“The Empty Tomb”Dr. Noel Schoonmaker Luke 24:1-12 Year C – Easter - Resurrection of the Lord
The women who arrived at the tomb on Sunday were navigating their way through a period of profound grief. They had witnessed as their beloved Jesus was crucified the previous Friday. After watching him die slowly, shamefully, and painfully on a heinous cross, they were probably in shock. Adding to their trauma was the perfunctory nature of Jesus’ burial. When someone died in New Testament times, the corpse was normally washed with perfumes and ointments, wrapped in strips of cloth, and carried by procession to a tomb. People would speak eulogies and then place the body inside the tomb (B. R. McCane, “Burial Practices, Jewish” in Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds., Dictionary of New Testament Background [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000], 174). Tragically, there was no time for all this when Jesus was buried.
Joseph of Aramathea didn’t get the body off the cross till about 4:30 in the afternoon, and the sun usually set around 6:00 that time of year (Malcolm O. Tolbert, Luke [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970], 182). The body had to be in the grave by sundown because the Sabbath was beginning. So all Joseph had time to do was wrap the body in a linen cloth and go and put it in the tomb. There was no time to anoint it with perfumes. There was no time for proper eulogies to be spoken. Jesus’ loved ones didn’t have a chance to say a proper goodbye. They didn’t achieve any sense of closure.
So the women who saw Jesus buried without a proper funeral went home and made funeral preparations for him. I imagine tears streaming down their faces as they carefully prepared spices and perfumes for his body. They rested on Saturday in observance of the Sabbath, and then early on Sunday morning they went back to the cemetery to give Jesus a respectable funeral, to say a proper goodbye, to gain some measure of closure after losing someone so dear to them.
As they walked toward the tomb, Mark’s gospel says they worried about who would roll the stone away. Ancient tombs were basically caves with people buried inside. They were sealed with a large round stone that was rolled across the entrance to keep out wild animals. But when the women reached Jesus’ tomb, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. Early sunrays must have illumined the tomb as they stepped inside and discovered that Jesus’ body was gone. The body that had been buried there on Friday was nowhere to be found. The tomb was empty.
The empty tomb might sound like a fairy tale, but there is historical evidence supporting it. Matthew reports that some people started a rumor that Jesus’ disciples had come in the night and stolen the body. Even the opponents of early Christianity knew the tomb was empty—that’s why they had to explain it with a rumor. In fact, if the tomb had not been empty, all the opponents would have had to do was produce Jesus’ body and the Jesus movement would have been terminated.
Someone might ask, “But what if Jesus’ disciples really did steal his body and fabricate the story of his resurrection?” This is improbable. Let me tell you why. Acts 12 says that King Herod had Jesus’ disciple James put to death by the sword. James was martyred for his faith. If he had been in on a plot to steal Jesus’ body and fabricate a story of his resurrection, surely he would have renounced his disingenuous faith when they prepared to slay him for it.
Early Christian writings tell us that Peter was also martyred. He was crucified upside down. If Peter had been part of an elaborate scheme to steal Jesus’ body and make up a story about his resurrection, surely he would have renounced his disingenuous faith when they sentenced him to a cross for it. This is Peter we’re talking about, the one who had denied Jesus three times previously. Certainly he would have denied him once more when they started putting the nails through his hands.
Besides Judas, who betrayed Christ, 10 of the other 11 remaining disciples died for their faith. Only John died of natural causes, and that was after he suffered persecution. Why would they go through all that for a faith they knew to be a lie? This theory is historically insupportable. It is clear that the tomb was empty, and that the disciples did not steal the body.
Still, verse 4 says that when the women first saw the empty tomb, they were “perplexed.” The Greek term suggests mental confusion. The empty tomb required interpretation. Fortunately, two men in dazzling attire showed up to explain things. They were angels, the text says, messengers of God (Lk 24:23). Perhaps there were two of them in order to meet the requirement in Dt 19:15 that every testimony be confirmed by at least two witnesses. In any case, the angels said to the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Here is the news that altered history. Here is the essence of Easter. Here is the foundation of Christianity. Here is the report that reconfigured reality. Jesus has risen!
Let me be clear that the resurrection is not a metaphor. Luke is not saying the disciples had a psychological experience that made Jesus live on in their hearts. He’s not saying that Jesus’ teachings were so compelling, and the life he lived was so beautiful, that some of his admirers decided to say he was resurrected as a way of keeping his memory alive. No! Luke is saying Jesus of Nazareth died on a Friday and was dead as a doornail for 36 hours or so. Then on Sunday morning, he got up from the grave. This was not a resuscitation to his former life on earth but the inauguration of his new life in glory. Jesus’ resurrection was a real event that transformed reality. It was an actual event that altered history. It was a heavenly event that invaded earth. It was an eternal event that interrupted time.
Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection. There is mystery here, to be sure—marvelous mystery, irreducible mystery, transcendent mystery. But the resurrected Jesus cannot be downgraded to a metaphor for the church’s experience of Jesus. Nor can it be demoted to a Christian expression of the vernal equinox. Jesus is resurrected whether we believe it or not, whether we experience him or not.
When the disciples saw the risen Jesus later in Luke 24, they thought he was a ghost, so we know his body looked different than before. It was a resurrected body, a spiritual body, as Paul puts it (1 Cor 15:44). But then Jesus showed the disciples his flesh and bones and ate a broiled fish right there in front of them. Metaphors don’t eat tilapia. Luke is conveying that God raised Jesus from the dead in a mysterious way but a concrete way.
The resurrection of Christ is a unique event that God performed to vindicate Jesus of Nazareth. The resurrection means Jesus is the Messiah he claimed to be. It means his words are God’s words, and his way is God’s way. The resurrection is God’s way of saying “Yes” to everything Jesus stood for. More than God’s stamp of approval on Jesus’ lifestyle, the resurrection confirms Jesus’ lordship over all creation.
The resurrection also means that the crucifixion the Friday before was not a tragedy but a triumph. What looked like a display of pathetic weakness was actually the power of Almighty God saving humanity from sin. In light of the resurrection, the crucifixion looks strangely wonderful. That’s why we can sing, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” On Easter Sunday, a terrible Friday became Good Friday.
The resurrection further reveals that death has been defeated. Christ has conquered the grave and has blazed a pathway to the life everlasting. In light of the resurrection, death is real, but death is not ultimate. Death hurts, but death is not final. Death still has a voice, but it does not have the last word. Suffering is not how the story ends. The resurrection explodes death’s exclamation point into ellipsis points.
The resurrection ultimately transforms the lives of all who believe it. For those who exercise faith in the resurrected Christ, fear withers and love flourishes. Despair shrinks and hope stands tall. Anxiety subsides and peace proliferates. Indifference fades and joy multiplies. The resurrection brings power to the weak, encouragement to the downcast, and optimism to all who are lying on their deathbed.
But the news that Jesus has arisen is not always readily received. In fact, when the announcement was first made to the women at Jesus’ tomb, it had to be followed with specific instructions. The angels said to the women, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified and on the third day rise again.”
The women had been puzzled at the sight of the empty tomb because their memories had grown fuzzy. But when they recalled that Jesus had indeed said it would be necessary for him to suffer, die, and arise again, they gained clarity and conviction. They began to see the resurrection as part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Their puzzlement turned into purpose. Their worry turned into witness. And they went and told the other disciples all that had happened.
The difficulties of life had caused their memory of Jesus to blur. The disappointment, loss, adversity, and grief they had endured had led them into a state of confusion. But it was only right that they remembered Jesus clearly at the empty tomb. You see, the Greek term translated “tomb” in verse 2 is mnemeion, which literally means, “place of remembrance” (David Garland, Luke [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011], 940).
It’s related to our English term “mnemonic,” as in a “mnemonic device” that help us to remember things clearly. The empty tomb is a mnemonic. It’s an effective reminder, not of a dead person buried there, but of the living Christ who taught us the truth, died for our sins, rose from the dead, and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.
Even today, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we can become overwhelmed with the difficulties of life. The adversity, disappointment, grief, and discouragement we experience can sometimes lead us into a cloudy mental state. But when we remember the empty tomb, it can set us aright amid our struggles.
Remembering the empty tomb can rectify our blurry focus.
It can bring purpose to our scattered life.
It can bring direction amid our disorientation.
It can bring strength amid our weakness.
It can bring healing amid our heartache.
It can bring hope amid our despair.
It can bring joy amid our disappointments.
It can bring sunrays amid the winters of our soul.
It can bring us clarity amid all the confusion of life.
The empty tomb can fill us in ways nothing else can. It can fill us with faith in the One who vacated it! It can fill us with hope in the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ! It can encourage us to follow the women at the tomb in becoming faithful witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection so that others may find hope beyond the grave! And it can fill us with unshakeable joy, because through our risen Savior, we too shall find life on the other side of death! Amen.
About the writer:
Noel Schoonmaker is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN. A native of Travelers Rest, SC, he was ordained to the gospel ministry at Churchland Baptist Church in Lexington, NC, where he served as Senior Pastor from 2004-2005. He also served as Pastor of First Baptist Church, Valdese, NC from 2007-2013. Noel is a graduate of Furman University (B.A.), Wake Forest University (M.Div.), and Vanderbilt University (Ph.D.). He enjoys making music, playing basketball, reading, and being in the mountains. His favorite thing to do is spend time with his wife, Dayna, and their young daughters, Maggie and Nora.
Scripture and Music:
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
We Welcome Glad Easter
Jesus Christ Is Risen Today
Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise
The Day of Resurrection
Now the Green Blade Riseth
Hail Thee, Festival Day
Crown Him with Many Crowns
Thine Is the Glory
Look, Ye Saints! The Sight Is Glorious
Christ Is Alive
Christ the Lord Is Risen Again! (John Rutter)
O Be Joyful for Christ the Lord Is Risen (J.S. Bach)
Christ Is Alive (arr. Hal Hopson)
This Is the Day (Blankenship)
In Thee Is Gladness ( arr. Kallman)
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (Martin or Mallory)
He Is Alive! (Buryl Red from Celebrate Life!)
Hallelujah (G. F. Handel from Messiah)
Hallelujah (Beethoven from Mount of Olives)
I Know That My Redeemer Liveth (Handel)
Rise Again (Holm)
Were You There (spiritual)