Empty Hopes and An Empty Tomb

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes. John 20:1-10 ESV

Joseph and Nicodemus, two members of the Jewish high council, had discretely removed the body of Jesus from the cross and carefully cleaned it, anointed it with burial spices, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and placed it in a tomb. And there it remained for three days, while the disciples remained in a state of mourning.

Their friend and teacher was gone. The one they had believed to be their long-awaited Messiah was no longer with them. And as they gathered together during those dark days, they must have discussed the words that Jesus had spoken to them.

“Listen,” he said, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die. Then they will hand him over to the Romans to be mocked, flogged with a whip, and crucified. But on the third day he will be raised from the dead.” – Matthew 20:18-19 NLT

Everything had happened just as He said it would – down to the last detail. And this had not been the first time they had heard Jesus make prophetic statements concerning His death. Earlier in his gospel, Matthew records another occasion when Jesus divulged to His disciples the fate that lay in store for Him.

Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. – Matthew 16:21 NLT

And Peter had responded with outrage, even rebuking Jesus for saying such things.

“Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!” – Matthew 16:22 NLT

The outcome Jesus had described was unacceptable to Peter. He was unwilling to entertain thoughts of the death of his friend, teacher, and Messiah. The fact that Jesus had also declared He would rise again on the third day seems to have escaped him. And Jesus’ response reveals the true nature of Peter’s refusal to accept what was clearly God’s will.

“Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” – Matthew 16:23 NLT

Peter and his companions had always wrestled with viewing Jesus from their limited earthly perspective. They believed Him to be the Messiah, but those beliefs were weighed down with all kinds of faulty interpretations and personal expectations. They had high hopes that Jesus was going to reverse the centuries of abuse and subjugation that their people had been forced to suffer under Gentile nations like the Romans. And because they had been among the first to follow Jesus, these men had lofty expectations that they would be rewarded with positions in His administration when He set up His Kingdom.

But now that Jesus was dead, Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples were in hiding. We have no idea what they were doing or the nature of the conversations they were having during those three days. But all of the gospel writers tell us that it was the female followers of Jesus who made the first attempt to visit His tomb. Mark reveals that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses had seen where Joseph and Nicodemus had buried the body of Jesus (Mark 15:47). And Luke adds that, because the Sabbath was about to begin, “they returned and prepared aromatic spices and perfumes” (Luke 23:56 ESV). They had every intention of returning after the Sabbath in order to anoint the body of Jesus.

Luke reports that “on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared” (Luke 24:1 ESV). Matthew provides the identities of these women: 

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. – Matthew 28:1 ESV

Mark adds the name of Salome to the list of women who visited the tomb that morning (Mark 16:1). But regardless of how many women went to the tomb, Luke makes it clear that none of them had gone there looking for a resurrected Jesus. The burial spices they carried gave evidence that they fully expected to find a dead body, not a living one.  

In his typical, abbreviated style, John only mentions Mary Magdalene. This might be because she was the one who would return to the disciples and share the good news regarding Jesus’ resurrection. He also leaves out any mention of the earthquake and the appearance of the angel that Matthew includes. And he chose not to include the words spoken by the angel.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” – Luke 24:5-7 ESV

It may be that John felt that all of these details had been adequately covered by the other gospel writers and were unnecessary for him to include. But John’s account seems to provide some missing details to the resurrection chronology. According to his version of the morning’s events, Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb with the other women, but she was the first one to arrive. She found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. John adds that he and Peter were the first two disciples to whom Mary Magdalene revealed this news.

…she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” – John 20:2 ESV

At this point, she was unaware that Jesus was alive. Meanwhile, the other women had made it to the tomb, only to make the same shocking discovery.

And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” – Mark 16:4-7 ESV

As these women ran to tell the good news to the disciples, Peter and John were already on their way to the tomb. The report that the tomb was empty and the body of Jesus was gone had shocked them out of their state of mourning and energized them into action.

Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. – John 20:3-7 NLT

It is important to remember that John, the one writing this gospel, was “the other disciple.” He admits that he was the first to arrive at the tomb because he outran Peter. John peered into the tomb but refused to go inside. Yet, the always impulsive Peter, arriving a few seconds later, barged into the tomb, only to discover the discarded burial cloth. The body was gone, just as Mary Magdalene had said.

But John adds a personal word of testimony.

…the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed… – John 20:8 ESV

Emboldened by Peter’s actions, John entered the tomb to have a closer look. And what he saw convinced him that Jesus was alive. He believed. And he admits that, until that moment, the disciples had not understood what the Scriptures revealed about the death and resurrection of the Messiah. The words of King David, recorded in Psalm 16, were a prophetic statement regarding the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

For you will not leave my soul among the dead
    or allow your holy one to rot in the grave.
You will show me the way of life,
    granting me the joy of your presence
    and the pleasures of living with you forever. – Psalm 16:10-11 NLT

And John admits that he and his companions had never understood these Old Testament passages to be applicable to Jesus. Not only that, they had not comprehended Jesus’ own words concerning His death and resurrection. But now, John saw and believed.

But he seems to speak only for himself. He doesn’t indicate whether Peter believed. Luke tells us only that, upon seeing the empty tomb, Peter “went home marveling at what had happened” (Luke 24:12 ESV). And John gives the impression that there was a bit of unbelief still lingering among the disciples. He simply states that “the disciples went back to their homes” (John 20:10 ESV).

John and Peter left the tomb as they had found it: Empty and abandoned. But they had yet to see the resurrected Jesus. The same was not true of the women. As they had made their way from the tomb, with the words of the angel echoing in their ears, “Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’” (Matthew 28:9 ESV). And Matthew adds that “they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’” (Matthew 28:9-10 ESV).

The good news was about to get better. Soon, John would not be the only one of the 11 who believed. The rest of his confused and disheartened brothers would soon find themselves face to face with their risen Lord and Savior.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson