The Empty Tomb
“Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulcher, bringing the spices which they had prepared and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulcher. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: and as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how He spake unto you when He was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered His words, and returned from the sepulcher, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not. Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulcher; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.”—Luke 24:1-12
Unbelieving scholars, who scoff at the story of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, have often tried to make it appear that the followers of the Lord were expecting Him to rise from the dead; that every shadow seen on the side of Calvary was taken to be the risen Saviour; and that His followers were in an exalted emotional state of mind and imagined they actually saw Him; but that in reality His body never left the tomb. These critics further claim that when the followers of Christ went into the sepulcher and found it empty it was because, in their excitement, they entered the wrong tomb. It is, they say, as Matthew Arnold has written, “The body of Jesus still sleeps in a Syrian tomb.” Well, if the body of Jesus still sleeps in a Syrian tomb, then you and I are without hope so far as salvation is concerned, because “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). We are not saved by the teaching of Jesus, as wonderful as that was: “Never man spake like this Man.” His teaching could not atone for sin; His teaching could not cleanse guilty souls; it could not make men and women fit for heaven. Neither are we saved by imitating the lovely life of Jesus. If our salvation depended upon our imitating that perfect life, we might everyone of us give up all hope and consider that we are just as good as eternally lost; because it is absolutely impossible for any sinful man to live a life such as Jesus, the holy Son of God, lived. It is true that after we are converted, after we have received a new nature through faith in Him, we are called upon to follow in His steps; but even then as we seek to imitate Him we realize day by day how much we fail. It is not the teaching of Jesus that saves us; it is not by imitation of His life that we are saved: WE are saved by His death and resurrection! He “was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
The Scriptures are clear and definite in regard to the great reality of His triumph over death. One witness after another is brought before us to testify to the fact that Joseph’s new tomb was empty after the three days following the crucifixion. Angels appeared to say He was risen; He Himself appeared on one occasion after another during forty days ere He ascended into heaven in the sight of His apostles. The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, Horace Bushnell has well said, is the best attested fact of ancient history. If you are familiar with history I should like to put a question to you. Take any outstanding character or event in ancient history—by ancient I mean that which has to do with persons who lived, or events that took place before the Christian era—and try to recall on the testimony of how many witnesses you accept the story which you have received concerning these persons or events. There was a man by the name of Socrates. How do you know he lived? Well, you have the testimony of Plato, and Xenophon. Beyond that you do not have the testimony of any other eye or ear witness. Others referred to him in later days on the authority of these witnesses. God has given us abundant testimony to the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. In order to get the full force of it we need to read what is recorded in all four Gospels. In addition to that, we have the definite witness of the apostle Paul, and the testimony of the apostles James and Jude, who were related to Christ after the flesh, but who write of Him as the risen One who is now Lord of all. God saw to it that there was all-sufficient evidence of the resurrection so that no honest soul need doubt.
“Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulcher.” The pronoun they refers to the women spoken of in verse 55 of the preceding chapter: that is, the women from Galilee. Actually, there were two groups of women, but Luke was not led to speak of two separate visits; so he simply says, “They came early in the morning.” The other Gospels give certain particulars concerning their coming, all in full accord with what we have here: “They came early in the morning on the first day of the week.” The first day of the week stands out from all other days and will so stand out until our Lord Himself shall appear again. In Psalm 118, after saying, “The Stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner” (verse 22), the psalmist cries out, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (verse 24). This was the day of the Lord’s triumph over death. The last Jewish Sabbath that God ever recognized had ended. While the Jews were observing the day according to their law, the body of the Lord Jesus Christ lay cold in death in Joseph’s tomb. They had refused and rejected Him. The “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The One who came to bring in the true Sabbath of God had been rejected. But on “the morrow after the Sabbath,” as written in Leviticus, chapter 23, when the first fruits were to be presented to God on the first day of the week, Jesus came forth—the first fruits of the resurrection; and thus redemption was proved to be an accomplished fact.
Moved by their love for One who had died, the women were bringing spices which they had prepared in order to properly embalm the body. They had no thought that Jesus had risen from the dead. It is absolutely absurd to contend that the followers of Christ expected Him to rise again; that it was easy for them to imagine that they saw Him; that He had told them He would rise again, and so they were expecting Him. They expected nothing of the kind. All they knew was that He had died, and with Him died also their hopes of deliverance, for they had trusted He was the One who would free them from the Roman yoke.
The women brought the spices to perform the last acts of love, to show their respect for and interest in the One who had been with them for so long, but who was now taken away. We read in Mark’s Gospel that when the women came to the tomb “they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher?” It was really like a vast millstone. And when they looked they saw that it was already rolled back. At first they were afraid to enter; and upon doing so they were astonished to find that the body was gone. They never dreamed for a moment that He was risen, but thought that someone had broken the Roman seal and stolen the body. As they stood there wondering about it, “two men stood by them in shining garments.” One of the angels asked, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” That gave them the first intimation that the Lord had actually risen. “He is not here, but is risen: remember how He spake unto you when He was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” Many times He had told them of His approaching death and resurrection, but they had not understood what His rising from the dead could mean. The angels said, “Remember!” And all that He had said came back to the minds. They remembered His words; and they returned from the sepulcher to carry the word of His resurrection to the disciples. On the way something happened that is not recorded here. Jesus personally appeared to Mary Magdalene, and later to all the women, but Luke does not stop to tell us this. Writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he was so eager to tell how the news was carried to the disciples and how they came out to see for themselves, that he omits some of these beautiful and lovely details given in the other Gospels.
They “returned from the sepulcher, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.” There is something so pathetic about this expression: “told all these things unto the eleven.” Only a few days before there had been twelve, but now there are only eleven. One who had accompanied with Jesus for three-and-one-half wonderful years, who had seen His works of power, and beheld His wondrous deeds, and knew the perfection of His Person, had turned away and gone into eternal infamy as Judas the traitor. Oh, how we need to remind ourselves of that Scripture which says, “Let him thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Many have accompanied with God’s people down through the years, going in and out among them and giving every evidence of being real disciples of His, and yet have never definitely known the Lord—apostates from the truth. They, like Judas, will go out into eternal darkness. These words speak to my heart every time I read them: God grant they may speak to yours.
Luke gives us the names of Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons; Joanna, a wealthy woman who ministered to Jesus with her substance; Mary, the mother of James, and Joses, intimately related to the Lord Himself, “and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.” At first the disciples refused to believe the women, for “their words seemed to them as idle tales.” Not one of the apostles expected Jesus to rise from the dead; not one had understood when He told them that He would rise again; therefore, when the women came back with such a wonderful tale they listened in amazement, doubtless shaking their heads and saying, “These women are terribly excited, but we cannot credit their story: it is impossible that one should come back from the dead.” Finally Peter was stirred—Peter, the one who had said, “Although all shall be offended, yet will not I;” and within another hour he had failed his Lord. But Peter loved Jesus devotedly. He determined to go and see for himself, and away he went. John tells us in his Gospel that he followed also and reached the tomb before Peter, but he did not go in. Peter stooped down—he had to stoop because the door of the sepulcher would be very low—and he entered in and saw the empty crypt, and the linen clothes lying by themselves in exactly the same form as they had been when wrapped around the body of Jesus. It was the custom of the Jews to wrap the body in long linen bands, beginning with the extremities and coming up to the torso, binding the lower limbs together, and the arms to the side, and putting a turban on the head. When the body was wrapped in these linen clothes it would be impossible for a person to free himself without disturbing them; as in the case of Lazarus when the Lord cried, “Lazarus, come forth.” He came forth bound hand and foot, and Jesus said, “Loose him, and let him go.” As Peter looked at those linen clothes he knew that only the power of God could ever have taken the body out of them. He “departed, wondering in himself (he was amazed) at that which was come to pass.”
Yes, Jesus lives! He has been raised from the dead; and because He lives, we shall live also. This is the rock foundation of our faith.