The tomb was not quite empty. The Not-Quite-Empty-Tomb is a powerful evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. There is not a body in the tomb. But the grave-clothes lying undisturbed are evidence of the Easter Triumph.
John, the beloved disciple, is the first man privileged to understand that Jesus Christ has triumphed over death. The beloved Master whom he has mourned for so deeply the last few days is alive again. This was a day of joy and exhilaration and renewed hope!
The Loss of Hope
One can hardly imagine how depressed John was on that Sunday morning. He and the other disciples had experienced major emotional ups and downs in the previous week. A week ago on Palm Sunday they had celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They hoped that Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel and prove to be a political Messiah.
John had heard Jesus predict His death and crucifixion. But he could not take this seriously. He had seen Jesus’ power. Then came the terror of Thursday night when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. John had fled away into the night with the other disciples.
Then came the horror of Friday. John had been at Golgotha. There Jesus had told him to take care of His mother Mary. His hopes and dreams were dashed as he watched his closest friend crucified and then die. Afterwards with a grief-stricken heart he had seen Jesus’ corpse. He could scarcely believe that his Master and friend was dead.
If Jesus was still dead, then he, John, was still in his sins. The Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15 describes John’s situation, if Christ is not risen. If Christ is not risen, then all preaching is in vain. Then John’s previous faith in Jesus was in vain. Paul details our sad condition if Jesus is not risen from the dead. He says that we are yet in our sins (I Corinthians 15:17). In addition all those who “are fallen asleep in Christ are perished” (I Corinthians 15:18). He concludes: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15:19).
If Christ was dead, then all that Christ said was a lie. The temple of His body had been destroyed and He had not been able to raise it up again in three days. Then Jesus was a fraud and not Messiah. If Christ is not risen from the dead, it is useless for us to celebrate Jesus. Then one cannot look to a dead Jesus whose body decomposed in the grave for spiritual nourishment.
For John this weekend was also a time of terror. He and the other disciples lived in fear that what they saw happen to Jesus would happen to them. They were terrified of being arrested, beaten, and mercilessly crucified too. So they were holed up in Jerusalem in an upper room, with the doors locked.
That Sunday morning Mary Magdalene dashes back to Jerusalem, holding up her skirt, as she runs.
The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre (John 20:1).
Matthew tells us that the group of women included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Luke says that Joanna was also along and others. They left Jerusalem in the dark. It was early dawn and it was difficult to distinguish objects in the darkness.
They are able to see that the stone has been removed from the entrance of the tomb. They stand back, afraid to get too close. Who moved the stone? Where are the soldiers? Did someone take the body of Jesus away? Mary Magdalene is immediately dispatched to tell the disciples. None of the women imagine that Jesus is risen from the dead.
Mary Magdalene runs to find Peter and John. She brings the news that someone has messed with the grave.
Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciples, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him (John 20:2).
She thinks that there is a missing corpse. Peter and John are only thinking of grave robbery.
Meanwhile it is growing lighter at the tomb. The other women become bolder. They approach the tomb. There they meet the angels. Matthew records what the angel’s said:
Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you (Matthew 28: 5-7)
Mary meanwhile has located Peter and John, the two leading disciples. They were probably at John’s home, where he had brought Jesus’ mother after the crucifixion.
John Wins a Footrace
The two men are in a hurry. But John is the fastest runner.So they ran both together and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulcher (John 20:4).
Mary is left far behind. Soon she will return to the vacated sepulcher and as she wanders alone in the garden she will meet the resurrected Christ.
John stoops and looks into the tomb and sees the linen grave cloths lying. But Peter is the more impetuous. He comes puffing up to the tomb. He brushes John aside and plunges right into the sepulcher. John tells us:
Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself (John 20:6,7).
Then John also enters the tomb: “Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre” (John 20:8a).
John’s Discovers the Easter Triumph
That John discovered the Easter Triumph is evident from the verb that is used in verse 8; “and he saw”. As John had stood outside the tomb he had only seen the grave clothes in a cursory manner. The Greek in verse 5 uses the common word for seeing “blepo” to describe this:
And he stooping down, and looking in , saw (blepo) the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in (John 20:5).
This word suggests nothing more than sight.
Peter analyzes the grave clothes more carefully. In verse 6 of John 20 we have a different word in the Greek that is once again translated “see” or “seeth” in the King James version. But it is a different word in the Greek, the word “theoreo”. From this we get the words “theory” and “theorize”. Peter is trying to scrutinize what the sight before him means. He sees the grave clothes lying with the head cloth folded up by itself, separate from the strips of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body.
Scripture uses a special word to describe John’s reaction when he enters the tomb. He sees what Peter is looking at. This time the word is “horao” which means “to see with understanding”. John 20:8 records; “and he saw (horao)”. He perceived the Easter Triumph!
In I Corinthians 15 Paul revels in the Easter Triumph. John suddenly knows what Paul says:
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept (I Corinthians 15:20).
There is hope for John: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead” (I Corinthians 15:21). Daniel records the blessedness of the resurrection unto life:
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12:2,3).
The Not-Quite-Empty Tomb
Different cultures have had different burial customs. The ancient Jews too had unique burial customs. In the Southern part of America there are stories about how they used to sit up with the dead. Now that has changed. Now the funeral director will come on the intercom and say: “The funeral home is now closed, we will reopen tomorrow at 8:00”. We Americans bury people in their best clothes in an expensive coffin. In Egypt they embalmed the dead. They buried their Pharoahs in pyramids. The Romans often cremated their dead.
But the Jews would neither embalm nor cremate their dead. They wrapped their dead in linen strips that enclosed dry spices. The dead bodies were placed in tombs. At the beginning of the 19th century a man named Henry Latham saw funerals in Constantinople. He said that the funerals he witnessed varied in many respects depending on the wealth of the person who died. But in one respect all of the funerals were similar. The bodies were wrapped in linen clothes in such a manner as to leave the face, neck, and upper part of the shoulders bare. The upper part of the head was covered by a cloth that had been twirled about it like a turban.
Apparently burial customs in the Middle East had remained virtually unchanged over time. This is verified not only by Jesus’ burial but by the incident of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain in Luke 7:15. As soon as Jesus stopped the bier and addressed the boy, he sat up. He was not enclosed in a coffin. The raised boy also began to talk, evidence that his face was not covered by the grave-clothes. Separate covers for the head and body were also used in the burial of Lazarus (John 11:44).
Apparently Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried Jesus in a similar manner.
Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury (John 19:40).
They took his body down from the cross, washed it and wrapped it in linen cloth. Between 75 and 100 pounds of spices were placed inside the folds of the linen. Aloe was a powdered wood like fine sawdust with an aromatic fragrance. Myrrh was a fragrant gum that would be carefully mixed with powder.
Jesus’ head, neck and upper shoulders were left bare and a linen cloth was wrapped about the upper part of his head like a turban. The body of Jesus was then lovingly placed in the sepulcher where it lay until Sunday morning.
The Evidence of the Grave-Clothes
John saw the evidence of the grave-clothes. Even though he could scarcely believe his eyes, he saw what had happened. Jesus had come back from the dead, leaving the grave-clothes as they were. What would you have seen at the moment of the resurrection? I think you would have seen the body of Jesus disappear. Slowly the grave-clothes settled down—because there was no longer the body within to give them their previous form. As this happened the linen clothes would have subsided because of the weight of the spices. They would remain lying undisturbed, still twirled around.
The cloth that surrounded Jesus’ head, without the weight of the spices, might well have retained much of its concave shape. It lay by itself separated from the body clothes by the length of Jesus’ neck and shoulders. The word translated “lying” in verse 5 is a word that occurs in the Greek papyri of things that have been carefully placed in order. One papyrus document speaks of legal documents, saying, “I have not yet obtained the documents, but they are lying collated.” Another speaks of clothes that are “lying (in order) until you send me word.”
John notices that the garments have not been disturbed. They have not been taken off Jesus’ body. They lie as if Jesus’ body disappeared through them.
When Peter goes inside, he is struck by something else, something that John next notices.
And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself (John 20:7).
The head cloth was not with the other clothes. It retained its circular shape. John says that it was “wrapped together”. We would say: “It was twirled about itself.” John saw that no one had moved the body or disturbed the grave clothes.
It was impossible that someone might have stolen the body and left the grave clothes like this. Yet the body is gone. These are the same grave clothes, lying exactly where Nicodemus and Joseph had left Jesus’ corpse. Clearly the body must have passed through the clothes, leaving them as he sees them now. John Stott says:
A glance at these grave clothes proved the reality, and indicated the nature of the resurrection.
Jesus was risen, and had a new body!
How foolish in the light of this evidence are non-Christian explanations of what happened on Easter morning. Some argue that the body of Jesus was stolen. That was the rumor the Sanhedrin tried to spread. They claimed “The disciples stole the body away while the soldiers slept”. If the soldiers were sleeping how did they know that the disciples stole Jesus’ body? What explains the grave-clothes?
Others have claimed that Jesus revived in the tomb and escaped after having unwound the linen bands. But then the linen clothes would have been displaced. The spices would have been scattered.
The result is that John believed. He believed that his beloved Master was risen from the dead. He believed the Easter Triumph. His beloved Master had overcome the grave! John later remembered how Jesus had said: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus had a new glorious body. His body was able to go through linen clothes. It was sown a natural body and raised a spiritual body. He is the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest. All those who sleep in Christ will receive new bodies at the general resurrection.
Grace to Believe
God in His sovereign grace gave John eyes to see. Flesh and blood did not reveal this to him. God has provided perfectly adequate evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. There is the evidence of the empty tomb. There are the undisturbed grave clothes. Then there is the evidence of the many appearances of Jesus to Peter, the disciples, Mary Magdalene, the other women, the travelers to Emmaus, and to some 500 together at one time. But the evidence of the grave clothes is not sufficient to quicken faith in anyone, even in John.
The reason why men fail to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is because they do not want to believe and will not believe even though the evidence is not lacking.
When Peter confessed in Caesarea Philippi: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” notice how Jesus answered. In Matthew 16:17 Jesus responds:
Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
John tells us why he recorded what he saw in the tomb:
But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (John 20:31).
His motivation in writing this gospel account is evangelistic. He wants others to believe that Jesus is the Son of God who triumphed over the grave. His purpose in writing is that believing on Jesus, Christians might have eternal life—and look forward to the general resurrection.
Has God given you grace to believe? If He has, glorify Him and His Son who arose from the dead.
What a great comfort the resurrection of Jesus is to believers. We know that He has triumphed over death for us. He will never perish in Hell. At the last day we will experience the resurrection unto life. And so we shall ever be with our Lord in the New Heavens and the New Earth.