John 20

1.  Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

The first part of this verse is a dishonest translation, aimed at continuing the tradition that Christ rose from the dead on a Sunday, thus justifying Sunday as a holy day.  But the Greek says nothing about Sunday or the first day of the week.  The Greek here reads, Te mia ton sabbaton.  This translates literally to “on one (day) of the Sabbaths.”

What is meant by this phrase?  An examination of Leviticus 23:9-11, 15-17, and 21 reveals an important truth:

9.  And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  10.  “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest.  11.  He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it….

15.  “And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed.  16.  Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD.  17.  You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the LORD…  21.  And you shall proclaim on the same day that it is a holy convocation to you. You shall do no customary work on it. It shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations.

Thus, what we read here reveals to us that there was a day, the first day after a Sabbath, when a firstfruits wave offering was made to the Lord.  From that Sabbath, fifty days were counted off until Pentecost, the feast when a second firstfruits offering was made.  There were seven weeks and seven Sabbaths to be counted after this firstfruits offering.  Thus, what this passage is referring to is that the Lord was raised on this special day, the first day used to count up to the day of Pentecost.  From this we realize that not only was Christ crucified on Passover day, but He was raised on Firstfruits, and thus fulfilled both the Passover lamb in His death and the firstfruits wave offering in His resurrection.

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark.  Remember, the Israelite day began as the sun set.  Thus, “early while it was still dark” could really be any time during the night, even before midnight as we reckon it.  There is no way to tell just how early this may have been when Mary went to the tomb.

Mary finds the stone rolled away from the tomb.  We don’t understand what an amazing thing this was until we realize how big this stone really was.  The stones that covered the tombs of the rich were meant to discourage the casual graverobber.  They were usually carved out of the rock above the tomb, with a track cut below them leading to the mouth of the tomb.  A little bit of the rock was left holding the stone in place, and all that had to happen once the body was in the tomb was to chisel this last bit of rock away and allow gravity to carry the stone down to the door of the tomb.  Once in place, it would take a large group of men with the proper equipment to ever move this stone again.  A man thought dead who revived from crucifixion in his tomb could never have moved the stone to get himself out.  There is no way the Lord could have moved this stone by any natural means.  Only supernatural power could ever have gotten Him out of the grave!

2.  Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

Mary runs to both Simon Peter and the other disciple.  We have learned, as we have gone through this book, that this “other disciple, whom Jesus loved,” is John himself, the author of the book we are reading.  Remember, he always speaks of himself in this book as if he were talking about someone else, so that no one can accuse him of writing to glorify himself.  Mary comes to Peter and John and reports to them, not that the Lord is risen, but rather that “they” have taken His body away, and they know not where they have laid Him.  By “they,” she probably meant Joseph and Nicodemus, for the word “laid,” (the same word used of Lazarus in John 11:34,) implies reverent care in laying Him there.  She must have known that they only placed Him here as a temporary arrangement, and figures that they have already moved Him to a permanent location.  She is upset by the fact that they have moved Him without letting His disciples know about it.

Notice that Mary says that “we” do not know where they have laid Him, whereas in verse one we only read that she came to the tomb herself alone.  Could it be she had other women with her?  Yet this does not really fit any of the other visits in the gospels.  In Mark, the women did not believe, but ran away and told no one, so this couldn’t be that visit, since Mary told Peter and John here.  (Mark 16:8.)  In Luke, we do not know if they believed, but they did run and told the disciples what the angels had told them (Luke 24:9,) but they did not believe them (Luke 24:11.)  This couldn’t be that visit, since Mary says nothing about angels, and the disciples believe her story (John 20:8.)  And in Matthew, they met the Lord on their way to the disciples, (Matthew 24:9,) and so of course they believed then, and so of course this cannot be after that visit.  This appears, then, to be a second visit by Mary after the first given in Mark.  Though the women did not tell anyone what had happened after the first visit, for they were afraid, Mary, upon getting up the courage to return and finding that she hadn’t been imagining things, does get up the courage to go and tell Peter and John, but comes up with this unbelieving explanation of what had really happened.  These visits are all different, not the same visit.  The gospels each set forth a different visit, with different things occurring at the tomb and different results afterwards.  These are not contradictory passages, but when taken as a whole they present to us the complete picture of those amazing events that took place the night He rose from the dead.

3.  Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb.

Peter and John run to the tomb to see if what Mary says is true.  Remember, they are not running there to see if the Lord has risen from the dead.  No hint of that event has yet come to them.  They are simply going to see if the Lord is indeed not there.  If He is not, they will just believe that someone moved Him, not that He rose.

4.  So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first.

People often have a sentimental attachment to a person’s body after he has died, even though that body no longer holds the person they knew and loved.  Thus, things that happen to the body can upset them greatly.  Remember, this was only a few days after the Lord’s death, and Peter and John, still trying to come to grips with the death of their Lord, are upset by His body disappearing, though if He were still dead it would really not matter so much where His body was.  Yet because of this, they anxiously run to the tomb.

John mentions that he outran Peter.  He seems to take some pride in this.  Some, who want John to have survived to the very end of the first century, like to see a John who was much younger than Peter here, claiming that that is why he outran him.  Yet would John really have proudly mentioned beating Peter if Peter was much older than he was and could have been expected to run more slowly?  In any case, the Holy Spirit’s purpose in revealing these little details is to remind us that John was an eyewitness to the things he is writing about here, and that his testimony therefore is trustworthy.  He saw these things, and we can believe him when he testifies to them.  For that is the great purpose of the book of John: to produce believers.

5.  And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in.

John, being the more cautious sort, stoops down and looks in the tomb when he gets there, but does not go inside.  He sees the cloths that had been wrapped around the Lord Jesus lying there, but no body.

6.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there,

Simon Peter comes behind him to the tomb.  As we all know, Peter was not the type of person to wait around at the door, being a hot-headed and rash type of person.  Therefore, he keeps right on going past John into the tomb.  He too sees the same thing that John saw: the linen cloths lying there, but no body.

7.  And the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.

The handkerchief had apparently been wrapped around His head like a turban was wrapped.  Now, it was lying still folded up in that shape, positioned above the neck but separate from the other clothes.  It was where the head should have been, but with no head in it.  This shows clearly that the Lord was not stripped out of His clothes by grave robbers, but rather passed right through the grave-clothes when He rose from the dead.  He had no need of being released, as Lazarus did when he was raised (John 11:44.)  This should have demonstrated to Peter and John that the Lord could not have been removed by natural means, if they had been ready to believe.

8.  Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed.

Many are quick to jump in here and assume John believed the truth of Christ’s resurrection, but that is not so.  The story John had heard was that the Lord’s body had been removed (verse 2.)  Now, seeing His body gone, even with the strange evidence of the still-wrapped graveclothes, he believes Mary and assumes the Lord’s body has been moved by persons unknown.  He does not believe that Christ rose from the dead.  If he did, why would John need to explain his belief in the next verse as being because “they did not know the Scripture”?  No, John did not believe truth here.  Rather, he believed the story Mary told him.  But this raises the question: what do you believe?  Do you believe that the Lord was just removed from His tomb by natural means?  Or do you truly believe that He rose from the dead?  For the answer to that question will determine whether you ever have “life in His name.”

9.  For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.

Peter and John did not yet know the truth of Scripture.  That is why they believed Mary’s story here, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, and did not believe the truth that He had risen from the dead.

10.  Then the disciples went away again to their own homes.

This is clearly not their “homes” as we would think of them.  This would be better understood as their current lodgings, not their homes.  These disciples were from Galilee, the northern portion of Israel, and had their homes there.  They had not been home for half a year, but had been traveling with their Master around the regions of Judea.  Now, they were staying near Jerusalem, and had lodgings there, not homes.

The disciples, with still no idea of the truth of what has happened, return to their lodgings.  They would not realize the awesome reality of what had happened here until a further revelation was given to them.

11.  But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb.

Mary has returned to the tomb yet again.  She still has no thought but that the Lord’s body has been removed and taken she knows not where.  Now, she stands by the tomb, weeping for her lost Lord.  Remember, this was the woman out of whom the Lord Jesus had cast seven demons  (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2.)  She had been trapped in a horrible captivity, and the Lord had rescued her and shown His love to her.  No doubt she had dedicated her life to following Him.  Yet the One she had loved so purely has now died, and left her without the One Person in the world who mattered most to her: the One Who had set her free.  What could she do but weep?

Remember that on her visit earlier in John, she had not looked into the tomb, but had run to Peter and John when she saw the stone taken away.  (John 20:1-2)  Now it seems, as she weeps, that she gets up the courage once again to stoop down and look inside.

12.  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.

When Mary looks into the tomb she sees, not an empty tomb, but these two angels in white sitting at either end of the stone shelf where the body of the Lord Jesus had formerly lain.  These angels could very well be Gabriel and Michael, the only two angels named in Scripture and, as far as we know, the most important of the angels of God.  Yet, of course, there is no way to tell that for certain.

There is no doubt that these were members of the heavenly race we call “angels,” but at the same time, they looked like men in white clothes, not like the fanciful drawings we often see of angels.  Our English word “angels” is just a transliteration of the Greek word.  What the Greek word means is “messengers,” or, as my friend Lyle Lange has suggested, “agents,” for their “messages” often come with other, more physical aid for those to whom they are sent.  These two heavenly beings were sent as agents of God to the tomb where the Lord had lain, and now they act as His agents in speaking to her of the wonderful events that had happened there.

13.  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.”

These angels ask Mary why she is weeping.  Remember, this term, “Woman,” was not a short or almost insulting term, as it seems to us in English, but almost a tender term, or a term of endearment.  The angels express real concern for her as they question her as to the reason for her weeping.  She answers them with the story that she had concluded must have happened: that someone had taken away her Lord, and she didn’t know where they had laid Him.  Of course, her weeping was much more based on the fact that the Lord was dead at all than it was based on the fact that she didn’t know where His body was, but, as we often do with our grief, she had transferred her sorrow to this detail, and focused on it rather than the whole of the pain she was feeling.

14.  Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.

She, in her distress, cuts short her conversation with the angels, and turns around to see the Lord Jesus standing there.  She did not recognize Him, but whether she could not see clearly through her tears, or whether she just thought this was another strange man like the ones in the tomb, or whether her eyes were miraculously kept from seeing the truth, we cannot say for certain.

15.  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.”

The Lord asks her the same question the angels had, but now adds a second question, “Whom are you seeking?”  Of course, He was the One she was seeking.  Yet she mistakenly believes Him to be the gardener, or what we might call the cemetery keeper, for this garden was being used as a cemetery.  Thus, she addresses Him with this question.  As I pointed out earlier, the Lord’s burial here was apparently only a hasty and temporary arrangement.  Mary may have had some wild idea that the gardener had removed the Lord’s body, as if He was not worthy to be buried in that cemetery or some such thing.  Thus, she begs Him to tell her where He has been laid, and she will take Him away, presumably to see that He would get buried properly.

16.  Jesus said to her, “Mary!”  She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher).

The Lord speaks her name, and that is enough to lift her delusion and make her see Who it is Who is standing before her.  When the Lord speaks to her with power and intends for her to know Who is speaking, she simply cannot mistake Who is talking to her.   She had heard her Lord say her name many times, perhaps in the same, loving way He said it now, and she would recognize that voice anywhere.  It was the same voice that had set her free, that had given her hope, and that she had believed she would never hear again.  What shock must have filled her to hear that voice!  She turns to Him, gasping, “Rabboni!” which means, “Teacher!”  And how quickly her shock must have turned to joy as she saw Him and realized that it was Him indeed!  The Lord’s words earlier to His disciples were now coming true, that their sorrow would be turned into joy.  (John 16:20)

17.  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.’”

The Lord forbids Mary to touch Him.  I imagine she probably wanted to at this point just to assure herself that He was real!  We can well imagine her clinging to His feet, as the women did in Matthew 28:9.  Yet the Lord did not allow her to do so, for He still had to ascend to His Father before He could be touched.

Some see this as a great difficulty, for, as I said, He later allows the women to cling to His feet (in Matthew 28:9.)  In fact, later on in this very chapter, the Lord invites Thomas to touch Him, both His hands and His feet.  How can this be, when He says here that He cannot be touched until He ascends to the Father?  To understand this, I believe we have to realize that, though there was one, great, public event that took place that we call “The Ascension,” wherein the Lord left His disciples and returned to heaven for good, as Psalm 110:1 says, “Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”  Yet this does not mean that this is the only time the Lord ascended to His Father.  I believe that probably many times during the last forty days He spent with His disciples after the resurrection that He ascended to the Father and then returned.  These ascensions were not public, and no great show was made of them, but the Lord was able to move back and forth between here and heaven as He wished.  So there is really no difficulty here.  The Lord had not yet ascended when He said this to Mary.  Later, when He allowed people to touch Him, he had already ascended and returned.

Why did the Lord need to ascend before He could be touched?  I believe He needed to present Himself before God as the completed sacrifice, and now as the firstfruits from among the dead, as I Corinthians 15:20 declares.  Let us again examine Leviticus 23:10-11, which explains the feast of the first Day of Firstfruits and the offering that is to be made then.

10.  “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest.  11.  He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it.

Notice here that the firstfruits were to be waved before the LORD by the priest.  Notice also that this was to be done “on the day after the Sabbath,” which was the same day the Lord rose and said this to Mary.  I believe that the Lord, maybe even immediately after He talked to Mary, returned to heaven to present Himself before the Father as the firstfruits from among the dead.

Notice that the Lord says He is ascending not just to “My Father and your Father,” but also to “My God and your God.”  Thus, the Lord clearly equates His Father with God Himself.  This brings us back to the truth that this book is teaching us: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  The Lord clearly claimed that God was His Father.  Do you believe that this is true?  For if you believe these things, then you, too, will “have life through His name.”  John 20:31.

18.  Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.

Mary obeys the Lord, and goes and tells the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and what He had told her.  Although He said to tell “My brethren,” she apparently understood Him to mean the disciples.  Remember the Lord’s declaration that, “whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”  (Matthew 12:50)  The disciples were indeed His brethren, and now, He wants them to know that He is alive, and what He is about to do.  Remember, He had told the disciples He was about to do this back in John 16:28.  They had probably forgotten this conversation in all their confusion and misery since then, but He wants to assure them that all is still proceeding according to His plan.