Our Lord, leaving His tomb for the last time.

JOHN 20, 21

What sets the biographies of Jesus Christ apart from all other biographies are the accounts of His miraculous Resurrection. Everybody dies, but not everybody rises from the dead! And so John 20 begins the story after the story of the life and times of Jesus Christ.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. (20:1)

How fitting it is for John to begin his account of the Resurrection with the experience of Mary Magdalene. She had been forgiven of so much and her love for Jesus was genuine and boundless. What she saw would change the course of history: the stone had been removed; the initial evidence of the Resurrection.  Perhaps out of fear, she went no further, but instead went to get Peter and John and told them an amazing thing:

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (verse 2)

That she had reached the wrong conclusion about what she saw led to Barclay to describe Mary as “the great example of bewildered love.” She couldn’t believe her eyes and jumped to the obvious (and wrong) conclusion.

Upon reaching the tomb, John arrived first, followed tentatively by Peter, who entered the tomb while John stayed outside for a moment. What Peter saw, and what John would later see, caused John “to believe” that Jesus had truly risen from the dead (verses 8, 9).

Inside the empty tomb, 20:6, 7

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.

Peter had no fear when he reached the tomb, so went straight in. He saw Jesus’ grave clothes (the strips of linen soaked in herbs and spices) lying there but the thing that caught his eye (and John’s) was the head cloth. It was separate from the rest and “still lying in its place.” What does that mean? It means that it was still holding the shape and contour of Jesus’ head! Clearly, no grave robber would have left the grave clothes lying in the exact, orderly position Peter was observing. The tomb must have looked for all intents and purposes as though Jesus has simply removed all of His grave clothes and neatly left them lying there.

John does not give any indication that Peter immediately figured out what he was bearing witness to; namely, that Jesus had risen from the grave. We get the impression that he reached that conclusion a little later than did John. John saw exactly the same things Peter saw, but believed the evidence of his eyes immediately. He had no vision of the risen Christ; the mere sight of the empty tomb and the abandoned grave clothes was enough to convince John that Jesus was no longer dead; that He had indeed risen. The parenthetical observation of verse 9 should be noted:

(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

Evidently, these disciples had not understood the many Old Testament Scriptures that foretold of this very event. Even with the Lord’s help and teaching, their minds failed to grasp those elemental truths.

Personal appearances

    What followed the discovery of the empty tomb is a series of personal appearances of Jesus Christ to certain individuals. John is very careful to note that his intention in writing his account of the Resurrection was not to provide an exhaustive account; he just wanted to “hit the high points” of the story in order to help his readers believe. In fact, that was his purpose in writing the entire Gospel:

    Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (verses 30, 31)

    • Mary Magdalene.

    After Peter and John left the empty tomb to return home, Mary Magdalene remained behind. We have no indication that she entered the tomb and saw what the disciples had seen, but what she did saw must have made her jaw drop!

    [She] saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. (verse 11)

    When they spoke to her, inexplicably she exhibited neither fear nor awe; she remained concerned about the disappearance of her Lord. She believed His body had been stolen; the incongruity of that conclusion escaped her. The empty grave clothes apparently meant nothing to Mary, if she noticed them at all. A singular lesson can be learned here. God comes to people in different ways, always respecting their temperaments. All John needed to see was some bandages on the ground for him to believe. Mary Magdalene needed a little more.

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

    After the angels, Jesus appeared to her, yet she did not recognize Him. There are likely three good reasons why. First, she was looking for a dead Christ, not a living one. Second, Mary did not seek Him, the living Lord, out, He came to her. Third, even though she wanted to find Jesus with all her heart, when she found Him, she did not recognize Him. Jesus comes in unsuspected ways! Much has been written about what Jesus said to her:

    “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” (verse 17)

    It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t want to be touched; He would later encourage Thomas to do just that so that he would believe. Jesus was simply telling Mary not to hold Him, for He had not yet ascended to the Father. The key in understanding why Jesus said what He said were His instructions to Mary to go to the disciples and give them the news of His Resurrection. What a great lesson for modern believers latch onto: our faith is meant to be spread, not held onto; Jesus is meant to be shared, not kept to oneself.

    • The Ten.

    What John records as the second appearance of Jesus is really the third because he does not include the appearances to Simon and to the travelers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13—35). Jesus came to the Ten in order to calm their collective fears. They had much to fear; narrowly escaping arrest in the Garden along with Jesus, they could well be considered political agitators and religious troublemakers. Doubtless, the religious leaders would have been on the lookout for any gathering of Jesus’ followers.

    Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (verse 19)

    John does not indicate how Jesus entered the room; the doors were locked tight. His words of greeting are significant: “Peace be with you.” He had already given them peace as a parting gift back in 14:27, so why did they need it now? The peace Jesus gives is abiding peace that rests within the believer by faith; it is independent of outside influences. Sometimes, however, that faith is shaken by outside circumstances, and when that happens, Jesus in His grace comes and gives even more peace. He not only wished the peace, but vindicated their faith by proving His claims—

    [H]e showed them his hands and side. (verse 20)

    This dispelled any doubt that contributed to their fear. But John records something else He gave them in addition to peace: a mission and the Holy Spirit. This bestowal of the Holy Spirit is not the same as that described in Acts 2:4. This is an initial filling similar to the way Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb, and just as Jesus needed to be baptized in the Spirit before He began His ministry, so the disciples would need a further empowering of the Spirit in order to fulfill their commission. This commission included a special kind of authority—

    If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (verse 23)

    What is the nature of this authority? Were the disciples really given the authority to forgive a sinners’ sin? The Greek construction of the sentence gives us a clue as to what Jesus was getting at—“Those whose sins you forgive have already been forgiven; those whose sins you do not forgive have not been forgiven.” A.T. Robertson’s thoughts are illuminating:

    What [Jesus] commits to the disciples and to us is the power and privilege of giving assurance of forgiveness of sins by God by correctly announcing the terms of that forgiveness.

    In other words, we do not decide who will be forgiven nor does God grant forgiveness based on our wishes. Believers announce forgiveness; we do not create it. This is the Gospel! This is the essence of what salvation is all about, and this is the glorious message the disciples were being commissioned to bring to the world.

    • To Thomas and the Ten.

    We don’t know why Thomas was absent from the gather of the Ten. He should have been with the others. Because he was absent, he missed out on the peace and the blessing of the Holy Spirit’s presence. And he surely needed both desperately—

    “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (verse 25)

    Because he had withdrawn himself from other believers, Thomas was full of doubt, restlessness, and nervousness. He was a devoted disciple, but he had lost his hope in Christ, and such people are “to be pitied more than all others” (1 Corinthians 15:19). But our Lord had compassion and he singled the doubter out for special treatment and Thomas’ confession is the classic statement of triumph over disbelief—

    “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28)

    Jesus’ commendation of Thomas for making that confession (verse 29) is extended to all who make a similar confession who, unlike Thomas, never have the opportunity to see the risen Lord in person. Only John records this incident, and surely the Gospel would be incomplete without it. A week later, we see Thomas right where he belonged: with the company of believes.

    This whole incident with Thomas demonstrates that there are levels of faith in the Christian life. For some believers, their faith depends on visible evidences. These believers, as genuine as can be, are unable to realize the full blessedness that comes with believing in who Jesus is rather than what He does for them. Such believers live in a very small world, full of limitations and fear. But to those whose faith is based solely in the Person of Jesus, horizons are limitless and opportunities for blessings are boundless.

    The disciples go fishing, 21:1—14

      Chapter 21 is really an epilogue to the Gospel of John. There are three incidents in this chapter and each incident demonstrates the power of Jesus portrays Jesus as the Lord over different areas of our lives.

      First, we see the disciples fishing, and we see how Jesus is the Lord of our wills and He directs our service. John gives no details as to the length of time between the appearance of Jesus to Thomas and the other disciples and His appearance to those who had gone fishing. At first, they didn’t recognize Jesus, but when they did, we see Peter doing, well, what Peter always did—

      “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. (verse 7)

      He still wasn’t walking on it, but not even water could stand in Peter’s way! He was excited!  But the real lesson of this story is that the risen Lord directs the lives of His own. Jesus gives us His instructions and we are to obey. When we obey, success is ours. Jesus points us in the right direction, but it is up to walk that way.

      A minor lesson, which is the one preachers usually stress, is that when Jesus provides, He provided in abundance. The net not only filled up, but it it was chock-full of fish. This is a common theme in John’s writings. The water pots at the wedding feast were FULL of wine. The baskets of food were FULL after Jesus provided enough food for over 5,000 people. But there is another lesson that many Bible readers miss—

      When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you caught.” (verses 9, 10)

      It was a wonderful scene that greeted the disciples when the reached the shore. Jesus had breakfast waiting for them! He not only provided the miraculous catch, but also breakfast. It was a sharp contrast for the disciples to contemplate: their inability to provide for themselves contrasted with the ease at which Jesus provided for their every need. What strikes us, though, is the command of Jesus to “bring some of the fish” they had just caught. He didn’t want all of them, just some of them. He asked the disciples to give up a few of the small fry. What a wonderful lesson for believes today, who are literally choking on their blessings, finding it hard to return a mere portion of them to God in the form of an offering.

      Jesus and Peter, 21:15—19

        After breakfast, Jesus turned to Peter in order to publicly reinstate him. The circumstances surrounding this scene must have struck Peter. Consider—

        • Peter denied Christ around a charcoal fire (18:18) and it here, around another charcoal fire, that Peter is reinstated.
        • Peter denied Jesus three times (18:17, 25, 27) and Jesus called Peter to “own” Him three times (21:15—17).
        • Jesus’ warning that Peter would betray Him was introduced with the solemn, “Very truly I tell you…” and here Peter’s future is introduced in a similar way.

        Peter’s reinstatement must have been a relief to him, but what followed indicated the end of reckless, irresponsibility. The future of this impulsive disciple was deadly serious—

        Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. (verse 18)

        Hoskyns comments:

        The boisterous and irresponsibility of youth is now at an end. He can no longer act as he had just acted when he girded himself, and left the fish half caught, and swam alone to the shore.

        Here see Jesus as the Lord of our hearts. He knows us as we really are and He asks us probing questions that penetrate deep down inside and force us to see ourselves as He does. Our hearts must be wholly Christ’s. Serving Him is serious business, as Peter would find out.

        Jesus and John, 21:20—23

          Peter’s question to Jesus about John may have been asked out of curiosity or maybe uneasiness. Peter had been given an important commission and a solemn indication of his future, so what about his good friend? What does the future hold for John? Would John share the same responsibilities and the same danger?

          “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (verse 22)

          Jesus’ reply shows that He must be the Lord of our minds. What His will was for John should have been no concern of Peter’s. If it was God’s will that John outlive Peter, then so be it. That knowledge should have made no difference to Peter’s service. To come to martyrdom as a follower of Jesus may have been Peter’s destiny, but it was not John’s, and martyrdom itself is not what brings glory to God, it is dedicated service; how one dies is not what gives glory to God! It’s how one lives.

          John’s conclusion

          John’s two-verse conclusion seem to indicate that John was writing to a second generation of believers who were far-removed from the incidents recorded.

          This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (verse 24)

          “This” must refer to John, not Peter or Jesus or anybody else. By the time of the composition of this Gospel, in all likelihood Peter was dead. Given this, the passage means that John is still bearing witness to the things he has written down. John was testifying to the Truth in print and in word, even at his advanced age. A true witness for Christ never retires.

          Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (verse 25)

          This concluding verse is a fitting end to a record of a Man who changed the world. John is not exaggerating when he says that Jesus did so many things all the books in all the world could not contain a written record of them. The Living Word can never be fully expressed in written words.

          (c)  2010, WitzEnd

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