What is happening with the guards in Matthew 28:1-15?
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
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. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Now I have told you.’
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
11 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. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’15 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. Matthew 28:1-15
The guards at Jesus’ tomb are Roman officers, under the authority of the Roman Governor. However Pilate had placed them at the disposal of the Jewish authorities (Matthew 27:62-65), who wished to ensure the tomb remained under guard: they feared that the disciples might steal the body and claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. It is unclear how much the guards saw and heard on resurrection day. They witnessed the arrival of the angel who rolled the stone away and were overwhelmed by terror, becoming like ‘dead men’. We do not know if they heard the angel’s words, and realised the body which was now missing from the tomb had risen. They certainly realised something extraordinary had occurred – enough to warrant a report to the Jewish authorities. However, despite the deep impression these events must have left on them, they allow themselves to be bribed into denying them.
Their motives are unclear; perhaps they were swayed by the authorities’ gold, perhaps they feared the truth would not be believed by their commanding officers, perhaps they simply could not understand what had happened and preferred the lie. In any case, they agree to actively subvert the truth of the resurrection day for a risky (falling asleep on-duty carried the harshest of punishments) and flimsy (if they were asleep, how could they have known the disciples had stolen the body?) lie; supporting the enemies of Christ.
No sooner had the good news been revealed, then they had sought to deny it. Matthew notes that the falsehood of the guards was still widely believed at the time of writing, and indeed identical or similar stories are still used today to deny the resurrection. But the fact that neither the Jews nor anyone could ever produce the body of Jesus is hugely important – the empty tomb is a historical fact which points to the truth of the resurrection.