READ : Mark 16:1-8
You’ve heard about Jesus’ death and burial; now listen to the rest – and best – of the story.
Back when I was a student, there was a popular folk song called Abraham, Martin and John. The names referred to three great Americans, each of whom had been tragically killed: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. It was a sad song, and it had a haunting refrain:
Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people but,
It seems the good, they die young . . .
Abraham, Martin and John.
Now, I’m not so much interested in the song as in a question it raises. Why doesn’t Jesus Christ fit in with the others? After all, there are many similarities. He certainly did free a lot of people, more than anyone else has. He was good, the best man who ever lived. And he did die young, and innocent of wrong. So why don’t we sing sad songs about Jesus? Why don’t we think of his death as a tragedy? Why don’t we view him as a martyr to the cause of justice, truth and peace? After all, we call the day the stock market crashed “Black Monday.” Why in heaven’s name do we call the day Jesus died “Good Friday”?
Because we know the rest of the story, at least we do if we are Christians. We know how it all turned out. We know that death was not the end for Jesus. He alone, of all humans who ever lived, proved to be stronger than death. Though he died and was buried, death could not hold him in its prison. Three days later he was raised from his grave to a new life. And because death was not the end for him, it won’t be for us either – we who have committed ourselves to him in faith.
The story of Jesus’ life is not complete when we see him laid in his tomb on Friday afternoon. That isn’t the end of his last day. It’s only a temporary interruption. If you want to know how it really ends – perhaps I should say how it really begins – you have to go on to Easter Sunday morning. Here’s what happened then:
The Sabbath day ended. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices. They were going to apply them to Jesus’ body.
Very early on the first day of the week, they were on their way to the tomb. It was just after sunrise. They asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?”
Then they looked up and saw that the stone had been rolled away. The stone was very large.
They entered the tomb. As they did, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe. He was sitting on the right side. They were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. But he has risen! He is not here! See the place where they had put him. Go! Tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him. It will be just as he told you.’”
The women were shaking and confused. They went out and ran away from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Mark 16:1-8, NIrV
It’s a well-known story. Mary Magdalene, together with several other of the women who belonged to the larger circle of Jesus’ disciples, had come out to the garden tomb to finish the burial rites that had been interrupted on Friday evening by the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. It’s interesting to observe the prominence of women in the story of Jesus’ last day. Unlike Jesus’ twelve male disciples, most of whom forsook him and fled in fear, these women stood by the cross. Mary Magdalene in particular is a shining example of outstanding devotion and courage. She was not ashamed to be associated with a crucified man. She was not afraid to stand by his cross, to bury his body, and to visit his grave. Mary was the last to leave on Friday and the first to arrive on Sunday. Because of her great love, she was given the inexpressible privilege of being the very first to see Jesus alive again.
This small group of women, together with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, two members of the Jewish establishment who were also followers of Jesus, had been forced to bury his body hurriedly two days before. They had been pressed for time because Jesus had died at mid-afternoon on Friday and all activity had to cease at sundown when the Sabbath began. So they had hastily bound his limbs and head with cloths, covered the body with a linen shroud, and placed it in Joseph’s new tomb in a garden not far from Golgotha.
Now, early on Sunday morning, as soon as they could move after the end of the Sabbath, the women are returning to the tomb to complete a proper burial by anointing Jesus’ body and packing it with more spices. They set out from Jerusalem at first light, worrying along the way about how they would move the huge stone that covered the tomb’s entrance. Reaching the grave about sunrise, they saw to their astonishment that the stone was already moved. The doorway stood open. The women lingered there for a moment outside, bewildered, uncertain what to do. Finally mustering the courage to peer inside, they were startled by an angel, who told them some incredible news.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. (Really, can you blame them for feeling alarm? I would have been scared out of my wits in their place!) “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” Those words of the angel to the women at the tomb are the very first witness to Jesus’ resurrection. This testimony consists of a series of simple statements of facts, followed by an invitation to investigate those facts: He is not here. He is risen. See the place where they laid him.
Consider first that most obvious fact, “He is not here.” The very first piece of evidence to which the New Testament draws our attention is the fact that Jesus’ grave was empty the third day after his dead body had been placed there. The statement “He is not here” means, “His body is gone.”
The angel meant it literally. He wasn’t speaking the way we sometimes do in funeral homes. You know how we will say to a child standing there, “You know, Jimmy, Grandpa isn’t really here.” No, the angel wasn’t speaking of Jesus’ soul; he was talking about his body. That’s the point of the invitation to the women to come and investigate and confirm for themselves: “Come and see the place where they laid him.”
That initial testimony to the absence of Jesus’ body from his tomb has never been contradicted. It was easily verifiable. As the apostle Paul commented a quarter of a century later, “These things were not done in a corner!” (Acts 26:26). Anyone could have gone and checked the tomb for themselves. The garden was only a few minutes’ walk from anyplace in Jerusalem. Jesus’ followers began to publicly proclaim his resurrection within days of his death and burial. But to the angel’s “He is not here,” no one has ever been able to claim, “He is over here. We found his body.”
Then observe also the other thing the angel said, the other primary fact: “He has risen!” Just the statement about the empty tomb is not enough. The absence of Jesus’ body from his grave that morning could be accounted for by any of several explanations – the women could have made a mistake and gone to the wrong tomb. . . . Maybe Jesus really didn’t really die on the cross; he only fainted or swooned, and later he revived and left his tomb on his own . . . Perhaps some one of his disciples stole the body. None of those explanations is supported by any evidence, but each has been alleged as true at one time or another by those who refuse to even consider that Jesus could actually have risen from the dead.
The angel’s announcement is the true explanation for the empty tomb. “He has risen!” That was a new thing, altogether different from anything that had ever happened before. The resurrection does not mean that Jesus revived or came back to life again, the way his friend Lazarus had done a few weeks earlier when Jesus called him out of his tomb. No. What happened on Easter was true resurrection. Not a dead body being revived to its old life, but being transformed into a different life altogether. Others have been restored after suffering physical or clinical death; that has been done both by miracle and by medicine. But this isn’t what happened to Jesus. He didn’t “wake up,” rise awkwardly from his bed of death and walk out of the tomb. No, he was changed in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. He passed through the graveclothes, leaving them as they lay, and out of the tomb and into the life of the world to come. The stone was rolled from the door to let the witnesses in, not to let the Lord Jesus out.
This is what we believe happened on Easter morning. We accept the angel’s news and testimony. We accept the disciples’ affirmation and witness to this truth. Jesus of Nazareth, the same man who was crucified, died and was buried, rose again from the dead. His tomb was found to be empty on Easter morning. Later on he was seen alive by many who knew him. These things demonstrated conclusively that he was more than just a man – that he was the Son of God (Rom. 1:4).
Jesus’ resurrection was a physical event. His body did not undergo the normal process of decay after death. The Bible had prophesied this centuries earlier, in these words from the sixteenth Psalm: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (v. 10). Uniquely, in Jesus’ case, the ordinary physical consequences of dying were arrested and then reversed. This is history. This is fact. As Christians, we base our faith on it. More than that, we are staking our entire future on it. The New Testament says as clearly as it can that Jesus rose physically from the dead. Skeptics who deny the possibility of this, who say that Jesus only rose in some spiritual sense, or who argue that the gospel accounts of the resurrection are really just a symbolic way of saying that Jesus’ influence lived on in his disciples’ lives, simply haven’t got the story straight.
Of course, many do deny the resurrection. But the only way for an informed person to do that is to conclude that the New Testament itself is a deliberate deception. Is that likely? Can you believe that the whole Christian church is founded upon a lie?
I can’t. I believe it’s true. I am convinced that Jesus’ tomb was empty on that first Easter morning, and that it was empty because he had risen to a new life, a life that is part of the world to come. But even that isn’t the end of his story. Jesus shares his new life with us, when we become his followers. We too are raised to a new life, first in a spiritual sense, but eventually physically as well, when Jesus comes again at the end of time. And in the meantime, the way we live our lives becomes the rest of his story. When we really live with Jesus’ life and by his power, we will start to affect the world the very same way he did. So let’s get going! The story isn’t over. We are going to help write the finish!