Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Empty Tomb (John 20:1-10)



Were it not for Easter, we would not be here today. It is almost unimaginable to consider what a sad state the entire world would be in today had it not been for that first Easter, nearly 2,000 years ago. There would have been no Christian Church. While some in our society today may enjoy the thought of that, think of what the world would look like apart from the presence of the Christian Church through the centuries. Though we have had our share of historical mistakes, the Christian Church has done more to advance the cause of education, healthcare, social justice, and personal liberty than any movement in the history of the world. Anyone who would deny or argue that point is only demonstrating their own ignorance. But imagine with me for a moment that on that Sunday morning so long ago, the followers of Jesus had come to His tomb and found what they fully expected to find: His lifeless body still enshrouded in His burial cloths and sealed inside the tomb. Their final memory of the One whom they had called Lord and entrusted with all their faith, hope, and love, would have been seeing His bloody, battered body suspended from a cruel implement of death, the Roman cross.

The hours that had elapsed since just before sundown on Friday and sunrise on Sunday must have passed at an agonizingly slow pace. Faith defeated, hope dashed, and disillusionment beyond comprehension must have engulfed the hearts and minds of every follower of Jesus during those hours. Our text says that Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb while it was still dark. Mary had come to finish what the Sabbath regulations had prevented on Friday evening. She had come to complete the burial preparations by anointing the corpse of her beloved Friend and Master with spices as customs dictated. But Mary found something she did not expect to find, and did not find something she did expect to find. The stone was moved away from the tomb, and the tomb was empty. That discovery set into motion several actions that are unfolded for us in our text today, and which are as applicable to us all on Easter Sunday of 2016 as they were to those who came to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday.

I. The empty tomb beckons us to run!

Many years ago, I learned a valuable lesson about urgency from an unlikely source. It was Christmastime, and a delivery person brought a package to my office. I said, “I bet things are really stressful for you right now!” He said, “No, not at all. I get on my truck first thing in the morning, and I say to the boxes, ‘If any of you have to get off the truck today, speak up now!’” He said, “If they don’t speak up, I figure it is okay if they don’t get delivered today, and if any of them do speak up, I make sure to deliver those first!” In all of our lives, there are many important things going on, and many important decisions that have to be made on a daily basis. But there are a few things which are more than important – they are urgent and must be dealt with immediately! And the discovery of an empty tomb that was supposed to contain a dead body would qualify as an urgent matter!

The Bible says here that upon finding the stone already moved away, Mary ran! She ran to tell Peter and John (who refers to himself often as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”). They needed to know what she had discovered as soon as possible! Now, what she told them was not merely what she observed, but also her own theory and assumption. She said, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Who are “they”? The text doesn’t specify, but there are only a few options. Perhaps she thought that the religious or political leaders had ordered Jesus’ body to be removed from the tomb. Perhaps she thought that the disciples had taken His body. Or, she may have thought that His grave had been pillaged by grave-robbers. That was such a common occurrence in that day that we have evidence of the Roman Empire declaring it a capital offense within a few decades of this incident.

Still today, there are those who suggest that the reason Jesus’ grave was empty that morning was because someone had stolen the body. It seems impossible to reconcile the notion that Jesus’ own followers took the body with the events that follow. Had they taken the body (for whatever reason), they could have simply told Mary. They certainly hadn’t tried to fake a resurrection, since they weren’t even expecting Him to rise from the dead. It makes even less sense to suggest that the authorities had stolen the body. If they had the body of Jesus, surely it would have been to their advantage to display it in order to silence those who were proclaiming that He was risen! But they never did. Might it have been a rogue band of grave-robbers simply looking for treasure buried with the dead? We will come back to this idea in a moment. But for Mary, the best she could do to make sense of what she had discovered was to assume that His body had been stolen. This was an emergency. It was urgent, and so she ran to tell.

Upon hearing her report, Peter and John found this matter urgent as well, and so we are told that they set out running! Verses 3 and 4 describe them going forth to the tomb, “running together.” John doesn’t mind letting us know that he outran Peter. He says that “the other disciple” (namely, himself) “ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first. So urgent was this situation of the empty tomb that these two apostles of the Lord broke into an all-out sprint to get to the tomb to examine it for themselves.

Friends, the undeniable fact of history is that the tomb of Jesus Christ was empty on the first Easter Sunday morning. That fact ought to instill every one of us with a sense of urgency! No one should hear this information and respond with a yawn and a shrug. We should run! Run to find out how this tomb became empty! Run to investigate and examine the situation for yourself! Run to tell others that there is an empty tomb! Whatever else this story may be, it cannot be unimportant to anyone! If the Christian account of the resurrection of Christ is true, then this story must be told to the world with great urgency! And if it is untrue, then it is urgent that some satisfactory alternative be presented as to how the tomb once occupied by His dead body is now empty. This empty tomb should send us all running!

II. The empty tomb invites us to see!

The stone that had sealed shut the opening of the tomb of Jesus was rolled back. John’s wording here could imply that it was lifted out of the track and laid aside. Nothing was standing in the way now to prevent anyone who came to the tomb from looking inside. John doesn’t say that Mary looked inside, but she must have, for she knew that the body of Jesus was not there. And when Peter and John came running to the tomb, John makes a special point to note that they saw certain things. In verse 4, John says that he himself saw something. In verse 6, he says that Peter saw something. In verse 8, John again says that he saw something. It is significant that, in the Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written, three different Greek words for “seeing” are used in these three verses.

In verse 4, John tells us that he stooped and looked in. This phrase translates a single Greek word that originally meant simply to “bend over,” but which had come to convey the idea of “peeking” into something. John peeked in, and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. The Greek word for saw here is a very simple word that means essentially to observe, or to take notice of. It would be equal to us saying very simply that we “see” something. It has passed before our eyes, or come into our field of vision. Standing outside, stooped down and peeking in, John saw that the linen wrappings that had covered Jesus’ body were still present in the tomb, but His body was not. It is significant that John was bent over and outside the tomb when he saw this. I suggest to you that we should come to see the empty tomb in the same posture – one of humility. Set aside what you think you know, all your preconceived notions and engrained assumptions. Humble yourself and consider that there may be explanations as to how this tomb came to be empty that you have not considered before. Until you adopt that kind of posture of humility, you will not see anything. But if you will bend in humility and peek in, you may see something quite remarkable. So, the empty tomb invites us to see with humble posture.

Now comes Peter. He doesn’t even pause to catch his breath. In typical fashion, consistent with all we know of his nature, he barges right through the entrance to the tomb. John says (v6) that he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Here the Greek word that is used to describe Peter’s “seeing” is different. It does not mean merely to take notice of something, but rather to study it, to investigate it, to examine it carefully. Peter was surveying the surroundings and trying to determine what to make of it all. The empty tomb invited him, as it still invites us, to see with careful investigation.

As we do that, let us return to the notion of the invasion of the body-snatchers. Grave-robbing, as we said, was common enough to be a plausible explanation. But, grave-robbing would have been done with great haste. It would have been faster, and frankly much easier, to take the body still wrapped than to unwrap it. Besides this, the linen and spices alone would have been valuable enough to take with them. But the wrappings were there. The wording here could indicate that they were neatly folded and set in orderly array, or that they were still in the folds of their wrapping, as they had been when Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. In the latter case, it would have been comparable to finding a cocoon from which the butterfly had already emerged. But in either case, what is significant is that the cloths were there, and that they were not scattered about hastily. No grave-robber would have taken the time to carefully unwrap the linen cloths and set them neatly back in place or situate them as they had been wrapped around the body. As Peter investigated carefully, he was taking all this in. Stolen body? Not likely.  

Another commonly heard theory is that the women and the disciples had come to the wrong tomb. Well, that is highly unlikely, since Matthew makes it clear that Mary Magdalene and others had been present to see Jesus buried. But suppose it were true. Had they come to the wrong tomb, it would not have taken long for the report to travel to Joseph of Arimathea. He actually owned the tomb, and could have easily shown them to the proper tomb, if it were not this one. Not only this, but at the first whisper of reports of an empty tomb, the authorities could (and would) have quickly gone to the right tomb and said, “No, this is the right tomb and you see the body is still there!” But that never happened. Moreover, if this were the wrong tomb, then there was an entirely different issue with which someone would have to deal! Some other tomb was empty, with the grave clothes left behind, meaning that some other person had perhaps risen from the dead! Talk about a plot twist! But no one has ever suggested that, nor will they. We have come to expect that dead people stay dead, and we don’t go around claiming that this or that one did not. The one notable exception to this is Jesus, whom countless multitudes in fact do believe and proclaim that He did not stay dead! Whether or not any of this had crossed Peter’s mind, it should not escape our careful investigation. We have been invited to consider all the possibilities, to examine the matter thoroughly, to see with careful investigation!

And then we come to verse 8, wherein we read that John finally entered the tomb himself. When he did, he says that he “saw and believed.” Here again, there is yet a different Greek word used for “seeing.” This one means something like when we say, “Oh, I see!” It means to understand or to realize. Having come to see with a humble posture, and examined everything with careful investigation, the truth of the matter has dawned at last on the Apostle John and he is able to say, “I see!” And what he “saw,” what he understood and realized, was something marvelous that instantaneously compelled him to believe that Jesus was in fact, risen from the dead.

Friends, come and see. Humble yourself and be open to considering the possibilities. Investigate the matter carefully, and come to an intelligent understanding. The stone has been rolled away! Why? To let Jesus out? Goodness, no! He who needed no aid to remove Himself from the linen wrappings would need no more aid to escape a sealed tomb! The stone was not rolled away to let Him out, but to let the world in, so that we may see for ourselves that Christ is risen, and believe! That brings us to the final “action” of our text, to which the empty bids us. It beckons us to run, it invites us to see, and …

III. The empty tomb compels us to believe!

John saw, and he believed! The scoffers will say, “Of course he did! It was nothing more than wish fulfillment. He wanted to believe on the basis of his preconceived notions of what would occur, and his imagination connected the dots in his own predetermined way.” Friends, this suggestion ignores the very honest and at times embarrassing confessions that John and the other Gospel writers make of themselves.

The reaction of all those who first encountered the empty tomb reveal that they did not expect it to happen. They should have, but they didn’t. They should have known that Jesus would rise, because the Scriptures had foretold it. In Psalm 16:10, David spoke prophetically of his descendant, the Messiah, who would be able to say to God the Father, “You will not abandon My soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” Isaiah 53, after describing the suffering and death of the Messiah speaks of His days being prolonged. In these and many other passages, the rising of the Savior following His suffering and death was foretold. But John says in verse 9, “as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” John is admitting candidly, “We should have known this! But we didn’t because we didn’t understand our own Scriptures!”

Not only had the Scriptures foretold it, but Jesus Himself had foretold it. Over and over again, He told His followers what would happen in Jerusalem. He would be betrayed, He would be killed, and He would rise. In Mark 9:31-32, Jesus said to His disciples quite plainly, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” And Mark says, “But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.” Luke puts it even more bluntly: “The disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said” (Lk 18:34). In John 16:16, Jesus told the disciples on the very night He was going to be betrayed, “A little while, and you will no longer see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” But then John says that the disciples were saying to themselves, “What is this thing He is telling us …? … What is this that He says …? … We do not know what He is talking about?”

So much for preconceived notions! They did not believe in the resurrection of Christ because they wanted to or expected Him to rise. John says here that he believed because He understood that it was the only viable explanation for all of the things that he saw in the empty tomb. Now, perhaps you might say, “Well, seeing is believing, and I haven’t seen, so I don’t believe!” Consider what Jesus will say to Thomas when He appears to Him: “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (Jn 21:29). The Risen Lord Jesus calls upon us to believe upon Him by faith. When He prayed to His Father in John 17, He prayed for His disciples, and for those who would believe on Him through their word. We have the testimony of those who beheld the evidence and concluded that Jesus was risen. We have the testimonies of the eyewitnesses who encountered Him after His resurrection. We have the Scriptures which foretold of His rising, and His own words that foretold it. Christ is risen from the dead! And the empty tomb compels us to believe!

Because He lives, we have the confidence that sin and death are defeated for all who trust in Him. He took our sins upon Himself in His death and triumphed over them by His resurrection! We have been set free from the guilt and power of sin, and set free from fear of death, because we know the One who has passed through death unto life everlasting  and invites us to follow after Him by faith. Because He lives, we have hope in an otherwise hopeless world. The outworkings of sin have broken down our bodies and filled our world with suffering, tragedy, and grief. But Christ promises us a life beyond this one – a life that will never end, a life that will not be marred by pain and grief, a life that will be lived in the glorious environment of heaven where no sin or suffering will ever be experienced. Most wondrously, it will be a life lived with Him.  

Earlier, I invited you to consider what it might have been like if Jesus had not risen from the dead. That dreary prospect gripped the heart of Mary, of John, and of Peter at first on that Sunday morning so long ago. Their Master, the One whom they considered to be God in human form, had died having been ruthlessly murdered. Sorrow unbounded, grief overwhelming, and the dark hopelessness of an impenetrable despair consumed them. Perhaps it was of this Sunday morning that the Psalmist wrote better than he knew, “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Psa 30:5). The night is passed, the morning has come, and its light breaks over an empty tomb that invites us to see, that compels us to believe, and that beckons us to run, making this glorious news known in shout of joy that must be heard by every nation on earth. Jesus Christ is alive forevermore!



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