The empty tomb


Whereas Mark 16.1 states that it was after the Sabbath that the women bought spices, Luke gives the impression that spices had already been bought before the Sabbath (23.56). Whatever, both Gospels agree that it was not until the “first day of the week” that the women went to the tomb (v1).

Luke also diverges from Mark in so far as he omits the questioning of the women as to who would roll away the stone. However, this is but a minor detail. In line with all three other Gospels Luke does record that on their arrival “they found the stone rolled away from the tomb“. Already there is a hint of the resurrection.

The evidence for the resurrection begins to pile up.

  • When the women entered the tomb “they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus” (v3). We are so used to reading the Gospel story, that we do not perhaps feel the full force of this punchline. The body had gone – it had disappeared! Luke is the only Synoptic evangelist to say explicitly at this stage that the tomb was empty, and that the body was not there. In Mark, for instance, it is left to the angel to point out that the body was gone (Mk 16.6).
  • Significantly Luke does not simply write, that they did not find “the body of Jesus”, but rather “the body of the Lord Jesus“. Luke is choosing his words carefully. The very phrase “Lord Jesus” denotes the new status which now belongs to Jesus. Jesus is now “Lord”, for he has risen from the dead. As Peter was later to declare on the Day of Pentecost, “God has made this Jesus…both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2.36).

Not surprisingly the women began to “wonder” (v4) at their failure to find the body.

The underlying Greek verb (aporeisthai) indicates that there were “at a loss” to know what had happened. They were perplexed and uncertain. They could not think of any rational explanation as to why the tomb should be empty. Unlike in Mark and Matthew, the angels are not already on hand to give an account of what had happened.

But “suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them” (v4). As Luke later makes clear, these two men were indeed “angels” (v23).

Again, there is another divergence between Luke and the other evangelists. In Mark and Matthew only one angel is mentioned, but Luke mentions two such heavenly figures. Why should Luke seek to ‘correct’ Mark’s account in this way?

  • Some have suggested that Luke introduced a second angel in order to ensure the presence of the minimum number of witnesses required by Jewish law (Deut 17.15). However, this argument is not compelling, in so far as for Luke the prime witnesses to the resurrection are human, not divine (see, for instance, Acts 1.22 where being a witness of the resurrection is the key qualification for an apostle).
  • Others have suggested that Luke’s account of the resurrection has been influenced by the transfiguration (Luke 9.30) and the ascension (Acts 1.10), where on each occasion two heavenly figures were present. However, the parallelism is not as strong as is sometimes alleged: e.g. at the transfiguration the two who appeared “in glorious splendour” were not angels, but Moses and Elijah; the ascension offers perhaps a stronger parallel for then “two men dressed in white” were present.
  • The most likely explanation for the presence of two angels at the tomb – rather than one – is that Luke was simply being true to one of his sources (see 1.1-4), a source which John in his Gospel also appears to have followed (John 20.12). This apparent discrepancy between Luke and John, on the one hand, and Mark and Matthew, on the other hand, is not of major significance. Some, indeed, have sought to overcome the discrepancy by pointing out that Mark does not explicitly say that only one angel was there! The most honest course, however, may be to remain ‘agnostic’ about the discrepancy: we do not really know the truth of the matter.

In none of the Gospels do the women take the angel(s) in their stride. Instead fear is their reaction. According to Luke “In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground” (v5). It was almost certainly this fear, rather than the brightness of the angels’ clothes, which induced the women to look away. The presence of the angels proved unnerving.

Whereas in Mark the angel declares: “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified” (Mk 16.6), Luke turns Mark’s statement into a question, and in so doing exposes the nonsensical nature of the women’s quest. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (v5)

Why indeed should one look for the living in a graveyard?!

The empty tomb witnesses to the resurrection. “He is not here; he has risen” (v6) – or rather, “he has been raised”. Once again, we probably have a ‘divine passive’.

For Luke God is the one who raises Jesus from the dead (see Acts 3.15; 4.10; 10.40; 13.30,37).

In Matthew and Mark the angel at this point mentions Galilee as the place to which the Risen Jesus has gone on ahead. In Luke, however, there is a radical shift of emphasis. For the angels continue: “Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee…..” (v6).

Galilee, in Luke’s account, is no longer the place of future meeting, but rather the place of past teaching. Luke does not record any appearances in Galilee. Jerusalem is the place where the Risen Jesus meets his disciples.

This is not necessarily because Luke was not aware of the Galilean appearances. Rather, Luke’s selection of material has to do with his theological emphasis, and in particular with his emphasis on Jesus as the Saviour of the world (see 24.47: also 2.32; 3.6; 13.28,29; 14.15-23).

This emphasis comes to expression in the Book of Acts, where Luke tells of the spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Galilee and finally to Rome (see Acts 1.8). The inclusion of appearances of the Risen Lord in Galilee would have disturbed that progression, and so they are omitted.

At this point the angels introduce the Lord’s prediction of his passion and resurrection: “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again” (v7). On more than one occasion Luke records Jesus as having spoken to his disciples about his forthcoming death and resurrection (see 9.22, 44; 18.31-32).

In his account f the resurrection the necessity of Christ’s suffering and his subsequent vindication is again highlighted several times (vv7, 26, 46).

The fact that Luke records that the women “remembered his words” (v8) implies that they too, and not just the disciples, had been told by Jesus of his forthcoming betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. Indeed, the clear impression is that for Luke the women were as much disciples as the men.

It is this which perhaps accounts for Luke’s omission of the command, found in the other Gospels, to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. As far as Luke was concerned, the women were not errand runners for the disciples – they were disciples!

In Acts 11.16 Luke records a similar remembering. On that occasion Peter remembered that Jesus had spoken of the day when his disciples would be “baptised with the Holy Spirit”. Peter’s remembering of what Jesus had said enabled him to make sense of what had been experienced by Cornelius and his friends. Remembering was the key to understanding. This parallel would suggest that the remembering on Easter Day likewise led to understanding. The “words” of Jesus confirm the words of the angels, so that the empty tomb becomes a sign of resurrection.

Luke broadens the circle of those to whom the news of the resurrection is first taken.

It is not only the “Eleven” but also “all the others” (v9) who are told of the empty tomb.

The “others” presumably included the other “women” who had been with Jesus (Acts 1.14).

Unlike Mark and Matthew, it is only at this point that Luke mentions the names of the women who had been to the empty tomb: “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them” (v10). As in all the Gospels Mary Magdalene heads the list.

As in Mark, Mary the mother of James features. However, instead of mentioning Salome (Mark 16.1) Luke mentions Joanna, presumably the same Joanna who was “the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household ” (8.3). The identity of “the others” is uncertain. Luke describes those who “prepared spices and perfumes” as “the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee” (23.55,56). Maybe they included Susanna and some of the other women who provided economic support for Jesus and his disciples (8.3).

The disciples were not impressed by the testimony of the women (v11).

Their words seemed to them like “nonsense” (leros), a word used by Greek medical writers to denote the babbling of a fevered or insane mind.

Unknowingly perhaps, Luke here makes a significant statement, for by implication he strengthens the evidence for the resurrection. The failure of the disciples to “believe” the women indicates that they too had no expectation of ever seeing Jesus again. They were not looking for an excuse to believe in resurrection. The reverse was the case. They were sceptical.

If verse 12 is to be believed, “Peter… ran to the tomb” in order to check out the women’s story. This verse is absent in a few important MSS, with the result that some have claimed that it was a later insertion made in the light of John 20.6f.

The evidence for the omission of the verse, however, is not compelling. There is no reason why John and Luke should not both have been drawing upon the same source.

However, whereas in John’s Gospel Peter is accompanied by the Beloved Disciple, here in Luke’s Gospel only Peter is actually mentioned. Luke may well have been selective in his material at this point, for the presence of more than one person at the tomb is later implied by the couple on the Emmaus Road who tell Jesus that “Then some of our companions went to the tomb” (v24).

Peter repeats the discovery of the women. He too enters the tomb.

He notices “the strips of linen lying by themselves” (v12). This piece of evidence was significant, for had anybody wanted to remove the body of Jesus, they would have been unlikely to have left the grave clothes behind. Rather they would have carried the body away wrapped in its shroud. Indirectly, therefore, the presence of the grave clothes was yet another pointer to the resurrection of Jesus.

But, in Luke’s account, Peter is not yet able to believe – rather “he went away, wondering (thaumazon) to himself what had happened“. The sight of the empty tomb and of the abandoned grave clothes caused Peter to be ‘astonished’ (see 1.63; 8.25; 11.14; 24.41).

The message of the empty tomb

The empty tomb reveals that the resurrection is not an idea of the mind, but an event in history. Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday God was at work.

As Luke records in his second volume, “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2.24).

The Easter Gospel unashamedly declares that Jesus is risen from the dead (Lk 24.6).

Jesus did not rise, as some theologians would suggest, ‘in the hearts of his disciples’.

Easter in the first place is not about a change which the disciples experienced, but rather a change which Jesus experienced. The minds and hearts of the disciples were changed because they discovered that the body of Jesus had been transformed through resurrection.

The initial pointer to the resurrection was the empty tomb.

The empty tomb witnesses to the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

The “body” was not there (Lk 24.3). The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul, but Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. When Jesus rose from the dead, he rose with a body that was recognisably his (see Lk 24.37-48).

True, there is a difference between resurrection and resuscitation.

When Lazarus came back from the dead, his body was the same as before . But when Jesus came back from the dead, his body was transformed.

Thirdly, the empty tomb connects the resurrection with the crucifixion.

The body that had disappeared was the body of the crucified (Lk 23.53). It was the body whose brokenness had been symbolised in the broken bread of the Upper Room (Lk 22.19). In raising his Son from the dead God was putting his seal of approval on the work of Jesus on the Cross.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *