The Empty Tomb – John 20:1-18

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

April 24, 2011

The Empty Tomb

John 20:1-18


We read in Matthew 28:5 (NASB) “And the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. 6 “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.”

And so it was that the most exciting news in all history was announced to the women who had come to Jesus’ tomb to complete the burial rites. Jesus was no longer there for He had risen from the dead just as He had said.

The resurrection is the pivotal point of human history. All those who were righteous in times previous looked forward to when their sins would be paid for and the curse of death would be broken. All those who have been righteous since that time have looked back to this event as the assurance of the promise that their sins have been paid for and death has been conquered.

The Apostle Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 that without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no hope. “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” But we are not people to be pitied, but people to be envied, because as Paul adds in verse 20, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.” Our hope is not a wish, but a confidence assurance based in the promises of God. Christ has been raised from the dead and so shall we.

It should be no surprise then that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most if not the most attacked claim of the Bible. Intellectuals scoff at it and pagans deny it, but perhaps the greater tragedy are those that say they believe it yet remain oblivious to the ramifications of, it for their lives do not change. Turn to John 20 as we look at the Apostle John’s account of this most wonderful event.

Mary at the Tomb

Again we must point out that John writes his account of Jesus’ life 30-40 years after Matthew, Mark and Luke. He expects that his readers will be familiar with those accounts of Jesus’ life including the details they give concerning Jesus’ resurrection. As we go through John’s account, I will weave in some of these details from Matthew 28, Mark 16 and Luke 24.

John 20:1 (NASB)Now on the first [day] of the week Mary Magdalene ^came early to the tomb, while it ^was still dark, and ^saw the stone [already] taken away from the tomb. 2 And so she ^ran and ^came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and ^said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

It was now approaching Sunrise on the first day of the week – our Sunday. The Jews did not name the days but simply counted them from what was to them the only truly significant day, the Sabbath. Jesus had now been in the grave for three days. Remember that any part of a day was counted as the day in that culture. Friday evening – day 1. Saturday – day 2. Sunday morning – day 3.

It has been about eleven hours since the Sabbath ended at dusk and now it is early morning. John points out here that it is still dark when Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb. Mary Magdalene had a supreme devotion to Jesus ever since Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. From the other gospel accounts we know that several other women including Joanna, Salome and Mary, the mother of James, were also coming to Jesus’ tomb and would arrive just as the Sun came up. Except for Joanna, these were women that are specifically mentioned as being present when Jesus was crucified.

Mary and these women were coming to the garden to look at the grave, and according to Luke, had also come with more burial spices that they had prepared. Mark’s account records that as they had walked to sepulcher they had been wondering who would roll the stone away that blocked the entrance to the tomb. This was an act of love and devotion, but may have also been an act showing their own unbelief. Perhaps the disciples had never related anything to them about what Jesus had said about being raised from the dead on the third day, but that seems improbable. They have not come to the grave of Jesus to see if He was resurrected, but to anoint His body with more burial spices as a beautiful act of their devotion to Him. Their concern about getting the stone rolled away for them was short lived for God had rolled away the stone for them.

Matthew 28:2 records that a severe earthquake occurred when an Angel from the Lord came and rolled away the stone that blocked the entrance into the tomb. The exact timing of it cannot be determined, but the stone was already removed when Mary arrived (John 20:1). Why did God have the angel roll the stone away and cause an earthquake? First, take note that Matthew 28:2 says it was a “severe” (megaV / megas) earthquake. When such an earthquake occurs, everyone is wide awake. The earthquake ensured that any claim that would be made later that the guards were asleep could not be true. As someone with personal experience with quite a few earthquakes, I can assure you that after a severe earthquake everyone is awake! It also became the means by which God broke Rome’s seal. No matter how great and glorious man’s power may seem to himself, it is nothing before God. Any man would have been very afraid to break the seal of Rome, for to do so would be to risk death at Rome’s hand, but the seal was no concern to God. God broke the seal because Rome’s power, as all human power, is inconsequential to God.

But why have the Angel roll the stone away? It would not have been to let Jesus out. As the various post-resurrection appearances of Jesus demonstrates, His resurrection body was not bound by the same material space limitations as you and I. He was able to appear in a room full of disciples without the door being opened (John 20:19), and yet He could be touched and could eat (John 20:27 & 21:12-15). Comparison of the various accounts implies that Jesus was already out before the stone was rolled away. The stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the women, and later the disciples, in!

The presence of the angel also took care of the guards that were present. Matthew records that “the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” That indicates that they were so afraid they passed out. They would later return to the city and report to the chief priests, but for the present, they are immobilized.

Mary Magdalene appears to be the first one of Jesus’ followers at the tomb with John recording that it was still dark when she arrived and that the stone was already taken away. There is no record of whether she actually looked into the tomb, but her response and report to Peter in verse 2 indicates that whatever she did see convinced her that Jesus body had been taken away. Perhaps the bodies of the guards were still lying there passed out. If that were the scene, it would have led a reasonable person to think that some strong group of people had overpowered the guard and stolen the body. She was quite distressed
and ran until she came to Peter.

John records that he was with Peter, referring to himself as “the other disciple whom Jesus loved.” Though John is an old man when he is writing this about 60 years after the event, he is still enraptured with the fact that Jesus loved him.

When Mary runs into Peter and John, she blurts out her conclusion that “they,” some unknown group of people, “have taken away the Lord, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

Since Mary was at the tomb while it was still dark and the other women did not arrive until sunrise (Mark. 16:2), it is apparent that she was there alone before the other women arrived. Her inclusion of “we” in her report to Peter (vs. 2) indicates she was still at the tomb when the other women arrived. From the other gospel accounts we know that the angel of the Lord that had previously rolled away the stone was sitting on top of it later in the presence of Salome, Joanna and Mary, the mother of James. Since John does not record anything about Mary Magdalene seeing this angel, and her response indicates she believed Jesus’ body had been taken away, it would seem that Mary left the tomb before the angel appeared. Even though she would have been distraught, it is unlikely that she would not have noticed the angel as did the other women if she had been present then.

The angel was the divine answer to earlier concern these women had about who would roll the stone away for them. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record that the angel announced the resurrection of Jesus to these women – “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.” The angel also instructed them to go tell the disciples about it.

Peter and John at the Tomb

We can only imagine the emotional turmoil Mary must have been in when she found Peter and John and told them the tomb was empty and she did not know where Jesus’ body had been taken. Verse 3-10 records their response to Mary’s report.

John 20:3 (NASB) “Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they were going to the tomb. 4 And the two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter, and came to the tomb first; 5 and stooping and looking in, he ^saw the linen wrappings lying [there;] but he did not go in. 6 Simon Peter therefore also ^came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he ^beheld the linen wrappings lying [there,] 7 and the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb entered then also, and he saw and believed. 9 For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. 10 So the disciples went away again to their own homes.”

Both disciples start out, but John is the faster of the two and arrives at the tomb first. But John is also more timid than Peter. The scene would be intimidating. There is no record of the other women still being there, so they must have already left or they would have told him about the angel and his message. John finds the stone is rolled away from the tomb indicating Mary’s story is true. Who would have stolen Jesus’ body? Was this some sort of plot by the chief priests? Where were the guards? And if the guards are still unconscious and their bodies are still present, then the scene would have been even more intimidating. John stops at the tomb entrance and bends down to look inside and he can see the linen wrappings lying there, but he does not go in.

Peter is the bold one and upon his arrival he goes past John and into the tomb. He also sees the linen wrappings, but also notices the face cloth which was lying rolled up in a place by itself. Since Peter was now inside the tomb, John also enters. He also sees what Peter sees and the truth suddenly strikes him.

Up to this time, John points out in verse 9, the disciples did not understand the Scriptures that Jesus must rise again from the dead. Even though Jesus had said it to them many times, they did not understand it. Mark 9:31,32 records their earlier response to Jesus’ teaching about this – “For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” 32 But they did not understand [this] statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.

Students are still the same way. They would rather remain in ignorance than ask a question about something they do not understand. They often pretend to know rather than ask a question and risk being thought stupid. Eventually the real stupidity of remaining ignorant is exposed. Hopefully, they will then seek to learn the lesson they missed earlier. Jesus had taught the disciples about what would happen including His resurrection many times earlier, but the truth of it is just now dawning on John as he looks at the linen wrappings and the rolled up face cloth there in the empty tomb.

The other gospels do not record this event, but it was of special interest to John since he was present and what he saw was proof of Jesus’ resurrection. The fact that the linens were present and the face cloth so carefully rolled up was evidence that shouted loudly that Jesus body had not been stolen. Thieves would not have unwrapped a body before stealing it, especially when that body was inside a tomb with a Roman seal on it. They would be risking death to break that seal. If Jesus’ body had been stolen, the thieves would have been in and out of the tomb as quickly as possible, but the linen wrappings and the face cloth by itself carefully rolled up lying there demonstrated there was no hurry. We do not have an exact account of the events of Jesus’ resurrection. We do not know if Jesus unwrapped Himself or an angel did it for Him, but the presence of the grave clothes proved there was no hurry and the One who had been in them no longer needed them. John was now beginning to believe the evidence before Him. Jesus had risen from the dead.

Peter and John now leave the tomb and return to their own homes. This was no longer to hide, but to share the news with the others.

Jesus Reveals Himself

To Mary. The care and comfort by our Lord is seen in the next event that John describes in verses 11-18. 11“But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; 12 and she ^beheld two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 And they ^said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She ^said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”

Mary appears to have followed Peter and John who had run on ahead. By the time she arrives back at the tomb, Peter and John have already left. She is still distraught. All she can think about is that Jesus’ body has been taken away. She arrives at the tomb and stands there crying, but then stoops down and looks inside the tomb. She sees two angels, but has no recognition that they are angels or that there is even anything strange about them being there, one on either side of where Jesus’ body had lain. Her answer to their question about why she was weeping reveals that her only thought was about Jesus’ body. They do not answer her, for another is now present with them that can better answer Mary’s dilemma.

14 When she had said this, she turned around, and ^beheld Jesus standing [there,] and did not know that it was Jesus. We are not told how Mary became aware of the presence of someone else there. Perhaps she heard something, or perhaps she noticed a shadow in the light coming through the entrance. Whatever the cause, Mary turns around and sees Jesus, but does not recognize Him. It is too far from her mind that Jesus could be alive, so even though she hears Jesus speak as He asks her, ““Woman, why are you
weeping? Whom are you seeking?,”
she does recognize Him. It should be noted that Jesus asks “whom” Mary was seeking and not “what.” Mary was searching for a body, but Jesus question directed her to look for a person.

15b Supposing Him to be the gardener, she ^said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Mary assumed that this man must be a gardener or caretaker of some sort, so she presses him with her concern. Perhaps he is the one that has taken away the body, so she pleads for him to tell her where Jesus’ body has been laid and she would take care of it. Her only concern is finding Jesus’ body to take care of it. She turns from him and it is not until Jesus calls her by name that she finally recognizes that it was Jesus standing in front of her. 16 Jesus ^said to her, “Mary!” She ^turned and ^said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). She has been addressed by her name in her native tongue and responds to Jesus in her native tongue, “Rabboni.” John translates this word as meaning, “teacher,” for the benefit of his non-Hebrew speaking readers. However, this is not the common word for teacher, “Rabbi,” but one reserved for only a few special Rabbis of high rank such as Gamaliel. It was often used with reference to God.

Mary has been so concentrated on finding Jesus’ body, that she is overwhelmed when she recognizes Him as being alive. Her response is to grab Him and hold on to Him, much as she must have done to Lazarus when Jesus had raised him from the dead. She would have been holding onto Jesus much the way we might hold onto our children or a loved one after we have been afraid for their life or safety and we do not want them to leave us again. Jesus has to correct her on this in verse 17.

17 Jesus ^said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren, and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'”

The New American Standard and New King James translations here give the sense of what Mary had been doing. It should be noted that Jesus was not objecting to being touched. He had no such objections later when He revealed Himself to the other women. From the other gospel accounts it appears that these women had at first fled from the tomb very frightened after seeing the angel and were unwilling to say anything to anyone (Mark 1:8). However, on the way back to Jerusalem, Jesus appeared and greeted them and they took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. Jesus then said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they shall see Me.” (Matthew 28:9). In addition, when Jesus did reveal Himself to the eleven disciples later that day, He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:38-39). The problem was not that Mary was touching Jesus, but that she was clinging to Him, and so Jesus commands her to stop it. He also gives her the reason.

Jesus had not yet ascended to the Father, so He was not going to be staying. There would be a time in the future when they would no longer be separated, but Jesus first had to ascend to the Father, and He wanted Mary to return to the disciples to communicate this to them. But notice what else Jesus says here that shows the relationship He wants communicated to the disciples.

Earlier in John, Jesus had referred to Lazarus as “our friend“(John 11:11), and then to the disciples themselves as “friends” (John 15:15). Now Jesus calls them “my brothers.” He also refers to God the Father as “my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.” Jesus is standing before Mary after being raised from the dead which is a very non-human thing to have happen. Mortal humans are not in the habit of dying and then coming back to life three days later. Jesus is stressing His humanity to them. What had occurred to Jesus was the hope that was being given to them. They would be like He is. “Brothers” are of the same family. That is our hope.

If Jesus alone conquered death that would be great and wonderful, but of little value to us unless He could enable us to do the same. By calling the disciples “brothers” and saying, “My Father and your Father, and My God and your God,” Jesus stresses to them that they have a new relationship with Him. They are of the same family. They are now joint heirs with Jesus (Romans 8:17).

This does not mean they are same substance, for it is “My Father and your Father, and My God and your God,” not “Our Father and Our God.” Jesus is son by nature, but they are sons by adoption (Galatians 4:5). Jesus’ relationship with God is as a member of the eternal triune Godhead, but they would share in an intimacy with God they had not known before. This is the same hope that is given to all who place their faith in Jesus for salvation from their sins and follow Him. Jesus said in Matthew 12:50 that “whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” We also can be adopted into God’s family for that right is given to all who will believe and receive Him (John 1:12, Romans 8:15; Ephesians 1:5; 1 John 3:1).

Jesus wants Mary to understand this message herself and to transmit it to the disciples. So Mary did stop clinging to Jesus, and we can be sure that it was with joy far greater than the despair she had been feeling, for verse 18 records, Mary Magdalene ^came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and [that] He had said these things to her.”

To the Eleven. The response of the disciples was one of skepticism. They regarded the report of the women that had seen Jesus alive – Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James – as nonsense and they would not believe (Mark 16:13-14; Luke 24:10-11). It would not be until later that evening that they would believe. Cleopas and the one that had been traveling with him on the road to Emmaus, probably Simon, had returned to Jerusalem and were telling the others about how Jesus had revealed Himself to them. While they were telling their story, Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst. He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart for it was not until they too were eye witnesses that they believed. Thomas, who had not been with them that night would not believe for another eight days until Jesus also revealed Himself to Him. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who did not see, and yet believed.”

Jesus’ Enemies

Matthew records that it was while the women were on their way back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that the guards who had been at the tomb also made their way back to Jerusalem. They then reported what had happened to the chief priests. Their response again exposes their religious hypocrisy. They had no concern at all about the things of God, for if they had, the report of the earthquake and angel rolling to stone away would have caused them to fall on their knees in repentance, or at least investigate further and find out for themselves if Jesus had risen from the dead. Instead, they sought out a way to cover up the truth so that their positions of authority as the religious leaders of Israel would not be threatened. They formed a conspiracy to bribe the guards to lie about what had happened and say that the disciples stole Jesus body while the guards were asleep. The chief priests were desperate, yet their silly story continues on. The silliness of the story is revealed by

1) Guards that fell asleep on duty did so at the risk of their lives. That is why part of the deal with chief priest was their promise to keep the guards out of trouble with the governor (Matthew 28:14).

2) How could the guards remain asleep with such a great earthquake and all the noise moving the r
ock would make?

3) If the guards were asleep, how could they have known the robbers were the disciples?

4) If the guards had been awakened to have seen the robbers, why didn’t they stop them? It would be very difficult to escape an armed guard while trying to carry a dead body away.

The only reason the story was made up and that it would still be repeated today is that men do not want to believe the truth. The ramifications of Jesus being raised from the dead are more than sinful man wants to bear, for if it is true, then they will be held accountable for their sins by a holy and just God who is all powerful.


There is no historical question that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. The question is what effect will that truth have on your life?

Will you be taken in by the stories made up by Jesus’ enemies and reject the fact of Jesus’ resurrection? If so, then you remain under God’s judgment for unbelief and will meet their same end (John 3:18).

Will you be skeptical like the disciples who rejected the testimony of the women and so continued to live in fear? (John 20:19). They received Jesus’ rebuke for their hard heartedness and unbelief. Do not follow their proud example of demanding God meet your standards before you will believe. The eyewitness testimonies are already enough. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Will you be like Mary was at first – weighed down by difficulties, heartaches, and despair of this evil world? Stop looking for a corpse! Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and that changes everything. It did for Mary when she discovered the truth. We have a hope that transcends every circumstance we could encounter in this life. As Paul makes clear in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from the love of God, and Jesus’ resurrection proves God will keep all of His promises including salvation from sin and the joys of heaven for all who will believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Count how many times Jesus’ resurrection is mentioned 2) Talk with your parents about what Jesus’ resurrection means to them and you.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. Why is the resurrection of Jesus Christ so pivotal? Why is this doctrine attacked so much? What does John expect his readers to already know? How would the followers of Jesus been feeling after His crucifixion? Why was Mary and the other women going to His tomb on the first day of the week? What occurred before Mary arrived? What did the angel do? Why? What effect did the angel have on those who saw him? What was Mary’s report to Peter and John? What was their response? What did they see upon arrival? How did what they saw give proof that Jesus’ body had not been stolen? What were the responses of Peter and John? Why didn’t they believe Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection earlier? What did Mary experience when she returned to the tomb? What was her response? What other women came to the tomb? What did they experience? What was the response of the other disciples to the report of the women? What caused them to finally believe? What was the response of the chief priests to the guards’ report? Why is the story of the guards falling asleep and the disciples stealing Jesus’ body a silly story? What do you believe about the story of Jesus’ resurrection? What effect does that belief have on your life in the present? In the future?

Sermon Notes – 4/24/2011

The Empty Tomb – John 20:1-18


The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ______________ point of all human history

1 Corinthians 15:17-19 Without the resurrection, there is ________________

Our hope is not a wish, it is a confident ___________because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead

Mary at the TombJohn 20:1-2

Mary arrives at the tomb while it is still ____________. The other women arrive at sunrise

They come with ______________ to finish the burial preparations

There was a severe _________________ when the angel rolled the stone away from the tomb

The earthquake ensured everyone was ____________ and it broke the Roman seal on the tomb

The stone was rolled away to let ________________ , not to let Jesus out

The guards were so ____________ they “became as dead men”

Mary believed someone had taken Jesus body and __________ until she came to Peter and John

The other women saw the _____________ and were told that Jesus had risen from the dead

Peter and John at the TombJohn 20:3-10

_____________ gets to the tomb before Peter, but does not go in until after Peter arrives and goes in

They had not _____________Jesus’ previous teachings that He would rise from the dead – Mark 9:31-32

The rolled up linens in the tomb showed there was _________- opposite of what a thief would have done

Jesus Reveals Himself To MaryJohn 20:11-18

Mary returned to the tomb and talked to two ________________

Mary then talked to Jesus, but thought He was the __________________

Mary recognized Jesus when He called her by _____________, then she clung to Him

Jesus did not object to being _____________- others did (Matt. 28:9) and He invited it (Luke 24:38-39)

Jesus told Mary to stop _______________for He had to ascend to the Father first

Jesus now refers to His followers as members of the same ___________- “My Father and your Father”

We are joint __________with Jesus (Rom. 8:17), but are sons by adoption (Gal. 4:5 cf John 1:12; etc).

Jesus Reveals Himself To The ElevenJohn 20:19-29; Luke 24:36f;

The women went and told the disciples, but they would not __________(Mark 16:13-14; Luke 24:10-11)

They did not believe until they saw _______________ risen from the dead for themselves.

Jesus’ EnemiesMatthew 28:11-15

The ______________ returned to Jerusalem and reported to the chief priests

The chief priests showed no concern for the things of __________or truth, but only in their own positions

The guards were ______________ to say that they fell asleep and the disciples stole Jesus’ body

1) Falling asleep on post was punishable by ___________. The priests had to protect the guards

2) How could the guards stay asleep through the ________________and the stone being moved away?

3) If the guards were asleep, how would they ______________ what happened to Jesus’ body?

4) If the guards had woken up and seen the thieves,
why didn’t they ___________ them?


Jesus’ tomb was found ______________- what effect does that fact have on your life?

Do you believe fabricated stories and _____________Jesus’ resurrection from the dead?

Do you remain ________________ demanding God meet your standards of evidence?

Do you remain weighed ________________ by the circumstances that surround you?

Do you live in the transcendent ____for the future in God’s love & promises proven by the resurrection?

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