The Empty Tomb

Matthew 28:1-10, 16

Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.” So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word. And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, “Rejoice!” So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.”

There are many great mountaintop experiences recorded in the Word of God: 

  • On Mount Horeb, God spoke to Moses from the burning bush.
  • On Mount Sinai, God wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone.
  • On Mount Hor, Aaron transferred his priestly robes to his son Eleazar.
  • From Mount Nebo, Moses looked over into the Promised Land.
  • On Mount Carmel, Elijah called down fire from heaven and the prophets of Baal were consumed.
  • On Mount Moriah, Solomon built the Temple.
  • On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw Jesus in His radiant glory.
  • From the Mount of Olives, Jesus would ascend into heaven.

But the greatest of all of these is Mount Calvary, where Christ was lifted up and died for our sins.

  • On Mount Calvary, Jesus of Nazareth was lifted up and bled for me and gave His life for me.  
  • On Mount Calvary, Jesus, who walked the dusty roads of Judea, who could have called 10,000 angels chose rather to suffer and die. 
  • On Mount Calvary, God let this sinless, spotless lamb of glory, the Messiah thirst to quench the spiritual thirst of all mankind.  
  • On Mount Calvary, God, who clothes the lilies of the fields, let His son hang naked and in shame for all to see and mock in derision and shame. 
  • On Mount Calvary, this precious little child who lay so innocently in a cradle in an animal’s stall in Bethlehem, now hung helpless and dying on a criminal’s cross in view of friend and foe alike. 
  • On Mount Calvary, earth has no darker sin, history no blacker page, humanity no fouler spot than the crucifixion of Jesus.

The old Hymn states, “He did it all for me, He did it all for me.  When the Savior cried, bowed His head and died.  Oh praise the Lord, He did it all for me.”

The cross is the central revelation of Scripture and the central point of history.  The heart of Christianity is the Bible, and the heart of the Bible is the Cross, and the heart of the Cross is the heart of God.  There we see man at his worst but God at His best. 

The Gospel of Matthew as well as other Gospel writers presents the reality of Jesus’ death as an absolute certainty.  Those standing around the cross watched as Jesus “breathed his last.”   

John 19:30 – He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.

They heard Him cry with a loud voice

Mark 15:37 – And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last.

Roman authorities, acting on instructions from Pilate, broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus to hasten their death; but coming to Jesus, they discovered He had already died. 

John 19:33 – But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs.

Having received confirmation of death from the Roman centurion, Pilate released the body of Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus for burial.

The callous Roman soldiers said, “He is dead.”  They didn’t care—they had gambled for His clothes while He hung suffering.

The curious crowds, stupidly unconscious of the eternal significance, said “He is dead.”  They had seen the blood they had wanted to see.

Pilate got the word, “Jesus is dead.”

The head-wagging mob said, “He is dead.”  They were probably sorry that He could not hear their taunts and jeers anymore.

Mary, feeling the pain like a dagger in her heart, said, “My son is dead.”

His disciples, numb and stunned with the events of the past few hours said, “The Master is dead.”

Everybody had written Jesus off as gone forever.  Dead.  Dead.  Dead.

Get on with the same old routine.  We have had our excitement for the day.  He’s dead.  No one expected to see Him or hear His voice again. 

It’s Friday….but Sunday’s coming.

In the early years of the first century, the practice of burying multiple bodies in a common tomb or grave gave way to placing a body in a hewn-out crypt or shelf chiseled into a wall.  Jewish tradition required bodies to be buried on the day of death to avoid defiling the land God had given to them.  In light of the swiftly approaching Passover Sabbath, Joseph and Nicodemus quickly removed the body of Jesus from the cross and wrapped it in a linen burial shroud lined with aromatic spices.  A napkin was placed over His face, the body was placed in Joseph’s new tomb, and a large circular stone was placed at the mouth of the tomb, secured with a Roman seal.  Nothing could get in and nothing could get out.  Or so they thought.  Umm, could they have been mistaken? 

Echoing in the ears of the chief priests and Pharisees, however, was Jesus’ outlandish claim:  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”.  This and other sayings of Jesus prompted the religion leaders to request sentinels to be stationed at the tomb to deter His followers from stealing the body of Jesus and asserting that His prophesy had come true.  The guards were placed at the tomb, and the grave was believed secure.

On the first day of the week, the early morning darkness was shattered by an earthquake.  An angel of the Lord descended, rolled away the stone, and sat upon it.  His dazzling brilliance struck fear in the hearts of the guards, so much so that they “became like dead men” and later fled.  Bribed by the chief priests, they later claimed the body of Jesus was stolen. 

In those predawn hours, women came to the tomb with the intention of applying additional spices to the body of Jesus.  Oblivious to the fallen guards, they discovered the stone had been rolled away from the tomb.  As they stood astonished and frightened, they received a vision of angels and heard the glad news:

Matthew 28:6 – He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said.  Come, see the place where He was lying. 

Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the Eleven, to Thomas, to James, and according to the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:6, to “more than five hundred at one time”.  He showed Himself to be alive over a period of 40 days and spoke of things concerning the kingdom of God.  So convinced were they of His resurrection that the disciples were willing to suffer shame for His name and even give their lives in martyrdom for that truth. Only a living Christ could account for such personal transformation. 

Alternative theories have been suggested to account for the empty tomb.  Some have suggested that Jesus only fainted on the cross and the cool tomb revived Him.  But could a wounded victim be able to push a heavy stone away and elude the guards?

Others have said that Christ’s enemies stole His body, but would not they have produced the body to refute the disciples’ preaching on the Resurrection?  Still others claim that the disciples stole His body.  How would these men who on Friday were cowards and ran and hid suddenly get the courage to face a squad of Roman soldiers?  How would these fisherman have the training or the weapons to take on the best qualified military unit in the world?  If they would not defend Him when He was alive and there might be hope of saving him, why would they now be willing to die for a dead body?  Had He not risen, why and how would they have been so bold and forceful in proclaiming His resurrection?  How do you explain the power they suddenly had in face of such opposition when they had been so cowardly before?  Would these men have given their lives for a story they knew was a lie?

In the words of Erwin Lutzer, Moody Bible Institute, “Kingdoms come and kingdoms go, but Christ lives; centuries come and centuries go, but Christ lives; Kings are crowned and kings are uncrowned, but Christ lives.  Emperors decree Christ’s extinction, but Christ lives; skeptics mock and skeptics die, but Christ lives.” 

Edward Gibbon, in the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, stated that during the decline of the Roman Empire, all religions were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the politicians as equally useful.  Sound familiar?

Ours is an age of religious pluralism, easy believe-ism, and idolatry.  Secular humanism has taught us to believe that morality is relative and ethics are situational.  The god we are looking for lies within.  Truth has been relegated to technology and beauty has been subjected to the eye of the beholder.  Feelings have come to be synonymous with being.  We have been schooled through academia and pop culture to believe there are no absolutes. “After all” we hear, “all roads lead to god. We are going to the same place, just taking different routes to get us there.”

At the heart of every major religion is a major belief system.  Buddhists are committed to the eight-fold plan of right living and hopeful for Nirvana, which is the elimination of all desire.  Hindus seek freedom from Karma through good works and selfless actions.  Shintos strive for salvation that basically is defined as a healthy, robust life in here and now. Followers of Islam seek acceptance by doing the will of Allah as practiced in “the five pillars” of their belief.

But when you study others religions there comes a distinction between the founder and the teaching.  Mohammed to the Koran.  Buddha to the Noble Path.  Krishna to his philosophizing.  Zoroaster, to his ethics.

Whatever we may make of their claims, one reality is inescapable.  They are teachers who point to their teaching or show some particular way.  In all of these, there emerges an instruction, a way of living.  It is not Zoroaster to whom you turn.  It is Zoroaster to whom you listen.  It is not Buddha who delivers you; it is his Noble Truths that instruct you.  It is not Mohammed who transforms you; it is the beauty of the Koran that woos you.

By contrast, Jesus did not teach or expound His message.  He was identical with His message.  “In Him,” say the Scriptures, dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”  He did not just proclaim the truth.  He said, “I am the truth.”  He did not just show a way.  He said, “I am the Way.”  He did not just open up doors for us.  He said, “I am the door.”  “I am the Good Shepherd.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  I am the I AM!”

In Him is not just an offer of life’s bread.  He is the bread.  Christianity is not a way of feeling or a set of moral practices.  It is a relationship with a risen Christ!

What separates Christianity from all other religions of the world is an empty tomb and the words of a living Christ who says, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades”.  Rev 1:17-18

On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead.  He lives!  Triumphant, He reigns.  He reigns within my heart.  Because He lives I live also.  Triumphant am I.  But He lives to be lifted up still.  This is the task of all we who are saved through the cross.  We must, we must continue to lift Him up.  He said, “If I be lifted up I would draw all men unto Me.”

An article about the conversion of a Buddhist in Africa who became a Christian reads like this.  When asked why he had changed religions.  “It’s like this: if you were walking along and came to a fork in the road and two men were there, one was dead and the other was alive, which man’s direction would you follow?”

Christ is risen!  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen! Christ is risen!

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