John 20:1-18 July 2017
THE EMPTY TOMB
Ill. A scientist’s wife reminded her husband at breakfast one morning that they were moving house that day. Her last words to him as he walked out door were, “Don’t forget to go to our new address when you leave work tonight.” Sure enough he returned to his old address that night and found the place completely empty. He was quite confused and asked a boy who was playing next door if he could tell him what had happened. The boy said to the scientist, “My Mum said you’d forget.”
It doesn’t’ just happen with absent minded scientists. I am often being reminded by my wife about something she has told me is happening that I’ve forgotten about. In fact it gets to the point where you’re afraid to ask in case you’ve already been told.
Jesus had told His disciples on a number of occasions that he would be crucified and would rise again on the third day, but somehow it never registered with them. It may be that they didn’t want to hear this so they adopted selective hearing. Like young people – “clean your rooms, dry the dishes, dinner’s ready.” Or it may be that the resurrection of Jesus was something they couldn’t get their head around. So when Mary went to tomb and found it empty she was shocked.
This morning let’s go back to that first Easter Sunday at the empty tomb and look at how these 3 people reacted when they found the tomb was empty.
MARY’S DEVOTION v1-2
Mary was more devoted to Jesus than any other disciple? Why? Luke tells us that she had been possessed by 7 evil spirits and Jesus delivered her.
Ill. I haven’t had much to with demon possession but when I was in Upper Hutt I was rung one day by a non-Christian lawyer who worked for Westpac bank in Wellington and he told me that every night he was being terrorised and tormented by some unexplainable entity. He said that at night it was bashing and crashing around his flat and he didn’t want to talk to normal people about it or they would think he was crazy. This force wouldn’t leave him alone and he was so desperate that he felt the only one who might be able to help was a Christian minister. I believed that what he was experiencing was an evil spirit and I directed him to a Christian doctor who had a ministry of deliverance. He called me back a few days later and told me that the doctor had been a great help. The spirit had gone and he had committed his life to Jesus.
This guy was terrorised and tormented by an evil spirit, what must have it been like for Mary who was possessed by 7 evil spirits. And then one day Jesus came along and set her free from these evil powers and her whole life was wonderfully transformed and she became the most devoted follower of Jesus. She followed Him to the cross when the others ran away, she accompanied his body to the grave and she was the first one to the tomb on the Sunday morning.
On the day Jesus died, His body had been placed in a tomb, and a huge stone wheel had been rolled into a trench in front of the opening. In the crack between the stone and the wall, there was a lump of wax with the Roman governor’s seal on it. No one could touch that stone on pain of death and Roman soldiers had been placed there to guard the tomb.
But when Mary arrived at the tomb on Sunday morning she found that the stone had been rolled back from the entrance, the soldiers had gone and the tomb was empty.
You could say that Mary was the very first pilgrim who went to the tomb of Jesus to honour the memory of this great man. And if Jesus was still in that tomb I guess his followers would have built a shrine where people could go to pay their respects to a dead man who lived an exceptional life and gave the world some of the greatest moral teaching ever given.
Every great religious leader died and remained dead and their graves are revered places to this day.
Every year millions of pilgrims travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and then on to Medina to pray and pay their respects at the grave of Mohammed.
The same is true of Buddha. Every year thousands of Buddhists visit the temple in Kushinagar in Northern India where Buddha died and his body was cremated.
And if the body of Jesus was still there Mary would have been the first Christian pilgrim to visit His grave, but what started out as a pilgrimage to honour the dead Jesus turned out to be a journey of wonderful discovery. The body was not there.
In fact we never read of any pilgrims in the NT or in the early church going to visit the tomb of Jesus. It wasn’t until 360 years later that they built the church of the Holy Sepulchre to mark the spot where they believed Jesus was buried. But what’s the point of visiting a grave when the body is not even there.
Mary’s first response to the empty tomb was to run back and find Peter and John.
It is interesting that Peter was still looked on as the leader of the disciples. Remember he had failed Jesus in His hour of need. He had denied Him 3 times and yet he was still regarded as the leader.
I think this says something about Peter and about the disciples. When Peter let Jesus down and denied Him we read that he went outside and wept bitterly. I would say that after doing this he would feel too unworthy to be a disciple of Jesus let alone the leader and yet the others wanted him to be the leader.
Leaders are not people who have got it all together. Leaders are not people who don’t fail and make mistakes. And the very best leaders in the church are those who know their weaknesses and failures and feel unworthy to be leaders. The best qualification for leadership a sense of unworthiness.
Ill. Last time the Baptist assembly was held in Hamilton Gordon MacDonald was one of the speakers. Gordon had been pastor of Grace Chapel in Massachusetts for 12 years and then became the president of the Intervarsity Christian fellowship. In 1987 Gordon publicly confessed that he had committed adultery and he repented of his sin. 6 years later Grace Chapel, a church of 2500 asked him to come back and be their pastor again.
A lot of leading Christians in America condemned the church for doing this. One Christian leader said that this showed how morally low Grace Chapel had sunk.
I would have once joined the critics in condemning this move, but no longer, for two reasons:
- Although I haven’t committed adultery, as a Pastor I have done things that I am ashamed of and in God’s eyes there is no difference. Sin is sin, no matter what form it takes.
- I admire a church that can forgive and restore fallen leaders. We are not to be a condemning community, but a restorative community. Sure, we are called to be holy and morally pure and to uphold God’s moral standards, but when someone fails and is genuinely sorry we must forgive and restore them, just as Christ has forgiven us and continues to forgive us.
If there is genuine repentance, the fallen leaders need to be restored, and like Peter, I think they will be the more humble because of the experience. Not only did the disciples want the fallen Peter to be their leader, but Jesus came to Peter after he had failed and reaffirmed Him as a leader in His church.
PETERS DILEMMA 3-7
Peter and John ran to the Tomb, but John being the younger got there first. When John reached the tomb he hesitated at the entrance and looked inside but Peter who was generally impulsive went straight in.
When Peter entered the tomb and looked he didn’t understand, He was confused. In fact in this passage there are three different Greek words used for look.
When Mary looked in v1 the Greek word is blepo which means a quick glance. When John looked in v5 it is the word blepo again – a quick glance.
But when Peter looked the Greek word is thereo which means to examine with the mind.
When the body of Jesus was prepared for the tomb, His head would have been bound separately to stop the jaw from falling open and then a full length linen sheet would have been wrapped around his body lengthwise from head to foot and after that strips of linen cloths were wound around the body like a bandage.
When Peter and John looked, they saw the strips of linen cloth lying in one place and the bandage that was wound around Jesus head folded up neatly and lying separately from the other grave clothes.
If the body was stolen, surely the robbers would have taken the grave clothes as well, but they would have had to sneak past the Roman guards and roll away the huge stone that covered the mouth of the tomb.
Peter couldn’t work out what had happened. It was all so confusing to him.
JOHN’S DISCOVERY v8
When John entered the tomb and looked in verse 8 the Greek word is Horao – and it means to look with understanding and discernment. And the result was that John believed. John saw something the others didn’t.
It might have been the way the grave clothes were lying. The Body of Jesus would have passed through the grave clothes without unwrapping them. So they probably pay there like an empty cocoon, but he would have seen something even more significant. He saw the bandage that had been around Jesus head folded up neatly by itself.
In Jesus day when a carpenter had finished making something he would fold up the towel he used to wipe the sweat from his brow and place it on the finished product. It was the carpenter’s way of letting others know that his work was completed.
John knew that Jesus had been a carpenter and he must have known about this practice and when he saw cloth lying neatly folded on one side He knew that Jesus the carpenter had completed His work on earth.
John was the first person to believe in the resurrection of Jesus before he even saw the risen Lord.
DEVOTION REWARDED v10-18
As I said before, I believe Mary Magdalene was the most devoted of all the disciples and when Peter and John left the empty tomb she stayed there crying because the body of her beloved Lord had been taken away.
Imagine if you attended the funeral of someone you loved and the next day you went to the grave and found that someone had come during the night, dug up the coffin and removed the body.
Ill. That happened 3 months ago in Vanuatu. A little baby girl died and not long after the funeral her family saw the very clothes they had buried their little girl in being worn by someone else. They asked the sexton at the cemetery to dig up the coffin and when they opened it they discovered that the body was not there. They were devastated as you would be. And that would have been how Mary felt.
Mary looked into the tomb again and saw 2 angels dressed in white and they asked her why she was crying and she told them that someone had taken her Lord away and she didn’t know where they had taken Him.
And then she must have heard a movement behind her because she turned around and there was Jesus, but she didn’t recognise Him. He asked her why she was crying and she, thinking he was the one who cared for the cemetery, said, “If you have carried Him away, tell me where you have put Him and I will get Him.”
I think it is fairly obvious why she didn’t recognise Jesus.
- She wasn’t expecting to see Him.
- She felt self-conscious because she had been crying.
- Middle eastern women do no not look strange men in the face.
She would have covered her red eyes with her veil. In fact as soon as she spoke to him she turned back to look at the tomb. And then Jesus said to her, “Mary” and this time she recognised His voice and she answered, “Teacher.”
As long as Mary kept looking at the grave she was overwhelmed with sorrow and despair, but when she turned and looked at Jesus her sorrow turned to hope and joy.
Do you know what the ultimate goal is for most people in this world? A whole in the ground or a pile of ashes. It doesn’t matter how much you achieve, how much you accumulate, how important you become – your ultimate goal is – the grave. That’s quite a depressing thought.
As long as that is your ultimate goal there is no future, no hope, nothing to really look forward to – like Mary, as long as she looked at the grave there was only sorrow and despair.
But if you look to Jesus, the goal changes. Because Jesus died and entered the grave but he came out alive and lives forever more and He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”
I have been reading Billy Graham’s latest book. It’s called “Nearing home”, and he wrote it when he was 92. He says that as you get older, if you just focus on the negative aspects of growing old like the increasing aches and pains and death and the grave, you will become more depressed and miserable, but if you focus on Jesus you will know joy and hope and peace.
Because Jesus has conquered death and lives forever, our ultimate goal is not a 6 foot hole in the ground or a pile of ashes – it is heaven and living with Christ forever which is glory!
Jesus then said to Mary, “17 “Don’t cling to me, for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
It seems that Mary was clinging to Jesus and He said to her, “Don’t hold onto me. I need to go back to my Father in heaven.”
Mary wanted Jesus to stay with her as He was, but He needed to return to heaven and then He would come to all believers by His Spirit and stay with us forever.
In closing, Mary’s devotion to Jesus is an example to all believers. Jesus had set her free from the powers of darkness that bound her and all she ever wanted to do from that day on was to follow Him and serve Him. She didn’t follow Him for what she could get out of Him, she was so grateful for what he had done for her that she wanted to spend the rest of her life expressing her love and gratitude and that is why she was there at the empty tomb.
I come across Christians who have received God’s free gift of forgiveness and eternal life and yet they are angry with God because He didn’t answer their prayers or He didn’t prevent some tragedy in their lives.
If I never received another thing from God in this life, what He has already done for me is far, far, far more than I ever deserved. He sacrificed His own Son for me so that I can be forgiven, become His child and spend eternity with Him in heaven.
What the Lord has already done for us is more than enough to make us want to spend the rest of our lives following, loving and serving Him.
I am reminded of the words of Ignatius of Loyola,
“Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will.”