Easter Sunday April 12, 2009


Witnesses of an Empty Tomb

Matthew 28:1-4,11-15; John 20:11; Luke 24:11-12; Luke 24:48; John 11:26

Scripture Readings

Jonah 2:1-10
Romans 8:31-39


199, 192(1-3, 6, 8), 206(1-5), 200

Editor’s Note: This sermon was preached on Easter Sunday at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Mankato, MN in 2008. At Immanuel, each of the pastors preaches part of the Easter sermon. For this reason, half of this week’s Ministry by Mail sermon is from a guest writer, Pastor Paul D. Nolting. Pastor Nolting is the senior pastor at Immanuel and also the son of the Ministry by Mail founder, Pastor Paul F. Nolting. ~ The first three parts of this week’s sermon, are presented as first-person accounts from the first witnesses of Jesus’ empty tomb. Note that Scripture does not provide the personal detail on the soldier’s life, but some information consistent with Roman army life was added to provide the first-person context. ~ The Ministry by Mail staff wishes you a very blessed Easter, celebrating the resurrection of our Savior which is our confidence and guarantee of forgiveness and eternal life.

The Soldiers

Matthew 28:1-4,11-15

Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men…Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.

My dear brothers and sisters—I am here today to tell you that these words of Jesus’ disciple, Matthew, are true. I was a witness to these events and am ashamed to say that I was part of the plot to cover up our Lord’s resurrection. I was a young soldier at the time in the Italian cohort of the seventh legion assigned to Jerusalem under the then Governor, Pontius Pilate. I was not a believer in our Lord and Savior at the time. I was but a raw youth from the countryside outside Rome. I had become a soldier so that I could see the far reaches of our empire and to secure its advancement.

I recall being summoned from our barracks in Jerusalem to the courtyard of Pontius Pilate’s palace on that day following the Jewish Passover. We were none too happy to be summoned out of our warm quarters where we had been playing cards and drinking our ration of wine, only to be informed that we were going to be placed on guard duty at a tomb. Adding to our frustration was the fact that we were to be placed under the authority of the Jewish chief priests and Pharisee friends. They were so arrogant and we resented their better-than-thou attitudes. But we had no choice in the matter. We followed them to a tomb outside the city, sealed it, and set up our guard-posts. The representatives of the chief priests and Pharisees seemed so anxious—concerned that someone would steal the body and claim that He had arisen. They kept complaining that such a deception would be worse than the deceptions apparently perpetrated by the man before he died. We soldiers, quite frankly, thought their concerns nonsense and cared little about the entire matter. We would stand guard and make sure no one stole the body…orders, after all, are orders!

The night proved uneventful. We took turns watching. It was during the late watch—I was one of those on guard at the time—that it happened. The eastern skies had just begun to grow faint with the distant light of the sun when a bright light appeared overhead. It began like a bright star, but quickly made a descent. I remember crying out to the others to draw their swords. The light became so bright that we could hardly bear to look, but what we saw will forever be imprinted upon my mind. It was an angelic creature that had descended. He broke the wax seal on the tombstone and rolled it back as if it were nothing. It would have taken more than one of our biggest men to move that stone. The angelic being then just sat on the stone and stared in our direction. I confess with some embarrassment that at that point I simply fainted away.

I do not know exactly how long I was unconscious. It could not have been long. I remember being shaken awake by one of the others. We gathered our weapons and approached the tomb with caution. Once inside we found the body was missing, although there were some grave-clothes there. I can testify that no man entered that tomb before the angel moved back the door. There was no way that the body could have been removed before the angel rolled back the stone. Had this man’s disciples come and taken the body while we were unconscious? We did not think so, for why would they leave the linens behind. We, however, could not be certain. We ran quickly back to the city and reported all these things to the chief priests at their palace.

It is at this point, however, that I must blush with shame, for I soon became part of a plot to cover up the truth of what I now know to be our Savior’s resurrection. We told the chief priests exactly what had happened…we did so in private. They did not want the news of an angelic being to spread. They then brought out the bags of gold and offered them to us, if only we would lie and say this man’s disciples had stolen the body while we slept. We objected initially—we had seen no one and, besides, sleeping while on duty was something that was severely punished. But the gold and the promises of intervention and protection by the chief priest, should Pontius Pilate hear of our supposed indiscretion, moved us to willing participation. To our shame we helped perpetuate what I now know was a lie.

But why am here in Jerusalem telling you this so many years after the fact? Not long ago, just shortly before my retirement from the army, I was assigned the task of guarding a prisoner in Rome. He was a Jew by the name of Paul—a disciple of Jesus. He told me about Jesus—the fact that He was the Son of God sent by His Father to pay for the sins of the world—including my own (cf. Philippians 1:12ff). He assured me that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead. He told me that God wanted me to believe this truth and be saved—me a wretched soldier of Rome, whose lies had worked against the very truth I now hold dear. When the Spirit led to place my faith in our Savior, I determined that I would return to Jerusalem and tell everyone the truth as the Lord gave me opportunity. And so you have it—I was a witness…one of the first…to the empty tomb. I can assure you that Jesus Christ did arise!

—Pastor Paul D. Nolting


John 20:11 (cf. Mark 16:1-6, 8-11; Luke 24:1-9; John 20:11-18)

Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb.

When I first met Jesus, I was demon possessed—with seven evil spirits! (Mark 16:9) You’ve heard the stories in the Bible of what demons did to those whom they possessed—victims had unusual strength (Mark 5:4), were moved to take off all their clothes and act crazily (Luke 8:27), were thrown into a fire (Matthew 17:14-15), and could even tell the future (Acts 16:16)! I won’t go into what the demon possession did to me because it’s not important. What is important is that Jesus set me free! He cleansed me from my demon possession and He has set me free from my sins. My name is Mary Magdalene.

From that time I followed Jesus—ministering to Him with some of the other women disciples, caring for His needs, helping whenever and however I could. Oh, how I loved Him!—not in the way the world talks about my love for Him as if it were something sinful. No, I loved Him as my Lord…my teacher of God’s Word…my Savior, not just from the demons that inhabited me, but from my sin!

I came with Jesus and His disciples as they went from Galilee to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. I and the other women who served Jesus watched Calvary from afar. Yes, I watched Jesus die. I saw Mary weeping at the cross. I saw the crowds mocking and ridiculing. I saw the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes—I saw the whole thing. I couldn’t hear everything that was said—I was at a distance and there was so much commotion—but I heard very clearly when Jesus cried out with a loud voice and declared, “It is finished!(John 19:30).

I and Mary, the Mother of James, sat across from the tomb when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body in new linen with a mixture of myrrh and aloes. The men used about 100 pounds of spices—they spared no cost—but they were up against the clock. They were hurrying to have Jesus buried before the Sabbath Day began at sunset, and they didn’t have much time. They did what they could.

Some of us women had in mind that we would come back to the tomb early on Sunday morning to add our spices and ointments together with our tears and love and thereby honor Jesus’ body in the tomb. But first, we would observe the Sabbath—the day of rest. It was the longest, saddest Sabbath Day I have ever experienced.

Sabbath ended with the sunrise of Sunday morning and just as soon as we could—it was still dark—I and the other women made our sad way to Jesus’ tomb with our spices and ointments. Mary, the Mother of James, was again with me as were Salome and Johanna and some of the other women.

We were so intent to go and anoint Jesus’ body, we never really thought about how we would get into the tomb—the big stone that the men had rolled in front of the grave would be too much for us to move. But then, as we approached the tomb, we saw that the stone was already rolled away! Oh, no! I was overcome with grief and surprise. Not only did my Lord die by crucifixion, but now someone came and robbed His grave!

I didn’t go any further—I couldn’t! I turned around and ran back to the city to tell Peter and John what had happened. Peter and John heard my story and took off running to the grave. I too returned and stood outside the tomb and just cried…and cried…and cried.

Through my tears I stooped down to look inside the tomb and I saw two messengers, one where Jesus’ head would have been and one where his feet would have been. They asked me why I was crying and I explained that someone had taken away my Lord and I didn’t know where they had put Him.

I turned around and saw the gardener standing behind me. He asked me why I was crying and for whom I was looking. I told him that if he had moved Jesus’ body wouldn’t he please tell me and then I would go and take the body and honor my Lord. It was then that the “gardener” called me by name. He said, “Mary.” In an instant I knew it wasn’t the gardener at all—it was Jesus! Shivers went down my spine, warmth flooded my body, tears of sorrow instantly stopped flowing and an overwhelming joy came upon me. Jesus was ALIVE! His tomb was empty, but His grave hadn’t been robbed…He had left it victoriously and was standing there with me—I was touching Him! I clung to His feet!

My plans that morning had been to honor my Lord by anointing His dead body. Instead I saw and touched my living Lord and spoke with Him. My plans were dashed, but Jesus had much greater plans with much greater blessing!

Jesus lives! Believe it! I saw Him! You who love the Lord like I do, rejoice! He died, but now He lives! He is my Lord and Savior…He is YOUR Lord and Savior! There is none other like Him.

—Pastor Wayne Eichstadt


Luke 24:11-12 (cf. John 20:1-10)

But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.

I am Peter, one of Jesus’ chosen apostles. I, too, can assure you that the tomb was indeed empty on that first Easter Sunday. I will never forget that day. It was unlike any other. I did not sleep well the night before. In fact, I spent almost the entire night on my knees and in tears, pleading that God would forgive my failure, for I had denied my Savior three times just three nights before.

It was early that morning, shortly after sunrise when Mary found us. I was in the midst of my morning prayers when she burst through the door. She was so distraught and burst into tears: “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb,” she cried, “We do not know where they have laid Him(John 20:2). John and I tried to get more information from her—who had taken His body…how did they know this…what time had it happened? When Mary could not provide the details, we simply left the house to see for ourselves.

John, being a good bit younger, was able to travel faster than I, but when he arrived at the tomb, he did not go inside. I was not about to be detained. When I arrived I rushed right past John and went into the tomb. There I saw the most curious of things. The long clothes that had been wrapped about Jesus’ body were still there, collapsed right where the body had been laid. Why would anyone have removed the clothes, if they were stealing the body? And how could they still be right there lying as if woven about the body? There across the tomb lay the head-cloth—not cast off as if someone were in a hurry, but rather, folded neatly, as if someone had intentionally wanted us to ask why?

We left the tomb, with as many if not more questions than when we arrived. But one thing we did know—the tomb was empty! Jesus was no longer there!

By the end of that first Easter Sunday, our questions had been answered. Jesus, our dear Lord, appeared to me personally that afternoon to answer my prayers for forgiveness in person. To be frank, I wondered whether it had been a vision, but when Jesus appeared that evening to us all, we knew that Jesus was now alive! My dear friends, I am a witness to an empty tomb!

—Pastor Paul D. Nolting


Luke 24:48; John 11:26 (cf. John 11:25; 1 Corinthians 15:51-55)

You are witnesses of these things.

Whoever lives and believes in Me, shall never die.

You have heard the witnesses’ stories: the soldier who saw the angel come and roll away the stone, but lost the opportunity to tell the truth. Mary whose heart overflowed with love for her Lord and was overjoyed to see Him alive; and Peter whose heart likewise overflowed with love for his Lord and rejoiced in the forgiveness of his sins. There were other witnesses who saw Jesus alive on Easter and throughout the forty days between Easter and Ascension. These were all witnesses of Jesus’ empty tomb. You too are witnesses of Jesus’ empty tomb. Obviously, neither you nor I were there to see Jesus’ empty tomb, but we are still witnesses.

Later on Easter evening, Jesus walked with two disciples on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The disciples were very sad. As Jesus walked up to them He asked why they were so sad. They explained to Jesus what had happened over the past few days and why they were so sad. Jesus then explained the Scriptures to them and showed them how the Old Testament had prophesied about all of these things and why it was necessary for the Christ to suffer in this way.

After Jesus revealed Himself to these disciples at supper, He disappeared, and the two disciples ran back to Jerusalem and found Jesus’ ten disciples (the twelve minus Judas and Thomas) behind locked doors and told them everything that had happened. Then Jesus appeared in the room and after assuring the disciples that He was not a ghost, “He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures(Luke 24:45). Jesus explained to the whole group why it was necessary to suffer and to die and that now repentance and remission of sins should be preached to all nations. Then Jesus said, “You are witnesses of these things.

You share in the disciples’ understanding. You have the eyewitness accounts in Scriptures, but more than that, these eye witness accounts are the inspired Word of God given by the Holy Spirit! You have the truth in the pages of the Bible. The Holy Spirit has worked in your heart to open your understanding so that you are able to comprehend the Scriptures. You know that the Old Testament prophecies were of Christ…that He fulfilled your salvation. You have been given the message of reconciliation—you too have the Gospel to share and thereby preach repentance and remission of sins. Therefore, you too are “witnesses of these things.

As a witness of Christ’s empty tomb you are able to confess Christ and all that He has done for you. Unlike the soldier, you can take advantage of every opportunity. Like Mary you can confess and proclaim the Lord whom you love, and like Peter you can declare the forgiveness of sins that is found in Christ Jesus, your Lord.

As witnesses of the empty tomb you are able to share the Gospel message with your words, but also in how you live. We are able to live as if we have a living Savior because we do. We are able to live confidently because our Jesus lives to guide us, guard us, provide for us, and bless us day by day. You testify to Jesus’ empty tomb by how you approach sickness, tragedy, and eventually, death. You are witnesses of the empty tomb as you demonstrate that you are living for a living Savior and no longer for your self and simply what pleases you.

There is another empty tomb of which you will all become witnesses. The day will come when you yourself will be raised from death and will be a joyful witness of your own empty tomb. Paul wrote the Corinthians, “Behold I tell you a mystery we shall not all sleep, but we shall 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ O Death where is your sting? O Grave, where is your victory?(1 Corinthians 15:51-55).

On the Last Day when Jesus returns to judge all people, He will raise up all the dead. The unbelievers will be raised to the sorrow and never-ending misery of eternal judgment. As a witness of Christ’s empty tomb and a child of God you will be raised in joy to live eternally with our Lord. Our bodies will be raised from whatever state of decay they are and will be raised perfected, glorified, and sinless. Those glorified and perfected bodies will be inseparably joined with the soul for eternity and stand as witnesses of the empty tomb—both yours and Christ’s because it is due to Christ’s resurrection that our own bodies will rise from death to eternal life. Jesus promised this when He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die(John 11:25-26).

The Old Testament believer, Job, had the firm confidence that he would stand with his Redeemer and be the witness of his own empty tomb. “I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another(Job 19:25-27). Job had the same confidence in a coming Savior that we have in the Savior who has come and accomplished all things for us. Every child of God can stand sure on the truth that our Redeemer lives and because He lives we will live also! (cf. John 14:19).

Thanks be to God who gives us the victory! That victory is found in the empty tomb…and you are all witnesses! Amen.

—Pastor Wayne Eichstadt

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