The Hidden Tomb (May 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Max Lucado
May, 1992

The road to Calvary was noisy, treacherous and dangerous. And I wasn’t even carrying a cross.

When I thought of walking Christ’s steps to Golgotha, I thought “meditation” and “imagination.” I envisioned myself meditating on Christ’s final hours and imagining the final turmoil. I was wrong. The quiet meditation I didn’t get and the turmoil I didn’t have to imagine.

Walking the Via Dolorosa is not a casual stroll in the steps of the Savior. It is, instead, an upstream struggle against a river of housewives, soldiers, peddlers and children.

“Watch your wallets,” Joe told us. “I already am,” I thought to myself.

Joe Shulam is a Messianic Jew, raised in Jerusalem and held in high regard by both Jew and Gentile. His Rabbinic studies qualify him as a scholar. His archaeological training sets him apart as a researcher. But it is his tandem passion for the Messiah and the lost house of Israel which endears him to so many. We weren’t with a guide; we were with a zealot.

And when a zealot tells you to guard your wallet, you guard your wallet.

Every few steps a street peddler would step in my path and dangle earrings or scarves in my face. I had come for inspiration; instead, I was getting tugs on my sleeves and shouts for my attention. How do you meditate in a market?

For that is what it is. A stretch of road so narrow it bottlenecks body against body. When its sides aren’t canyoned by the tall brick walls, they are lined with centuries-old shops selling everything from toys to dresses to turbans to compact discs. One section of the path is a butcher market. The smell turned my stomach and the sheep guts turned my eyes. Shuffling to catch up with Joseph, I asked him, “Was this street a meat market in the time of Christ?”

“It was,” he answered. “To get to the cross he had to pass through a slaughterhouse.”

It would be a few minutes before the significance of those words would register.

“Stay close,” he yelled over the crowd. “The church is around the corner.”

“It’ll be better at te church,” I thought to myself.

Wrong again.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is 1,700 years of religion wrapped around a rock. In 326, Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, came to Jerusalem in search of the hill on which Christ was crucified. Makarios, Bishop of Jerusalem, took her to a rugged outcropping outside of the northwestern wall of the city, a 20-foot jagged cluster of granite upon which sat a Roman-built temple to Jupiter.

Helena demolished the pagan temple and built a chapel in its place. It seems that every visitor since has had the same idea.

The result is a hill of sacrifice hidden in ornation. Beneath an altar is a gold-plated hole in which the cross was supposedly lodged. Three crucified icons with elongated faces hang on crosses behind the altar.

Gold lanterns. Madonna statues. Candles and dim lights. I didn’t know what to think. I was at once moved because of where I was standing and disturbed at what I was seeing.

The traditional burial spot of Christ is under the same roof as the traditional Golgotha. To see it, you don’t have to go outside. You do, however, have to use your imagination. Two thousand years and a million tourists ago, this was a cemetery. Today it’s a cathedral. The ceiling domes high above are covered with ornate paintings. I stopped and tried to envision it in its original state. I couldn’t.

An elaborate sepulcher marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ tomb. Forty-three lamps hang above the portal and candelabra sets in front of it. The Czar of Russia donated the edifice and did so at no small expense. it is solid marble, cornered with golden leaves.

An elevated stone path led into the doorway and a black-caped, black-bearded, black-hatted priest stood guard in front of it. Fifty-plus people were standing in line to enter but he wouldn’t let them. I didn’t understand the purpose of the delay, but the length of it he spoke in a language I could understand.

“Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes.”

The crowd of people mumbled. I mumbled. I came as close to the door as I could. The floor was inlaid with still more squares of marble, and lanterns hung from the ceiling.

The sum total of the walk began to register with me. Holy road packed with peddlers. The cross hidden under an altar. The entrance to the tomb prohibited by a priest.

I had just muttered something about the temple needing another cleansing when I heard someone call. “No problem, come this way.” It was Joe Shulam speaking. He must have known what I was thinking, because what he showed me next I will never forget.

He took us behind the elaborate cupola and guided us into a plain room. It was dark. It was musty. It was unkempt and dusty, obviously not a place designed for tourists.

While our eyes adjusted to the dark, he began to speak. “Six or so of these have been found, but are seldom visited.” Behind him was a small opening. It was a rock-hewn tomb. Four feet high at the most. The width about the same.

“Wouldn’t it be ironic,” he smiled as he spoke, “if this was the place. It is dirty. It is uncared for. It is forgotten. The one over there is elaborate and ornate. This one simple and ignored. Wouldn’t it be ironic if this was the place where our Lord was buried?”

We walkd over to the opening and stopped like the Apostle John did to see in the tomb. And, just like John, we were amazed at what we saw.

“Go in,” Joe invited. I didn’t have to be told twice.

Three steps across the dusty rock floor and I was at the other side. The low ceiling forced me to squat and lean against a cold, rough wall. My eyes had to adjust a second time. As they did, I sat in the silence, the first moment of silence that day. It began to occur to me where I was. I was in a tomb. A tomb which could have held the body of Christ. A tomb which could have witnessed history’s greatest moment.

I hadn’t noticed it, but on the backside of the wall were two openings. Two holes hewn into the stone each deep enough to hold a body.

I walked over to the openings and squatted down. “Would you like to go in?” Once again, I accepted Joe’s invitation. I slid my legs into the hole and laid on my back.

“God put himself in a place like this,” someone said softly.

He did. He put himself in a dark, tight, claustrophobic room and allowed them to seal it shut. The Light of the World was mummied in cloth and shut in ebony.

We didn’t dare speak. No one could. Anything spoken seemed shallow.

After a few moments the silence was broken with a spontaneous prayer which a co-traveler could contain no longer. “God, thank you that you got out of here.”

The elaborate altars were forgotten. The priest-protected sepulcher was a world away. What mad had done to decorate what God came to do no longer mattered.

All I could see at that moment, perhaps more than any moment, was how far he had come. More than the God in the burning bush. Beyond the infant wrapped in a feed trough. Past the adolescent Savior in Nazareth. Even surpassing the King of Kings nailed to a tree and mounted on a hill was this: God in a tomb.

Nothing is blacker than a grave – as lifeless as a pit – as permanent as the crypt.

But into the crypt he came. Why? Because he would never ask us to go where he hasn’t been first.

The next time you find yourself entombed in a darkened world of fear – remember that. The next time pain boxes you in a world of horror – remember the tomb. The next time a stone seals shut your exit to peace – think about the empty musty tomb outside of Jerusalem.

It’s not always easy to find. To see it you may have to get beyond the pressures of people demanding your attention. You may have to slip past the golden altars and ornate statues. To see it, you may even have to bypass the chamber near the priest and slip into an ante-room and look for yourself. Sometimes the hardest place to find the tomb is in a cathedral.

But it’s there. Past the peddlers. Beyond the altars. Somewhere behind the elaborate gifts of earthly rulers is a simple tomb. And when you see it, bow down, enter quietly and look closely. For there, on the wall, you may see the charred marks of a divine explosion.

Max Lucado

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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