Why Roll Away the Stone at all?
© C. O. Bishop 2011 revised 2021
Introduction: The Simple Questions
We never really ask ourselves the simple questions. We want to know the answer to the “Big Ones”. We want to understand the Holy Trinity, the Doctrine of Election, the balance between the Sovereignty of God and the Free Will of Man. We want to know why God allowed sin to happen at all. We question the Character of God, and ask how a good God could allow such evil in the world.
But, what about asking some of the simple questions? What about questions such as, “Why did David select exactly five stones from the brook, when he went to confront Goliath?” How about a question such as, “Why were two angels sent to overthrow Sodom and Gomorrah, when one surely could have handled the job?
How about questions such as; “Why did God tell Noah to coat both the outside and the inside of the Ark with pitch (or tar, as the case may be)?”
Those sorts of questions have answers in the Scripture, or sometimes in scriptural reasoning, even if the answer is not clearly spelled out.
Answers in Scripture:
When we read in 2nd Samuel 21:18-22 that Goliath had four brothers (or possibly sons; the meaning is not clear), then we get a clue as to why David took five stones. We see that it was not cockiness that sent him to fight Goliath, but faith; and he was prepared to fight all five of the giants—with one rock each. If that is really the reason, that’s real faith, in my mind. And it must be the reason, or God could have simply said that David selected a bagful of stones, or “several stones”, or something similar. But He didn’t. He told us that David selected five smooth stones from the brook. And later, He let us know that Goliath had four giant brothers who were later killed by either David or his men. God lets us see the “inside story,” to strengthen our faith.
When we read Genesis chapter 19, we see that Lot and his family had to be led out of Sodom by their hands. Two angels; four hands, four people: God knew what He was going to do, and exactly what it would take to save Lot and his family. One angel (or none) could easily have destroyed the city. God did not need to send anyone at all for that purpose; but he sent the two angels to get Lot and his messed-up family out so he could then destroy the place. Grace was why he sent two angels. And he let us know about it, to give us cause for faith.
When we read a narrative as seemingly-simple as the instructions Noah was given in Genesis 6:13-16, by which to build the Ark, it is easy to “brush over” details such as the fact that the pitch, or tar, was to coat all of the outside, and all of the inside of the hull. But, we can see, as we read the whole passage again, that there seem to be distinct parallels between Noah’s Ark and the Messiah:
- The Ark was built according to definite directions from God.
- Jesus came in fulfillment of hundreds of very specific prophecies that had to all be literally fulfilled, in one person.
- The Ark was made of a common, but very specific wood.
- Jesus came of ordinary human lineage, on his human side, but from a specific genealogy—Joseph had to be his stepfather, to establish his right to the throne, but couldn’t be his father, as that lineage also included a curse. Mary’s lineage is where he traces his bloodline to David. The virgin birth fulfills prophecy too.
- The Ark was sufficient to save all who were in it, animal and human.
- Jesus’ blood paid for the sins of the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike, and whether or not they would actually respond in faith.
- The Ark had only one door—one way in…and God closed that door.
- Jesus is the only way to God, and the one way to approach Him is by faith…those who come to him can never be lost—God closes them in.
- The Ark had no rudder, sails or oars…it went where God sent it. And Noah went with it.
- Jesus went where God sent Him, and all in Him go where He goes. We have no say in the matter.
- The Ark had only one window, and it did not allow Noah to see the wreckage of the world as it died around him—he could only look upward.
- Jesus does not allow us to see the process of His judgment on the earth—we can see the results, but our only clear view is of Him…by faith.
- The Ark was tarred outside with what the King James Bible called “pitch”, but what contemporary scholars claim to be tar—which is likely correct—there were many tar-pits in the area. Either way, the substance rendered the Ark waterproof: immune to the judgment that fell on the earth…it fell on the Ark as well, but the Ark rose above the judgment.
- Jesus bore the judgment of God at the Cross. But His righteousness made him immune to death in the final analysis. He rose above the judgment, in the Resurrection. (Ah! That’s what we are here about, isn’t it!?)
So, what about the tar on the inside?
- The Ark was coated with tar on the inside, making it immune to the corruption within. What corruption, you ask? Well, there were thousands of animals in that ark, and eight people, for over a year, with no convenient way to “clean it all out,” if you catch my meaning. That might be enough to compromise the integrity of the hull, I would think—except for the fact that the tar kept the filth from coming into contact with the wood. The microorganisms could not begin to attack the Ark.
- Jesus is immune to the “corruption within”, as well. His work of salvation is complete: our sins were completely paid for (past present and future), and the sins we still commit, as saved sinners, are no threat to His plan of salvation. Our sins cannot compromise the integrity of God’s salvation.
And God let us see the security of our position in Him—“in the Ark,” as it were— in “picture form,” long before he stated it explicitly in the New Testament. God wants us to know about His Grace, and He wants us to clearly see that our approach to Him is by faith, and our walk with Him is by faith. He spells all these things out in the New Testament, but they were there in the Old Testament as well.
So… What about that stone?
Consider the following: Jesus had clearly stated that he would be in the tomb for three days and three nights. (Matthew 12:40) We know that the women went before daylight, the first day of the week, to add more spices to the embalming that had been begun by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea. Working backward from that time, we can see that the crucifixion must actually have been on Wednesday. Traditionally it was posed as having been on Friday, because we also are told that the next day was a Sabbath…but the Passover was the next day, and regardless of what day of the week the Passover came, it, too, was a Sabbath. (Not all Sabbaths were on Saturdays.)
If the crucifixion was around 3 PM on Wednesday, then Thursday, Friday and Saturday were the three days, while Wednesday night, Thursday night, and Friday night comprised the three nights. By Saturday evening, then, the prophecy was complete! Jesus could have left the tomb any time after sundown, Saturday.
So why would you suppose the angel would have waited so long to roll the stone away? Did Jesus have to wait there in that cold, dark tomb for the angel to “let him out?” No! He did not need to be “let” out. Remember that, after his resurrection, he entered a locked room to show himself to the disciples—He just appeared in their midst, with the door still closed! The stone could not have held him in.
There were also sixteen Roman guards outside that sealed tomb…did Jesus “need help” dealing with them? No! Even before the resurrection, at Gethsemane, he had flattened two hundred Roman soldiers by simply speaking; saying “I am He!”
So why did God send the angel? Why roll the stone away at all? Why couldn’t Jesus simply appear in that upper room, and let ‘em all see him? Isn’t that proof enough of the resurrection?
The answer is “NO!” The empty tomb was necessary as well. The fact that the women and the disciples saw the empty tomb before they saw the risen Lord dispelled any idea of a fake—a counterfeit—an impostor. That empty tomb was the confirmation that something had happened; the Lord’s body was gone, and, specifically, having left the winding cloths undisturbed—an empty shell; and the face-covering folded neatly and laid aside. No grave-robber could have accomplished the evidence left behind. Also, because of the angel, the Roman soldiers fled, leaving the disciples free access to examine all that evidence, in the empty tomb.
Some of the disciples believed immediately; some doubted. Some did not know what to think, and all were very confused. Jesus met with each of them, singly or in groups, as needed, to confirm their faith, and let them know that He had truly risen. He appeared to over five hundred at one time; to the eleven at another time; to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; and to Peter alone…and later still, as we know, to Saul of Tarsus who would become the Apostle Paul.
But why is it so specifically recorded that an angel appeared, and rolled the stone away? Why could the disciples not have rolled it away, once the soldiers were gone? The Governor’s seal was on that tomb—anyone breaking that seal would have been risking their life to do so. But the seal and the guard was only for three days, according to Matthew 27:64. Evidently the women were hoping that they would be allowed to complete the embalming, since the three days were over, but they still were wondering as they walked in the darkness, “Who will roll away the stone?” (Mark 16:3)
Well, as it turned out, the guards were still there when the women approached. They probably would not have cooperated at all, but God had other plans. Matthew 28:2 says an Angel of the Lord came, shining like lightning, and rolled away the stone and sat on it. The guards were so afraid they passed out. The women were evidently not so affected, and the angel spoke directly to them saying, “…see for yourself—He is not here—he is risen! Come and see where He lay!” And the same invitation is given to us, today.
We do not get to go and see the physical tomb, necessarily, though it is claimed that the specific place is known. Nearly two millennia have passed, and it seems unlikely to me that the tomb has remained empty, since it was only borrowed in the first place, and since the land has been in the hands of unbelievers for most of those long centuries. In any case, the invitation to us is to examine the textual evidence, and the historic evidence.
The stone was rolled away so that we could know that Jesus lives…that he is not a ghost, or an apparition of some sort…he was physically, bodily resurrected, and He lives today. The Roman soldiers were paid to claim that the Lord’s body was stolen by the disciples while the whole guard slept. This was a ridiculous lie, as the penalty for sleeping on guard duty was death…the chances of the entire watch nodding off and staying asleep while a huge stone was noisily rolled back from the mouth of a hewn-rock cave are exactly zero. The soldiers knew the risk of such a lie, but with the assurance that the priests would keep them from being punished, they accepted the pay and spread the lie.
The disciples themselves were initially reluctant to believe the resurrection, because it just seemed “too good to be true…” and they were not stupid. But Jesus rebuked them for their failure to believe, as He had told them in advance that this was what was going to happen, so they should have grasped the fulfilled promise immediately, rather than doubting.
What About Us?
We can see the whole story—the prophecies, the actual crucifixion, the burial, and the aftermath of the resurrection. No one was “in the tomb” watching to see the Lord’s resurrection. All they saw was the aftermath as well. We can read and see that Jesus met with the disciples, showed him his hands and feet and side, and they touched him, confirming that he was the “real McCoy”, as they say. We can read of the empty tomb. But the reason the angel rolled the stone away was for us to see, through the eyes of those disciples, that the tomb was truly empty.
The resurrection is one of the best supported facts of human history. The prophecies giving rise to the expectation, the witnesses present at the time, and the total change in the behavior of the disciples should all be enough to show the truth of that event. The disciples were changed from grieving, cowering, defeated men, hiding for fear that they would be the next to die, to being bold evangelists who cheerfully died for the truth of the good news they shared. Something transformed them!
The enemies of Jesus could have stopped the spiritual “avalanche of joy” that was about to happen: All they had to do was to produce the body! But they couldn’t do that—because he was no longer dead—he had risen! The disciples had been completely cowed, before, and were in hiding. They did not even consider stealing the body. Had they really wanted to, they could have done so before it was buried, while Nicodemus and Joseph were preparing it for burial. But they didn’t. And, after it was sealed in a stone tomb, with a huge stone rolled over the door, and soldiers guarding it, they had no further opportunity.
And the simple fact was: they never had a motive. How would it benefit them to have a dead Messiah? They had no hope of conquest, nor did they make any such attempt after he had risen. There was no profit for any of them, beyond the joy of knowing and serving their risen Lord. All of them (with the possible exception of John) died as martyrs, early or late. All died in relative obscurity and poverty. There was no motive for a lie.
The bodily, physical, literal, visible resurrection of the Messiah is as important as His crucifixion—because without that resurrection, the crucifixion would have been just another tragic murder in history. Instead, the death and burial and resurrection of Christ are the heart of the Gospel. (1st Corinthians 15:3, 4)
The Good News of the Easter story is the message we are to take to the world. It is that message which, being believed in, is the only power of God to save those who believe. (Romans 1:16) That message is the only light in this dark world. I pray that all of our hearts may catch fire from that light, and burn as a witness to those around us.
The Angel rolled the stone away for a reason! Let’s make that reason known!
Lord Jesus, we rejoice with the disciples that you are truly Risen! We ask that you would transform our lives as you transformed theirs, so that we, too, may serve as your witnesses in this dark world. Remold us into your image and fill us with the desire to serve You.