Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you were to visit Jerusalem today, you’d find a stunning garden on the north side of the Old City near the Damascus Gate. This garden contains an ancient tomb dating to around six hundred years before Christ. This tomb was discovered in the late 1800s by General Charles Gordon. Today, the Garden Tomb is one of Jerusalem’s best-known sites, even though this isn’t the exact location of Jesus’ tomb. It is visited by over a hundred thousand tourists and pilgrims a year. The Garden Tomb was reconstructed to emulate what it would have looked like in the first century, and visitors come to drink in its peaceful and sacred atmosphere. One thing that you would notice is that there is no longer a stone to close the tomb. Instead, the doorway has been enlarged. For security reasons, a wooden door now closes the tomb at night. On this door, there is a plaque with the words, “He is not here — For He is risen.”
He isn’t there— For He is risen. Jesus has burst the bonds of death and the grave, yet we continue to focus on the unexplainably empty tomb. In two thousand years, we have not stopped looking for Jesus among the dead. Luke’s resurrection account keeps us focused on the startling, confounding mystery of an empty tomb.
Not What They Expected
The story begins with the obvious: Jesus is dead, and his followers assumed that he stayed dead (24:1-3). The women who came to the tomb watched Jesus die. They saw the spear pierce his pericardium. They knew full well he didn’t pass out because they saw that Jesus was stone dead with their own eyes. They had watched as the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross. They watched as Joseph of Arimathea took the body. They knew he wrapped it in linen and placed it in a tomb hewed from rock where no other body had previously been laid. They went home to prepare the spices needed to complete the proper burial of the body. They were expecting to go to the tomb, find a dead Jesus of Nazareth.
When the women approached the tomb, they were focused on finding closure to grief. But as they came, they found the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been rolled back. And when they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of Jesus.
Then, the angels appeared. Their question is, “why do you seek the living among the dead?” That draws attention to the disconnect between what the women expected to find and what they actually saw. They came to the tomb expecting to find the dead because tombs house the dead. They discovered instead that the “tomb” is now empty. The discovery of the empty tomb does not lead to an easy change of perspective. It leaves them perplexed. Not dismayed, angry, or vexed. They were not rejoicing. They were confused: at a loss to make sense of the difference between what they expected to find and what they actually saw.
Most striking is that the women encounter the Resurrection through a message. They are told by the angels that Jesus has risen, but they do not see the risen Jesus himself. What they have is a word, a message. (And in truth, that’s all that we have! In fact, the angels remind them that they had heard it before and forgotten. At least three times in advance, Jesus himself said that He would be crucified and, on the third day, rise again. Three times. And still, they didn’t remember when they saw the empty tomb.
The women bring the message of Resurrection to the apostles. The men respond like most people: they thought that the message was “an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11). Today, people like to imagine that they are the first to notice that dead people stay dead. Some imagine that people back then didn’t know better and were very superstitious. Don’t ever buy into the arrogance of our age that says, “Those poor first-century idiots would believe anything. They believed the earth was flat and the sun rotated around the earth. Who can blame them? Of course, they believed Jesus rose from the dead.”
But, on the contrary, ancient people knew dead people stay dead just as well as we do. The apostles didn’t believe it initially. They knew better. They did not think that people might occasionally rise from the dead and that maybe this Jesus guy happened to be one of them. When the women burst in to tell the eleven apostles that Jesus had been raised, it was just as silly to Jesus’ own friends as it is to twenty-first-century people. The disciples are surprised and don’t initially believe the news.
The Tomb Remains Empty
Why do the women, the apostles, and billions today have a hard time believing in the Resurrection? Unbelief does not mean that people believe nothing. Instead, it means that they believe something else. There is something else that they believe more strongly. Experience teaches that death wins. Dead people stay dead. But, the message is that the tomb is empty, and Jesus lives. When such contradictory claims collide, many like to continue affirming what they’ve always known. That’s safe.
Experience may teach that death wins, but the empty tomb is an uncomfortable fact of history that changes everything we thought we knew. The tomb was empty. If the tomb wasn’t empty, then all the opponents of Christianity needed to do was produce the corpse of Jesus. The tomb remains empty to this day. That threatens to overturn the way we see the world and our lives. Today, Christians throughout the world are celebrating the Resurrection because it is something that really happened. Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, and he lives whether you believe it or not.
The point is, this wasn’t just a freak incident. This is more than an isolated, unexplainable event. Not only did something happen, but it has meaning and impact on our lives. What happened was the action of God. He was at work. God raised Jesus from the dead. God, who promised long ago to set this crooked world right again, has finally done so. Instead of all people being raised at the end of history, God has torn a hole in history and raised one man right in the middle of it. This event has changed the world forever. Jesus conquered death with His death, and He did it for the world, for you. And because He lives, because He is risen, we need to take seriously every word that comes from His mouth.
When God raised him, all Jesus’ claims were vindicated. God raised Jesus to prove that he is who he says he is, the very Son of God. This means that Jesus claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. Believing in Jesus’ Resurrection is not just an affirmation of a historical fact. It means trusting in God, in this God, the God who raises the dead. It means trusting the God who promised in the Holy Scriptures that he will raise us from the dead! Jesus speaks the truth; His words are truth; He is the truth. You can have confidence that God will be faithful to his promises in the Scriptures. The Resurrection is proof that you will not be betrayed. Every word of God is reliable.
The Resurrection of Jesus means the dead will live in Christ. This is the Christian hope. Christ is risen, and in Him, the dead will rise! Our last and greatest enemy, death itself, lies conquered, vanquished under the bruised heel of Jesus. There is a cure for death. It’s the Risen Christ. In Christ, the grave has lost its hold on you. It cannot hold you because it could not hold Jesus. Christ has conquered death and stole his crown. The reign of Death and Hell is ended; the rule of Jesus Christ has begun. Christ is risen! We need not fear anything in this world, even those things that could destroy the body.
What do you fear? Jesus’ Resurrection provides your hope! Do you fear yet another wave of Covid-19? Do you fear cancer? Do not be afraid. Do you fear death? Then fear it no longer. Christ has triumphed over our greatest enemy. Do you dread the grave? Then dread no longer; Christ has made your grave a place of holy rest for your body and promises rest for your soul in paradise with him. Do you grieve the death of someone you love? Then grieve in hope and trust in Christ. Christ is risen, and in Him, the dead will rise. Are you suffering and despairing in this life? Then hear and believe this, Jesus Christ was crucified for you and is risen from the dead. His suffering and death are vindicated. Your suffering and death will only be temporary because he has won resurrection life for you.
The women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning sought Jesus, who was crucified. Instead, they found an empty tomb and a risen Jesus. Absurd? Laughable? An idle tale? It was in the first century, and it is today. But actually, it makes historical sense. The Garden Tomb is empty. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is empty. He is not there – for he is risen. The first Christians, and Christians ever since, knew just how outlandish their claims were, but they were compelled to say that something happened that first Easter. What happened was the very work of God. God raised Jesus from the dead, and because of that, we can trust his promise to raise us. He is the first fruit, the first to rise with more to come. Christ is risen, and the future is bright with Him. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.