11. A Question of Authority

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 11.  A Question of Authority

Mt 8:8,9  The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, `Go,’ and he goes; and that one, `Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, `Do this,’ and he does it.”

Before I start, we need to restate the overall context of Jesus’ teaching and repeat what I said in two earlier studies: what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. The difference of the ‘two kingdoms’ will now be seen in an amazing way in what now follows.

Now I realise I am stretching the boundaries of these studies because this is not a case of an analogy used by Jesus, but it is clear from what follows that he thoroughly approves it: When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (v.10) This Roman centurion understood something about Jesus beyond anything Jesus had found in his own people. To understand the parallels implied in these two simple verses, we see on one hand the centurion’s perception of Jesus and then, on the other hand, the parallel of his own experience. It is easier to take his experience first and then apply it to Jesus.

This man is a centurion, not very high up in the Roman hierarchy but sufficiently high to have learned about authority in the army. As anyone who has been trained in the army knows, authority and obedience to it is essential. When a command is given, it is imperative that it is obeyed. Authority is the right and power to command and to be obeyed. It is built in very early on in the Forces by strict discipline that requires punishment for failures to obey implicitly. In the Roman army that discipline was about as strict as you may find anywhere in history. When the one above you issued a command, you obeyed! If you didn’t then you suffered. The point was that this man knew all of this and knew that when authority existed it WOULD be obeyed.

Now perhaps we should pause a moment to remind ourselves of the context, the situation involving this man. He comes to Jesus: “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” (v.6,7) There it is. He comes to Jesus and addresses him with respect. He reveals his need and Jesus says he will meet it. It is at that point the man reveals his humility and awareness of the reality of his life: “The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” (v.8a) i.e. implied within this may be, “I am not religious and holy like you. I am a rough soldier who kills people. I have no right to demand anything of you,” but then all that is overcome by a combination of his concern for his servant and what he knows about Jesus.

The outworking of this is seen in his following words: “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed,” (v.8b) and he goes on to explain his understanding of authority. In it he is saying, “I know all about authority, and I know about you, and in the same way that when I command my men they have to obey, so when you command sickness to leave I know it will obey you and go.

Somewhere between all that he had no doubt heard about Jesus, and his personal knowledge of authority, he had put two and two together and realised that Jesus, in the spiritual world, exercised this same authority and brought about healing in the physical realm. Somehow, we might suggest, the Holy Spirit had released faith in him, in his understanding of who Jesus was, and therefore he knew that Jesus authority could bring the healing his servant needed.

The parallel here (it’s not really an analogy but a close cousin to it) is a most remarkable one that shows us in a unique way what it means to say that the Son of God has such authority. Jesus spoke about this at various times. One well known time is when the man was lowered through the roof and Jesus first forgave his sins, which upset some of the religious observers: “Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home.” (Mt 9:4-7) If Jesus declares it, it is so.

He also imparted that authority to his disciples: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (Mt 10:1) which perhaps was the grounds for John to be able to record later, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12)

After his resurrection we read, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mt 28:16-18) And because of that he was able to send the disciples out to continue doing what he had been doing: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:19,20) In the context of the incident with the centurion, note the strength of his words: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That has echoes of authority within it.

John shows us that this wasn’t a matter of following a set of rules, but learning to live under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, doing what the Father did: “Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working…. I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:17,19) It’s all about relationship, not rules or ritual. When we have that relationship, we will have that authority and we will do what Jesus did.

14. The Centurion

People who met Jesus : 14 :  The Centurion

Mt 8:5-7 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

One of the things that comes out, when we start looking at the people who came to Jesus, is that quickly we realise that they are people in need. Here we find the Centurion came “asking for help.” The reality is that we all need the Lord’s help but sometimes it needs a crisis for us to realise it.  Most of the time we seem to be able to cope in our day to day living and in our folly we ignore the Lord and just get by in our own strength. The leper in the previous meditation was very obviously in constant need of help; that was the nature of his illness – he was stuck with it. We may be wrong but it seems in the case of the Centurion it is a problem that has just occurred. We assume there has been an accident and it has left the Centurion’s servant paralyzed and in great pain. He would never have had this servant if he had had this affliction for a long time. No, it is more likely that it is something that has only recently happened.

Yes, physical afflictions can be illnesses (which may or may not be long-term) and they can be injuries that occur as a result of an accident. In the later case they may similarly be something that will heal up quickly, or possibly remain a long-term affliction. Whichever they are, we want to be rid of them. When we are not ill or not afflicted, we can sound very spiritual about such things, but when we are on the receiving end of such things, we just want to be rid of them. We show that by taking medicines or by going to a doctor or even by asking for prayer. In each case we want to be rid of this thing. Such things spoil or mar our lives and it is natural to want to be rid of them. What is incredible about Jesus’ ministry is that whenever people came to him to be healed – he healed them! Now that may sound obvious but it isn’t. Many of us today don’t believe he still heals and yet the New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb 13:8) Why do we see so little healing? Perhaps, before we can see more healing, we need to see more of the characteristics of this Centurion appearing in the church.

The story seems to start out simply enough, as our verses above indicate but the wonder of the story is yet to come: “The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, `Go,’ and he goes; and that one, `Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, `Do this,’ and he does it.” (v.8,9) There is within this, first of all, a remarkable humility: “I do not deserve…” This Centurion is a Roman, part of the conquering forces in the land. He could have held a very superior attitude, but he doesn’t!

But not only is there a remarkable humility in this man, there is also a remarkable strength of belief and understanding. This man has heard about Jesus, but hearing isn’t enough. This man believes what he has heard. When he has heard that Jesus has the power to heal people, he believes it. But there is more to it than that. He understands that Jesus is motivated by compassion and that compassion means that when anyone comes in need, he will meet that need (but of course we have to come). Thus he explains to Jesus that his servant is in ‘terrible suffering.’ That will be enough to motivate Jesus – and it does – and that triggers off even greater faith in this man. Jesus has expressed his willingness and so now all that is needed is for it to be done.

It is at this point that the depth of faith and understanding of this man is revealed. He has understood that Jesus doesn’t have to go through any ritual or performance or particular actions, he doesn’t need to come to the house. Oh no, he knows that Jesus has the power and authority simply to speak a word and it will be done. This man already understood more than most of us understand today.

That this is remarkable is evidenced by Jesus’ response: “When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (v.10) This is a not very subtle commendation of this man, and a challenge to the rest of the community of God’s people! Jesus then simply speaks the word and the healing takes place: “Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.” (v.13)

There are clearly levels of belief (and unbelief) revealed in Scripture. In terms of unbelief, Paul was to one day write to the Corinthians, “anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 11:29,30) i.e. sin in the church can bring illness and even death. That is a terrible extreme we really want to avoid. When it comes to faith we will see in these studies, differing levels of faith, the height of faith, perhaps, being seen in this Centurion. To recap: he heard about Jesus, he believed Jesus could heal, he believed Jesus wanted to heal because of his compassion, and he believed Jesus has the power and authority to heal simply by speaking a word.

Notice in conclusion that there is no penance required, no weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over repentance; it is all very much more straight-forward. The very act of coming to Jesus indicates a person willing to submit themselves to him. When we come to him, we recognise that he may require us to put issues right in our lives, but we are willing for that. James laid it out as follows: “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (Jas 5:13-16) Those verses deserve some serious consideration and they are extremely challenging. Why not work through them slowly and allow the Lord to speak to you through them. In trouble – you pray. In sickness – call others to pray. If there is sin, confess it and open the way for healing. Wow! Challenging stuff!


Readings in Luke Continued – No.26

Lk 7:10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

I think there are times in the Christian life (if we are honest) when you hold your breath and wonder if you got it right as you wait to see an outcome. This particular account in the Gospels is one such case. There is an interesting divergence here between Luke and Matthew which we haven’t yet picked up. Just before this verse Luke records, “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel,” which referred to the centurion’s comments about authority which, in turn follows the words from the centurion about his unworthiness – except Luke tells us that both sets of words were actually spoken by friends who the centurion had sent to Jesus (v.6).

We have commented before on how Matthew tends to give abbreviated accounts and he doesn’t mention anyone else acting as the spokesman for the centurion. He has just reports, “a centurion came to him, asking for help.” (Mt 8:5) and the conversation appears to have been with the centurion – but that is just shorthand which is not uncommon in the Gospels. We need to understand in these situations that writers in Jesus’ day did not have the same cultural requirement to give specific accurate details as we would expect today (although our modern Press sometimes seem to exhibit the same characteristics as the culture of two thousand years ago!). Often we find generalities in one Gospel account and specifics in another. Thus it is in Matthew that we have the words attributed to the centurion – as in fact they were even in Luke, but where others transmit them – while Luke gives us the detail of how it actually came about.

So much for the differences between Matthew and Luke, but now we have to consider disparities within Luke’s text. We have, first of all, seen that Jewish elders came pleading on behalf of this man for healing but it seems fairly obvious that they didn’t quite convey what the centurion subsequently realised he wanted, because we read earlier in Luke’s account, “The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.(v.3) but then later seems to want to stop him coming. Now either that was how the centurion originally put it (and subsequently changed his mind), or it was how the elders perceived it, how they assumed it, and assumed that that was what he was asking for. It is only when you start looking in detail at the accounts that you begin to realise the workings of the human mind. Look again at the two possible scenarios that we have suggested.

First scenario: the centurion asked for Jesus to come and then realised as he thought about it, that actually he didn’t need Jesus to come; Jesus had the power and authority to speak just a word and it would be done. This is an interesting situation because I do believe that sometimes faith flows and grows once we have committed ourselves to a course of action, and not before. Jesus is obviously on his way for we read,”He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him….” (v.6). One way or another Jesus received the first message and started coming, but when the centurion looked out of his house and saw the crowd approaching, he then obviously asked some friends to go out and stop Jesus with the words he gives them. Perhaps he was not in full faith for ‘distance healing’ before, but he is now!

Second scenario: the centurion in conversation with his Jewish friends, elders of the town, mentions he wishes Jesus could heal his servant and they naturally assume he means he wants Jesus to come to the house – I mean, how else can he get healed??? The other thing about writing in those days was that it was a far more arduous task than today; they did not have the ease of a computer keyboard! Thus they would have been fairly basic in what they included, so we aren’t told if, in fact, the centurion then followed his friends out of the house and talked to Jesus face to face, but that seems unlikely as we are told in today’s verse, “Then the men who had been sent returned to the house,” but that could mean of course they went back while he stayed talking with Jesus. That is the frustration of the Gospels sometimes; they don’t tell us everything we’d like to know.

So here we have a situation with some very human dynamics in it – and Luke likes such things! That’s why we get the details he gives us. This is no ordinary centurion. This is a Roman with Jewish friends who are willing to help him, his own (presumably) Roman friends who are similarly willing to run errands for him – and he’s a man of faith with great understanding about Jesus. This story, perhaps more than most, reveals Luke the writer interested in people and with their interactions. The proof of the centurion’s assumptions about Jesus is confirmed – the friends go back to the house and the servant has completely recovered – simply from a word at a distance from Jesus.

This is a very human story, as simple as it is, and yet it is also a story about spiritual understanding and divine power. We must not let the two writers’ different approaches in recording the events, detract from the wonder of them. These are two men of authority coming together. One has human authority, but that is obviously limited when it comes to changing human bodies, and the other one is divine authority and, interestingly we see elsewhere in the Gospels, it is limited by human belief. Where a man of strong belief encounters the one with spiritual or divine authority, it makes space for the latter to move and bring healing. Because he never changes, is the limited amount of healing we tend to see today in the church down to our limited faith, I wonder? It’s a challenge.


Readings in Luke Continued – No.25

Lk 7:7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.

Just a few extra words. Just before the centurion says this we find Luke recording him saying, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” and Matthew records virtually the same thing. Both of them record this man’s humility but Luke having added earlier the facts that the Jews came on his behalf to Jesus, now adds in this simple sentence by way of explanation. It’s like the centurion says, this is why I didn’t come to you myself, because I don’t count myself worthy to come to you.

Now this is quite amazing because this is a centurion who is an officer of the Roman army and they are the rulers over this country – the Jews are subservient to them. You would expect it to be the other way round, the Roman not deigning to go to Jesus. Luke has obviously caught something when he has been collecting his materials for his Gospel. He caught the remarkable humility that there was in this man. The others hadn’t picked up on this but, as we’ve said previously a number of times, Luke is a doctor and doctors pick up on people. I wonder, would we have been a Matthew and given this man a reasonable but somewhat cursory coverage, or would we have been like Luke and picked up on the unusual nature of this man. Are we people watchers, do we take in what they are really like, because that is what comes out here in this simple verse.

Humility appeals to Jesus. It is the sign of a person who knows what they are really like. John the Baptist’s teaching and preaching brought people to their senses, made them face up to themselves. John made them aware of their moral failures, of their need to get right with God. Jesus then came to a prepared people with the offer of God’s love. This Roman is aware of spiritual realities. In what follows, he knows who Jesus is – a man with authority to change things. He recognises in Jesus authority over sickness in the same way he has authority over soldiers. He says a word and they jump. Jesus says a word and illness goes. This man has spiritual perception far greater than most of the Jews over whom he ruled. He realises that Jesus is someone special. Anyone less would not have this authority that Jesus has. This is spiritual authority and that is much, much greater than simple human authority which relies on human power or force to exercise it. No, Jesus has a power that cannot be explained humanly, a power to change human bodies. This Roman soldier recognises that here is someone far higher up the spiritual-social scale!

Young people speak of ‘blagging it’ meaning they bluff it out and get what they can by pushing their luck. This centurion doesn’t do that because he is aware of the realities of this situation. He may have the human authority but Jesus has the spiritual authority and you can’t make someone exercise authority; that’s the nature of it. It’s what the person who has it exercises – if they want! This man also recognises that in the authority that Jesus has is included knowledge, knowledge of the realities of a situation and of people. He knows he can’t bluster and throw his weight around with Jesus because Jesus will see right through him, right through his vulnerability, his weakness in concern for his servant. Indeed that concern for his servant indicates a compassionate heart and compassionate hearts aren’t brash, they are gentle. This man has an incredible awareness of the reality of who he is, of his situation, and of Jesus.

So what is humility? It is the awareness of the truth of the situation about ourselves. Humility sees me exactly as I am. It knows my faults and my weaknesses and therefore it doesn’t allow boasting. Yet, it will also see the reality of the good things about me and so it will not allow any false modesty. In Psalm 45, the writer, speaking about the Lord going out like a vanquishing king, says, “In your majesty ride forth victoriously in behalf of truth, humility and righteousness.” (Psa 45:4) Do you see that? Humility put on a par with truth and righteousness. It is important to the Lord because it is a sign of a person having a right assessment of himself in God’s world. Solomon wrote, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” (Prov 11:2) This right assessment of oneself brings wisdom with it. When you know yourself, you know what you should do, what you are capable of doing. But this can work both ways. James instructed, Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (Jas 3:13) Humility brings forth wisdom but it also comes from wisdom. The wise know their true position and are humble. Paul instructed, “think of yourself with sober judgment,” (Rom 12:3) which is the same thing.

Humility is therefore an important thing before God. Peter instructed, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (1 Pet 5:5,6). Proud people have an overblown view of themselves. A humble person knows who they are – rightly! God wants people who fit rightly in His world which means they know and understand who they are, how they fit in and how they stand before Him. The centurion was an excellent example of humility. We need to follow him.

Good Reputation

Readings in Luke Continued – No.24

Lk 7:3-5 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

Can we remind ourselves to start off why we are doing these particular meditations? Yes, they are meditations about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, but they focus on the parts of his Gospel that are unique to Luke. Within the Gospel there is material that is common to all three Synoptic Gospels indicating a common source, there is some common to Matthew only and some common to Mark only and some unique to Luke, and it is this latter material that we are focusing on. We are doing that because it brings an emphasis, a very human emphasis that perhaps only a doctor (which is what Luke was) would bring. That is especially true of our verses above. Luke picks up on the very human touches in the Gospel accounts.

Matthew is the only other one who records the incident with the centurion in Capernaum and it is clearly the same incident. But Matthew, we have noted previously, sometimes tends to be rather brief on descriptions and when it comes to this centurion he simply says, “When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.” (Mt 8:5) which is the gist of the opening words above, except Luke picks up from his sources something else, something quite endearing and which appeals to him and so he includes it. It is that this centurion who resides in Capernaum clearly has a good reputation in the eyes of the local Jews. He is on sufficiently good terms with the local Jewish elders that he asks them to go on his behalf, to appeal to Jesus on his behalf, and on the behalf of his servant.

In what follows it becomes obvious that there is both integrity and humility in this man. So why doesn’t he come himself straight away? We aren’t told directly but it appears clear that he doesn’t have a domineering attitude as a Roman, and recognises that when it comes to asking for healing it is not something you can demand. Moreover it may be that Jesus wouldn’t want to have any dealings with a Roman ‘oppressor’, so for this reason he uses his friendship with the Jewish elders and asks them to appeal to Jesus on his behalf. It is only when they have appealed to Jesus that the man comes himself and enters into dialogue with Jesus.

Now note that when these local Jewish leaders come to Jesus they don’t come half-heartedly on behalf of this Roman. No, they pleaded earnestly with Jesus to help this man. Now there is something important here that we could miss. These Jewish elders actually believed that Jesus could heal this servant. We usually tend to think that most of the Jewish leaders were against Jesus and didn’t believe in him. Well these leaders clearly did, otherwise they might have dissuaded their friend. No, they have heard about Jesus, perhaps seen him in action, and realise that he can help their Roman friend IF he wishes.

Now their approach has a certain Jewish legalism about it. Note what they say: “This man deserves to have you do this.” Well, no, nobody has earned the right to have Jesus heal them; he does it as an act of grace – always! We need to remember that when we are asking for healing for ourselves or for others. Jesus doesn’t heal us because we have earned it, but because HE has earned it on the Cross. All sickness is ultimately the result of sin in the world and Jesus has died to take out sin, our punishment and the effects of that sin. Thus he has earned the right to bring healing to us. We don’t deserve it and we can never earn it, but he gives it freely as an act of grace.

But they go on to give reasons for their thinking: “he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” Wow! This Roman has almost become a Jew it seems. He is not there as an oppressor, he is there as a friend. He is obviously a wealthy and influential man, this Roman centurion, and has paid for and directed the building of their local synagogue. No wonder they feel good about him. Now this man has certainly earned his reputation and that in itself is quite remarkable. He has come into a foreign culture and he has blessed the people he has found there. He has not imposed his own Roman ways on them but has enabled them to express their own ways more fully. This is a good man, an apparently righteous man – but he’s still a man with a need that is beyond him; he has a sick servant who he obviously cares for (another good aspect of this man’s life) but he doesn’t have the power to heal him. We may be good people, but we are still limited and need God’s help. Whoever we are, and however good we are, this still applies.

I wonder what sort of reputation we have? It worries me sometimes, the obvious lack of reputation that is there often is within the Christian community. Jesus taught, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven,” (Mt 5:16) which indicates that Jesus expects us to have a good reputation in the eyes of the world around us as we cact as salt and light. Are we gracious in the way we disagree with the world’s immorality? Have we learnt to speak about righteousness graciously, or do we upset those around us by our declarations of their sin? Do the good things we do soften the hearts of those around us? Are we seen as the best and most conscientious workers or students, or are we seen to be those who do the bare minimum and then scuttle away back to our Christian ghettos? I don’t want that to sound hard, but that is often how it appears and I know because that is how I used to be for much of my earlier working life. It was how we were taught – to come out from among the godless people around us, except that is not how Jesus was. He got in among them and acted as salt and light and blessed them and showed them his Father’s love.

Yes, there will always be those who are against us because we shine and show them up for what they are, and in their defensiveness they will be against us, but do we give them grounds to feel hostile? This centurion stands out as a foreigner who blessed the local population. Can we be the same and thus become a channel for God’s love which opens people up to receive Him for themselves?

3. Is he dead?

Mk 24:44.45   Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.Cynics looking for reasons not to believe in God, looking for reasons not to believe the Bible, come up with a variety of evasive tactics. At foundation level they say you can’t trust the documents, and then at a content level they say Jesus didn’t die.
The ‘documents query’ is quickly dealt with by a challenge to investigate what scholars have found over the last fifty years as they have studied the problem. The numbers of ancient manuscripts making up the New Testament outweigh any other ancient historical documents a hundred-fold. F.F.Bruce, an acknowledged leading world expert said, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” He also stated, “…the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the NT may be regarded as finally established.” F.J.A.Hort, one of the greatest textual critics ever, wrote: “In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the NT stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings.”  Oh no, only the utterly ignorant declare, “You can’t trust the documents!”
But before we come to examine the actual content of the text, there is another shallow evasive criticism that is often posed: “Well the documents might stand up to scrutiny, but the writers were just making it up. It didn’t actually happen” or even, “The writers were conned by Jesus Christ.” The evasive tactics come thick and fast by those who are more interested in avoiding the truth by shutting down their minds with clichés.
The ‘making it up’ approach is, again, quickly disposed of by considering two simple but quite different facts. The first is the difficulty of writing and the effort therefore required to produce this wealth of documentation, both biblical and extra-biblical, which survives from the first century AD. What was the point if it was all a myth, a made up story?  The second is the variety of the writings from obviously a number of writers, but all coming up with essentially the same story. Yet it is obvious that they wrote from their own standpoint, expressing their own personalities as (we believe) they were inspired by God. A detailed investigation of these two points completely demolishes these particular tactics, and so all you are left with is to examine the content, which is what we do in these ‘meditations’.
(If you are a Christian reading these notes and you feel frustrated by the additional background detail and want to get on to the content, may I suggest that there is a need to understand the areas of discussion at least if we are to be able to say to those who come seeking, but with big questions, “There ARE legitimate and good foundations to belief. You CAN believe with intellectual integrity. Your faith can be built on historical fact.”)
So here we have (eventually!) Matthew recording for us this little incident involving Pilate. Joseph of Arimathea has come asking for the body and Pilate, who knows about executions, is surprised that it is all over so quickly. The reason for the haste, we are told, is to clear away the bodies before the Jewish feast started so that there would be nothing unseemly hanging around to spoil the holiness of the event. John’s Gospel explains it as follows: “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.” (Jn 19:31). So first of all Pilate’s permission is requested to speed up the execution, but once it has all happened he is surprised at the efficiency of his men having achieved it so quickly. The main point here is to note that there was concern to make sure that the bodies were dead. The centurion would never have confirmed death to his leader unless he had been absolutely sure. 
The Jewish authorities were already concerned to make sure that Jesus was dead as is witnessed by their actions the next day: “The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, `After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”(Mt 27:62-64). Admitted that this happened on the Saturday but they didn’t just suddenly feel that; they had been aware of it the whole time and would have been watching carefully at the Cross to ensure it had actually happened. They were convinced of it by what they had seen, which was why they now didn’t want the dead body snatched away to create rumours of a resurrection!
So what had convinced them of Jesus’ actual death? It had been watching the executioners’ activity concluding the executions: “The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.” (Jn 19:32-35). These were seasoned Roman executioners and they did not make mistakes. The Romans and the Jewish leaders had a lot going on Jesus’ death. They made sure it happened! Any reasonable person has to conclude from the evidence that Jesus was well and truly dead. There is no way he could have survived in these circumstances.
So as we get nearer to considering the resurrection appearances, be quite clear in your mind: we are talking about resurrection from the dead. Of that there is no doubt (at least for those who take the time to investigate the evidence!).