In an article titled Grave Matters, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright recounts that on Palm Sunday of 1996, The London Sunday Times ran a story about the tomb of Jesus, claiming that a new archaeological discovery had shaken the foundations of the Christian faith.
Two producers from the BBC had been searching for fresh material for an Easter special. “Suppose,” they asked themselves, “someone actually found the bones of Jesus; what would that do to the Christian faith?”
So, they searched for ossuaries—bone boxes—and found one marked “Jesus, son of Joseph.” The bone box was found in a family tomb where there were other bone boxes labeled Joseph, Mary, another Mary, Matthew, and someone called Judah, the son of Jesus. The boxes were empty, and the producers assumed that vandals of long ago had stolen the bones.
Reporters are good at putting two and two together and making 17. So these producers assumed they had discovered the smoking gun that would discredit the Christian faith.
What are we to make of the discovery? First, the names “Joseph,” “Mary,” “Judah,” and “Jesus” were some of the most popular names of that period in history, and there is no reason to think these are the people of the gospels. Furthermore, Jesus’ siblings, such as James, were well known in the first century—why was there no mention of them? And if Jesus had a son, he would have been well known.
But the real problem with this discovery is the bone box labeled “Jesus.” In a sense, it is evidence FOR the resurrection. Let me explain.
The Jews had a two-step burial process. A body was first wrapped in cloth with spices and placed in a cave on a shelf. After a year, when all the flesh had decomposed, friends and family would return to the tomb and remove the bones to make room for another family member. Then the bones would be placed in an ossuary. Thus, the burial of Jesus recorded in the gospels was only the first of what was intended to be a two-step process.
So a year after Jesus’ death, did anyone think to return to the tomb and collect his bones? Of course not. The church knew that his body was not there. He had risen from the dead.
And HAD anyone gone back after a year to retrieve his bones and put them in the ossuary, that action would have destroyed Christianity before it ever got off the ground. Even those contemporary scholars who deny that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead agree that all the early church thought he had been, and they were willing to die for that belief.
In a real sense, the discovery of the empty bone box is another piece of evidence for the resurrection of Christ. By reminding us of the two stage burial process, we see how impossible Christianity would have been to get off the ground had that second stage ever been carried out.
After an article appeared in the Sunday Times, someone called in on a radio talk show and said that it made no difference to them if Jesus’ bones were still lying around Israel. “I expect to go to heaven when I die,” the caller said, “and I won’t be taking my bones with me, so I don’t see why Jesus shouldn’t have done the same.”
I believe that many people, including Christians, share the same belief. An empty tomb is a nicety but not necessary for the Christian faith.
As one Christian scholar put it, “I think the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but I have no idea if it involves anything happening to his corpse, and, therefore, I have no idea whether it involves an empty tomb … SO I would have no problem whatsoever with archaeologists finding the corpse of Jesus. For me, that would not be discrediting of the Christian faith or the Christian tradition.”
Does an empty tomb make a difference? Instead of listening to unbelievers or even religionists, listen to what the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:13-14, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, and your faith also is vain.”
To the apostle Paul who gave up everything, including his own life, for the cause of Christ, the resurrection was not incidental. It was essential to the Christian faith. Why? Why is an empty tomb important to the Christian faith?
Here are five reasons that an empty grave matters.
In his sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus—Just as the Old Testament prophesied. Jesus made his physical resurrection the cornerstone of his teaching about himself. Even Jesus’s enemies knew his resurrection was the heart of his claim to be God. That is why after his death, they were so insistent with Pilate that the tomb be guarded.
Many religions, including the Jews, believed that their spirits were ushered into heaven when good people died. That was nothing new. If that was what Jesus predicted, then why guard the tomb? No, the only reason to guard the tomb was that Jesus’s followers and enemies both understood that Jesus was claiming that his physical body—flesh and bones—would be raised from the dead.
And that is why on that first Easter Sunday morning, the Angel said to those who had come searching for the body of Jesus, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, He has risen, just as he said. Come see the place where He was lying” (Matthew 28:5).
Later, when He appeared to His disciples in Galilee, Matthew notes that they “took hold of his feet and worshipped Him.” (Matthew 28:9). Have you ever tried to grab the feet of a spirit? Doesn’t work. No, this was a physical resurrection.
2. An Empty Grave Ratifies the Sufficiency of Christ’s Death (Romans 4:25)
Remember, justification is that act by which God declares those who have trusted in Christ as “not guilty.” God takes our sin and places it on Christ, and he takes Christ’s righteousness and deposits it into our account. And as a result, God declares us not guilty.
Suppose I say to you, “I know you are having difficulty making your car payments, and my Aunt Ethel recently died and left me some money, and I am going down to the bank and pay off your note.” You are so grateful to me—until the next month when you get an overdue notice from the bank asking where your payment is. You go down to the bank and explain that I had paid off your note for you. And the loan officer laughs and says, “Robert did come down here and hand us a check to pay off your loan, but we told him to forget it! We took his check and used it to cover an overdue loan that HE had with us. His payment covered his debt, not yours.”
Here’s my point. It would be easy for Jesus to say, “I am going to die for your sins.” But had Jesus remained in the grave, it would have been proof that his death was not payment for our sins but for his own. But the Bible says that the empty grave ratifies—it proves—that God accepted his payment for our sins.
3. An Empty Grave Clarifies the Nature of Eternity (1 Corinthians 15:35-42)
An empty grave clarifies what our bodies will be like in eternity. When Jesus arose from the grave, he did not leave his body behind and enter into some eternal spiritual existence. No, the Bible says that his physical body was transformed into a new body that was superior to the old and yet retained some of the characteristics of the old. And it will be the same for us.
New Testament N.T. Wright notes that half of the references to RUNNING in the gospels have to do with the resurrection. The women ran from the tomb, and Peter and John ran to the tomb. The disciples in Emmaus hurried back to Jerusalem. THEY WERE ALL IN A HURRY.
That same energy and sense of urgency to get the message out needs to be in the church of the 21st century, just as it was in the church of the first century. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” And in Matthew 28, when the disciples met the resurrected Lord, what did he say to them? Organize a Bible study so you can sit down and soak in the deep things of the Word. Get yourself into a home group where you can sit around a share with each other. NO! He said, “Go, into all the world and make disciples.” The empty grave ought to energize God’s people to go and share the message of the risen Christ with others.
5. An Empty Grave Exemplifies the Victory of God (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
In Genesis, we see how God created the world perfectly. But because of sin, this world was infected with sickness, sadness, broken relationships, and death. Those things were never a part of God’s original plan for His creation. Satan is the great usurper who has taken control of God’s creation.
Now, if Easter simply means that when we die, we enter into some spiritual nirvana and float around in heaven, then Satan has been victorious in his role as the usurper of God’s creation. Do you really think God is going to allow that to happen? No!
God is not about to abandon His creation. God’s plan is and always has been not to abandon this world but to reclaim and redeem this world. And the empty tomb is the first hint of what God is up to.
Remember what God said about the Messiah—I will not allow my holy one to rot in the grave, and I am not going to allow Satan to have the final word. If our physical bodies remain in the grave, then it means Satan has won.
But the empty tomb means that one day death will be swallowed up in victory and then will come about the saying, “Oh death, where is your victory, Oh grave, where is your sting.”
That means that one day God is going to reverse the effects of sin and death. One day the clouds are going to part, the graves are going to open, the Lord is going to descend, and the kingdoms of this world will once again become the kingdom of God.
That is why an empty grave matters!
Full Passage: Selected Scriptures