The Apostle John was an eye witness to the greatest event in world history. Well, to be accurate, John wasn’t actually inside the tomb when life returned to Jesus’s broken corpse. Nor did he actually witness Jesus sliding out of his grave clothes, taking off the white face cloth from his bloodied head and folding the linen neatly beside him. In fact, those closest to the action were four Roman soldiers who had closed the tomb with the official Roman seal and were guarding it with their lives (Matt 27:64-66). They felt the shudder of the earthquake and saw the angel of the Lord who rolled back the 2-ton stone from the door before sitting on it as if it were a deck chair. I wonder if the guards fainted before or after the angel had rolled back the stone to reveal a dead man walking! Perhaps just the sight of an angel dressed in white with a shining face was enough to shake those tough Roman guards and paralyze them with fear like dead men (Matt 28:2-4). Had John actually been an eyewitness to these events, his own shocked corpse may have been added to the empty tomb!
What John saw
But John was an eyewitness of the risen Jesus shortly after He burst out of the tomb early on Sunday morning. With his own eyes, John saw the empty tomb with the stone rolled away. The moment John saw the strips of linen and the headpiece lying neatly folded in the empty tomb, there was no doubt in his mind. “He saw and believed” (John 20:8). It was a moment of revelation. An epiphany. A point of no return. This is an extract from John’s eye witness account of what happened early on Resurrection Sunday:
“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.2 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.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there,7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.”
“Back to their homes”
On the first Resurrection Sunday in history, the disciples just went home! Verse 10 is the typical throwaway comment that only an eye witness mentions. But doesn’t it strike you as an odd response after realising that Jesus’s body was missing from the sealed and guarded tomb? Instead of looking for the risen Jesus, John clues us in on why they just went home: “For as yet they did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). They were confused and slow to see the truth that was in front of them all along.
Slow to understand
Despite great miracles and Jesus’s prophecies of his death and resurrection, his disciples were slow to grasp the truth (John 20:9).
To be honest, I don’t blame them. After all, the only person who was known to perform resurrections was dead himself and sealed in a tomb. Let’s face it, for intelligent, logical people, resurrection from the dead belongs to the realm of science fiction or madness…or hoax (courtesy of Pastor Lukau!)
Humiliated, hopeless and hiding
The disciples had no idea what Jesus meant when He foretold that He would raise up the ‘temple’ 3 days after it had been destroyed, speaking metaphorically about the “temple of his body” (John 2:19; 21). After their rabbi was crucified, the disciples were humiliated, hopeless and in hiding. The trauma of the crucifixion was still raw in their minds. Resurrection was the last thing they expected. It is highly unlikely that this scattered, fearful group of disciples with no preconceived idea that Jesus would rise from the grave, could have colluded and fabricated a story of resurrection. From their viewpoint, their story had come to an abrupt end and there was no next chapter.
What the disciples had believed about Jesus being God’s promised Saviour was in stark contrast with the mutilated, dead body they saw with their eyes. In fact, it was only women who were brave enough to go to the tomb early on Sunday morning to check on Jesus’ body (Luke 24:1). Women of the first century were not considered credible witnesses. Even the disciples accused Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary (the mother of James) of seeing “a vision of angels” and telling “idle tales”. No one believed their eye witness accounts (Luke 24:10-11; 23).
Last at the cross, first at the grave
The most unlikely witness of all was Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus had freed from seven demons (Luke 8:2). If John were fabricating a story, this loyal lady was not an ideal witness to put at the scene of the tomb (John 20:1). But just as Mary Magdalene was last at the cross, she is first at the grave.
Mary’s grief is palpable as she stands outside the tomb crying (John 20:11). Imagine her confusion as she sees the ‘gardener’ and asks him where he has put the body. Imagine her joy as she hears Jesus calling her name and finally recognizes Him as her “Rabboni!” Isn’t it just like Jesus’s topsy turvy kingdom to choose Mary Magdalene as the first messenger of the resurrection? Mary is not unlike the Samaritan woman at the well who sees Jesus for who He is and becomes the first missionary to the Gentiles (John 4:39). Jesus speaks her name. Mary sees and instantly believes(John 20:11-18).
Seeing and believing slowly
Some disciples take a little longer to see and believe. They need things explained, and Jesus is always patient with our questions and doubts. On the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus says to Cleopas and another disciple,
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
Despite their knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures, the two disciples could not see that their whole Old Testament was peppered with prophecies of the death and resurrection of God’s Messiah.
Imagine the disciples’ flash of insight as they recalled a picture of their patriarch Abraham and his obedient son, Isaac, carrying a bundle of wood up Mount Moriah… Just like the stooped figure of Jesus walking up Calvary in obedience to his Father, bearing a heavy wooden cross (Gen 22:6;9; John 19:17; Luke 22:42).
Jesus the ram in the thicket! Jesus the Passover Lamb led to the slaughter! Jesus the atoning sacrifice of Yom Kippur and the scapegoat sent outside the city of Jerusalem to die (Lev 16:15; 10;21;22; Heb 13:12). Jesus the Rock in the Wilderness (1 Cor 10:4)! Jesus the bronze serpent lifted on a pole (Num 21:4-9; John 3:14-15)! Jesus the perfect substance of flawed shadows like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Melchizedek, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Jonah, Jeremiah…
Imagine the amazement of Cleopas and his companion as it slowly dawned on them that even Judas’s betrayal of Jesus fulfilled what was written in the Old Testament (Acts 1:16-20). They would have realized that the crucifixion was no mistake but part of God’s great redemptive plan since the beginning of time. How I wish I could have been part of that road trip to Emmaus as the Lord Jesus miraculously turned the lights on little by little!
Suddenly Cleopas and his friend connected the dots and saw Jesus for who He was. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us…while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)
Their vision finally cleared and their burning hearts believed it. It is the miracle of seeing and believing that every follower of Jesus experiences somewhere on their spiritual journey.
Believing is not blind faith
Faith in Jesus Christ is not a crutch for the gullible and blind. John’s gospel is a cameo of the last three weeks of Jesus’ life through the eyes of a credible witness. It was written for an express purpose. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).
Believing Jesus’ resurrection is no small issue of personal preference. Life is at stake.
John asks us to believe his own testimony of the day he saw Christ’s grave clothes and folded face cloth in an empty tomb. John speaks of himself when he says, “He saw and believed” (John 20:8).
The empty tomb, rolled away stone and folded linen cloths were the basis for John’s belief.
It was not blind faith but faith based on what John saw.
Later he was even more convinced when he saw Jesus with his own eyes in the upper room and spent 40 days with Him before his ascension (Mark 16:14). John writes to convince us, who have never seen Jesus with our own eyes, that his resurrection is true (John 20:29).
If the resurrection is not real, Easter Friday is terrible news. In fact, the whole Christian faith is rubbish. Easter is a sick joke, our prayers a waste of breath, and we are naïve, gullible, deluded fools. Worst of all, we have no hope for ourselves beyond the grave. The Apostle Paul thought so too (1 Cor 15:1-20).
But John, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Paul (an enemy of Christians), James (the skeptical brother) and hundreds of other men and women who saw the risen Jesus— knew without a doubt that they were not deluded. They ate and spoke with him. It may have taken some of them longer than others, but when they believed, they were tortured, killed, disowned and exiled because they could not keep silent about what they had seen with their own eyes.
Seeing through their eyes
We too are called to see and believe in Jesus as the risen Lord. Not with our physical eyes, because Jesus is no longer with us, but by coming face to face with the eye-witness accounts of the New Testament. They show us the face of Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We cannot re-play history, but we can weigh up the credible testimonies of the apostles and offer a verdict of true or false.
We must choose to believe or disbelieve, but there is no middle ground.
I believe Jesus rose from the dead beyond all reasonable doubt. I believe He conquered every enemy of God when He died on the cross and rose as King of the universe, the Root of David, the Lion of Judah! (Rev 5:5) I believe Jesus is the Lamb who died to ransom people from every tribe and language and nation, appointing us to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God (Rev 5:9-10). And I long for the day when I will see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears and stand with the thousands upon thousands of people and angels worshipping the Lamb on the throne! (Rev 5:11;12;13; 14) The greatest prayer of my heart today is that you will be there too.
Live it out!
- Have you looked at the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and do you believe it is true? If you are sceptical, you owe it to yourself to investigate this for yourself. Here are two places to start: Lee Strobel’s testimony and video The case for the resurrection and Frank Morison’s book Who moved the Stone? (click on the links). Jesus requires us to know the reason for the hope we have and to share it. Who will you share the gospel with this Easter?
- Pray for eyes of unbelieving friends and family to be opened to see and believe in Jesus as their Lamb and Lord. No one can see it unless Jesus shows it to us.
Thank you, Jesus, for opening my heart and mind to the truth that you really died and rose to life again. Thank you that you are my own Saviour, not only at Easter but all year round. Like those disciples on the Emmaus road, please give me a burning heart to return to my friends and tell them that you have risen, that I know you and that you are our only hope. Give me the courage and the words to convince them of this truth. Thank you that you are my substitute Lamb and also the Lion of Judah who rules over the universe and will one day judge justly. Thank you that your body was broken on the cross to make me whole and that you rose again to give me life—- Life that is full, free and forever. Give me eyes to see you more clearly and a warm heart to love you more dearly each day.
In Jesus’ name Amen.
Worship and meditate on the cross this Easter!
Listen to Andrew Peterson’s Prologue and Volume 1 and 2 of The Resurrection Letters. His lyrics are amazing. Click on these links:
Elizabeth Cecelia Douglas Clephane (1830 – 1869) was a Scottish songwriter who wrote this beautiful hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” Spot her Old Testament references as you meditate on the meaning of Easter.
Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.
O safe and happy shelter, O refuge tried and sweet,
O trysting place where Heaven’s love and Heaven’s justice meet!
As to the holy patriarch that wondrous dream was given,
So seems my Saviour’s cross to me, a ladder up to heaven.
There lies beneath its shadow but on the further side
The darkness of an awful grave that gapes both deep and wide
And there between us stands the cross two arms outstretched to save
A watchman set to guard the way from that eternal grave.
Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by to know no gain or loss,
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.