Famed American novelist Ernest Hemingway once observed that, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.” In many ways John 19 ends where most every other grand tragedy concludes — with the death of the protagonist. Jesus has died on the cross and once removed from the tree we have Him being laid in the tomb by loving disciples. The curtain drops as the story seems to end.
And yet, though the par cans have gone dark and the activities of the stage remained hidden from view, it’s strange the house lights have not been raised to aid the audience with their exit. “The play is clearly over!” you think to yourself, “What’s with the delay?”
Then to your surprise the curtain abruptly rises again onto the same garden scene. “Was this an accident?” The darkened theater is quickly illuminated. “There’s more to the story?” As the actors reemerge stage-left it doesn’t take long to realize this particular drama is about to take an unexpected twist. “This was not a tragedy at all!” Jesus has risen from the dead!
Personally, I love the way Pastor Joe Focht introduces John 20. He calls it “the chapter beyond where all other biographies end.” You see no story based in humanism continues its narrative beyond the death of its central character. Upon death the biography of a man’s life typically ceases; and yet, this was not the case with the story of Jesus of Nazareth!
As has been his M.O. throughout his Gospel John avoids repeating things the other three authors have thoroughly covered focusing instead on fresh insights and brand new details. Since this is the case let me take a moment and harmonize John’s narrative with those found in Matthew 28:1-8, Luke 24:1-11, and Mark 16:1-8 so you get a complete picture of events.
“Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, very early in the morning when the sun had risen, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them (these were the women at the cross) came to see the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared that they might come and anoint Jesus. (As they make their way to the tomb) they said among themselves, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?’ (Don’t forget the stone likely weighed around two tons.)
And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, but when they looked up they saw that the stone had been rolled away from the door — for it was very large (it’s at this point Mary Magdalene likely runs to get Peter and John), and the angel sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.
And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.’
Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; for He is risen, as He said to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ And they remembered His words.
‘And go quickly and tell His disciples and Peter that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.’ So they went out quickly and fled from the from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word and to all the rest.”
While all of this is happening, don’t forget Mary Magdalene has left the garden before the angel appeared declaring “He is risen!” in order to get Peter and John… John 20:3-4, “Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first.”
In Mark 16:9 you’ll read how “Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene,” but then in Matthew 28:9 it’s recorded how, as this original group of women “went to tell His disciples, Jesus met them, saying, ‘Rejoice!’ So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.” It’s a shame, but some have tried to make this a discrepancy when it really shouldn’t be.
As to the flow of events Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John are on the way back to the garden as these women have their exchange with the angels. It’s likely M, P & J then arrive at the tomb as the women depart using a different route. Peter and John come and go. Then Jesus reveals Himself to Mary Magdalene in the Garden before appearing to the other women.
Before we get too far into the story, let me make two quick observations about verses 3 and 4 I find interesting… While we’ll later see all of the disciples gathered together, there is no evidence which substantiates the belief these eleven men had a rendezvous beforehand. In fact, in the first instance they’re together, Thomas was oddly absent from the gathering.
In fact, our text is clear Mary Magdalene ran from the tomb in order to inform only Peter and John that the body of Jesus had gone missing. Logically, these men are not with the others — if they had been you can imagine they all would have gone to see what had happened.
What makes this fascinating to me is that it tells us at some point over the last two days John had specifically sought out his friend Peter. You see the last time we saw Peter was back in John 18:27. As predicted Peter had just denied Jesus for a third time, the rooster crowed, his eyes met the Lord’s, and he ran off weeping. During Jesus’ trials before Pilate and Herod, the scourging, crucifixion, and burial Peter has been MIA. We have no idea where he’s been.
Though John remained at the cross for the duration of the crucifixion, at some point in the days following he intentionally seeks out Peter! While we know John didn’t console Peter with the hope of resurrection — neither man at this point believed that was going to happen, the fact remains that John refused to leave Peter alone with his tears. True friendship!
Peter had blown it. He failed miserably. His tears were deserved and well earned. His weeping was warranted. Peter’s pride and ego had been his downfall. I’m sure Peter wanted to be left alone, but John would have none of that! While we have recorded nothing of what was said between these two men, I’m sure the fact John cared enough to find him was more than enough. Friends don’t let friends weep alone — even when they deserve it!
The second thing I need to point out is the motivation behind Peter and John’s actions. Look back at verse 2… Mary comes to Peter and John and she says, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb!” Aside from the fact we have no idea who “they” was in reference to — more in likely the Jewish leaders, these men hurry to the tomb believing something nefarious had occurred. Resurrection was still the furthest thing from their minds.
John 20:5-10, “And he (John), stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in (John didn’t want to disturb anything until Peter arrived). Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.
Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again to their own homes.”
In these verses we are given a unique presentation of discovery through the complexities of three different Greek words we have sadly translated into one English word “saw.”
In verse 5, upon arriving first at the tomb, we are told John “looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there.” The Greek word for “saw” is “blepō” meaning to perceive with the eyes. From a distance John examines the scene and notices something abnormal about the linen cloths. That said, he decides not to inspect this any further choosing to wait for Peter to arrive first.
Then in verse 6, when Peter finally catches up and immediately enters the tomb, we read how “he saw the linen cloths lying there.” The Greek word here is “theōreō” meaning to view attentively or to mentally consider. From this Greek word we get the English word theorize. Peter is doing more than just looking at the clothes he’s trying to figure out what this meant.
This description of “the linen cloths lying there,” but “the handkerchief that had been around His head not lying with the linen cloths” instead being “folded together in a place by itself” was odd to say the least. The picture John is painting is one that implied the body of Jesus had simply evaporated leaving behind the linen cloths in their natural position.
As Peter and John are examining this peculiar scene they determined it was highly unlikely His body had been stollen. First, why would you leave behind the burial cloths in the first place? Two, how could a person removed the body without disturbing the cloths? Weird!
Finally, in verse 8, once John at last enters the tomb, he says, “He saw and believed.” The Greek word for “saw” in this instance is “eidō” meaning to know or understand. Because of the unique positioning of the linen cloths and missing body, though Peter is mulling things over, John is convinced Jesus had risen. He had enough evidence to know and “believe!”
The reason this detail was given so many years after the fact centers on the reality that John’s specific audience was made up of people who’d never seen Jesus — yet alone saw the resurrected Jesus. As you examine the Gospel accounts almost all of the early believers had originally been skeptics until they saw the resurrected Jesus for themselves.
Knowing this dynamic John wants his audience to know the empty tomb as well as the missing body had been enough evidence to convince him of the resurrection. John is clear “he believed” even before he personally encountered the resurrected Lord.
Understand, while the resurrection of Jesus might be the most extreme claim of history, it is also one of the more reliable. While the Bible concedes the fact no one actually saw Jesus rise from the dead — the rolling back of the stone did not intend to let Jesus out, but rather to allow humanity to peer in — there is also no debating the reality something occurred following the death of Jesus that changed the course of human history!
This is where John’s testimony standing inside an empty tomb is so important. You see there is more than enough evidence to “see and believe” concerning the resurrection of Jesus than personally encountering His glorified body. In John’s specific situation the missing body and presentation of His burial cloths was more than enough evidence. For you and I we have so much more we can hang our faith upon! (We’ll unpack this more in the weeks to come.)
Though Peter and John leave and head home, Mary stays behind. John continues… John 20:11-13, “But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down 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. Then they said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.’”
Aside from a group of women and 16 Roman soldiers who received incredible news from the angels that Jesus has risen most everyone else is still oblivious to what’s really taken place this morning. Peter is still coming up with a plausible theory to explain the line cloths and missing body. John has seen enough evidence to become a believer!
Poor Mary Magdalene, however, is still convinced Jesus’ body had been taken. We don’t know how long she stands “outside the tomb,” but she’s “weeping.” Even when these “two angels” appear and begin a dialogue, Mary remains undeterred in her grief and unmoved by their presence. All this woman cares about is finding where Jesus “her Lord” had been taken.
John 20:14-15, “Now when Mary had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, ‘Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.’”
What an interesting statement… “She saw Jesus standing there” and “did not know that it was Jesus… supposing Him to be the gardener.” What’s more is the fact Mary even failed to recognize His voice. Some have argued that Mary failed to recognize Jesus because of her immense grief. The problem with this theory is the fact two non-weeping disciples on the road to Emmaus also fail to recognize Jesus after spending an afternoon with Him (Luke 24).
Consider the essence of Jesus’ resurrection was made evidenced by the fact His earthly, physical body that had been lying in a tomb for three days literally rose to everlasting life and heavenly glory. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15, “This corruptible put on incorruption.” Case in point… Jesus’ body was missing. If not part of the resurrection, what happened to it?
Following His resurrection Jesus had a body that looked completely normal — in fact, Mary thinks He’s “the gardener.” His body was clothed, could consume food, and be touched; but it could also teleport through space, appear, disappear, and fly. Beyond this the resurrected Jesus could speak, be spoken too, and possessed full knowledge of all the human relationships He had before death. So why was it that people struggled to recognize Him?
There are those who point to a passage like this as evidence our heavenly bodies will look nothing like our earthly bodies. Aside from the fact this really doesn’t make that much sense logically or for that matter have any Biblical basis, if you take one look at those who present such a theory you’ll understand why their perspective is so important to them.
The better explanation is that Jesus was hard to recognize because He still bore the marks of His crucifixion. You see His physical disfigurement seems like the most plausible reason the people who knew Him well had a hard time immediately recognizing Him in the moment.
In his heavenly vision of the future throne room of God John will later describe Jesus’ appearance in Revelation 5:6 as “a Lamb as though it had been slain.” Aside from this in Luke 24:39 Jesus will instruct His disciples, “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”
It’s been said, “The only manmade thing in heaven will be the scares in Jesus’ hands and feet.” Though I agree with this statement I also have a feeling the scars He bore for our sin will not be restricted to just His hands and feet or side. For all of eternity the scars of Jesus will stand as a stark reminder as to the consequences of our sin, in addition to being a trophy of His love and a powerful display of His amazing grace.
John 20:16-18, “Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to Him, ‘Rabboni’ (which is to say, Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’’ Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.”
Not to sound like a broken record, but while John saw the burial cloths and “believed” these things were not enough to stir Mary from her despair. What an amazing moment it must have been like for this grieving woman to hear her name roll off the tongue of familiar lips. “Mary!” What must the tone in Jesus’ voice have been? I’m sure it was personal and tender.
The text implies two things immediately happen… First, Mary cries out, “Rabboni!” Then she grabs hold of Jesus with a death grip! She’s lost Him once. He’s not getting away again!
In the Scriptures we have this title “Rabboni” being used on only one other occasion. In Mark 10 Blind Bartimaeus also uses this title for Jesus. While “Rabbi” was the Hebrew term for “Teacher” this word “Rabboni” could be translated as “my own teacher.” It personalized it. Note: This is the last time Jesus will be referred to as a Rabbi — the title “Lord” replaces it.
I wonder how long the embrace lasted until Jesus finally tells Mary, “Do not cling to Me?” “Mary, it’s time to let go of Me!” Understandably, she didn’t want to release Him, but He had an important task for her. Jesus instructs Mary to “go to My brethren” with a specific message, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.”
One of the main reasons John documents this particular story of Mary Magdaline being the first to encounter the resurrected Jesus is what it says to every one of His disciples. Mary of Magdala had been possessed by “seven demons” before she was freed by Jesus.
And yet, here she is — in the grand plan of God — being chosen as the first witness and messenger of Jesus’ resurrection! How amazing it is to consider that whatever your past may be it doesn’t disqualify you from being used by Jesus as His witness?
It should also be pointed out the incredible grace in what Jesus wants Mary to share with these disciples. He calls them His “brethren!” Here you have a group of men who abandoned Him in His time of need; and yet, Jesus didn’t hold a grudge. Now they were more than disciples. They were His brothers. They were brothers with Jesus — the Godman!
Aside from this Jesus says to them, “My Father and your Father, My God and your God.” It would appear something from Eden has now been restored once and for all. Do you think it’s an accident we find such a declaration being made by Jesus in a garden?
In Genesis 3 we have the Garden of Eden where the first sinless man Adam chose to rebel against the will of God. In that garden Adam justly died for “the wages of sin is death.”
In the Garden of Gethsemane we find the second sinless man Jesus surrendering Himself to the will of God. In this garden Jesus was unjustly chosen to die for “the sins of the world.”
What an amazing thing the resurrection of Jesus occurred in another garden! Adam died in a garden because of his sin. A dead Jesus was laid to rest in a garden because of Adam’s sin. And yet, what a beautiful picture it is that Jesus rose from death to life from a garden tomb finally conquering the power of death thereby freeing us all from the wages of sin.
Please note… Everything about your spiritual life centers upon the resurrection of Jesus! You can believe Jesus remains dead or that He rose and is alive today. You can view the empty tomb as either emblematic of the greatest con ever devised or you can see it as evidence of the greatest event in all of human history! You either believe I am senile for believing in the resurrection or you’re willing to concede you’re choosing to miss out on the most radicle occurrence to have ever taken place on planet earth!
Keep in mind, the reason your conclusion concerning Jesus’ resurrection is so important is the fact Jesus intentionally and deliberately placed the validity of everything He said and everything He claimed to be on this singular event — rising on the third day!
If Jesus didn’t rise and remains dead today, He would be nothing more than a proven liar and everything He said would be forever questionable. Beyond this, if dead, Jesus’ claim to be God would be utter lunacy and totally delusional, His work on the cross would be painfully inadequate, and any hope of life after the grave would remain absolutely implausible! You see there is no room for a third option concerning the resurrection of Jesus. Either He’s dead and completely discredited or He’s alive and completely validated!
In his book “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” Timothy Keller put it this way, “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”
Consider the personal implications that stem from Jesus’ resurrection! Since Jesus is rose from the dead you can trust He is who He claimed to be! God incarnate, the King of Kings, Lord of all, the Savior of the world! I’ve heard it said, “The empty tomb, as an enduring symbol of the resurrection, is the ultimate representation of Jesus’ claim to being God.”
Since Jesus is rose from the dead you can also trust that what He said is true! In Him is found salvation, restoration, regeneration, forgiveness, power and strength, love — peace — and joy, life now and for all eternity. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Since Jesus is rose from the dead you can trust He finished what He came to accomplish! Because of the resurrection you can be confident the payment for sin has been satisfied, that you have an Advocate in heaven, access to the Father, that death is not the end of your story! There is more than hope in the empty tomb. There is a blessed assurance!
In closing, Mary’s day began in complete desperation. She was living in the midst of a terrible tragedy. She came to the garden fully expecting to find the body of a dead Jesus. The curtain had closed and the lights had dimmed. “Everyone leave the story is over!”
Mary had zero anticipation of resurrection this Sunday morning. In fact, the last thing she expected to hear outside the tomb was her name coming from the lips of a living Jesus!
Just when things couldn’t have gotten any more depressing for Mary they quickly take an unexpected turn for the worse. As she made her way to the tomb through this garden, she discovers “the stone had been rolled away!” Not only was Jesus dead, but she’s overwhelmed by the thought someone had callously stollen His body thereby depriving her of the opportunity to pay her final respects! “How could this have happened?”
What’s interesting about Mary’s experience is how her perspective on what had occurred was so off base. She saw an empty tomb and was convinced the body had been stollen without ever considering the possibility Jesus had risen from the dead. What she saw with her physical eye was indeed true, but the conclusion she reached wasn’t at all!
Even when Jesus, who Mary incorrectly believes to be the gardener, asked her, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” she replies, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Mary is so convinced Jesus was dead and the body stollen she fails to see the living Jesus standing right in front of her! How incredible that while Mary was seeking a dead Jesus the living Lord found her?
Friend, I hope you take courage knowing that Jesus was not only aware of Mary’s despair, but He specifically sought her out and revealed Himself to her. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know where Jesus is and your perspective has been restricted to only what you can see, please know this perspective on your circumstance might be off and that Jesus might be much closer than you could ever imagine!
It’s been said, “There are some things dry eyes can never see.” In the middle of her despair, when all hope seemed lost, through her weeping and tears, Mary would not only see Jesus, but she’d ultimately come to see Him in a way she never had before — in resurrection glory! Mary had been searching for a dead Jesus. In the end she grabbed hold of the Risen Lord!
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