Simon Peter therefore also cometh, following him, and entered into the tomb; and he beholdeth the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, that was upon his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself (John 20:6-7).
The action is heating up; the story is reaching its climax. The action becomes the focus of the story; extraneous details would just clutter the story, detracting and distracting from the important events taking place. Yet the details that are given prove all the more necessary to ground the story. So it is with John’s narrative of the resurrection.
John relates the events of that Sunday morning in John 20:1-18. In those eighteen verses Mary arrives at the tomb, sees it empty, goes back to tell Peter and John, who themselves run to the tomb, see it empty, then leave, and then Mary (who ostensibly has come back along with Peter and John) looks in again, speaks to angels, speaks to the risen Jesus, and then goes back to the disciples to announce the Lord’s resurrection. This passage is certainly marked by unrelenting action!
Some details are provided despite the fast pace of the story, and one particular detail is associated with Peter and John’s visitation to the tomb in John 20:4-7 (as well as in terms of Peter in Luke 24:12): the othonion, the linen cloths, were lying on the ground, and the soudarion, normally a handkerchief but also used to cover the head of a corpse (cf. Luke 19:20, John 11:44, Acts 19:12), was in its own place and rolled up. They were the only things left in the otherwise empty tomb.
Today we tend to dress up the dead in their best clothing or in some sort of clothing most special to them. In first century Judea it was customary to wrap the dead body in strips of linen cloths (othonion) and covering the face with the soudarion. John pointed out how Jesus’ body was wrapped in the linen cloths with plenty of aloes and spices by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:40). It is clear that both Peter and John found it odd that the linen cloths and the face-cloth were left behind, and it certainly made an impression on them; John includes the detail in his Gospel, and if Luke had spoken with Simon Peter in writing his Gospel (Luke 1:1-3), it is reasonable to believe that Peter would have also mentioned that detail. But why is it so noteworthy?
The presence of the linen cloths and face-cloth are highly emphasized in defenses of the resurrection of Jesus; it is the reason Peter and John saw and believed Jesus was raised from the dead even though they had not yet understood how the Scriptures had spoken of it (John 20:8). We must keep in mind that a Roman guard was present at the tomb (Matthew 27:64-66); if Jesus’ body had been stolen away from the tomb, it would make no sense to unwrap all the linen cloths and the face-cloth, roll up the face-cloth, and then run away with the body; every additional second of the heist would increase the odds of being seen and/or captured in the act. Grave robbers would just take the body with the linen cloths to their lair and then take it all apart. Even if the story the soldiers said after being paid off to say it had any truth, that the disciples stole the body while they slept (Matthew 28:11-15), it would make no sense for them to leave the linen cloths; how long would it have taken before some of the Roman soldiers would wake up (as if they would ever be caught sleeping, the punishment for which was normally death!)? The best explanation for the presence of the linen cloths is that the One wrapped in it took them off and carefully rolled up the face-cloth and set it aside as He departed. The linen cloths and the face-cloth do provide a wonderful testimony to the resurrection of Jesus!
Thus Jesus left the linen cloths and face-cloth as He departed the tomb in the resurrection. Did He just leave them to prove He is risen from the dead? Or is there perhaps greater meaning and significance to the linen cloths?
And YHWH said unto Moses, “Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy-seat which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy-seat. Herewith shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bullock for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with the linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired: they are the holy garments; and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and put them on…And Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall put off the linen garments, which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there: and he shall bathe his flesh in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people” (Leviticus 16:2-4, 23-24).
In Leviticus 16 God provides legislation regarding the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the only day on which the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place to make atonement first for his own sins and then for the sins of Israel (cf. Hebrews 9:1-7). The High Priest would wear special consecrated linen garments for the occasion, and after he would depart from the Most Holy Place he would take off those consecrated garments, purify himself with water, and then put on other garments to continue to offer sacrifices on behalf of Israel. Therefore the linen garments which the High Priest wore into the Most Holy Place to offer blood for the atonement of Israel were only to be worn there and then taken off.
As the Hebrew author makes clear in Hebrews 7:1-9:28, Jesus is our new High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, having secured atonement through the offering of Himself. Through the details he provides about Jesus’ resurrection John is telling the same story. The angels sat where Jesus’ head and feet lay, evoking the cherubim over the mercy-seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant, placed in the Most Holy Place and where the High Priest would take that blood (John 20:11-12; cf. Exodus 25:18-22, Leviticus 16:11-16, 1 Kings 6:23-28). In this way the empty tomb is as the Most Holy Place; Jesus’ body is not just the sacrifice that makes the rock slab holy since His body lay upon it, but is the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant itself, bearing witness to the covenant God is establishing with all mankind through Him, and the One in whom God is communing with mankind (Leviticus 6:26-29, 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 1:1-3, 10:5-10). Therefore, the presence of the linen cloths is fitting; as the High Priest in the order of Aaron would take off his garment once he had provided the blood for atonement in the Most Holy Place, so Jesus as our High Priest in the order of Melchizedek left His linen cloths behind after He had finished making atonement in the fulfillment of the Most Holy Place, the temple of His body (cf. John 2:20-22, Hebrews 9:1-14). The Hebrew author speaks of all of this in terms of Jesus’ death; John reminds us that His resurrection is no less important for our atonement. In the resurrection and upon His ascension He is declared the Son of God, the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, Lord, and Christ (Romans 1:4; cf. Psalm 110:1-7, Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus’ death for forgiveness of sins remains crucial yet incomplete without “the rest of the story.” John makes this powerfully clear with the details he provides in his account of the resurrection.
The linen cloths were left behind; our High Priest has offered Himself as the atonement for our sins and was accepted before the Father. The tomb is otherwise empty; He is Risen; He is Lord. Let us be ever thankful for the atonement of our High Priest and let us serve Him in His Kingdom!
Ethan R. Longhenry