The late, great evangelist Bill Bright wrote in his final book, The Journey Home,
“I was remembering a trip to the Holy Land and the joy of walking in the very places where Jesus walked. Someone asked, “Of all the places in the life of Jesus, where would you most like to pause and meditate.” The answer came quickly: “The empty tomb,” I said. “It is the key to everything.”
Without the resurrection of Jesus there would be no basis for Christianity. In the Book of John, the twentieth chapter and verse three, we read,
“So, Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.” (John 20:3-7 NIV)
The King James Version of the Bible uses the term “napkin” for the word “cloth” in this passage from John, the apostle.
A question arises, “Why would the Bible, at such a crucial time, detail that the “burial cloth” or the piece of cloth placed over his face was folded and placed by itself, not with the other linen strips?
From our Jewish history studies, we know the custom was that, within several hours after death, the lifeless body was bathed in oil, which was a mixture of myrrh and aloes, and, from the neck down, was wrapped in strips of linen. The head was not wrapped in linen strips. The same oil was used on the head and face, then a “burial cloth” made of very light, single woven, linen was placed over the face and “tucked in” under the head loosely. Tradition has it that, most often, the weavers would thread into the white a red, or scarlet, thread, representing the life-blood that might return at the return of breath. During the burial process, workers would stop several times and stare at the burial cloth. If the burial cloth just beneath the nose began to move up and down, the person might have revived on his own. If no movement was seen by the time the stone was rolled into place; the dead person was considered truly dead, beyond reviving.
Now, at this point, some of you are thinking about the famous “Shroud of Turin” that is supposed to be the “napkin” that was placed over the face and body of Christ. I am not here to debate the authenticity of the shroud. I’m just saying that the Bible calls it a napkin. Historical evidence describes it as a “face-towel.” And, we know that there is only one other “shroud” in existence dated to the first century. The shroud found recently in the environs of Jerusalem is a brown, mangled mixture of linen and wool that is separate from its head piece. One might never describe it as a shroud if it hadn’t been found in a tomb. Conveniently, or inconveniently, the Shroud of Turin is the only one that has supposedly stood the test of time over two thousand years and there are no others preserved from Palestine in the 1st Century in existence. How many people died and were buried in the first century, eh?
According to John’s writing, the linen strips placed on the body were “lying there” (the Greek implies that they were “as unwrapped strips”) and the burial cloth had been gotten off of the face of Jesus somehow and been folded up and placed by itself in neat order. Hmmm.
Just a few days before this marvelous morning the powers of darkness had flown into a rage not seen before or since. The search for a fugitive from the law, the sham of a trial, the mockery, the condemnation by corrupt officials, the cry of the people to crucify him. Then the beating, the whipping, the driving through the streets, the nails, the labored breathing as he forgave while his flesh tore under his weight while hanging on a cross. Finally, death. “It is finished!”
All is lost, the Jesus people think, as they lift the body from mother Mary’s arms and roll it into a blanket for the trip to the tomb and the embalming that must take place before sunset so that Passover, the deliverance remembered, might not be defiled. And with a seven-hundred pound stone rolled into place with a grinding halt; this is the last that they will see of this would-be Messiah. Dead, dead, done– and over.
Can you see it? Can you picture it on that first Easter morning in the pre-dawn? In the darkness of the closed tomb a shaft of supernatural light appears above the dead, sunken and ashen face of Jesus,– right through solid rock. Within only a moment, the linen “face napkin” puffs-up with new life. And then, it puffs again, the scarlet thread moving up and down as the mourners had always hoped it might. Only three days late, — and right on time. Then, miraculously, the napkin moves away by the power of the unseen hand of God. Jesus’ burial cloth folded neatly and lying apart from the embalming strips of the dead is a powerful picture that death no longer has any “sting” for those who are in Christ Jesus. The linen burial strips have gone limp as Christ’s resurrected body passed through them. Unlike the case of friend Lazarus, who required help to unwrap his reinvigorated earthly flesh, Jesus had a resurrected body that transcended space and left his wrappings with nowhere to go.
Back to the scene, our time travelling eyes begin to see the face of Jesus beginning to model again with the pink of life. The eyelids open and newly regenerated eyes glint of assurance that all is well with the soul. Then, there are earthquake-like tremors felt in the Garden as the massive stone rolls away. It reveals the coming dawn outside. The first dawn of the new age under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Once again, our minds recall a quote from theologian Bill Bright, “The empty tomb destroys religions and glorifies Jesus of Nazareth as the Creator-God and Savior of the world. It is a simple place that presumes His virgin birth, sinless and supernatural life, soul-saving death and burial. You can go to the tombs of the pharaohs, to the tomb of Mohammad, to the tomb of Confucius, to the tombs of religious prophets and leaders. In these tombs are their bones. But in the tomb of Jesus Christ, there is nothing. His body is not there. Christianity is the only belief that draws millions of pilgrims each year to line up to witness an empty room… There, the most life-changing, world-shaking words ever spoken came from an angel on that early Easter morning: “He isn’t here. He has been raised from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying (Matt. 28:6).”
The resurrection changed everything, — for all time!
-It changed cowering disciples into bold preachers unto, oftentimes, agonizing, death. And still does so fortify timid souls into champions in the Twenty-first Century.
-It changed the world of heathenism into the world of Christianity and what we, as a people have flourished under, Western Civilization; which, in turn has made possible the evangelization of much of the globe in the name of Christ Jesus.
There have been over two-thousand years of unbroken scarlet thread in the “napkin” that has become the banner of the church, puffing with regenerated life. We are a part of that Holy Spirit thread. In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, the Apostle Paul, ever the great cheerleader of the church, writes to us;
“Since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us (Heb. 12:1).
Oh, my brothers and sisters rejoice on this Easter. He is risen. He is risen INDEED!