THE EMPTY TOMB
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: John 20:01–20:18
Albert Henry Ross was an early-20th century British journalist who wrote under the “pen name” of “Frank Morison.” A skeptic of the claims of Christianity, he set out to prove that the resurrection of Jesus Christ never happened. He firmly thought, as do all skeptics, that miracles simply do not occur.
Despite this conviction, he could not help but feel a strong attraction and admiration for the Biblical Jesus. It was a feeling that haunted him for several years until he at last determined that he would thoroughly investigate the historical evidence in an effort to expose the myth of the resurrection once and for all.
His research was extensive, and the deeper into the subject that he dug, the more questions he asked. He was totally unprepared for where the answers he was finding would take him. By his own admission, he later admitted, the book he had hoped to write “was left high and dry.” What’s more, by the grace of God, this cynical disbeliever not only came to believe in the Christ whose claims he had set out to disprove, but instead wrote in support of those claims.
The title of his book was Who Moved the Stone? It was one of the questions that had first prompted his investigation. Morison’s search for truth led him ultimately back to the Bible. Indeed, if any of us want to get to the truth, that is where our honest inquiries must take us as well. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ is to have any significance for you, then you must hear the Word of the Lord.
How grateful we are that the story of Jesus Christ does not end with the closing words of John 19. There we read, “Since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there” (cf. John 19:42). The scene was as dark and gloomy as any Friday night could paint it. Jesus was dead...but Sunday was coming, and a new day was about to dawn.
Please follow along as I read from the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel, verses 1 through 18:
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
These eighteen verses cover the morning hours on the day that Jesus Christ arose from the dead. It is clear from reading them—as well as from reading the parallel accounts of the other Gospel writers—that even His most loyal followers were caught completely off guard by the events that had taken place overnight. The women had come to further prepare Jesus’ body for its permanent entombment (cf. Mark 16:1), and His two closest disciples were shocked beyond words to learn that the tomb had been opened and was empty.
And yet, hadn’t this been what Jesus had foretold them to expect? In John 10:18 He had asserted that He had “authority to lay...down (His life, as well as)...authority to take it up gain.” And repeatedly He had told His disciples that He would “be killed, and after three days rise again” (cf. Mark 8:31, 9:31, et al).
As we work our way through this passage today, perhaps we will see in those early disciples something of ourselves. Like them, we too may delight in sitting at the feet of Jesus. But how does what we hear with the ear resonate within our hearts? Does what we know motivate us to trust Him? One can believe that “Jesus lives,” but can it be said that “He lives in me”? That is the question I want us all to be asking as we consider the testimony of two witnesses found in this passage.
We encounter the first of these in verses 1 through 10, and it is...
The witness of the empty tomb (20:1-10).
Each of the four Gospel writers speaks of the open tomb being discovered on “the first day of the week.” In predicting His resurrection, Jesus had always said that it would be on “the third day” following His death (cf. Matthew 16:21, Luke 9:22). The reference to “the first day of the week” represents the dawning of a new era, and explains why ever since Christians gather for worship on Sunday (cf. Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2).
Verse 1 says that it was “early.” We are reminded of Psalm 30 and verse 5, which reads, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Although there were other women who arrived at the tomb just before dawn (cf. Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1), Mary Magdalene is the only one singled out by name. Her devotion to Jesus began the day when He cast seven demons from her (cf. Luke 8:2). Upon coming to the tomb on this day, she and the other women noticed that “the stone (which had guarded the entrance to the tomb) had been taken away.” Unbeknownst to them, Matthew 28:2 explains that “An angel of the Lord (had) descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone.”
Stunned that the tomb had been possibly broken into and robbed, and not taking time to look inside, she and the others rush off in fear to inform the disciples that someone had apparently stolen Jesus’ body. Hurriedly John and Peter make their way to the tomb. John is said to arrive first, and the text adds that he “stoop(ed) to look in...(and) saw the grave cloths,” but he did not enter into the tomb.
It is likely that there was a downward grade at the entrance of the tomb, which would explain how a large stone would be rolled into place in order to enclose it. One would have to step down to enter the tomb, or one would have to stoop to look inside. Apparently, John arrived there before Peter and before entering, bent at the waist, looked inside, and saw the burial cloths lying in place. As he did this, Peter arrived on the scene and without a moment’s pause entered into the tomb.
There are three different Greek words used in this paragraph that are all translated “saw.” Each has its own nuance, which helps us to understand what was going in the minds of those who first saw the empty tomb. It is said of Mary Magdalene in verse 1 and of John in verse 5 that upon arriving at the tomb they respectively “saw that the stone had been taken away” and “saw the linen cloths lying there.” In both cases, the word that is used (“βλεπω”) means “to glance at,” “to become aware of” or “to quickly observe.” In other words, they “noticed” what was before their eyes.
But in verse 6, when Peter “came...and went into the tomb...He saw the linen cloths.” The verb used here (“θεωρεω”) means “to watch” or “to observe carefully.” Whereas Mary “noticed” the open tomb and John “saw” the burial cloths, Peter “looked intently” at them and wondered what it all meant. “He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.”
We are tempted to wonder what must have been thinking as he stood, dumbfounded perhaps, in the presence of something that seemed to defy explanation. Perhaps he recalled that day when the Lord was transfigured on the mountain and he heard the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the “beloved Son.” The three disciples who had witnessed the transformation —Peter, along with James and John—had been told not to speak of the event until Jesus had “risen from the dead” (cf. Mark 9:2-10). He would later write of that experience in his first epistle, saying...
“We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
As Peter stood pondering what he was seeing, John also entered into the tomb. And verse 8 says that “He saw and believed.” It is here that we find the third of the three words that are translated “saw.” In verse 8, when we are told that John “saw,” the word (“‘οραω/ειδον”) means “to perceive” or “to see with recognition.” We might say that John was struck with “sudden awareness or intuition” and began “putting two and two together.”
The text reads, “He saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” “Belief,” remember, is John’s stated purpose behind this book. He has already said this once—in chapter 19, verse 35—and he will state it even more emphatically at the end of this chapter. But at this point, John’s own faith was not yet mature. He “believed” on the basis on what he was aware—Jesus had died and appeared to have risen—but that faith had room to grow and mature as his understanding of the Scriptures would increase in the light of these recent events.
It should both encourage us to know and prompt us to grow that our understanding of God’s Word is incomplete and that we are all “in process” in terms of our walk with the Lord. Here John is providing us with an autobiographical testimony of the limited depths of his own faith. As we know, it will grow, and he will fulfill God’s sovereign plan for his life...just as will all who are willing to “perceive” and act upon what the Lord lays before them to see and understand.
Even after years of faithful service to his Lord, Paul said of himself, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). While we must strive toward sanctification, it is a destination that ever remains just beyond our reach. There is no such thing as “spiritual perfection” in this lifetime.
Though they would “see” and report what they had seen to the others, neither Peter nor John were ready with an informed explanation of what had happened. Perhaps with a blend of excitement and uncertainty, verse 10 finds them returning “to their homes.” The word “homes” does not actually appear in the text. “The disciples”—Peter, John, and perhaps the others—simply went off by themselves to contemplate the meaning of the empty tomb. It was absolutely and sovereignly necessary (“δει”) that Jesus “rise from the dead.” He had prepared them and told them as much on several occasions. But what were they now to expect?
It is one thing to find an empty tomb, and it something else to find a risen Savior. The sentence break between verses 10 and 11—and even more the paragraph break—is unfortunate. Notice the contrast: “Then the disciples went back...But Mary stood...outside the tomb.”
Beginning with verse 11, we see...
The witness of the risen Christ (20:11-18).
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb,” perhaps as John had initially done when he first arrived. Mary’s tears were not the result of crying in a quiet and restrained manner, but were the outpouring of loud lamentation. With hesitation and fear, she forced herself to look into the tomb, and she “saw” (”θεωρεω”) something she had not expected. The verb here is the same one that was used of Peter’s “careful observation.” She looked “intently,” seeking but not yet understanding what her eyes beheld.
Within the tomb were “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain.” They ask why she is “weeping.” It is a mild rebuke, as if to imply that she might have expected to find the tomb empty and understand why.
Her response is noteworthy: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” What was happening at this moment was quite personal to Mary. Even in death Jesus is her Lord, and she is at a loss in not knowing where He was and what her response should be.
Then suddenly, she somehow senses a nearby presence. When she turns to look, she clearly “sees” (“θεωρεω”) Jesus, but at first cannot comprehend that it is He. Perhaps it was because her tears were burning her eyes, or maybe the early morning sun was blinding her vision. Or could it be that what she was “seeing” was just too good to be true?
Still, it was at that moment in time that Mary Magdalene became the first eyewitness to the risen Lord. She then hears a voice saying to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
Thinking that she has been approached by the caretaker of the garden(cf. John 19:41), she asks if he possibly knows where the body of Jesus has been taken. She appeals to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Despite the goodness of her heart, Mary was looking for a corpse when she should have been seeking a Person. As He always does for those who earnestly seek for Him, Jesus reveals Himself to this grief-stricken woman. And He does so with a single word...he says her name, “Mary.” As the Good Shepherd in John 10(:3), the Lord had said that “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name.”
At once, Mary recognized the voice of Jesus. “She turned and said to him...‘Rabboni!’ (which –John interprets for us—means Teacher).” I have been told that there were three levels among the ancient Jewish teachers. From the lowest rank to the highest, they were known as the “rab,” the “rabbi,” and the “rabboni.” The last of these was a title of enormous respect, generally reserved for those who instructed in spiritual matters. If you ever had a favorite teacher—one whom you held in especially high regard or one who left a lasting positive effect upon your life—then you will begin to understand the meaning of this term.
Amazed that He was alive, she fell at His feet in order to embrace them. But Jesus responds in verse 17, “Do not cling to me.” It would seem rather odd that He would say that to such a loyal follower, until we read the remainder of His statement: “For I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Precisely what Jesus may have meant is unclear. Some believe that it is explained by Hebrews 9:12, where it is said that, as our Great High Priest, Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
But didn’t Jesus offer that sacrifice on the cross? When He cried out, “It is finished” (cf. John 19:30), the work of redemption was complete. God was propitiated—forever satisfied that the blood of Jesus Christ was sufficient payment for “the sins of the whole world” (cf. 1 John 2:2). No other sacrifice ever need be offered, and no further offering ever be made. So what could Jesus have meant when He said, “do not cling to me”?
While the work of Jesus was forever “finished,” the work of His followers was just beginning. There would be a time for them to worship, but for now there was a work to be done. Soon He would commission them to “make disciples of all nations” (cf. Matthew 28:19) and bear witness of Him “to the end of the earth” (cf. Acts 1:8). So here Jesus commissions Mary Magdalene to begin that process. “Go to my brothers,” He instructs her, “and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
The “brothers” to whom Jesus refers are not His kindred. Mary understood that, which is why she obeys Jesus’ charge by going straightway to His disciples. There is both a unity and a distinctiveness implied in Jesus’ familial designation. Just as He had prayed in John 17(:21 and 23), His followers would be “one” with Him as He was forever “one” with the Father. But whereas He was the Son of God by nature, His followers would become sons of God by adoption. This distinctive supremacy of Christ—His holiness, if you will—must be maintained lest we claim for ourselves a unique authority that is His alone.
The precise chronology of events can be confusing and appear to be contradictory when we compare all four of the Gospels. That being said, Luke’s account of the resurrection narrative provides further information that is both telling and, in a strange way, encouraging to those of us who are slow to hear, slow to believe, and even slower to respond. It is there that we read that Mary Magdalene and the other women “told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (cf. Luke 24:10-11).
But Mary was adamant in her announcement: “I have seen (“‘οραω”) the Lord,” she declared.
What a blessing it was last Sunday evening to have heard Joe Daniels’ testimony of having developed the habit of sharing the Gospel with co-workers and people he sits next to on Metro. Jesus’ charge to Mary Magdalene was not exclusively for her, Joe, and a few others. It was all of us who know Him to “Go” and tell others that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive!
Some of you know the name George Whitefield. He is best known for his powerful preaching during the “Great Awakening” of the 18th-century. It is said that his ministry covered thousands of miles by horseback, and it has been estimated that he preached eighteen thousand sermons to millions of hearers. One of his maxims of life was “God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ with them.”
In one of his more memorable sermons, while pleading for the souls of his hearers to trust Christ, Whitefield said, “I am willing to go to prison or death for you, but I am not willing to go to heaven without you.” That kind of motivation only comes when one has “seen” the Lord...not with eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of the heart. May God be pleased to raise up from among us those who possess the desire to tell others that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and welcomes all who will turn to Him.
Have you ever paused to consider what might have happened had Christ not arisen from the dead? Former Dallas Seminary President, Lewis Sperry Chafer, offered this conjecture: “Had not Christ arisen...every divine purpose and blessing would have failed; yea, the very universe and throne of God would have dissolved and would have been dismissed forever.”
If you think that to be mere theological hyperbole, then carefully hear what the Apostle Paul has to say when discussing the same question in 1 Corinthians 15(:12-20a):
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, who he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”
What Paul is saying is that the cross of Jesus must not be considered in isolation from His resurrection. That is because the empty tomb and risen Savior provide the foundation upon which our faith is grounded. Whoever does not submit to the resurrected Christ has no part in the cross and no master other than self.
The cross, which so symbolically represents the Christian faith, is meaningless—in fact, it is one of the great tragedies of history—had there not been an empty tomb. Easter is the interpretation of Good Friday. The tomb had not been opened to let Jesus out, but to let the disciples in. And when they entered, they saw that He was not there. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” they were asked by the angels. “He is not here, but has risen” (cf. Luke 24:5-6).
The question Frank Morison sought to answer was “Who moved the stone?” When He discovered that it was the Lord Himself who moved it and that Jesus had risen from the dead, he knew that he had been presented with evidence that demanded a verdict. He saw, not with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of his heart. And he was transformed and enabled by God’s grace to responded with saving faith. As the author of Hebrews tells us, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Faith was born in the heart of Frank Morison that day...just as it had been born in the hearts of these first disciples nineteen centuries earlier, and continues to be born with countless others who have been to the empty tomb and encountered the risen Christ.
“He is not here, but has risen” (cf. Luke 24:6). An empty grave is there to prove our Savior lives!