Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:17 ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins’. The resurrection is not an ‘optional extra’ in the gospel. We can easily come to think and speak of our being saved by the death of Christ (which is essential) whilst neglecting the place of the resurrection. The cross followed by the resurrection is the path by which the Son returned to glory with the Father. We consider John 20:1-9 He must rise.
1. A despairing report
The details of these events recorded in the different Gospels are not easy to harmonise. Each account must be taken with full seriousness, each is a part of the ‘God-breathed’ Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16). John mentions only Mary Magdalene going to the tomb (v1) whilst the other Gospels mention several others (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1). Perhaps Mary arrived first ‘while it was still dark’ (v1). When she arrives, she finds that ‘the stone had been removed’ – apparently taken from the entrance entirely, not just rolled aside. The other Gospels indicate the appearance of angels – Matthew 28:5, Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4. Perhaps Mary ran back to Peter and John before the angels appeared and so did not hear their announcement of the resurrection. Her message is, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him’ (v2). The only explanation Mary considers is tomb robbery. She has no thought of his rising, despite all he had said. She assumes he is still dead. Only the power of God and her meeting with the risen Christ will change her thinking (see v10ff).
2. A joyful discovery
Peter and John go to the tomb, with John arriving first (v4). He looks in but does not enter. Impetuous Peter does go in. It is clear that the body has not been stolen – no thief would unwrap the body and leave it the linen behind (v6). There is a profound sense of order and care. It seems the body of Jesus was filled with life and simply passed through the grave clothes, as he would later pass through walls into a locked room (v19, 26). He is risen. Note the different responses of the disciples:
John ‘saw and believed’. Confronted with the absence of Jesus’ body, John comes to faith, believing that the one he had seen on the cross has conquered death.
Peter: John does not comment on the presence or lack of faith. Note Luke 24:12 ‘he went away, wondering to himself what had happened’. Perhaps the matter was clinched by meeting the risen Christ. Grace brings people to faith by varied routes.
3. A divine necessity
Note v9 ‘They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead’. We see the slowness of the disciples to grasp the necessity of the death and resurrection of the Messiah – it was so different from their expectations. When Jesus had spoken of his death and resurrection in e.g. Matthew 16:21, Peter’s reaction was ‘Never, Lord!’ It was his death that was chiefly in view, but they did not take in the truth about the resurrection either. Death without resurrection would mean defeat and failure. Paul understood that without the resurrection, ‘you are still in your sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:17). The resurrection is essential. Paul and John would come to understand texts such as Psalm 16:8-11 and realise ‘it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’ (Acts 2:24). He must and did rise.