Empty Grave Clothes
As you can imagine, I have thought long and hard about Easter, since it is a central element of my faith. Indeed the Apostle Paul says that if the resurrection did not occur, we have all believed in vain. In May, Rebecca and I will be making a long-awaited visit to Israel. As I anticipate this trip, the historical force of this event keeps hitting me. It is the major reason I believe the message of Christianity—for two reasons:
- It deals with my sense of guilt. Today is Good Friday so Rebecca and I naturally read Matthew 27, the account of the death of Jesus. The injustice of his execution screams from every verse. And yet, there is a good side to Friday. The sinless Jesus, in spite of all the human evil around him, carried my sins as he died a guiltless sacrifice. There is no other religion that offers anything like this incredible offer of moral relief. The Gospel does not take human evil lightly, but it deals with it satisfactorily by offering an acceptable, sinless substitute in my place. When we are in Israel, I intend to find Golgotha and to reflect on this historical event as I stand in that unique location.
- The second reason is the historicity of the resurrection. I do not know if they have preserved the Garden Tomb as is, or if it has become a church building, but I want to go there as well, because, as I said, the resurrection is the major historical reason why I believe in the Gospel. Here the Christian faith makes an historical claim that could be falsified—but never has been. The problem in trying to falsify it is the empty tomb. According to Matthew 17:64, the Jewish authorities “ordered the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” I guess the first fraud was Jesus claiming to be the Son of God; the last would be his rising from the dead. They realized the two “frauds” went together, and if they were true, the implications were enormous.
The empty tomb and the missing body is a major problem. If indeed, the disciples stole the body, then most of them experienced horrendous deaths for the sake of a fraud. But not one of them said, at the crucial moment of torture or martyrdom, “We were only kidding!” On the other hand, if the Jews or the Romans took the body, all they needed to do was produce it to end this bothersome new sect. So how do you explain the empty tomb?
But for me, the real problem is not the empty tomb but the empty grave clothes. According to the Gospel of John, Simon Peter looked into the tomb and “saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen” (Jn. 20:6-7 NIV). In other words, just like the burial of Lazarus, the grave clothes, made up of linen strips wound around the body and a head scarf around the head, now lay separated, the strips keeping the shape of the body and the scarf keeping the circular shape of head. Though the body of Lazarus had to be “unbound” (John 11:44), the body of Jesus passed through the grave clothes, leaving them undisturbed. Thieves could not have taken the body and left the grave clothes in such a condition. Nor could the disciples. No, the disciples actually observed something incredible. What they saw is comparable to those big Christmas decorative figures that people inflate at night, with lights in them, but in the morning they are all lying flat on the ground, with the air gone out of them. This is the inexplicable mystery of the resurrection. No one took the body. It left on its own, passing through the unmoved grave clothes, in the power of a “resurrection body.”
As I am now in what one might call the “last six holes” of my life, it is this fact of the resurrection of Jesus that gives me the courage to “finish the round.” It is my great source of optimism in the face of death—the death that comes to all of us. Just once, in a cave in Jerusalem, death did not have the last word. “He is risen,” says the Gospel. “He is risen indeed,” responds the believer.
I trust you can all respond that way this Easter.