By Trevor DeVage with Mark A. Taylor
My buddy Aaron and I were at our friend Matt’s house. We were 17, Matt’s folks were out of town, and we were bored. Matt’s stepdad’s prize vehicle, a beautiful, brand-new, gold Buick LeSabre, sat in his driveway.
“Don’t drive the car unless it’s an emergency” the stepdad had told Matt before he left. “And if it is an emergency, call me, and I’ll tell you where I’ve hidden the keys.”
It took us about 10 minutes to find the keys and 5 minutes more to jump into two cars (Aaron was driving a beat-up, primer-gray, ’77 Honda hatchback) for a joyride through town.
We were speeding side by side, throwing pennies at each other through open windows as we raced down the road. Suddenly (I don’t remember why), Matt jumped the curb and was driving down the sidewalk when a utility pole loomed before him. With screeching brakes he bounced the car off the sidewalk, veered between the pole and a fire hydrant, and back onto the road, all with absolutely no damage to the LeSabre. Stunned, we pulled ahead, Aaron’s clunker in the lead, and turned off onto a side street.
We stopped the engines, stepped out of the cars on trembling legs, looked at each other with our mouths open, and almost in unison said, “Did that just happen?”
If you’ve ever had a “did that just happen?” experience, maybe you can relate to how we felt. It wasn’t possible that we’d just lived through our version of an action-movie-car-chase sequence with no injuries to our bodies, either human or auto. We couldn’t believe it. We could never re-create it.
I think we felt at least an inkling of the astonishment the Roman soldiers experienced when they lived through their own “did that just happen?” moment guarding the tomb of the crucified Christ.
A Quiet Assignment
But astonishment was not how they began their job, standing guard at a sealed gravesite quite away from the action.
Were they bored with the assignment? They were soldiers, after all, trained for battle, not all-night tending to a dead body.
Or maybe they were glad for easy duty. Much of their garrison would be doing crowd control in Jerusalem during Passover. Quiet days and dark nights would be much less stressful than tending to a population that hated them.
But their time at the tomb turned out to be anything but quiet. At dawn on the morning after Sabbath, the earth rumbled, the ground shook, pebbles skittered off the hillside beside them, and the stone’s seal broke. Earthquakes were not common in that area; this was likely the first these men had ever experienced. That would be frightening enough, but then they saw the angel.
With supernatural power, the angel, who looked “like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow” (Matthew 28:3), pushed the massive stone aside. The soldiers were terrified by what they were seeing. Paralyzed by their fear, they fell back “like dead men” (28:4).
The angel seemed to ignore them, but spoke instead to the women who had come to visit the tomb. Scripture says nothing more about the soldiers while still at the graveside but hastens to relate the conversation of Jesus with these women as they traveled to share the news with the disciples.
But I’m picturing these brawny men, sprawled on the ground, finding the strength to crawl to their feet and face each other after the angel and the visitors had left. And I’m wondering, how do you say in Latin, “Did that just happen?”
A Secret Payoff
At least some of these soldiers went to the chief priests who had convinced Pilate to station them at the tomb. It’s so interesting to consider how the Jewish hierarchy reacted. Evidently, they believed the report; their instinct was to cover it up, not to deny it. And instead of coming to faith because of the miracle, they only hastened to protect their own power and promote their own version of the truth.
They paid off the soldiers, handing them “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’” (Matthew 28:12-14).
The fake news was readily believed and quickly spread, and why not? The real story defied all reason. Even the disciple Thomas, when confronted with Jesus face-to-face, had trouble believing the resurrection.
But I can’t help but think that at least some members of this Roman guard couldn’t forget what happened. Even though they took the payoff, surely some of them were changed by what they’d seen. I imagine they remembered the incident for the rest of their lives, just as I’ll never forget our escape from catastrophe with Matt’s stepdad’s Buick LeSabre almost 25 years ago.
I wonder if they talked with their buddies back at the barracks about the angel’s startling appearance, the opened grave, the missing body. I wonder if they told their wives. I wonder if some of them were eventually transferred back to Rome where they heard followers of The Way proclaiming the power of the resurrected Jesus. And I wonder if any finally fessed up and said, “It’s true! We were there! He did come back from the dead!” I wonder if any of them eventually became Christians themselves.
An Unbelievable Story
It’s not impossible, but the story I’m about to tell you is hard to believe.
A minister I know served in Indianapolis and regularly visited a local prison with other members of his congregation. One guy he worked with there finally said he wanted to be baptized, a wonderful decision because this prisoner was the roughest of the rough. He was deemed to be so dangerous that the guards would never let him out of his cell without shackles that bound his hands and constrained his legs, forcing him to shuffle to his seat in the visitors room.
The only place to baptize the man was in a nasty trough outside in the prisoners’ fenced-in exercise area. As they led the prisoner to this most unholy baptismal pool, the minister asked, “Can’t we remove these shackles for the baptism?” But the guard insisted, “Absolutely not.” So the minister and the church’s elders who were with him helped the man into the water.
“I now baptize you into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” the minister said. As he lowered the man under the water, he added, “Buried with Christ,” and then, as he raised his head and shoulders out of the water, “risen to walk in newness of life.” But before he could finish the familiar formula, the prisoner stood up with a dramatic splash, and—wonder of wonders—the heavy iron shackles fell from his wrists and clattered to the pavement beside him! His soul was free, and so were his hands and feet!
Did that just happen?
One of the guards was so unnerved by the sight that he named Christ as Lord and was baptized on the spot!
“We saw it with our own eyes,” one of the elders told me later. “I would never have believed this if I hadn’t been there to witness it myself.”
Our Amazing Possibilities
I wouldn’t say we must have such experiences for our faith to be real. But I do believe our encounters with Jesus should prompt every Christian to experience “did that just happen?” moments. An alcoholic finds recovery. An adultery-ravaged marriage heals. A financially strapped businessman avoids bankruptcy. An estranged mother and daughter reunite. A prodigal returns. A porn-plagued young adult or old man rises above his addiction. A grief-stricken family reaches out to bless the community around them.
I’ve seen all of these. Each redemption story seemed unlikely if not impossible before it played out by the power of Christ. For some of these folks, the possibility of change was as frightening to them as the fear that struck the Roman guard to the ground. But confronted with “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3), lives have changed and futures have been redirected.
Can that really happen? The testimony of the Roman guard combined with the example of Christians all around us confirm the amazing possibilities. And this is why we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus today.
Trevor DeVage has been lead pastor with Christ’s Church located in Mason, Ohio, since 2013. He blogs regularly at trevordevage.com. Mark Taylor retired as editor of Christian Standard in 2017. His blog posts appear Saturdays at deancollins.co.