“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 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; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.” (John 20:1-10 ESV)
I’ve spent the last few weeks in London and my world has been a bit “flip-flopped” during that time. In addition to the six hour time change from my home, I’ve learned a few new words and experienced travel on the “wrong side of the road.” Nothing too dramatic, but it has certainly had its effects. There is one thing of which I’m absolutely certain, I’m glad I was only a passenger and never attempted to drive a vehicle. I’m sure I would have either been involved in or caused multiple accidents. I ALWAYS looked the wrong direction when I started to cross the road at a crosswalk. I can only imagine what might have happened had I been driving. You might wonder what London travel has to do with the resurrection passage before us. Well, this event turned everything the disciples thought they knew about life and about God on its head. It “flip-flopped” everything. Let’s take a look…
I have previously written about the evidence for the resurrection (https://wp.me/p5mod1-8vr), so I won’t go over all of those items again, but I will point out several of the primary facts that we find noted in the passage at hand. First, we find three primary witnesses to the resurrection and the first is, incredibly, a woman. Before you go off thinking that I’m just being sexist or derogatory about Mary Magdalene, I’m not. The credibility of a woman as a witness in the culture of first century Palestine was a huge factor. Her testimony would have been considered questionable and, more than likely, would have been simply discarded as worthless.
Why is that important and how does it support the truth claims of the resurrection story? If the disciples fabricated the resurrection story, as is claimed by the Jewish leaders of that time and the modern skeptics of our time, then the disciples certainly would NOT have fabricated a story that made their first and foremost witness a woman. It would have been far better for Peter and John to have arrived at the tomb first and been the primary witnesses, if they are fabricating eyewitness testimony. All they needed to do to strengthen their testimony was to leave out this one small detail of Mary’s arrival and her subsequent alert regarding the empty tomb, but they didn’t. Why not? Because the truth was important and they were presenting the absolute truth even when it might make it more difficult to believe.
I don’t think this issue is difficult to grasp, but let me illustrate a bit. Have you ever had an event occur in your life that might have included details that others would struggle to understand or believe? I certainly have and, I suspect, you have too. What if that event included details that were not critical to the story or its understanding but, if told, might cause some doubts as to its the truth. It would be easier and, perhaps, even better if those details were omitted. Now, consider what would happen if John omitted Mary’s details and made Peter and himself the first to arrive on the scene. It might make initial belief easier, but what happens to your belief if you later learn the truth regarding the details? Would you begin to question everything else John had told you? I know I would… that’s why it was critical that they tell the story just like it happened, including Mary’s role, and that’s what makes John’s account even more believable.
There’s a key word in this passage that is used over and over again. It is crucial to grasp its significance and then to let it impact your belief. John uses the word “saw” in reference to Mary’s witness details, Peter’s details and also his own. This confirms for us that all three of them were eyewitnesses of these events and that their stories are first hand accounts of the resurrection. They aren’t telling us what they’ve heard or been told about the resurrection, they are telling us what they personally observed or witnessed firsthand. Let’s review what they saw…
First, Mary arrived early on Sunday morning and found the stone had been rolled away from the opening. While I’m not going to elaborate here, the fact that the resurrection occurred on Sunday morning becomes a factor in the worship of the church. Some will try and make an issue out of which day we worship, but God is more concerned that you DO worship than He is about which day you worship. In fact, worship should occur every day of our lives. The observance of the Sabbath is more about our needs than God’s demands. Jesus said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28 ESV) So, instead of being legalistic about which day we should be diligent about remembering our need for God and for worship whether that’s occurring on Saturday night, Sunday morning or some other time during the week.
What seems much more significant about Mary’s witness is the position of the tomb’s stone, it was rolled away. For just a moment, consider why the stone was rolled away. Our first reaction might be that it was necessary but that’s clearly not the case. Consider two truth possibilities and three outcomes with me. First, the two possible truths about Jesus deity: 1) Jesus was just an ordinary man and the resurrection was all a hoax perpetrated by the disciples; 2) Jesus was indeed the very Son of God incarnate and the resurrection actually occurred. Let’s start with latter of the two possibilities…
If Jesus was just an ordinary man and the resurrection was nothing but a hoax carried out by his followers then the disciples must maintain the hoax despite the intense persecution. The stone would have only been rolled away only as a means of supporting a false claim and would have been easily discounted by producing a body or silencing the disciples through intimidation, but neither happened. In fact, the opposite happened. The religious leaders were unable to produce a body to discount the disciples’ claims and their intimidation attempts miserably failed (see Acts 4: 13-22).
Chuck Colson said that the Watergate scandal of the 70’s convinced him that this “hoax” theory could not be true. Twelve men were unable to keep the Watergate events secret for three weeks, how could twelve men steadfastly maintain the lie of the resurrection for their entire lives despite the persecution that resulted in their very deaths. So, if it was a hoax perpetrated by the disciples then they would have had to overpower the guards and physically move the stone themselves. Not likely.
Next, if Jesus is the very incarnate Son of God then He didn’t NEED the stone rolled away in order to exit the tomb following His resurrection. He was able to appear inside locked rooms (Jn 20:19) and also disappear from among the disciples (Lk 24:31). The guards would have had no reason to roll the stone away from the tomb’s entrance. The guards were intentionally placed there to prevent that very thing. We are told that the Jewish religious leaders remembered Jesus’ claims regarding His resurrection and requested a detachment of guards to protect the integrity of the tomb and the potential “stealing” of Jesus’ body to perpetrate a resurrection myth story. So, neither the Roman guards nor the Jewish leaders would have opened the tomb. So, the stone wasn’t rolled away for His sake or the Jew’s or Roman’s sake. So why was it moved?
Notice Mary’s initial reaction to the empty tomb, “they’ve taken Him and moved Him and we don’t know where.” I don’t know about you, but if I were writing this story I would have wanted to change a few insignificant details. I would have wanted to fix it just a little. Nothing that would have altered the essential truth, just the details that make you look foolish. Mary doesn’t go to the tomb expecting the resurrection, she goes expecting a dead Jesus. She doesn’t attribute the empty tomb to a miracle but to a mixup or mistake. “They’ve moved Him and didn’t tell us where.” What’s going on? I don’t understand. I’d better go tell Peter and the others. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen when someone dies. This is weird, very weird.
Odd, small details. We generally pay little attention to them. Why would John note them? Why would he intentionally tell us that Mary didn’t initially recognize the empty tomb as a resurrection miracle but instead saw it as a burial mixup? Why tell us that he and Peter raced to the scene, but he outran Peter and arrived first, looked into the tomb but didn’t enter? Why tell us about the burial cloths lying separated from the folded linen cloth that covered Jesus’ face? Why? Because they’re the details of an eyewitness account. If you read John’s account of the resurrection story carefully you begin to notice it lacks the fantastic and self-serving characteristics of a fictional or even embellished story. It sounds true because it is true.
So, the stone wasn’t rolled away because the disciples were perpetrating a hoax, or because Jesus needed it to be rolled away, or because the guards did so to prove the resurrection was false. No, it was rolled away for the disciple’s sake and for ours. The stone was rolled away so Mary, John and Peter could SEE the evidence and believe and so we can, too. Notice how John tells us the truth and it begins to settle into his heart, “he saw and believed.” There are three things John has given us throughout his story as proof of Jesus’ claims: the historically verifiable fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, the miracles that testify of His deity and now his personal eyewitness account of the truth of the resurrection.
In essence John says, I saw it with my own eyes and, even though I had initially doubted, the truth and power of what I saw has convinced me that He IS who He claims to be. John’s world has been flip-flopped on its head. Everything he once thought impossible is now possible and everything he once thought essential and important is irrelevant. The resurrection changed everything in John’s life and it can change everything in yours, too! Wait, don’t rush past that statement too fast. Religious practices don’t change everything. In fact, they really change very little in us. But, Jesus power and resurrection does. God has no desire nor intentions of making you religious, but He does want to make you more alive than you’ve ever been. But how?
Jesus wants to give you new life, not just patch up your old one. He wants you to believe that He IS life, and breath, and bread, and water, and everything else you could ever possibly need. How? By giving you a new heart in place of your old, cold heart of stone. By taking a life of dead, empty religious deeds and making them acts of love from a grateful, changed heart. By taking a life of selfish motivation and transforming it into one of selfless love and sacrifice. Jesus never wanted anyone to just ACT religious, He wanted them to love God so much it transformed them and their actions. He wants YOU to love God so much it makes your world become transformed, flip-flopped. It’s your move…
What will you see and believe?