The message of the empty tomb

Much has been made of the so-called ‘discrepancies’ between the various Gospel accounts of the first Easter Day and the subsequent resurrection appearances of the Risen Lord. But just aa newspapers reporting on an event today can have different approaches and emphases, so too did the four Gospels. However, their essential message remains the same: God raised Jesus from the dead! In this regard sceptics need to heed the verdict of Dorothy Sayers, who after examining the evidence declared in her best-seller, The Man Born To Be King:

“The divergences appear very great on first sight; and much ink and acrimony have been expended on proving that certain of the stories are not ‘original’ or ‘authentic’, but are accretions grafted upon the first-hand reports by the pious imagination of Christians.  Well, it may be so.  But the fact remains that all of them, without exception, can be made to fall into place in a single orderly and coherent narrative without the smallest contradiction or difficulty, and without any suppression, invention or manipulation, beyond a trifling effort to imagine the natural behaviour of a bunch of startled people running about in the dawnlight between Jerusalem and the Garden”.

Yes, the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead may seem to stretch credulity to its limit, and yet as Tom Wright, one of Britain’s most respected New Testament scholars, pointed out:

Once you allow that something remarkable happened to the body that morning, all the other data fall into place with ease. Once you insist that nothing so outlandish happened, you are driven to ever more complex and fantastic hypotheses.

 Luke in his account of that first day records, along with all the other Evangelists, that when the women entered the tomb “they did not see the body” (Luke 24.2). He then went on to record the comment of the angels: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Why indeed should one look for the living in a graveyard? “He is not here; he is risen” (Luke 24.5).

As we can see from Luke’s Gospel the message of the empty tomb is threefold:

Firstly, 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 (Luke 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.

Secondly, the empty tomb witnesses to the bodily resurrection of Jesus The “body” was not there (Luke 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 Luke 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 (Luke 23.53). It was the body whose brokenness had been symbolised in the broken bread of the Upper Room (Luke 22.19). In raising his Son from the dead God was putting his seal of approval on the work of Jesus on the Cross.

“Paint Christ not dead but risen”, cried Tomaso Campanella to the Italian painters of his day.  “Paint Christ, with his foot set in scorn on the split rock with which they sought to hold him down! Paint him the conqueror of death! Paint him the Lord of life! Paint him as what he is, the irresistible Victor who, tested to the uttermost, has proved himself in very deed mighty to save”. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

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