April 21, 2011

His Tomb is Empty

2008 1507 page24 capHE TREES WERE SOBBING IN A WINTER tempest. Cold, wind-driven rain obscured vision and soaked everything—that is, everything in the open. Here in this limestone cave it was dry—dry and quiet as it had been since the workmen finished cutting it from the living rock long centuries ago.
The cave was a tomb just outside the northern gate of Jerusalem, believed by many to be the very sepulcher where Jesus was laid after His crucifixion. Here one spring morning before sunrise, the light of heaven flooded the world. The earth trembled, and the guards fell away helpless as angel hands rolled back the great stone that closed the door of the tomb, so that the disciples coming there early in the morning to perform the final services of burial could see that the place where they had laid their Lord was empty.
But was this the place?
This tomb, quarried out of the hillside, was discovered in 1867. As one steps inside, there is a fairly large antechamber, leading into the tomb itself, with its rock shelves on which the dead lay. It was widely held in the nineteenth century, especially among Protestants and Evangelicals, that this was the authentic tomb of Christ.
2008 1507 page24But was a reliable tradition of the location of the tomb handed down by Christians? Could the tomb have survived the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus at the conclusion of the Jewish war in A.D. 70? Did it survive the Bar-Cochba rebellion of A.D. 132-134, after which Hadrian rebuilt the city as a Roman colony?
The fact is that we simply do not know for sure, given the multitude of these and other military and other tragedies that have affected the area. The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre claims to stand over the area where Jesus’ tomb once stood.
Obsession With Death
In the main, central, Greek Orthodox “choir” of the church is the rotunda—the large, circular, domed building over the supposed site of the Holy Sepulchre. Here right in the middle there is a huge, ornate, and ugly structure, erected in the nineteenth century, allegedly over the tomb.
I waited my turn to enter; then found myself in a small chapel called the Chapel of the Angel. A fragment of the great stone on which the angel sat is included, so it is claimed, in the pedestal right in the center. A very low door leads into the tomb, which is covered over by a large slab of marble. I bent down, went through, and looked around. In this tiny place, which only two or three people may enter at a time, stood a bearded monk in his black cassock, an offertory plate beside him.
This Church of the Resurrection has about it the atmosphere of death. The medieval obsession with the physical sufferings and death of Christ, to the exclusion of the life and glory and power of His resurrection, is seen here at its worst. I remembered Michelangelo’s indignant protest somewhere: “Why do you keep filling gallery after gallery with endless pictures of the one overreiterated theme, of Christ in weakness, Christ upon the cross, Christ dying, most of all Christ hanging dead? Why do you concentrate upon that passing episode, as if that were the last word and the final scene, as if the curtain dropped upon the horror of disaster and defeat? At worst all that lasted for only a few hours. But to the end of unending eternity Christ is alive, Christ rules and reigns and triumphs.”
Bishop Beasley-Murray reminds us that the resurrection is a germane and essential part of the Christian message: “It has affected the whole gamut of theology. . . .
“It somehow seems to have been overlooked that the resurrection is an integral part of our Lord’s work for us, so that salvation is essentially a deliverance from living death in sin to a new life of righteousness in God.”1
The doctrine of the church itself (ecclesiology) becomes a vital doctrine only when the church is headed by the risen Christ. Eschatology hinges completely on the doctrine of the Resurrection. The practical, applied side of Christian truth is rendered insipid and negative without the truth of the Resurrection. Christian hope is vain, as Paul was at pains to point out, except Christ is risen from the dead (1 Cor. 15:14). Christian theology in general, and the doctrine of salvation in particular, suffer most when the Resurrection is forgotten. The miraculous conception and birth, the sinless life, the perfect teaching, the sacrificial death, and the victorious resurrection of Christ must be taken together, or we strip the gospel of its glory, its power, and its adequacy. “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).*
A Different Atmosphere
I return to the Garden Tomb. This enclosed garden is well cared for and the color and perfume surround me with peace and quiet, with beauty and life. Here I read from the Scriptures the good news of Christ and His salvation. Here I was reminded that the first Christian preachers were primarily witnesses of the Resurrection (Acts 2:24, 32, 36).
All the apostles preached it (Acts 4:33). Christ Himself commissioned His apostles to bear witness to His resurrection (Luke 24:45-48). The apostle Paul defended his authority to preach on the basis of his encounter with the risen Christ. Peter attributed the death of Christ to the Jews under God’s foreknowledge, but he plainly attributed the resurrection of Christ to God (Acts 2:23, 24; 3:14, 15; 4:10). In 1 Corinthians 15:1 and following, Paul gave his summation of the gospel. His exposition of the gospel (verses 5ff.) centered on the veracity of the Resurrection.
A simple look at the Passion Week will reveal that the Crucifixion put the disciples to flight. They were discouraged, distraught, despairing. How different was the effect of the discovery that Jesus was alive! It transformed them into zealous, fearless, and tireless witnesses. It’s no wonder the Christian message was early called a “gospel,” for it was indeed “good news”!
The Resurrection was good news because it convinced the disciples and declared to the world that it was no ordinary man they hung on the cross between two criminals. Rather, He was the very Son of God. Throughout the New Testament the principal support of the deity of Christ is the reality of His resurrection. The apostolic preachers viewed the death of Christ through the prism of His resurrection, and they knew He was the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
2008 1507 page24Without the Resurrection the cross seemed to be simply the work of cruel men; with the Resurrection it became gloriously evident that it was the supreme work of God to redeem the world from sin. Paul spoke of the “gospel of God,” which concerned “his Son Jesus Christ our Lord,” who was “declared to be the Son of God with power . . . by the resurrection from ?the dead” (Rom. 1:1-4). He declared, “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). The death of Christ is bereft of relevance and meaning apart from His resurrection from the dead.
The Resurrection was good news because it fulfilled innumerable promises and prophecies by Christ Himself that He would be raised in power (see Matt. 16:21 and John 2:18-22). The entire episode on the Mount of Transfiguration was a dramatic prediction of Christ’s triumphant resurrection.
The Resurrection was good news because it combined logically with the sacrifice on the cross to complete the divine assault on sin. The soteriological career of Christ must be seen as a cosmic struggle between goodness and evil, light and darkness, life and death, God and the forces of wickedness. The Resurrection turned seeming defeat into consummate victory for the forces of righteousness.
The great apostle declared, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain: ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The final victory over sin was not at Bethlehem where the Word “was made flesh” (John 1:14), nor did it occur at Golgotha where God judged sin “in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Rather the victory was won at the tomb in the resurrection of the flesh. The cross paid for human sin. The Resurrection defeated sin and abolished death (Rom. 6:9).
The Resurrection was good news because it assured the believers of their own victory over sin and death. “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20). “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57; see also John 11:25, 26). “Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:8).
Said Ellen G. White: “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived. ‘He that hath the Son hath life.’ 1 John 5:12. The divinity of Christ is the believer’s assurance of eternal life.”2
Now we know that we shall not be alone when we face the shadows, for One will lead us through the valley to the life beyond. The lines found in Sir Walter Raleigh’s Bible speak to us all:
“Even such is Time, which takes in trust
 Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
 And pays us but with age and dust:
 Who in the dark and silent grave,
 When we wandered all our ways:
 Shuts up the story of our days.
 But from that earth, that grave, that dust,
 The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.”
The Resurrection was good news because it disclosed that there were new powers, new resources for life available in the living Christ. Life-giving bread and life-giving water, which Christ had spoken of in cryptic terms, were now accessible to all who would receive (Rom. 5:10; 6:4-6; Phil. 3:10). The powers of the age to come were now in reach of all. Resurrection power was to the disciples power for a new life in Christ, infinitely rich and infinite in duration.
Someday, perhaps very soon, other tombs will be empty. The church will rise triumphantly to meet the Lord in the air, and those living and remaining on earth, who have trusted in Christ, will be caught up to meet Him and be forever with Him in that place from which no friend or loved one will ever say goodbye. The Resurrection to which the Scriptures bear witness, first revealed in the soft light of that early Resurrection morn, points to another resurrection fast approaching as we look for the coming of the Lord.
“Our eyes behold thee not,
 Yet hast thou not forgot
 Those who have placed their hope, their trust, in thee;
 Before thy Father’s face
 Thou hast prepared a place,
 That where thou art there they may also be.”
 —Sarah Elizabeth Miles
*All Scriptures quoted in this article are from the King James Version.
1G. R. Beasley-Murray, Christ Alive (London: Lutterworth Press, 1947), pp. 11, 12.
2Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1952), p. 530.
Rex D. Edwards, recently retired, was an associate vice president and dean of religious studies at Griggs University. This article was published March 13, 2008.