It was dark and cold in Jerusalem that morning and cold and dark in the hearts of the women who made their way to the grave of the Lord Jesus. Their thoughts were occupied by a stone: the large boulder rolled to the mouth of the tomb and sealed with the authority of Rome. A greater stone lay upon their hearts, and seemed just as impossible to shift. They had seen their Lord and Master betrayed, traduced, tortured and sentenced to death. The rulers of His own nation had colluded with the hated Roman occupiers, and they had – horrible and appalling thought – nailed Him to a cross. And He died. No miracle had intruded, no rescue accomplished, and, in public ignominy, Christ died. The timely, if unexpected, intervention of Joseph of Arimathea had saved His body from consignment to a mass grave, but only the most perfunctory obsequies had been possible before His body had been laid in the new tomb and the stone rolled into its place.
All through the Sabbath these devoted women had struggled to make sense of what had taken place. In the fog of their grief, one thing stood out as both necessary and possible – their Lord’s body must be properly anointed. That, at least, was something they could do. Actually accomplishing this, it had to be recognized, would pose some formidable problems, but anything was better than sitting with unoccupied hands and occupied minds. Activity might bring some sort of solace, and they all agreed that they should try, at least, to anoint the body of the Lord. And so, the supply of sweet spices had been gathered and the small band, pale with grief, made its way into the wan light of the dawn.
The obstacles they faced were forbidding. A guard had been stationed at the tomb, and the soldiers were unlikely to be well disposed towards the women or their mission. But it was the stone, so large, solid, and immovably heavy, that most concerned the women. “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?” (Mar 16:3 KJV), they asked one another, but no one had any suggestions to offer. Turning back was unthinkable – none of them could bear to contemplate the dejected journey back, their mission unaccomplished. So on they went.
The sun was rising as they neared the tomb, and in the growing light their eyes sought out their destination. Dimly at first they descried it, but as they drew nearer it grew clearer. So total was their concentration on their goal that no one afterwards knew who had seen it first. In truth, they stopped as one, and their exclamations of surprise collided and merged into one. They saw the stone, which had loomed so large in their minds. It was just as large and just as unmovable as they had imagined – but it had moved! No longer was it sealing the tomb but, Roman seal regardless, had been rolled to one side. Wonderful that was, but more wonderful still was the radiant being who sat on it, as though it had been placed there for his convenience. Around him, the armed guard, whose hapless mission it had been to keep Jesus in the tomb, lay petrified, like so many dead men.
Through their immobile forms the women passed without a pause, for their attention was monopolized by the radiant messenger who sat on the stone. From his lips they heard an astounding message: “He is not here: for he is risen, as he said” (Mat 28:6 KJV). The words rolled away the stone that lay upon their hearts, and just as the darkness and the morning chill receded before the rays of the rising sun, so the glorious news of the risen Son brought warmth and light to their souls. Never before had the words of the psalmist been so apposite: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psa 30:5 KJV).
Joy and wonder, wonder and joy, were to be the hallmarks of that Lord’s Day morning. As the hours passed, the great and glorious truth became clearer and clearer – “The Lord is risen indeed!” (Luk 24:34). As He appeared to Mary, to Peter, and to His disciples, grief was banished from their souls, swept away by the great flood of wonder that swept over their souls.
The resurrection is history’s ultimate surprise. It tells us something of the scale and significance of that surprise that its wonder was undiminished by the fact that it had been announced in advance. Most of the surprises that we experience rely for their impact on their unexpectedness. It is for this reason that the planner of a surprise party must impose total secrecy upon the guests if the event is to have its intended impact. This is why children’s presents have to be carefully wrapped and cunningly secreted away – surprise is so fragile that the smallest of glimpses through ill-applied paper can cause it to vanish. An expected surprise, in general, does not exist – it is a contradiction in terms.
But the resurrection was expected – or ought to have been. Again and again the Savior had told them, not just of His death, but also of the resurrection that would follow it (Mat 17:9; 20:19; 26:32; Mar 8:31; 9:9-10,31; 10:34; 14:28; Luk 18:33; 24:7; Joh 2:19-22; 10:17-18). Even His enemies had grasped the significance of this, saying, as they applied to Pilate for the grant of an armed guard, “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, ‘After three days I will rise again’” (Mat 27:63-64 KJV). His teaching could hardly have been clearer. Perhaps it was that the thought of His death was just too much to process; perhaps resurrection just seemed too unlikely; perhaps they had not heeded His words as they ought. Or perhaps it was just that nothing in their experience had primed them for such a display of divine power.
In any case, nothing would ever eradicate from their minds the wonder of the empty tomb and their risen Lord. They were changed by it, and would change the world because of it. And, in its shadow, they would never, could never, doubt the greatness of God’s power.
“Surprised by joy” is a phrase probably best known to us as the title of C.S. Lewis’s autobiography. But it was Wordsworth who first wrote it. The words open what is perhaps his most poignant poem. In it, a sudden transport of joy makes the poet forget “for the least division of an hour” that his daughter has died. As he recalls her death and his irrecoverable loss, his joy vanishes, as insubstantial as the wind. The disciples were surprised by joy that morning in Jerusalem, but the joy that they knew could never be vanquished, not even by death itself, for it was centered in a risen Savior Who has “abolished death” (2Ti 1:10).
We did not accompany the women on that April morning, nor see the stone, the soldiers, and the angel, nor hear his message of triumph. But we, like them, stand on the far side of the empty tomb. Like them, we have met the risen Lord. May our souls be ravished, as theirs were, with wonder and with joy, for “now is Christ risen from the dead” (1Co 15:20).