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Rooted in Christ

Explaining the Empty Tomb

The following is an excerpt from The Christian's Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith (Reformation Heritage Books, pp. 90-96)

 “The third day He rose again from the dead” – The Apostles’ Creed 

I enjoy mystery novels. One of my favorite genres is the legal thriller that combines mystery with courtroom drama. In legal thrillers the verdict is based on evidence brought forth. That evidence needs to be unearthed and presented in such a way that the narrative makes sense and adequately accounts for all the facts.

      We can take this approach to verifying Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. In fact, that is the approach Peter takes in his sermon to the crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost following Christ’s resurrection. People had traveled from all over for the occasion. They were abuzz with recent events, events that made that Pentecost like no other. In his sermon in Acts 2 Peter brings to bear four strands of evidence that lead to an inescapable conclusion.


The Man

Peter begins by pointing to Jesus, particularly as one distinguished by God. “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know” (Acts 2:22). Peter highlights two things in particular. He identifies Him as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is His given name. Nazareth refers to His hometown, where He was raised. This is a common manner of identification in the Bible, narrowing it down from all those who bear a common name. For example, Saul is called Saul of Tarsus. Sometimes people are identified by their lineage, such as Simon bar Jonah, Simon son of Jonah. But for reasons we've already touched on, identifying Jesus as the Son of Joseph would be inappropriate. Associating Jesus with Nazareth makes Him a known quantity and gives Him roots just like anyone else would have, roots that have significance for prophetic anticipation and validation (see Matt. 2:23).

      The second thing Peter highlights about Jesus distinguishes Him from everyone else, providing definitive identification. Peter could have referenced the proclamation from God that he had heard with James and John at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-6), but that was private knowledge not public. What was public were all the miracles, signs and wonders Jesus did. Many in the multitude had seen personally or heard through the grapevine the stupendous acts of Jesus in healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and even raising the dead. Peter explained these mighty acts as pointing not to the deity of Christ but to the “Man attested by God,” the Man Jesus, with a known hometown, credentialed by God. It was as if Peter brought God Himself to the witness stand to authenticate Jesus as the Son of Man sent by God.            


The Plan

In presenting a case, attorneys will construct a narrative that fits the facts of the case. A prosecuting attorney will frame an account that shows the defendant to be guilty. The defense attorney will take the same facts and paint a much different picture, one that exonerates his or her client. Peter constructs a narrative that aligns with the plan and purpose of God, putting the events surrounding the Man Jesus in biblical context. “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it” (Acts 2:23–24). 

      Peter puts the events in the context of the plan of God, which we might think of as a metanarrative or redemptive narrative. This bigger picture governs the events of the day and the actions of men, including the sinful actions of betraying an innocent man. The people were responsible and culpable for their actions, yet God’s plan superintended and enfolded those actions.

      We see a similar scene in the book of Genesis when Joseph addressed his brothers who had sold him into slavery. “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:19–20). Joseph doesn’t excuse the actions of his brothers in any sense, but he affirms that God ruled them for His purposes. Just as the story of Joseph, the narrative surrounding Jesus tells a story of redemption, in which the sinful actions of people serve the providential intentions of the sovereign God.


Expert Witnesses

Having identified Jesus and laid out the divine narrative of Jesus on a mission from God, Peter starts to bring witness testimony to bear. In a trial, sometimes witnesses will be called to the stand to relate what they personally saw. It sounds like Peter could have called any number to testify since he says of the people “as you yourselves also know” (Acts 2:22). That’s what witnesses do. They tell what they directly know. But the first witnesses that Peter appeals to are expert witnesses. An eyewitness to a car accident would testify to what he saw, such as seeing one car running a red light and plowing into another. An expert witness might be brought in to present a forensic analysis of the accident scene describing tire skid marks, meaning of points of impact, and even surveillance camera data.

      Sometime the testimony of expert witnesses is colored by which side is paying them. The expert witnesses Peter brings to the fore, however, are those whose word is truth as spokesmen of God Himself. In this case Peter brings their testimony to bear not by bringing them to the front to address the crowd but by reading their depositions into the record.

      Peter opened his address to the crowd with the expert witness of a prophet named Joel. Joel gives flavor to the remarkable events that had happened, including the related outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Here’s the recorded statement Peter brings to bear.

And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy. I will show wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath: blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. (Acts 2:17–21)

The expert testimony couches the events at Pentecost as the “last days,” the final chapter of God’s history of redemption that began in the book of Genesis. The theme of the story has to do with salvation.

      Another expert witness that Peter lays before the people is David, a prophet like Joel as an instrument of God’s speaking but unlike Joel, a king over God’s people. David was an actual king over ancient Israel but he was also someone who represented the greater King to come, over a greater kingdom. Here is David’s deposition about Jesus, quoting from Psalm 16:

For David says concerning Him: “I foresaw the LORD always before my face, for He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of joy in Your presence.” (Acts 2:25–28)

After reading this deposition, Peter looks out at the crowd and explains that David’s prophecy wasn’t about himself but about Jesus.

Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. (Acts 2:29–31)

By citing these expert witnesses, Peter expands the narrative to the whole of the Bible to explain to the crowd gathered for Pentecost the seismic nature of the events happening in their day.



For his last strain of evidence Peter turns to eyewitnesses. An eyewitness is one who personally experiences something and so can give direct evidence versus hearsay. “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

      The sheer number of witnesses to the risen Christ is overwhelming. Peter had himself seen the risen Christ. The other apostles had seen Jesus alive after His crucifixion. The apostle Paul gives us a witness list: “[Jesus] was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:5–8).

      Having presented irrefutable and insurmountable evidence, Peter pulls it all together with a closing argument.

Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:33–36)

Twice, Peter uses the word “therefore,” pressing an inescapable conclusion. Jesus is not dead but alive. He lives as the Christ of God.


The Christian's Creed explores the scriptural foundation of the declarations of The Apostles' Creed for grounding personal faith in the faith once delivered to the saints. A companion workbook is available.


Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and ten grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.
Books by Stan Gale

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