The Empty Tomb

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JOHN 20:1-10  

In each of the resurrection narratives we will discover a pattern with the following features:

§         The beneficiaries of the appearance are engulfed in a human emotion – Mary in grief; the disciples in fear; Thomas in doubt.

§         The risen Christ appears to them in the midst of their condition.

§         As a result, their condition is transformed – Mary to mission; the disciples to gladness; Thomas to faith.


1.        The Tomb

The setting: “comes Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre…” [20:1].

§         μνημεῖον - “sepulchre” [20:1], ‘grave, tomb’; ‘tomb built as a memorial’;

a.        The Occupant

The “sepulchre” marks the place of Jesus’ burial:

§         Jesus death: “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost” [Mat.27:50].

§         Joseph of Arimathea: “went to Pilate and begged for the body of Jesus” [Mat.27:57].

§         The burial: “laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre” [Mat.27:60]; “he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock…” [Mar.15:46].

b.        Mary Magdalene

i.        The Person

The person: “comes Mary Magdalene early…” [20:1].

§         Μαρία Μαγδαληνὴ - “Mary Magdalene” [20:1],

§         She was possessed by demons: “And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils” [Luk.8:2].

§         She had been miraculously healed: “out of whom he had cast out devils” [Mar.16:9]. 

ii.      The Continuity

The person of Mary Magdalene provides the link which identifies this “sepulchre” as the place in which Jesus was buried. She is the keen observer:  

§         At the cross: “There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome” [Mar.15:40].

§         At the burial: “And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid” [Mar.15:47].


2.        The Significance of the Tomb  

a.        The Old Age  

The fall of man: “as by one man sin entered into the world…” [Rom.5:12].

§         Death: “as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin…” [Rom.5:12].

§         Universal: “so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned” [Rom.5:12].

b.        The Penalty of Sin 

Death is the penalty of sin: “the wages of sin is death…” [Rom.6:23].

§         The covenant with Adam: “the day that you eat of it you shall surely die…” [Gen.2:17].

§         The broken covenant: “she took of the fruit thereof…and gave also to her husband” [Gen.3:6].

§         The eternal separation: “God drove out the man…” [Gen.3:24].

c.        The Condition

The conditions of the old age and the old covenant:

§         Power of sin: “you were the servants of sin…” [Rom.6:17]; “

§         Power of Satan: “the prince of this world…” [John.12:30]; “him that had the power of death, that is, the devil…” [Heb.2:14].

§         Power of death: “death has (no more) dominion…” [Rom.6:9]; “who through fear of death were their entire lifetime subject to bondage” [Heb.2:15].

§         Power of the grave: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” [1Cor.15:55].

3.        The Door

The “sepulchre” [20:1] is the hinge point of Christianity:

a.        The Death of Christ

The substitutionary death: “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” [10:11].

§         The sufferings: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” [3:16].

§         The death: “It is finished; and he bowed his head and gave up the ghost” [19:30].

§         The burial: “there they laid Jesus…” [19:42].

§         The closed door: “and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre” [Mar.15:46].

§         The Garden gate: “God placed at the east of the garden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” [Gen.3:24].


The “closed sepulchre” sums up the old creation and the destiny of mankind because of sin.



1.        Judaism & Resurrection

In the world of second temple Judaism, belief in the resurrection was related to the end of the world:

§         Martha at the death of Lazarus: “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day” [11:24].

§         Significantly, were we to ask the early Christians themselves what had occasioned their belief resurrection belief, their answers home in on two things: stories about Jesus’ tomb being empty, and stories about Jesus appearing to people, alive again.

§         Neither the empty tomb by itself, nor the appearances by themselves, could have generated the early Christian belief.

2.        The Empty Tomb   

a.        Mary Magdalene  

The first person at the tomb: “the first day of the week comes Mary Magdalene early…” [20:1].

§         Μαρία Μαγδαληνὴ - “Mary Magdalene” [20:1],

§         She was possessed by demons: “And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils” [Luk.8:2].

§         She had been miraculously healed: “out of whom he had cast out devils” [Mar.16:9].  

b.        The Tomb

i.        The Early Arrival

The first person at the tomb: “came early, when it was still dark…” [20:1].

§         πρωῒ - “early” [20:1], ‘before’; ‘early in the morning’;

§         σκοτίας - “dark” [20:1], ‘absence of light’;

§         μνημεῖον - “sepulchre” [20:1], ‘grave, tomb’; ‘tomb built as a memorial’;

§         A woman would scarcely have ventured outside the city at such an hour with Jerusalem crowded with visitors for the feast.

ii.      The Open Tomb  

The discovery: “sees the stone taken away…” [20:1].

§         λίθον - “stone” [20:1], ‘stone, boulder’;

§         ἠρμένον - “taken away” [20:1], perfect passive participle, ‘to take up, lift up’; ‘to carry’;

§         The women had been concerned about the stone: “And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?” [Mar.16:3].


Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the open grave, but in Jewish eyes the testimony of women was unacceptable.

3.        The Valid Witnesses  

a.        A Valid Testimony

The detailed manner in which they went to the tomb is described and designed in order to stress the reliability of their testimony.

§         That two men should verify the evidence was important since they could fulfil the Jewish requirement of valid testimony: “at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established” [Deu.19:15].

b.        The Encounter

Mary hurries to meet with the disciples: “she runs and comes to Simon Peter…” [20:2].

§         τρέχει - “runs” [20:2], implying ‘speed or haste’;

§         ἔρχεται - “comes” [20:2], ‘move toward or up to’;

c.        The News

i.        The Invasion   

Mary Magdalene concludes that the body has been stolen: “they have taken away the Lord…” [20:2].

§         ἦραν - “taken away” [20:2], aorist active third person plural, ‘to take up, to carry’;

§         The third person plural – “they” [20:2] – is perhaps ‘a reference to the enemies of Jesus, perhaps especially the chief priests’ or the ‘crucifiers of Jesus’;

§         τὸν κύριον - “the Lord” [20:2],

§         ἐκ τοῦ - “out of” [20:2],

§         Mary’s concern is not that Jesus is dead but that his body has disappeared. Among the Jews of the near Orient at the time of Jesus the ‘grave robberies’ were not uncommon.

ii.      The Secret Action

The location of the body was unknown to Mary: “we know not where they have laid him” [20:2].

§         οὐκ οἴδαμεν - “know not” [20:2], ‘to have seen or perceived and hence know’;

§         The first person plural – “we” – indicates that other women were associated with her: “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices…” [Mar.16:1].

§         ποῦ - “where” [20:2],

§         ἔθηκαν αὐτόν - “laid him” [20:2], ‘to deposit’; ‘to place’;

d.        The Valid Testimony

i.        John

John arrived first: “the other disciple did outrun Peter…” [20:4].

§         παρακύψας - “stooping down” [20:4], ‘to bend over’ implying a ‘looking into’;

§         βλέπει - “saw” [20:4], the idea of ‘simple sight’;

§         τὰ ὀθόνια - “linen clothes” [20:4], ‘strips of linen’; ‘bandages’;

§         κείμενα - “lying” [20:4], ‘to recline’; ‘to lay down’;

§         οὐ μέντοι εἰσῆλθεν - “not go in” [20:4], ‘to go or come into’; ‘to enter’;

ii.      Peter

The impetuous Peter: “then comes Simon Peter following him…” [20:6].

§         εἰσῆλθεν - “went in” [20:6], ‘to go or come into’; ‘to enter’;

§         θεωρεῖ - “sees” [20:6], ‘to look at, to gaze’; distinguished from simple sight, βλέπει, as ‘intent regard’;

Application (Calvin)

There being so little faith, or rather almost no

faith, both in the disciples and in the women, it is astonishing that they

had so great zeal; and, indeed, it is not possible that religious feelings led

them to seek Christ. Some seed of faith, therefore, remained in their hearts,

but quenched for a time, so that they were not aware of having what they

had. Thus the Spirit of God often works in the elect in a secret manner.

§         In short, we must believe that there was some concealed root, from which we see fruit produced. Though this feeling of piety, which they possessed,

§         was confused, and was accompanied by much superstition, still I give to it

—   though inaccurately — the name of faith, because it was only by the

§         doctrine of the Gospel that it was produced, and it had no tendency but

§         towards Christ. From this seed there at length sprang a true and sincere

§         faith, which, leaving the sepulcher, ascended to the heavenly glory of

§         Christ.

§         When Scripture speaks of the feeble beginnings of faith, it says that Christ is born in us, and that we, on the other hand, are born in him; but the disciples must be placed almost below infancy, for they are ignorant of the resurrection of Christ, but yet the Lord nourishes them as a mother nourishes the child that is contained in her womb. Formerly they resembled children, and had made a little progress, but the death of Christ had rendered them so weak, that they must be again begotten and formed.

4.        The Evidence Inside the Tomb

a.        The Linen-Clothes

The grave-clothes: “saw the linen clothes lying…” [20:5].

§         ὀθόνια - “linen clothes” [20:6], ‘strips of linen’; ‘bandages’; ‘served to keep the hands and feet of the body together’; “Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury” [19:40];

§         κείμενα - “lie” [20:6], present middle or passive participle, ‘to recline’; ‘to lay down’;

§         evidence enough that no-one had simply moved the body; nor would thieves have been likely to leave behind expensive linen and even more expensive spices;

b.        The Napkin

Peter and the napkin: “and the napkin that was about his head…” [20:7].

§         σουδάριον - “napkin” [20:7], ‘head-cloth for the dead’; ‘piece of cloth used as a burial cloth over the face’; ‘served to hold the head in the desired position’; “his face was bound about with a napkin…” [11:44].

i.        Separate

The napkin was separate from the rest: “wrapped together in a place by itself” [20:7].

§         ἐντετυλιγμένον - “wrapped together” [20:7], perfect passive participle, ‘to roll up, wrap’; ‘to fold up or wrap together’;

§         ἕνα – ‘one’; ‘single’;

§         τόπον - “place” [20:7], ‘area of space’;

§         χωρὶς - “by itself” [20:7], ‘separately’; ‘apart’;

ii.      The Resurrection of Lazarus

John had penned the story of the resurrection of Lazarus: “his face was bound with a napkin. Jesus said unto them, Loose him, and let him go” [11:44].

§         At the bidding of Jesus, he came out of the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth” [11:43].

§         He came forth with the grave clothes still around him: “came forth, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes; and his face bound about with a napkin…” [11:44].

§         He had to be freed in order to take up life again in the world: “Loose him and let him go” [11:44].

iii.    The Significance

Jesus on the contrary left his wrappings in the grave as a sign of his resurrection into the life of God’s eternal order.

§         The mention of the “napkin” was supposed to give the idea of Jesus ‘rising through the grave clothes’.

§         The appearance of being “wrapped together” does not look like a description of the way it would have appeared if the head had simply passed through it.

§         If the mention of the “napkin” was supposed to give the idea of Jesus ‘rising through the grave clothes’ then the “napkin” would have been right beside the “linen clothes”, or at least no more than the ‘length of a neck’ between them.

§         John is describing an orderly scene, not one of wild confusion.

§         The “linen clothes” [20:5] and the “napkin” [20:7] are left behind in good order, each in its own place, as discarded attributes that were no longer of any use and also, with the stone that had been rolled away, as silent witnesses of Jesus’ victory not only over death but also over the grave.

§         There were no traces of haste. The deserted tomb bore the marks of perfect calm. The grave-clothes had been carefully removed, which would be a work of time and difficulty, and laid in two separate places.


All that the condition of the grave clothes indicated was that the body of Jesus had not been stolen by thieves. Anyone who had come to remove the body (whether the authorities or anyone else) would not have bothered to unwrap it before carrying it off. And even if one could imagine that they had (perhaps in search of valuables such as rings or jewellery still worn by the corpse) they would certainly not have bothered to take time to roll up the facecloth and leave the other wrappings in an orderly fashion!

§         Calvin: Let us be satisfied with this simple view of the matter, that Christ, by laying aside the tokens of death, intended to testify that he had clothed himself with a blessed and immortal life.

5.        Faith?

a.        Faith & Circumstances

The “beloved disciple” introduces the themes of ‘seeing and believing’ that reach their climax in v.29: “then went in also that other disciple…” [20:8].

§         εἶδεν - “saw” [20:8], aorist active, ‘to see’; to attend to’;

§         ἐπίστευσεν - “believed” [20:8], aorist active, ‘think to be true’; ‘knowledge, assent, and trust’;

§         John took this step before he saw the living Christ; the empty tomb was of strategic importance to the faith of John and to that of the New Testament writers.

§         The empty tomb establishes that there was continuity between Jesus’ pre-death body and his post-resurrection body.

The use of the word absolutely rather points to the calm patient acceptance of a mystery as yet in part inexplicable with full confidence in the divine love. The threefold sign of the stone removed, the empty sepulchre, the grave-clothes leisurely arranged, indicated something still to be more fully shown, and the apostle waited in trustful expectation for the interpretation.

b.        Faith & The Scriptures  

John’s faith was not yet based on his understanding of Scripture: “for as yet they knew not the scriptures…” [20:9].

§         ᾔδεισαν - “knew not” [20:9], ‘to have seen and perceived and hence know’;

§         γραφὴν - “scriptures” [20:9], ‘the writings’;

§         δεῖ - “must” [20:9], ‘necessary’; implying ‘inevitability’; ‘divine necessity’; ‘the hand of God was in the resurrection’.

§         ἀναστῆναι - “rise again” [20:9], ‘to cause to stand up’; ‘to raise to life’;

§         His faith was not derived from prophetic texts; the fact of the empty tomb illuminated the sense of scripture.  


Believers did not manufacture a resurrection to agree with their interpretation of prophecy.

§         They were first convinced that Jesus had risen and in the light of that came to see a fuller meaning in some Old Testament passages.

§         Not only the emptiness of the grave but above all the sight of the cloths and the witness borne by the whole scene aroused faith in him.

§         It was like a new certainty that took hold of this disciple while understanding was still lacking.

§         The empty tomb firmly roots our spiritual destiny in the soil of history. Many recent theologians have attempted to convince us that it really does not matter whether or not the tomb was really empty, that it is only our resurrection faith which counts. The New Testament writers refuse to speak of a faith ungrounded in history. In fact, our faith stands or falls on the historicity of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-19).

§         Warfield’s words are particularly appropriate when he writes, “That empty grave is alone enough to found all Christianity upon.” “The Resurrection—A Historical Fact,” Selected Shorter Writings, I, p. 190.

§         That he rose again manifests his power, and his ability to save. We are not saved by a dead Christ who undertook but could not perform, and who lies there still, under the Syrian sky, another martyr of impotent love. If we are to be saved at all, it must be by one who did not merely pass to death in our behalf, but who passed through death. If the penalty was fully paid by him, it can not have broken him, it must needs have broken upon him. Had he not emerged from the tomb, all our hopes, all our salvation would be lying dead with him unto this day.” Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Resurrection of Christ—A Fundamental Doctrine,” Selected Shorter Writings -I, p. 200.

§         Calvin - Besides, he represents more strongly his own guilt and that of his brethren, by adding, that they not only had forgotten the words of Christ, but that they did not believe the Scriptures; for to this ignorance lie ascribes the deficiency of their faith. Hence, too, we may draw a useful instruction, that we ought, to ascribe it to our carelessness, when we are ignorant of what we ought to know about Christ, because we have not profited as we ought to have done by the Scriptures, which clearly reveal the excellence of Christ.

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