Empty Grave Faith God of the Unexpected

What’s So Special About an Empty Grave?

In the aftermath of the Easter weekend, I’m taking time to reflect on the significance of the resurrection. It’s something that we can easily overlook, or take for granted, because it’s such a familiar event – the linchpin of our Christian faith. I spent some time thinking about that first Resurrection Sunday, and how putting ourselves in the place of those who witnessed the empty tomb can deepen our faith today.

Read: John 20:1-10

When Jesus rose from the grave on Resurrection Sunday, He didn’t do so with a great fanfare. He didn’t wait for a crowd to be gathered to witness Him rolling away the stone and walking out of the tomb that had been meant to hold Him. No one watched Him fold the grave-clothes. We know that a bunch of Marys arrived at the tomb to find it empty, and that other disciples, including Peter, also visited the empty grave – but Jesus didn’t approach resurrection in the way we might have imagined He would.

I’m very sure that it was no accident that Jesus rose from the grave whilst it was still dark. Nothing that Jesus did in His life, His death or His resurrection was in any way accidental. This got me thinking about the significance of the way that Jesus approached resurrection. To me, it would have made sense to wait at least until the Marys arrived – perhaps even for a crowd to gather to watch this spectacular triumph over death. At least someone should have been there, surely? But God sometimes surprises us. This is the God who sleeps in a storm, after all. And then there’s that passage in 1 Kings 19:11-12 where God is not in the wind, or in the earthquake or in the fire – but in the whisper, instead. I think the resurrection has many parallels with this passage.

It’s easy to believe in a resurrected God who walks out of the grave in front of you. It’s not so easy to understand what’s going on when you turn up at a tomb to grieve and find the One that you’re mourning is missing. The resurrection, in the shape of the empty tomb, before Jesus appeared to the disciples in His nail-scarred resurrection body, tests the substance of our faith. Do we believe with our eyes or with our hearts? For the disciples who visited an empty tomb, who were already in despair, would the first thought be resurrection, or theft? What does it take to be able to find hope in an empty tomb?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that faith is the substance of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). A week after His resurrection Jesus told Thomas, who we know as Doubting Thomas, that it was great that he believed in the resurrection when he saw Jesus’s scars with his own eyes, but it was better for those who believed without seeing. Our faith doesn’t always make sense – not in seasons where we’re praying for breakthrough and nothing is happening. It’s hard to believe that God is in control when everything seems hopelessly out of control. Perhaps Thomas has been mislabeled. I’m not sure that he doubted, he just needed some proof to strengthen his faith. I think most people are like Thomas. We want to find hope in an empty tomb, but it isn’t always easy.

The empty tomb is a symbol of the sometimes incomprehensible nature of the God in whom we place our trust. It’s a reminder that whilst God can, and does, perform spectacular miracles, he also performs miracles that aren’t so easy to see close up. From a distance, the empty tomb makes sense, but to the disciples it wasn’t so clear. We’re saved by a God who is often found in unexpected places and in whispers. The empty tomb reminds us that just because we can’t see God at work, it doesn’t mean that He isn’t working unseen miracles right in front of us.

Jesus Seven Last Words from the Cross Good Friday Easter Meditation

Easter Meditation: Jesus’ Seven Last Words From the Cross

Easter is a time when we remember the sacrifice that Jesus gave that we might be extracted from the jaws of sin and death. Good Friday marks the moment that God used the devil's trap and turned it into a triumph as Jesus gave His life up as full payment for our sins. It's a poignant reminder that God can turn the most impossible situations around.

This Easter, let's meditate on Jesus' seven final "words" (or phrases) from the cross, and what they mean for our lives today. 

 
Seven "Stations" of Jesus' Last Words at Good Friday Supper, Christ the Light Church

1. Forgiveness

Luke 23:34

Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And the soldiers gambled for His clothes by throwing dice. 

This word invites us to open our eyes to the full extent of God’s forgiveness. 

Even as Jesus hung on the cross, in unimaginable agony, being mocked by those who watched, He extended grace and mercy in His plea to His Father to forgive. Those over whom His grace flowed did not deserve it - and neither do we, but we, too, are covered by His grace. Think about how Jesus must have felt as He hung on the cross; imagine for a moment the strength it must have taken to utter that plea to His Father whilst He was still being mocked. Forgiveness came at a real cost to Jesus - He paid the price for our sins so that we could be forgiven. But we are forgiven so that we can extend forgiveness to people who have hurt us. The forgiveness that we can extend will never cost us as much as our forgiven-ness cost Jesus. 

Good Friday Supper Station 1 Forgiveness

2. Salvation

Luke 23:43

And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This word invites us to remember the gift of salvation.

When Jesus was crucified, He hung on a cross between two thieves. Both thieves initially joined in the mocking of Jesus, but then one of them came to his senses and acknowledged his own sin and Jesus’ sinlessness. He asked Jesus to remember him - and in this simple acknowledgement both of his sin and Jesus’ lordship, he received the gift of salvation. He had done nothing to earn his salvation, but his willingness to ask for it, and receive it, allowed him to enter into eternal life. 

The picture of Jesus hanging between two thieves is a poignant image of salvation. Jesus’ crucifixion in the middle represents the door to eternal life, and the thieves on either side represent those who choose to accept the salvation Jesus died to give us, and those who reject Him. 

3: Relationship

John 19:26-27

When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.”

This word reminds us to strengthen our relationship with Him and with one another.

In the midst of Jesus’ agony on the cross, He took time to make sure that His mother was taken care of. Even as He suffered, His thoughts were focused on others, reminding us of the importance of relationship. The cross is often used to represent the two important types of relationship that we need to maintain in our lives. The vertical beam represents our relationship with God, which is strengthened through prayer and worship, and the horizontal beam represents our relationship with others. We need both types of relationship in order to be healthy. Our ability to strengthen our relationship with others flows out of our relationship with God - we receive from Him so that we can pour out for others in the way that Jesus modelled - even when we’re experiencing trials in our lives. 

Good Friday Easter Jesus Last Words Relationship Station 3

4: Abandonment

Matthew 27:46

At about three o’clock, Jesus called our with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”, which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

This word opens our eyes to the persistence of His presence.

In this desperate cry from the cross, Jesus vocalised the agony that came from His (temporary) separation from His Father’s presence. God turned His gaze away as Jesus bore the full weight of our sins. Thorns are associated with the consequences of sin - the crown of thorns that Jesus wore is symbolic of the way in which He experienced separation from God, which is the fundamental consequence of sin. 

Jesus experienced abandonment so that we could experience right relationship with God - He was abandoned so that we never have to feel alone. God’s presence is persistent in our lives because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. 

Good Friday Easter Jesus' Last Words Station 4 Abandonment

5: Distress

John 19:28-29

Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfil Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. 

This word invites us to open our eyes to the depths of His love.

How could Jesus, who told the woman at the well (John 4) that He was the living water, thirst? The answer lies in the understanding that everything that Jesus did on earth was to fulfil Scripture. He said that He was thirsty to fulfil what was written in Psalm 69:21 - “they offer me sour wine for my thirst”. It was the final messianic prophecy that He needed to fulfil. The job was done. Every detail that needed to be attended to had been fulfilled. The night before, Jesus had prayed in the garden of Gethsemane for “this cup” to be taken from Him, and His distress at the thought of what He would have to endure had caused Him to sweat blood. He bowed to His Father’s will and completed His mission, and in this final fulfilment we must ponder the depth of His love - love so deep that He would endure the cross and all that it entailed so that we could be free. 

6: Triumph

John 19:30

When Jesus had tasted [the wine] he said, “It is finished!” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

This word invites us to open our eyes to the victory of surrender.

In three short words, God’s triumph over sin and death is declared. The devil thought that he had won in the crucifixion of the Son of God, but the cross is a symbol of victory, not defeat. In His death, Jesus freed all those who choose to believe in Him from the chains of slavery to sin, and took away the devil’s power to condemn. The cross is the final resting place for all the things that the devil would have us feel guilty about. When the enemy whispers in our ear to tell us that we’re not good enough, that our sin is too great to be covered by grace, or to accuse us, we don’t have to listen. Our sin was nailed to the cross with Jesus, and the devil has no more nails. The cross was meant to be the enemy’s trap, but God’s turned it into a triumph. Jesus’ victory came in His surrender to death. Our victory comes from surrendering to Jesus’ lordship, knowing that God can turn our worst situations into a triumph. 

Good Friday Easter Jesus' Last Words Station 6 Triumph

7: Reunion

Luke 23:45-46

The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words, he breathed his last. 

This final word invites us to open our eyes to see the resurrected Son of God. 

The curtain, or veil, in the Temple was what separated the people from the most holy place in the Temple, which was where the presence of God could be found. Until Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, people could only speak to God through the Priests. The separation from God’s presence was a consequence of sin - and the tearing of the curtain in the Temple is symbolic of the way in which Jesus died to rip away the barrier of sin to allow us to experience the presence of God. The ripping of the veil means that God is accessible - we only have to seek Him and He will be found. Our vision, once blinded by sin, is clear, and we can see God at work in our lives. 

When Jesus died, He was reunited with His Father - but His death also means reunion for all who believe. We’re restored to right relationship with God, and reunited with our Father. 

All images taken at the Good Friday Supper at Christ the Light Church, York, UK
Good Friday Easter Jesus' Last Words Station 7 Reunion

The Garden of Gethsemane

Reading: Matthew 26:36-46

When we think of the last evening of Jesus’ life on earth, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Last Supper, where Jesus initiated the act of communion, the breaking of the bread and the taking of the wine, that is still celebrated today in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice.

But it is in the garden of Gethsemane, after the Last Supper, where we get the greatest glimpse of the emotional agony that Jesus was going through before ever He was arrested and taken to be beaten, flogged and crucified. More often than not, we concentrate on His physical suffering, as He died for our sins, but the garden of Gethsemane reminds us that whilst Jesus was fully God, He was also fully human, and He experienced the same emotional responses as any other man or woman.

Jesus told His disciples Peter, John and James that His heart was full of sorrow to the point of death. Have you ever felt that kind of sorrow and despair? If you have, if you are feeling it right now, rest in the knowledge that Jesus knows what it is to feel such deep levels of despair and anguish. He understands! He understands what it’s like to feel alone in despair, too, because although He told His disciples to watch and pray for Him, they couldn’t stay awake and three times He found them sleeping that night. He understands despair, sorrow, anguish and loneliness.

One astounding aspect of this passage, though, is the strength that Jesus shows. He understands what must happen even though the human aspect of Him is desperate for the cup of suffering (that is, His death) to be taken away from Him. He accepts the will of God, despite knowing what it will entail. Sometimes we face situations that we desperately wish could be taken away from us, but in those moments, when we are born again believers, we can share in that same strength that Jesus clung to in His despair in the garden of Gethsemane.

Prayer

Father God, thank you for the sacrifice of your Son. Thank you that in the service of communion, we remember the price that was paid for our sins. Help us to be as courageous in facing our problems as Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, and to remember that He understands our anguish and pain. Thank you that through His sacrifice, we are more than conquerors in the trials of life that we face.

Anointed at Bethany

Reading: Mark 14:3-9

Whilst the Jewish leaders were plotting to kill Jesus, two days before the Passover, Jesus was being prepared for His death in a very different way. The story of the woman with the alabaster jar of expensive perfume is a famous one, as Jesus said that it would be. (Mark 14:9)

It is often the case that we will complain about the waste of some expensive commodity, as the people at the house of Simon the leper did. They were upset because of the value of the perfume that they considered to have been wasted. They were focusing on what had been lost so much that they couldn’t see the value the the woman’s act had. Jesus pointed out that there will always be more opportunities to gain material goods or perform acts of charity, but there are some things which are far scarcer, and which should be valued more highly, such as Jesus Himself.

It’s easy to focus on the things that have a definite, concrete value, and we tend to try to protect or preserve those things. But actually, it is the things that are, effectively, priceless, that should be our focus – things like time spent with a sick friend, the precious milestones in our children’s development – their first smile, first tooth, first steps, first words – or even our quiet times spent in the company of God. The things that we can’t put a price tag on are the ones we should really be cherishing, not the things that can be easily replaced.

Prayer

Father God, thank you for reminding us that it is not the monetary value of things that truly gives them value. Thank you for the people that you bring into our lives and for the precious moments spent with them. Help us to remember always where our focus should be, and not to invest everything we have into things that can be easily replaced whilst neglecting those things that can’t.

Jesus and the Fig Tree

Reading: Mark 11:12-26

The story of the fig tree that Jesus cursed on His way from Bethany to Jerusalem, which withered and died right to the roots, is a familiar one. It demonstrates Jesus’ authority over all things – and the power of faith.

Jesus tells His disciples, who are astonished that the tree has died, that faith is the key to achieving those things that seem impossible. It is this passage that gives rise to the very familiar saying, “faith that can move mountains”. Perhaps the most important aspect of the story, however, is the conditions that Jesus places on the disciples – and subsequently, our – ability to move mountains. That is, the need to have absolute faith. To see miracles, the kind of things that only God can do for us if we ask with faith, there can be absolutely no room for doubts, not even small ones. James 1:6-8 reiterates this same message. If we ask God to move a particular mountain in our lives – for Jesus was speaking figuratively as well as literally – we have to ask with absolute certainty in our hearts and minds that He can and will do it for us. Indeed, we have to believe, with no doubts whatsoever, that our prayers have already been answered in the Spiritual realm, before we even ask them.

It is easy to let doubts creep in. Slipping doubts into our minds is what cause the fall of Adam and Eve, and satan has been deploying that particular trick ever since. Even the slightest doubts, however, hinder God’s ability to work in our lives.

Prayer

Father God, as we think of the way Jesus caused the fig tree to wither and die, help us to remove all doubts from our minds and embrace the truth that all things are possible if we have total faith in you. Thank you, Father God, that you delight so much in us that that you long for us to have such faith that you can answer our prayers before we can even form them in our minds. Thank you that nothing is impossible for you, and no mountain is too big for you to move if we ask in faith.

Righteous Anger – Jesus and the Money-Lenders

Reading: Mark 11:15-19

All four of the gospels tell of Jesus going into the temple and overturning the money-lenders and traders tables. Although the details differ in the synoptic (Matthew, Mark and Luke) gospels from the story John tells us in his gospel, there is still a commonality: they show Jesus displaying anger.

The Bible discourages certain kinds of anger – in particular the types of anger that will lead to bitterness and to sinful thoughts or behaviour – but it does not claim that anger in itself is sin. The anger that Jesus exhibited in the temple the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem is an example of what is known as “righteous anger”. His fury at the money lenders and the salesmen was justified, because not only were the people defying God’s law, but they had no shame about what they were doing. Jesus had every right to be angry and to behave as He did. What was happening in the temple was a blasphemy.

When I first became a Christian, I was afraid of feeling anger, because I thought that it was a sin. It took a long time for me to understand the difference between righteous, or justified, anger and the type of anger that can lead to sin. Understanding that there are certain circumstances when anger is understandable is an important lesson – as is remembering that we must not let even righteous anger lead us down pathways of sin.

Prayer

Father God, thank you that through Jesus’ display of righteous anger in the temple, we are able to see the difference between anger that is justified and anger that leads to sin. Help us, today, to be ever increasingly aware of the differences and help us to continue to walk our path of righteousness. Thank you, Father God, that when we do allow anger to lead us towards sin, that we can come repentant before you and be washed clean by your forgiveness once again. Today, Father God, we pray a blessing over those who might try to incite us into sinful anger. Father God, we choose to forgive them, as you also forgive us our sins.

Triumphal Entry

Reading: Matthew 21:1-11

When we read about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, it’s hard to imagine that less than a week later the same people who were welcoming Jesus as a King and praising His name would be crying out for His crucifixion. The reception that He received showed the respect that the people had for Him, so what changed over the course of just a few days? What made the people change their minds so quickly?

Whilst we cannot profess to know what went through the minds of the people of Jerusalem during that week, we can assume one explanation for their sudden change of heart: fear. Fear is a great motivator, and it is one of satan’s greatest weapons. The Jewish leaders, whilst under the rule of the Roman Emperor, still had considerable power and influence in Judea and over the Jewish people. It would have been a dangerous thing to oppose them. Furthermore, it is a much safer option in general to follow the crowd rather than stand against it. In some respects, people are a little like sheep. With the exception of natural leaders and rebels, many people are content to just go with the flow and follow the path of the majority.

That applies as much today as it did 2000 years ago. It is still hard to stand against a crowd and so much easier to follow the leaders. That is a danger point for Christians who are working and living in secular – and often anti-religious environments – and who would find it easier to go with the flow rather than stand firm in their faith. It is important, however, to stand firm, and to keep standing, which is why we have been given the armour of God as described by St Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18

Prayer

Today, Father God, as we consider the welcome that Jesus received when He entered Jerusalem, help us to stand firm in our faith and not be tempted to “follow the crowd” into sinful behaviour. Thank you that we have received, by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, a full set of armour that equips us to defend ourselves from the flaming arrows of the enemy. Father God, today, we pray a blessing over all those in our lives who are far from you and thank you that we are able to shine your light into their lives even if they do not acknowledge the source.

He is Risen!


As Easter Sunday approaches, and the supermarkets are full of brightly packaged, alluring chocolate eggs, Christians all around the world are – or should be – preparing to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Surprisingly, much more focus in some spheres of influence seems to be given to the horrific events of Good Friday, when it is the empty tomb on Easter Sunday that we should be firmly fixing our eyes upon. Are we, as Christians both young and old in our faith, running the risk of leaving Jesus hanging on the cross?

It is, in fact, an easy thing to do, to put our focus on the suffering and death that Jesus endured in order to pay the price for our sins, or to keep our gaze fixed on the cross as a constant reminder of that which we, by our faith in Him, have been saved from. But, in doing so, there is so much more we are missing out on! Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end, and neither is our acceptance of Him as our Lord and Saviour the end. Rather, our salvation is a beginning – of an amazing, exciting (and often turbulent) journey towards that which Jesus achieved on Easter Sunday when the power of the Almighty  resurrected Him from the dead into eternal life.

death-defeated-jesus-21290839-387-291If our focus is ever on the cross and on the suffering of Christ, then we are not grasping all that we have inherited through our intimate relationship with Him. To know that Jesus suffered and endured great pain, degradation and humiliation is a great comfort when we ourselves are enduring trials of our own. To know that He loved us enough to take upon Himself the wrath of God, that we are deserving of for our sins, is a wonderful blessing. But by far the greatest knowledge any Christian can hold in their hearts is the knowledge that Jesus has conquered the grave, defeated death, and, in doing so, given us who are in relationship with Him, that same promise of eternal life that He Himself embraced on a Sunday morning more than 2000 years ago.

When we look beyond the cross, when we look beyond the agony etched on the beautiful face of our Lord, when we look beyond that desperate cry of a man separated from His eternal Father, and we see that empty tomb, with the stone rolled away by the sheer force of the resurrection life of Christ, what we are seeing is freedom. What we are seeing is chains of bondage being broken. What we are seeing is walls crumbling and captives being set free, cells bursting open and prisoners released. But if we never look that far, if we never move from the foot of the cross, staring up at the suffering servant bearing the terrible burden and weight of our sins, then we are not living out the freedom that Jesus wants us to embrace. Unless we allow Jesus to climb down from the cross and then allow ourselves to see the magnificence of His resurrection, we risk binding ourselves with chains of guilt to the cross.

empty-tombMatthew 28:2-3 tells of the mighty power that rolled away the stone from Jesus’ tomb: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from Heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.” That power to roll away the stones in our lives that stop us walking in resurrection life has already been given to us, and we are washed as white as snow by the events of the crucifixion and the resurrection.

he-is-risen-2Jesus came to set us free, and whilst the cross was a crucial part of that process, we cannot linger too long at the foot of the cross. Death was a necessity for Jesus, but only because He had to die in order to be raised to life again. In Christ, when we are born again, our lives are broken, bloodied and crucified on the cross not that we stay there, washed in blood, but that we climb down from the cross, roll away the stone of oppression, break the chains of our captivity and walk in the freedom and radiance of resurrection life.