John (Part 70): Resurrection (ch 20)
After the special Sabbath of the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and after the weekly Sabbath on the next day, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark. This whole discovery scene of the resurrection is recorded in all four Gospels. But each provides a few details that make it a little difficult to harmonize. Sometimes harmonizing can be a waste of time. Unless contradiction occurs, we simply don’t know enough to understand exactly what had occurred. And the focus of each Gospel writer is normally not on harmonizing but rather some other theme, which we often miss when we attend too much to the harmonization. But then, sometimes gathering all the facts presented helps put our minds into the event so that, once there, we can continue into the particular theme of the writer.
Each Gospel writer mentions women going early in the morning to the tomb. Some name some of the women but not always the same women that other Gospel writers name. Yet all of them mention Mary Magdalene, and, for good reason, it is her story that John focuses exclusively on.
In Matthew, we are told of an earthquake that occurs, caused by an angel, resulting in the rolling away of the tombstone. The angel then perches on top of the stone, and the frightened guards faint. No more mention is made of the guards while the other action at the scene takes place. It may be that the guards awake and rush off to report the incident, or it may also be that they remain unconscious on the ground as the angel speaks to the women.
The angel tells the women that Jesus is risen. The women, in turn, rush off to tell the disciples. Either as they go or after they’ve told the disciples, they meet Jesus who greets them and gives them a message that he will be in Galilee to see his disciples.
Mark presents the main events. Women come to the tomb, and as they approach they wonder who will roll the stone away. When they arrive, they find that the stone has already been rolled away. There is no mention of the earthquake, which seems to imply that it occurred before (possibly very much before) they arrived. They enter the tomb and see the angel who tells them that Jesus is risen. The women, fearful, leave and, Mark says, tell no one. The earliest manuscripts that we have of Mark end the Gospel right there at verse 8 of chapter 16. Not telling anyone may be in the immediate context—that they didn’t stop to tell anyone but headed straight for the disciples. But Mark seems to have wanted to leave his readers with the unseen but declared risen Jesus as an offering to be accepted by faith. In other words, we have an empty tomb, the angel said he arose, and now, what will you do with Jesus?
Luke has the women come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away. They enter the tomb and see two angels who also tell them that Jesus is risen. The women leave to tell the disciples. When Peter hears, he doesn’t understand and goes to the tomb to see for himself.
Finally, John concentrates solely on Mary Magdalene. She comes to the tomb, finding the stone rolled away. She immediately goes back to tell the disciples. At her news, John and Peter rush to the tomb. Apparently Mary follows them back there. When they leave, Mary looks in the tomb and sees two angels. She is disturbed, and suddenly hears a voice behind her. Glancing at him, she mistakes him for the gardener/caretaker and asks if he has removed Jesus. Jesus calls out to her, “Mary!” and she turns and recognizes him. Jesus sends her back to the eleven, and she tells them “I have seen the Lord!”
The only difficulty in harmonizing is if we maintain that Mary Magdalene stays with the other women until the end. But I don’t think that happened. When they find the stone rolled away, I believe MM immediately returns to the disciples while the other women continue on to look in the tomb, see the angels, and hear the message that he is risen. When they return to the disciples, they corroborate the story that MM had been telling the disciples that the tomb was open. Peter and John rush back, MM follows them, and the other women walk off and probably then meet Jesus. After Peter and John leave the tomb, MM’s first encounter with the angels occurs as well as Jesus meeting her. This, then, is the sequence of action that I’m assuming for this story. Now, let’s discuss the action.
We may wonder why Mary and the others went to the tomb that morning. We had just read of Joseph and Nicodemus performing the burial wrapping with a huge amount of myrrh and aloes. Did the women think this not sufficient? There may be a couple of reasons them coming to the tomb. Since adding the spice was meant to honor the person buried, perhaps they were bringing something from their own possession or cost with which to honor Jesus. Perhaps as they observed Joseph and Nicodemus wrap the body (two rich, Jewish leaders who were probably not in the habit of doing this before), they saw that it was done improperly and wanted to rectify what they did. We simply don’t know for sure. But they did come (according to the other Gospels) to redo the spices and burial wrap.
John and Peter learn of the opened tomb from Mary (corroborated by the other women who arrive just afterwards). They run to the tomb to see for themselves. John mentions that he outruns Peter. Some have tried to link this with a greater faith or love of John. Some simply say that it is an incidental fact of John being younger than Peter. But John normally doesn’t give incidental facts without purpose. I believe John mentions this to emphasize that although he came to the tomb first, he did not go in. He was afraid.
We had just spent quite a bit of time on Peter’s fear as he stood warming himself by the fire while Jesus was questioned. And at the cross, John was there but where was Peter? The reading so far may have put it into the minds of his hearers that John was bold, giving of himself for Jesus, while Peter was fearful and absent. But here John switches the boldness and fear to show that they all had had doubts. John didn’t enter the tomb. He didn’t know what was going on? Did he think that the soldiers could still be around to arrest them? Was there some spiritual magic going on that he didn’t want to get close to? He hung back while the more courageous Peter charged in. Only then, with the comfort of Peter, did he venture inside.
John mentions the grave cloths and especially the face cloth. They indication is of deliberate and orderly activity. The face cloth is folded apart from the grave cloths. Everything spoke of this not being the work of grave robbers. First, grave robbers were there to steal ornaments and valuables buried with the body—not the body itself. And if, for some reason, they really wanted to steal the body, there would have been no reason to undo the grave clothes—especially the face cloth so that anyone could see who it was they were stealing. And even if they did take the time to remove the grave cloths, the cloths would have been flung aside rather than left exactly where he had been lying with the face cloth neatly folded. All these facts ran through the disciples’ heads, resulting in John declaring that seeing this scene, he believed. He believed Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
It was not that they ever doubted Jesus as he told them he would rise. But most Jews believed in a grand resurrection at some point. The disciples may have thought that when speaking of his rising, Jesus was referring to that later day when they all would rise. But the empty tomb changed all that for them. Now they understood. John and Peter left the scene thinking and talking over the incredible thoughts that all now seemed to be falling into place.
Although John and Peter left the scene, Mary Magdalene remained behind. She had not seen the angels announcing Jesus’s resurrection as the other women had. She seems to have still believed the only possible answer is that someone moved his body. She stood outside the tomb weeping. But looking in the tomb again, she sees two angels, and they ask why she’s crying. She tells them someone has taken away her Lord. Then she hears a voice behind her asking the same question: why is she crying? She glances at him and presumes he’s the gardener. She says to him, “If you’ve removed Him, tell me where you’ve put him, and I will take him away.” It is interesting that she has seen three men now, but only one of them she presumes to be the gardener. Why him and not the others? It could be that the dress of a gardener was somewhat distinctive. Jesus had left his grave cloths in the tomb. Perhaps on rising, instead of having other clothes magically appear, he had come across the real gardener and borrowed clothes to wear. This certainly would explain Mary’s confusion that seems focused on only him.
But Jesus calls out, “Mary!” and she turns and immediately recognizes him. Her hearing a voice behind, turning, and recognizing her Lord is an interesting parallel to John himself who, in Revelation 1:3, heard a voice behind him, turned, and recognized his Lord. Jesus had said in John 10:2-4, “The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. … The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. … The sheep follow him because they recognize his voice.”