Where Thy Victory, O Grave?

On May 4th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s body was laid to rest at the Oakridge Cemetery in Springfield, IL. But his initial interment was anything but restful. In the years that followed, the crypt was disturbed 17 times for various maintenance and security reasons. So, in 1901, Robert Lincoln ordered his father’s coffin be encased in a block of concrete, permanently sealing the crypt. But before the concrete was poured it was decided that the body needed to be identified. As the casket cracked open, a foul cloud wafted over those gathered. They crept forward to behold the familiar face of the 16th President. The beard on his chin was as black as the day he died. He was wearing the same suit he wore at his 2nd inauguration, now finely frosted with yellow mold. One of the spectators, J.C. Thompson later told reporters: 

"As I came up, I saw that top-knot of Mr. Lincoln's. His hair was course and thick, like a horse's, and it stood up high in front. When I saw that, I knew that it was Mr. Lincoln… His features had not decayed. He looked just like a statue of himself lying there."

Suppose I knew the exact location of the tomb in which Jesus was laid to rest 2,000 years ago. Suppose we went, like Indiana Jones on a torchlit quest, into the Jerusalem countryside or a secret underground chamber. Suppose we rolled the great stone away and entered the crypt. Do you know what you would smell?


There would be no shriveled corpse. No bones. No ashes. Nothing is there, because Jesus is not there. He is risen! He has conquered the grave.

But did you know that more than 1 in 4 people on earth don’t believe that Jesus actually died on the cross? Central to the Islamic teaching on Jesus is their denial of his crucifixion and death. With some Jewish and liberal protestant theologians, they insist the man who died on the cross was a body-double, a stunt savior. Others believe that Jesus merely swooned on the cross, only to be revived later.

Three That Testify

To prove that Jesus truly died, Mark calls upon three witnesses. He begins with Joseph of Arimathea, “a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, [who] took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43). It was Friday evening, the Day of Preparation before the Sabbath which would begin at sundown. But there was a problem: three bodies were on crosses on a hill outside Jerusalem. To a people whose religion revolved around ritual purity, blood and death were ceremonially defiling contaminants which had to be removed before Sabbath. 

Knowing this, Joseph asked Pilate for permission to bury Christ’s body. Like Nicodemus, Joseph was a leader of the Jews who trusted in Christ as his Savior and was “looking for the kingdom of God.” As Mark says, Joseph’s request “took courage,” because it aligned him with Christ, an enemy of the state. But Joseph found freedom from his fear. By fixing his heart on Jesus’ death for him, Joseph was able to live courageously for Jesus. Considering Christ’s valiant love for you on the cross will make you bold for him, too.

Next, Mark offers the testimony of the centurion. When Pilate heard that Jesus had already died, he was surprised (Mark 15:44). The Greek literally rendered means “awestruck.” Why? Because death by crucifixion was designed to be slow. Even the word “excruciating” is taken from the Latin, ex cruciatus, or, “out of the cross.” Victims were left tied or nailed to their cross, exposed to the elements and wild beast, until they were overcome with exhaustion and expired. This process could sometimes last six days, so when Pilate heard that Christ perished in just six hours, he was astonished. Such a report needed to be verified. And so Pilate summoned the centurion who oversaw the crucifixion.

This centurion was a student of death. Taking life was his craft. He knew the signs. He ordered the spear plunged into Jesus’ side. He watched the blood and water gush from the wound. He looked on as Jesus breathed his last and lowered his head in death. He saw his chest stop rising. He saw Jesus wounds stop bleeding as his heart stopped beating. And when the centurion saw how Christ died, he concluded, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39)! The centurion knew that Jesus truly died and that he truly died for him!  But do you? The only way for sinners to be reconciled to a holy God is to look to the atoning cross of Jesus and come to the centurion’s same conclusion: “truly this man was the Son of God!” 

But the third and final witnesses to the death of Jesus are the women, whom Mark mentions by name three times (Mark 15:40, 47 & 16:1). These women had accompanied Christ throughout his earthly ministry and were with him to the end. In a final act of devotion, they came early Sunday morning to anoint his body. Mark mentions three women: Mary Magdalene from whom Christ had driven seven demons; Mary the wife of Alpheus, the mother James the Lesser, an apostle of Christ; and Salome, an obscure disciple of Christ mentioned only by Mark. 

But why does Mark name them three times? Because the disciples fled at the crucial hour. Because Mark is honoring their loyalty and highlighting the vital role godly women played in the ministry of Christ (and continue to play in the local church today!). Because Mark is submitting their names as eyewitnesses who may have still been alive when Mark was writing, as if to say, “You don’t believe Jesus died? Here are three women who saw it. Go ask them.” 

Truly Died. Truly Alive.

Mark had to submit the testimonies of the councilman, the centurion, and the women to convince his readers that Jesus truly died before he could make his case that Jesus truly rose. Early Sunday morning, while the apostles were cowering behind the closed door of an upper room in Jerusalem, the women went to the tomb. Though Jesus foretold his own resurrection three times, resurrection was the furthest thing from their minds.  

Whenever a new Chik-fil-a opens, a year of free chicken sandwiches is promised to the first 100 customers. So, every time there’s a grand opening, people pitch their tents in the parking lot the night before to be sure that they’ll be among the first 100. All for sandwiches! Don’t you think, if Jesus’ disciples believed his promise of resurrection they would have been there, expectantly, waiting for Jesus to walk out of that tomb? But they weren’t there because they didn’t believe.  And though the women came, they didn’t believe either, because they’d come to anoint a dead body. The inclusion of such incriminating details is one of the most powerful proofs of the veracity of Mark’s testimony. 

Mark also tells us of the women’s fear. Though they’d forgotten all about the stone, when they arrived, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. And upon entering the tomb they saw a man dressed in white, an angel of the Lord who said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6–7). But the women didn’t do as the angel instructed. Instead, they fled in terror and said nothing to anyone. Why doesn’t Mark airbrush these unsightly spiritual blemishes in Jesus’ followers? Because he wants you to believe him when he says that Christ truly died and truly conquered the grave.  

A Message for Peter

Of all the disciples, the angel only mentions Peter by name. “Go, tell his disciples… and Peter.”  Why? Because, evidently Peter needed to hear the good news, “He is risen!”, more than the rest. Peter had turned his back on Christ and denied Jesus three times in the crucial hour. And so, Jesus especially wanted Peter to know that the tomb was empty; that He’d risen; that he is who he claimed to be; that God had accepted Christ’s sacrifice on Peter’s behalf; that Peter’s denials and sins had been fully paid and washed away. Jesus wanted Peter to know he forgave him and loved him. 

Have you forsaken Jesus? Are you cowering in the upper room of a guilty conscience? Know that He is risen! And if he is risen, it means that all your sins can be forgiven — just look to the empty cross where Jesus truly died for you, and look to the empty tomb which could not hold him who wields the “power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16). Look, and believe. It means that “sins curse has lost its grip on [you]” and you have been set free from your slavery to sin to live for Christ. It means that you can face death in the sure and certain hope of resurrection singing,

“Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!

Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!

Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia!

Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!”

Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, MS

Related Links

PCRT '19: Redemption Accomplished and Applied, with D.A. Carson, Kevin DeYoung, Richard Phillips, and more. [ Download ]  [ MP3 Disc ]

"Mission Accomplished" by Philip Ryken

"Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs" by Sinclair Ferguson

"Good Friday: Christ our Great High Priest" by William Boekestein

Atonement, edited by Gabriel Fluhrer