John 20:1-10 (90 Days with Jesus, Day 86)
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. So 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!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes.
Perhaps the story was thought to have ended. They placed his body in the tomb in the garden that was nearby the place where they crucified him. I have always wondered why it is that it was important for the author of this Gospel to inform us that he outran Peter and arrived at the tomb first and then didn’t actually go into the tomb but bent over it and looked in. After Peter catches up to him, I pictured him slightly winded, he brushes by and goes straight inside the tomb.
Only after Peter’s display of courage did the other disciple ‘go inside.’ The Scripture says, “He saw and believed.” He saw what? An empty tomb or the same thing Peter saw: Strips of linen, the burial cloth folded and separated off by itself?
Then they went back home—in their belief of something, and in their lack of understanding of Scripture. Clearly they believed something. Clearly they misunderstood something. What was going on, they must have wondered.
I don’t want to speculate about this text. I suppose it would be entirely too easy to allegorize this text and come up with all sorts of fanciful meanings and applications. I don’t want to do that nor do I think anyone needs to. So I choose to notice only what is readily available at first sight.
Mary went to the tomb early in the morning. She found the tomb and saw the stone removed from the entrance. She made the, false, assumption that someone had stolen the body of Jesus. In other words, she didn’t see the body of Jesus. I don’t know who the ‘they’ are in her winded speech to the Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. But I sense in her statement, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him” that she (and those with her; note the ‘we’) did some searching before they left the tomb. They didn’t find Jesus.
The fact remains, however, that Mary and those unnamed ones with her went to the tomb not expecting to find what they found. It was a surprise to find the stone rolled away from the tomb. She went to find a body not an empty tomb and made an incorrect assessment of what she found.
So Peter and John (‘the disciple Jesus loved’) rush to the tomb also. After some catching up, Peter rushes into the tomb and finds the tomb exactly how he was supposed to find it: Empty. All that is left are the cloths that had been used to wrap the body of Jesus and these were left behind 1) because they weren’t needed, and 2) to show that there had been someone inside the tomb. I doubt seriously that someone coming to steal the body would have left the cloths behind and taken time to fold the cloth that had been around his head.
So what happened is that these two men found no one which is exactly what they were meant to find. This is the face of this story: An empty tomb. This is the fact of history: An empty tomb.
The part I find most endearing is that they ran to the tomb. It’s kind of funny that in this story John outruns Peter, but at the end of the Gospel it is Peter who jumps in the water and swims to shore before John—or any of the others.
It’s hard to tell exactly what John ‘saw and believed.’ But I take this, if they didn’t understand from Scripture that moment what was going on, the implication is that later they did. And if Scripture had declared that Jesus would triumph over the grave, then we can take comfort from the fact that nothing has been left to chance. In other words, and I say this humbly and not in accusatory tone, they should have expected this. I don’t want to go too far with this ‘should have’ nonsense (even though Jesus had told them himself that was going to Resurrect). There’s a lot of things that we too ‘should have’ and don’t because neither do we ‘understand from the Scripture.’
This leads me to the point of the matter. There are many who claim to have an inside track on the way things are, where they are going, and how it’s all going to pan out soon. But do they understand from Scripture? I saw some folks just last night on the idiot box, full of enthusiasm and excitement, and one said confidently, with absolutely no Scriptural justification, “I believe the Rapture will take place this year.” They are convinced that the signs are all around us. That it is clear the conditions now are better than they have ever been for the ‘rapture’ to take place. I suspect that sometimes certain folks are more interested in rapture than they are in Jesus Christ who will be returning. They don’t understand from Scripture that Christ is our reward, not rapture.
But does this make sense? What I’m concerned about here is this: What we understand about the things God means to do must come from what is in Scripture not from the signs of the times. Imminent, I’m sure. The people in the Scripture, in the first century of Christ’s death, also believe the times were ripe for the ‘rapture.’ Imminent, to be sure! I’m not saying it won’t, but what I am saying is this: Why are we not a people of the Book?
Why are we hesitant (John waited for Peter to go in)? Why do we draw false conclusions about the things we see (Mary thought someone had taken the body)? Why are we left speechless (Peter said nothing one way or another)? Why do we dismiss ‘it’ and go back to our homes (that’s what they did), because we don’t understand from Scripture. (And I suspect that we have less of an excuse than they did!)
I’m not blaming those disciples at all because I know myself and I know that I would have faired no better. I would probably have been scared to death, hiding in a room, fearful, afraid, terrified. But what about Scripture? What about its message for us?
I assume that if they ‘didn’t understand at the time that Jesus had to be raised from the dead’ that later they did in fact understand that Jesus had to be raised from the dead. Peter confirms this in his first sermon in Acts: “Seeing what was ahead, [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grace, nor did his body see decay. God raised this Jesus to life and we are all witnesses of the fact.” (Acts 2:31-32) Peter did understand from Scripture!
J.I. Packer wrote a short book that I just happened to find on the shelf in the library at the seminary I attend. It was on the sale shelf. The book The Battle for the Bible is one of the best books I have ever read. I’ll end this meditation with a thought from the book that sums up this silly, rather naïve, idea that Christian people really, desperately need to return to the Word of God from which they have so dangerously departed:
The New Testament church commenced without prestige, or patronage, or learning of the schools; all that the first Christians had was the word of God and the Holy Spirit; and they turned the world upside down. What do we lack that they had? Let our self-assessment continue.” (89)
I think what we lack is rather obvious: We do not yet understand from the Scripture. Or, I might say, we are a people who have no confidence in the Word of God. And until we do, we will continue to make wrong assumptions (Mary), we will continue to be timid (John), we will continue to be silent (Peter), and we will continue to just come to the empty tomb look around and go back to our homes (all). Isn’t that what we do every single Sunday?
Soli Deo Gloria!
PS–David Wells wrote in Above All Earthly Pow’rs: “It is the fact of the resurrection, therefore, that connects us to a moral and spiritual order that lies beyond the grave. And it is this order that sends its clarifying light back into this life today. Its intrusion into life is what, in fact, gives to life its meaning because, in the end, nothing is insignificant” (198). Chapter 5, ‘Christ in a Meaningless World’ is worth the price of the book. I have not read many chapters in books that stand out as powerfully in my mind as this one does. “Images we may want, entertainment we may desire, but it is the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen that is the Church’s truth to tell” (232). Amen. And when the Church returns to understanding from the Scriptures, we will understand what Dr Wells is saying.