So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were
running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb
first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there
but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived
and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as
well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The
cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally
the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went
inside. He saw and believed.
We celebrated Easter last Sunday at church and at home. For our Easter dinner with the family, I even got out the good tablecloth and cloth napkins. While folding the clean linens before putting them away, I thought about Jesus and His grave cloths. Although His body had been wrapped in burial cloths and a napkin placed around His head, when Jesus rose from the dead He no longer needed them. He left these items in the empty tomb. Now I wonder, is there any similarity between my tablecloth and Jesus’ strips of linen? How about my napkins and the cloth that had been around the head of Jesus? I pondered upon these ideas while I finished the laundry and then decided to search the Internet. Surprise! I am not the only one to think about the grave cloths of Jesus. I have read numerous articles and now I want to transform my thoughts into words.
While online, I had a lesson regarding the Greek language. The Greek word for the burial cloth wrapped around Jesus’ head is “saudarion” and means a towel or a cloth. It is not a napkin as I think of it today. The other interesting Greek word is “entulisso” meaning to twist or entwine. This word is translated in the NIV Bible as “folded up.” Other translations use such words as wrapped up or folded together or simply lying apart from the other wrappings. So much for the similarities between my folding napkins and what Jesus did with the burial cloth for His head! Some of the words may be the same but there are definitely different definitions.
I read about a legend regarding the meaning of folded and unfolded napkins for the Hebrew people. It said that an unfolded napkin left at the table meant that the person was finished and would not be returning to the table. However, a folded napkin meant the person would return to the table at a later time. The analogy was made saying that Jesus was relaying the message that He would return to earth when He left “the folded napkin” of the burial cloth for His head. This could relate to John 14:2-3 where Jesus tells His disciples, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” However, as I read other reviews regarding this concept, I discovered that no Bible commentators give any credence to these concepts. In fact, the people during this time period used a hand washing ceremony rather than table napkins. Although there is no validity to this story, I like the thought of it. It even goes along with my original idea of comparing my table linens to Jesus’ burial linens. (Thinking back to the appearance of our table at the conclusion of our dinner on Sunday, I am quite sure no one is coming back because all I found were crumpled napkins.)
The most valuable insight I learned from my Internet searching relates to the importance of Jesus leaving behind the grave cloths. When Peter and John found the grave cloths in the empty tomb, it proved that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead and His body had not been stolen. Empty burial cloths without a body was resurrection proof. It did not matter whether the cloths were napkins or towels or whether they were folded or twisted. The fact was that the tomb was empty even though Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had buried the body. (John 19:38-42) After Peter and John left the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene lingered outside the tomb weeping because she thought Jesus’ body had been taken away. She then not only saw two angels seated where Jesus’ body had been laid, but she personally encountered the risen Lord Himself. Jesus met Mary at the tomb but He was not dead in the tomb. (John 20:10-18)
My tablecloth and napkins are now placed in the linen closet until the next time we have special company. However, the importance of Jesus’ resurrection has not been put out of my mind. Even though there are no legitimate similarities between my table linens and the empty grave cloths of Jesus, I do not think my time of contemplating comparisons has been wasted. Anything that reminds me of the death and resurrection of Jesus has value. Paul says in Philippians 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Like Paul, I want to continue to grow in my knowledge of Christ and His power. Being aware of signs and symbols that remind me of Jesus helps me to attain this goal. I never want to distort what the scriptures say, but I also want to be open to resurrection reminders within my natural surroundings.