Dec 23, 2010, 3:00 PM
“Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:19)
It is weird to talk of an ‘empty tomb’ because a tomb is never empty; dead bodies make it their place of rest. Besides, dead bodies are not in a habit of walking away. Yet, Christians talk of an empty tomb. The tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty on the third day after his death. So if the body did not walk away, then it must have been stolen. This was the rumour the religious authorities of the day - who were stupefied by Jesus’ resurrection - wanted spread throughout Jerusalem.
Death - a transit point
Those who wanted the people to believe that Jesus’ corpse was stolen had reasons for peddling such a rumour. ‘Death’ according to the Roman and Jewish authorities was the final blow they could have dealt this upstart revolutionary of a Nazarene, Jesus. Death was supposed to silence Him once and for all. This was the reason they had arrested Him, accused him of blasphemy and had passed judgment on him in record time.
Ever heard of a plant called ‘manga naseh’? It is a tuber. If you think you have gotten rid of it by cutting off its leaves, you are sadly mistaken. It is embedded and anchored in the soil. Except you unearth the tuber, be sure it is going to shoot out again. Death could not hold Jesus in the grave; He had prophesied that Himself when He declared: “I lay down my life only to take it back. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up.” (John 10:17)
King David in Psalm 26 stated, with reference to Jesus’ death and burial: “…because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” (Psalm 26:10) When the Lamb of God, Jesus of Nazareth, was slain, it was intended for him to conquer death. To have conquered death meant rising from the dead. Death could not hold Him captive. No, never!
After all the pains they had gone through to have Jesus crucified, they woke up on the first day of the week (Sunday) to discover that the stone had been rolled away. Now the question on everybody’s lips was ‘who had rolled the stone away?’ and what could have been the motive? When the incident was reported, the chief priests instructed - after bribing the Roman guards - “with large sums of money,” to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep at night to steal the body.” (Matthew 28:12-13) How did they know who stole the body if they were sleeping? Pilate had ordered to have guards posted at the entrance to the tomb to make it secure. “They went and made it secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” (Matthew 27:66) A guard faces capital punishment when a prisoner under his custody escapes. Imagine how terrified those soldiers would have been.
Who would roll the stone away?
Just when Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Salome - on their way to the tomb to perform burial rites on Jesus’ body - were wondering how on earth they would roll the stone at the entrance of the tomb away; they found to their great astonishment that the stone had been rolled away. (Mark 16.3) After having heavily secured the tomb with armed guards posted at the entrance to ward off any foul play by Jesus’ disciples, there could be no other reason for the absence of Jesus’ corpse other than the fact that it had walked away by itself.
Embarrassing for the disciples
The empty tomb was also an intriguing phenomenon for the disciples. They just could not unravel the mystery, not until they received Jesus’ message through Mary Magdalene to whom an angel had revealed: “He is not here, He has risen just as He said.” (Matthew 28:6) The message said: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” (Matthew 28:7) That message had to be confirmed somewhat by Peter and John who rushed to the gravesite.
Perplexed, they must have been saying to themselves; who could have done such a wicked thing? Arriving at the entrance to the tomb, Simon Peter was sceptical but when he ventured into the tomb he was struck by what he found there. “He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial clothes that had been around Jesus’ head.” The strips of linen used to wrap Jesus in were lying on the ground. Now if the body had been stolen, thieves would not have had time to undo the linen. There was no reason for them even to unwrap him in the first instance.
That in itself was not interesting as what followed: “The cloth (around his head) was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.” (John 20:7) John later joined him and the Bible account tells us that “He saw and believed.” (John 20:8) Something that John saw was fundamental to his belief that Jesus had risen from the dead.
The facecloth tells a story; that of a satisfied carpenter. Carpenter Jesus, like all other carpenters of His day, would after doing a good job wash their hands and after wiping them with a hand towel would fold it neatly and pose it on the piece of furniture. This was a sign that the work was well done. In essence, what John observed to make him believe, was the face linen neatly folded separately. That was all it took for him to believe that Jesus had walked away from the tomb, triumphing over death.
Jesus’ tomb was empty to show that He had power over death and sin. It also meant that his believers can claim victory over death when they die in the Lord. At Lazarus’ tomb after he had been dead four days, Jesus comforted his sister with these words: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)Believe in Him who is stronger than death, humankind’s greatest enemy. Because Jesus is alive, we also shall live forever even though we depart this life.