A Most Pleasant Suprise
Empty Tomb, Doubt, Hope
I’m one of those people who will tell you that he doesn’t like surprises, but that’s not really true. I don’t like unpleasant surprises. I don’t like last minute problems, unexpected obstacles, things that don’t go the way I anticipate. I don’t like to be surprised by visits from people I don’t particularly care for. I suspect many of you are the same way.
On the other hand, delightful surprises are some of the most enjoyable and satisfying times of life. I love to be surprised by a visit from an old friend. Or by something that worked better than expected. I love to be surprised by what God is doing through our website, through our work at school, through the work of the people of our church, and I hope to be surprised by what God can and will do through the radio ministry.
But of all the surprises there have ever been, surely the greatest of God’s surprises . . . the most delightful and important surprise of all was what happened in the garden on that first Easter Sunday. We are going to look at the story as it is recorded in John 20: 1-9. It’s the story of an unforgettable and life-changing event. And we can learn some important things.
We learn some significant facts
We are told that early on the first day of the week some women went to the tomb around daybreak in order to finish the preparation of the body that was done on Friday by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Upon arriving at the burial site they found the tomb open and the body missing.
Matthew gives us the most details:
there was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightening, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. (Matthew 28:1-4)
We don’t know where Matthew got his information. It seems to me that there is one of two possible answers. 1) These things were witnessed by the women. However, the initial doubt of Mary Magdalene would seem to argue against this. 2) It was from the testimony of one of the soldiers or a friend of one of the soldiers. Even though these men were sworn to secrecy it is very likely that an event of such magnitude would have been shared with someone. And we all know that once something is shared with someone it is usually shared with someone else . . and so on. Can you imagine seeing what those guards saw and NOT telling anyone?
The testimony of Scripture is that the women who went to the tomb saw two angels and possibly three (one outside and two inside). One of them did the speaking and is the only focus in some of the gospel accounts. These angels testified to the resurrection of the Savior.
Who Was Involved?
Our text tells us that the main character was Mary Magdalene. However, in verse two Mary testifies, “they have taken my Lord away and WE don’t know where they have put him.” If we put the four gospel accounts together it would seem that at least Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Joses (the wife of Clopas?), and Salome (the mother of the sons of Zebedee?) went to the tomb early that morning.
It appears that Mary Magdalene left as soon as she saw the open tomb . . . horrified by what she felt was a desecration of a grave. The other women were the ones who saw the angels.
Peter and John are the other two principal characters. They come to the tomb at Mary’s insistence. They leave as soon as they hear her words . . . probably in a spirit of great indignation. But when they arrive they survey the scene and begin to believe that something extraordinary has happened.
We see an important glimpse of human nature
I don’t think it is any accident that Mary Magdalene is seen leading the group to the tomb that first Easter. In Luke 8:1-3 we read this about Mary from Magdala,
After this, Jesus traveled 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;…These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
We don’t know a great deal about Mary but what we do know is this, she was a faithful follower who once had been inhabited by a group of demons. We may not fully understand what this means but we all understand that this was a woman who had had a tortured past. From the moment of her deliverance this woman set out to follow Jesus wherever He went. She never forgot her past and what she was saved from.
This illustrates an important principle: Gratitude and Love are directly proportionate to our perception of need. In a similar way the most loyal citizens are the ones who have had to fight for their freedom. The people who appreciate material prosperity the most are those who have known poverty. The people who appreciate salvation the most are those who are the most aware of their past sinfulness.
This is the reason so much discipleship is superficial today. People don’t like to hear about sinfulness. They don’t want to hear that when God sees their sinfulness, God hates what He sees. They like to hear about how much God needs them. They want to hear about the blessings and honor of faith. And that is what the church increasingly is giving. But do you see how this leads to a weak faith (if it is a genuine faith at all)? People who do not understand their sinfulness follow Christ lackadaisically. He is a convenience. They follow as long as it is comfortable and pleasant. They do not grasp the life and death nature of what the cross provides. They don’t understand how God’s mercy is their very lifeline. If you want to love Christ more you have to see yourself and your need with clarity.
I am not advocating that you become morbidly introspective. I do however urge you to take time to understand the depth of your sin and need. Look at your past (and present) and consider,
- your sinful thoughts
- your selfish motives
- the times when you act with complete disregard for God’s glory
- the times you manipulate rather than love others
- those times you use people and honor things
- the times when you know the right thing to do but do the contrary
When you take these things and put them up against the Holiness of God you realize that you are a person who is desperately in need of a Savior. Once you realize this your obedience will become a delight, not a burden; feelings of worship will not be dependent on external device but will spring from the heart; and as long as you remember where you came from your love for Jesus will not fade . . . you will never be the same again.
We also find a strong rebuttal to those who doubt
In just this text alone there are three powerful facts that those who disregard the resurrection of Jesus must deal with,
The empty tomb
It seems so simple. The fact that the tomb of Jesus is empty is one of the most powerful arguments for the validity of the resurrection of Jesus. Those who resist the resurrection usually come up with one of these arguments
- the body was taken by the disciples. However this discounts the fact that guards were posted at the tomb to prevent this very thing from happening. Even if it did happen somebody would have “spilled the beans”.
- the body was moved by Joseph. Some suggest that Joseph had put the body in his tomb only temporarily. Some say he really didn’t care about Jesus . . . he was merely concerned about the Jewish law that prohibited these bodies hanging there over the Sabbath observance. But, if this was true why did he only take the body of Jesus? And if Joseph was going to move the body, why would he do it in secret? Besides the testimony is clear: Joseph was a disciple. We are led to believe Joseph gave his tomb as a way of honoring his Lord.
- the body was moved by the Roman guard to keep it from being stolen. Then why not produce the real body when all the resurrection talk began?
- the women went to the wrong tomb. The thought is that when the angel said, “He is not here . . . ” it was really someone who was simply trying to say, “He’s not here . . . He’s over there.” It’s a clever theory but has not substance. Once again, the talk of resurrection could have been silenced forever by the real corpse.
The empty tomb is a powerful argument. If Jesus did not rise from the grave . . . where is His body?
The grave clothes
Note how carefully John describes what was seen, “He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.” Now on first hearing this doesn’t seem like a big deal. Fred Wright gives us some insight into the burial customs of the day,
the custom prevailed of wrapping (with a shroud) the dead. Usually the face is covered with a napkin (a cloth), and then the hands and feet are bound round with linen cloth.
Now remember that Jesus’ body had probably been “washed” with myrrh and aloes for the purpose of purification. This would make the cloths on the hands and feet stick to the body.
The real question is this: why bother to unwrap Jesus? If you were stealing the body would you take the time to unwrap it? If you were moving the body, would you take the time to unwrap it? The testimony is that these grave clothes were lying there. The piece that had been around the head was folded neatly off on the side. It was very orderly. The body was not stolen and didn’t appear to be moved..
The transformation of the band of followers
One of the most compelling arguments for the resurrection is the dramatic change that came over these followers. These people were not looking for a resurrected Savior. They were coming to grips with the fact that their leader was gone. There first inclination was to believe someone stole the body. This group who had huddled in fear and were overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment were soon those same people willing to give their lives to proclaim His resurrection. The only conclusion: something really happened! What happened changed their lives forever. It can have the same effect on us.
Do you understand what this all means?
First, it means there is hope
Listen to this compelling quote,
What is it that gives a widow courage as she stands beside a fresh grave?
What is the ultimate hope of the cripple, the amputee, the abused, the burn victim?
How can the parents of brain-damaged or physically handicapped children keep from living their entire lives totally and completely depressed?
Why would anyone who is blind or deaf or paralyzed be encouraged when they think of the life beyond?
How can we see past the martyrdom of some helpless hostage or devoted missionary?
Where do the thoughts of a young couple go when they finally recover from the grief of losing their baby?
When a family receives the tragic news that a little daughter was found dead or their dad was killed in a plane crash or a son overdosed on drugs, what single truth becomes their whole focus?
What is the final answer to pain, mourning, senility, insanity, terminal diseases, sudden calamities, and fatal accidents?
One thing: the hope of bodily resurrection.
The bodily resurrection means there is a life beyond this one . . . a place where things will make sense, where God will rule, where evil will be vanquished.
It means there is the possibility of a new beginning
If Jesus really did rise from the grave, then the forgiveness He offered to sinful people is real. No matter where you traveled in the past, there is an opportunity to start over. Like the woman caught in adultery (John 8) there is a way to start again. You are NOT too far gone. A new start is possible. Forgiveness can be found in Christ. He died to set you free from sin’s estrangement.
It means there is a reason for joyful living
We are indeed “living now, to live again.” Our perspective on everything changes. Sydney Carter says it well.
I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone;
But I am the dance and I still go on:
Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
Yes, there is a reason for dancing. There is a reason for joy. There is a reason for confidence. And perhaps most of all . . . .there is a reason for worship and thanksgiving. Does the resurrection of Jesus really make a difference? It makes all the difference in the world.