THEY HAVE TAKEN AWAY THE LORD
Notes of a sermon by Rev. Malcolm Gillies of Stornoway on John 20.1-9. First printed in the Free Presbyterian Magazine, February 1942
“And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.”Â—John 20.7-9.
I would like to mention four things from these words:Â—1. Mary Magdalene’s statementÂ—”They have taken the Lord out of the sepulchre.” 2. The effect Mary Magdalene’s statement had on the disciples. We find that they could not remain where they wereÂ— they had to go to the sepulchre. 3. The sepulchre itself disproved Mary Magdalene’s statement. 4. The blessing the disciples received in connection with the disproof of Mary Magdalene’s statement. We are told when they saw the sepulchre and examined the state in which it was left, that they believed, though as yet they did not understand the Scripture that He must rise again from the dead.
1. Let us notice firstly Mary Magdalene’s statement:
Mary Magdalene was torn with anguish, as were all the disciples of Jesus. She cannot get away from the agony of the crucifixion. She seems still to hear the sound of the hammer putting the nails into His hands and feet. The awful shame and indignity to which the Master had been subjected is still vividly before her, and her mind is filled with the cruel acts of men who had put her Lord to death.
She went to the sepulchre early in the morning on the first day of the week, and finding the grave empty, her mind went immediately to the men who had crucified her Lord, and she at once concluded that they had taken away His body to add more indignity to Him in death, their malice not satisfied with filling Him with shame and reproach while He still lived. Like ourselves oftentimes, Mary Magdalene was in darkness because she did not realise the
determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God in the death and burial of Jesus. All she saw in these overwhelming events was the work of men, and her mind was dark as to the purpose, the gracious purpose that God had in ordaining the crucifixion of Christ. She had no idea that the death of Christ was an absolute necessity, if the Church were to be saved. To her and oftentimes to us, the first causes are hidden. We are forever harping at second causes, and that because we are blind and dark as to the holy ends the Lord has in view in leading us in ways so altogether contrary to what we think reasonable and profitable. Mary Magdalene was like unto us; hence her statement. She runs to the disciples and she says to them: “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre.” She could not think of any other explanation. “Here is something else they have done. These wicked Jews have snatched away our Lord’s body in order to dishonour it in some manner, perhaps to cast it into the same pit into which the bodies of the thieves were cast. They would not leave even His body alone, but have taken it away to heap more and more indignity upon it.” This was the state of her mindÂ—to persist in her assertion: “They have taken away my Lord.”
Godly Mr. Macdonald, who was in Shieldaig, in preaching on one occasion from these words, said that there were three places out of which they could not take away Mary Magdalene’s Lord. Firstly, they could not take Him out of His place in the Everlasting Covenant. Secondly, they could not take Him out of the Scriptures. Thirdly, they could not take Him out of the yearning desire in Mary’s heart after nearness and fellowship with Christ. Wherever the Holy Ghost has created a desire after Christ, there is no power in earth or hell that can take Christ out of that desire. Mary Magdalene adds: “I know not where they have laid Him.” She was quite willing and ready, once she knew where He was, to make every endeavour, to go to any expense, if only she could show her love and reverence in honouring the body of her dear Master. Others might revile and dishonour Him, but she would heap every honour upon Christ. It is the same to this day; wherever grace reigns, that person yearns to glorify the Saviour, when others are heaping dishonour upon Him.
2. The effect that Mary Magdalene’s statement had on the disciples. It was enough for Peter and John that Mary would come and mention the Lord and the sepulchre. Though her statement would not stand proof, the mere mentioning of Christ and His grave was enough to kindle grace into living exercise in their hearts. They could not sit where they were any longer. Dear friends. If the love of Christ ruled in our hearts, they would respond to the name of Jesus wherever we would hear it. A God-fearing woman from the Highlands had her lot cast for a time in one of our large cities in the South. Though she had hardly a word of English, she attended the
English services on the Lord’s Day. When asked why she attended these services she replied: “When the minister will mention ‘Christ’ I understand that, and my soul feeds on what that word implies.” This much did Mary for Peter and John. She was the means of stirring up the gift of God that was in them so that nothing would do but that they also must go to the sepulchre.
We are told that they ran both together, but John was a much younger man than Peter and his youthfulness would give him the advantage of out-running his fellow disciple. There is something most beautiful in youth, when found in the ways of God. You find the Holy Scriptures commending the fear of God to the young. “They that seek Me early shall find Me.” The thought of most is that when they become old and are finished with the joys of this world, it will be time enough then to turn to the Bible and seek the salvation they admit they need, but the mind of the Holy Spirit in the Truth is that the Lord should be sought in youth. It is recorded about James Renwick, the last martyr in Scotland to die for Christ’s Crown and Covenant, that his mother found him when only two years old, on his knees praying to God. One of the Gaelic bards has said that he would not give a month of his youthful days for a whole year of old age in the matters pertaining to his soul’s salvation, and to Christ and the Gospel. Youthfulness and love to the Saviour enabled John to out-run Peter. I do not suppose that he had more love to Christ than Peter had, but he is called the disciple whom Jesus loved and did lean on His breast at supper and to whom the Lord confided secret things. The great love wherewith Jesus loved John drew John quickly to the sepulchre.
But there is another solemn thought concerning John out-running Peter. Peter was carrying a terrible burden that greatly hindered him. He had the awful burden of a three-fold denial that he ever knew the LordÂ—a denial that he had confirmed with oaths and curses. Was ever burden heavier than Peter’s? Do you wonder that the more youthful, loving John did out-run him? Peter had a burden heavier than the mountains and hills on his back, and if His Lord’s intercessory prayer had not been offered and received for him, he would never have reached the sepulchre. You may be like Peter this day. You have mountains of sins against love and light and privilege weighing you down. Satan and your own conscience may be telling you that Christ is for others, not for you who have sinned away every right to hope in salvation. Peter came in spite of his awful sin, and He found the Lord and drank deeply of His mercy and loving kindness. You come to the Saviour with your burden of guilt and do not be afraid to confess all your vileness and sin to Him. There is none at all comparable to Christ. He is fairer than the sons of men. That woman who came to Christ never said one word. Neither had
she a written statement when she came. She went behind Him and poured out her eyes which were as the “fish pools of Heshbon,” upon His holy feet, the feet which had carried to her the hope of a reconciled God freely pardoning all her sins, through the merits of Him whose words were words of eternal life to her soul. The Saviour understood all her case. Her confession and her forsaking of sin were perfectly clear to Him, whatever misgivings she may have had about her salvation, and He spoke to her words that set her soul at rest: “Thy sins are forgiven thee, go in peace.” Let us also come to Christ, burdened with our sin and guilt, and we will find Him, in Him finding us.
3. The sepulchre itself disproved Mary Magdalene’s statement.
I want to say something about the manner in which Mary Magdalene’s statement was disproved. When they came to the sepulchre, John looked in, but Simon Peter, when he came, went right into the sepulchre and examined minutely everything that was within. In this we see the impulsive nature of Peter as distinguished from the contemplative nature of John. John also went in after him and they both saw the condition in which the sepulchre was left. First of all, they saw the linen clothes neatly folded and we have to understand that there were many yards of this linen cloth. We do not know how many, perhaps twenty yards of linen cloth, because the Lord’s body was covered over with a hundred pounds weight of ointments, myrrh and frankincense. Dr. Moody Stuart was of the opinion that Song 6.2, had its fulfilment in the manner in which the Saviour was buried: “My Beloved is gone down into His garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens and to gather lilies.” When Peter and John went into the sepulchre they found the linen clothes neatly folded as if newly ironed, without a crease out of place, and lying in a place by themselves. The napkin (Gk. sudarion) sweat cloth, another piece of linen which was wound round about the head of the dead had its own separate place. It would therefore convince Peter and John, with little deliberation that Mary’s statement about the Lord’s body being stolen from the sepulchre could not stand. For a certainty, this was not the work of grave-disturbers, thieves or robbers. When a burglar goes into a house to rob it of its valuables, he never risks taking time to put everything in order. He will not fold up garments and other clothes that were disturbed, but as soon as he gets what is valuable to him, he rushes off, leaving everything in utter disorder. Peter and John would certainly decide that this was not the work of body’-snatchers. If the Jews, whose hatred and malice had been so amply demonstrated, had taken away the Lord’s body, they would have thrown the linen clothes hurriedly aside, or they would have taken away the body wrapped up just as it lay in the sepulchre. It was quite evident to them that Mary Magdalene was
wrong in her conclusion. Friends, there was nothing that Mary Magdalene longed for more than that her Lord would be restored to her in resurrection power. I believe that Mary had nothing in this world but Christ. Peter and John had their homes and friends; the other disciples had their friends; the world was quite empty to Mary apart from the presence of Christ in it. When the Saviour was taken from her, she had nothing at all. It is the way of this world to exercise its power in every heart, and in the measure in which the world rules in the heart, in that measure, the love of Christ will be wanting. The Word says: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world,” and there is good reason for that. Mary lost her all when she lost Christ, and we find her at the sepulchre where He was last seen, and she remained there after all the others had gone back to their homes. The Saviour’s resurrection alone could meet her yearning desire, but till it is the very last thing she could receive and entertain, the very supposition of His rising from the dead is impossible to her, in her harassed and tempted state of mind. You find her harping away on this: “They have taken away my Lord.” The same thing is true with many of the Lord’s people in all ages. Nothing means so much to them as to believe that they have truly believed in Christ and that they are therefore saved for eternity, yet it is their great problem, something that causes them their most anxious thoughts. In this connection, they are all their lifetime subject to bondage. Still, even this difficulty, so real to them, evidences the value that these place in their personal salvation, and Mary Magdalene’s agony and distress illustrates this point. Did she not see the spear going through His heart? It was impossible for her to believe in the resurrection, but one word from the Lord’s mouth was sufficient:
“Mary,” He said. “Master,” she said. Dear friends! All her difficulties vanished. We have the resurrection of Christ proved to us, and that in spite of the incredulity of the disciples. He had to upbraid them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they would not believe them who said He was alive.
The state of the sepulchre proved that Mary’s statement did not solve the difficulty. When the Lord left the tomb, He did not take the grave clothes with Him. The widow’s son in the village of Nain was restored alive to his mother with his grave clothes upon him. We also read about Lazarus, when the Saviour said: “Lazarus, come forth,” he came forth bound hands and feet with the grave clothes. He just seemed to say: “My friends, my Master has called me for a little, but I will have to go back, and will need the grave clothes again.” The widow’s son also needed the grave clothes again, after a few years, but the Saviour left His grave clothes behind Him. In there lies a message to the Church that Christ was finished with death and that forever. He would never need grave clothes again,
and He would never die again. This was emphasised to the disciples and to the Church in all ages by His resurrection. Further, Christ’s death and resurrection fulfil Hosea 13.14: “I will ransom them from he power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O! death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes.” Perhaps the clearest type of the Saviour in this connection was Jonah. Nothing seemed more certain when the great sea monster enclosed Jonah, but that it would be his destruction, but when it had to vomit out Jonah upon the dry land, in all probability, that action meant the death of the whale. In an infinitely more glorious sense, when death and the grave took our Lord Jesus Christ into their insatiable maw, it meant the destruction and abolishing of death and the bringing of life and immortality to light through the Gospel.
Then again, you will notice this, that the linen clothes were folded in one place, and the napkin folded in another place. We read that, in His agony, the Lord sweated in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was no ordinary sweat, but great drops of blood. The folded sweat cloth was a witness which demonstrates the glorious truth that the curse, involving the suffering and agony of the Saviour was finished. The Lord suffered for His people. He had the agony and sweat for them. He endured it all, and now the evidence of that agony is folded up, and laid aside, re-echoing His cry from the Cross:
‘It is finished.” Here is the evidence of His love to the church.
But then, friends, there was another thing which disproved Mary Magdalene’s statement. The perfect order showed that the Person who had been in the sepulchre had not left it hastily. All went to .how that He was Master of the situation and a glorious Victor over death and the grave. We hear much in these days about fleeing armies. The army which pursues and gathers up the spoil is undoubtedly the victor. That was the way with the sepulchre. It was he scene of the victory of Jesus. Travelling in the greatness of His strength. He, Samson-like, burst the bands with which the Last Enemy had bound him. He was in no hurry. He was not fleeing from His foes. He had destroyed them, and He therefore leaves the .sepulchre in perfect order.
There is another thing to notice about the sepulchre. You see the linen clothes were folded and put in their own place. You will get a letter from Glasgow or Edinburgh, from some friends saying that they hope to be with you on a particular night, and you are so pleased. What do you do? Among other things, you prepare a bed and fill a hot-water bottle to warm it well. This is what Jesus did with the sepulchre, He was to receive His beloved people. He turned the
sepulchre into the most comfortable bedroom that was ever heard of in the world. You were never able to make your friends so comfortable in your bedroom at home, as Christ makes His people in the grave: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.” This is a beautiful answer! A babe never rested more sweetly, more comfortably, than the body of the believer rests in the grave until the morning of the Resurrection. They will not feel it a minute! They will rise, leaving all their mortality and infirmity behind them, with spiritual bodies made like unto Christ’s glorious body. He left the sepulchre a warm bedroom for all believing people.
4. The blessing the disciples received in going to the sepulchre.
There is reason to conclude that it dawned more and more on the minds of these two disciples that their Lord had really risen, though it required His personal appearing before they were fully convinced. This confirmed their faith. I do not say that the full force of the glory of the resurrection had yet burst upon them, but the Word says that they saw and believed. But why was their faith weak? It was because they understood not the Scriptures that He would rise again from the dead. How much we lose by not understanding the Scriptures! How can our faith be strengthened but by the Scriptures? How can we exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ but just as our understandings are opened to understand the Scriptures of Truth which speak about Him. We should be often at the Scriptures and should be praying over them, asking the Lord to give us to understand them, so that our faith may be strong in the Lord, and that our hope in Him might be the very anchor of the soul, entering into that which is within the vail. It is evident from this that a blessing will be the portion of those who are found in the path of duty, seeking knowledge and fellowship to be had alone in Christ, however dark and perplexing matters may be to them. The Lord will receive weak faith and increase it by making plain the things concerning Himself, however gradual may be that process. Even when Jesus met the whole company of believers in Galilee and was worshipped by them, some doubted. How altogether impossible it is for us to receive the full message of God’s grace and salvation in Christ, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit so witnessing in our hearts that unbelief and doubting are trodden under foot. It is much easier for us to doubt the Master than to believe Him, but thanks be to God that the exceeding greatness of His power towards them that believe will give them ultimately the full victory over unbelief and every other foe. The disciples were given faith to carry on and preach the fulness of the Gospel of Christ in His death and
resurrection. In our day, we have this privilege that the resurrection of Christ is set before us so that there is no room for doubt; that as sure as He died, He rose again and sits at the right hand of the Majesty in the Heavens. It is to Him we are invited. We are called upon to believe in Christ as He that died and rose again. Apart from being closed in unto Him by faith, there is no salvation for us. Let us also seek to Him and we shall find to our eternal blessedness that He is all that the Word of God says He is.