When we consider distinctive Christian doctrines like the Trinity and justification by faith alone, the empty tomb is a similarly central truth that impacts both doctrine and practice. As we ponder these things during corporate worship and private devotions, we should marvel at the miracle of the resurrection. The following article will offer several reasons for doing just that.
First, it is important to see the connection between Christ’s resurrection and Sabbath worship. By rising on the first day of the week, Christ instituted the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath for His church in our New Covenant setting (2LCF 22.7–8). In this sense, every Sunday is Resurrection Sunday, and not just Easter Sunday as an annual observance in March or April. The empty tomb has an immediate impact on the church as a whole.
Second, the empty tomb should prompt us to think about who Christ is and what He did on our behalf. In the history of Christian theology, this has been called “the person and work of Christ.” In terms of His person or who He is, our confession summarizes the biblical testimony well when describing Christ as the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity who assumed true humanity upon Himself (2LCF 8.2). As the gospel records explain, Christ experienced human limitations. He had to grow up from childhood to adulthood (Luke 2:40–52). He travelled, hungered, thirsted, and got tired (John 4:5–7). When Isaiah 53:3 prophesied that He would be a “Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” we see Christ experience grief such as when He wept at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). As 1 Timothy 2:5 says: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” Without true humanity, Christ cannot be our covenant mediator or substitute. As the church father Gregory of Nazianzus said, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” In other words, if Christ did not assume true humanity, sinners are not saved. It is for this reason that Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s incarnation is intimately connected with Easter as a memorial of His death, burial, and resurrection.
In terms of His work or what He does, our confession uses the language of “active obedience” and “passive obedience” to describe this. On the one hand, “active obedience” speaks to how Christ perfectly obeys God’s law in contrast to man’s disobedience of that law. While Adam as the federal head of mankind was called to render “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” to God’s law, he failed on our behalf (2LCF 19.1–2). However, Christ gloriously succeeds where Adam and we fail. As our confession says, Christ “was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfil it” so that believers receive “the perfection of His obedience” that they need to be justified (2LCF 8.4; 19.6). On the other hand, “passive obedience” speaks to how Christ received punishment on our behalf for our sins. Christ’s self-sacrifice pays the penalty for our sin, satisfies divine justice in full, reconciles sinners to God, and purchases an “everlasting inheritance” for us (2LCF 8.4–5). Again, the empty tomb testifies to these things and assures us of our Saviour’s victory over death and sin on our behalf.
This brings us to the importance of a bodily death and resurrection. In the history of theology, some heretics have claimed that Christ only appeared to have a body or that His death and rising again were spiritual rather than physical. As Christians, we cannot accept this. Our confession says that Christ endured the “most grievous sorrows in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body” (2LCF 8.4). During the crucifixion, Christ actually experienced abandonment, loneliness, “bones [that] are out of joint,” and the piercing of His hands and feet described in Psalm 22. 1 Peter 3:19 summarizes this well when saying that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh.” Christ did not merely appear to die; He physically and really died.
Christ suffered extreme physical violence and soul torment. When Isaiah 53 uses language such as “smitten,” “afflicted,” “wounded,” “bruised,” “oppressed,” “led as a lamb to the slaughter” and “cut off,” the beating, scourging, mocking, and crucifying of our blessed Saviour fulfilled this to the last detail. When we sing hymns such as William Cowper’s “There Is a Fountain” with lyrics such as “There is fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins” and “Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power,” and when we “drink this cup” in remembrance of the “blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28), this is not hyperbole or poetry. These hymns and scriptures accurately reflect the physical aspect of Christ’s sufferings. Indeed, it is appropriate for the hymns of the faith to speak to the demonstration of God’s love for us in the death of His Son and to our justification through the Saviour’s blood that saves us from God’s wrath (Rom. 5:8–9).
We praise God that the story does not end there. While Christ did die physically, He also rose physically. As Psalm 16:10 promised, God did not “allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” Scripture does not offer the non-physical, spiritual resurrection that has been advocated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other past heretics. 1 Corinthians 15 teaches that Christ made multiple appearances after His resurrection to His apostles and to a group of over 500 brethren. In John 20:26–29 describes Christ as inviting Thomas to touch His hands and sides. Luke 24:42–43 describes Jesus as eating fish and a honeycomb. An angel or ghost could not properly claim or do this. As our confession says, “on the third day he arose from the dead with the same body in which he suffered” (2LCF 8.4).
Third, the physical resurrection of Christ fuels the Christian belief and hope in a future resurrection that is similarly physical. In 1 Corinthians 15:20–23, Paul explains that Christ is the “firstfruits” of a future “resurrection of the dead” of “those who are Christ’s at His coming.” In Titus 2:13 says, Christ’s “glorious appearing” is identified as a “blessed hope.” In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, believers are told to comfort each other in the knowledge that “God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” Indeed, Paul’s epic treatment of Christ’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 concludes with gratitude to “God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57b). In that context, Paul speaks of Christ’s conquest over both sin and death. These are glorious benefits and promises that should animate our gratitude to our great God.
Fourth, Christ’s physical resurrection is not negotiable within biblical orthodoxy. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19, denying the future resurrection of the dead or Christ’s resurrection negates the gospel and the Christian faith as a whole. If Christ did not rise, we are lying about God and are still in our sins. But since Christ did rise, the empty tomb should empower gospel preaching, strengthen our faith, and assure us of Christ’s truthfulness.
Fifth, the empty tomb sets the stage for Christ’s ascension and empowerment of the church to execute the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 1:7–11). In ascending back into heaven, He is exalted, given universal sovereignty, and intercedes on our behalf (1 Tim. 3:16; Eph. 1:19–22; Rom. 8:34). Indeed, the same power that raised Christ from the dead is active in the regeneration of sinners and the sanctification of saints to this day (Eph. 1:15–19a). In expanding on how Christ’s resurrection affects saints on a daily basis, Scripture states that we are united with the “likeness of His resurrection” and “alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:5–11). When our confession links the creation of “a new heart and a new spirit” to the “virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection” in 2LCF 13.1, we are indeed blessed with “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3). When 2LCF 11.4 says that Christ rose for our justification, this accurately reflects Romans 4:25b, and in that context, the following statement in Romans 5:1 is no less glorious when speaking of the justified sinner’s “peace with God through our Lord Jesus.” The resurrection is a key part of all these things.
In closing, we ought to rejoice in a Saviour that is alive, active, and efficacious on our behalf. Peter’s doxology is absolutely appropriate when he blesses the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). The empty tomb speaks to the biblical rationale for our Sabbath practice. It speaks to the person and work of Christ as reflected by historic Christian orthodoxy, our confession of faith, and the biblical witness. It speaks to our “blessed hope” in a future physical resurrection. It speaks to the benefits of the gospel that God graciously grants to sinners like us. The empty tomb is a most blessed thing within Christian doctrine. May we endeavor to contemplate its benefits and to live in light of them.
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