The Empty Tomb
On Easter Sunday every year the Christian church remembers in a speed way what it remembers every Lord's Day that the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Buried on Friday, His tomb was empty on the first day of the week. This is what the Gospel record teaches us. But is that believable? Can we present the fact of the empty tomb as truth in a modern scientific world which takes little stock in the possibility that someone dead for some days would come to life again. We will now see that the historical evidence presented in the Bible show that the fact of the empty tomb is very true.
Tombs and Ossuaries
The gospels tell us that the Lord was crucified and laid in a tomb. The tombs around Jerusalem were caves or crypts carved in the hillsides with a large stone that could be rolled over the opening. The body of the dead person was wrapped in linen with spices and laid on a "shelf'” in the tomb. The body would decay and after some time the bones would be placed in a box kept in the tomb for that person. The tomb was reused by successive generations of families and the bones carefully laid together in the ossuary. It was not difficult to open a tomb in order to see inside. Not like today where to open a grave and exhume a body is a rather difficult procedure.
The Lord Jesus' own Testimony
The gospels testify that the Lord Jesus Himself spoke of His own resurrection on a number of occasions. His followers, as well as His opponents, were told to expect it. When He was buried His opponents remembered His word and place a guard at the door of His tomb in order to counter the possibility of anyone saying that He actually was alive again.
The Tomb's Location not Secret
The Lord Jesus was laid in a tomb outside Jerusalem. People who knew Him before His crucifixion knew where He was laid. Even a hardened skeptic will acknowledge that Jesus Christ lived and so He must have died and been buried. The gospels tell us that there were a number of participants in the Lord's funeral. It says specifically in Matthew 28:6 that the women saw where His body was laid. They would not have forgotten after a few hours and come to the wrong place on the first day of the week, would they? They came to the tomb where He had lain and found the stone rolled away and no body inside.
We can also show the truth of the Lord's resurrection by pointing out that Joseph of Arimathea was involved in the Lord's burial. He was a member of the Jewish council; a leading citizen. It is not likely that the gospel writers invented a person who did not exist. Neither is it likely that they told lies about someone who did exist. Joseph of Arimathea was a real person, a member of the Jewish council who helped to bury the Lord Jesus.
His disciples did not expect His resurrection and needed to be convinced by infallible proofs, as Luke says in Acts 1. Even though they had seen the Lord raise at least 3 people from the dead, they did not yet accept His words that He would rise again. The disciples therefore cannot be accused of plotting and perpetuating a hoax. It was the appearance of the living Lord Jesus that convinced skeptical Thomas and the stubborn Paul. The profound change and transformation of the disciples also demonstrates the truth of the resurrection. From a fearful bunch of individuals scattered in the night, they were changed into a fearless group of preachers overnight. They were ready to proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Jerusalem, Samaria, to the ends of the world; to Athens and to Rome. The skeptic cannot dismiss this with a shrug of the shoulders.
As long as the people of Jerusalem believed that there was a body in Jesus' grave they would not have believed the disciple's preaching about the resurrection. But 50 days after his resurrection, Peter preached in Jerusalem that God had raised Him from the dead and literally thousands believed him! It would have been easy to deny Peter's Pentecost preaching, if only the opponents of the Lord could present His body. But they could not! They had no body. The account that Jesus was buried points up the fact that He rose again. His tomb was known. That it was empty on the first day of the week is a fact. And fifty days later there was no adequate explanation other than that He was alive again, seen by many.
We can also see from the earliest books of the New Testament, that the Lord was buried and rose again. The first books written were Paul's letters. He consistently preached and taught that the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. In 1 Corinthians 15:3ff we can read of that:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and that He appeared to Cephas and the twelve.
Even the Lord's own brother, James, did not believe until after His resurrection when the Lord Jesus appeared to him. Paul testifies that many saw the Lord Jesus; even five hundred at one time.
When he appeared to the disciples the Lord Jesus showed His wounds to them. As well, He ate in their presence. This proved His real physical bodily resurrection as well as His identity. It was really the same person who died on Friday who now appeared to them in Jerusalem in a locked room.
The Jewish Council's Lies
It is striking that in Matthew 28:11ff we can read that the Jewish council wanted to explain away the empty tomb. If Jesus Christ were still dead it would have been a small matter to produce his body. But they did not. The leaders had to admit that the tomb was empty, so they told a lie. "His disciples stole His body."
The Resurrection a Fact
It is perfectly clear from the historical record that Jesus' victory over the grave really happened. God had acted in a profound and dramatic way in the history of redemption. All this happened in history and is recorded for us in reliable documents.
But that brings us to a new question. What if the person you are speaking to, the unbeliever, says, "So what?" So someone rises from the dead. Could it not be some chance event. Something without significance. People claim all sorts of things as true. There is a new fad called past life regression, where under hypnosis people claim to recall scores of past lives and the skeptic says, "So what?"
But the resurrection of Jesus Christ underlines the truth of His claims. The Lord Jesus' claims are not answered by "So what?" His resurrection is tied to His life, His teaching and His death. He is one so unique, without peer and exclusive in His claims upon the lives of men and women that "So what" is an inadequate response. He lays His claims upon all people. He is the way the truth and the life. His claim is exclusive. But His call is not excluding. He says to all and everyone,
Come to Me you who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest.
He calls all men and women to Himself. He turns none away. That is the wonder of the Gospel.