Sermon: Rewards Instead of Punishment
Scripture: Matthew 28:11-15
In this week’s Easter lessons, we note the contrast between Jesus’ enemies and friends concerning the resurrection, and the price worth paying to be a witness to Christ.
Theme: When Unbelief Is Rewarded
The soldiers had left their post, and the tomb was empty. They must have been terrified, wondering what was going to happen to them. After the religious leaders met together, they did not seek to have the soldiers punished. Instead, the guards were told to lie about what had happened. They were to go out and say nothing about angels or a stone being rolled away, but simply to say that while they were asleep, his disciples came and stole the body. This is the way the text says it: “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.” And if this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’”
Interesting, isn’t it? Instead of punishments, which they had every right to expect, these men received rewards—so determined were these enemies of Jesus Christ to suppress the truth that concerned the resurrection. Now, of course, it was a very foolish story. The soldiers themselves must have seen how foolish it was. They were to go out and say that while they were asleep the disciples came and stole the body. But if they were asleep, how did they know it was the disciples? Oh, they could have assumed that and had tried to locate the disciples and recover the stolen body. However, they did not do that, because that is not what happened.
Calvin says in one place in his commentary on this text that they would certainly have been punished if there had been an upright, judicious governor in the land. But, of course, that’s exactly the point. Pilate was not upright and judicious, nor were the scribes, Pharisees, or chief priests. None of them was.
You see, it wasn’t a case of the religious leaders failing to believe in the resurrection for a lack of evidence. On the contrary, it was quite the other way around. These men repressed the evidence because they were determined in advance not to believe in the resurrection. These men received a greater witness to the resurrection than anybody could have possibly received. They did not want to believe Jesus’ words because they hated him. Nor would they believe any of Jesus’ disciples. But here the testimony had been brought by the soldiers, and the soldiers had nothing to gain and everything to lose from that kind of story. Obviously, it had happened, but these men didn’t want to face what had happened. They hated the truth, and so they had the guards substitute a lie for the truth, and meted out rewards rather than punishment in exchange for a false account.
Now what I want to suggest is that it is always that way in the world. Unbelief is always rewarded, and faith is always punished. The reason for this is that men and women are not open to the truth about Jesus, but prefer a lie. If Jesus is raised from the dead, then Jesus is God, and therefore is the King and Lord of all. He has a claim on us, but because people don’t want to acknowledge this claim they assert that the resurrection never happened. And unbelievers reward anybody who can give any reason, however unreliable and unbelievable it may be, as long as they give a reason that will substantiate people’s rejection of the truth.
There was a nineteenth century French scholar by the name of Ernest Renan. He was born in Breton and was educated as a priest. He had a conservative upbringing, but he became enamored with the rationalist philosophy of Georg Friedrich Hegel and of Emmanuel Kant. Fed by their rationalism, he began to look at the Gospels, in particular, within that naturalistic framework. His whole career was one of explaining away the miraculous elements of the Gospels.
He published a book called The Life of Jesus, which gained him a great deal of fame. In it he tried to explain away the resurrection by suggesting that the idea came about because of Mary Magdalene. Renan maintained that she was unstable mentally and was also in love with Jesus. And when she was there in the garden and saw the gardener, in her grief she assumed that this was Jesus and so imagined that she heard Jesus call her name.
Renan said in another work called The Apostles, “Heroes never die.” What he meant by that is that the faith of a hero’s followers helps his memory to live on. Well, you would think, being a Catholic priest and living in the nineteenth century, that a man like Ernest Renan would have been rebuffed quite properly and his theories disregarded. But quite the opposite was the case. When he published The Life of Jesus, Renan received instant fame. Sixty thousand copies of that book were sold in just the first few months, a prodigious number for the nineteenth century. He became the darling of the Paris salons. He was appointed administrator of the prestigious College de France. He was even made a member of the French Legion of Honor, which was about the most prestigious thing that could happen to him.
How did the religious leaders decide to deal with their problem of the empty tomb and the soldiers’ testimony?
What does the religious authorities’ handling of the situation reveal about their spiritual condition?
What is the basic idea behind Renan’s The Life of Jesus?
Reflection: What other examples can you give of how unbelief or unrighteousness is rewarded?
Key Point: If Jesus is raised from the dead, then Jesus is God, and therefore is the King and Lord of all.