Jesus is taking the place of his friend, the underserving sinner. He is unleashing Lazarus from the grip of death by taking his place, right down to the details of his binding burial clothes. He did this for Lazarus, upon whom was the odor of death, and he did it for all those who, now marked by death, are freed from death through his amazing resurrection … What Jesus said to Lazarus, he says to all who would place their faith in him: “Sinner, come forth from your grave and let me take your place.”
Last Easter I was anticipating a trip to Israel when I wrote “Empty Grave Clothes.” It is something that will not leave my mind, especially since my pastor, Ted Hamilton, reminded me as he preached about the roaring anger of Jesus against death and the courageous decision to die himself so that Lazarus (and all who believe in the Christ) can live. So, faithful readers, will you please forgive a little repetition?
In Israel, I stood peering into what may well have been the very tomb of Jesus. In the gloom of the small room carved out of the rock, I could make out an empty ledge. What John and Peter saw on such a ledge was most unusual–grave clothes, but no corpse. The absence of Jesus’ body took everyone by surprise; but even more surprising were neatly-folded empty grave clothes: “the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself” (Jn. 20:7).
When I was little, I imagined Jesus, yawning himself awake, getting up, taking off his grave clothes and folding them neatly, before leaving the grave. I suppose my childhood picture might work with Luke’s account: “Peter…saw the linen cloths by themselves” (Lk. 24:12), with nobody in them. But grave clothes were not something you could take off and fold. As the Lazarus story shows, dead bodies were wrapped in tight bandages! We often think Jesus was clothed in a big white, one-piece garment, as the Shroud of Turin suggests. Matthew does tell us that “Joseph [of Arimathea] took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud” (Matt. 27:59-60, cp Mark 15:46 and Luke 23:53). But other biblical texts make things more complicated.
John tells us that the disciples observed the grave clothes (plural) lying there, undisturbed, in the place where the corpse of Jesus had been. It seems they saw the wrappings still in the form they had when wrapped around the body, including the head scarf, lying in the place where the head had been. So, if Jesus had been wearing a hat and suit, the suit would have stayed where the body had been, while the hat would have stayed where the head had been. Jesus didn’t take his grave clothes off: his body was raised right through them by an almighty source of power, by which he would also pass through walls (John 20:26).
The plural reference to linen cloths or strips, means they were bandages, just like in the case of Lazarus in ch.11, where the burial details are clearly described. There we read: “The man who had died [Lazarus] came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, [the exact term used for the “linen cloths” on Jesus in John 20] and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn. 11:44). The burial of Jesus was just like the burial of Lazarus. His head was bound with a separate head cloth and his arms and legs bound by bandages, all covered by a shroud.
When Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t need anyone to come “unwrap him” and “set him free,” as was the case with Lazarus. The bandages are part of this immense miracle the apostles saw. John saw the tightly-wrapped bandages lying there undisturbed except for the fact that the body of Jesus had passed right through them. This is clearly a statement that no one had stolen the body, because thieves would not take the time to remove bandages, and if they did, would leave a mess.
As my pastor, Ted Hamilton, showed last week, in preaching on John 11, there is a reason why the deaths of Lazarus and Jesus are so comparable. Jesus is taking the place of his friend, the underserving sinner. He is unleashing Lazarus from the grip of death by taking his place, right down to the details of his binding burial clothes. He did this for Lazarus, upon whom was the odor of death, and he did it for all those who, now marked by death, are freed from death through his amazing resurrection. Now we can live in newness of life through the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, and live with the hope of the future transformation of both our bodies and the dying physical universe, in a final demonstration of power even more amazing than the release of a corpse from its grave-bandages. What Jesus said to Lazarus, he says to all who would place their faith in him: “Sinner, come forth from your grave and let me take your place.”
Dr. Peter Jones is scholar in residence at Westminster Seminary California and associate pastor at New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido, Calif. He is director of truthXchange, a communications center aimed at equipping the Christian community to recognize and effectively respond to the rise of paganism. This article is used with permission.