The near-empty tomb

John 20:1-10


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One of the greatest finds of the 20th century took 6 years of searching. But at last, in Nov 1922, Howard Carter discovered the lost tomb of Tutankhamun, the boy king. Lord Carnarvon, who had backed the search, hurried to Egypt to witness the opening of the tomb. With Carnarvon and other observers looking on, Carter drilled a small hole in the top corner of the doorway and placed a candle inside. The candle flickered, and Carter peered in. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness beyond, he heard Carnarvon asking: ‘Can you see anything?’
‘Yes,’ Carter replied. ‘Wonderful things. Wonderful things!’

2000 years before this, at another tomb in Israel, a greater discovery was made. In fact, it would be the greatest discovery ever made by anyone. Mary Magdalene was the first to see inside the cave-tomb, followed by the apostle John and then the apostle Peter. When the apostle John finally went inside, and looked around, he too saw wonderful things – wonderful because of what was there, and because of what wasn’t there. ‘Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.’ (John 20:8)

1. The affection of Mary
It’s been said that Mary Magdalene was ‘last to leave Jesus cross and first to arrive at his grave’ – such was her love for Jesus. When she arrives at the tomb and finds that the stone has been removed (which was no easy task) it is fascinating to note that the possibility of Jesus rising from the dead wasn’t in her mind at all! ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’ (John 20:7)

She had come to anoint Jesus’ dead body with spices. Why is it that Mary was last to leave the scene of the cross and first at the tomb? To understand her affection for Jesus, we need to remind ourselves of what had happened to Mary. ‘After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out.’ (Luke 8:1-2)

What had Jesus done for Mary? He had totally transformed her life. He had set her free. And so, her love for Jesus ran deep. There was nothing Mary would not do for her Lord and Saviour. Yes, she comes to the tomb and makes the wrong conclusion about his missing body, but don’t let that cover over the crucial fact that she comes to the tomb brimming with love for Jesus.

Surely, we ought to share Mary’s affection for Jesus! ‘For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Colossians 1:13-14)

The more we understand what Jesus has saved us from, and the enormity of the debt he has paid for, the more we ought to love him, with a love which is clearly seen in our actions for him. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

2. The fact of the near-empty tomb
I say near-empty, because although the tomb was empty in that Jesus’ body was no longer there, it was not completely empty, because the grave-clothes were still there to be seen. The Christian faith is based on historical facts, and the 2 major facts of our faith are that Jesus truly died, and that he truly rose from the dead physically. If these things are not true, then Christianity is a waste of time. ‘For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.’ (1 Corinthians 15 vs 16-17)

What does John see when he enters the tomb? Well, he sees that Jesus’ body is not there. Moreover, he sees that the not only are the grave-clothes still there, but that they are undisturbed – as though Jesus’ body had simply passed through them. This was uncanny. Something supernatural is going on – and the only explanation is that Jesus has truly risen from the dead.

It makes no sense to say that grave-robbers would have stolen the body, because they would have been in and out of the tomb as quickly as possible. There is no way they would have unwrapped Jesus’ body, and even if they had, it still would not explain why the grave-clothes were undisturbed! The facts and the evidence bring us to one conclusion – Jesus rose from the dead on the 3rd day!

“God has provided adequate evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… we conclude that if people fail to believe, it is because they will not believe, not because the evidence is lacking.” (J M Boice)

The evidence is so compelling for Peter, that the one who had denied knowing Jesus a few days earlier, would in a very short space of time go on to preach in front of 1000s of people, proclaiming the good news about peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

3. The foundational truths which rest upon the resurrection
We’ve considered the facts of what happened the day when Mary, Peter and John made the best discovery ever. But what does it mean for us? What difference does it make? Well, it makes all the difference in the world.

Our justification
How can we be sure that Jesus’ death on the cross 2000 years ago is really the answer to my sin and to your sin? The resurrection proves truly born-again Christians are justified. By raising Jesus from the dead, God the Father saying – I accept my Son’s sacrifice for sins. Sin has been dealt with. The Father approves. He’s well-pleased. He gives his ‘Amen’ as it were.

‘This is why ‘it was credited to him [Abraham] as righteousness.’ The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness – for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.’ (Romans 4:22-25)

“The resurrection is… a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the ‘Amen!’ of the Father upon the ‘It is finished!’ of the Son.” (Herman Bavinck)

Our sanctification
The resurrection proves that Christians have a new power within them – for our sanctification. ‘I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms…’ (Ephesians 1:18-20)

‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.’ (Romans 8:11 )

Christians are joined to Jesus by faith, and because of this, there is a new resurrection power pumping through our souls – and that is resurrection power.

This truth ought to encourage to stop trying to make progress in the Christian life in our own strength. Rather, we ought to depend on the power of God- the same power which raised Jesus from the dead.

Our glorification
Just as Jesus has been raised from the dead with a new body, so one day we shall be raised with new bodies.
‘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, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ (1 Corinthians 15:19-20)

Christ’s resurrection is the first-fruits, and this means that the rest of the ‘harvest’ will follow; this harvest is the resurrection of all of God’s children one day, when we will receive perfect and everlasting physical bodies.

Howard Carter peered into the tomb in Egypt and saw ‘wonderful things’. Let us peer into Jesus’ empty tomb today, and see the wonderful treasures of the resurrection: our sins have been dealt with; we have a new resurrection power within us; and we have the certain hope of new resurrection bodies to look forward to.