The Empty Tomb—What’s in It for You?

We don’t know precisely when. We are not sure exactly where. But early one morning nearly 2000 years ago, something happened in Jerusalem that affects the life of every human being who has ever lived.

Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, had been arrested, condemned and crucified. As he died, he entrusted himself to his heavenly Father and his Holy Spirit. Then, his battered corpse had lain in a tomb carved out of solid rock, sealed by a heavy stone rolled across the entrance.

Even so, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, had authorized a guard at the tomb. Jesus had prophesied that the grave would not hold him, and Pilate was afraid the followers of the dead man would try to steal the body.

However, that seemed unlikely. Those followers were demoralized and in hiding. They had seen the brutal end of their leader—flogged nearly to death, nailed to a cross and, after six hours of agony, stabbed in the side with a spear. They had taken the battered body down from the cross and quickly wrapped it in linen. It was only intended to be a temporary burial, as a Sabbath was approaching. Some planned to come back after the Sabbath to prepare Jesus’ body for a proper burial. They had no illusions about what they would find in the tomb. Their beloved leader was dead—he was going nowhere.

The body of Jesus lay in the cold, dark tomb. Then, sometime early in the morning of the third day, the shroud that covered the mangled flesh stirred, and out of it stepped something that had never existed before—a resurrected and glorified human being. Jesus had been resurrected by his heavenly Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Not just in a way that restored his human existence, as he had done for those he brought back from the dead. They would later die again, but Jesus had become a new kind of creation, never to die again. He folded the burial shroud, and walked out of the tomb to continue his work. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Don’t fully understand

When he was with us on earth, Jesus was one of us, a flesh-and-blood human being, subject to hunger, thirst, weariness and the limited dimensions of a mortal existence. He also lived in communion with God’s Holy Spirit, as one of us. Theologians call this “the incarnation.” But he was also one with God as the eternal Word or Son of God. This is a concept that is difficult, and perhaps impossible to completely grasp, given the limitations of our human minds.

How could Jesus be both God and human? The contemporary theologian J.I. Packer put it well: “Here are two mysteries for the price of one—the plurality of persons within the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus… Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation” (Knowing God [Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1993], 53). It is a concept that is contrary to everything we know about ordinary reality.

What science is uncovering shows that just because something seems to defy explanation, that does not mean it isn’t true. Scientists working on the leading edge of physics have come to terms with phenomena that turn conventional logic on its head. At the quantum level, the rules that govern our everyday life break down, and new rules apply, even if they are so contrary to logic as to seem preposterous. Light can act as both a wave and a particle. A particle can be in two places at the same time. Some subatomic quarks must spin twice before they have “gone around” once, while others need to make only half a revolution. And so on. The more we learn about the quantum world, the more unlikely it seems. But experiment after experiment demonstrates that quantum theory is right. But our ordinary experience gives us no clues that this would, or even could, be the case.

What science is uncovering shows that just because something seems to defy explanation, that does not mean it isn’t true. Likewise, we accept that even though we may not fully grasp how Jesus was God in the flesh, that was the way it was. We have the tools to investigate the physical world and are often surprised at its inner details. So why should it be a surprise that the spiritual world is also sometimes counterintuitive?

We do not have tools to investigate divine and uncreated realities—we have to accept them the way God reveals them to us. We were told about these things by Jesus himself and by those he commissioned to preach and write. The evidence we have from Scripture, history and our own experience supports the belief that Jesus was one in being with God and one with humanity.

While it is intriguing, it is not essential for us to understand every detail about how this can be. Insisting on it may actually get in the way of fully appreciating what happened on Resurrection morning. When Jesus the man was resurrected, the two natures reached a new dimension of being together that resulted in a new kind of creation—a glorified human being, no longer subject to death and decay.

Escape from the grave

Many years—perhaps as many as 60—after this event, Jesus appeared to John, the last of his original disciples, who had seen him die. John was now an old man. Jesus told him, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).

Read that again! Let the impact of it trickle into your understanding. Once we become familiar with a scripture, there is a danger when we read it quickly, thinking we know what it is saying, but end up skipping over important details. Most of us have grown up knowing that “Jesus died for us.” It has become a cliché, and once that happens, it reduces its power to shock. Once a verse or an idea becomes too familiar, it is tempting to hurry through it, thinking, “Yes, I know that.”

When Jesus the man was resurrected, his two natures reached a new dimension that resulted in a new kind of creation—a glorified human being, no longer subject to death and decay.

Revelation 1:18 is a verse that needs to be unpacked carefully. So look again at what Jesus is saying. He was dead. He is now alive. As if that were not enough, he says he will stay alive forever. He also has a key that opens up the way for others to also escape the grave. Even death isn’t what it used to be after Jesus’ resurrection.

Wow! At least, we should respond with a “wow.” What this verse is saying is that Jesus has revolutionized what it means to be a human being. Not just for himself, but for everyone. That is the astonishing promise of another verse that has become a cliché: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus, resurrected to eternal life, has opened up the way for us to also live forever.

But wait—there’s more

Look again at what Jesus prayed before he died: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24). Jesus, having shared our mortal existence for about 30 years, says he wants us to be with him in his immortal environment forever.

Paul, writing to the Romans, believed it: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:17-18).

Jesus was the first human to transcend mortal existence, but God never intended that he be the only one. We were, as Willie Nelson sings, “always on his mind.” “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29).

Although we cannot yet understand the full impact of this, our eternal future is in safe hands. “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. [So don’t worry about it.] But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). What is his can become ours, his kind of life. God’s kind of life.

Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has shown us what it means to be a human being. He is the first to reach the full perfection that God had in mind for human beings from the beginning. But he is not the last.

We can’t get there by ourselves. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus explained. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But he, “by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21).

When we read the Scriptures carefully, an exciting preview of the future of the human race begins to unfold.

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him?” asks the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. “You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet” (2:6-8).

This much he knew. He was quoting a Psalm that had been written centuries before. But he continued: “at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (verses 8-9).

When the women came back to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial, they found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty except for the neatly folded shroud and head covering. But that empty space was filled with promise—for them, the other disciples, and for every human being.

Jesus’ destiny is our destiny. His future is our future. The Resurrection of Jesus demonstrates God’s willingness to irreversibly bind himself to all of us in an eternal relationship of love, lifting us up into the very life and communion of our Triune God. That was his plan from the beginning, and Jesus came to save us for that. And he has done it.

John Halford

John Halford and Joseph Tkach
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