Admittedly, it is difficult to chronologically organize the events related to Christ's resurrection with certainty. There are some significant variations among the four accounts surrounding the events that occurred that morning. However, there are possible explanations to all of the difficulties. As long as one can set forth a reasonable explanation to an apparent contradiction, his faith should not be troubled by such difficulties. I am confident that if more details were given in the inspired accounts, it would be a simple task to harmonize the four texts. However, in their current form, the best we can do is to consider all of the passages carefully and suggest how the events may have unfolded on that Sunday morning.
"And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it" (Matt. 28:2). The earthquake (which was intense but likely localized) was apparently caused by the powerful angel moving the large stone. None of the gospel accounts detail the exact time when Jesus arose from the dead and left the tomb. It seems most reasonable to suggest that Jesus' body had already been reanimated prior to the removal of the stone and that the soldiers did not see the Lord in His raised form. It is doubtful to me that He would have allowed unbelievers to see Him before His disciples did. The stone was certainly not moved to let Jesus out but to allow others in to witness the empty tomb and believe.
Matthew proceeds to vividly describe the angel. His appearance gleamed like lightning; his clothing was as white as it could be. He was a magnificent, yet terrifying, sight to behold.
"And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men" (Matt. 28:4). They respond like anyone would at witnessing such a sight--they were paralyzed! One moment they were guarding a sealed tomb; the next moment a radiant angel removed the large stone and sat down upon it (perhaps to prevent them from getting up the courage to close the tomb again).
Mark 16:2 tells us that the women "came to the tomb when the sun had risen." However, John states "it was still dark" (John 20:1). Although these inspired accounts differ in their description of the time of day, there is no contradiction. John must be describing the time when the women left Bethany (at dawn, when it was still dark), and Mark notes that the sun had risen by the time they traveled the couple of miles to the tomb (and purchased additional spices, cf. Mark 16:1).
"And they said among themselves, 'Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?'" (Mark 16:3). It is interesting that the women were more concerned about the stone than the soldiers who were guarding the sealed tomb. This suggests that they were not aware that the tomb was even being guarded (which is reasonable since they had left prior to arrival of the guards). It is likely that the apostles also were unaware of the Romans guarding Jesus' tomb.
We, like these women, often trouble ourselves in advance over difficulties that God has already taken care of! "But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away--for it was very large" (Mark 16:4).
We will continue studying this narrative in our next lesson.