An Encounter at the Empty Tomb

Of all the doctrines within God’s Word, there is none more vital to the peace and joy of the believer than the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul declared that “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The very success of Christ’s atoning death stands or falls upon this truth, because neither His perfect life nor His sufferings and death mean anything if He didn’t rise again from the dead. We are still in our sins, God is still angry with us, and the only thing that awaits us are the agonies of an eternal hell. But the Bible’s teaching is emphatically clear about this. The angels told the women at the tomb, “He is not here: for He is risen, as He said.”

As is true with every Biblical doctrine, simply believing it is not enough. The doctrines of the gospel must always be the basis for our experience, but it is the experience of those doctrines that is the principal thing. If all we ever possess is an understanding of the doctrine and a belief that it’s true, but never see the effects of God’s truth worked out in our lives, then all we possess is a dead orthodoxy. The apostle James put it this way, “Faith without works is dead.”

While we must believe in the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection, the great end of the doctrine is to know personally that He is risen, to know it by having fellowship and communion with the risen Christ and to have His life in you. As the hymn writer put it: “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.”

Perhaps there is no better exposition of this truth than what occurred that resurrection morning between Christ and Mary Magdalene. This passage in John 20 clearly affirms the doctrine of the Lord’s resurrection, but it also shows that truth worked out in the life of Mary. Before us is a very simple yet moving account of a believer who came to enjoy some very intimate, sweet communion with the risen Christ. There are four great things that arise from this very touching scene.

A Great Passion

First, take a look at Mary. There she stands outside the tomb weeping profusley. What’s the reason for all these tears? Christ asks, “Woman, why weepest thou?” In response, Mary utters those tender words, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” As you stand there and watch Mary weeping at the tomb, one thing is clear: she was passionate in her love for Christ. “They’ve taken away my Lord. He’s gone. And I’ll never see him again.” Only a deep love for Christ would move her to such sorrow. She had lost touch with the One she loved and now there is an emptiness in her heart that only Christ can fill.

When the Lord asks her whom she seeks, she replies, “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” Does that not remind you of the question asked by the Shulamite in Song of Solomon? “Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?” Mary, Mary! How you loved the Lord! If all you could get was the corpse of Christ, somehow you felt it would ease your sorrow! If you could just hold His lifeless body in your arms and speak to Him again, somehow the pain wouldn’t be so great.

Many years ago I saw this same deep love in my mother on the day of my father’s funeral. I watched her stand over his casket as she said her last goodbye. I watched her bend down and kiss his lifeless face and saw her tears fall upon his cold cheeks. Sorrow filled her heart because she didn’t want to say goodbye to the man she loved. She couldn’t bear to think of life without him.

Mary felt so deeply indebted to Christ for all the love that He had shown her! This is the kind of love for Jesus that we must ask the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts. One thing is for sure: Christ is worth loving, and He is worth missing when we’ve lost touch with Him. It is when our hearts grow cold in love toward the Savior that we get used to living without Him, without a sense of His presence. We get used to living without hearing Him speak to us through His Word. We get used to our cold, dead, empty lives. Pray for grace to love Him more!

A Great Perplexity

Notice that Christ did not immediately reveal Himself to Mary. He let her go on in her sorrow and tears for a while. Why did He do that? It certainly couldn’t be because He didn’t love her! Mark tells us that she was given the privilege of being the very first one to see the risen Christ! If the Lord Jesus loved Mary and if He really wanted her to be full of joy and not full of sorrow, why did He let her go on in her sorrow for a time?

That question brings us to the mysterious ways of Christ to deepen the spiritual lives of His people. In Matthew 15 we read the account of that broken-hearted Canaanite woman coming to the Lord and pleading with Him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. But Christ “answered her not a word.” He seemed to turn a deaf ear to her pitiful cries for help. Isn’t that strange?

In John 11 we read of how Jesus, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, “abode two days in the place where he was” just so that Lazarus would die. He knew full well the grief that would flood the hearts of Martha and Mary. He knew the pain that would rack the body of Lazarus as he suffered on his death bed. And yet He deliberately didn’t come to heal him. Why did He do that?

And now we come to Mary Magdalene weeping and the Lord doesn’t immediately do the very thing that would remove her sorrow of heart! What a great perplexity! How true are those words of William Cowper: “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform!”

But there are certain infallible and immutable truths that every believer must stand upon when he is completely perplexed about the way Christ is dealing with him.

1. Christ is too wise to make a mistake and too loving to cause a needless tear.

We only add to our confusion and sorrow of heart when we fail to remember this simple truth.

Christ never does anything without a specific purpose and plan for the good of His people, and that plan is always carried out with infinite wisdom and boundless love.
The Canaanite woman learned the all-important lesson that there are some things that Christ doesn’t give without perseverance in prayer. John tells us that it was because Christ loved Martha and Mary that he abode two days. They needed their minds lifted to a higher view of Christ and what really matters in life than what they had at present.

And here’s Mary seeking for Christ, but the Christ she was looking for would never be found. She was looking for a dead Christ instead of a living Christ! Like Martha and Mary, her heart was too bound up with the temporal instead of the eternal.

2. Christ had something better for Mary than what she was wanting.

Mary thought that if she had found the dead body of the Lord, it would be a good thing. But Mary wasn’t thinking right. So, the Lord took away something she thought would be a good thing and replaced it with something infinitely better. It’s better to find a living Christ than a dead Christ, is it not?

Sometimes the Lord takes away things from our lives, things that we think are good and often very precious to us. Like Mary, our hearts are filled with sorrow. But He always does this to give us something far better in its place. It was a hard thing to watch Lazarus die before their very eyes, but Martha and Mary received their brother back from the dead and saw a glorious display of the power of Christ that powerfully deepened their faith.

A Great Problem

Beating at the heart of Mary’s sorrow there was also a great problem. Beating at the heart of almost all of our troubles in this Christian life there is the same great problem: unbelief concerning the Person, the Work, and the Word of Christ.

Had Mary been expecting to see Christ, I believe she would have recognized him, but unbelief got in the way and hid the Lord from her eyes. She would not have been so overcome with sorrow if she believed what Christ had already said on numerous occasions, that after His death He would rise again. Those two men on the Emmaus road had the same problem. Because of their unbelief, they never dreamed that the One who started walking and talking with them was the risen Christ! So, Jesus said to them, “O fools and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken.”

Note this peculiarity of Mary’s unbelief: she looked for Christ in the wrong place. She looked into a grave for the living Christ. Oh, how she loved him! And when we are plagued with unbelief, we also look for Christ in places where he will never be found!

We may look for Christ in our feelings. We imagine that we have to be carried away with deep feelings of conviction and many tears before we can truly find the Savior. Or we imagine that we have to be ecstatic with joy before we’re convinced that He’s near us.

Yet—to take that scene from Elijah’s life—the Lord is not in the wind, and He’s not in the earthquake, and He’s not in the fire. He will be found in that still small voice, and He will be found by those who look for Him with a simple child-like faith in His Word.

A Great Promise

The promise is not so much written in words as it is in actions. As I look at this scene, I learn one simple yet thrilling truth: Christ will be found whenever He is truly sought. That is a great promise for you!

There was much wrong in the way that Mary went about seeking Christ. But underneath it all there was a heart that desperately wanted to find Him. And she found Him! She found Him because the Lord Jesus loves to be wanted. He loves to be sought for. He loves to be found.

Mary had turned away from this man who she thought was the gardener and was about to leave. It is then that Christ spoke just one word that changed everything: “Mary.” He wouldn’t let her leave until she had found Him whom her soul loved. She recognized that voice when she heard Him speak her name. She spun around with joy unspeakable and full of glory and cried out, “Rabboni!” Master!

This little scene at the garden tomb on the morning of His resurrection is Christ’s promise that if we seek Him, we will find Him. Let us go away from this passage with a renewed faith and joy in the risen Christ, the lover of our souls.

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By John Wagner

Rev. John Wagner is the former minister of Orlando FPC and Columbia FPC. He now attends Faith FPC in Greenville, SC.