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“More than an Empty Tomb”

John 20:1-23
Bob DeGray
April 11, 2004

Key Sentence

The empty tomb isn’t enough - it’s a personal encounter with Jesus that makes the difference.


I. The Disciples and the Empty Tomb (John 20:1-9)
II. Mary Magdalene and the Empty Tomb (John 20:10-15)
III. Mary Magdalen and the Risen Lord (John 20:16-18)
IV. The Disciples and the Risen Lord (John 20:19-23)


        There is a difference between inferring something and experiencing it. As rational beings we’d like to think inference is as real as direct experience, but it isn’t. A jury on a murder trial may be impressed with the prosecutors deductions about opportunity dand means, but they much prefer to convict on the basis of eye-witness testimony. We saw the same thing in another form as we returned from Russia. I knew Gail and others would be tracking us, could see that our flights had left, nd even track our progress and see that we had landed. They also knew we hadn’t called to explain a delay. But knowing all that, even being sure we had arrived and were working our way through passport control was not near as satisfying as the moment when we walked through customs and were able to see hear and hug one another.

        In the same way, inferring evidence about the resurrection of Jesus is not nearly as satisfying as experiencing him. Our text this morning, John 20:1-23, is a beautiful account of the resurrection we celebrate today, but it also shows us that a personal experience of Jesus is what’s really important. The inferences from the empty tomb, vital as they are, did little for the faith of Jesus’ followers. But the direct, positive evidence of an encounter with Jesus changed their world. The empty tomb isn’t enough - it’s personal experience with Jesus that makes the difference.

I. The Disciples and the Empty Tomb (John 20:1-9)

        John 20 is the goal we’ve been moving toward for months. Now at this moment of climax, the first thing we see is doubt and fear created by the empty tomb. Let’s look at it. John 20:1-9 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!" 3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

        Two disciples are in view in this section, but the account begins with Mary Magdalene. Some have argued that this version contradicts the other Gospels, which report two or three women at the tomb. But it’s common for the Gospel writers to mention only the people important to their account, and John’s focus is on Mary Magdalene, so she’s the one he mentions.

        She probably came to the tomb with Mary the wife of Cleopas and with Salome, bringing the spices needed to complete the Jewish burial ritual. But as they came near they saw that the stone, which Joseph and Nicodemus had placed at the entrance was rolled away. One of the women must have looked in the tomb and seen that there was no body within, because when Mary Magdalene ran back to the city she didn’t tell the disciples about the missing stone but about the missing body. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!”

        Notice that Mary’s immediate interpretation is not that Jesus was raised from death, but that his body was moved. The empty tomb by itself raises questions but doesn’t offer answers. Now don’t get me wrong, I know of many good books that have emphasized the empty tomb as key evidence, and it is. If there was any hint of a body, it would quickly undercut historical Christianity. But important as it is, the empty tomb means little without an encounter with Jesus. It is the testimony of those who saw him alive that forms the foundation of the Christian faith.

        The two disciples who hear Mary’s report are Peter and John. As we’ve come to expect, John doesn’t name himself, but simply calls himself ‘the other disciple’. These two reacted strongly to Mary’s report, immediately running to the tomb. John, who was almost certainly younger, ran faster and arrived first, but he stopped outside and stooped to look in. He saw that the linen strips that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body were still lying there, and that there was no body in them. Peter came up next, and being Peter he did not stand outside the tomb and look in. He entered. He also saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head, folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Apparently this could not be seen from the entrance, but only by a person who had entered the tomb.

        These details about the cloths seem to indicate that Jesus’ resurrection body passed through them, spices and all. The strips seem to have collapsed in the form of a body, which would explain why they attracted so much attention from those who saw them. This is quite different from the resurrection of Lazarus, who came out of the tomb wrapped in the linens and wearing the head covering. These cloths are real evidence of a resurrection, especially since if the body had been taken rather than raised it is unlikely the expensive and still useful spices and linens would be left behind.

        After Peter had gone in, the other disciple followed, and John tells us, autobiographically, that he saw and believed. Does that mean that he believed in the resurrection? Possibly. Certainly for a thoughtful listener Jesus had given plenty of teaching about his resurrection. And the presence of the grave clothes was positive evidence that something very unusual had happened to this body. But I don’t think John at this time fully believed in a physical resurrection. Verse 9 says ‘They’ - John included - ‘still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.’

        It may be that John believed the recent words of Jesus who had repeatedly said he was returning to his Father. Perhaps he imagined an Elijah-like or Enoch-like taking of Jesus out of the tomb - resurrection, but not a resurrection where you get to see the person again. He and the others didn’t see that Scripture itself and Jesus’ teaching pointed to a physical resurrection and return of the person who had died on that cross. Only a personal encounter with Jesus followed by the revealing ministry of the Holy Spirit would teach them that.

        Notice however, what this empty tomb does say. If the disciples were frauds, inventing a resurrection to preserve their movement, then the Jewish authorities would have had every motive to produce the body, but they could not do so. The absence of the body, though negative evidence, is powerful. Furthermore the empty tomb rules out any re-interpretation of ‘resurrection’ that makes it merely ‘soul immortality.’ The empty tomb establishes a clear link between the crucified body of Jesus and the risen body of Jesus. Yes, his body was transformed - Paul teaches that ours will be too - but it was still his physical body; he was not just spirit or personality, and certainly not just an idea of resurrected life or ongoing purpose.

         I’ve told you the story of my high school friend Michael Carney, who was a good Irish Catholic and a sold out believer in Jesus. He and I and another friend once went to an ecumenical Easter service, and the priest who spoke said the resurrection story shows the triumph of hope over despair, that Jesus was resurrected in the ongoing faith of his followers. At that point Michael stood and asked if this priest believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. The priest said that a crude physical resurrection wasn’t needed, that it was the resurrection of Jesus’ spirit and example that was important. At which point Michael said that if that’s what ‘ecumenical’ meant he wanted no part of it, and he walked out - and we followed him.

II. Mary Magdalene and the Empty Tomb (John 20:10-15)

        So the disciples saw the empty tomb, and John believed a little, more so than Peter. Luke tells us that Peter, ‘went away, wondering to himself what had happened,’ and even John didn’t share his newfound faith. They hadn’t encountered the risen Lord, so their belief was not yet firm. The empty tomb wasn’t enough. It certainly wasn’t enough for Mary, verses 10 to 15: 10Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." 14At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15"Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

        The disciples didn’t go home to Galilee, but back to where they were staying. Mary, who had apparently lagged behind, now arrived back at the tomb and for the first time looked in for herself. But the tomb was not empty. Jesus’ body was gone, but sitting where it had been, at the head and at the feet were two angels in white. The presence of these angels is a clear sign that God is at work, and should have slightly allayed Mary’s fears, but when one of them asks “Woman, why are you crying?” she continues to show that she doesn’t understand the empty tomb, and says “they have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him."

        At that moment Mary became aware of someone else near the tomb. She probably caught movement out of the corner of her eye and didn’t recognize the man through her tears. So she turned her attention back to the tomb without really looking at him. Then the man spoke “Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, Mary repeated her misunderstanding "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." Why Mary would think the gardener had taken the body? Maybe she thought Joseph of Arimathea, who owned the garden, had bowed to Jewish pressure and ordered the gardener to move the body, or that at least he had seen the body moved.

III. Mary Magdalen and the Risen Lord (John 20:16-18)

        The point is that the empty tomb had not convinced her of the resurrection. She needed more, an encounter with Jesus. Verses 16 to 18: 16Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' " 18Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her.

        Here is the personal encounter with the risen Lord, so personal that moment of recognition revolves around Mary’s own name. Mary has heard this voice say her name before; she knows this voice. Jesus had taught that as the good shepherd he would “call his own sheep by name” and that “his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Mary’s anguish, despair and misunderstanding are transformed. She addresses Jesus as she always has ‘Rabboni!’ or Teacher, and she falls at his feet, weeping with joy.
        Mary’s emotion is so strong that she apparently clings to his feet for quite a time, which brings a difficult comment from Jesus. He says ‘"Don’t keep clinging to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Some have taught that during this encounter Jesus was in a transitional, half finished state, that he had to ascend to the Father before he could return and see the disciples. I don’t agree. I think he was saying ‘Don’t worry Mary, I’m not disappearing again right away. I am going to ascend to my Father, but I haven’t done it yet. You don’t have to fear losing me again.” Jesus then commissions her to share this good news: “Go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

        When we have a personal encounter with Jesus he almost invariably asks us to go and tell. We’re supposed to share what we experience. The wording here, however, is fairly unique. Note that Jesus calls the disciples his brothers. Because of his death, resurrection and exaltation they are now adopted as sons and become his brothers. The letter to the Hebrews expands on this thought by saying “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” Therefore, Jesus will ascend “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We’re part of the family, children of Jesus’ Father, followers of his God and as the apostles will later teach, “heirs__heirs of God and co_heirs with Christ.” This is just one of the fruits of the resurrection.

IV. The Disciples and the Risen Lord (John 20:19-23)

        So, having had this personal encounter, Mary obeys. We presume she leaves Jesus in the garden, probably with many joyful looks back, and goes to the city for the second time, this time with assurance and hope and a message rather than just a bare report of an empty tomb. She tells the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’ and gives them the message he sent. It’s likely that the disciples had already received two or three reports of an empty tomb and angels, but this may have been the first eye-witness encounter they’ve heard of. But we’re led to presume they didn’t really believe it. They needed a personal encounter with Jesus of their own. We see that encounter in verses 19 to 23: 19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

        Mary saw Jesus in the morning. Later that day he met two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Then, in the evening, he appeared to ten disciples - the twelve, less Judas, less Thomas, who wasn’t there, though others may also have been present. These followers, still living in fear and feeling threatened by the Jewish leaders, were behind locked doors. But these doors emphasized the miracle of Jesus’ appearance. He could have just knocked, but instead he passed through the doors as earlier he passed through the grave clothes, and was simply there. In fact this Sunday night appearance so impressed the early church that for many years their major Sunday evening meeting would begin with the phrase ‘Marana Tha,’ ‘O Lord, Come’.

        Jesus greets them with the simple phrase ‘Peace be with you’, the Hebrew ‘shalom aleykem’ which is still used in Israel today. It’s a common greeting, especially on the lips of the resurrected Jesus, and they probably saw in it no special significance. Later, however, they may have remembered that Jesus had repeatedly promised them peace. Now, as their risen Savior, he was bestowing it. This may be part of the reason Paul uses this word, along with ‘grace’ to open every one of his letters.

        Next, Jesus gives them physical proof that it is he. He shows them his hands and his side, and Luke adds, also his feet. Could anyone else have these scars? Even another crucified man would only have the scars on hands and feet, but not his side. Just as John mentioned the spear thrust when Jesus died, to prove his death, so now he mentions it’s scar to prove his life. The same Jesus who suffered rose. And these scars remained even though Jesus had received a transformed body. In fact in Revelation Jesus is recognized in heaven as one ‘looking like a Lamb who had been slain.’ Poets and songwriters have noted this. Michael Card says ‘when the kingdom comes with it’s perfected sons, he will be known by his scars.’

        The result for the disciples was overwhelming joy. Jesus kept the promise of chapter 16 “I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” The empty tomb hadn’t brought joy - wonder, fear, even some belief, but not joy. Only an encounter with Jesus brings that. It’s not just joy, sometimes it brings sorrow as well, as it may have for Peter. But the sorrow is suffused with joy, joy at who Jesus is, joy at what he has done. The empty tomb isn’t enough, but an encounter with the risen, scarred Christ changes lives and hearts.

        Just as he did with Mary, and in other forms in other resurrection appearances, Jesus now gives these disciples their commission, their ‘go and tell’. He says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." Jesus was sent to glorify the Father and be glorified by him, to reveal the Father, to obey the Father, and to bring the message of salvation through believing to a world that did not want to hear. As a result of that message some were called by the Father from the dark world into light and life. Now, Jesus says, they must go back into that world with the same mission - to live obediently and to declare salvation and eternal life through faith in Jesus.

        But to live and serve as Jesus did is impossible for this ragtag band of weak, dull disciples. So, in verse 22, Jesus “breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit.” He had promised that when he returned to the Father, the Holy Spirit would come to help them in this mission, this quest to live and share the love of Jesus. So, because the word Spirit is the same word as ‘breath’, Jesus breathes, and reminds them symbolically that he is giving this gift. Some have said that John replaces Pentecost with this scene, but it seems to me that Jesus is merely anticipating Pentecost. He is reinforcing his promise, prior to the Spirit’s actual arrival.

        Jesus also portrays the impact of their ministry. Using passive verbs, showing that God is doing the forgiving, he says 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” In the context of their mission this forgiveness is the result of sharing the gospel. The good news either brings men to repent in response to God’s sacrifice, or it leaves them unforgiven. And since we are responsible to share and live that good news, our forgiveness and God’s go hand in hand in their lives. But it’s based on their response to the Gospel, not our whim.

        What have we seen? That the empty tomb, as powerful as it is, was not enough to change the lives or the hearts of those who encountered it. John responded to it a little bit, Mary misunderstood it, the others ignored it. But when they encountered the risen Christ their lives were changed: grief turned to joy and despair to purpose. An encounter with Jesus brings joy and comfort and mission - a command to go and tell what we know and have experienced. And the beauty of the resurrection is this: though Jesus has now ascended to the Father, he is still alive; he has not returned to the grave, but continues to encounter men and women today. He makes an impact on people’s lives. He meets people in their grief. He saves and forgives and commissions. He hasn’t stopped doing it since that day two thousand years ago.

        But if the empty tomb is not enough, how do we encounter Jesus? Very simply. First, and maybe foremost, through his people, who carry his Holy Spirit, and who share with us his word, and who model his love. Most people who encounter Jesus encounter his hands, his feet his body, the church, of which he is the head, and they say with pagans in the third century, ‘behold how they love one another’. We heard several testimonies in Russia of people who came to be believers because they had encountered at English camp the unexplainable love of the Savior in his people. Second, we encounter Jesus through prayer and worship. It’s when we seek him on a heart level that we begin to sense his presence and know his resurrected life. Some who were here Thursday night would agree that Jesus was here as well, and spoke to our hearts. Third, we encounter Jesus through his word. This Spirit-given record is the Spirit’s sword, and with it he penetrates us to allow the life and light of Jesus to flow into us. It’s in the word we get to know him and as we get to know him we experience first hand the joy of his resurrected life, and his call to service. Mike Bauer, who will be here next week as our Associate Pastor candidate came to faith after reading the New Testament on his own. That’s the power of the Word.

        The truths we celebrate today are a compelling call to that encounter with the risen Christ. When we have it, wee experience his comfort, his strength, and his miraculous work, doing things that we could never do. And such an encounter is a powerful for us as it was for those first followers. Even though we will not in this life have the chance to put our hands in his side or our fingers in his scars, we are still utterly dependent on the one who died and rose with those scars. Shortly after the butchery of the First World War, and seemingly anticipating the even greater butchery of the remainder of the century, Edward Shillito captured this truth in his poem, Jesus of the Scars:

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now:
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn_pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to_day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

        It’s not the empty tomb, it’s an encounter with the risen Savior-of-the-scars that makes the difference.