Every year thousands of people climb a mountain in the Italian Alps passing the stations of the cross to stand at an outdoor crucifix. One time a tourist noticed a little trail that led beyond the cross. He fought through the rough thicket and, to his surprise, came upon another shrine, one devoted to the empty tomb. It was neglected; the bush had grown up around it. Almost everyone had gone as far as the cross, but there they stopped.
Many people have made it to the cross and have known its despair and the heartbreak. For too few have moved beyond the cross to find the real message of Easter-the message of the empty tomb.
The battle over the resurrection of Jesus Christ has always been fierce. The empty tomb, as an enduring symbol of the Resurrection, is the ultimate proof of Jesus claim to be God. So how do we know the Resurrection really happened?
1. The Soldiers: Jewish officials panicked because thousands were following Christ. They heard Jesus predict that He would rise on the third day, and so when His body was placed in a tomb, they had to make sure He was put away for good! So the chief priests and Pharisees gathered and asked Pilate to command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night, and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ Pilate agreed, so they secured the tomb, in part by “setting the guard” (Matthew 27:63-66).
A Roman guard unit consisted of 4 to 16 men. Each soldier was trained to protect six feet of ground. Normally, four men were stationed immediately in front of the object they were to protect, while the other 12 slept in a semicircle in front of these four. Every four hours, a new unit of four was awakened, and those who had been keeping watch went to sleep. This routine went on around the clock. To steal what these guards were protecting, thieves would first have to walk over those who were asleep and then deal with the guards who were not.
Although the idea that the disciples stole the body of Jesus might explain the missing corpse, the idea is more absurd than any other theory put forth to explain away the Resurrection.
2. The Seal: Matthew records that the soldiers “went and made the tomb secured, sealing the stone (Matthew 27:66). The seal could be placed on the stone only in the presence of the Roman guards who were in charge. The procedure was designed to prevent anyone from tampering with the contents of the grave. After the guards inspected the tomb and rolled the stone in place, a cord was stretched across the rock. This was fastened at either end with sealing clay. Then the clay packs were stamped with the official signet of the Roman governor. But on Resurrection morning, the seal was broken because the stone had been removed from the opening of the tomb.
3. The Stone: In Mark’s account of the Resurrection, we are told that the stone placed in from of Jesus tomb was extremely large (Mark 16:4). Some manuscripts describe it as a “stone which twenty men could not roll away.” Jesus was buried in a new tomb that had been hewn out of solid rock. Usually Jewish tombs had an entrance four-and-a-half to five feet in height. We are told that when Peter and John ran to the tomb, John “leaned over and looked in.” He had to lean over because the entrance was no more than five feet high.
A groove was cut into the rock in front of early sepulchers to hold the stone that sealed them. This groove was cut so that its lowest part lay right in front of the tomb’s opening. When the wedge holding the stone was removed, the stone would roll down the groove and wedge itself into place, closing the opening into the grave.
Several studies have tried to determine how big a stone would be if it covered and opening measuring four-and-a-half to five feet. Conservative estimates are that the stone would have weighed one-and-a-half to two tons. On that Sunday morning, the first thing that impressed Mary Magdalene was that the stone was not in place. Not only was the stone no longer in front of the tomb, it had been moved out of the groove and was some distance from where it would have been had it been moved in the conventional way. In his Gospel, John uses a word that means, “to pick something up and carry it away” (John 20:1).
4. The Sepulcher: Everyone agrees that Jesus tomb was empty-even those who deny the Gospel accounts. The accounts of the Resurrection would never have been believed if people had found the body still there. So the question has always been; What became of it? Would the authorities deliberately remove the body to prevent the disciples from claiming that He had risen? This is difficult to believe-in that case the authorities would have immediately produced the body to shut down the new movement and silence the apostles proclamations.
Did the disciples steal the body as part of a hoax, an attempt to deceive people into believing that He had risen? This theory is impossible, for the disciples were prepared to suffer and die for the gospel, and people do not become martyrs for something they know is a lie. Also, the disciples did not travel to Rome or Athens to preach that Christ was raised from the dead; they went right back to Jerusalem, the scene of the so-called crime! If they were reporting falsely, their message could have been disproved. Word of the Resurrection could not have been sustained in Jerusalem for a single day if the empty tome was not an established fact.
5. The Shroud: In the most literal sense, the grave was not empty because the grave clothes were still there (John 20:3-8). When John leaned over and looked into the tomb, he saw something so starting that he did not enter: where the body of Jesus had lain were His grave clothes, in the form of a body but slightly caved in and empty. John never got over this sight. The first thing that stuck in the minds of the disciples was not the empty tomb but the empty grave clothes-undisturbed in their form and position.
This sign of Easter eliminated the theory that the body was stolen-no thief would have left the linen grave clothes there. It also eliminates the theory that Jesus resuscitate Himself and walked out of the grave. How could He leave the grave clothes in the shape of His body in the tomb? One glance at Jesus burial clothes proved the reality of the Resurrection.
6. The Scars: Moving beyond that first day, Jesus appeared to the disciples when they were gathered behind closed doors and “showed …. them His hands and His side” (John 20:20). When Thomas, who had been absent, heard about Jesus appearance, he said that he would not believe unless he could see Jesus and His scars for himself. Jesus graciously accommodated Thomas desire and returned to the disciples the following Sunday. Addressing His doubting disciple specifically, Jesus said, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands, and reach your hand here and put it into My side” (John 20:27). The scars so convinced Thomas and the others that they believed and were transformed.
7. The Sightings: In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul summarizes Jesus appearances after His resurrection. The New Testament records that He showed Himself alive to certain individuals (Mary Magdalene, Peter and James), to the disciples both with and without Thomas, and on one occasion to more than 500 of the brethren at the same time. Many of these people would still be alive when Paul wrote his words in AD 54. One writer has noted that if you brought all of these witnesses into a courtroom and gave each only six minutes to testify, you would still have over 50 hours of testimony to the reality of the risen Christ. This was not a case where one or two people merely observed a fleeting, shadowy figure. Instead there were multiple appearances to numerous people, with several of those appearances confirmed in more than one Gospel.
Dr. Frank Morrison, a lawyer who held the opinion that the Resurrection was nothing but a fairy-tale ending that spoiled the matchless story of Jesus, felt that he owned it to himself and others to write a book that would present the truth about Jesus and dispel the mythical story of the Resurrection. But once he studied the facts, the evidence compelled him to conclude that Jesus actually did rise from the dead. Morrison wrote his book–but not the one he had planned. His book is called Who Moved the Stone? The first chapter is called “The Book that Refused to Be Written.”
Anyone who really examines the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ will discover that the biblical record teaches the truth of the Resurrection beyond any reasonable doubt. There is no explanation for the empty tomb except that God raised Jesus from the dead!
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