The riddle of the folded napkin
So Simon Peter also came, following him, and he entered the tomb; and he looked at the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings but folded up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb also entered then, and he saw and believed (John 20:6-8 NASB).
The context here is that Mary Magdalene had first seen the stone sealing the tomb rolled away, and she had promptly reported to the disciples that Jesus’s body had been taken away (John 20:2). Peter and John had rushed to the tomb to establish for themselves what the situation was.
There are a few things to note here.
1. There was no disarray.
2. The Jews doused dead bodies with liquid ointments. Remember how Mary had poured expensive oil onto Jesus’ feet in preparation for His burial?
3. Jesus’ body had been covered with 2” strips of cloth that had been soaked in the 100 pounds, an extraordinary amount, of myrrh sap and aloe gel (think aloe vera) that Nicodemus had brought. It was the custom to mix these together into an ointment but only use 20 pounds for a body and head. (The women were bringing the spices later on the first day of the week Luke 24:1). These wet cloths would’ve resulted in the body of Jesus being wrapped rather like a sticky papier mâché model.
4. John observed the body and head wrappings all lying neatly on the stone slab.
5. The Jews placed a handkerchief face covering (Greek soudarion measuring about 34” by 21”) over a dead person’s face as a mark of respect. This is rather like the western custom of covering a body from view once they have died. This handkerchief had been definitively taken, folded and put in a separate place.
Since John was quite intentional in his writing, everything he recorded must point to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Here are my thoughts.
1. Jesus had been instantly transformed from death to immortal life similar to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar that emerges as a butterfly from its collapsed cocoon.
2. The handkerchief was only needed while ever death was present. Since Jesus had conquered death triumphantly, the handkerchief’s role was finished so it was carefully folded up and placed away from the wrappings that had held Jesus’ body.
The handkerchief was the silent witness that Jesus had destroyed the power of death (Heb. 2:14).). The English word “hell” is from a root word “to cover” and here we have Jesus conclusively removing that cover that has encompassed all humanity from Adam for Jesus is now the keeper of the keys to hell and death (Rev. 1:18).
With the resurrection of Jesus we can be reassured that death has been swallowed up in victory! (I Cor. 15:54-57). We have no more fear in death. God has justified us and we can only await further grace when we live with Jesus, the almighty Son of God, in glory.