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’[a] 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. (John 20:1-10)
If Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain. If Jesus did not come out of the grave then nothing matters. But Jesus did rise from the dead. Jesus did indeed resurrect from the grave. Therefore our faith is not in vain and all of life is eternally meaningful. This most fundamental element of the Christian religion John communicates to us with fascinating detail. He gives us certain details as evidences and proofs of His account of the discovery of the empty tomb so as to encourage our faith. He also gives us certain details so as to show us biblical theology themes in the scene of the empty tomb, so also to encourage our faith and enlarge our hearts to love the risen Lord. Both of these we will consider today.
We do not have a dead Savior or false God. Our God is the true and living God and our Savior is risen from the dead and alive today at God’s right hand. Since Jesus is risen from the dead and alive today, this means that as we open His Word here together, and as we worship Him together today, we do so not in mere memory of Him, but we do so in the presence of Jesus Christ. He is with us here today.
The reason we are here today is because Jesus rose from the dead. Because He is alive He has made us alive and caused us to walk in the light, join a church, and gather with God’s people to worship Him. Also, the reason we are here on this specific day is because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. This is the first thing John notes for us in verse 1, that it was the first day of the week. That is why the first day of the week is called the Lord’s Day, and the apostles and apostolic churches gathered together for worship on the Lord’s Day, because it was the day of the week that Jesus rose from the dead.
The resurrection was the start of something new. When Jesus rose from the dead it changed the world in which we live.
In fact, when John tells us that it was the first day of the week, he is showing us that it is the start of a new creation. It is the start of a new creation week that begins with the resurrection of the firstborn from the dead. It is the start of a new creation which is the beginning of the redemption and renewal of all things.
There have been some reformed theologians who have believed that Adam fell on the 8th day, which would’ve been the first day of the week, after the creation week. Man falling, sinning, and receiving death on the 8th day, shows us our need for a covering and for resurrection life on the 8th day, which is provided for us in Jesus Christ, as He rose from the dead on the 8th day, the first day of the week. So now as God’s people gather together on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, we do so as the new humanity in Christ. We are a new creation, a new humanity, that is defined by our resurrection life in Christ, and no longer by our fall in Adam. It is the resurrection of Christ that is the controlling definition of our life, and not our sin. The resurrection of Christ redefines us as no longer dead in Adam, but alive in Christ. We are new creations. The old has passed, the new has come.
If the 8th day fall is the case, that means it also would’ve been the 3rd day after Adam was created, just as Jesus rose on the 3rd day after His death.
All of this shows us the superiority of the new creation, or the superiority of redemption. The resurrection of Christ is greater than the fall of man, so much so that it totally redefines man. It gives Him a new week. Meeting for worship on the first day of the week shows us that our life flows from the life of Christ. Christ is our justification and our life and all of our living and good works flows from that reality. This is shown in our meeting on the first day when Christ resurrected, receiving life and strength from Him, and then going out and living and doing good works the rest of the week. The resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week created a new week for a new humanity.
So on this first day of the week John tells us that Mary Magdalene arrives early to the tomb. We know that there were other women with her from the other gospel accounts as well as the plural form she uses in verse 2 when she tells the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So we would deduce that John has a specific purpose for mentioning Mary Magdalene specifically. We will talk about her more next week, so suffice it to say that this one who was saved and forgiven of much, Jesus having cast out demons from her, and therefore she loved much. She was there at the foot of the cross, and she is here early at the tomb. Her feet which so quickly ran for help when she discovered the empty tomb show the great emotion she was overwhelmed with and her singular focus.
She runs to tell Peter and John what she has found, and she assumes that someone has taken the Lord’s body, not thinking of the resurrection. In that day grave robbery was not too uncommon and had severe punishment for it, so who knows exactly what is running through her mind. So upon hearing this Peter and John run to the tomb just as Mary had run to them. Like Mary, Peter and John were very near to Christ, in His close circle of three. So likewise their concern, love, and care for their Lord comes rushing out of their toes as they run to the tomb. Certainly we find it humorous that John, who always refers to himself in third person, tells us that he outran Peter and reached the tomb first. In this there seems to be a correlation between Mary Magdalene and John. Both were near to Jesus during His life. Both were present at the cross, and both arrived early or first in their group to the tomb. Yet neither of them go into the tomb first. John stoops down and looks into the tomb, but he does not enter. He waits for Peter, and then follows Peter into the tomb. This certainly corresponds with Peter being a leader among the disciples and his bold initiative taking personality.
So it is not till John goes in after Peter and sees what Peter sees that John also sees and believes. One of the applications we can see from this is that it is not about our running, racing, or working. It is not about how fast we run. It is not through our working that we come to Christ. But each comes the same way, by faith. Mary Magdalene arrived so early it was still dark, yet it takes her a while to believe, as we will see next Lord’s Day. John gets there quicker than Peter, but goes in after Peter, and then believes. It is not about how fast we run, but about faith. It is not about outdoing others in devotion, commitment, and acts of service. It is not about having greater will power or ability than others. It is by faith alone that each receives Christ, from the greatest to the least.
One of the other things the gospel writer is showing us is that Peter and John serve as the legal witness that Christ’s body was not there in the tomb. They are two needed witnesses. And John’s waiting on Peter to arrive before he enters the tomb shows us that no one entered the tomb alone, but there were the two of them there together.
I want us to consider now the scene of the tomb, and how John describes it for us. John gives us certain details which are interesting and from which we can find great encouragement for our faith.
The first thing we are told about this scene at the tomb is that when Mary Magdalene arrives, she sees that the stone has been taken away. This means that the tomb is now open. This stone being taken away shows us that the doorway to death is now opened. Jesus Christ went into the grave and opened that which was previously shut. All who entered death before were shut in. But now though all enter death, all will come out again, rising from the dead. The righteous will rise to eternal life, and the wicked will rise to judgment. Though we still die, death can no longer hold us captive, for Christ has busted down the doors from the inside. The grave has been opened.
When Mary sees this, she assumes someone has taken away Jesus’ body. But such a thing would’ve been an incredible feat. Remember, there had been a Roman Soldier posted to guard the tomb with the stone as well. Though Mary couldn’t see it just yet, this shows that what really happened is that the stone was taken away from the inside. In other words, it had to be that Jesus rose from the dead.
Furthermore, what do the two disciples see when they arrive at the tomb? John gets there, looks in and sees the linen cloths lying there, no longer wrapped around a body. Peter gets there and goes in and sees the linen cloth lying there and also sees the face cloth which had been on Jesus’ head folded up and lying in a place by itself. The two disciples see this and know that this was no grave robbery. No grave robbers would’ve taken the time to unwrap his body and fold up the head cloth. This is why they believe – the only option is that Jesus came out of His grave clothes. He no longer had a need for His grave clothes for He was no longer dead, nor was He any longer in the grave. When Jesus rose from the dead He left behind His grave clothes.
By way of application, we too must do the same. When we are spiritually raised from the dead and given spiritual life, we are to put off the flesh and it’s desires. We are to leave behind that which corresponds to death, and live unto God, putting on righteousness and doing good works. So often those grave clothes want to cling to us and ensnare and entangle us, but in looking to Christ we see that He passed right through them.
Furthermore, we really can’t help but notice how much John talks about and emphasizes the burial clothes of Jesus. He seems to bring a lot of attention to them. I believe this is because they are more than just burial clothes from a human perspective. In Leviticus 16 there are instructions for Aaron the High Priest for the day of atonement. He was not to enter the Holy Place in just any way. Part of God’s instructions for the High Priest was to cloth himself with linen garments and also a linen turban – a piece of head clothing. Then the priest was to go in and perform his priestly duties. But once the work was done Leviticus 16:23 tells us, “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there.” So once the work in the holy place was done, the High Priest was to remove these linen clothes and linen turban and leave them there. So what do Peter and John see when they enter this “holy place”? They see the linen clothes and linen headgear of the Great High Priest lying there. His work is finished. Atonement has been made. He has no need anymore for these garments for the work is done. Our Great High Priest went where we could not go so that we might be made right with God and live forever with Him.
There are some theologians who say that this whole empty tomb scene is symbolic of the tabernacle holy place. The stone removed is the veil torn, so that we may now enter. The clothes on the altar also show us the altar of incense, because remember, the linen clothes were drenched in the many sweet smelling spices. Then, a few verses later in John 20, after the disciples return home, Mary Magdalene is there and in the tomb, on the table on which Jesus was laid, there are two angels on either side. This is the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant. In the holy of holies of the tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant, which was a box, and on top of it, on each side, were two angels – angel designs on the lid. And that’s what you look in the empty tomb and see, you’ve got the altar of incense, the mercy seat, the veil torn, but something is missing. In the tabernacle holy place were also the candlesticks. There are no candlesticks in the tomb. They are missing. This is because Jesus is the light of the world, and He is no longer there, He has risen from the dead.
If this is symbolic of a holy place, then of course it is just like Peter to be the one to rush right on without thinking much about it. But the good news that we see is the veil is torn, the stone is removed, the way is open, the work is finished, we may now come boldly before the throne of grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. He has gone ahead before us and we are covered in Him. Throughout his life, Peter displayed a boldness, which sometimes was misguided, and more like a boldness to sin. But here his boldness is a boldness to enter Christ’s rest. We too may come boldly to Christ, no matter what we have done, no matter what sins have gone boldly into, we can come right to Him. The cross has already outed us as great and wicked sinners. There is no hiding it or covering it. Therefore, with all boldness and confidence we come to Jesus Christ, knowing He forgives our sin. We do not try and attempt to put off our sin first, but we bring it to Jesus Christ and He forgives it. And should we do so, we know that He indeed will because He is not dead. He lives today, ever to forgive, every to intercede on behalf of His people.
Whatever it is you have done, whatever haunts your past or plagues your present, do not think that you may not or cannot come to Jesus Christ. You are precisely called to come to Him. But note as well that it is not about the strength of your faith or the boldness of your demeanor, but simply about faith. For though John was more timid and unsure of entering the tomb, and waited till after Peter did, he still did and believed. Do not look at others and think that since others are more vigorous in their religion, that Christ is not also for you as well, though you may be riddled with more timidity.
Birth to Death (or resurrection)
In thinking about the empty tomb and the emphasis on the burial clothes, there’s something more I want us to think about. In thinking about Christ’s burial clothes, I want to think about His birth clothes. In Luke 2:7 we read, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” I think Luke 2:7 prefigures John 20. When Jesus was born there was no room for Him in the inn, so He was laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths. When Jesus is crucified, He is cast out of the city, for there is no room for Him there, and He is laid in a tomb wrapped in linen cloths. After Jesus was born, He grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man. After Jesus died, He was raised from the dead and brings man into favor with God. His first birth prefigures Him being the firstborn from the dead. He was born to be raised from the dead. This was always His purpose. It was always the will of the Father. It was always the plan to suffer much and rise from the dead to accomplish the redemption of His people.
In fact, we could know that this was always the plan from the Old Testament Scripture.
They believed though their understanding of Scripture was still dark.
In John 20 verse 8 and 9, the two disciples see what they see and believe, but yet they still did not understand the Scripture that said that Christ must rise from the dead. What’s fascinating is how the apostles defend and prove the resurrection of Christ by using the Old Testament Scriptures later on in the book of Acts after the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. Our memory also ought to be brought back to John chapter 2 where Jesus says, “destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up again.” And Jesus was speaking about the temple of His own body. Then John 2:22 says, “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
Post-Pentecost use of Scripture to understand the Resurrection.
So here in John 20, they have not yet understood the Scripture, though they do believe, but later they will understand the Scripture. And this understanding of Scripture will make the apostle Peter one of the most powerful preachers to ever live. At Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, Peter gets up and preaches, and I want you to hear how Peter uses the Psalms to preach the resurrection of Christ. Peter says, concerning Christ, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.”
Just as the death of Jesus changed Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, giving them courage, so also the resurrection of Jesus changed the disciples, strengthening their faith and understanding of the Scripture. Since Jesus is the Living Word, He grants His people understanding of the Written Word, which is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword.
The fact that Jesus is alive today and that His Word is living and active means everything to the world today. We do not have a dead God or Savior who is buried in the ground. This means we do not have a God with an irrelevant Word, or a God who has not spoken with authority and power today. Jesus Christ rose from the dead and was given all authority in heaven and on earth. Since Jesus is alive and has received all authority, all men are called to heed His Word. He is not a dead God who is unable to judge and uphold His Word. Jesus Christ still judges men and will continue to judge men, for He is alive. He is also not a dead Savior, who is unable to save. He is busy still saving sinners today. Since Jesus Christ is alive He is still saving sinners and raising men and women from the dead, granting them spiritual life, rescuing them from the grave through the preaching of His Word which is powerful and effective.
The risen and living Savior has authority claims and saving power to this very day. For His people, He is alive and so is able to intercede for them. Our faith is to be encouraged that Jesus doesn’t cease to represent us before God, but He is there at God’s right hand, as our advocate when we sin, and always living to intercede for us today. Because He is alive, He continues to minister to us today.
And since Jesus is alive, we do not have a mere memorial religion. We have a religion in which we are united to God in Christ, and so have a living, active, and real daily communion with Christ by faith. We have actual fellowship and communion with Him, for He is not dead, but alive. He lives to fellowship with us.
So may our hearts believe. May our faith be strengthened, for the tomb is empty and Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.