One of the more intriguing details of the resurrection concerns Jesus' burial clothes. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Joseph of Arimathea wrapping the body of Jesus in a single linen shroud before placing him in the tomb. In John, by contrast, not only is Jesus's shroud made of multiple linen cloths or strips, there is also a face cloth left behind in the empty tomb. When John and Peter visit the tomb on Easter morning, they find both "the linen cloths" and "the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself" (John 20:6-7).
Notice, in Stephen Procopio's illustration from Come See A Man, the face cloth is no longer folded in its own place. Stephen has rather imagined a few moments after the Biblical scene, in which Peter has picked up the facecloth, unfolded it, and begun to believe. John is also a few moments ahead of the gospel narrative. The text reports that John entered the tomb after Peter, and then "saw and believed." But in this image, John has already seen and believed. Depicted in negative space against the backdrop of the garden, and holding two of the linen strips he has just seen, John is looking out of the tomb, as if searching for Jesus.
Evidently the presence of these burial clothes is deeply significant for Peter and John. In the most basic sense, their presence underscores the absence of Jesus' dead body, and may be reminding Peter and John of Jesus' prior claim that he would be resurrected. But more significantly, the presence of the grave clothes was strong evidence against any theft of the body. Some were already circulating the story that Jesus' dead body had been stolen from the tomb (see Matthew 28:11-15), but thieves would not likely unwrap the body. John Chrysostom puts it this way:
"IF ANY HAD STOLEN IT, WOULD THEY HAVE TAKEN THE TROUBLE TO REMOVE THE NAPKIN, AND ROLL IT UP, AND LAY IT IN A PLACE BY ITSELF? ... THEY WOULD HAVE TAKEN THE BODY AS IT WAS."
(St. John Chrysostom, Sermon 85)
One further possibility is that the grave clothes reminded Peter and John of Lazarus, and thus of resurrection. John is the only gospel to narrate the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back from death. John describes the reanimation of Lazarus with reference to the same grave clothes Jesus would wear, even using the same specific Greek word for the face cloth: "The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44). In Come See A Man, Stephen Procopio depicts the moment in which Lazarus, unbinding and emerging from the tomb, joyfully greets Jesus.
Now Peter and John, observing both an empty tomb and an empty set of grave clothes, begin to feel the joy of the resurrection. But they do not yet fully understand what Jesus has done. For the resurrection of Jesus meant both his and their departure from the tomb. In loosening his grave clothes, he has loosed the pangs of death. In stripping off his shroud, he has stripped death of its sting.
Commentary by Peter Johnston
Come See a Man is our illustrated paperback edition of the Gospel of John. Read the unabridged text alongside over 30 illustrations by Stephen Procopio. Now Available.