Leaving Death Behind

If someone has purchased tickets to a live event, and he is taking you along, there is a question which you will inevitably ask. “Where are our seats?” As thankful as you may be that you get to tag along, you want to know what sort of viewpoint you’ll have. If it’s a baseball game, sitting in the upper deck will be a different experience than sitting behind the plate. Furthermore, if you sit in the upper deck and your friend sits close to the catcher, you will have a slightly different story to tell on the ride home even though you were both watching the same game.
We have four different viewpoints of the life of Jesus. We call them Gospels. Because they’re all looking at the good news of Jesus’ life from a different vantage point, they tell the story in different ways. The Gospel of John provides us with a perspective on Jesus which is not usually found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. One of the unique details in the Fourth Gospel is found in John 20:7. Regarding the empty tomb, there is a “face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.”

Difficulties abound with this passage. For starters, there are translation difficulties. Is this thing a “napkin” (KJV), a “face cloth” (ESV, NASB), or a “handkerchief” (NKJV)? And has it been “folded” (ESV) or “rolled” (NASB)? Various traditions of interpretation arise based on which word translators choose. These are rare words in the Bible, and rare words are difficult to translate. They can be difficult to translate because, well, they’re rare. There are few places to compare the context of how the word is used.

But oftentimes, when a writer uses a rare word more than once, there is some sort of point being made. I like the word illusory. I like the word because it is just about impossible to say it without adding a bunch of extra letters (especially if you grew up in Alabama). If I wrote an essay and included the word illusory twice, there is a good chance that I intend for the reader to make some sort of connection between the two places where this rare word is found. Interestingly, the rare Greek word translated as face cloth is found one other time in the Gospel of John. It occurs in another resurrection story—the raising of Lazarus. “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:44).

Lazarus came out of the tomb, but he was still wearing the signs of death, including a cloth on his face. As the King James translates it, Lazarus still had on his “graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin.” Interestingly, when we get to the resurrection of Jesus at the end of John’s Gospel, there is a difference. When Peter and “the other disciple” go into the tomb they see the signs of death—the graveclothes and the face cloth—still in the tomb. Jesus left all signs of death in the tomb. Whereas Lazarus would die again, Jesus would forever live.

The body hasn’t been stolen because robbers would not have left a tomb nice and organized. There must be some other explanation. Here it is: Jesus is risen to never die again! And if we follow Jesus, we too can experience true life. Any other explanation is illusory.