Easter, Part One

When the tomb was empty, John 20:1—18

Had the Gospel of John ended with chapter 19, it would not have been exceptional.  Up to the end of chapter 19, we have an accurate record of one Man’s life and death, which is what all biographies are.  Without the Resurrection chapter, we have the story of a good man, philosopher, and teacher.  However, what sets the story of this good Man apart from all others is His Resurrection.  All historians readily admit the life and death of Jesus Christ; the evidence that He walked the earth is overwhelming.  But the Resurrection is different; Jesus did not appear to just anybody, but He did appear to many—

After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.  (Acts 1:3)

Jesus appeared only to men and women who had faith in Him.   The only time our Lord will ever reveal Himself to sinners will be when He comes in judgment.

It is the Resurrection of Jesus that gives faith its power.  It is so important that, while the life and death of Jesus are important events, no event is more important the Resurrection of Christ.   That is what we are celebrating today, Easter Sunday.  It’s really too bad that the Resurrection of our Lord is so often observed only on Easter.  As some scholars point out, all the sermons in the New Testament, beginning with Peter’s Pentecostal sermon, have the Resurrection as their theme.

1.  An empty tomb, John 20:1—9

John’s Resurrection account begins on Sunday morning, the first day of the week.  While John only mentions Mary Magdalene, the Synoptic Gospels mention that others accompanied her to the tomb of Jesus:  Mary, the mother of James, Salome, Joanne, and it is likely that others were there (see Luke 23, 24).

It’s sort of ironic that the first person to notice that Jesus was not in his tomb was the very woman in who dwelt seven demons before Jesus rescued her and cast them out.   As she and the others approached the tomb, they were greeting by a strange thing:  the stone had been removed from the entrance.

I’d like to know why?  Why did that stone have to be rolled back?  We know that Jesus in His “resurrection body” could walk through locked doors; a stone placed at the doorway to His tomb certainly wouldn’t have kept Him inside!   Most scholars see two reasons for the stone removal:

  • In order to make it plain and obvious that the grave had been conquered; that Jesus Christ had achieved victory over death.  The tomb with an open doorway was symbolic; an image they would never forget.
  • In order that Peter and John might be able to enter the tomb and so that everybody else could see into the tomb and see that is was, in fact, empty.

So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”  (verse 2)

The “other disciple” was John; he always referred to himself like that in his Gospel.  Clearly, Mary Magdalene was not expecting the Resurrection; she thought that somebody, for some reason, had stolen His body.  She probably thought that the enemies of Jesus had taken His body.  It’s funny that the enemies of Jesus would later accuse His disciples of that very same thing.

Quickly, Peter and John ran back to the tomb to investigate the goings on there.  As we read verse 3, it seems they started out walking (“started out” implies walking), then in verse 4 they break into a run, then John outruns Peter to reach the tomb first.

What made these men change from walking to running?   The answer could lie in what else Mary Magdalene told them.  From Matthew’s Resurrection chapter we have added details—

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  (Matthew 28:1—10, verses 9, 10 cited)

John reached the tomb first, and seeing the graveclothes, would not enter.  He was not thinking about a resurrection, on the contrary John was filled with fear.  Peter, however, was not at all reticent about going into the tomb, so he barged right past John and entered in.

Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.  Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.  (20:6—8)

In an instant, Peter knew that the body of Jesus could not have been stolen.  The tomb was NOT disturbed in any way.  A grave robber might have thrown the gravecothes all over the place, yet here they neatly piled; graveclothes without a body.  Verse 8 ends with the statement that John saw the evidence and “believed.”

In this paragraph, there are three different Greek words translated as “see” or “saw,” but in the original they all have slightly different shades of meaning.  In verse 5, we are told that when John stooped down, he looked in the tomb and “saw,” which means “to perceive and understand.”  In the second instance, verse 6, Peter went in and “saw” the gravecothes.  This time the word translated “saw” is theaomai (“theatre”), meaning Peter “viewed” the scene in front of him.  Finally, in verse 8, John went into the tomb and “saw,” which means “to know.”  John knew and believed what had happened before he ever laid his eyes on the risen Christ.  What amazing faith he must have had!

While John “believed,” none of the disciples had a complete understanding of Scripture, but they could not doubt the evidence of the empty tomb.  Their faith in the risen Lord was real, but they still had much to learn, and that would happen on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the infant Church.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, they would at last be able to grasp the grandeur of Scripture.

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  (John 16:13)

2.  Jesus’ appears to Mary Magdalene, John 20:10—18

There were a total of 11 personal appearances of Jesus before His ascension and three after His ascension.  Here we have His first personal appearance.   Some may wonder why Jesus would appear first to Mary Magdalene.  We can’t know for sure, but a Proverb comes to mind—

I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.  (Proverbs 8:17)

This was one Mary who loved Jesus and sought Him.

Everyone went home, probably a little puzzled about what they had seen, or what they hadn’t seen in the tomb.  We wonder if they rejoiced.  Perhaps, although their faith was not quite formed yet, it soon would be.  One of their number, however, couldn’t leave the tomb of her Lord.  Mary Magdalene remained behind, brokenhearted.  When she looked into the tomb, what she saw must have shocked her.

[She] saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. (verse 12)

Apparently these angels appeared in the form of men, dressed in white, symbolizing holiness, joy, and victory.  We are told that heaven has an extreme interest in Christ’s Resurrection and it would seem strange to not see angels!  But why did they appear only to this woman?  Why did they not appear to the disciples?  Some have suggested it was because the faith of the men was much stronger than that of Mary and the other women.  This is unlikely, in my view, given the fact Mary and other women had a singular devotion to Christ during His ministry and now in His death.  Maybe this angelic communication was a sort of reward for the faith they did have.

Implied in their question in verse 13, “Woman, why are you crying?”, is the sense that crying was the last thing Mary should be doing!  A Resurrection was grounds for rejoicing, not crying.  But she did not understand yet; she saw with her eyes the evidence of a Resurrection, but her mind, full of sadness and grief, was unable to process what should have been obvious.  Sometimes life is like that for us.  Instead of exercising simple, child-like faith, we have a difficult time changing our habitual ways of thinking.  It’s difficult, though by no means impossible, for the Lord to work around our rebellious minds.

What follows must surely be one of the most touching vignettes in all of Scripture—

At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”  Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”   (verses 14—15)

Why would Mary turn away from the angels?  Perhaps she heard a rustling of leaves behind her.  But turn she did, and she came face to face with her Lord, although she did not recognize Him right away.  It is always puzzling when we read that when Jesus appeared to some of His followers they did not recognize Him, and we wonder why.  Obviously her love for Christ was great, but she did not believe in His Resurrection yet.  Unbelief will blind a person to the truth.  Love is fine, but love alone is not enough; it must be joined with faith. When that happens, the scales fall from our eyes.

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”  She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).  (verse 16)

One word changed Mary’s sadness to joy.  No gardener would have known her name.  In fact, Jesus used her original, Aramaic name of Miriam, not the Greek Mary.  Throughout His life, Jesus referred to her as Miriam.  Her parents and family would have called her Miriam.  She knew this Man was no gardener!  She exclaimed, also in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”

3.  The need to let go, John 20:17, 18

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Even though it is not stated, upon realizing it was her Lord she was talking to, Mary must have embraced Him.  In response to her action, Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me.”  It wasn’t that He didn’t want to be touched; He later encouraged Thomas to do just that!  Jesus still had to complete the work He began; He had to return to the Father.  No amount of love can change the will of God.  Many of us try to hold onto Jesus with our tears or promises when we want Him to act on our behalf.  Even with the best of motives, we must always respect God’s will.  Mary did not want to lose her Lord, but He would have leave here to complete His mission.  Of course, the wonderful truth is that upon returning to His Father, Jesus would send the Comforter to dwell with Mary and all believers forever, and the Holy Spirit is simply Christ in another form—distinct from Him and separate, yet the same.

The way Jesus spoke of God the Father is very interesting and noteworthy.  Notice His exact words:  ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Jesus  never addressed God as “our Father” or “our God.”  The Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus gave the disciples, was not prayed by Jesus, it was meant to be prayed by the disciples.  Jesus was not telling Mary that there were two gods, His and hers, but that her relationship to God was different than His.  Mary, and all believers, become the children of God upon having faith in Jesus Christ.  But Christ, as the Second Person of the Trinity, is the eternal Son of God.

Mary probably wanted to stay in the presence of her Lord, but not only did He have a job to do, so did Mary:  she had to go and tell others that Jesus had rose from the dead.  Some of us may prefer to remain in the Lord’s presence, too, but our job is exactly that of Mary’s:  tell others the glorious news that we serve a risen Savior!

(c)  2010, WitzEnd

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