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What was the Resurrection Like?

By Jeremy Cagle

For many people today, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a seemingly insignificant point of Christian doctrine.  They think it does not matter whether Jesus was raised from the dead or not, what matters is that He lived a good life.  But it should be pointed out that that is not the position of the Bible1 and that is not the position of Christian scholars down throughout history.  Consider the following quotations.

W. J. Sparrow-Simpson:

If the Resurrection is not historic fact, then the power of death remains unbroken . . . and accordingly believers are yet in their sins, precisely where they were before they heard of Jesus’ name.2

H. P. Liddon:

Faith in the resurrection is the very keystone of the arch of Christian faith, and, when it is removed, all must inevitably crumble into ruin.3

R. M’Cheyne Edgar:

Here is a teacher of religion and He calmly professes to stake His entire claims upon His ability, after having been done to death, to rise again from the grave.  We may safely assume that there never was, before or since, such a proposal made . . . He who was ready to stake everything on his ability to come back from the tomb stands before us as the most original of all teachers, one who shines in His own self-evidencing life!4

B. B. Warfield:

Christ Himself deliberately staked His whole claim to the credit of men upon His resurrection.  When asked for a sign He pointed to this sign as His single and sufficient credential.5

John Locke:

Our Savior’s resurrection . . . is truly of great importance in Christianity; so great that His being or not being the Messiah stands or falls with it: so that these two important articles are inseparable and in effect make one.  For since that time, believe one and you believe both; deny one of them, and you can believe neither.6

Philip Schaff:

The resurrection of Christ is therefore emphatically a test question upon which depends the truth or falsehood of the Christian religion.  It is either the greatest miracle or the greatest delusion which history records.7

Theadosus Harnack:

To me Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection.8

The resurrection is essential to Christianity.  In fact, the resurrection is Christianity.

So we should take some time to understand what it was like.  What do we mean when we say that Jesus rose from the dead?  How did He rise?  What did it look like?  Where did it happen?  Who saw it?  All these are important questions to ask and this article will answer them by looking at five aspects of the resurrection.

1. The Tomb Was New 

John 19:38-42 explains what happened to Jesus’ body after He was crucified.

After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission.  So he came and took away His body.  Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.  So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.

Now in that place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.  Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. 

Several ancient tombs exist in Israel today that are observable to the public.  A brief word picture of one of them is as follows:

– a cave-like entrance is built into the side of a hill

– a 4 foot tall, 1 ton stone is seen next to the entrance; it is round and is placed into a groove where it can be rolled back and forth to prevent grave robbers and wild animals from getting inside the tomb

– above and around the stone is nothing but solid rock; the only way into and out of the tomb is the one entrance

– once inside the tomb, the first room contains two slabs cut into the rock, one on each side of the doorway; these were used to lay a corpse on once it was brought into the tomb

– further into the tomb, the second room contains several 2 x 1 foot holes close to the ground called ossuaries where the bones were laid after the body had decomposed on the stone slab

– the bones would stay in the ossuaries indefinitely; thus the Jews could have “family tombs” even though the tombs themselves were not very large9

According to the description in the Gospels,10 Jesus must have been buried in a tomb like this one.

But the interesting thing about this is that it was extremely rare for someone in this time period to be buried in a new tomb.  Because they were cut out of solid rock, tombs like this one cost a lot of money to build and people typically shared that cost with members of their own family.  Many First Century Jews, rich and poor alike, were buried in tombs that had been used for centuries and were full of the bones of their ancestors.11  Yet John 19:41 says Jesus Christ was buried in “a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.”

This is even more interesting when you consider how Jesus died.  Crucified men were typically left on the cross to rot12 and they were buried in a very shameful manner.13  Crucifixion was a death of disgrace and embarrassment.  Yet Jesus was laid in a new tomb and John 19:39 says Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds worth of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  This would have cost Nicodemus a fortune and it would have treated Jesus’ body as if His were the body of a king.14

In all the history of the world, Jesus may have been the only man who was crucified and given this type of treatment afterwards.  He was put to death with wicked men but He was buried like a rich one.15  He was crucified between two criminals16 but He was placed in a brand new tomb.  And when He rose from the grave, His tomb really was empty.  No one had ever used it before.  There was no question as to whether He left the tomb because it was empty when His body was put into it.  His corpse was the first and the only one to rest there.

2. The Body Was Gone 

Mark 16:1-6 explains what happened next.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.  Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.  They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.  Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed.  And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified.  He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.”

After Jesus’ arrest, His disciples went into hiding for fear of the Jews.17  So the women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome came to anoint Jesus’ body with more spices18 and to pay their respects to the Lord.  When they arrived at the tomb, they noticed that the stone had been moved away and the entrance was open.  This would usually indicate robbery,19 but the women were naturally curious and wanted to see what had happened.  When they entered the tomb, they found that Jesus’ body was gone and that there was a young man sitting on the stone slab on the right hand side of the tomb.20  He told them that Jesus had resurrected.

Mark 16:8 gives the women’s response to all of this.

They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

That must have been an understatement.  The dead body of Jesus is missing and an angel has just spoken to them.  The physical and mental states of these women must have been in a very fragile condition at this point in the story.  And that is exactly what Mark records.  The three ladies leave the tomb trembling and afraid and “they said nothing to anyone.”

But the Apostles John and Peter later arrive and proceed to take a closer look inside the tomb.

3. The Graveclothes Were Undisturbed

John 20:1-9 tells us what they saw.

 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.  So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”21

So Peter and the other disciple22 went forth, and they were going to the tomb.  The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in.  And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.

So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.  For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.

The Apostle John gives us several helpful insights into the resurrection in this passage.  In verse 5, John saw strips of linen lying on the stone slab where Jesus’ body would have been.  In verse 6, Peter sees the same thing.  In verse 7, the burial cloth for Jesus’ head is left separate from the burial cloth for Jesus’ body.  And verse 8 goes on to say, “So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.”

What did John believe?  Did he believe that the body was stolen?  There was probably no sense in recording that because anyone would have believed that.

He believed that Jesus Christ had resurrected from the dead.23  He did not believe it because of the Scriptures, which verse 9 explains, “For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.”  John believed Jesus had resurrected because of what he saw.

What did he see?  What made him think that Jesus had resurrected?  The graveclothes.

Verse 7 says that the face-cloth was separate from the linen wrappings that would have held Jesus’ body.  Grave robbers would not have left things this way.  Grave robbers would not have taken the time to undress Jesus’ body and place the clothing exactly as it was when His corpse was in it.  They would have been in a hurry and they would have left a mess if they left anything at all.  Chances are they would have taken the linen along with the rest of the body.

The Apostle John knew this.  And because of that, he concluded that Jesus’ body was not stolen; it was resurrected.  Jesus passed from one state of existence into another and, when He did, He simply left the grave clothes as they were.  The clothes stayed on the slab where Jesus’ body was laid.  The head piece stayed at the head.  The body piece stayed where the body was.  The burial shroud stayed put as if a body was still in it because of all the spices and oils.  And when John saw things this way, he believed.

To quote John Stott at length:

Let us try to reconstruct the story.  John tells us (19:38-42) that while Joseph begged Pilate for the body of Jesus, Nicodemus ‘came bring a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.’  Then together they ‘took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.’  That is to say, as they wound the linen ‘bandages’ round His body, they sprinkled the powdered spices into the folds.  A separate cloth will have been used for His head.  They thus enswathed His body and head, leaving His face and neck bare, according to oriental custom.  They then laid the body on a stone slab which had been hewn out of the side of the cave-tomb.

Now supposing we had been present in the sepulcher when the resurrection of Jesus actually took place.  What should we have seen?  Should we have seen Jesus begin to move, and then yawn and stretch and get up?  No.  We do not believe that He returned to this life.  He did not recover from a swoon.  He died, and He rose again.  His was a resurrection, not a resuscitation.  We believe that He passed miraculously from death into an altogether new sphere of existence.  What then should we have seen, had we been there?  We should suddenly have noticed that the body disappeared.  It would have ‘vaporized,’ being transmuted into something new and different and wonderful.  It would have passed through the graveclothes, as it was later to pass through closed doors, leaving them untouched and almost undisturbed.  Almost but not quite.

For the body cloths, under the weight of 100 lbs. of spices, once the support of the body had been removed, would have subsided or collapsed, and would now be lying flat.  A gap would have appeared between the body cloths and the head napkin, where His face and neck had been.  And the napkin itself, because of the complicated criss-cross pattern of the bandages, might well have retained its concave shape, a crumpled turban, but with no head inside it.

A careful study of the text of John’s narrative suggests that it is just these three characteristics of the discarded graveclothes which he saw.  First, he saw the cloths ‘lying.’  The word is repeated twice, and the first time it is placed in an emphatic position in the Greek sentence.  We might translate, ‘He saw, as they were lying (or ‘collapsed’), the linen cloths.’ Next, the head napkin was ‘not . . . with the linen cloths but . . . in a place by itself.’  This is unlikely to mean it had been bundled up and tossed in a corner.  It lay still on the stone slab, but was separated from the body cloths by a noticeable space.  Third, this same napkin was ‘not lying . . . but wrapped together . . .’  This last word has been translated “twirled.” The word aptly describes the rounded shape the empty napkin still preserved.

It is not hard to imagine the site which greeted the eyes of the apostles when they reached the tomb: the stone slab, the collapsed graveclothes, the shell of the head-cloth and the gap between the two.  No wonder they ‘saw and believed.’  A glance at these graveclothes proved the reality, and indicated the nature of the resurrection.  They had been neither touched nor folded nor manipulate by any human being.  They were like a discarded [cocoon] from which the butterfly had emerged.24

And all of this leads us to a fourth aspect of the resurrection.

4. Jesus’ Body Was Transformed 

It is important to mention here that, when Jesus rose from the dead, He did not so much rise as He transformed.  His body transformed from an earthly body to a resurrected body.  He rose in the sense that He came back to life but He did not rise in the sense that He literally sat up.

He did not come back to life in His old earthly body; He came back to life in a new heavenly body.

Matthew 28:2 says that on Sunday morning after Jesus’ crucifixion, “A severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it.”  Why did the angel move the stone instead of Jesus?  What kept the Lord from rolling it away?  The answer: Nothing.  Jesus did not move the stone because Jesus did not need to.  He could have gotten out of the tomb whether the stone moved or not.
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples whenever He wanted to, regardless of the physical barriers.  Luke 24:30-37 says that after Jesus had finished visiting with two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus:

When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight.  They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”

And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.”  They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.

While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.”  But they were startled and frightened and thought they were seeing a spirit.

Jesus disappeared right in front of their eyes and Jesus reappeared right in front of their eyes.  John 20:19 gives us another example of this:

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Locked doors could not keep Jesus out of a room because His new body could come and go as it pleased.

Make no mistake about it, the stone was not moved so Jesus could get out.  The stone was moved so the disciples could get in.  Jesus did not need the stone moved because His new body was not bound by the limitations of the old one.  The stone could no more have stopped Jesus than a door or a wall.  His resurrected body was perfect and limitless.25

5. Jesus’ Body Was Recognizable

In Luke 24:30-37 and John 20:19, Jesus’ disciples recognized Him.  His new body was resembled the old one.  In fact, the old one was not thrown away; it was raised from the dead.  In John 20:27, it even says that the new resurrected body still contained some of the scars from Jesus’ earthly life.

Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.

A great example of someone noticing Jesus in His resurrected body is found in John 20:11-16.

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.  And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you seeking?”  Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”  She turned around and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher).

Although it took her a minute (because she thought He was dead), Mary could identify the risen Lord.  His body was still the same, although it was different.  It was recognizable.


It is vital to our Christian growth to understand what Jesus’ resurrection looked like.  In fact, Philippians 3:20-21 says:

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory.

In order to understand our future resurrection, we must understand Jesus’ past resurrection because He will transform our bodies to be like His.  We cannot know what will happen to us if we do not understand what has happened to Him.  It is my prayer that this article would help you to do that so that you can look forward to the day when

. . . we will not all sleep, but we will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.  But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”26



  1. See the Theological Question “Why the Resurrection?” []
  2. Quoted in Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences of the Christian
    (Campus Crusade for Christ, Inc., 1972) 188. []
  3. Quoted in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 188. []
  4. Quoted in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 189. []
  5. Quoted in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 189. []
  6. Quoted in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 189. []
  7. Quoted in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 189-190. []
  8. Quoted in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 187. []
  9. The source of these details s the author’s study trip to Israel with The Master’s Seminary IBEX program in the summer of 2009.  []
  10. Matt 27:57-60; Mk 15:46; Lk 23:50-53. []
  11. John D. Davis, Davis Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956) 694-695.  For Biblical examples of family tombs, see 2 Sam 2:32; 17:23; 21:14; 1 Kings 2:10; 2 Kings 9:28;
    2 Chron 21:20. []
  12. Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966).  Merrill Unger writes this about the duration of crucifixion, “If the nailing was the most painful mode in the first instance the other was more so in the end, for the sufferer was left to die of sheer exhaustion, and when simply bound with thongs, it might take days to accomplish the process; for usually a strong pin projected out of the central stem, on which the body of the sufferer rested.  Instances are on record of persons surviving [crucifixion] for nine days (229).” []
  13. Merrill C. Tenney, The Gospel of John in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981).  Tenney describes the shameful treatment that Jesus’ body would have endured if Joseph and Nicodemus had not stepped in. “Burial in the Middle East usually takes place within twenty-four hours after death.  In this case, the body of Jesus would probably have been flung into a common pit with the bodies of the two other victims, had not his friends intervened. Jesus had no estate of his own from which to pay for his burial, and his relatives were either too poor or too afraid of the authorities to assume responsibility for it (185).” []
  14. Colin G. Kruse, John in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. by Leon Morris (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003). “Seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes is a very large amount,
    sufficient for a royal burial” (374). []
  15. This is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 53:9. []
  16. Matt 27:38; Mk 15:27; Lk 23:33; Jn 19:18. []
  17. Matt 26:56; Mk 14:50; Jn 20:19. []
  18. Nicodemus had already anointed Jesus’ body with some spices (see Jn 19:39). []
  19. R. Alan Cole, Mark in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. by Leon Morris (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 330. []
  20. Matthew 28:2-7 says that the man was actually an angel. []
  21. John MacArthur, John 12-21 in The MacArthur new Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008) 368.  It may seem like a contradiction that the Apostle John records Mary Magdalene talking to Peter and Mark says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome fled from the tomb and did not say anything to anyone.  But, apparently, the women set out together (Mk 16:1) and Mary went on ahead of the others. She arrived at the tomb when it was still dark (Jn 20:1), saw that the stone had been rolled away and ran to tell Peter and John.  Mary the mother of James and Salome came afterwards, when the sun had already risen (Mk 16:2).  They saw that the stone had been moved, entered the tomb, had a brief conversation with an angel, and left terrified and afraid without saying anything to anyone.  “Thus Mary, running to find Peter and John, was not present at the tomb when the angels appeared to the others and announced Christ’s resurrection.  She then returned alone to the tomb, saw the angels, and met the risen Lord” (368). []
  22. Ancient authors did not give their own names when telling a story.  Nowhere in the Gospel of John does John call himself by name but he makes several references to himself using phrases like “the other disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  See Jn 13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26; 21:7, 20. []
  23. A. T. Robertson, The Fourth Gospel in Word Pictures in the New Testament, Volume V (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1960). “Peter saw more after he entered than John did in his first glance, but John saw into the meaning of it all better than Peter.  Peter had more sight, John more insight.  John was the first to believe that Jesus was risen from the tomb even before he saw him . . . John was evidently proud to be able to record this great moment when he believed without
    seeing in contrast to Thomas “(310). []
  24. Basic Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971 ed.) 52-54 []
  25. This does not mean that our resurrected bodies will be able to pass through matter.  For a discussion of this, please see the Theological Question, “What Will the Resurrection Be Like?” []
  26. 1 Cor 15:51-55. []