The Power of the Empty Tomb – John 20&21
Sunday morning. The hour of darkness recedes as the first ray of sunshine breaks upon the horizon. And with the breaking of the dawn comes a new reality as the breath of life once again fills the lungs of a crucified rabbi from Galilee. His lifeless body is animated once more by the force of His spirit; His heart starts beating again — a heart that hasn’t stopped beating to this very day. As Jesus climbed out of that tomb, He ushered in an entirely new reality – the Kingdom of God’s eternal, everlasting life was breaking into the present realm of human history! A new day was truly dawning. He arose! Jesus lives!
And the world is filled with countless examples of this reality, if we only have the eyes to see:
- This week I was reminded how beautiful everything looks in the morning sun. I see the same view every day; yet it was simply glorious to see each morning, as if it had been made over once more.
- Those of you who work in medicine and provide health care to people…you have a front row seat to witness this everyday. Each day, you get to bear witness to the human body’s power to heal. Isn’t it fascinating that you don’t bleed to death from a paper cut? Your body begins to work to heal itself whenever you get a cut – as people of faith, can you see the foreshadowing of the resurrection there?
- With eyes of faith, we see these as declarations of the ultimate reality: the reality of the empty tomb!
The resurrection is the key event in all of human history. Timothy Keller writes, in The Reason for God: “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”
The Gospel writers testify to the transformative power of the empty tomb.
John 20 & 21 – John gives us four resurrection stories, four encounters the risen Christ had with His followers. I believe these encounters speak a word to four areas in our lives where we are just desperate for resurrection power.
1. The Empty Tomb Transforms…Grief Into Joy– John 20:10-18
Mary Magdalene is broken by grief. Her Jesus is gone; now someone has presumably desecrated his grave. So we find her outside the tomb, weeping, grieving.
Grief is a natural feeling. And it’s one that comes calling to each one of us. That’s why the conversation gets personal very quickly. I understand that. Each of us can recount the losses of our loved ones: the anniversaries, the birthdays, and the special occasions since they’ve passed.
But this is where John’s Gospel is so powerful; John is the one who records the raising of Lazarus in John 11. And in spite of the power of this miracle, the most famous passage of Scripture in this chapter is verse 35: Jesus wept. It may be the shortest verse in the Bible, but there are few verses that have as much depth. Shows us the very heart of Jesus — His humanity. Even though Jesus knows how all of this is going to end, it doesn’t change the fact that grief envelopes him.
But praise God for the empty tomb! Just see how the risen Christ affects Mary’s grief! Her grief turns to joy in light of the resurrection. The grave couldn’t hold him! And hope is renewed!
The only balm I know for the pain of grief and sorrow is the hope of someday. Listen to these words Jesus spoke just hours before his death: John 16:20, 22 – I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
We should take great comfort in the words of Jesus when he says, “I will see you again.” To those who are grieving, is there any better promise? And oh, how joyous will the reunion be when we see Jesus, when we see our loved ones again.
The empty tomb makes this promise: I will see you again. The empty tomb transforms our grief, replaces it with joy.
But this is just the first resurrection story John tells. The next is found in the next few verses:
2. The Empty Tomb Transforms…Fear Into Peace – John 20:19-20
We find the disciples here with the door locked. As you read the Gospels, you get the impression that the disciples were pretty scared. They didn’t understand what had just happened. Jesus had been crucified and fear paralyzed them. This is easy to understand – they likely feared that the same fate was awaiting them.
Fear has blinded them. The most incredible thing in human history has just happened, but their fear won’t allow them to see it or understand it.
In 1978, a news report came out of Yugoslavia about a man named Janez Rus who lived in Germany during the days of Hitler. During that time he was a young shoemaker, looking to make his name prominent. Because of the power of the German government, he participated in public supports of the Nazi regime in hopes of gaining recognition. But after the regime fell, he realized the error of his ways, and out of fear, fled to his sister’s farm in Slovenia to hide. Fearing punishment for his pro-Nazi wartime involvement, Rus hid for the next thirty-two years, from 1945 to 1977, without so much as a visit to town or interaction with guests. In fact, Rus was so fearful that someone would recognize him that he refused to attend his mother’s funeral in 1966. After he was discovered, reporters interviewed him, wondering how someone stayed hidden for so many years. He told of how he allowed his fear to keep him at home, away from anyone outside his family.
For thirty-two years, this man went nowhere, visited no one, and lived a sad life of regret. Yes, the threat of retribution for his crimes was real, but he allowed his life to be ruled by the fear of what could happen.
What fear is paralyzing you? I think most of our answers to those questions are legitimate.
- Job situation / economic strain / ongoing mess in Washington
- Issues with family & friends
- Past mistakes; fearful that these won’t be forgiven
What does the resurrected Jesus offer in place of fear? What antidote does he offer? Peace be with you! (20:19) Jesus speaks this peace into existence. Their fears were justified; most of the disciples were going to experience exactly the same kind of fate at the hands of their opponents. But the peace of Christ made all the difference in the world for them.
1 John 4.18, There is no fear in love. The empty tomb transforms our fear, replacing it with peace.
3. The Empty Tomb Transforms…Doubt Into Faith– John 20:24-28
I’ve always felt that Thomas gets a bad rep. We call him “Doubting Thomas” because of one momentary lapse of demanding “proof” of Jesus’ resurrection. In his defense, he wasn’t there when all of other disciples had this great resurrection experience with Jesus. I guess I’ve always had sympathy for the guy; I just know I wouldn’t want to be remembered for my worst moment.
I’ve always been fascinated by this account when Thomas finally does see Jesus. The risen Christ implores Thomas to reach out and touch Him. It’s as if Jesus is saying to Thomas, “I know you need something a little tactile here, so go ahead. Whatever it takes for you to believe.” And I find this comforting, because there are times in my life when I, too, need a little tactile reinforcement from God. Sure, there are times when we accept His promises at face value, end of story. But there are other times, at least in my own faith, when I like to see God’s handiwork. I like to know He’s present. I like to see an answered prayer. Like Thomas, I have an inclination to want to see, to touch, to feel in order to believe.
But there’s also something beautifully understated in John’s retelling of the story. Although Jesus appears bodily to Thomas and beseeches Him to touch His side, Thomas never does. For Thomas, you get the impression that it was enough for Jesus to make the effort. Jesus appears, addressing Thomas’ doubts and reservations, and all Thomas knows to do is to fall to his knees and confess, “My Lord and my God!”
Here’s the thing about doubt: everyone has doubts from time to time. I have doubts sometimes. I think to myself, “What if I’m wrong about all of this?” I have a lot of skin in the game, so to speak. And I think we all find ourselves in this place from time to time. So everybody has doubts – it’s what you do with that doubt that defines you.
The issue with doubt is what it prompts you to do; what you do with it. If doubt leads to unbelief, we’ve got a problem. But when doubt prompts legitimate seeking, then we’ve come to realize that God is able to handle our doubts.
Jesus is able to handle Thomas’ doubts. He doesn’t kick him out; He doesn’t berate him for how weak his faith is. Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to come and feel the scars, to touch His side. And Thomas’ doubt dissipates and he, “Doubting Thomas”, makes one of the boldest proclamations about the identity of Jesus in all of the Gospels: My Lord and my God!
The empty tomb transforms our doubt, leads us to even greater belief.
4. The Empty Tomb Transforms…Guilt With Grace – John 21:15-19
Our last image of Peter prior to the death of Jesus is not a pretty one. The crowds are pressing in, questioning him about his involvement with Jesus. Somebody comments on his accent, a servant girl tells the crowd that he’s lying, and Peter begins to curse. Just as Jesus had predicted, Peter denies Jesus three times that night. Luke’s Gospel says the rooster crowed, the Lord turned and looked directly at Peter, and he went outside and wept bitterly.
In this episode, Jesus has some unfinished business to handle with Peter. Here Jesus reverses that denial by giving Peter the opportunity to affirm three different times his love for Jesus. Jesus asks three times, “Do you love me?” And Peter replies three times, “Yes, Lord. I love you.”
And then Jesus says something very interesting: “Follow me!” These are the same words he used in the beginning when He called Peter. He uses these same words now to convey grace to Peter. “Continue following me, Peter.”
Guilt can be a powerful thing. It accrues over time. Carrying around the weight of something we committed years ago. Peter had been carrying around this weight – he wept bitterly over denying Jesus. What in your past causes you to weep bitterly? What guilt are you carrying around with you?
What are the dead areas of your life? Grief? Fear? Doubt? Guilt? In each area, the resurrected Christ brings healing and restoration.
The eternal message of the empty tomb is this: He is Risen!