John’s Gospel: Chapter 20:1-20 (“why are you weeping?”)

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(When it comes to the resurrection, no one can top Handel. The best I can tell, the vocal part is a song by Mary Magdalene, celebrating the good news she learns at the empty tomb.)

(John 20:1-4 ESV) Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.  2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.  4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

Can you imagine how they felt? Surely, the disciples’ first reaction was the same as Mary’s — the grave’s been robbed! After the brutalization Jesus has suffered at the hands of the Romans, could they not at least leave his body alone?!

Then again, the possibility that Jesus might arise would also have been in the back of their minds. It seemed so improbable, but Jesus said some things that suggested he might rise from the grave. Nonetheless, after seeing him defeated and destroyed by the Jewish and Roman authorities, it would have been hard to imagine Jesus overcoming death.

(John 20:5-7 ESV) 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.  6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there,  7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

The Law of Moses made corpses unclean, and hence Jews would not readily enter a tomb. Moreover, the tombs of First Century Jews were typically only 3-feet tall — rather like a modern mausoleum. There was a low shelf, but no room to enter except by crawling or severely stooping. It’s no wonder that Peter was the first willing to take a look. You’d have to be an impetuous sort to do that!

Many readers have speculated as to the significance of how the graveclothes were arranged. But the point of mentioning these details is simple enough. As explained by the NET Bible translators —

 All that the condition of the graveclothes indicated was that the body of Jesus had not been stolen by thieves. Anyone who had come to remove the body (whether the authorities or anyone else) would not have bothered to unwrap it before carrying it off. And even if one could imagine that they had (perhaps in search of valuables such as rings or jewelry still worn by the corpse) they would certainly not have bothered to take time to roll up the face cloth and leave the other wrappings in an orderly fashion.

The human mind does not easily accept the notion of resurrection during this lifetime. But the appearance of the graveclothes surely brought the first moment of real hope, real faith.

Imagine how you might have reacted. Yes, many Jews believed in a resurrection — at the end of the age. But no one expected a resurrection in today’s life. Then again, Jesus had raised Lazarus. But could Jesus raise himself while dead? Could God give life back to Jesus?

It had to be both confusing and yet hopeful. Have you ever been around to hear a doctor say, “Your prayers have been answered. There’s no cancer anymore!” You’d prayed for a miracle. You’d hoped for a miracle. But you were afraid to let yourself believe that there’d really be a miracle. When it happens, it’s actually hard to accept.

It was truly too good to be believed. It’s a struggle to rearrange your preconceptions to fit new evidence.

(John 20:8-9 ESV)  8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

The author explains that the disciples did not yet understand that Jesus would rise. They weren’t expecting this outcome.

If the “other disciple” was Lazarus, then it’s no surprise that he was the first to believe. He’d just been raised from the grave himself.

(John 20:10-13 ESV) 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.  11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.  12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.  13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Although the “other disciple” believed that Jesus had been raised, evidently this view was not shared by the others. Even Mary Magdalene thought Jesus’ body had been stolen. (This is not Mary, the mother of Jesus, as becomes clear in v. 18.)

(John 20:14 ESV)  14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

If you’d never heard this before, you’d be shocked at this verse. How could Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus, not recognize him? Grief would not be enough to explain it. Something very unexpected is going on here.

(John 20:15 ESV)  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Mary then hears his voice, and she still doesn’t recognize him.

(John 20:16 ESV) 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

“Rabboni” would be the correct title for her rabbi.

(John 20:17 ESV) 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

The KJV translates Jesus’ words as “Touch me not,” which has led to all sorts of speculation as to why Mary could not touch Jesus after his resurrection. But most modern translations are similar to the ESV’s “Do not cling to me.” (Leon Morris gives the Greek analysis in the New International Commentary series, and approves the more modern translation.)

The point is not that Jesus cannot be touched but that Mary needs to let him go about his business. He’ll still be around for a while; the Ascension is 40 days away. There’s no need to try to keep him from leaving. Compare Matt. 28:9-10.

“Brothers” evidently refers to the disciples rather than his physical brothers. At least, Mary understood it that way, because she goes to the disciples with Jesus’ message.

“To my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” is an unnatural way to speak. It seems to indicate that Jesus now has a very different relationship with God from that of the disciples.

(John 20:18 ESV)  18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” — and that he had said these things to her.

We see, for a second time in John, Jesus’ willingness to have women be his witnesses. Even though the Oral Law and Jewish culture treated women as incompetent to give testimony in court, Jesus allowed Mary to be the first to see him and to give testimony about him.

(John 20:19-20 ESV)  19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

Later the same day, Jesus appears to his disciples. However, John makes a point of the fact that the door was locked, and yet Jesus managed to come and stand before them.

Clearly, there is something about the resurrected Jesus unlike the pre-resurrection Jesus. He can be touched by Mary. He still shows the scars of the crucifixion. And yet he can enter rooms without opening the door! In fact, he is only recognizable when he chooses to be.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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