But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain (John 20:11-12).
Sometimes God illustrates profound truths with momentary events. If you pass by too quickly you will miss it!
We are not informed of precisely how Mary Magdalene processed the events transpiring before her on that momentous Sunday morning. She is distraught, weeping, no doubt attempting to make sense of what she was seeing: His body was gone, and therefore, where had it been taken (John 20:1-13)? She had first gone to the tomb, ran back to inform Peter and John of its emptiness, and had come back again (John 20:1-11). As she looks in again, she sees two angels; John indicates one was seated where Jesus’ head had lain, and the other where His feet had been placed (John 20:12). In John’s account, they simply ask her why she was crying; she answered but we hear nothing more of the angels, for Mary then turns and encounters Jesus as the Risen Lord (John 20:13-16). She saw the angels, no doubt, but did she believe that their existence and placement there had any significance?
Every Gospel account has some angelic presence at the tomb. Matthew speaks of one angel rolling the stone away and proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:2-7). Mark speaks of him as a young man in a white robe sitting on the right side; he also proclaims the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16:5-7). Luke describes two men in dazzling apparel standing by the women also proclaiming Jesus as Risen (Luke 24:4-10). Therefore, it is only from John’s account that we see two angels sitting where Jesus’ head and feet had lain, simply asking Mary Magdalene a question, knowing that soon enough she will find her soul’s delight.
At this moment many rush to harmonize in an attempt to defend the historical integrity of the Gospel narratives. Yet we do well to contemplate why John highlights these particular details. The narrative could have continued without significant violence had Mary just run into the “gardener” after Peter and John left. Why, therefore, does John point out that Mary saw the two angels? And why is he so specific about where they sat?
The Evangelists, particularly John, only provide the details they want you to know. And John very much wants us to understand the significance of those angels and why they sat as they did. It is written in Exodus 25:18-22:
And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. And make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end: of one piece with the mercy-seat shall ye make the cherubim on the two ends thereof. And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, covering the mercy-seat with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the mercy-seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And thou shalt put the mercy-seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.
As all good Israelites would know, God commanded Moses and Israel to build Him first a Tabernacle, and in the Most Holy Place in that Tabernacle would rest the Ark of the Covenant containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, a powerful sign of the covenant between God and Israel. On top of that Ark was the “mercy-seat,” and the mercy-seat was flanked on either side by cherubim. The mercy-seat is where God placed His presence and spoke to Moses; the mercy-seat is also where Aaron would bring the blood of the sacrifice to make atonement for himself and Israel (Leviticus 16:11-16). When Solomon built the Temple he built cherubim on both sides of the Most Holy Place for the same purpose (1 Kings 6:23-28).
John had already pointed out how Jesus spoke of His Body as a Temple (John 2:18-22). And here in the resurrection John hints at imagery fleshed out fully by the Hebrew author in Hebrews 9:1-28: in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, He embodies the Tabernacle/Temple service and thus provides the ultimate atonement. Just as the cherubim were placed on the two ends of the mercy-seat on the Ark of the Covenant, so the two angels sit on the slab on which the body of Jesus was laid. The empty tomb is now the Most Holy Place; where His body had lain represents a new mercy-seat, the place where God Incarnate would soon again speak with Mary (John 20:12-16). The angels declare the rock slab where the body of Jesus was placed as the new place of atonement where the holy sacrifice of God rested.
The spiritual implications of this association are staggering. If the tomb is as the Most Holy Place, and the slab upon which Jesus was lain as the mercy-seat, we have further associations between Jesus and the most holy sin-offering described in Leviticus 6:26-29. Far from being unclean or defiled because of bearing sin, and far from being separated from God, Jesus’ body, as the perfect sacrifice for sins, is most holy, bringing cleansing and sanctifying its location (Hebrews 10:5-10). The timing remains significant: the Most Holy Place is not reckoned as the cross or even the upper room but the empty tomb. John is not denying the need nor the efficacy of the cross as is evident in John 1:29, 3:14-15; nevertheless, John is demonstrating that Jesus’ atonement cannot be disassociated from His resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection allow for our atonement; He gave His life for sin but received it again in power from God (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, Hebrews 9:11-28). Both of these come together in the empty tomb: the angels sitting where His body, sacrificed for our sin, had lain, and yet the tomb is empty because He is risen. Thus it was the Most Holy Place; the Most Holy Place is now embodied in Christ (John 2:20-22, Hebrews 9:1-14).
And there remains the typology of the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy-seat. The Ark of the Covenant was the sign of the covenant, the repository of the Law by which Israel would be governed; the mercy-seat is where God would meet Moses and Israel, maintain His presence, and upon which the blood of the sin offering would be presented on the Day of Atonement (Exodus 25:18-22, Leviticus 16:11-16). And so it is with Jesus: He is God in the flesh, the image of the invisible God, Mediator between God and man (Colossians 1:15, 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:5). He gave His life as a ransom for sin (Matthew 20:28). God was present in Him and spoke through Him to us (Matthew 1:18-25, Hebrews 1:1-3). That empty tomb is our Ark of the Covenant, both a reminder of where Jesus’ dead body lay, killed for our sin, yet was raised in power, gaining the victory over the forces of evil, sin, and death, the ground of our hope for both forgiveness of sin and ultimate victory over sin and death (Romans 8:1-3, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).
The reference is quick and fleeting and might be easily missed, yet it provides a glorious key of understanding, wonderfully illustrating how Jesus embodies the story and thus the hope of Israel. The empty tomb was, for a moment, the Most Holy Place; the slab of rock where Jesus lay the mercy-seat. Yet He is Risen, and is the embodiment of the covenant, its atonement, and its holiness. Let us serve the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and find atonement and redemption in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry