How Would You Respond to the Empty Tomb?
Sometimes we forget just how stunning the empty tomb really is because we have lived our whole lives in the afterglow of its effects and the knowledge of Jesus’s resurrection. Lost is the shock of the event. The shattering of expectations. As we approach Easter, it is worth approaching the resurrection with fresh eyes.
The Stone that was Rolled Away Has Become the Cornerstone
The resurrection is the foundation of our faith for it ratifies all that Jesus did and said. In a manner, it is the evidence of his ability to forgive sins and proof of His divinity.
“Then the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?”” (Luke 5:21)
It is the ratification of His work on the cross. The sign that His life did not end in defeat. He did not die in vain.
The revelation of the resurrection begins with the empty tomb. While not sufficient proof itself, the empty tomb stands at the crux of history and requires an explanation. It is left to us to discover what that explanation is.
Responses to the Empty Tomb
It should be noted, that no one questioned whether the tomb was empty. Neither the Romans, the Jewish leaders, or the disciples disputed the fact of the missing body. It was their response to the empty tomb that differed. In a way, these are the three responses we can make today.
The two scripture verses below typify the response of the Romans, the Jews, and the disciples.
“And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.… While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had happened. They assembled with the elders and took counsel; then they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him while we were asleep.’ And if this gets to the ears of the governor, we will satisfy [him] and keep you out of trouble.” The soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has circulated among the Jews to the present [day].” (Matthew 28:2-6, 11-15)
“The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone; then he went home amazed at what had happened.” (Luke 24: 12)
1. The Response of the Romans: The Roman response to the empty tomb was largely to ignore it. This is exemplified by the fact that the Roman soldiers took the money and agreed to say they fell asleep.
Falling asleep while on guard duty was a serious offense. It was punishable by death. Often, the execution was carried out by one’s fellow soldiers who conducted a public beating until the offender was beaten to death. Hence, this was no small infraction. The Roman soldiers could only agree to this if they believed the event would go virtually unnoticed.
2. The Response of the Jewish Leaders: The response of the Jewish leaders was to explain away or rationalize the empty tomb. They quickly identify a natural explanation and throw their full support behind it. The problem is that it does not fit the evidence.
The explanation of the Jews is in direct opposition to the eyewitness testimony of the day. The guards themselves testify to the earthquake, the sighting of the angel, and the angel’s proclamation that Jesus has risen from the dead for they “went into the city and told the chief priests all that had happened.” (Matthew: 28: 11) Moreover, in addition to apostles, Jesus “…appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15: 6) As Paul notes, many of these were still living when Paul’s letter was written in approximately 56 A.D. This is more than 20 years after the crucifixion and more than enough time to interview and evaluate their testimony. Finally, the apostles themselves attest to the validity of Jesus’s resurrection by sealing their own eyewitness testimony with their lives.
3. The Response of the Disciples: The response of the disciples is not one of immediate acceptance. Initially, they thought the women’s story sounded like “nonsense”. Peter himself has to run to the tomb to confirm its emptiness. Thomas refuses to believe ““Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”” (John 20: 25).
The difference is the apostles follow the evidence where it leads.
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20: 27-28)
The shock and awe of the empty tomb led to a deep-seated belief in the promises of the Lord. It also provided the foundation for acceptance of his resurrection and understanding of the triumph of the crucifixion.
How Can We Respond to the Empty Tomb Today?
It seems to me that we have the same 3 choices today. Too often we live our lives ignoring the resurrection. Like the Romans, distracted by their circuses and conquests, we pass through life as if the resurrection never happened. How often do we lose ourselves in distraction, the internet, sports, or the business of life? Passing our time without reference or regard for the resurrection. At these times, we must ask ourselves, what is the impact of the empty tomb in in my life?
Likewise, we may seek to explain away the resurrection for we want it to have no claim on our daily actions. The Jewish leaders did not want to believe because it would have meant an end to their way of life. God had visited man and they rejected him. To acknowledge the resurrection was to acknowledge their fault and need for a savior. It required them to set aside their pride and amend their lives. No longer could they live in a state of self-justification. No longer could they rationalize their own goodness.
We all fall into this trap. Often, believing our actions are better than they are. This denial of our faults and rationalization is in some way a refusal of the empty tomb.
Finally, we can be amazed by the empty tomb. We can meditate on its meaning day and night and be transformed by its power as the disciples were. Each and every one of them were transformed by the power of the empty tomb. From that day forward, each and every act took on new meaning. They moved forward with a new direction, facing their faults and fears with an unwavering knowledge of the power of God. This is the strength that the empty tomb can provide each of us.
And so it is left for us to ask, “How do I respond to the empty tomb?”