The Empty Tomb

By Ferrell Jenkins

“. . . And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” These words from Matthew 27:60 constitute the last sentence in The Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson, the Father of American Democracy, clipped passages relating to the life and morals of Jesus of Nazareth and pasted them in a blank notebook. After his death the compilation was published as The Jefferson Bible. The Jesus about whom Jefferson read, died and was buried; the Jesus of the New Testament died, was buried, and arose victorious over death.

We believe that the resurrection of Christ is “the miracle” of the Bible. If the resurrection is true, then all the other miracles are possible. If the resurrection is not a reality, then the other miracles do not matter.

The Deity of Christ is Declared by the Resurrection

Jesus was often confessed to be the Christ, the Son of God, during his public ministry (Mt. 16:16; Jn. 1:49; 11:27). His deity, however, was actually made known by the resurrection (Rom. 1:34). The resurrection was a divine declaration that Jesus was everything he had openly claimed to be, and everything the Father had claimed of him (cf. Mt. 3:17; 17:5).

The resurrection of Jesus was the subject of Old Testament prophecy. David proclaims, “For Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt Thou allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay” (Psa. 16: 10). Peter showed, in the great Pentecost sermon, that David was not talking about himself but about the resurrection of the Christ (Acts 2:24-32). Paul also called attention to this prophecy in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:34-37).

We Are Dealing With An Historical Event

Jesus of Nazareth was a real character of history who lived in a real place at a certain time. He was born at Bethlehem, brought up in Nazareth, did much of his work along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and was crucified in Jerusalem. All of the places mentioned in the gospel records are well known. Jesus lived at a certain time in history. He was born in the reign of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. His ministry began in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, and when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. One may notice the emphasis placed on characters and time in Luke 2:1-3 and 3:1-2. The resurrection is an historic, space-time event.

There are several known facts concerning Jesus which can be established apart from a reference to the miraculous element. Aside from a prior assumption that the New Testament is not an historically reliable document, there is no reason for anyone to reject its testimony about the events of first century Roman Palestine.

1. Jesus said while he was alive that he would be raised from the dead.

2. He died, was buried, and on the third day the tomb was found empty.

3. For forty days there were reports of people having seen Jesus alive.

4. These appearances suddenly stopped.

5. The church was established within two months of his death.

6. One of the main doctrines taught by the church was that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

7. The church grew rapidly as the leaders claimed to be eyewitnesses of his resurrection. This was done even in the face of opposition, poverty, and persecution – and even death.

8. These churches were soon (within about 30 years) to be found throughout the Roman Empire.

Christ’s Predictions of His Resurrection

The claims of Jesus are consistently scattered throughout his public ministry and illustrate a well-laid plan. He made these claims in the early Judean ministry (Jn. 2:19-22); in the Galilean ministry (Mt. 12:39-40; 16:13-21; 17:9,23); in the Perean ministry (Mt. 20:19); and in the later Judean ministry – on the night of his betrayal (Mt. 26:32).

Evidence From the Empty Tomb

Jefferson left the tomb closed with Jesus inside, but the New Testament documents show that the tomb was empty on the third day after the burial. The empty tomb does not prove the resurrection, but if the body had been found that would completely disprove the resurrection!

The Character of the Tomb

The tomb in which Jesus was buried was a new tomb (Lk. 23:53; Jn. 19:41). This is highly significant. One must remember that tombs were used repeatedly in those days. After the flesh had decayed the bones were placed in a receptacle called an ossuary and the tomb could be used again. Some tombs were large enough for multiple burials. The fact that this was a new tomb shows that no error could be made by seeing other bodies or the bones of former dead.

The tomb in which Jesus was placed was cut in solid rock (Mt. 27:69; Mk. 15:46). There was only one entrance to the tomb. Jesus would have been powerless by human strength to emerge.

The tomb was sealed with a great stone (Mk. 16:4; Mt. 27:62-66). If three women could not roll away the stone from the outside (Mk. 16:3), Jesus in his weakened condition could not have done so. It is ridiculous to think that Jesus, in his weakened condition, could have revived, worked his way out of the grave clothes, moved away the stone (from the inside of the tomb), slugged the guards, and made a clean get-away for Galilee.

Several rolling stone type tombs from the first century can still be seen in Jerusalem (e.g., the Herodian family tomb and the Tomb of the Kings). A Roman period tomb with a rolling stone has been found at Hesbon in Transjordan.

These facts supply adequate reply to the “swoon” theory which says that Jesus did not really die, but simply fainted on the cross and was revived after being placed in the tomb. This theory was first advanced by the second century infidel Celsus who said that Jesus feigned death. Origen replied that Jesus died in the presence of a nation and could not have feigned death (Origin, Contra-Celsum, Bk. 11:56). Other unbelievers have suggested that Jesus was given some type of drugs on the cross and later came to in the tomb. There is no indication that Jesus was drugged in any way; he even refused the common narcotic which was offered him (Mt. 27:34; contrast the “sour wine” of 27:48; Jn. 19:28-30).

A more careful survey was made of the contents of the tomb by Peter and John (Lk. 24:12; Jn. 20:6-7). These witnesses were able to testify about what they saw: linen clothes in one place and the face-cloth which had been on his head in another. The tomb was empty of the body of Jesus.

The Problem of the Body of Jesus

The disciples could not steal the body and dispose of it successfully (Mt. 27:62-66). Such would have been both a physical and psychological impossibility for them. It was a physical impossibility because they had the guards to contend with. It seems to me that the psychological barrier for the disciples was even greater. They were not even expecting a resurrection (Jn. 20:9), and were in no mental frame of mind to accept the fact.

The Jews would not steal the body (Mt. 27:62-64). It has been pointed out that the silence of the Jews on Pentecost was as significant as the speech of Peter. If they had stolen the body of Jesus they could have announced such and disproved what Peter was saying.

The Romans dared not steal the body (Acts 16:27; Mt. 28:11-15). Any soldier negligent in his duty would face the penalty of death (cf. Acts 16:27). It took a large sum of money and a promise of intervention by the entire Jewish leadership to get the soldiers to say the body of Jesus had been stolen.

The empty tomb itself did not convince the apostles that Jesus had been raised from the dead. They were convinced by the appearances which Jesus made to them for a period of forty days. These appearances will be discussed, and their importance explained, in the article which follows.


By the resurrection from the dead Jesus was declared to be the Son of God. This was God’s validating evidence that Jesus was indeed Lord and Christ, God the Son. Because he was raised from the dead we know him to be what he claimed, and, therefore, worthy of our trust and worship.

Jefferson was right: they did roll a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and depart, but his compilation was incomplete. On the first day of the week when the disciples went to the tomb they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. A divine messenger announced, “He is not here, but is risen” (Lk. 24:6). He is “Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 20, pp. 630-631
October 15, 1987