The Empty Tomb
Topic: English Passage: John 20:1-18
In 2014, 2016, and 2018, Ligonier Ministries partnered with LifeWay Research for a survey they entitled “The State of Theology.” The goal of that study is to help Christians understand what Americans believes about the Bible and Christianity.
They survey polled about 3,000 people and included information about where they live, their age, gender, education, income, religious beliefs, marital status, ethnicity, and church attendance.
The survey has a total of 34 statements, and participants were asked to indicate whether they strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree, or are not sure.
If you want to see the results for yourself, you can go to thestateoftheology.com. It’s a very nicely laid out website , and it’s interesting to see the data. You can even take the survey yourself and find out whether the statements are true of false, according to the Bible.
There were questions in that survey where the American population generally agreed with what the Bible teaches. But obviously not everywhere.
One statement on the survey said, “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.
If you were here last week as we studied Psalm 51, you’d know that David would strongly disagree with that statement. So would the Apostle Paul: “There is none righteous, not even one.”
But according the survey, 67% of the population said that they agreed with the statement. So they believe that “most people are good by nature.”
Even more tragic though, is that even if you only include the people who identified as Evangelical, and attend church at least once a week, you still had 48% of that group agreeing with the statement that most people are good by nature.
The statement that had the highest percentage of people disagreeing with it was this: “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.” Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.
As a general population, 57% of the people strongly disagreed and 11% somewhat disagreed—almost 70% disagreement.
Well, that is a biblical statement. That’s a true statement. Listen to what Ligonier Ministries says in response:
“American’s don’t seem to grasp the reality of God’s holiness...If God is not holy, then sin is not a big deal. It is because of our understanding of God’s holiness that we understand how significant sin is…God does not grade on a curve but demands that we ‘be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). If we fail to keep even one of God’s commandments, we are guilty of breaking the entire law and are under the divine curse, from which only Jesus can save us (Gal. 3:10–14; James 2:10).”
That’s the right answer. That’s what the Bible teaches. That’s why Jesus died—because your sin and my sin deserve death and punishment. We deserve the judgment and the wrath of God, but Jesus came as a substitute for sinners. He came to take the place of all who would believe in Him. That’s why there’s forgiveness. That’s why we can be justified—we can be declared righteous by a holy God.
The salvation that Jesus came to bring, however, doesn’t just include His death. It also includes the Resurrection. That is an essential part of the message.
Romans 4:25 says Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
If there was no Resurrection, we would have no forgiveness, and no Christianity. That’s the message of First Corinthians 15. In the providence of God, that’s the passage we’ve come to in our opening Bible readings. The death and resurrection of Jesus are “of first importance.”
One of the questions I’m always going to ask in a membership interview is, “What’s the gospel? Can you give me the gospel in about a minute?”
That question is not like a pass/fail. You can understand and communicate the gospel and not believe it. And you can be saved, but not have a clear grasp of how to communicate it. But what we’re trying to do with that question is get a better understanding of what you think the gospel is, and also equip you to share the gospel better.
Because that’s what it means to be a member. We’re not here as the church of Jesus Christ, simply to affirm one another in our faith. We’re here to partner together in the advancement of the gospel. We’re part of a team.
And yet, sometimes as we talk about the gospel, we mention God the creator, and we mentions our sin, and we mentions Jesus being fully-God and fully man and that He died for sinners. But we forget to move on to the Resurrection. We can’t let that happen.
The death of Jesus is the payment for our sin. But the Resurrection of Jesus is the divine affirmation of its truth. Jesus’ death doesn’t pay for your sin because you feel like it’s true. It pays for your sin because God the Father has declared it to be true by raising Him from the dead. That was the message of the Apostles in Acts.
The Resurrection of Jesus should be for us a divine testimony to the power and the extent of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. And it’s a testament to God’s grace and love for us.
Interestingly enough, in The State of Theology survey, one of the statements made was this: “Biblical accounts of the physical (bodily) resurrection of Jesus are completely accurate. This event actually occurred.”
Sixty-eight percent of the general population agreed with that statement. For those who identified as Evangelical and typically attended church at least once a week, 99% agreed with that statement—that Jesus physically resurrected.
I’m not completely sure what to think of the missing 1 percent, but if they’ve been taught properly, and have rejected that truth, they’re not real Christians. They’re not saved, because the resurrection of Jesus is part of the foundation of the church.
The Resurrection of Jesus is not a parable. It’s not a fairy tale or a myth, just to fill you with hope. It’s a historical event.
Jesus died and was buried. And then on Sunday morning, the tomb was empty. Nobody denied that. Not even the Pharisees.
In addition to that, the testimony of the early disciples to the rest of the world was that they had interacted with the risen Jesus. Like I said, that was the center of the gospel message in the book of Acts. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, the Apostles wouldn’t be preaching.
And Paul takes that even further in 1 Corinthians 15 when he says: “14if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Well, for this morning, what we’re looking at is John’s resurrection story. And John wants us to believe in the Resurrection. He wants to make sure we get it. There is no other explanation.
Two of the greatest evidences of the Resurrection are Jesus’ empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection appearances. The empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. And John emphasizes them both for us. So, let’s start with our first heading: Jesus’ Empty Tomb. Jesus’ Empty Tomb.
The very first witness to an empty tomb is Mary Magdalene. That’s incredible because being a woman in that culture meant she couldn’t be accepted as a witness in a court of law. But Christ chooses her first.
Mark’s gospel says that there were a number of women who had purchased spices and were intending to visit the tomb. But it seems like they didn’t all go together.
If you put the Resurrection stories together, Mary Magdalene either left earlier or walked faster. Either way she arrives at the tomb alone.
Now, before she even gets there, Matthew tells us that something has already happened.
First of all, on Saturday, the chief priests and the Pharisees arranged to have Pilate place Roman soldiers at the tomb to guard it. But by the time Mary shows up there aren’t any soldier. Why not?
Here’s what also happened: An angel came down from heaven, causing a massive earthquake. And the Roman guards were terrified and went into shock. Matthew says, “they became like dead men.” And the angel, somewhat nonchalantly it seems rolled back the stone and sat on it.
The soldiers eventually regained consciousness and head out to talk to the Pharisees. And so now, with the tomb open Mary Magdalene arrives.
Maybe you’ve heard some interesting stories about her in the culture. Most of them have nothing to do with the Bible.
Magdalene was not a last name. They didn’t have last names back then. But they used information about the person to make a distinction from others with the same name. And Mary was a very common name. Magdalene means that she’s from the city of Magdala, which is in northern Israel, near the Sea of Galilee. It’s like saying Jesus of Nazareth. This is Mary of Magdala.
Contrary to popular belief, we have no reason to think we was some kind of prostitute or promiscuous woman. Luke 7 mentions a lady like that who anointed Jesus’ feet, but if that were Mary Magdalene, he would have just said it, since she’s mentioned in the very next chapter.
Luke 8 says that she was a follower of Jesus who would travel with Him and the disciples. So she’s very devoted to Him. And that devotion comes from the fact that Jesus cast out seven demons from her. In other words, her life was a mess spiritually. It had to have been horrific for her to get to the point where she opened her life up to demons.
You can imagine the transformation Jesus brought to her life. That kind of healing and restorative work is what led her to have such a close devotion to Jesus. She loves Jesus, and that’s why she was there at His crucifixion, and now she’s the first to get to His tomb.
Her plan is hope that someone will be able to help her roll the stone away. And then, as an expression of grief and love, she can add to the spices that have been wrapped around the body.
When she gets there it’s still kind of dark. This is right around sunrise, but Jerusalem has mountains to the west, so you get a lot of shadows before you get actual sunlight. And with whatever light is there, she sees that the stone has already been rolled away from the tomb.
Tombs were carved out of the rock in the mountains. And that took someone with some money to do that. Archaeologist have uncovered about 1,000 tombs in Jerusalem from this time period, and only a small amount of them have a rolling stone to close the entrance. Most of them had a rectangular shape to cover the opening. But the Bible says Jesus’ tomb had a stone that rolled, which was probably because it was owned by a rich man.
Well, imagine the shock of coming to visit someone’s tomb or gravesite, and realizing that the body was no longer there.
I have been to Rose Hills many, many times now. And every time I’m there for a burial, there’s a massive pile of dirt next to the grave, right? That’s only there the one day. Because after the burial, the dirt gets put back.
How would you feel if you went to Rose Hills to visit the grave of someone you loved, and you realized there was a massive pile of dirt next to the grave, and the hole was open? What would you think?
Clearly, something’s not right! That’s not supposed to be like that! And in her grief and in her confusion, she runs back to tell the disciples.
Verse 2 says she told Peter and John, that’s the disciple whom Jesus loved. And here’s what she said: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they laid him.”
When she says “we don’t know” I think she’s talking about all the other women, whom she may have already talked to. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us what they saw when they got there.
Who’s the “they” though? Who took the body? Mary has no idea. But somebody did! That’s the only explanation she can come up with.
Nobody who was committed to Jesus expected a Resurrection. That just wasn’t on their radar. And you should know that that is another part of the evidence of the Resurrection. Since it was not something Jesus’ disciples expected to happen, we can rule out these ideas that they were the ones who stole the body or that they were somehow hallucinating that it had happened.
They had no clue! They had zero expectation. They thought, “Jesus died, and now He’s gone.” Their hopes died with Jesus.
So, when Peter and John find out that the tomb is empty, they go see for themselves. And verse 4 tells us, John outruns Peter and makes it there first.
So, the tomb is empty, and now, in addition to the testimony of Mary Magdalene, we get the testimony of John. Verse 5—And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.
The doorways to the tombs back then were about three feet tall so you had to bend over to look inside. And instead of a body, lying on the bench there, he sees the linen wrappings.
Simon Peter shows up, and he’s not content to look from the outside. He goes in. He goes into the tomb and sees the linen cloths and the face cloth.
Some of you might be familiar with the Shroud of Turin, which is kept in Italy. There is scientific and historical evidence that has debunked the idea that that’s the actual cloth Jesus was buried with. And the words used here, indicate that it wasn’t one large cloth that was used. It was strips or pieces of linen.
And in addition to the strips used for the body, there was an additional piece used for Jesus’ head. That separate cloth for Jesus faces was separate from the rest and it was folded or rolled up, either translation is possible.
And that could mean that it was still in its original place, because Jesus didn’t have to unwrap Himself like Lazarus. He had a glorified body. And so, He just passed right through it all. Leaving the body strips with all the spices, in a pile, and the face wrapping rolled up, since it would have flattened out.
The presence of the linen cloths was curious to them because no thief in his right mind, if he came to steal the body, would have taken the time to unwrap the body first and then set them all back on the bench. It doesn’t make any sense.
But if we understand the Resurrection, it makes perfect sense. Jesus either passed right through the cloths, which He could do in His resurrection body, or He patiently unwrapped Himself and piled the linen.
And then He probably walked out without ever moving the stone. He didn’t have to. We’ll see that next time with the disciples when He just walks into a room when the doors are locked. Jesus didn’t need to have the stone rolled away. One pastor said it like this: “The angel rolled away the stone, not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in.” The stone was rolled away to show us Jesus’ empty tomb.
The soldiers would have seen it before they left. The other group of women got to see it. Peter got to see it. And John got to see it.
Verse 8, speaking of John, says: Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples went back to their homes.
We aren’t completely sure what it was that John believed, but the point here is that whatever he believed, his faith that morning was based on what he saw, not on what God had already written.
There’s a bit of a rebuke here in the Bible because they’re all going by what they’re seeing, not by what the Scriptures had already said. But that’s going to change eventually.
Later that day, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus appears to a couple of the men, and He teaches them about the Resurrection from the Scriptures.
And then we have chapter 1 of Second Peter, where he says that what fully confirms the identity of Jesus isn’t any of the experiences they had; it’s the prophetic word. The prophetic word.
In Acts 2, when Peter preaches to the crowd at Pentecost, he cites Psalm 16:10 as a prophecy of the Resurrection: For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
So eventually, the faith of the Apostles is going to be rooted in something eternal and objective. Like our faith, it’s going to be directly related to the word of God. But for now, whatever type of faith John has, it’s only connected to what he sees in the empty tomb. And with the confirmation of an empty tomb, the disciples go back home.
But Jesus wants more for His disciples. He’s not just going to prove to them that the tomb is empty. He’s going to show Himself to them. This leads us now to our second heading: Jesus’ Resurrection Appearances. Jesus’ Resurrection Appearances. And we’re only going to cover the first one this morning.
And the first person Jesus chooses to reveal Himself to, after the Resurrection, is, again, Mary Magdalene. I think that’s another expression of their nearness. They are brother and sister, now, in the faith. And He’s going to manifest Himself to her.
So, while the disciples head home, verse 11 tells us Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. That word’s used twice in that verse. It’s not the same as when Jesus wept in John 11, at the tomb of Lazarus. The word in John 11 word simply points to the shedding of tears.
This word here in John 20 is used for wailing and mourning. She is undone. She’s sobbing uncontrollably. She cannot hold back her grief. “Jesus is dead, and we don’t even have an idea of where the body is. What are we going to do?”
And with nowhere else to turn, she finally bends down to look for herself inside the tomb. And she sees two angels, but she may not have even known what they were. There’s no indication that she’s aware that these are heavenly beings. It’s possible that with all the commotion and her grief, she wasn’t keeping track of who went in the tomb and who came out. So she interacts with them like normal men.
These two men, however, are sitting on either end of the bench where Jesus’ body is supposed to be. They’re sitting! No commotion. No investigation. They’re just sitting there calmly.
And they say to her, verse 13: “Woman,” (that’s a term of respect) “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.”
Notice the shift in her pronouns. This is no longer “the” Lord. This is “my” Lord. This is someone she followed and cherished and loved. And with that brief response, she moves on.
Verse 14—Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
That happens with practically every post-Resurrection appearance. Jesus is in a glorified body. And because of that difference, and possibly because of Mary’s grief and tears, Jesus’ true identity is hidden. So to her, this is just some man. The next says she thinks it’s the gardener. But it’s Jesus.
And Jesus asks here the very same question as the angels. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
It seems like in practically every conversation, Jesus asks somebody a question. And the intent is to get whoever He’s talking to, to look at their own heart. “Why are you here, Mary? Why did you come?”
She doesn’t really answer the question. But if he’s the gardener, then he might have had something to do with moving the body. He would be working for the landowner. So, in verse 15 she says: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
She’s grasping at anyone she can for some kind of an answer. And all she wants to do is honor Jesus by caring for His body. Where is He?
But Mary’s asking out of grief. She doesn’t really expect an answer. And before this man even has a chance to respond, she turns away. She turns her back on Jesus and walks away from Him in absolute grief and hopelessness.
And with her back to Jesus, Jesus calls her by name. He simply says to her, “Mary.” And she realizes who it is. The Greek and the Aramaic name is Miriam. That’s all Jesus says to her: “Miriam.”
Jesus said in John 10 that the Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name, and they know His voice.
Mary knew. Jesus called her by name, and she had zero doubt now that her Lord who had been crucified and put to death on Friday, was now standing there with her.
And she responds with one word: “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
This is her Teacher, her Master, her source of truth. When He died, she felt lost all over again. But now, her Teacher, is back. He has risen from the dead. And He’s shown Himself to her.
And more than being impressed with a miracle, or inquisitive about how it all happened, Mary is just overjoyed to be with Jesus. And she doesn’t want to ever be apart from Him. And if she hasn’t grabbed on to Jesus yet, she’s getting ready to.
And so, Jesus says to her, verse 17—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.”
Mary doesn’t want Jesus to leave, but he says to her, “I need to go. I am going to ascend to the Father.” He’s going back to the Father in His glorified body.
Why? Well, that’s what He said He was gonna do. Back in chapter 14 He said: “I am going to the Father.” That what the plan was.
And the reason He’s going to the Father, is because once He’s there He will send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. He is the Helper.
Just like the Father sent the Son into this world, now the Father and the Son are going to Send the Holy Spirit into the world. And the Spirit of Jesus is not just going to be “with” them, He’s going to be “in” them. And because of that indwelling, they will remember and they will be taught concerning Jesus, and then they will bear witness.
Around Easter of last year, I made the statement that the Resurrection was the starting gun of gospel proclamation. And the power for that is the Holy Spirit, which Jesus will send once He gets back to the Father.
That’s why Jesus told His disciples, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7).
Jesus is going back to the Father soon. He’s only going to be with the disciples for another 40 days. And then, they will be the ones charged with advancing the message. But they will do it empowered by the Holy Spirit. They will do it as the brothers of Jesus; that’s what He calls them.
This is the first time in the gospel Jesus calls them that. And it’s a way of emphasizing their new identity, and the new nearness they will have with the Father, once the Holy Spirit comes.
So, Jesus tells Mary, “Go call the disciples. Go get them ready.” And that’s exactly what she does.
Verse 18 tells us—Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he has said these things to her.
We’ll come back to John in a couple weeks, and we’ll continue Jesus’ resurrection appearances, and we’ll see how the disciples respond.
For now, it’s just encouraging to see Mary’s faithfulness to the message. Jesus is risen, and she’s instructed to go announce it. And so, she goes. Let’s pray that all of us are as faithful and as eager about the message as she was.