There's a detail in the account of Jesus' resurrection that has captured the attention of scholars and Bible students over the years. The passage is John 20:6-7 and it tells us what Peter saw when he came to the tomb: "Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen."
Some have found meaning in the fact that Peter found Jesus' face cloth separate from the linen that had wrapped His dead body before He was hastily laid in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. The myth surrounding the face "napkin" (as the King James referred to the face cloth) is that it was folded as a master would fold his dinner napkin to let the servant know he wasn't finished eating but was coming back to the table after a brief absence. People have assumed that Jesus was sending a message to His followers that He wasn't "done" but was "coming back"' in due time.
While this a touching thought and interpretation, it's not true. First-century Jews didn't use a dinner napkin (that was a European custom) and there doesn't seem to be any biblical evidence that the face cloth was folded a certain way. It was simply not with the body linens, but rather in a separate place.
Does the face cloth detail have any meaning? It must, otherwise John wouldn't have found it significant to include well after the other three gospels had been written that had omitted the face cloth placement. So what's the significance?
First, the fact that the face cloth was present and not thrown aside indicates that "body snatchers" hadn't stolen the body as was later reported. If someone is breaking into a tomb with armed guards asleep at the entrance, they wouldn't take the time to fold or place a face cloth in its appointed place. Speed would have been essential, so the body would have been grabbed as is, and unwrapped later.
Second, when Lazarus was raised from the dead as reported John 11, he had to be freed from his grave clothes. Granted, Jesus had been hastily entombed because the Sabbath was nigh, so He probably wouldn't have been fully wrapped. Still, it seems He needed no human help extricating Himself from His wrappings, either performing the task Himself or having angelic help in doing so.
Finally, Jesus' resurrection was just another "day at the office" for Him. The scene in the tomb didn't depict a violent struggle or an escape that had to be completed quickly and silently before the guards discovered what was happening. Jesus had surrendered His life to the Father because He trusted the Father's promise in His word:
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand (Psalm 16:9-11).
There are several lessons for us in this simple detail. Here are some thoughts as we close:
- God will do what He promised He would do. He promised His servant would not see decay and He didn't.
- You don't need to frantically work to fulfill your God-given assignments. God is with you and will empower you as He did Jesus.
- No one can wrap you in grave clothes so tightly or completely that God can't free you.
- You may have a role in removing your own grave clothes—those things that restrict your faith movements in God.
And one final thought: If Jesus is alive as He promised He would be and as reported in the gospels, and that's no myth, then His resurrection is real and He shares His resurrection power with us right here, right now. I urge you to put aside the fear and doubt that try to wrap and entomb you, and do so as nonchalantly and calmly as Jesus put aside His grave clothes. As you do, I know you will have a blessed Resurrection celebration!