“6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.” John 20:6-7 ESV
Dear Church Family,
It’s confession time. I hate not knowing something (yes, it has happened). So, when someone approached me recently with an interpretation about the resurrection that I had never heard of, I just had to find out the truth. The detail is in John 20, where Peter goes into the tomb and sees the grave clothes of Jesus, including the “napkin” (KJV) that covered Jesus’ face. It was folded (or rolled) up in a place by itself.
Now, I won’t go into the interpretation that my friend had asked me about, which came from an anonymous internet source. It was, well, imaginative. Although I was not swayed by this particular interpretation, the fact remains that John 20 does offer what seems like an odd little detail about the covering around the face of Jesus in the tomb. Why this little detail?
This detail only occurs in the Gospel of John, so there’s a good chance something within John’s Gospel might suggest an answer. Sure enough, as I consulted a couple of my favorite commentaries, I found that both suggested a similar solution. Let’s start with the fact that the Gospel of John records two resurrections. The first is in John 11, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. I don’t think it is by accident that John 11 also includes some interesting details about Lazarus’ grave clothes. Specifically, when Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb, he was still wrapped up in the cloths in which he had been buried. What is more, there is specific mention of the cloth or “napkin” still wrapped around Lazarus’ head. The same word is used in John 11 and John 20 for this cloth.
The upshot of all of this is twofold. First, the story of Jesus’ resurrection offers a contrast with that of Lazarus. In the words of Andrew T. Lincoln: “Lazarus had to be freed in order to take up life again in this world. But Jesus’ own sovereignty over death is shown in the way he has left behind the wrappings associated with death.” Even at the Lazarus event, Jesus declared, “Unbind him and let him go” (John 11:44). The contrast between Lazarus and Jesus accentuates the fact that Jesus himself holds the power over death.
There is one other possible significance of the mention of the grave clothes. Twice in John 20 (verse 2 and 13), Mary Magdalene expresses the belief that “they” have taken the body of Jesus somewhere. In harmony with a theme in the Gospel of John that people miss spiritual truths, Mary and Peter both seem to completely miss the significance that the grave linens are still in the tomb. A grave robber, or anyone simply moving the body of Jesus, would have no need to remove the wrappings, much less carefully fold them and put them aside. Jesus’ body wasn’t stolen. He is risen indeed!