The Empty Tomb

An amazing event stirred the early Christians to proclaim the message about the Kingdom of God.

A spectacular, stupendous event happened almost 2,000 years ago that changed the course of history. That event was so dramatic it completely transformed the lives of 11 men, and later the Apostle Paul, who were willing to die a martyr’s death. It ought to be changing our lives today.

That event included an empty tomb that a 15-minute walk from the center of Jerusalem could either confirm or disprove. Many people at the time would have gone to see for themselves—and they did! They all knew the tomb was empty!

What could the Roman and Jewish authorities do about the empty tomb of this man, who had been crucified and buried three days before? How could they explain it? More importantly, how are we to explain it today? Those who deny the existence of God and His authority over them are still faced with that very serious problem. After almost 2,000 years, mankind is still faced with the fact of the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ to human beings.

Anyone who tries to rationalize away the events surrounding the resurrection must answer these facts: Both the Jewish priests and the Roman government took many precautions to make sure Jesus was dead and remained in the grave. Those security precautions, including the publicized trial, crucifixion, burial, entombment, sealing and placing of a guard at Christ’s tomb, make it very difficult for critics to defend their position that Christ did not rise from the dead!

Let us briefly rehearse the sequence of events after the crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathaea, a relative of Jesus, went in boldly to Pilate to beg the body: “And Pilate marvelled if he [Christ] were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead” (Mark 15:44). Pilate could hardly give credit to what Joseph had told him. He needed to have an eyewitness he could trust before giving up the body to the dead man’s relatives. So he dispatched the centurion whose business it had been to oversee the execution. “And when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph” (verse 45).

Now, whatever Pilate’s motives may have been, the reality of Christ’s death was attested to by the very person more competent than anyone else to be a witness—the Roman commander who was in attendance at the death of Christ. On full reliance on his testimony, Pilate surrendered the body.

Also accompanying Joseph in the burial was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, “which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight” (John 19:39). Joseph and Nicodemus took the body of Jesus to a garden, in which was a new sepulchre, “hewn out of a rock,” and “wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury” and “rolled a stone to the door” (verses 40-41; Matthew 27:59-60).

The doorway of Jewish tombs is said to be about 5 feet tall, and some commentators estimate that the stone large enough to cover the opening would have had to weigh about 4,000 pounds. How could two men roll a stone that heavy? There is reason to believe that the ground sloped down toward the entrance. That being the case, they would have merely removed whatever was holding the stone in place—a wedge of some sort—and rolled it down to the door. The tomb was sealed with the body of Christ inside. That was on a Wednesday.

Where’s the Body?

We’ll pick up the story three days later: Mark 16 tells us that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome are on their way to the tomb, talking among themselves, and they’re wondering, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? … for it was very great.” Yet, on reaching the tomb, they find their difficulty gone—the stone was already rolled away (Mark 16:3-4).

All the Gospel writers speak about the stone. The testimony of Mark is that it was a very great stone—so great it was impossible for those women to move it. And if we study the wording, the men who wrote about the event chose to use words which describe their amazement at such a feat being accomplished. If we put all the statements about the moving of the stone together, the writers wondered how someone moved that huge stone clear up there! Evidently, the stone wasn’t just rolled away from the doorway—it was moved uphill—away from the tomb!

But the situation with the stone wasn’t the only interesting point in this sequence of events. There was another giant complication: Matthew 27 contains the testimony that Pilate had set a guard on the tomb and sealed the door. Some commentators think this was a Jewish guard, but the fact is that the Jews wouldn’t have needed to ask permission to place a Jewish guard. It was probably a Roman guard that Pilate sent to watch over the tomb. After all, the governor surely wanted to guard that tomb because everyone knew Jesus had stated He would leave the tomb in three days and three nights.

So, where was the body? The fact is, after the crucifixion, the disciples were running for their lives in fear of the Roman authorities and the Jewish mob. Peter was so afraid, he denied Christ three times! Men running for their lives do not go to a tomb when they know Roman guards are watching the door. Further, it was the same as committing suicide to even break the Roman seal on the stone! We simply cannot believe the disciples would have broken the seal and rolled the massive door away from the tomb with guards watching the tomb—whether they were asleep or not. That is too incredible!

Remember what had happened when the disciples came to the tomb? Christ did not go into the tomb wrapped in grave clothes. That happened after the body had been put on the bench of the tomb. The method of preparing a body for burial was to wrap it round and round with spices in the wrappings. Later, after the women had gone, John arrived at the tomb just ahead of Peter, and here is what the scripture records, “Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. … And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself” (John 20:3, 5-7).

What struck John the most was not an empty tomb, it was the empty wrappings. He looked in and saw the graveclothes still shaped in the form of a man, but caved in on themselves like an empty cocoon.

Let’s go back to the time the guards woke up in Matthew 28. When the guards awakened, they were terrified. “Now when they were going [while the women were on their way to deliver the message that Christ was not in the tomb] … some of the watch came into the city, and showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done” (verse 11). Can we imagine what those guards were thinking? They had to be terrified—first, falling asleep on duty, and then losing Jesus’s body! Not exactly what the governor would want to hear. Not exactly what the Jewish leaders wanted to hear either!

Had the guard doubted what they had seen for a moment, would they have ventured to go near the Jews, knowing that the penalty for falling asleep on duty was death? Here are the notes from the Jamieson, Faussett and Brown Commentary for verses 12-14:

And when they were assembled with the elders and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers. Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept—which, as we have observed, was a capital offense for soldiers on guard. And if this come to the governor’s ears—rather, “If this come before the governor”; that is, not in the way of mere report, but for judicial investigation, we will persuade him, and secure you—The “we” and the “you” are emphatic here—“we shall [take care to] persuade him and keep you from trouble,” or “save you harmless.” The grammatical form of this clause implies that the thing supposed was expected to happen. The meaning then is, “If this come before the governor—as it likely will—we shall see to it that.” … The “persuasion” of Pilate meant, doubtless, quieting him by a bribe ….

What was their solution to the problem? “So they took the money, and did as they were taught and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (verse 15). They concocted the lie that the disciples stole the body!

Justin Martyr, who flourished about a.d. 170, threw the lie in their face. He wrote, in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, that the Jews dispersed the lie by means of special messengers, purposely sent to every country. Here is what he wrote (Chapter cviii, emphasis added):

And though all the men of your nation knew the incidents in the life of Jonah, and though Christ said amongst you that He would give the sign of Jonah, exhorting you to repent of your wicked deeds at least after He rose again from the dead, and to mourn before God as did the Ninevites, in order that your nation and city might not be taken and destroyed, as they have been destroyed; yet you not only have not repented, after you learned that He rose from the dead, but (as I said before) you have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross.

It was in the best interest of the Romans and the Jews to keep the body of Christ in that tomb for obvious reasons. The resurrection of Christ made possible the event which occurred in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, a.d. 31—the arrival of the Holy Spirit. That could have taken place only if Jesus’s body was missing from Joseph’s tomb. Otherwise the Romans and the Jews would have taken everyone to the tomb and produced the body! They couldn’t do that because they knew the tomb was empty! Their official explanation for it—that the disciples had stolen the body—was an abject admission that the sepulchre was indeed vacant.

Why would the Jews send men throughout the world to say the disciples had stolen the body, if the body was still there? And if the body was not there, who took it—where did it go? Since the Roman government, and the Jewish authority, the enemies of Christ, testify that the tomb was empty, surely we can accept that testimony as fact.

The empty tomb—the proof that Christ had risen, electrified the apostles. The resurrection became a rallying point—a battle cry. It also became a thorn in the flesh for the authorities: “And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, Being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the next day …” (Acts 4:1-3).

The followers of Christ weren’t afraid now! They were proclaiming the resurrection in the open! These are not the same men who ran in terror after the crucifixion—these are now men of power!

Annas, the former high priest, called them to him. He wanted to know what they were doing. “And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers, and elders, and scribes, And Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem. And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, By what power, or by what name, have ye done this? Then Peter, filled with the Holy [Spirit], said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole” (verses 5-10).

The fact of the resurrection was the source of their power! The tomb was empty! The wave sheaf had been offered, and accepted, in a.d. 31. Christ is alive on the right hand of God the Father today, where He acts as Intercessor and High Priest.