Dave updated his thoughts on this post in 2020, and preached a sermon on it. Hear it here!
I don’t know whether you went to an Easter service today, but if you did, you may have come across a book referred to as ‘John’s gospel’. It is read in many churches over the Easter period and no doubt will be heard many times more today. The author tells us that he wrote his book “[so] that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”. (John 20:20)
Now, if you were to give John a chance to tell his story to you (and I’d highly recommend you do), you would notice very quickly that John writes with a very clear aim. He only includes information that adds to his message – after all he states that there are things he left out to make it readable! (John 20:19)
Chapter 20 is the key moment in John’s book. It presents the familiar story of Jesus coming back from the dead. Something unexpected though seems to appear. John makes a big deal out some strips of the linen left in the tomb. For someone, as we’ve seen, who is trying to keep their story precise, surely that could have been omitted?
I’d like to show you that the linen is actually quite exciting. In fact, I want to show you that the gospel can be found in the linen. Intrigued? Well let’s get started…
1) It means Jesus was dead.
In the Easter story we have a tendency to downplay the burial of Jesus. There’s just something we do not like about a dead saviour. However, this is something of ‘first importance’ to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 – one of the first documents written after Jesus’ death. Both Paul and John argue that it’s so important in fact that everything hangs off it. After all, if Jesus wasn’t dead, then the resurrection counts for nothing. No price has been paid.
In John’s account, when Joseph and Nicodemus collected the body, there were a number of people to confirm that they were indeed removing a dead body rather than a living one from the cross. John captures that Pilate was surprised Jesus was dead, so asked a guard who confirmed it was so. He then explains how these two men, both on the Jewish council, took the body, prepared it and then wrapped it in the linen.
There was no doubt Jesus was dead. You don’t wrap living people in linen.
2) It means Jesus is now alive.
The next time we encounter the linen in John’s account is when Peter reaches the tomb. He knows something has happened to Jesus’ body because the linen has been removed and left. Why does John include this detail?
Well firstly it shows what has not happened.
If someone was to steal the body, why would they strip it naked first? In fact the linen is probably worth more than the body! That makes no sense.
It also shows this was no rush job. This was no ‘resuscitated Jesus’ quickly stripping down and escaping. The linen is neatly put down. Time and care was taken.
No, the logical conclusion John is pointing us to is that Jesus had removed the linen in his own time, under no pressure and left it there to find. He is alive.
3) It means his sacrifice was accepted.
So where else do we see linen like this occurring in the Bible, and what does that show us?
It comes up originally in the old testament, and is a massive clue to why this detail is here. Once a year, in the Jewish calendar, there was a day in the Jewish calendar called ‘the day of atonement’. On this day the priests would present offerings to God to atone (make peace) for the sins of the nation. This day caused fear among the priests since they were approaching a holy God, so therefore could be struck down for any wrong move (see Leviticus 10). In fact they had developed a system of ropes to pull each other out in case anything happened!
During one section of the ritual, the high priest would offer a blood offering. This (a shadow of a better sacrifice to come) allowed a holy God to dwell among an unholy people. When the high priest had finished offering the sacrifice, they were to remove the linen they were wearing and fold it up. This would signify to the people that the particular part of the sacrifice was complete and that it had been accepted (rather than rejected, which a dead priest at the end of rope would have shown vividly!)
So then in John 20, Jesus, in folding up the linen just like a priest in the Old Testament would, is showing us that the sacrifice is accepted. This is great news for us. In Jesus’ sacrifice, he was claiming to reconcile God and man permanently. Isn’t that amazing.
So, because of the linen detail in John, we can have confidence that Jesus’ sacrifice was accepted.
4) It means death is defeated.
One final point before we draw things together. We see burial linen earlier in John. In chapter 11, when Jesus raised Lazarus, Lazarus came out of the tomb with his linen. He was under no false allusion that he was now immortal. He would need his linen again.
Jesus, in leaving his linen behind, shows us that he is done with death. He has defeated death, and now we can join Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15:55) in asking ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
At this Easter time, many people will hear the story of Easter. Many people will pass it by as a story heard on a yearly basis. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection will be glossed over and ignored – let alone the little detail of the linen in John 20.
But the gospel is such great news, and it screams at us from the small details – Christ is alive, sin is paid for, the sacrifice is complete and accepted, the way is open to God through Jesus.
This is the good news that I believe. How about you?