The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
The Lord of Glory has now been slain. In the wake of His excruciating anguish and curse shrilling cry on the cross, all is cast under gloom; the day that follows cannot be imagined except as living, moving, and having being in the shadow of that great event on that fateful 14th of Nisan (Good Friday).
Christ, the Savior has suffered the wrath of God on behalf of sinners who look to Him by faith to receive His grace and love made possible only through His vicarious, substitutionary atonement. Christ is “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:25); “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, … to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17); “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24); “in this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).
But we must not read the apostles’ post-resurrection understanding back into the experience of that traumatic last day of the week, the first eclipsed Sabbath.
It is interesting that Matthew is the only Gospel writer who records any activity taking place on the Sabbath that follows Christ’s crucifixion. Luke mentions that on this day the women who earlier prepared spices and perfumes for Christ’s burial did not come to apply them to His body but “rested according to the commandment” (Lk 23:56).
It is also quite interesting that Matthew, writing primarily to a Jewish audience, avoids calling the day the Sabbath. Bengel suggests that Matthew chose to no longer call the Jewish Sabbath “the Sabbath.” To be sure, radical change was in the air—epochs would be ordered by these very moments in time. The shadow of the Old was giving way to the dawn of the New Covenant. Instead, Matthew speaks of “the next day”—that is the day following Christ’s crucifixion. He says it was the day “after the day of Preparation”—a technical reference to the day when Jews prepared for the Sabbath. At length he avoids alluding to the Sabbath and instead orders his narrative by the epoch shifting centrality of Christ crucified. The Jewish Sabbath has been eclipsed.
Strikingly, the Jewish leaders who have been notoriously scrupulous about the Sabbath, are seen gathering before Pilate. They must have gathered outside of his quarters, since on the day before, “They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled” (Jn 18:28). Also, they likely did not travel more than a Sabbath day’s journey. But all their external obedience was futile. Their defilement was within (Matt 15:18). Beyond this, the Jewish Sabbath was eclipsed by the cross of Christ.
For the Jewish leaders (chief priests and Pharisees) to gather before Pilate and say what they said, betrays a meditated fear. There is no indication that they actually feared that Jesus would resurrect to life, but rather that the disciples would instigate a hoax. These leaders knew more about Jesus and His teaching than they commonly show, since they—even more ostensibly than disciples—recall Jesus’ promise of resurrection on the third day (Matt 16:21; 17:9; 20:19).
It is interesting, however, that they did not express these concerns until the Sabbath following Christ’s crucifixion. Perhaps after witnessing the supernatural darkness climaxing Christ’s crucifixion, the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom, the earthquakes, etc., they had been vexed and their fears exacerbated. Perhaps their self-delusion begins to surface when they say, “and the last fraud will be worse than the first” (Matt 27:64). They dismiss Christ’s ministry and work on the cross, being attended with miraculous signs, as a fraud. They also calculate the explosive potential of a resurrection testimony, classifying it as a “worse fraud than the first.”
In the irony of God, their ill-intended efforts only served to strengthen the testimony of Christ’s resurrection. Not only did their measures fail, they worked against them to further validate the genuineness of Christ’s resurrection.
But by the grace of God in the power of His Holy Spirit given through the testimony of His word, we now know that after the resurrection and proclamation of the gospel through the church, “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
Holy Saturday represents the first eclipsed Sabbath. It is epic in significance. The greatest work has been accomplished on the cross (Friday) and the greatest rest is emblematic as the body of Christ lies in the grave (Sabbath). Christ is our Sabbath; the fulfillment, the completion, and the substance of the shadow (Heb 4:3-10). He is the rest for all who trust in Him alone (Matt 11:28-29).
As believers, Holy Saturday, feels bitter-sweet. The gloom of our Lord’s agony is not fully cleared and yet the well-springs of our heart are already pressing upward with great anticipation for the celebration of the greatest history of hope knowable—HE IS RISEN!
May we not be too hasty in casting off the meditations of His suffering and the sorrow that that brings; the Lord saw fit to appoint a day between His death and resurrection. At the same time, may we not feel guilty over feelings of joy and eager anticipation to celebrate, rejoice, and praise God for His loving gift of reconciliation and the promise of eternal resurrected life with Him!
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:3–5