Yesterday we concluded John’s passion narrative of Jesus, and today we come to the most important part of John’s Gospel. And what is the most important part of John’s Gospel? It is the resurrection of Jesus, because without the resurrection everything that we have read and everything we have talked about so far is meaningless. John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is different from the other three Gospels in that John does not include the events that preceded the resurrection. Rather John chooses to focus on the empty tomb and the reaction of both Jesus’ disciples, namely Peter and John, and Mary Magdalene to the fact that the tomb was and still is empty.
Paul said that if Christ was not raised from the dead, believers’ faith is useless (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). There are four overwhelming evidences in this story supporting the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. First, none of Jesus’ followers anticipated his resurrection. They were completely unprepared for it. Even after Jesus appeared to a number of his followers, Thomas, refused to believe. If the disciples were making up the resurrection story, it is unlikely that they would have described themselves as completely unprepared for it. They exhibited no faith at all that Jesus would be raised from the dead. Second, the first witness of the resurrection was a woman. This is not the kind of detail that first-century Jews would have invented if they were fabricating Jesus’ resurrection, for women were not considered reliable witnesses in that day. More likely, they would have recounted Jesus appearing to one of the Twelve. Third, the disciples are described as hiding in fear from the Jews. One wonders why they would describe themselves in this way if they were making up the resurrection story. We would expect that they would have described themselves as anticipating the resurrection. The dramatic transformation in their courage and confidence depicted in the book of Acts reflects that something significant happened in Jesus’ followers. They went from cowardice to tremendous courage. The only explanation for this transformation is the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Fourth, the discovery of the empty tomb and the appearance of the angels are described succinctly and without great elaboration, unlike Apocryphal accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. John’s Gospel presents a historically reliable account of Jesus’ resurrection. John’s Gospel also describes resurrection appearances in both Jerusalem and Galilee.
Four major events are described in chapter 20. First, Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb, and Peter and the other disciple confirmed her finding. Second, Mary encountered the risen Jesus. Third, Jesus appeared to the disciples when Thomas was absent. Fourth, Jesus appeared a week later to the disciples with Thomas present. And we will be discussing the first two events today.
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. 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!”—20:1-2
Chapter 20 opens with Mary Magdalene going to the tomb early Sunday morning. She discovered the stone rolled away from the entrance. Luke describes her as a woman “from whom seven demons had come out” (Luke 8:2). The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) mention the presence of several women at the tomb, but John focuses on Mary. The plural “we” in John 20:2 suggests Mary was not alone. She reported her discovery to Simon Peter and “the one Jesus loved” (John).
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go 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. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.—20:3-10
The two disciples ran to the tomb. John arrived first but did not enter. The narrator stresses that the linen strips and the burial cloth were not in disarray, which would have indicated a ransacked tomb by grave robbers. When Peter arrived he didn’t hesitate to go right in. From what John saw inside the tomb, he believed Jesus to be alive, but at that point he did not understand it from the Scriptures. The two disciples departed while Mary remained behind.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, 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.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “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.’”
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.—20:11-18
Brokenhearted, Mary remained behind, until she found out what had happened to Jesus’ body. She wanted it to receive an honorable burial. The angels’ question to her may have been a subtle rebuke. When Jesus appeared, he asked her essentially the same question that angels had asked. It is difficult to know why Mary did not recognize Jesus. Maybe her tears blurred her vision, or maybe she was not expecting to see Jesus alive. Yet several times after his resurrection, those who knew him did not instantly recognize him. When Jesus called her by name, she immediately recognized his voice. Jesus warned her to not hold on to him, because he had not yet made his final accession to the Father. She would have opportunities to see him again, but their relationship would change when he sent the Holy Spirit. The pronouns Jesus used emphasize the difference between his relationship and the disciples’ relationship to the Father. Mary’s announcement to the disciples that she had seen the Lord would have been filled with joyful exuberance. And we will pick up from here tomorrow as we conclude John chapter 20.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
2 Kings 15-16, Acts 19:13-41, Psalm 147:1-20 and Proverbs 18:4-5
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