All the Way to Glory: Vainly They Seal the Dead

Although the burial of the Lord Jesus was complete and noted by all the Gospel writers, it is Matthew who strongly emphasizes the security of the Savior’s tomb (see Mat 27:60-66). It is likely that disputes about the Lord’s resurrection were surfacing (a real threat to gospel preaching) and Matthew wanted to set the record straight. Let’s look at this section in a bit more detail.

The Stone

“And he [Joseph] rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed” (v60).[1] The stone was likely four to six feet in diameter and extremely heavy, intentionally so as to ensure the remains would be undisturbed. Joseph may have had assistance in rolling the stone along the groove until it settled into the carved channel just in front of the tomb’s opening.[2] It was probably easier to set the stone in place than it would have been to remove it afterwards. Note that the women who later arrived at the tomb knew they would not be able to move the stone themselves (Mar 16:3). Removing it from inside the tomb was certainly not feasible.

The Spectators

As noted in the previous chapter, there were witnesses to Jesus’ burial. “And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre” (v61). The “other Mary” must be “the mother of James and Joses” mentioned in verse 56. Since the text notes that Joseph “departed” (v60) after he set the stone in place, the two Marys are the last named individuals present at the tomb (see also Mar 15:47). As they returned later with spices to anoint the Lord’s body (Mar 16:1), it is clear that they knew nothing about the official sealing and guarding of the tomb described by Matthew (27:66). Their only concern was how they would roll the stone away, not how they would overpower the guards and break the seal. Interestingly, the two Marys would not only be the last to leave the tomb, but the first to find it empty!

The Sabbath

After noting the two Marys, Matthew refers to “the next day, that followed the day of the preparation” (27:62). The “day of the preparation” was not the preparation for the Passover, but for the Sabbath, and therefore a Friday, as Mark makes clear (15:42). Thus, the day following was a Saturday (the Sabbath). But Matthew seems to purposefully avoid using the word “Sabbath.” It may be that the day of Christ’s death (which occurred on “the day of the preparation”) now holds far more importance than the Sabbath, and so Matthew prefers this terminology (at least here).

It is noteworthy, then, to see the work performed on the Sabbath by the Jewish rulers in the following verses (Mat 27:62b-66). The Pharisees in particular were known for their strict Sabbath observance (as well as chastising those who were not so strict). But compliance in this case was not as important as their hatred of the Lord Jesus. Months before this, the Pharisees deliberated as to how they might destroy Christ who had done good on the Sabbath (12:9-14). Here, they do not hesitate to perform evil on the Sabbath. And they not only labor themselves but set other people to work also.

The Sanhedrin

Although the entire official body of the Sanhedrin is not mentioned (no reference to “the elders” is made), the two rival groups of the ruling body are named: “The chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate” (27:62). The chief priests were Sadducees. Often divided, these “two opposing wings of the Sanhedrin are still united in their fear of Jesus’ influence, to the extent of contravening their own Sabbath regulations.”[3] This is also the last time we read about the Pharisees in the Gospels. In their first appearance (3:7), John the Baptist characterized them as a “generation of vipers.” In their last appearance, they prove John’s description to be true.

Pilate must have been exasperated to see members of the Sanhedrin at his doorstep once more. Perhaps to ingratiate themselves, the rulers began their request to Pilate with the dignified title “Sir” (27:63). The Greek word is kurios (often translated “Lord”) and is used in Matthew almost exclusively for the Lord Jesus. It is apparent that the Jewish leaders had rejected their true Lord. They gave Pilate a title of respect, but only after disrespecting and crucifying “the Lord of glory” (1Co 2:8), whom they then referred to as “that deceiver” (see also Joh 7:12,47).[4]

We must admire, however, the leaders’ ability to recall the words Jesus spoke, which could not be said of His disciples. They began their official request with these words: “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said … After three days I will rise again” (Mat 27:63). It should be pointed out that some of the scribes and Pharisees were present (12:38) when the Lord said, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (12:40). But since Jesus gave multiple predictions to the disciples about His resurrection (e.g., Mar 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), it is also possible that Judas shared this information with the authorities in his betrayal. I love the fact that these rulers refer to Christ’s claim made “while he was yet alive” (Mat 27:63). They knew that the Savior was clearly dead and would have rejected the swoon theory.

Their real concern is expressed in verse 64: “So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first” (NET). They feared the Lord’s disciples would come to the tomb to steal His body when they weren’t even at the cross to take it down. They overestimated the disciples’ passion and underestimated the Savior’s power. None of the remaining 11 came to the tomb until it was empty, and Christ would come through on His promise to rise again on the third day.

But the fear of these leaders was real. They reference both a “first” and a “last deception.” The “first” deception (in their thinking) would be the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. The “last” would be a fake resurrection supporting the “first.” Essentially, they were informing Pilate that if he thought Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as Messiah caused an uproar, the fallout of this “deception” would be far more intense. The fear of the leaders was now shared by Pilate. No ruler wants a riot in his territory. So, Pilate consented again to their wishes.

The Soldiers

“Pilate said to them, ‘Take a guard of soldiers. Go and make it as secure as you can’” (v65 NET). The Greek word translated “guard of soldiers” is koustodia, of Latin origin, suggesting Roman soldiers were dispatched, not officers of the Jewish Temple police. Indeed, it would have been strange for members of the Jewish Sanhedrin to ask Pilate permission for their own soldiers to be moved from one location to another. Matthew 28:14 suggests that these soldiers were ultimately answerable to Pilate. A typical Roman guard consisted of four soldiers (a quaternion, see Act 12:4), with two on watch while two rested. They were heavily armed with swords, shields, spears, daggers and armor. Thus, the Jews were requesting maximum security.

The Seal

It was not enough that the tomb be secured with a stone and with soldiers. The final security measure was the Roman seal. “So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch” (Mat 27:66). The seal consisted of clay or wax pressed into the crack between the rolling stone and the tomb’s entrance and stamped with the imperial emblem of Rome’s authority.[5] Moving the rock would therefore break the Roman seal, an illegal, punishable offense. But in all their earnestness to seal the tomb of the Savior, His enemies only underscored the reality of His resurrection. The seal was likely the most temporary one ever placed on a tomb by any authority.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. It was Saturday and it looked like Rome and Israel’s leaders had won. Two heavily armed guards were stationed at the tomb, with two resting nearby. If anyone tried to steal the body of Jesus of Nazareth, their efforts would be useless. But …

Vainly they watch His bed,
Jesus my Savior,
Vainly they seal the dead,
Jesus my Lord![6]

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Mark: Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 313.

[3] R.T. France, Matthew: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 404.

[4] Although they proceed to quote the Lord Jesus’ words, they do not even use His name, only this shameful title, “deceiver.”

[5] David L. Turner, Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 677.

[6] Robert Lowry (1826–1899)