Chapter 6 The Garden Tomb

John 20:1-18

Heart of the Christian Faith

If the death of Jesus is the heart of our faith, the resurrection of Christ is the cornerstone of the Gospel. We read that the Lord Jesus Christ “was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection was the central theme in the testimony of the early church. “With great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33). This foundational fact of our faith now engages our joyous contemplation. The walk from Gethsemane to Golgotha has been long and hard. Now, the weight is lifted and joy bursts the bands of sin and sorrow.

“The first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the sepulchre while it was still dark, and saw the stone taken away from the sepulchre” (v. 1).

The first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, is emblematic of the new creation. On this day, standing on redemption’s and resurrection’s ground, we especially gather to worship our Risen Lord in Spirit and in truth.

“Sorrow and love, are light sleepers” (Alexander Maclaren), so Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early while it was still dark. How many, especially women, like to go to a cemetery in the dark? I know that many do in the Philippines for the all-night vigil of the All Saints celebration. But, at that time the cemeteries are thronged with people and are ablaze with the light of hundreds of candles. What made Mary come to the graveyard in the dark? Having been forgiven much, she loved much. “Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven demons” (Luke 8:2). Love drew her. Why is it that some believers do so little for their Savior? I believe it is primarily because of a low sense of indebtedness. When our sinful, lost condition is little felt, then little is done for the Lord. But if, by the Holy Spirit, we have been deeply convicted that without the Lord Jesus we would spend all eternity in hell, and that we are helpless to save ourselves, then we feel that we can never do enough for Him. A thousand lifetimes would be too few. His saving love propels us. That was Mary. And, great honor is reserved for great love for Christ :

    Mary saw angels.
    Mary talked with angels.
    She was the first to see our Lord, risen from the dead.
    She was the first to speak to Him.
    She was the first one to hear His voice.
    Mary was the first to tell the good news that He was alive.
    She became an apostle to the apostles.

“and saw the stone taken away from the sepulchre.” This had been the problem of the three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, as they sadly walked to the tomb. “And they said among themselves, Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?” (Mark 16:3). How many times already our Lord has solved the problem that presses so heavily upon us. The stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses look in.

The Empty Tomb

“so she ran” (v. 2).

Is she excited to tell the joyous news that the Lord is risen? No, she fears a grave robbery. There was no thought of a resurrection. It was the same with all of His disciples when Mary later, after seeing the Risen Lord, went and told them. “And they, when they heard that He was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not” (Mark 16:11). The unbelieving minds of the disciples were not fertile soil for the invention of a resurrection story.

“And came to Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (v. 2).

The beloved John was a brother born for adversity. He was staying with Peter who was crushed in heart because he had denied his Lord. He must have felt that he was no longer a disciple, because the heavenly messenger said: “Go your way, tell His disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7). John didn’t forsake Peter in his time of need. And, a friend in need is a friend indeed. A true friend is one who knows all about you, and loves you just the same. You probably will have few such steadfast friends during your lifetime. They are golden. Do not lose them.

John does not name himself in the Gospel the Holy Spirit inspired him to write. He usually designates himself: “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” If you could have asked John: “What is the greatest fact in your life?” He may have answered: ‘That’s easy; I am the disciple that Jesus loves.” It was not so much his love for the Lord Jesus (we should never be ashamed to give this testimony), but it was Jesus’ love for him that thrilled and gripped his soul. He never got over the wonder of it — that the great Lord of Glory should love him, an undeserving sinner. When all the disciples forsook the Lord Jesus and fled, the love of Christ brought John back to stand by the cross. Only Jesus’ love will keep us true to Him. Every believer is the disciple whom Jesus loves, but only those who abide in Him live in the daily experiential realization of it. He never ceases to love us, but we can step outside His sheltering embrace. Yet, He still loved Peter at the enemies’ fire as much as He loved John by the cross. The difference was that John ever lived in the actuality of the Savior’s love.

“They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre” (v. 2).

How often we attribute to “they” what He has done. We often say: “What he did, or she did, or they did,” when all the time the Lord is working on our behalf. If we could only be more like the beloved John who said: “It is the Lord” (John 21:7), and see Him in all the changing circumstances of life. Furthermore, how can they take away the Lord?

“Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulcher. So they ran both together and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre” (v. 34).

I do not know if John were younger or Peter heavier, but John got to the tomb first. In keeping with his more reserved nature, “stooping down and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in” (v. 5). Then Peter came, perhaps huffing and puffing, and ran right into the tomb (v. 6). If John had been in his way, he probably would have knocked him over. John and Peter are so different in character. When we are saved, we are not like a string of sanctified sausages out of a machine. In Christ, we still are gloriously different. God’s garden of saints is a variegated delight. Please do not endeavor to press another believer into your personality mold, and don’t try to make yourself into the fashion of another Christian. Learn from the good example of other believers (1 Cor. 11:1), but do not mimic them. Be your own best self for God. He wants you to be what He is making you.

“and he saw the linen clothes lying” (v. 6).

Much of the graphic vividness of this moving scene is depicted by three different words in the original language for seeing. In verse four, John stooping down and looking into the tomb saw the linen wrappings. This indicates a somewhat quick glance at them. Peter went into the tomb and saw the linen wrappings. The word “theory” is derived from this word. In order to truly propound a theory, he looked long at the linen wrappings, minutely examining them with his eyes. He saw them lying there, still in the form of our Lord, like a chrysalis from which the butterfly had emerged.

The myrrh which Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus bound together with the linen wrappings (John 19:39, 40) was a very sticky substance, like chewing gum. You will recall when Lazarus came forth from the grave “bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face bound about by a napkin” John 14:44. See him, shuffling forthwith muffled mutterings. Jesus had to say: “Loose him, and let him go” (John 11:44). When preparing a body for burial, the Jews wrapped each arm and hand, and leg and foot, and even each finger and toe, individually. It would be impossible to unwrap anyone from the sticky grave clothes, and keep the wrappings in the shape of the body. Yet Peter saw them lying there in proper form but without the body of Jesus. The linen cloth which had been wrapped around the face of Jesus is carefully folded and lying in a place by itself (v. 7). All was in order. There was no disarray of robbery. We do not wonder that the angel invites: “Come see the place where the Lord lay” (Matt. 28:6). Alexander Maclaren aptly writes: “The emblems of death become the trophies of victory.” Religions proudly revere tombs and relics. Christians point to a triumphant Christ who rose from the grave.

Those who will not believe in the resurrection have a problem with the empty tomb. They know that the body of Jesus was buried in the new rock sepulchre belonging to a man named Joseph who lived in Arimathaea, and who was rich. A great stone closed the entrance to the tomb which was sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers (Matt. 28:57-66). All of this is history. They know that on the third day the tomb was empty. How can you explain the empty tomb?

Theories about the empty tomb:

The first false theory is found in the Bible, itself. The chief priests gave large sums of money to the soldiers who were guarding the tomb to say that Jesus’ disciples came by night, and stole Him away while they slept (Matt. 28:12, 13). Is it possible to believe that those terrified disciples, fearfully huddled in an upper room with the doors shut, would courageously go to the tomb, overwhelm the soldiers, break the seal of Rome to roll away the stone, and steal the body of Jesus? And, if they did, how about the grave clothes lying there? Also, how does anyone know what has happened while he was asleep?

Another ingenious statement concerning the empty tomb is that the women, blinded by their tears, went to the wrong grave. The body of Jesus had been laid there just a few hours before and it would be amazing for the women to make such a mistake so soon after. It would almost seem that the Holy Spirit, anticipating such an error, carefully recorded: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus were looking on to see where He was laid” (Mark 15:47). Did Peter and John also run to the wrong place? And, how about the angels, did they make a mistake? Others have propounded that the Lord Jesus merely fainted on the cross and revived in the cool tomb. What about the spear-thrust of the soldier to make sure that He was dead? And, if our Lord had crawled out of the tomb, emaciated and weakened by His suffering, that would have been the end of Christianity. No one would have believed that such a One was the triumphant Lord of the church. In considering the false theories regarding the empty tomb, we agree with Alexander Maclaren: “It is easier to believe the miracle, than the impossible.”

“Then went in also that other disciple, who came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed” (v. 8).

This is the third word for seeing, in this passage. When I explain something to the students at the Grace Christian High School, I may ask: “Do you see it?” I mean: “Do you perceive it? Do you get it?” This is the meaning of the word used here. Peter had more sight; John had more insight. Therefore, he “believed” (v. 8). What did he believe? I feel that John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was the first one to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.

“For as yet they knew not the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (v. 9).

A. T. Robertson writes that the Scripture probably was Psalm 16:10, “Thou wilt not leave My soul in Sheol; neither wilt thou allow Thy Holy One to see corruption.” On the Day of Pentecost, Peter knew this Scripture for he preached that in it David spoke beforehand of the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:31). Also, the Lord Jesus had said that like Jonah, He would be three days in the heart of the earth. Then, He came forth, as Jonah did. There is also the beautiful illustration of the two birds in Leviticus, chapter fourteen. One bird was killed, and the living bird was dipped in its blood and then loosed to fly away. It is a fitting picture of death and resurrection.

“Then the disciples went away to their own homes” (v. 10).

Like good practical men, they as much as said: “The tomb is empty. He is not here. We may as well go home.” So they did.

Mary’s Tears

“But Mary was standing outside the sepulchre weeping” (v. 11).

Now, we behold one of the most appealing scenes in all of the Bible. What a picture it is! We see Mary alone, Mary with the angels, and Mary with the Risen Lord. Women seem to have a sixth sense. At least, Mary wasn’t satisfied. She was not ready to go home, so she stands there weeping. Bishop Ryle remarks: “The head of a woman is generally weaker than that of a man, but the affections are stronger.” Mary’s tears manifested her affection, but they also showed her unbelief. Ladies, even your tears must be regulated by the Word of God.

“She stooped down and looked into the sepulchre” (v. 11).

“Looked,” is the word for “glanced.” But, notice verse twelve: “And saw two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (v. 12). This word for “saw” is that long examining look of Peter. Can’t you see Mary glance into the open tomb, and then snap into a penetrating concentration at the sight of the angels? They were dressed in white — heaven’s color of purity. They were sitting. It is the only time in Scripture that I know of angels sitting. “Sitting” means “finished.” “The one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.” Again, I quote the apt statement of Alexander Maclaren: “In the spiritual realm there is no rivalry. There are both head and feet angels.” We, too, must take our place in His will, either as head or as feet servants, as those in the prominent place or those in humble ministries.

‘They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” ’ (v. 13).

The angels must often wonder at our tears. Mary was weeping over the very fact which should have made her rejoice. If Jesus’ body were there, she should have howled in anguish. The tears and anxieties of believers sometimes are needless. They are often for reasons which should cause us joy. But, I love Mary’s answer: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him” (v. 13). To Mary, the Lord Jesus is dead and buried, yet He is still her Lord. Risen and triumphant, is He yours?

The Risen Lord

“When she had said this, she turned around, and beheld Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus” (v. 14).

Did Mary hear a slight movement, or was it that sixth sense again, feeling that someone was behind her? At least she turned around from the tomb. She also turned away from angels. If I ever saw an angel my gaze would be transfixed, oblivious of all else. But, Mary was seeking her Lord, and even angels could not satisfy her. If there is anything from which we cannot turn away to fully follow our Lord, it means that we love it more than we love Him. If we truly love Him we will turn away from everything which impedes. When I first arrived in the Philippines in 1946, I asked a veteran missionary, Rev. Edward Bomm of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism: “Why haven’t more missionaries come to the Philippines?” He replied: “It is because many are not willing to turn away from ties of home.” I know it hurts, but you will do it when Christ calls if your love for Him is supreme.

‘Jesus said to her, “Woman , why are you weeping?” ’(v. 15).

These are His first recorded words after He rose from the dead. It is the very same Jesus who came to bind up the brokenhearted. He is the answer to all of your tears.

“Whom are you seeking?” (v. 15).

It was a loving question, precursor to the revealing of His identity. It also may have been a gentle rebuke: “Mary, think. Who is it whom you are seeking? The One whom you seek is the Resurrection and the Life. Why do you seek the Living among the dead?” But, again, I like her answer: “If you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away” (v. 15). Did you ever pick up a little boy who had fainted? He feels like he had rocks in his pockets. The Lord Jesus was a strong man in His perfect humanity, but Mary said that if she could find Him, she would lift Him up and carry Him away. Love never measures its strength, but love always gets the job done. For, love never fails.

Like someone with a wonderful secret that can no longer be contained, ‘Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said unto Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni,” (which means, Teacher.)’ (v. 16). “Woman” (v. 15), evoked no recognition. “Mary,” did. He calls His own sheep by name (John 10:3), and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice (John 10:4). Christian, are you still closely following Him, or have other siren calls enticed you? “A stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers “(John 10:5). Before reading further, get away somewhere and again listen to His call, perhaps to his recommissioning.

“Oh, I love to hear His voice
Saying, You belong to Me.
You are not your own;
with a price you’re bought,
And you’re Mine, eternally.
And, I love to hear Him say,
I have saved you by My grace.
And, when we get to glory
it will then be grander still,
For I shall see His face.’

‘Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me” ’ (v. 17).

The old relationship of sight, sound, and touch no longer exists. “I ascend to My Father” (v. 17). Mary now is to walk with her Lord, by faith and not by sight. And we, too. “Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer” (2 Cor. 5:16). Images, pictures, processions are to bring Him down to earth; He wishes to lift us up to the heavenlies. Beware of fleshly carnality in spiritual matters.

“Stop clinging to Me.” Was it not also an exhortation to Mary emphasizing that He was not her own personal property? “Go to My brethren” (v. 17). Spiritual blessings are to be shared, not selfishly enjoyed. She accepted the loving admonition. ‘Mary came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” ’ (v. 18).

Rise with Christ!

This is the Lord’s resurrection morning. The believer, also, is to be risen with Christ. In fact, God already has raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6). When we were born again, we were born resurrected. The Apostle Paul prayed for the believers at Ephesus that they might know (appropriate) in daily experience the power which God wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead” (Eph. 1:20). The resurrection life is simply, “Not I, but Christ” (Eph. 2:20) in practical reality. Colossians, chapter three, is the statement of the believer’s resurrected life in Christ. Since we are risen with Christ:

    1. Put to death: Immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (v. 5).
    2. Put off: Anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech, lying, and evil practices (vs. 8, 9).
    3. Put on: A heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another, forgiving each other, and love (vs. 12-15).
    4. Let in: The peace of Christ, and the word of Christ (vs. 16, 16).
    5. Let out: Psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, doing all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him (vs. 16, 17).
    6. Look up: For the reward of the inheritance (v. 24).

This is a Scriptural delineation of the characteristics of the resurrected life in Christ.