If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#16) the Tomb Would Have Been Empty (Evidence)

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And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. Mark 16:6

Apart from the actual appearances of Jesus, the empty tomb is probably the greatest physical evidence of the resurrection of Christ that we have. Lee Strobel, the legal editor for the Chicago Tribune, journeyed from atheist to believer after a rigorous investigation of the evidence for Christ. Here is what he said concerning the empty tomb during that journey:

I was reminded of the assessment by one of the towering legal intellects of all time, the Cambridge-educated Sir Norman Anderson, who lectured at Princeton University, was offered a professorship for life at Harvard University, and served as dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of London. His conclusion, after a lifetime of analyzing this issue from a legal perspective, was summed up in one sentence: “The empty tomb, then, forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves in vain.”

This should be stunning to those who doubt the resurrection. Is there really evidence so solid that it would evoke such a statement from one of the most daunting legal minds of all time? Even the skeptical Michael Grant concluded that though there are differences in the accounts, applying the same criteria as one would to any other ancient literary source, the evidence is “firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.”

Okay, so what is that “veritable rock” of evidence? Our task for today is to review it so that we might be found “always prepared to give a defense” as Peter says. Next time we will look at two critical arguments we need in that defense, the early creed and the polemic, and then we will be ready to examine the “rationalistic theories” that have “dashed themselves in vain” against the evidence of the empty tomb.

So, here we go with that “veritable rock” of evidence:

1. The Guards. When the guards reported to the elders, it is apparent that they had made a thorough search of the tomb, otherwise, there would have been no subsequent bribing of them to spread the lie that the disciples had stolen the body while they slept.

2. The Women. We have multiple visits by the women to the tomb early that morning who found the tomb empty. Additionally, as we will discuss later, this provides strong evidence against the argument that the resurrection story is a legend. No Jewish male would create a legend in which the women are the primary witness in the story, for women didn’t have that kind of status in those days.

3. The Angels. It is hard to deny the testimony of an angel! Unless, of course, you want to deny the veracity of the record itself or one is a proponent of naturalism, where the notion of supernatural events and beings are automatically thrown out. Those are issues we have already dealt with. But, finding the historical records to be reliable, it is difficult not to take note of an angel or two making the statement that Jesus had risen and His body was no longer there. And, by the way, come and take a look.

4. Peter and John. Both Peter and John ran to the tomb after Magdalene’s report to them. They both saw the tomb was empty just as she said. Peter returned for a second visit after the other women testified to speaking with angels saying that Jesus had risen. No doubt this second visit by Peter was a more thorough and contemplative one.

5. Other disciples. We don’t have foolproof evidence of this, but it seems there is both a strong implication and a common-sense conclusion that most, if not all, of the disciples at some point visited the tomb. When Cleopas returned from seeing Jesus on the road to Emmaus, this is what was said to him:

Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” Luke 24:22-24

If some of the disciples had gone to see the tomb after the women’s report of seeing angels, then that would have to be a separate event from Peter and John running to the tomb after Magdalene’s report, for Magdalene saw no angel on her first visit to the tomb. 

And it would just make sense. Can you imagine being a disciple in the Upper Room and having the women burst in talking about angels and an empty tomb, and not going? I would have been running there in a heartbeat to check it out.

6. The grave clothes. This requires some study, so let’s look at the burial again. First from John:

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.John 39:38-40

And second from Mark:

So, Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen… Mark 15:46

Several things we need to note here. The word in John for “wrapped” is a Greek word that means “to bind” together. The fresh linen was bound together with the heavy, sticky mixture of aloe/myrrh around Jesus’ body. Notice, too, that it was done according to custom. This will be important in a minute when we go back and look at the grave clothes of Lazarus.

The word for “wrapped” in Mark is a different Greek word than the one in John. The Greek word here is eneileo, which means “to whirl or wind” because it is talking not about the “binding” of the aloe/myrrh mixture as in John, but simply the “whirling or winding” of the linen around the body of Jesus.

Next, let’s look at the description of what Peter and John saw. There is a lot of speculation over just what the wording implies regarding the grave clothes:

Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; John 20:4-8

The Greek word that is translated “face cloth” here is soudarion, which was a “sweat cloth” used to wipe sweat from the face. It seems that there is something different between what was used to wrap the body and what was used to wrap the face. 

Fresh linen, as everyone knows, is a little stiff and coarse. It is very possible that what we have here is an indication of a different material used to wrap the head. We see the same in Lazarus, where we get another look at the burial custom:

The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. John 11:44

Again, the word “cloth” here is soudarion and it seems something different than the linen binding strips for the body. It is reasonable to think that the “sweat cloth” even common folk used to wipe their face was something softer, like cotton. But what is so very important here is that Lazarus’ face was “wrapped” with this kind of cloth.

Now, look back at John 20, where our translation says that the face cloth had been “folded up”. Unfortunately, the word “folded” here can be misleading and has caused some to interpret this as Jesus had folded it up after His resurrection, referring to a custom of one who was not yet finished with a meal and would fold up his napkin rather than toss it on the table, concluding Jesus had done this to indicate He was returning. But, although this makes a good story, it is a stretch. Jesus is not coming back to the tomb, and the word here is the Greek word entylisso, which means “wrapped”. Notice that this is the same word we find in both Matthew and Luke to describe how Joseph of Arimathea “wrapped” the body of Jesus with the linen cloth:

 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone Luke 23:53

So, Peter and John did not see the head wrapping neatly folded up somewhere, which anyone could have done, but they saw it still in its wrapped (entylisso) form… in the same form they saw the soudarion as it was wrapped around Lazarus’ head when he came out of the tomb, but now there was no head inside.

What does all of this tell us? When Peter and John beheld the body wrappings undisturbed in the tomb, they did not see what one might expect if someone had come and stolen the body. If they had stolen the body the grave clothes would either be gone with the body or the thieves would have had to cut them off, for by now the aloe/myrrh mixture would have solidified or at best been a sticky mess to undo. But this is not what they saw. The grave clothes were still there and they were still “wrapped”, possibly now collapsed, but nevertheless, wrapped. The wrapping around His head was still there as well, and appearing separate from the linen wrappings because there was no longer a body connecting the two. 

It didn’t look like the aftermath of grave robbers, but rather the remnants of a resurrection!

This is why John, upon looking at all of this, “saw and believed”.

And why, for our purposes, the presence of the grave clothes in the tomb and in their original shape is a huge piece of evidence. The Jewish scholar, Simon Greenleaf, founder of the Harvard Law School, in attempting to disprove the resurrection, came to be a believer primarily because of the grave clothes.

7. A body was never produced. The authorities had to bribe the guards to spread a lie that the disciples had stolen the body. If, in fact, the tomb was not empty, they merely had to produce the body and put an end to this nonsense. But, it wasn’t nonsense. The tomb was really empty and, for them, the body of Jesus was nowhere to be found.

There are more indirect evidences, such as the appearance of Jesus (no small matter) and the radical change in His followers. But these are seven evidences that should be understood and wielded by the Christian in the defense of why we are a people of hope. Something we must not lose sight of in our current times. 

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If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#1) the Seal Was Broken
We don’t spend much time talking about the seal that was placed upon the tomb, but I think it is significant. Here is the historical record: The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. Matthew 27:62-66 The historical account states that the chief priests and the Pharisees “made the tomb secure by sealing the stone…”.  This seal was most likely several ropes that were drawn across the stone and then affixed to the tomb walls with a soft clay imprinted with some symbol of authority. It was also likely that the ropes were also sealed at their juncture in front of the stone. In this way, no one could move the stone or the ropes without breaking the dried clay and destroying the “seal” affixed upon the clay.  The seal was there to “put on notice” that no one was to mess with the tomb. Rome could deal quite nastily with those who did so. Now, this doesn’t mean much to us today, for we are long past the norm of using “seals” as they were utilized in ancient times. but in those days, a seal was inviolable. It represented authority, authenticity, and finality. No one messed with a seal. In the book of Esther, when King Ahasuerus issued the order to save the Jews, he commanded them to “seal it with the king's ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked.” When Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den, “… a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel." In the vision concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, the Scripture says this: And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” Isaiah 29:11 The permanence of a seal against all who were unauthorized to break it was an inviolable part of their world.  It becomes even more apparent when John is caught up to heaven and there beholds the scroll with seven seals. John begins to weep because there was “no one worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.” Of course, we find that the Lamb, “standing as though it had been slain”, was worthy to break the seals. And when each of those seals were broken, great calamity came upon the earth. Seals in the Scripture mean something. And John had wept, because the seal represented an inviolable wall to anyone who did not have the authority to break it. Seals show authority. They show authenticity. And they show finality for all except the one who had the authority to break them. And so, we now come back to the tomb. The seal, whether it was a Roman seal or the High Priest’s seal, represented a fixed closure that no one was allowed to breach. When it was set upon the tomb, there was a finality, a stamp of ultimate authority, that said, “this tomb is closed”. Ah, but God is not subject to the laws or seals of man. I can imagine that when the earth began to shake and the stone was rolled aside, that those clay seals with the authority of man impressed upon them broke into a thousand pieces and lay as trash littering the ground. If Jesus rose from the dead, then the seal of man, meant to keep Him in the grave, had been utterly and completely destroyed. But there is one more thing that must be mentioned regarding “seals”.  In John 6, Jesus said this: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” John 6:27 If God seals something, it is sealed! In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, Eph 1:13 “… it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. 2 Cor 1:21 This is God’s seal of authority, authenticity, and finality. You are His, sealed with His guarantee. Oh my! [previous] [next]
5
If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#5) the Angels Would Have Announced It
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Matthew 28:1-6 It may be too bold to say this, but I believe that it should come as no surprise to anyone that the announcement of the Lord’s resurrection was made by the angles, for this, indeed, was a cosmic moment. And, also not surprising, is that there is controversy over this: how many angels, where they were, and what did they really say. Matthew and Mark have one angel; Luke and John have two. We will deal with all of that soon. But today, we want to ponder the fact that it was the angels that announced the resurrection and why. Recall the great passage in Galatians (don’t skip through it… read it): What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.  Galatians 4:1-5 The advent of the Messiah was a “set time”—set by God. It wasn’t just that we landed on a nice calendar day. This was as if all the prophecies and all the promises were set on a timer and they all went off together at this moment. It was a cosmic moment: the time in which God was going to enter the world as a human being in order to redeem those who were in bondage under the law. It was a moment that began with the birth of the Messiah and extended through His resurrection… one big cosmic moment. John Calvin refers to the resurrection as “the closing scene of our redemption.” And the privilege of announcing this cosmic moment was going to be given to the angels. They came to Mary and to Joseph. They came to Zacharias and then on the night of His birth, the heavens were filled with a host of angels announcing the news… not to Herod or to the High Priest, but to the lowly, despised and smelly shepherds. Not in a palace or in the temple, but out in the middle of a common, ordinary field.  Should we, therefore, be surprised that it would be the angels who would announce His resurrection? And, to a woman in a graveyard? We will deal more with this later, but recall that women in that culture were second-class citizens. Jesus changed all of that forever. But it was no small deal in those days that the angels would break the news to a woman, and to Mary Magdalene, who at one time had been possessed by seven demons and no doubt suffered from the ravages those demons would visit upon her.  No, this is not surprising to us, for this is who God is. God’s heart is with the humble. And He blesses His creatures by allowing them to carry out His purposes and plans. Thus, He sends angels to announce the Moment of Moments. So, who are these “angels”?  Well, they are an amazing part of God’s creation. There are tons of them, “innumerable”, says Hebrews 12:22 and “thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” says Revelation 5:11.  That is a lot of angels! There is even some conjecture that we might each have an “assigned” angel. When speaking of the children, Jesus refers to “their angels in heaven”. This certainly is inconclusive, but there surely are enough of them to go around! Maybe that is why there are so many. One thing we know for sure, they do minister to us: Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? Hebrews 1:14 Angels are strong. They are mighty. They battle the forces of darkness and they serve God as He sends them to fulfill His purposes. They are messengers, but they also carry out some of God’s judgments. When Herod was struck down and eaten by worms because he did not give glory to God, it was an angel that struck him. (Acts 12:23) Some are sent to patrol the earth. (Zechariah 1:8-11) Scripture even says you might have come in contact with angels as they go about their duties in human form: Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2 And so, it was the angels who kicked off the Moment and became quite active in the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. And it was the angels who ministered to Him in His times of need on earth. When Jesus had finished 40 days of fasting and had been tempted by Satan, the angels came and ministered to Him. (Matthew 4:11) When He was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and His soul was “deeply grieved to the point of death”, an angel came and strengthened Him. (Luke 22:43) I can imagine, then, how much they would have been straining at the bit to save Him from the scourge and the nails. All they needed was a word from Him and they would have swept in like a ferocious army. When Peter impetuously cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant, during the arrest, Jesus admonished Peter and said,  Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” Matthew 26:53-54 A Roman legion consisted of 6,000 soldiers. Twelve would be 72,000 mighty angel warriors. If one angel can buckle the knees of the guards, imagine what 72,000 would do?  So, as Jesus was being scourged and nailed, as he hung on the tree, all He needed to do was say the word and the angels would have rescued Him. But He didn’t.  Can you imagine that? Can you imagine how easy it would have been in the midst of all of that pain and suffering to call out for rescue and relief? To just say the word and all the misery of that moment goes away? But no, He didn’t. It was our sin and His love that held Him there—denying Himself for our sake.  The angels who filled the sky with praise and glory at His birth are now held in check, silent at His death. The earth spoke, yes, but the angels remained silent. But! On the 3rd day, all that changed! The angels are released and silent no more. They announce the News of News—“He is not here! He has risen just as He said!” Yes, if Jesus rose from the dead, then the angels would have been there to announce it. You could not have kept them away. He is risen indeed! [previous] [next]