Across the world, the cross is the symbol used for Christianity, but if it were as easy to represent an empty tomb, that would have served much better. Christianity exists not because the Messiah died, but because the Messiah who died triumphed over death, just as he had promised. Christians linger often and long at the cross. But we should also gaze at the empty tomb and our hearts be lifted in amazement at the power of God at work on our behalf.
The Lord Jesus, in His famous words to Peter that speak of the power of the ministry of the gospel, said, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18 ESV). The church shares in the triumph of Christ. The gospel is the power of God that assaults the bastions of death and hell and overpowers them to release sinners out of death’s grip into the grace, forgiveness, and the eternal life granting arms of the God who saves.
The dark clouds of Golgotha loomed over the pleasant orchard of Gethsemane on the eve of what we call Good Friday. The hearts of the disciples were desolate even when they did not comprehend all that was ahead of them. Then came the arrest of their Lord, their fear and running away, the denials, the watching in horror as their Lord was falsely accused, ill-treated, denied, and sentenced to death by one who could not in fact find any fault with Him. The disciples followed the path to Golgotha at a distance, watched Him hang on the cross in seeming helplessness, heard perhaps the cry from the cross, and saw him pierced through to the heart by a Roman spear. Fear compounded followed (John 20:19). What will become of them? Then came Sunday. The women did not go to the tomb to meet the risen Lord. No, they also had not expected Him to have come back to life. They went out of love and loyalty to honor His dead body with a more decent burial, since the arrival of the Sabbath had prevented them from doing more ministrations to it when it was taken from the cross. So, they came laden with spices but found the tomb open with no corpse therein. And they thought that His body had been moved. But the testimony of the angels and the appearance of the risen Lord Himself re-oriented their understanding most dramatically. Jesus had triumphed over death. He had returned from the dead. They would come to understand and rejoice in that fact.
The resurrection of the Lord is the triumph not only over death but also over human skepticism concerning the reality of things which are not amenable to our limited senses. Is there life beyond the grave? Yes, Jesus not only raised the dead back to life during his public ministry, He Himself died and returned from the dead. The resurrection of the Messiah was not mere faith by the gullible, but historical fact validated by observation by those who were concerned about objective reality (1 Cor 15:4-8; 2 Pet 1:16).
The death of our Lord was also triumph over the powers of evil. Satan and the evil host have had human beings in their clutches through the fear of death from the beginning of their history. Death was the ultimate reality from the perspective of human existence. It ruled over us and all attempts to resist were futile. The longing for continued existence is etched in our psyches finding expression in the earliest humanity’s literature (the Gilgamesh epic), but the course of life leads inexorably to the dismal opposite. As Thomas Gray put it, even “paths of glory lead but to the grave!” None can evade death’s grip or overpower its hold. The grim reaper makes his appointments unbeknownst to us and keeps them.
The death of the God-man Jesus, however, undid that power of sin and Satan. One moment it appeared as if evil had triumphed. Justice had been fully perverted, righteousness overridden, wickedness given dominion when Christ had been crucified. But then, when the clouds lifted and the expanse cleared, it was a different reality that shone in the sky. Sin had been atoned for and the demands of justice met. A sinless pure One of infinite worth had rendered Himself an offering for sin and atoned for the guilt of a countless host of humanity granting it life, liberty, and everlasting company with the living and true God. Justice had been rendered and the voice of the accuser silenced. Mercy and truth had met together; righteousness and peace had kissed each other (Psalm 85:10). The Passion week had begun with the appearance of hopelessness and despair but concluded in glorious victory and triumph. When through His death the Savior canceled our debts by making them His own, by nailing the charges and accusations of God’s righteous law against us to His own cross, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Col 2:15). In the words of the hymn writer, Samuel W. Gandy,
By weakness and defeat,
He won a glorious crown,
Trod all our foes beneath His feet,
By being trodden down.
He Satan’s power laid low;
Made sin, He sin o’erthrew,
Bowed to the grave, destroyed it so,
And death, by dying, slew.
Here the mystery of the incarnation unfolds as a purposeful act of the merciful Creator to accomplish the redemption of humans lost and dead in sin. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:14-15).
It does not stop there or end there. The triumph of the crucified is not only His triumph over evil and the power of death, it is the impartation of life and power to those who are in Him. The Savior took our sin and guilt and nullified their power against us by rendering His life a sacrifice for our sake. But then He also takes our hands and lifts us up to share in His victory over sin and death. His triumph is to become our triumph. Christ’s resurrection is the model and the power behind the grace that transforms our lives from being under the dominion of sin to the experience of the glorious liberty to practice righteousness. There is to be an experience of resurrection in the victory over sin in our present life, as well as a future hope of glory by being changed into the likeness of our Savior (Phil 3:20-21; 1 Cor 15:51-57). He shares His victory with us through the impartation of the Holy Spirit in the present life and the future exercise of His power to raise us to glory. The Savior, through his death and resurrection, has already secured these for us. We are joined to Him. This means every believer now should, in a radical way, view Jesus’ death on the cross as his or her own death to sin (Gal 2:20). Our burial with Him, symbolized in baptism, is the death of the old person who was in bondage to sin. Just as the Lord rose again in triumph over death, we are raised to the power of living out the new life through our yielding ourselves to the will of God, led by the Holy Spirit through His word. Christ’s triumph through the cross on our behalf should translate into our triumph over sin in our daily life (Rom 6:4). May this become our reality as we walk with Him!