(Easter) How Do You Explain His Empty Tomb?

Biblical text is Matthew 28:1–15

Is the tomb of Jesus the scene of a miracle or the scene of a crime?

According to the angel and the report of the women, Jesus had risen from the dead. That would make it the scene of a miracle. According to the circulated report of the guards at the tomb, the disciples stole Jesus’ body while they were asleep. That would make the empty tomb a crime scene. It should have been marked off by bright yellow ribbons, allowing entrance by only law enforcement officials.

When Matthew wrote this account about 30 years later, he indicated that this report of a crime at Jesus’ tomb was still “widely circulated” (vs 15), and I assumed believed by the Jews. And I would say that Jews today probably hold in general to that story or a similar explanation.

The question remains today! Although the scene or supposed scenes of the tomb are still available for inspection by officials and tourists who can observe the Christian symbols that this was a scene of a miracle, the mystery remains. A documentary was shown on the Discovery Channel on March 4, 2007 that reported that the Family Tomb of Jesus was found in Jerusalem. It was produced by James Cameron and Simcha Jocobovici, a Jewish author who has written a book by that title. They indicated that several limestone boxes in the cave were inscribed with the names of Jesus son of Joseph, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Judah son of Jesus, so that this tomb was probably The Family Tomb of Jesus. But their claims have never been supported by any experts in this type of ancient material since this cave was first discovered in 1980. So the mystery remains; how do you explain his empty tomb?

Lies and mythical rumors

The disciples stole Jesus’ body while the guards were asleep. The guards were posted by Pilate in response to the request by the priests and Pharisees that the tomb be made secure so that the disciples would be prevented from stealing Jesus’ body and then claiming that he had risen from the dead, as he predicted that he would. This deceptive claim would be “worse than the first” (as mentioned in Matthew 27:64); the first being that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed leader who would free them from the domination of their Roman oppressors.

According to Josh McDowell in his book, A Ready Defense, this Roman Guard unit probably consisted of from 4–16 heavily armed soldiers. Four would stand directly in front of the tomb that they were to guard while the other 12 slept in three semi-circular rows of 4 each in front of them. Fresh guards would be posted every four hours. And the tomb was sealed by a cord that was streched across the stone and fastened at each end with clay. (see Matthew 27:65–66)

But not all of the guards were asleep! They felt the earthquake. They saw the angel roll the heavy stone back, breaking the seal. They were frightened by his appearance and power. They witnessed the opening of Jesus’ tomb! As witnesses, they would be expected to have some explanation of what happened. They did report to the chief priests “everything that had happened” (Mt 28:11).

Boy, I wish I could have heard that report, because I assume that it was an honest report of the unusual event that they had witnessed. They had no reason to lie. They probably said something like this. “Wow! You should have seen that angel roll that heavy stone up that incline and then just sit on it. He was bright like a flash of “lighting” (vs 3) and “his clothes were white as snow” (vs 3). We shook and were scared stiff. We couldn’t move. There were two women there, but they didn’t move the stone or try to get us to do it. We glanced into the tomb, but we didn’t see any body.” It was their assigned duty to guard that tomb and to make sure that no one took the body of Jesus, so they probably would not have left the area without a slight glance into the tomb.

But the priests and elders could not let their report be circulated as the official explanation of Jesus’ empty tomb, so they bribed them into a filing a false report that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while they were asleep during the night (see vss 12–13). It took a large bribe to get them to report a lie, and the priests said that they would persuade the governor to not have them executed for falling asleep at their posts (see vs 14). This was serious business!

But what would the disciples want with the body of Jesus? They wouldn’t have stolen it to promote a claim by Jesus that he would rise from the dead, knowing that such an amazing claim to power and its predicted fulfillment was false. They would have never maintained their fellowship with one another or continued any attachment to Jesus for very long to promote the story and the teachings of a Messiah whose shameful death had left them shocked, confused, and frightened. They would not have given their lives in witness and service to glorify a dead prophet who had only put them in danger of severe judgments of the Sanhedrin that had arranged the crucifixion of Jesus for his blasphemy and claims of deity. The explanation that the disciples stole the body of Jesus doesn’t make any sense!

(here is a mythical rumor) Jesus was only unconscious when he was placed in the tomb, and he later revived and got out of the tomb fleeing to a distant area to live out his life in obscure anonymity.

The trial and crucifixion of Jesus was a rushed job, and although he had been brutally beaten, it usually took more than a few hours for a victim to die from the suffocating weight of his own distorted body, so Pilate was surprised when Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’ body as Friday evening approached. (see Mark 15:43–44) So there might be some slight basis in fact to support this rumor, but the centurion assured Pilate that Jesus was dead, so he allowed Joseph to take his body so that he could bury him.

In order to accept this explanation of Jesus’ empty tomb, one would have to believe that the centurion really didn’t know the difference between a victim who was only unconscious and one who was dead. One would have to believe that the soldiers who crucified Jesus failed to kill their victim, even though they were experts in carrying out such death sentences.

It is impossible to imagine how Jesus with all of the wounds he had suffered from the beating and the nails and the spear thrust into his side could have risen up from the rocky shelf in the tomb and rolled the heavy stone back up an incline when it was undoubtedly quite smooth on the inside. According to Josh McDowell, two engineers on a tour of Israel, estimated that the stone closing the 4½–5 foot doorway to the tomb would have weighed between 1½–2 tons.

In order to accept this explanation, one would have to believe that Jesus was able to free himself from a sealed and guarded tomb, flee from the area undetected, recover from his severe wounds without anyone’s help, and live out his life in obscurity without anyone ever confirming his excape and recovery and continued life. This is the most difficult explanation to believe! It is foolish!

Reports of an experienced miracle

Let’s consider the experience of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (see Matthew 28:5–10). They saw the angel roll the stone back from the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, and they were frightened by what they saw. But they got a special message from the angel: “Do not be afraid”, angels usually bring good messages, “Jesus...is not here; he has risen.” This is the explanation for Jesus’ empty tomb. A miracle took place there!

(as the angel continues to explain the miracle to the women) “Come and see the place where he lay” Anytime you are confronted with a new revelation of Jesus, you may check it out to confirm its reality, its true essence, and its loving blessings! “Go quickly and tell his disciples.” When you experience a miraculous revelation from God, you should tell others about it. The guards told the chief priests what “had happened”, and then were bribed into circulating a “false” report. But the women were to make a report of the true miracle that they experienced at Jesus’ tomb.

Then they had a very personal experience with the risen Jesus! As they were acting on the instructions of the angel, “Jesus met them” (vs 9) in a very direct way! As you act in response to God’s message and call, Jesus will also meet you in a very direct and personal way!

Let’s consider the experience of two disciples on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13–35). These two disciples were talking about all that “had happened” in Jerusalem that week end when a stranger joined them. They continued in their conversation about Jesus’ crucifixion, the report of the women that his body was missing but that an angel had told them that he was alive, and that some of the disciples had checked out the empty tomb. They were puzzled and confused by all these strange reports, but their new companion explained the background for all that “had happened” from all of the prophetic Scriptures about Jesus.

Then they had a personal experience with the risen Jesus as he broke bread with them for a meal. Fellowship with Jesus in a meal can be a time for new revelation and a more intimate experience with him. After Jesus left, they commented to each other that their hearts had been touched as this companion had “opened the Scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32). While you are checking out or investigating a new revelation of Jesus, it is always good to read and study Scripture. Do it on your own, or get into a group or class to study with others. Jesus can be encountered and known through the study of God’s Word!

Then they returned to Jerusalem to tell others about their personal experience with Jesus! Testifying should always follow your experience with Jesus. We are called to be his witnesses!

Let’s consider the experience of some disciples behind locked doors in Jerusalem (see Luke 24:36–48). While these two disciples were sharing their report of their miraculous experience with Jesus on the road and at the meal in Emmaus with the other disciples back in Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to them. The doors were locked, but locked doors can’t keep Jesus out! They were frightened by his appearance, but new revelations can be frightening at first! They couldn’t quite accept what they were seeing. They were “troubled” and had some “doubts”, thinking that were seeing the “ghost” of Jesus (Luke 24:35–36).

But as with the women, Jesus invited them to check him out. “Look at my hands and my feet”. “Touch me” and feel my flesh and bones. Let me have something to eat with you, and he ate a piece of “broiled fish” with them. Jesus will always confirm the reality of his living revelation to you with solid and personal demonstrations of its truth.

Let’s consider the special experience of Thomas who didn’t believe the disciples’ amazing report of Jesus’ miraculous appearance with them (see John 20:24–29). He wanted to check the physical evidence for himself. He wanted to “see the nail marks in his hands” and put his finger where the nails were and put his “hand into his side” (vs 25). There is nothing wrong with such skepticism. None of the disciples really believed the reports apart from their personal experience with Jesus!

Then Jesus appeared in their midst again, and gave Thomas an opportunity to personally experience the miracle of his resurrection for himself. He said to Thomas, “put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (vs 27). If you doubt the report of a miracle at Jesus’ tomb, Jesus will also give you a chance to check him out in a personal way!

Then Thomas acknowledged the risen Jesus with these words: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) That should be the confession of everyone who experiences the presence of the risen Jesus! Jesus accepted his confession, but said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (vs 29). Jesus understands the difficulties and doubts that some people may have in believing a new revelation regarding him, but if anyone has just enough belief to even ask him to reveal himself in a personal way to them, he or she can experience the miracle of his risen presence in his or her life.

Let’s consider the experience of Paul who had not seen the risen Jesus prior to his ascension (see Acts 9:1–6). He had heard the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, and he had seen the evidence of its influence among a growing number of believers, but as a Pharisee, he was determined to stop this movement by arresting as many believers as he could and putting them on trial before the Sanhedrin. On the way to Damascus to take some prisoners, he had a personal experience with the risen Jesus. “...a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground” and a voice asked him, “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” When Saul asked, “‘Who are you, Lord?’” the voice replied, “‘I am Jesus...’” (Acts 9:3–5). This experience converted Saul into a missionary to the Gentiles, and the greatest church planter (one who starts local churches) in the history of the Church!

So how do you explain his empty tomb?

Either with lies and mythical rumors about his body being stolen or he, having never died from his crucifixion injuries, was somehow able to excape from his tomb on his own without being detected by anyone. Or his empty tomb can best be explained by the miracle of his physical resurrection from death and its confirmation in the personal experiences of those who become his inspired witnesses.

According to Josh McDowell, Dr. Simon Greenleaf, the former famous Royall Professor of Law at Harvard University who wrote the basic text on A Treatise on the Law of Evidence, after examining the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus wrote a book on An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice in which he recorded his findings that “there is more evidence for the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than for just about any other event in history” (notes cp 20 from “A Ready Defense”).

If you are not one of those witnesses who understands this miracle, you can have an experience with the risen Jesus right now if you will just ask him to come into your heart, forgive you of your sins, and reveal himself to you. He will do that in a real and personal way, and stay with you for the rest of your life! You can leave this service this morning convinced beyond any doubt that Jesus is your risen Savior!

The above Scripture quotations are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society, Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.