerns “the watch,” that is, the soldiers charged with the weighty responsibility of guarding the tomb, is significant. They were there because the Jewish religious leaders demanded that the tomb be made secure. “Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch” (Matt 27:65-66, KJV). These men knew only too well how important it was that no one be allowed to enter the tomb, and we can be confident that, on pain of death, they did indeed follow the command to “make it as sure as ye can.”
Indeed, there is a strong irony in the story they spread that the disciples came by night and stole the body, for this was the very thing they had been put there to avoid: “Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night, and steal Him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first” (v64, KJV). How painful it must have been for them to have to peddle the story that they had failed to do that for which they had been engaged! Doubtless, however, they were induced by the financial reward, and the promise that if any trouble came of it then the authorities would “look after them.” Also, if they had not cooperated with the falsehood, they would have faced the full wrath of the establishment, which had a vested interest in ensuring that the truth did not get out.
The statement that the disciples came by night and stole the body is totally implausible in light of their response to the Lord’s death. It is abundantly clear, from the gospel records, that the apostles and all the other believers were devastated by the events. For example, the gloom of the two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-24) shows that, as far as they were concerned, their hopes regarding Jesus Christ, and what He would do, were finished. When the women came from the tomb with the news that He was alive, the disciples did not believe them (Luke 24:10-11). These were certainly not people who would hatch a “body-stealing plot,” then zealously spend the rest of their days propagating it, at the cost of their lives.
Then, the idea that some disciples could come, knowing in advance that all the guards would be asleep, manage to roll back the stone, without waking even one of the guards, then remove the body, and put it where no one ever found it, stretches things beyond the limit of credulity. After all, to disprove the resurrection, all the authorities would have had to have done was produce the body. Clearly that did not happen for one very simple reason: He had risen!
In addition, if the guards claimed to be asleep, and that the disciples came while they were sleeping, and stole the body, how would they have known this? None of them could speak with any credibility of what went on while they were asleep, for they were not awake to observe events, or to identify those they were accusing.
A very significant detail recorded for us by John shows the impossibility of the guards’ theory. Peter arrives at the tomb, enters, and “seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about His head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself” (John 20:6-7, KJV). Not only does this indicate an orderliness which would not have been the case had someone broken in and snatched the body, but, in addition, the fact that the clothes were still there at all rules out the “robbery” theory. Thieves would have taken the body, clothes and all. However, even more significantly, the wording indicates that the clothes were lying undisturbed, in the position that they would have been in if the body was still in them. This would be an absolute impossibility if anyone had tried to remove the body from the clothes. There is only one conclusion: the Lord rose, and left the grave clothes behind, intact. It was not just that the tomb was empty; it was that the clothes were there, and He was not in them. It is no wonder that the next verse says, “Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.” And well could Peter, who came upon that scene, write many years afterwards, words that apply to us: “Whom having not seen, ye love; in Whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1Peter 1:8, KJV).