Some years ago, my wife and I went to one of the best Easter Passion plays that I have ever seen. It was a local church production, and it was obvious that they had really put a lot of time, effort, and prayer into it. As the climactic scene of the resurrection approached, the darkness of the auditorium was pierced with bright flashes for lightning and dramatic rolling kettle drum flourishes for thunder. Suddenly, in the dim light on the stage, the stone in front of the tomb rolled aside as a brilliant beam of light from within burst through the fog pouring out across the stage. As our eyes adjusted to the light we could see the resurrected Jesus, backlit dramatically by the light, striding majestically through the fog from the depths of the tomb, victorious over death!
It was a very moving scene. One of the best resurrection scenes I have ever seen depicted. Except, it was not Biblical.
Wait! Am I saying that the resurrection of Jesus did not happen? Not at all! It is just that it did not happen in the way that most Passion plays present it.
Consider, for instance, what Matthew records of the resurrection in Matthew 28:1-6:
"In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay."
Notice two things here. First, Jesus does not roll the stone away from inside the tomb. Instead, an angel descends from heaven and rolls it away. Second, when the stone is rolled away Jesus does not come striding out, majestically or otherwise. He is already gone; the tomb is empty.
Let's take a closer look at the events of that morning. We have already seen from Matthew's account that it took place, "In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week." "In the end of the sabbath" is a colloquial phrase that basically means, "after the sabbath," which is how Mark puts it, saying, "And when the sabbath was past," in Mark 16:1. That tells us that the women arrived at the tomb early Sunday morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise. In fact, Mark also specifies "…very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun" in verse 2. John even adds, in John 20:1, that "…it was yet dark…" when they arrived.
Both Mark and Luke note that the women brought spices with them to anoint the body of Jesus. However, as Mark mentions, in Mark 16:3, "…they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?" as they walked to the tomb. This was a natural concern as the large stone sealing the tomb had been rolled into a shallow trench in front of the tomb, locking it into place, and requiring several men to move it aside.
The women may not have been aware that extra precautions had been put in place to secure the tomb. Matthew 27:64-66, tells us that the tomb was both sealed and guarded in order to prevent anyone from tampering with the tomb or stealing the body of Jesus:
"Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch."
The seal was likely made by stretching several cords or ropes across the stone and anchoring them with mortar. A large wax or clay seal would then have been affixed to the crossed ropes on the tomb and impressed with the seal of either Pilate or the Sanhedrin so that no one could open the tomb without breaking the seal. This would have assured that even the guards could not have been bribed to open the tomb without leaving the evidence of a broken seal.
When the women made their way to the tomb in the early morning darkness, whether they knew the stone had been sealed or not, they would have soon seen the watchfires and torches of the soldiers guarding the tomb. No doubt the soldiers would have seen the women as well and challenged them, demanding to know why they were there. Consequently, the women's concern about opening the tomb and anointing the body of Jesus would have only grown.
No doubt, an atmosphere of confusion, concern, worry, fear, and suspicion gripped the women and the soldiers gathered in the flickering fire light on the early, pre-dawn morning. Then, suddenly, the ground began shaking violently, and a brilliant light dazzled their eyes as the angel of the Lord descended from heaven like a bolt of lightning and rolled back the stone, snapping the ropes and breaking the seal. The soldiers keeping the tomb, according to Matthew, "…did shake, and became as dead men" and the women shrunk back in fear.
Ignoring the soldiers, the angel turned to the women and said, "Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay." Curious, they crept to the tomb where, as Luke puts it in Luke 24:3-7:
"And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again."
Jesus did not exit the tomb after the stone was rolled away, nor was He there when the women entered in and looked around.
Upon leaving the tomb, the women quickly ran to inform the disciples that Jesus was risen, but, according to Luke 24:8-11, the disciples did not immediately believe them:
"And they remembered his words, And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not."
Nevertheless, Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John 20:3-8 says:
"Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple [John], and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed."
It is the last statement in John 20:8, that sums up the whole reason that the stone was rolled away. The Bible says that John "saw, and believed." Because the stone was rolled away, Peter, John, and the women were able to see that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as He had said that He would. And, because of their testimony, many others would also know that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had risen from the dead. And, knowing that Jesus is not dead but risen, many millions of lost sinners have passed from death unto life by believing in the gospel message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to pay for our sins and make it possible for us to enter into heaven with Him.
In other words, the stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out but to let us in.