The empty tomb. 20:1-10


In John's gospel, the story of the resurrection is covered in the account of: the empty tomb, 20:1-10, the appearances to Mary, v11-18, the ten disciples in the upper room, v19-23, and "doubting" Thomas, v24-29. The story of the empty tomb is reported by all the evangelists, although John's account is quite different to the three synoptic gospels. Yet, although the telling of the story is different, the details remain the same.

The passage

v1. Only in the synoptic gospels are we told that the women were on a mission to anoint Jesus' body. This is rather strange since Nicodemus had already undertaken the task, 19:39-40. It was normal practice for the female relatives of a deceased man to prepare him for burial and so obviously these female disciples wanted to stand in for his mother. Getting past the stone was the main problem, but when they arrived at the garden tomb the grave was open.

v2. Although it was "still dark", the women could at least make out that the grave was empty and so Mary Magdalene set off to tell the other disciples the news. She headed for Peter and "the one Jesus loved" (referring to John, the source of this account of Jesus' life, death and resurrection). The women obviously assumed that someone (one of Jesus' enemies) had stolen his body; "they have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don't know where they have laid him."

v3. Peter and John run to the tomb, followed by Mary Magdalene.

v4. Although Peter set off first, John outran him and reached the tomb before Peter.

v5. John had hesitated when setting out for the tomb and now he hesitates again. As he looks in, he sees the linen sheets, which were used to cover the body for burial, "lying there".

v6-7. When Peter arrives, he goes straight into the tomb. As well as seeing the linen sheets, he sees the head-cloth which was originally wrapped around Jesus' head. He notes that it is placed neatly beside the sheets. John is describing a scene of order, rather than chaos. Had grave robbers been at work they would have stolen the sheets, or at least strewn them on the floor. John is not describing the scene as if Jesus' body has risen through the sheets, but rather as if someone has gotten out of bed, having pushed the sheet back and neatly placed the head-towel to one side.

v8. John now enters the tomb, "saw" what Peter saw, and "believed". He too sees a scene evidencing the waking of someone who was asleep. Up to this point in time the disciples had failed to understand the living power of God's messiah, but now they believe.

v9. The disciples did not invent a resurrection based on Biblical prophecy. They first believed in Jesus' resurrection, then they looked for its Biblical support. Interestingly, there isn't much Biblical support, even if Paul and others often affirmed that Jesus was raised "on the third day according to the scriptures", 1Cor.15:4.



References to the third day are found in Hos.6:2, Jon.1:17, (quite unconvincing!), and to resurrection in Isa.53:10-13, Ps.15:10...... Of course, the resurrection of the Messiah is the linchpin of Biblical prophecy in that it inaugurates the kingdom of God. The resurrection itself may have little Biblical precedence, but an ever-living, life-giving, messiah is the stuff of Biblical prophecy.

v10. Having seen the empty tomb, the disciples go home.

New life in Christ

Malcolm Fraser, a former Australian prime minister, once said "life wasn't meant to be easy." He would come to regret using this line because his political enemies would often remind him that under his leadership, life certainly wasn't easy in Australia. Years later he revealed the source of the quote. He had attended a wedding and it was a line used by the minister in his sermon to the young couple.

I think its true to say that enthusiasm for life begins to wane as we move into the middle years, to the point where the daily grind is just not easy. There is this hope that when we retire it will get better, but the worries and fears that afflict us only seem to get worse.

On the first Easter morning a number of Jesus' friends come to the garden tomb to perform the accustomed burial rites on his body. John mentions only "Mary Magdalene", although he reports Mary saying, "we don't know where they have put him (Jesus)." Mary has used the plural when reporting the missing body to Peter and John, so she's obviously not alone. Matthew tells us that "the other Mary" was with her, Matt.28:1, while Mark adds Salome, Mk.16:1, and Luke adds Joanna, Lk.24:10. So, there were possibly four women on this early morning jaunt to the garden tomb.

Within minutes of finding the tomb empty, a breathless Mary Magdalene reports the discovery to both Peter and John. The two disciples are soon on the road, running to the tomb. John getting there first, followed Peter, who bursts straight into the tomb. When John views the scene, he comes to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. John believes, believes Jesus' promise that on the third day he would rise from the dead. His belief is somehow confirmed by what he sees: an empty tomb, some ruffled sheets, a folded towel and the conviction of his heart. Later he would meet the risen Lord, but at this point he confronted a mystery similar to our own, an empty tomb, and he believed.

So, here we gather on this Easter morning faced again with the mystery of a life that transcends death. This life, this new life in Christ, is not just eternal, possessing the power to cheat father time, but transcendent, possessing the power to enliven the mediocrity of the daily grind.


1. What objective evidence do we have for the Christian faith?

2. In what sense do we live now in Christ?

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