The resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian message. Without the resurrection, Jesus’ ministry appears to end in defeat and disillusionment. But everything changes if “He is not here! He has risen from the dead, just as he said” (Matt 28:6).
In our previous post we explored the meaning of “The Beautiful, Terrible Cross,” noting that the cross cannot be fully understood apart from the empty tomb. God acted in amazing grace toward us on Friday and on Sunday. How deep the Father’s love for us! We understand the cross through the resurrection, and the resurrection through the cross. In this post we explore why it matters that the tomb was empty.
Word of the Day
All too often churches feature the empty tomb only on Easter Sunday, or only during the Eastertide season until Pentecost. Christians commonly explain the gospel as the death of Jesus, omitting his resurrection. This reduced, truncated gospel is not the real, triumphant gospel that we find in the New Testament. Perhaps it is not the gospel at all.
New Testament: The Tomb Was Empty
In the Gospels Jesus repeatedly hinted at his resurrection (Matt 12:39-41/Luke 11:29-32; Matt 16:4; John 2:19-22; 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34; 16:16, 22). He also spoke plainly about it on at least three occasions before he entered Jerusalem for the Passion Week (Matt 16:21/Mark 8:31/Luke 9:22; Matt 17:23/Mark 9:31/Luke 9:44; Matt 20:19; Mark 10:34/Luke 18:33). The story of the resurrection culminates the passion narrative in all four Gospels (Matt 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20). The resurrection of Jesus is proven by his post-resurrection appearances which are mentioned in all four Gospels and summarized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. Jesus’ ascension to heaven further demonstrated the reality of his resurrection and paved the way for his return in glory (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:2, 9-11; 2:33-35; John 3:13; 6:62; 20:17). The earliest Christian preachers spoke of the resurrection as God’s reversal of of Christ’s crucifixion—Christ’s exalted heavenly session signals his victory over all evil powers, both human and demonic (Acts 2:22-24; 3:15; 4:10; Rom 8:34, Eph 1:19-20; 4:8-9; Col 3:1, Phil 2:9-11, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Pet 1:22; 3:21-22). As his followers, we already share in this victory, a victory to be consummated at Jesus’ coming.
The resurrection of Jesus is at the center of God’s redemption of the world. Apart from the resurrection, one can only pity Jesus as a martyr whose life went terribly wrong. With the resurrection, one must stand in awe of the exalted Messiah, the Son of the living God, who gave His life as a ransom for many, who presently reigns at God’s right hand, and who will one day return in glory to fix this broken world. One way to understand the absolute centrality of the resurrection of Jesus is to consider what life would be like without it.
What if the tomb wasn’t empty?
Our entire faith stands or falls with the resurrection of Jesus. Paul bluntly stated that apart from the resurrection our faith and message are in vain (1 Cor 15:12-19). Pondering how absolutely bleak and pointless any so-called “Christian” life would be without the resurrection should spur us to ponder it all the more.
- Without the resurrection, Jesus’ death would go without divine interpretation and endorsement. The resurrection amounts to the Father’s clear signal that Jesus is the powerful Son of God who has conquered death and reigns as Lord of all (Rom 1:4; 4:25). What a powerful name it is, the name of Jesus. The resurrection demonstrates that Jesus’ “blood of the new covenant” saves His people from their sins. Apart from the resurrection, there would be no reason for the cup of memorial at the Lord’s Table because there would be no reason to anticipate the cup of new wine in the Father’s Kingdom (Matt 26:28).
- Without the resurrection, none of Jesus’ promises would be trustworthy. If Jesus did not rise from the dead after promising many times that He would do so, He should be pitied or scorned, not believed and obeyed (cf. 1 Cor 15:16-19). As C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, He would have been deceived or a deceiver. But His most amazing promise has come true, so how can we not depend on and live by all the rest of His promises? We hold on to every promise he ever made because of the resurrection!
- Without the resurrection, there would be no apostolic foundation for the church. Jesus’ resurrection turned scattered deserters back into faithful followers (Matt 26:31-32). The astonishing-yet-true news brought to them by the two women who first discovered the empty tomb and later by the risen Lord Jesus Himself brought the disciples back into the fold and emboldened them for witness (Matt 28:7, 10, 16-20). The message of the resurrection is still powerful to transform doubters into disciples today.
- Without the resurrection, there would be no motive for sacrificial living. Jesus embodied and demonstrated the oxymoron of the crucified life, that a self-centered life is misery, and that genuinely abundant living occurs only when one dies to self-interest (Matt 10:38-39; 16:24-28; 20:26-28; 23:12). Paul developed this further, teaching us that Jesus’ followers died with Him to the old life and arose with Him to life anew (Rom 6:1-11). But this transformative model of the cross leading to the crown is a farce if Jesus’ suffering did not lead to His resurrection and heavenly reign. Paul’s basis for teaching the Philippians to live in humility and unity is simply to tell the story of Jesus, centering on how His past humility led to His future exaltation (Phil 2:1-13). This transformation from pride and hubris to humility and unity is nothing less than the resurrected King resurrecting his people ethically, as a sign of the ultimate physical resurrection of all humanity (John 5:24-29).
- Without the resurrection, there would be no eschatological shalom to right all earthly wrongs and renew the world (Matt 19:28-29). The martyrs whose blood cries out from the ground for justice would never be vindicated (Matt 23:35; Rev 6:9-11). The untold millions of injustices perpetrated by human beings throughout history would never be made right. There would be no ultimate reckoning for sin, and Satan would win the cosmic battle. But the resurrection guarantees that the disciples’ model prayer will be answered– the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10). By raising Jesus, God showed all people that they will ultimately answer to Him for what they have done. (Matt 16:27; John 5:28-29; Acts 17:31). We will see the enemy run!
The tomb was empty!
To be sure, the apostolic proclamation of the gospel centered on the cross (Gal 6:14; 1 Cor 1:18-25; 1 Pet 1:19; Heb 2:9, 14; 9:12-14; Rev 5:6, 9). But the meaning of the cross is not clear unless it is linked to the resurrection, as the first Christian evangelists knew and preached (Acts 2:22-36; 3:13-26; 4:1-12, 33; 5:30-32; 10:39-43; 13:26-41; 17:29-34; 23:6; 24:21; 25:19; 26:6-8, 22-23). Jesus’ resurrection is the essential explanation of His death and the proof of its saving power. A truncated “gospel” which does not place Jesus’ resurrection alongside his death is not the life-changing message of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. Scot McKnight has made this clear in his little book The King Jesus Gospel.
We dare not forget that we serve a risen Savior who ascended to heaven and currently reigns with the Father and the Spirit until his glorious return. The empty tomb assures believers that Jesus’ death on the cross killed death itself. As the awesome video What’s so good about Good Friday? puts it, “the blood of Jesus can reverse the curse, . . . bringing death to death by way of the cross.” The empty tomb shows believers that all the rest of Jesus’ promises are reliable and will ultimately be fulfilled. The empty tomb transforms doubters into disciples. The empty tomb demonstrates to believers that sacrificial service will be rewarded with a share in Jesus’ glory. The empty tomb is a token of the power of God that will one day transform the world into a place of peace, justice, and righteousness. To believe in the Son is to believe in the risen One. We’re alive because he lives. Amen.
Prayer for Eastertide
Jesus, you are our Living hope. Yours is the victory. We love you because you loved us first and gave up your life for us. We don’t pity you as a dead martyr. We follow you as our living, reigning, coming Lord. Remind us that we must share in your suffering if we are to share in your glory. As we move past Easterday into Eastertide and anticipate Pentecost, remind us that you sent the Spirit to empower us for life and mission. Help us grow in our understanding and experience of the power of your resurrection. Help us through your Spirit to be your people in this world, for the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Scriptures for Eastertide Meditation
- Acts 2:32; 3:15, 26; 4:2, 10, 33; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30
- Acts 17:18, 31; 23:6; 24:21; 25:19; 26:8, 23
- Romans 1:4; 4:25; 6:4-5; 8:11; 10:9
- 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 4:10, 14; 13:4
- Galatians 1:1
- Ephesians 1:20; 2:5; 4:10
- Philippians 2:8-9; Col 2:12; 3:1-4
- 1 Thessalonians 4:14; 1 Timothy 3:16
- Hebrews 1:3; 10:12; 12:3
- 1 Peter 1:3, 22; 3:18-22
- Revelation 1:5, 18; 2:8; 5:6-10
An earlier version of this post may be found here.