5. Who moved the Stone?

Mt 28:2   There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. I have been reading the Bible for over forty years and I am amazed that forty years on I still see things that I have never ‘seen’ before. For that reason I no longer get stressed when those looking to pull the Bible to pieces come out with silly comments which show that they have either never read the Bible or at least large parts of it, or that they have read it but only in a surface way and have not taken in the truth of what they have read.  The reason I say this about my own reading is that it has only been recently that I have noticed something about the earthquake and the women. What is it?
   
Simply that the earthquake did not coincide with the arrival of the women! It happened before they arrived. If you read this part of Matthew on a few verses you will see, “The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.” (v.4) In other words so far there is no mention of the women. It was only the guards who saw the angel and the stone being rolled away. It must have been they who told about the ‘earthquake’. This was an encounter that scared the life out of these men. According to how Matthew wrote it, the sense of an earthquake was because of the arrival of the messenger from heaven who came with such power that the very earth shook.
   
But note that it wasn’t the earthquake that rolled back the stone, it was the angel who went over to the stone and effortlessly rolled it away and then sat on it as if on guard or at least laying claim to it!  Put it like that, it seems as if God saw the women coming to the tomb, and saw them talking: “they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mk 16:3). To save them the trouble He sends an angel to roll it back for them to see that Jesus has risen. Now later on we will find that it seems like Jesus had the ability to be ‘solid’ but also to pass through solid materials with his resurrected body. It would seem therefore, that the risen Jesus didn’t need the stone rolling away; he could pass through the rock. The removal of the stone was for the benefit of those coming to examine the tomb!
   
It was only once he had rolled it away that the women arrived. When they turn up they encounter the angel who seems to have put off some of his glory, presumably not to frighten them. He is now a simple messenger for the people of God. Mark tells us that he is now inside the tomb waiting for them and he is there to point out to them that this was where Jesus had been, but he’s now gone. Matthew’s account is much briefer; he simply tells of the angel speaking to them but doesn’t say where. Matthew we suggested was possibly used to using his own shorthand notes which by their very nature were brief. He tends sometimes to be very brief in his reporting, even though he may be using the same source sometimes as Mark. We clearly don’t have the exact words spoken here and one or  other of them must have put it in his own words. Matthew records the angel as saying, “Do not be afraid.” Mark has him saying, “Don’t be alarmed.” Different word, same meaning. In Mark the angel continues, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.”(Mk 16:6). Matthew is briefer omitting the words, the Nazarene, and reverses order of the last two sentences.
   
Now some may be wondering why we bother to dissect these passages like this and the answer is for the sake of those who do have questions about this. Surely say the intelligent critics, this can’t be inspired by God, these accounts are different, maybe not in substance but certainly in order of what actually happened. For those who like to think of God dictating to the Gospel writers what they should write, this becomes a major problem. The answer has got to be that when we speak about Scripture being inspired, we must mean that God motivated or energized these men to write, using (a) the resources that they had open to them, and (b) with the wisdom to decide what should be included and what should be omitted, and (c) within the cultural norms of the day. As we have already commented the culture of the day was concerned with truth but not so much with specific detail.When we look at the words of the angel as we have seen, the intent is identical but the words used to convey it are different. Now some of that may be down to the translators for of course it was not written in English, but it is actually that it was simply the different writers applying their own style to it. What also arises in this and many cases in the Synoptic Gospels is that either one copied the meaning from the other or they both used a common source, but what is significant in either case is that they come up with slightly different words. Why? For the reasons we’ve just given. As they copied it down, they put it into the form that flowed most naturally with them as an individual.
    
Let’s put this in a more formal way. Theologians refer to the inerrancy of Scripture which is usually taken to mean that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact, i.e. the Bible always tells the truth about everything it talks about. About the nature of the verses we are considering, such a definition requires us to note that in the original Greek writing, quotation marks were never used and as far as the writers were concerned an accurate citation of another person or being needed to only include a correct representation of the content of what the person said and did not expect to cite each word exactly. We call this a ‘free quotation’ which, although it runs counter to our modern tendency to require exact wording, was very common at that time of writing.
   
So what have we seen?  A group of the women who had followed Jesus, now go out in the early morning to go to the tomb. Before they arrive the guards are shaken and almost scared out of their lives when an angel appears accompanied by what appears as an earthquake, a complete shaking of the earth. The angel goes over and rolls back the stone and simply sits on it as if on guard or taking possession, at which point the guards flee! When they have gone, the angel steps down and into the cave and awaits the arrival of the women. When they come and see the open cave, some of them at least step down into it and encounter the angel who seeks to put them at ease and shows them where Jesus had in fact laid, and points out that he has now gone. He is risen!
   
We have here, as so often in the Bible, a combination of very ordinary events – women coming to do what they hearts tell them to do – and supernatural events – an angel turning up. When we encounter God, that is exactly how life is, a blend of the very ordinary and the supernatural. In the way we have sought to consider this passage in this particular meditation we have sought to show that that is also how the Scriptures comes to be written.  Be confident in them, and be confident in what you believe.
   

1. Confusion

Lk 24:9-11   When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
   
The subject of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has always caused controversy. It always will, because it makes a claim that no other religious leader has ever had made about him – that he died and then within three days, rose again from the dead. It is, of course, humanly impossible!  And that is what becomes such a stumbling block for so many. It can’t be! Such things don’t happen.
    
Non-Christian theologians of the nineteenth century caused havoc to unwitting believers by using their academic authority to say, “It can’t be!” and a whole school of liberal theology grew up and undermined the beliefs of many in the next century. It wasn’t until other theologians challenged this and basically said, “Hold on, you’re prejudging the situation. You start by saying it can’t be and so in your minds of course it can’t be. But that’s an unscientific approach. You need to look at the evidence with an open mind and ask, what does the evidence indicate?”
   
I think it was Sherlock Holmes who used to say (I may be wrong!) that when you have done away with all the alternatives, what you have left, as unlikely as it may seem, is likely to be the truth. In 1930 a solicitor by the name of Frank Morison set out, with similar thoughts as the liberal theologians of his day, to investigate the truth of the apparent last seven days of Christ’s life. He certainly had a high regard for Christ himself but in his own words he wanted to take the story and “strip it of its overgrowth of primitive beliefs and dogmatic suppositions.” He ended up writing the now-famous book, “Who Moved the Stone?,” a thorough and incredibly detailed investigation of the death and apparent resurrection of Jesus Christ, in which he becomes utterly convinced of its truth and veracity. In the closing words of the book, “there certainly is a deep and profoundly historical basis for that much disputed sentence in the Apostles Creed – The third day he rose again from the dead.”  In his care of investigation he echoes the Gospel writer, Luke, who recorded our verse today, who wrote at the beginning of his Gospel, “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account,” (Lk 1:3).
   
In the Gospel accounts there is complete confusion over what has happened to the body of Christ which has disappeared from the tomb. Matthew’s Gospel records, “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, `His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” (Mt 28:11-15) That was a sad attempt to cover up and bring a plausible explanation to the confused events of that time, because if the disciples had taken the body the word would have crept out. More than that, if the disciples had known that they had the body and that Jesus was still dead, the rest of their lives would be living a lie as they proclaimed the resurrection again and again, with ten of the remaining eleven (Judas having died already) giving their lives for this belief and dying as martyrs.
  
Wonders of modern technology have meant that it is easy today to take, off a CD or off the Internet, the Gospels that previously had been limited to hard-copy paper. It is relatively easy, therefore, to line up the accounts next to each other and compare them. It is a fascinating exercise to merge them to produce a full picture of what happened. I’ve done it – but it isn’t an easy exercise because there do appear confusions that come from the differing accounts. If anything, it is this confusion that I find adds credibility to the accounts of the resurrection. We have acknowledged that humanly speaking it is the most difficult of stories to accept.
   
However if this was a made up myth then I would expect the writers to coordinate their writings so that there is perfect harmony and an easily understood account. It certainly isn’t that, and it is the confusion of the accounts (which we will examine) that brings authenticity to the story. If there were a series of massive explosions in, say London, Singapore or New York, the initial witness accounts would seem to be all over the place. There would be agreement over the key facts, certainly, but the differing viewpoints would throw up a multitude of questions. That’s just how it is with such an event, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as certain and sure as we are about it, is one such confusing event.
   
Its biggest confusion, as we have already suggested is that humanly speaking, it is the record of something that seems impossible. However if we are going to exhibit integrity and use a scientific approach to it, we need to examine the evidence, which will lead us on to the next meditation. The challenge for each of us becomes, therefore, am I willing to exhibit an open and honest mind, and carefully examine the evidence to arrive at a conclusion that might conflict with all my previously (possibly unfounded) presuppositions? This is where integrity comes in. This is where each of our hearts are revealed.  This is going to be a mind and spirit exercise. It will be a mind exercise because we will examine the evidence, consider its veracity, and draw logical conclusions. It will be a spirit exercise because it impinges on the very deepest innermost feelings and experiences that I can possibly have, and in that sense it might be scary, but it is certainly exciting.