Grave clothes, also known as burial clothes or burial wrappings, are an important symbolic motif that appears several times in the Bible. When Jesus was crucified and buried, he was wrapped in linen cloths according to Jewish burial customs. However, when Jesus rose from the dead, the grave clothes were left behind, neatly folded in the tomb. This seemingly small detail carries deep theological meaning for Christians. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore the significance of grave clothes in the Bible and what they represent for followers of Jesus Christ.
In the Gospels and other New Testament writings, the physical details surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection are recounted carefully. These specifics hold great theological meaning for Christians. The grave clothes left behind in the empty tomb are particularly symbolic and insightful. By understanding the cultural background of Jewish burial rituals in the first century and examining key biblical passages, we can uncover the rich symbolism of grave clothes in the Easter story.
- Grave clothes were part of traditional Jewish burial rites in Jesus’ day
- Jesus’ body was wrapped in linen cloths and covered with spices, according to Jewish custom
- The New Testament specifically notes that Jesus’ grave clothes were left neatly folded or arranged in the empty tomb
- This shows that Jesus’ resurrection was not a grave robbery – the body was not stolen
- The abandoned cloths represent Jesus’ victory over death and the transformation of his physical body
- Christians are called to symbolically ‘take off’ the grave clothes of sin and death and be resurrected to new life through Jesus
In this comprehensive blog post, we will first look at the historical and cultural background of burial customs in biblical times. We will then do a close reading of the key Gospel passages about Jesus’ burial clothes. Finally, we will unpack the rich theological significance of the folded grave clothes left in Jesus’ empty tomb and what lessons Christians can learn from reflecting on this important biblical symbol.
Jewish Burial Customs in Jesus’ Day
To understand the full meaning of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial and resurrection, it is important to understand the historical context surrounding burial rituals in first century Judea during Jesus’ lifetime. When Jesus died on the cross and was buried, traditional Jewish customs were followed.
John 19:40 (NKJV) specifies that Jesus’ body was prepared for burial “according to the custom of the Jews.” Knowing more about these common burial practices can shed light on the significance of Jesus’ abandoned grave clothes.
In ancient Judea, dead bodies were usually cared for quickly out of necessity in the hot climate. Family members or community burial societies were tasked with washing and perfuming the corpse, then wrapping it in linen cloths. The body would be wrapped tightly with long strips of linen that were secured with spices and ointments placed between the folds.
John 11:44 (NKJV) describes Lazarus emerging from the tomb still wrapped in his burial linens after Jesus raised him from the dead. This shows that it was customary for the body to be completely encased or bound up in the linen grave clothes.
The spices and ointments packed around the body served several purposes. The perfumes and aromatic aloes would help mask the smell of decomposition. The spices also absorbed any bodily fluids leaking from the corpse. Additionally, the ointments symbolically purified the body.
Once wrapped in the scented linens, the body would be placed in the tomb or burial chamber, often on a ledge or shelf carved into the rock walls. Large stone blocks would seal the tomb entrance, staying rolled in front to guard the chamber. This was the standard burial process that Jesus himself underwent, according to the Gospel accounts.
Understanding this cultural background helps us recognize the special significance of the empty, abandoned grave clothes left behind when Jesus rose from the dead.
Gospel Accounts of Jesus’ Burial Garments
All four biblical Gospels record details about Jesus’ burial in linen cloths following his crucifixion. Both the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John’s account mention the linen grave clothes, or sindon in Greek, that Jesus was wrapped in. But only the Gospel of John includes the noteworthy detail that Jesus’ grave clothes were left behind neatly folded or arranged in the empty tomb on Easter morning.
The Synoptic Gospels on Jesus’ Burial:
Matthew 27:59 (NKJV):
“When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth”
Mark 15:46 (NKJV):
“He bought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen.”
Luke 23:53 (NKJV):
“Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock, where no one had ever lain before.”
These short verses confirm that Jesus was buried according to standard Jewish custom – his body was wrapped up in linen grave clothes.
John’s Gospel on the Empty Tomb:
John 20:1-9 describes how Mary Magdalene discovered Jesus’ empty tomb on Easter morning. When Peter and John ran to investigate, this is what they found:
“And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.” (John 20:5-7 NKJV)
Note the specific language used here – the linen grave clothes were still there, not unwrapped, but they were now “lying” flat and “folded” neatly in the tomb. And the face cloth or handkerchief that had been over Jesus’ head was “folded together” separately from the other linens.
This passage suggests that when Jesus rose from the dead in resurrected form, he miraculously passed through the linen cloths, leaving them collapsed intact on the burial slab. The cloths retained the shape of Jesus’ body, as if he had vanished right out of them. This was clearly not a case of grave robbers stealing the body away, as the burial clothes were undisturbed.
These precise details in John’s account hold deep theological meaning for Christians, as we will explore next.
Theological Significance of Jesus’ Folded Grave Clothes
The Abandoned Grave Clothes Prove Jesus’ Bodily Resurrection
If Jesus’ body had been stolen from the tomb, the linen cloths would have been ripped apart or taken away with the body. The fact that the grave clothes were left neatly folded behind clearly shows that Jesus had risen from the dead supernaturally.
John 20:6-7 (NKJV) specifically conveys that Jesus’ body was not unwrapped from the cloths. The clothes retained the shape of his body even after he rose and passed through them. This rules out grave robbery or any other natural explanation.
As John Calvin wrote regarding this passage: “The Evangelist, therefore, by this circumstance wished to distinguish Christ’s resurrection from the resurrection of all other men.”
The Folded Grave Clothes Show Jesus’ Resurrected Form was Transformed
Not only do the neatly arranged linens prove the resurrection was miraculous, they also hint that Jesus’ new resurrection body had unique capabilities. In his glorified state, Jesus was able to pass through the encasing shroud and napkin, leaving them folded behind. This suggests his new spiritual body had supernatural qualities transcending the limits and laws of the physical world.
As Philippians 3:20-21 (NKJV) expresses about believers’ future resurrection bodies:
“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body…”
The neatly folded grave clothes left in Jesus’ tomb are a vivid illustration of this “transforming” process that believers can hope for in resurrection. The abandoned cloths show that Jesus’ resurrected form was gloriously transformed.
The Linens Represent Jesus’ Victory Over Death
Most importantly, the grave clothes neatly left behind represent Jesus’ definitive victory over death itself. Christ had conquered the grave; he was alive again in eternal, glorified form. As 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 (NKJV) proclaims:
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”
The folded burial linens provide a compelling symbolic picture of this victory. Death’s “sting” could not hold Jesus. He rose triumphantly, leaving its trappings neatly folded away in a powerfully symbolic testimony to his glory.
Christians are Called to Take Off Their Own Grave Clothes
For Christians, the image of Jesus’ tossed-aside burial linens carries one more meaningful implication.
In Christ, believers are called to die to their old sinful lives and be resurrected to walk in new life through the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus was resurrected to eternal life.
This spiritual truth is illustrated symbolically when we “take off” the grave clothes of our old lives, just as Jesus left his linen cloths folded in the tomb.
Colossians 3:8-10 (NKJV) expresses it this way:
“But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.”
When we repent and turn to Christ, we “put off” the rotten rags of our sinful lives, just as Jesus victoriously cast off the linen clothes of mortal life to be gloriously resurrected. His abandoned grave clothes foreshadow the new resurrection life believers are clothed in through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ seemingly simple linen burial wrappings carry profound theological meaning for Christians. The Gospel accounts of the neatly folded cloths left in Jesus’ empty tomb on Easter morning vividly convey important truths about Christ’s bodily resurrection and victory over death. When understood in light of the historical context of Jewish burial practices, these details reveal that Jesus’ resurrection was miraculous and his risen form gloriously transformed.
Most importantly, the abandoned grave clothes symbolize Jesus’ definitive triumph over sin and mortality. As Christians, we are called to take off our own sinful grave clothes and walk in new life in Christ, just as Jesus’ resurrected body passed through and folded away the linen shrouds of mortal existence. Meditating on this small but potent biblical detail enriches our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection and deepens our faith in his eternal victory over death.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Thomas Nelson, 1982.
Calvin, John. Commentary on John – Volume 2. Translated by William Pringle. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom35.vii.ii.html
Stott, John R. W. Basic Christianity. InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.