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Lesson 100: The Evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection (John 20:1-10)

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August 16, 2015

I always am fascinated to watch footage of engineers taking down an old building by placing dynamite charges at strategic points so that the building implodes. By finding just those few load-bearing points in the foundation, the entire building collapses into a heap of rubble.

The entire Christian faith rests on one historically verifiable point: the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The apostle Paul says (1 Cor. 15:17), “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” Everything in the Christian faith rests on the historical truth that Jesus was raised from the dead. If you can explode that one truth, the Christian faith collapses.

But I need to clarify that we’re talking about objective truth. We live in an age that holds to a subjective, experience-oriented view of truth. But if Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, then He is the only truth and the only way to the Father (John 14:6). And this truth applies to every person. As Paul proclaimed to the Athenian philosophers, they should repent because (Acts 17:31), God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Jesus’ resurrection was at the center of the apostles’ witness. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached (Acts 2:32), “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.” He told the crowd that gathered after God used him and John to heal the lame man at the temple gate (Acts 3:14-15), “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.” When the apostles were dragged before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Peter boldly proclaimed (Acts 4:10), “Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health.” (See also, Acts 4:33; 5:30; 10:40; 13:32-37; 17:18, 31; 26:23).

The emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection led church historian Philip Schaff to conclude (History of the Christian Church [Eerdmans], 1:173, cited by Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict [Campus Crusade for Christ], p. 190), “The resurrection of Christ is therefore emphatically a test question upon which depends the truth or falsehood of the Christian religion. It is either the greatest miracle or the greatest delusion which history records.”

At the same time, we must acknowledge that there are some difficulties harmonizing the gospel accounts of the resurrection. John lacks stories that the other gospels have and he includes stories that they lack or do not report exactly as he does. For example, Luke 24:12 mentions Peter’s visit to the tomb, but doesn’t mention that John went with him. John tells of Mary Magdalene’s early morning visit to the tomb, but doesn’t mention the other women who accompanied her. More differences could be cited. But as Leon Morris explains (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 828), “The differences between the Gospels amount to no more than a demonstration that here we have the spontaneous evidence of witnesses, not the stereotyped repetition of an official story.”

Eyewitnesses report what they have seen and heard, but different eyewitnesses to the same event can report seemingly contradictory details that still are all true. For example, the late theologian Kenneth Kantzer had a friend whose mother was killed. Kantzer first heard about her death through a trusted mutual friend who reported that the woman had been standing on the street corner, was hit by a bus, and died a few minutes later. Later he heard from the dead woman’s grandson that she was riding in a car that was in a collision, she was thrown from the car and killed instantly. The boy was quite certain of his facts. Which story was correct?

Dr. Kantzer later learned from the dead woman’s daughter that her mother had been waiting for a bus, was hit by another bus and critically injured. A passing motorist put her in his car and sped off to the hospital. En route, he was in a collision in which the injured woman was thrown from the car and killed instantly. Although the accounts seemed contradictory, both were true! (Christianity Today [10/7/88], p. 23.) So while there are harmonistic problems, we can trust the different resurrection accounts.

John’s purpose for writing what he saw concerning Jesus’ resurrection, as well as all of the other miracles he reports, is (John 20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Thus,

The evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection should lead us to believe in Him as Savior and Lord.

So let’s consider five evidences in John’s Gospel for Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.

1. The first evidence for Jesus’ resurrection: the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty.

John (20:1) reports that Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb “and saw the stone taken away from the tomb.” This was a large, round stone placed in a groove in front of the tomb to secure it from grave robbers. It would have taken several strong men to roll that stone out of the groove. The Jewish leaders feared that the disciples would come and steal Jesus’ body and claim that He was risen. So they went to Pilate and got a Roman guard to secure the tomb (Matt. 27:63-66). They set a seal on the stone and were there guarding the tomb when an angel came and rolled away the stone (Matt. 28:1-4)—not so that Jesus could get out, but so that the witnesses to the resurrection could get in to verify that the tomb was empty! The guards reported what had happened to the Jewish leaders, who gave them a large sum of money and told them to tell anyone who asked that the disciples came at night and stole Jesus’ body while the guards slept (Matt. 28:11-15).

There are several problems with that story. The Roman guards would have faced the death penalty if they had fallen asleep while on guard. Even if they had dozed off, the sound of a group of men moving the heavy stone would have awakened them. Besides, after the crucifixion, the disciples were too depressed and fearful to pull off a grave robbery. And even if they had stolen Jesus’ body or bribed the guards to take it away, they wouldn’t then have endured persecution and eventual martyrdom to proclaim what they knew to be a hoax.

In addition to the stone being rolled away, the tomb was empty. Mary Magdalene was not expecting the resurrection, but when she saw that the stone was rolled away, she assumed that somebody had taken Jesus’ body. She immediately ran to the disciples to report (John 20:2), “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” This caused Peter and John to run to the tomb to see for themselves. John outran Peter, but he hesitated to go into the tomb. He stooped and looked in, seeing the grave clothes. Typically impetuous Peter brushed past John and went in. Then John went into the tomb and they both confirmed that Jesus’ body was not there.

If the Jewish leaders knew where Jesus’ body was, they would have produced it the instant that the apostles began proclaiming the resurrection. So the stone rolled away and the empty tomb both bear witness to Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.

2. The second evidence for Jesus’ resurrection: the grave clothes.

John goes into more detail concerning the grave clothes than the other gospels do. In telling the story, John uses three different Greek words meaning “to see.” When John first arrived at the tomb, he stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in (John 20:5). He uses the common Greek word that suggests nothing more than sight. But when Peter got there, he entered the tomb and saw the linen wrappings (John 20:6). Here the Greek word has the nuance of looking carefully or examining something. We get our word theater from it. Audiences at a theater watch carefully so as not to miss any part of the play. Finally, John went in, saw, and believed (John 20:8). Here John uses a word that means to see with understanding.

What did Peter and John see? Jewish burials involved wrapping the corpse with linen strips and tucking spices into the folds to offset the stench of the corpse. The head was wrapped separately. Peter and John saw the linen wrappings with the face cloth rolled up by itself in an orderly manner, but Jesus’ body was gone. Grave robbers would not have taken the time to remove the grave clothes at the scene, but would have grabbed the body with the grave clothes and left. Or, if they had removed them, they would have left them scattered in a disorderly fashion. D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 637-638) observes, “The description is powerful and vivid, not the sort of thing that would have been dreamed up; and the fact that two men saw it (v. 8) makes their evidence admissible in a Jewish court (Dt. 19:15).”

When Jesus raised Lazarus, he was raised in his old body which was still subject to disease and death. So Lazarus couldn’t pass through the grave clothes, but had to be unbound by bystanders (John 11:44). But Jesus was raised with a resurrection body that is no longer subject to death. That new body is physical, yet could pass through the grave clothes, leaving them lying there intact. He later could pass through closed doors without opening them, as well as appear and disappear suddenly at will (John 20:19, 26; Luke 24:15, 31).

3. The third evidence for Jesus’ resurrection: His post-resurrection appearances.

Here I’m looking ahead to the rest of John’s narrative. He cites four post-resurrection appearances of Jesus: To Mary Magdalene (20:11-18); to the disciples except Thomas (20:19-23); to the disciples, including Thomas (20:24-31); and, to seven of the disciples, by the Sea of Galilee (21:1-25). Paul mentions several other appearances, including one to over 500 people at one time, many of whom were still alive when he wrote (1 Cor. 15:6-8). The varied circumstances of the appearances and the different personalities of the witnesses militate against hallucinations or visions. Even Thomas, who at first was skeptical, became convinced when he saw the risen Lord (John 20:27).

John Warwick Montgomery (History and Christianity [IVP], p. 19, cited by McDowell, ibid., p. 233) commented:

Note that when the disciples of Jesus proclaimed the resurrection, they did so as eyewitnesses and they did so while people were still alive who had had contact with the events they spoke of…. It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus.

A skeptic might counter that the reports of Jesus’ resurrection are all given by believers. Why didn’t Jesus appear to any unbelievers so that they would come to faith? Peter alludes to this when he preached to the Gentiles gathered in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:40-41): “God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.”

But the risen Savior did later reveal Himself to one militant unbeliever: Saul of Tarsus, later known as the apostle Paul. The only way to explain Paul’s dramatic conversion is that he saw the risen Lord Jesus. But he was shown unusual grace. Normally, God doesn’t reveal Himself to proud skeptics, especially when they have already rejected the light that He has given them. The Jewish leaders had rejected many witnesses to Christ (John 5:31-40), so He did not show Himself to them after His resurrection, except through the witness of the apostles, which they also rejected. They refused to come to Jesus to receive life, so they were given over to judgment. But for those willing to submit to Jesus as Lord, His post-resurrection appearances are a strong evidence of His resurrection.

4. The fourth evidence for Jesus’ resurrection: the changed lives of the witnesses.

John shows that none of the witnesses was expecting a resurrection. Mary Magdalene thought that someone had taken Jesus’ body (John 20:2, 15). Neither John nor Peter at first understood the Scripture that Jesus must rise again from the dead (John 20:9). All the disciples were fearful and confused. Thomas was depressed and doubting. But all were transformed into the bold witnesses of the Book of Acts because they became convinced that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. They were so convinced that the resurrection was true that many of them went on to die as martyrs.

John calls attention here (John 20:8) to his own change of belief when he saw the empty tomb and the grave clothes: “So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.” John and the other apostles obviously had already believed in Jesus, as evidenced by their following Him. So what did John here believe? He believed in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (see John 20:25, 27, 29). Dr. Carson (p. 638) points out that most of the early witnesses came to believe the resurrection after they saw Jesus alive from the dead, but John came to such faith before he saw Jesus in resurrected form.

Also, John 20:9 explains, “For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” The apostles’ understanding of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus’ resurrection came later. What Scripture was John referring to? Isaiah 53:10-12 speaks of the Messiah alive and seeing His offspring after He has been led like a sheep to the slaughter. Psalm 22 describes Christ’s death by crucifixion, but in verse 22 the mood shifts abruptly as He proclaims, “I will tell of Your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise You.” And in Psalm 16:10 Messiah proclaims, “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” On the Day of Pentecost, Peter cited that verse and explained that it could not refer to the author, David, who was still in his tomb. Rather, it spoke of Jesus, whom God raised from the dead (Acts 2:25-32).

Also, there is another subtle change in the lives of the witnesses alluded to in our text. John 20:1 mentions that Mary came to the tomb on the first day of the week (Sunday). Church history affirms that the early church gathered for worship on Sunday, not on the Jewish Sabbath (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). Why would they change an institution that had been in place for centuries? They did it to proclaim and celebrate the Lord’s resurrection from the dead.

Thus the stone rolled away and the empty tomb; the grave clothes; the post resurrection appearances; and the changed lives of the witnesses, are all evidence that Jesus is risen. Finally,

5. The fifth evidence for Jesus’ resurrection: His unique Person and amazing claims.

Study the Gospel accounts of who Jesus was, what He taught, His astounding claims, the miracles He performed, and the prophecies He fulfilled. On more than one occasion He predicted His own death and resurrection (Matt. 16:21; Luke 9:22; John 2:19-22; 16:16-20, 28). His encounter with doubting Thomas shows that His purpose was to bring Thomas into a place of full faith in His deity. When Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus did not rebuke or correct him for overstating things. Rather, Jesus commended Thomas’ correct perception and faith (John 20:27-29). A merely good teacher, especially a devout Jewish rabbi, would never accept such worship from a follower.

Everything in the Gospel accounts about Jesus’ person and teaching argues against His being a charlatan or lunatic. The only sensible option is that He is who He claimed to be: the eternal Son of God in human flesh, the Messiah of Israel. He offered Himself for our sins and God raised Him bodily from the dead. He wants those of us who have not seen Him to believe in Him (John 20:29).

The British New Testament scholar, B. F. Westcott (cited by Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter [Living Books], pp. 96-97) said, “Taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ.” You may wonder, “If the evidence is so convincing, why don’t more people believe it?” The answer is: people refuse to believe in Jesus’ resurrection because it has personal implications that they do not want to face. If Jesus is risen, then He is the rightful Lord of all and I must turn from my sin and live under His lordship. Because people don’t want to do that, they refuse to believe in Jesus in spite of the evidence.


Here are four concluding applications:

1. Our faith in the risen Savior is grounded on solid historical evidence: Believe it and proclaim it!

Faith in Christ is not a blind leap in the dark. It is based on the apostolic witness, which is to say, the eyewitness testimony of credible men. I’ve always been bothered by the line in the hymn, “He Lives”: “You ask me how I know He lives; He lives within my heart.” That is completely subjective. The reason I know He lives is that he predicted His resurrection and the apostles and many others saw Him after He arose.

Wilbur M. Smith concluded (Therefore Stand [Baker], p. 419, cited by McDowell, Evidence, p. 187): “If our Lord said, frequently, with great definiteness and detail, that after He went up to Jerusalem He would be put to death, but on the third day He would rise again from the grave, and this prediction came to pass, then it has always seemed to me that everything else that our Lord ever said must also be true.” When you tell people about Jesus, emphasize that they need to believe in Him because He truly is risen and He is coming again to judge the living and the dead.

2. Our faith in the risen Savior must include repentance and surrender to His lordship.

The demons believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, but such faith does them no good. Saving faith in the risen Savior means repenting from sin and bringing every area of life under His rightful lordship (Acts 17:30-31).

3. Be encouraged that the Lord does not cast us off when our faith is weak and our understanding is shallow, but He graciously leads us to deeper faith and understanding as we seek Him.

Mary did not yet expect the resurrection, but she loved the Lord and wanted to give Him a proper burial. Peter’s and John’s faith and understanding were very weak at this point, but the Lord graciously nurtured them along and later used them mightily. We serve a gracious and loving Savior who can sympathize with our weaknesses. Draw near to Him, especially when you’re confused or doubting (Heb. 4:15-16).

4. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the guarantee of our future bodily resurrection; so in your bodily weakness, hope in Him.

It is not news, especially to us who are getting up in years, that our bodies are subject to aging, sickness, and death. But the promise of Scripture is that since Jesus is risen, all who believe in Him will be raised and given new resurrection bodies that are not subject to sickness and death (1 Cor. 15:12-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 21:3-4).

The evangelist D. L. Moody told of a 15-year-old girl who was suddenly hit with an illness that left her paralyzed on one side and almost blind. As she lay in bed one day, she heard the family doctor say to her parents, “She has seen her best days, poor child.” But she was a believer and she quickly responded, “No, doctor, my best days are yet to come, when I shall see the King in His beauty.” (In James Boice, The Gospel of John [Zondervan], p. 1,400.) Her hope is your hope if your trust is in the risen Savior!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to affirm that our faith rests on the objectively true, historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection, not on subjective feelings?
  2. Why must genuine faith in Christ go beyond assent to the facts and include repentance and surrender to His lordship?
  3. Some describe faith as an irrational leap in the dark. Why is this erroneous and misleading?
  4. Go through the New Testament epistles and list as many practical ramifications of Christ’s resurrection that you can find (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:58; Col. 4:1-4; etc.).

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Resurrection

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