“The Empty Tomb” by Tom Wright

“Darkness on the face of the deep. The formless beginning, the chaos. The void. The beginning.

The wind and the word. God’s breath, God’s speech, summoning things never known before. Life and light. The first day. Creation.

In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh.

The flesh has spoken, breathed, brought life and light. New creation has spilled out around Him wherever He has gone. ‘Here’s the man!’ The sixth day. Creation is complete. God saw all he had made, and it was very good.

Flesh dies. Chaos comes again. Darkness descends on the little weeping group at the cross. Two men in the fading light do what has to be done. Then the long sabbath, the rest in the cold tomb.

And now, still in the darkness, the first day of the week. The new week. The new creation. The eighth day. Eyes red from weeping and sleepless sabbath nights.

Women at the tomb; perhaps to bring more spices, perhaps just to weep, perhaps just to be there, because there was nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, nothing else that mattered, that would ever matter.

Mary Magdalene doesn’t feature in John’s gospel until her appearance, with the other Marys, at the foot of the cross. John has told us nothing of her history; the little we know, we know from the other gospels.

But her place here is spectacular. She is the first to bring the news that the tomb was empty. And, in the next section, a greater privilege yet: the first to see, to meet, to speak with the risen master Himself.

For the moment, the empty tomb is simply another twist of the knife. Chaos upon chaos. Someone’s taken Him away. No faith, no hope, no ‘maybe, after all …’. Just a cruel trick.

Some gardener, some labourer, some soldier, someone’s servant. But we must find out. It’s urgent. She runs back into the city, back to Peter in his hiding place, back to the young lad she had stood with by the cross, the one Jesus specially loved.

They run, too. (There is more running in these verses than in the rest of the gospels put together.) The younger man gets there first. Sure enough, the tomb is open and empty.

And here’s a curious thing: there are the linen cloths, lying there. Someone has not only taken the body away; they have first gone to the trouble of unwrapping it. Why on earth would you do that? Where has that happened before?

Peter, out of breath, arrives at the tomb a few moments later. He acts in character: no waiting, no beating about the bush, no shall-we-shan’t-we. In he goes.

And here’s an even more curious thing: the linen cloths are lying there; but the single cloth, the napkin that had been around Jesus’ head, isn’t with the others. It’s in a place by itself.

Someone, having unwrapped the body (a complicated task in itself), has gone to the trouble of laying out the cloths to create an effect. It looks as though the body wasn’t picked up and unwrapped, but had just disappeared, leaving the empty cloths, like a collapsed balloon when the air has gone out of it.

Then comes the moment. The younger man, the beloved disciple, goes into the tomb after Peter. And the idea they had had to that point about what must have happened—someone taking the body away, but unwrapping it first—suddenly looks stupid and irrelevant.

Something quite new surges up in the young disciple, a wild delight at God’s creative power. He remembers the moment ever afterwards. A different sensation. A bit like falling in love; a bit like sunrise; a bit like the sound of rain at the end of a long drought.

A bit like faith. Oh, he’d had faith before. He had believed that Jesus was the Messiah. He had believed that God had sent Him, that He was God’s man for God’s people and God’s world.

But this was different. ‘He saw, and believed.’ Believed that new creation had begun. Believed that the world had turned the corner, out of its long winter and into spring at last.

Believed that God had said ‘Yes’ to Jesus, to all that He had been and done. Believed that Jesus was alive again.

Not ‘believed that Jesus had gone to heaven’. People often still think that that’s what Christians mean when they say He was raised from the dead. John is quite clear, later on in this passage, that that’s not what he’s talking about (verse 17). He is talking about resurrection.

Everybody in the ancient world knew that resurrection didn’t happen. More: they knew it couldn’t happen. They spoke of it, in the classical world of Greece and Rome, as something one might imagine but which never actually occurred, and never could or would.

The Jews, though, began to believe that it would. Not all of them, mind; the Sadducees resolutely stuck out against it. And they weren’t all clear exactly what it would mean, what it would be like. But they believed, as we saw in 11:24, that when resurrection happened it would happen to all God’s people all at once. (Perhaps, even, to all people everywhere, as in 5:28–29.)

Not—this is the point—to one person in the middle of time. That would be an odd, outlandish event, unimagined, unheard-of.

When Jesus raised Lazarus, Lazarus returned to the present life. He came back again. The echoes of the Lazarus story in the present one are there partly to tell us that it was the same kind of event, but mostly to tell us that it wasn’t.

Lazarus needed someone to untie him from his cloths, and the napkin round his head. Jesus left His behind altogether. Lazarus came back into a world where death threats still mattered (12:10).

Jesus had gone on, through death and out into a new world, a new creation, a new life beyond, where death itself had been defeated and life, sheer life, life in all its fullness, could begin at last.

Ask people around the world what they think is the biggest day of the year for Christians. Most will say ‘Christmas’. That’s what our society has achieved: a romantic mid-winter festival (though we don’t actually know what time of the year Jesus was born) from which most of the things that really matter (the danger, the politics) are carefully excluded.

The true answer—and I wish the churches would find ways of making this clear—is Easter.

This is the moment of new creation. If it hadn’t been for Easter, nobody would ever have dreamed of celebrating Christmas.

This is the first day of God’s new week. The darkness has gone, and the sun is shining.”

–Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 140–143.

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Filed under Biblical Theology, Christian Theology, Death, God's Power, Jesus Christ, N.T. Wright, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Resurrection, The Gospel

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