Topic Scripture: John 20:1-9
Last Monday evening, President Bush told the world that diplomatic efforts in Iraq had ended, giving Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave or face military conflict. That period has ended, and the conflict has begun.
This morning we face a confusing mixture of feelings and fears. We hope for quick victory in this conflict, and fear loss of life. We hope for protection against terrorist reprisals, and fear further attacks. We hope for our friends and family engaged directly in this conflict, and fear for their lives and futures. We need faith in a time of war.
This week I’ve asked God for a word to give to you. I believe I have that word, for my heart and ours. John has been my guide to faith. Now he stands ready to guide us all.
Meet our guide
You may remember that John, the “beloved disciple” of Jesus Christ, grew up in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. His brother was John, his father Zebedee. Theirs was a thriving fishing business in partnership with Simon and his brother Andrew.
John and Andrew were followers of John the Baptist, until the day he identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, the “Lamb of God” (John 1.36). John was Jesus’ cousin. Now he immediately became his first disciple. Jesus called John and James, Andrew and Simon to leave their fishing business to follow him. And they did.
But now the movement John was the first to join is over. The cause to which he has dedicated his life has failed. The One he had believed would be the Messiah, God’s ruler on earth, the General who would overthrow the cursed Romans and reign over Israel, is dead. Their army is dissolved, in retreat and chaos and failure. Their lives have no purpose, no direction, no destiny, no hope.
And his own life is in peril.
John is known to the High Priest, and was seen standing in the house of Caiaphas during Jesus’ trial there.
He was the only disciple at the cross, clearly visible to the authorities.
He cannot flee easily, for he has charge of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
He was Jesus’ best friend; verse 2 calls him the disciple “whom Jesus loved.” He is Jesus’ cousin, his relative, the most visible and famous follower in his band. If the Roman and Jewish authorities decide to destroy Jesus’ movement as they destroyed him, John knows the one they’ll come after first.
If Jeb Bush were to visit in Baghdad today, he’d be in no less danger than John the beloved disciple in Jerusalem.
Join him at the empty tomb
Now it is Sunday morning. John, Mary, and Jesus’ band of followers have passed the Sabbath of Friday night and Saturday in mourning.
Early this morning, some of the women return to Jesus’ tomb to finish burying his body. But they find that “the stone had been removed from the entrance” (v. 1)—the Greek states that it had been removed from the groove in which it had rested, and thrown to the side.
We know what happened: the burial stone was but a pebble compared with the Rock of Ages inside. We know that the God of the universe tossed it aside so much as trash as he raised his Son to life. We know this, but Mary doesn’t.
F. B. Meyer describes Mary’s mind well: she came with aromatic spices that her money had bought and her hands prepared; she did not know that his garments were already smelling of aloes and grace, of the perfume of heaven with which his Father had dressed him. She thought she came to a victim who had fallen beneath the knife of his foes as a lamb led to slaughter; she was not aware that he was a Priest who had entered the Most Holy Place willingly for her. She came for the vanquished, but failed to understand that he was the victor over the principalities and powers of hell, that the keys of Hades and the grave now hung on his belt, with the serpent bruised beneath his feet. She thought she had come to put the final touch on his life and death, and had no conception that on that morning a career had been inaugurated which was endless, unassailable, destined to change the course of human history forever.
She doesn’t know. We find her running back to Peter and John, telling them that his body is gone: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2).
So John and Peter run to the tomb.
It’s interesting that the only two times in the New Testament we find someone actually “running” are here and in Matthew 28:8, where the women ran to bring the disciples the news of his resurrection. They ran in joy, these men in bitter anger. Not only is their beloved leader dead, but now his grave has been desecrated. How would you feel to learn that someone had robbed the grave of the one you love?
John arrives first, and looks in. He sees the linen strips which Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had used to wrap the body. Then Peter arrives, and the two enter the tomb.
What they discover is astounding. The robes are lying empty on the burial slab. Not unwrapped, but collapsed on themselves as though the body which had been inside has simply vanished. The cloth which had been wrapped around Jesus’ head like a turban is also folded on itself, not unwrapped. The head inside has disappeared (John 20:7).
This was a physical impossibility. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had previously coated the burial clothes with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39) to preserve the body as best they could. Myrrh binds fabric to the flesh of the corpse as surely as glue. The only way to get the burial clothes off the body would have been to rip them off, tearing them to shreds. Not only was it impossible for someone to remove the clothes without unwrapping them, it was even more impossible for them to be in one piece. But here they are, wrapped around themselves and intact.
When Jesus’ best friend sees these burial robes, instinctively he knows the truth: this body has come back to life! He “saw and believed” (v. 8). In that moment John could have refuted every explanation for the empty tomb given by skeptics across 20 centuries.
He knew the body has not merely revived, the so-called “swoon theory.” John had been there. He watched Jesus die on that horrible cross—the nails, the spear, the blood, the lifeless body. He heard the medical examiner pronounce the body dead.
He knew they are not at the wrong tomb. Joseph knew his own tomb, and the women had watched him bury Jesus.
He knew the authorities have not stolen the body. They posted guards to protect the body from theft, not to steal it themselves. And they would have taken the body as it was, not leaving the grave clothes behind.
He knew that robbers have not stolen the body. They could not have overpowered the Roman military guard placed at the tomb. They would not have left the burial clothes, the only thing in the tomb of material value.
And he knew that Jesus’ followers have not taken the body. There was no way the women or disciples could have overpowered the Roman guards posted there, or would have wanted to. They had not expected the body to be risen. Mary’s explanation for the open grave had been that someone had stolen the body (v. 3). John admits (v. 9) that they had not yet understood from Scripture that the Christ had to rise from the dead. They had no idea that Jesus would rise, and no ability to steal his body to give the appearance that he had.
There is only one explanation: Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.
Embrace his faith
John “saw and believed.” With astounding results in his life and ministry, despite the fears he faced on this day, the perils which stood before him, the threats against his future and his life. No one watching the perplexed fisherman, in peril for his life, standing beside the tomb of his fallen hero, could have guessed what would become of him.
He would write more of the New Testament than any other disciple. He would meet this risen Christ again, 40 years later on the prison island of Patmos, the Alcatraz of the ancient world. Like this day, it was a Sunday morning when he received the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
On that prison island John would found a church among his fellow prisoners and prison guards, a church which still meets in the cave where John received his Revelation, now 20 centuries ago. My first trip to Patmos was a Sunday morning. Our group entered the cave, and found John’s church at worship.
Then he would return to Ephesus where he would continue his pastoral ministry until the Lord took him home. His grave is still on display there.
At the end of his life and work, when he was too elderly to stand and preach, he would sit in a chair. Church leaders would carry him to the front of the congregation. He would lift his finger toward the heavens and say, “Little children, love one another.”
He planted trees he’ll never sit under. His was a life and legacy which shall endure until the world ends and time is no more.
Who would have guessed it? No person on the first Easter Sunday faced a future more filled with fear and uncertainty than this man. Now, in the face of perilous times and an uncertain future, the risen Lord stands ready to do for us what he did for him. He stands ready to heal our hearts, to redeem our troubled times, to guide and direct our steps, to calm our fears.
Isaac was in a land war with his neighbors when the Lord said to him, “Fear not, for I am with you” (Genesis 26:24).
A widow was facing famine and starvation when the Lord said through his prophet, “Fear not” (1 Kings 17:13).
Elisha’s servant was terrified by the enemy armies surrounding them when the prophet said, “Fear not. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16).
Israel was enslaved in Babylon, ancient Iraq, when the Lord said, “Fear not, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen and help you” (Isaiah 41:10).
Later he said to these enslaved captives, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:2).
Jesus said to frightened disciples sent forth on their first mission, “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So fear not” (Matthew 10:30-31).
The risen Lord said to this frightened disciple on Patmos, “Fear not. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).
So, what is your greatest fear this morning? Ask the risen Christ to do for you what he did for John. Ask him to place his hand of power, hope, and help on your worried heart, to raise you from knees of fear to feet of faith. Ask him to transform your circumstances as he made a prison island into a lighthouse for all of history. Ask him to give you faith in a time of war. And he will.
We will close this morning in prayer. We will pray for our president and leaders, our military, our friends and our enemies. We will pray for our own hearts and souls. We will seek faith in the midst of war. And we will find it.
Come to the empty tomb and the risen Christ, right now.