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John 20:1-18 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 20-21. WITNESSES TO THE RESURRECTION
In these chapters, Jesus makes the following appearances to his disciples in Judea:
• Mary Magdalene (20:11-17).
• The disciples, the eleven less Thomas (20:19-23).
• The disciples, including Thomas (20:24-29).
And these appearances in Galilee:
• Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee (James and John), and two unnamed disciples (21:1-14).
• Peter (21:15-19).
• The beloved disciples (21:20-25).
Christ’s resurrection is central to the Christian faith. The Incarnation and crucifixion were necessary preludes, but the resurrection is the keystone of Jesus’ ministry. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins…. But now Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17, 20).
Seeing the risen Christ transformed Jesus’ little band of disciples and gave them courage to come out from behind locked doors to face danger in Christ’s name. There is no other explanation for their newfound and persistent courage than that they had seen the risen Christ.
JOHN 20:1-2. ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK
1Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went early, while it was still dark, to the tomb, and saw the stone taken away from the tomb. 2Therefore she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him!”
“Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went early, while it was still dark” (v. 1a). People believe that the dead person’s spirit remains in the vicinity of the tomb for three days, so they commonly visit the tomb during the first three days after burial. However, Sabbath regulations prohibit such visits on the Sabbath, so the earliest that Mary can visit is sundown on our Saturday evening, which ends the Sabbath and begins the first day of the week. Mark’s Gospel places this visit “very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen,” but John’s Gospel tells us that it is still dark.
None of the Gospels (see Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1) speak of this as the third day after the crucifixion, but rather as the first day of the week. Perhaps they want to emphasize the new day ushered in by Jesus’ resurrection.
This Gospel has used the words “dark” and “darkness” several times, usually to speak of spiritual darkness (1:5; 3:9; 8:12; 12:35, 46). Perhaps John’s use of the word “dark” in verse 1 reflects the darkness of Mary’s understanding at this point. Jesus will switch on the light for her in verse 16, but for the moment her world is as dark as it can be.
“Mary Magdalene went … to the tomb” (v. 1b). Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40 say that Mary Magdalene is accompanied by Salome and Mary, the mother of James. Luke 24:10 has Mary Magdalene accompanied by Joanna and Mary, the mother of James. John mentions only Mary Magdalene, but in verse 2, Mary says, “we don’t know,” suggesting that she might have been accompanied by others.
John does not tell us the purpose of Mary’s visit. The Gospel of Mark says that the women “bought spices, that they might come and anoint him” (Mark 16:1), but in this Gospel Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took care of the anointing (19:38-40). Given that Mary expected the tomb to be closed, it would seem that she has come only to grieve and to pay her respects. Jesus delivered her from seven demons (Luke 8:2), and her devotion to him is considerable.
“and saw the stone taken away from the tomb” (v. 1c). The Synoptics describe the stone as having been rolled away, and Matthew says than an angel rolled it away (Matthew 28:2). In Matthew 28, an angel tells the women that Jesus has risen. In Mark 16, the messenger is a young man dressed in white. In Luke 24, the women enter the tomb, but do not find the body. John doesn’t speak of a messenger or of Mary going inside the tomb. Perhaps she does so, or perhaps she infers from the open tomb that Jesus is missing. She does not even consider that Jesus might have risen from the dead. She concludes, logically enough, that someone has taken Jesus’ body from the tomb. Perhaps it was the authorities visiting one further indignity on Jesus. Perhaps it was grave robbers. Imagine the emotional impact of finding the desecrated grave of a loved one. Mary has been grieving. Now she is shocked—horrified.
“Therefore she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (v. 2a). Mary goes to Peter, in part, because he is a leader of the disciples. Also Peter (18:15-18, 25-27) and the beloved disciple (19:26-27) remained in the vicinity rather than fleeing with the other disciples, so they were witnesses to Jesus’ death.
The presence of these two disciples at the tomb is important, because it establishes two legal witnesses (the number required by Torah law) to the empty tomb. As a woman, Mary has no legal standing as a witness.
“and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved” This beloved disciple appears five times in this Gospel.
• The first was as the disciples celebrated the Passover meal with Jesus. “One of (Jesus’) disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him” (13:23).
• At the cross, “when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!'” (19:26-27).
• When Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb, “she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (20:2).
• When Jesus appeared to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee, “That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It’s the Lord!'” (21:7).
• Later, “Peter, turning around, saw a disciple following. This was the disciple whom Jesus sincerely loved…. (Peter) said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I desire that he stay until I come, what is that to you? You follow me.’ This saying therefore went out among the brothers, that this disciple wouldn’t die. Yet Jesus didn’t say to him that he wouldn’t die, but, ‘If I desire that he stay until I come, what is that to you?'” (21:20-23).
Early Christians believed that this beloved disciple was John, the son of Zebedee, but there is no scholarly consensus today concerning that. The scriptures don’t identify the beloved disciple, so he could have been John—or one of the other apostles—or Lazarus, whom Jesus loved (11:3). We know only that he was male and a disciple (19:26-27). Anything beyond that is speculation.
“They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb” (v. 2b). Mary sees but fails to see. She makes assumptions based on her experience that bodies do not simply disappear. Presumably the authorities have removed the body as part of their effort to erase Jesus’ memory—or perhaps grave robbers have stolen the body.
“and we don’t know where they have laid him” (v. 2c). Note the plural “we,” which suggests that Mary had companions on this visit, which is the way that the Synoptic Gospels report it.
JOHN 20:3-10. HE SAW THE LINEN CLOTHS LYING
3Therefore Peter and the other disciple went out, and they went toward the tomb. 4They both ran together. The other disciple outran Peter, and came to the tomb first. 5Stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths lying, yet he didn’t enter in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and entered into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying, 7and the cloth (Greek: soudarian—face cloth) that had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself. 8So then the other disciple who came first to the tomb also entered in, and he saw and believed. 9For as yet they didn’t know the Scripture, that he must (Greek: dei—it is necessary—a divine imperative) rise from the dead. 10So the disciples went away again to their own homes.
“Therefore Peter and the other disciple went out, and they went toward the tomb” (v. 3). It is interesting to see the interplay between Peter and the beloved disciple. Peter is clearly the leader of the disciples, but in this Gospel, Peter felt it necessary to go through the beloved disciple to learn who the betrayer would be (13:23-26)—and it will be the beloved disciple rather than Peter who is inspired to belief by the empty tomb (v. 8)—and it will be the beloved disciple rather than Peter who will first recognize Jesus in his post-resurrection appearance (21:7-8).
“They both ran together. The other disciple outran Peter, and came to the tomb first” (v. 4). They run together for a bit, but then the beloved disciple outruns Peter and arrives at the tomb first. Scholars suggest that this might mean that the two men are rivals—or that the beloved disciple is younger and more vigorous than Peter—or that his love for Jesus empowers him to run faster—but these suggestions are all speculative.
“Stooping and looking in, he (the other disciple) saw the linen cloths lying, yet he didn’t enter in” (v. 5). The opening to the tomb would be only about three feet (one meter) high, so it would be necessary to bend down to see inside. We aren’t told how the beloved disciple can see inside the dark tomb. Perhaps he carries a torch. In any event, it is important that he sees inside, because he will be one of the two required witnesses to the resurrection.
“Then Simon Peter came, following him, and entered the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying, and the cloth (soudarian—face cloth) that had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself” (vv. 6-7). Some scholars propose that these grave clothes are lying in place as if Jesus’ body has somehow dematerialized, letting the clothing settle into place where his body laid. However, John says that the soudarian is lying apart from the rest of the grave clothes and has been rolled up. If Jesus had dematerialized, the soudarian would be near the rest of the grave clothes and would not be rolled up.
The grave clothes serve three functions in this story:
• First, they provide visual evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. The body is gone, but the grave clothes remind us that Jesus body was there.
• Second, they provide evidence that Jesus’ body was not stolen. Grave robbers would not leave behind valuable linen cloth, and neither grave robbers nor Jewish authorities would take time to remove clothing from a body, delaying their escape and increasing the risk of discovery. Indeed, the orderly scene that John describes here is not what we would expect at the scene of a robbery or abduction.
• Third, they serve a theological function. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus emerged from the tomb still wrapped in his burial clothes. Jesus had to command bystanders to free him so that Lazarus might resume his normal earthly life (11:38-44). However, when Jesus emerged from the tomb, he did so unencumbered.
“So then the other disciple who came first to the tomb also entered in, and he saw and believed” (v. 8). Believed what? Apparently that Jesus has been raised from the dead. In the next verse, John says that “they didn’t know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (v. 9a)—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this disciple didn’t believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Some scholars think that he simply believes the truth of Mary’s report that Jesus’ body is missing, but that seems too trivial for this context.
We aren’t sure what scripture they failed to understand. Possibly “For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption” (Psalm 16:10).
It seems that the sight of the grave clothes and the tomb have awakened some sort of fledgling belief in the beloved disciple that he would be hard-pressed to define. He finds himself somewhere between hope and faith, not understanding what has happened but feeling at some deep level that it must be wonderful. Many of us came to faith in just such a manner. We believed in a Lord whom we knew only in small part, and we recognized the incompleteness of our faith. In later years, our faith deepened and our ability to articulate it grew but, looking back, we nevertheless understand that there was something wonderful even about our immature, inarticulate faith. It is very possible that the writer of this Gospel is also the beloved disciple, who in telling of Jesus’ resurrection is also telling this story of the birth of his own belief.
“that he must (dei – it is necessary) rise from the dead” (v. 9b). The word “must” (Greek: dei—it is necessary—a divine imperative) is important, because it points to the Father’s hand in Jesus’ resurrection.
In any event, the beloved disciple sees more clearly than Peter, who sees without believing. He also believes more readily than Thomas, who will require irrefutable evidence (20:25).
“So the disciples went away again to their own homes” (v. 10). If they were truly convinced that Jesus were alive, they would surely shout it from the housetops. Their return to their homes reflects their uncertainty about what they should do next.
JOHN 20:11-18. JESUS SAID TO HER, “MARY!”
11But Mary was standing outside at the tomb weeping. So, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb, 12and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13They told her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, and didn’t know that it was Jesus.
15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”
She, supposing him to be the gardener, said to him, “Sir (Greek: kyrie), if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him, “Rabboni!” which is to say, “Teacher!”
17Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold me, for I haven’t yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brothers, and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”
18Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had said these things to her.
“But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping. So, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (vv. 11-12). Mary returns to the tomb to find two angels sitting where Jesus had lain, like the two gold cherubim who sat at either end of the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18).
“Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 13a). Neither Peter nor the beloved disciple saw the angels, and Mary does not recognize them as angels.
The angels ask Mary why she is crying, and she explains through her tears that “because they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him” (v. 13b). Who is “they”? Roman soldiers? Jewish leaders? Grave robbers? Mary doesn’t say. She is struggling to understand this truly terrible turn of events.
“When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, and didn’t know that it was Jesus” (v. 14). Mary fails to recognize Jesus. Perhaps her vision is clouded by tears. Perhaps her grief so overwhelms her that she cannot think clearly. Perhaps, since she came looking for a dead man, her mind is incapable of recognizing a live man. We often see what we expect to see, and fail to recognize the unexpected that is right in front of our face. Perhaps Jesus’ body has been transformed so that he is not immediately recognizable.
“Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” (v. 15a). Jesus repeats the question that the angels just asked.
“She, supposing him to be the gardener, said to him, ‘Sir (kyrie), if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (v. 15b). Mary addresses Jesus, whom she assumes to be the gardener, with the word, kyrie, which can mean Sir or Lord. She surely intends it to mean Sir here, but kyrie is a fitting way to address Jesus, who is Lord.
In her devotion to Jesus, Mary seeks to learn where she might find Jesus’ body so that she might “take him away” —a task that would be difficult both emotionally and physically. How she would convey the body from one place to another is hardly her first concern. She believes that Jesus’ body has been dishonored, and she is determined to see that he is accorded the honor that he deserves. If she can persuade this man to tell her where she can find Jesus’ body, she will find a way to do what needs to be done.
There is irony here. Jesus’ opponents, because of their hostility, failed to see the Messiah in their midst. Now Jesus’ friend, because of her love, also fails to see.
There is something lovely about Jesus making his first resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene. We would think that he would grant this honor to one of the inner-circle disciples or to his mother. But God’s ways are not our ways. We would not have picked Mary Magdalene for this honor, but neither would we have picked sly Jacob to carry on the promise of a great nation—or boy David to slay the giant—or persecutor Saul to be a missionary. God calls whom God calls.
“Mary” (v. 16a). Jesus addresses Mary by name. Hearing her name and Jesus’ voice, Mary recognizes him and addresses him, “Rabboni (which is to say “Teacher!”)” (v. 16b). Out of consideration for non-Jewish readers, John explains that Rabboni means teacher. In verse 13, Mary addressed Jesus as kyrie, which can mean as little as Sir or as much as Lord. Rabboni is a higher title than Sir but a lesser title than Lord.
Mary, like the disciples at Emmaus, does not recognize Jesus until a specific act lifts the veil from their eyes. The disciples at Emmaus recognized him when he broke bread with them. Mary recognizes him when he calls her by name. This incident reminds us of Jesus words, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (10:3-4).
“Don’t hold me, for I haven’t yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brothers, and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'” (v. 17). This verse has generated a great deal of scholarly comment. Why does Jesus prohibit Mary from touching him but later invite Thomas to do so (v. 27)? When Jesus speaks of his brothers, is he talking about his earthly brothers or his disciples? How does the ascension account in John’s Gospel relate to that in Luke-Acts?
Scholars differ on these matters, but most believe that Mary has thrown herself at Jesus’ feet and is clinging to him in her great joy. Jesus commands her not to cling to him, because he is ascending to the father. He cannot allow himself to be encumbered by her grasping arms, and she cannot keep him from continuing his earthly and heavenly work.
This can be confusing, because Luke tells of Jesus’ ascension as an event that takes place in a moment of time forty days after the resurrection while the disciples watch (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:1-11). However, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am ascending” (present tense, which in the Greek describes an event in process). Most scholars believe that, in this Gospel, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are all part of a single event—Jesus’ glorification (12:23; 13:31; 14:13; 17:1, 4-5, 24; 21:19; Lincoln, 493; Keener, 1195). Mary is not to interrupt this glorification process by clinging to Jesus.
“go to my brothers.” The Eastern Church considered Mary to be isapostolos—equal to the apostles—because an apostle was a witness to the resurrection who was then sent by Christ to be his envoy. Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrected Christ, and was the first person to be sent by Jesus to testify to the resurrection (Keener, 1178; Lincoln, 494-495).
Rather than clinging to Jesus, Mary is to go to his brothers, his disciples. He and his disciples are brothers by virtue of the fact that they share a common Father, “my Father and your Father…, my God and your God” (v. 17b). This is the first time in this Gospel that Jesus has referred to the disciples as brothers (see also 21:23).
Elsewhere, Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven… is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:50). Now, following his resurrection, he acknowledges that these disciples are his brothers and sisters.
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (v. 17b). This Gospel doesn’t include an account of the ascension. Some scholars have taken Jesus’ present-tense comment, “I am ascending,” to mean that the ascension will take place shortly rather than forty days later, as specified by Luke 24:50-51and Acts 1:3, 6-11 (both by the same author). However, nothing in this verse would rule out a forty-day delay.
Mary obeys by going to the disciples and announcing, “that she had seen the Lord” and by telling them all that he had said to her (v. 18).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan