Reflections outside the not-so-empty tomb

There are many images we associate with the story of Easter – the cross, the nails, the crown of thorns, the empty tomb. But how do we relate these images and the archaic practices they represent to our current understanding of what the events of Christ’s death and resurrection mean for us today? Upon closer inspection, we discover that some of our assumptions about these images are not even correct. The tomb, for example, was not actually empty, as we read in John 20. On the study tours Peter Tuininga leads to the Bible lands, he concludes with this final teaching outside the garden tomb, where we find there is far greater depth to the image of the “empty” tomb than we might have first realized. –Ed.

The folded cloth
John 20:1-7 tells us that Mary was the first one to come to the empty tomb. She saw the rolled away stone and it frightened her. She ran to tell Peter and John.  When they heard the news, they ran together to the tomb as fast as they could. 

John outran Peter, and when he got there, he looked inside, and saw the grave clothes lying in disarray. Then Peter arrived and went right in. He also saw the linen clothes lying there, but there was something unusual in that scene.

The Gospel of John tells us that the cloth, which was placed over the face of Jesus, was not just thrown aside like the grave clothes. The Bible takes an entire verse to let us know that the cloth was neatly folded, and was placed at the head of that stony coffin.

Is this important? John would not have mentioned it if it were not.

Recently I heard a story that suggests we need to understand a little bit about Hebrew tradition in order to understand the significance of the folded napkin. This explanation indicates that the verse is a reference to the roles of “master” and “servant,” a tradition known well by every Jewish boy. When a servant set the dinner table for the master, he made sure it was exactly the way the master wanted it. Once the table was furnished perfectly, the servant would wait, just out of sight, until the master had finished eating, not daring to touch the table until the master was finished. When the master was done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers and his mouth, clean his beard and then wad up that napkin and toss it onto the table.

The servant would then know to clear the table because in those days, the wadded-up napkin meant, “I’m done.” But if the master got up from the table, folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table, because the folded napkin meant, “I’m coming back!”

Unfortunately,although this is a great story, when I checked my resources on Jewish customs, cultural practices and traditions, I found no mention of such a tradition. I became a bit skeptical about the truth of the story, and my subsequent search has led me to a number of great possible reasons why John mentions the folded cloth.

The afikomen
The first possibility has to do with the Passover meal. Since the time of Jesus many Jewish families have used a folded napkin during the Passover seder to hide what is called the afikomen – a broken piece of unleavened bread symbolizing the Passover lamb – which is hidden away in a folded napkin, until the end of the meal. The children search for it and when it is “found,” it is the last thing eaten in the seder meal.

We know it was this last piece of bread – the broken afikomen, that Jesus held in his hand when he said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Jesus compared his own body to the afikomen, which was taken from the napkin folds.

Could it be that the folded cloth in the empty tomb symbolizes what Jesus had just accomplished, that just as the afikomen is hidden away and then re-appears, so his body was hidden in a tomb and re-appeared risen from the dead? Is this what Jesus had in mind when he folded the cloth before leaving the tomb?

Message from a carpenter
Another possibility comes from a very well-known Jewish custom. Carpenters and other manual labourers in first-century Palestine kept a cloth handy to wipe away their perspiration as they worked. Since they could not leave an invoice or a note to let their customers know when a project was finished, it was a common tradition to signify finished work by leaving that cloth on or near the work, neatly folded. It was their way of saying, “I’ve completed the work.”

Jesus grew up as a carpenter, so the folded cloth might have been a fitting gesture that his work of redemption was complete. This ties in nicely with the fact that the afikomen was the final piece of bread, and with Jesus’ own words on the cross: “It is finished.”

No more barriers
Another possible meaning comes from the ancient practice found in Numbers 4:5-15 where the holy items of the tabernacle – from the Ark of the Covenant to the Bread of the Presence – were covered by a cloth. No sinful eyes other than the sanctified priests were allowed to see the holy objects.

Only once the tabernacle was set up and those items were once again out of sight behind curtains could the covering cloths be removed. These cloths represented the barrier between the holy God and his sinful people.

The tabernacle was built to symbolize God’s presence with his people. All the practices associated with it pointed to the coming Messiah, who would fulfill all the requirements of the law and sacrificial system to establish intimate fellowship between us and God.

John used the very words of Exodus to describe Jesus’ birth in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The word “dwelling” here is literally translated as “tabernacled.” But look at the next thing John says of Jesus in that same verse: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Any Jewish student of the Torah will tell you that’s impossible. The purpose of the cloth during tabernacle days was to hide even the symbols of God from unclean human eyes, lest the people be literally consumed by God’s perfect holiness like moths flying too close to a purifying fire. But John said we did see . . . we have seen his glory!
There was a time when no one could see God’s face and live, but Jesus came to change that. The glory John described was not just the risen Jesus, but also the glory of the Almighty Father, creator of all.

For Jesus himself said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (John 14:6-10).

To add to this, think about what happened when Jesus died – the temple curtain hiding the Ark of the Covenant was split from top to bottom (another covering cloth divided).
Could it be that the warnings to Moses thousands of years before of “You must not see my face,” and the covering cloths of the holy objects, were forever removed by Christ’s death and resurrection, symbolized in the folded face cloth, so that those who knew the Torah would notice it, and think about it, and perhaps come to understand that the barrier was now removed?

The need for coverings between God and us is over. Jesus rose again, with his holy face uncovered. All the barriers between us and God are removed.

Many possible meanings, one Truth
One last possible meaning of the folded cloth could be as simple as a sign to the world that his body was not stolen, as the Pharisees claimed. Think of it – if you were going to steal a guarded body, would you take the time to unwrap the body, fold a head cloth and carry out a crucified naked body, as opposed to keeping it wrapped up? I don’t think so!

Could that folded head cloth be Jesus’ way of saying, “I was not stolen away. I rose up and walked out, for I alone, Almighty God, am able”?

As evidenced, there are a number of possible meanings behind the folded cloth. I believe without a doubt that the gospel writer John draws attention to it so that we may ponder the meaning. Which one is more likely to be the truth? We don’t know, but what I have come to see is that the empty tomb is far from being empty. It is filled with messages of eternal riches, all pointing to this indisputable fact: Our glorious Saviour Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and the barriers of sin and death have forever been removed.


  • Peter Tuininga is a Christian Reformed pastor in Leduc, Alta. He has a deep passion for making God’s word alive and understandable for others. He gives guided tours to Israel every year in March.

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