John 20:1–18comment (0)
March 28, 2013
By Scot McGinnis
Related Scripture: John 20:1–18
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University
Seeing or Recognizing?
The earliest preaching of the Christian church proclaimed the resurrection of Christ. Indeed, the apostle Paul spends very little time in his letters discussing the life and works of Jesus, instead focusing upon the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection for those who follow Him. Likewise, the “beloved disciple” who authored the Gospel of John understands Jesus’ death and resurrection as His glorification, a “lifting up” that will draw all people to Him (John 12:32).
Although all the Gospels recount the story of the empty tomb, they do so with different details and contexts in keeping with their individual themes. In John, Jesus’ appearance to Mary and ultimately to all the disciples continues the Gospel’s emphasis on the difference between merely witnessing events and understanding their true meaning and spiritual significance.
What Do You See? (1–4)
The Jewish calendar began the day at sundown, so Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb would have occurred according to modern calendars sometime late Saturday evening or early Sunday morning. Her initial appraisal — “they have taken the Lord” — introduces in this passage the theme of misunderstanding that pervades the Gospel. Earlier Jesus has accused His critics of not knowing where He came from or where He is going, but even His disciples often suffer from the same condition. On the evening of their last meal together, Jesus had told His disciples that He was going away but not to worry since “you know the way to the place I am going.” Thomas replies with some anxiety, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).
What Will Convince You? (5–10)
Lack of understanding is again on display as Peter and the beloved disciple both witness the empty tomb as well as the burial cloths. Peter’s reaction is not recorded, but the beloved disciple “saw and believed.” Believed what, exactly? In verse nine the narrator offers the commentary that the disciples still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus “had to rise from the dead.” Is the reader meant to infer that the beloved disciple believed Mary’s report of a stolen body?
Possibly, yet elsewhere John’s Gospel regularly emphasizes belief and understanding as a process.
By carefully marking out the progression from grief to bewilderment to misunderstanding to full apprehension of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Gospel invites the reader to follow the same path. When I as a reader have trouble grasping the gospel story, I take comfort in the fact that even the disciples struggled at first. Later Jesus will declare, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29).
How Will You Respond to Jesus? (11–18)
After the interlude with Peter and the beloved disciple, the story returns to Mary, who remains weeping at the tomb after the others leave. The dramatic tension heightens as first the angels and then Jesus Himself asks why she is crying. Notably, her moment of enlightenment comes when Jesus calls her name, and the reader is reminded of the image of the Good Shepherd who knows His own sheep and they know Him (John 10:14).
A beautiful painting by Rembrandt, “The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen,” captures the moment of Mary’s recognition. Light falls on Mary’s face as she turns and looks back over her shoulder. Her expression is a mixture of bewilderment, relief and dawning joy. The artist depicts the scene so as to pull viewers into the dramatic moment and so consider their own encounters with the risen Christ.
In like manner the writer of the Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection in such a way as to invite readers to experience the same truth for themselves. Mary Magdalene emerges from the garden as the first evangelist saying: “I have seen the Lord.”