I have just one class left in our Sunday morning study of the Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus.

I made the point yesterday that I’m sure there is a verse or a text or an observation about the DBR that I failed to cover that someone wishes I had. Oversights like that always happen but they’re rarely intentional! For an example, we spent the first half of the class yesterday talking about the four Gospel accounts and their takes on the Resurrection morning and, sure enough, it slipped my mind to make mention of the napkin in John 20…

So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.
And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.
Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,
And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.
Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.

(John 20:4-8)

If you’re even halfway familiar with this text, you’ve probably heard the story. It’s one of those oft-repeated things that preachers like to tell. Shoot, I’m even guilty of it. The story goes that Jewish people were taught, when eating dinner, to do one of two things with their napkin: If they were finished with dinner, they were to wad up the napkin and throw it on the plate, signifying an end to the meal. If, however, they were stepping away from the table, but expected to come back, they would simply fold the napkin neatly and lay it down, intending to pick it back up again when they returned.

So, from that, comes the idea that the napkin (which was placed over the face of the dead as they were wrapping the body for burial), being found folded in the empty, signified that Jesus would be coming back. And then everyone gets chills, oooh, the naaaaapkin.

Here’s the thing: As far as I can tell, there is nothing about any folded napkin vs wadded napkin tradition common to Jews. Might there be one? Maybe, sure. But I can’t find any record of it. Maybe I missed it. If you have a legit source and actually cites an authority on the subject, I’d love to read it. Otherwise, this is just a “preacher’s tale” and I loathe preacher’s tales.

First of all, what would it even mean that Jesus was “coming back” in this context? This is the morning of His resurrection; we’re not talking about the second coming since He hasn’t even ascended up to Heaven yet. Does it mean “He left the tomb, but He folded the napkin, so He’ll come back…to the tomb”? Is that it? He doesn’t, though. He lingers outside pretending to be the gardener as He talks with Mary Magdalene, but that’s it. Far as I can tell, He leaves the Tomb on Sunday and never steps back inside.

So what’s the deal?

Here’s the thing: The napkin does mean something. John goes out of his way to detail it for us when he wouldn’t have to if it meant nothing to the overall point of the text:

And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.

(John 20:7)

This statement is given to us by John in the context of he and Peter seeing the inside of the tomb and becoming believers that Jesus rose. Seeing the linen clothes and the folded napkin both contributed to their faith. So what’s the deal with Jesus’ little hanky?

Here’s my take…

There are only two possibilities: Either Jesus rose from the dead or Jesus’ body was stolen. That’s it. The Romans didn’t move the body; they were bribed to say the body was stolen. The Jews didn’t move the body, they had a vested interest in Jesus staying right where they left him. The Disciples didn’t move the body; they were freaking out and confused as to what happened to it. So the only other possibility is that Jesus rose.

Now, you might want to offer up a third possibility, that the body of Jesus was stolen by some persons unknown. Here’s the problem with that: Setting aside the fact that there were armed guards keeping watch, let’s suppose that thieves did (A) move the stone, (B) steal the body, (C) return the stone to where it was (because the guards claim they saw the stone move and an angel sit on top), and (D) get past the guards without being seen. If all that happened, does anyone think it would happened…slowly?

What do shoplifters do when they finally grab the candy bar and stick it in their jacket pocket? Do they linger in the store? No. They linger in the store before they steal, but once they get what they got, they book it out of there as fast as possible. Thieves move quickly. That’s just human nature. They don’t take their time to do anything slowly and carefully when they’re making their getaway.

You know what takes time to do slowly and carefully?

Folding a napkin.

If that body was stolen, the napkin would have been as haphazardly discarded as the linen cloth was. Instead, it was deliberately folded. Thus, human nature tells me, the one who folded it was calm, cool, and collected, not hurried, frazzled, or rushed.

Jesus rose. He lifted himself off the rock slab in the tomb, folded his napkin neatly and placed it where he’d been laying, then exited the tomb to life beyond. That’s what’s so special about His little hanky. I don’t need a (potentially) made-up tradition to get chills thinking about it. I only need to look inside the tomb, see it folded there, and believe.

~ Matthew