Commentary on John 20:1-18
John’s gospel is noteworthy for the confident and triumphal demeanor of its central character.
In John’s gospel, Jesus is a victor, not a victim. But the evangelist cannot avoid the historical fact that Jesus was crucified and buried. Even in John’s triumphal gospel, there is a period of despair, an interlude of darkness.
The structure of the text is clearly twofold:
- Mary Magdalene, and later Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple, gather at the empty tomb (verses 1-10)
- Jesus appears to Mary outside the tomb (verses 11-18)
All three disciples see the empty tomb, but Mary tarries long enough to meet the risen Lord.
The timing of the encounter is significant: “While it was still dark…” (John 20:1). There is a minor discrepancy here between John and the Synoptics: “still dark” vs. “at dawn,” pointing to a symbolic difference. In the Synoptics, the women hear an angelic announcement of the resurrection, so light is appropriate. In John, at first Mary only finds an empty tomb, so darkness is apt.
Later, the visit occurs at twilight, a term that refers to an intermediate state, either between nighttime and sunrise or between sunset and nighttime. Symbolically, the light of Jesus seems to have gone out it appears to be a twilight preceding darkest night. In fact, it is a twilight preceding a new sunrise, and the dawn is imminent.
The footrace to the tomb is a lively but perplexing detail. What is the evangelist saying? Is this just an odd memory or is it symbolic? Is one disciple subordinated to the other by arriving at the tomb first or by entering first?
Some interpreters have seen a contrast between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Peter’s priority in entering the tomb is cited by some Catholic interpreters, whereas the priority of the Beloved Disciple’s faith is cited by some Protestant interpreters. Both are probably misguided. The Fourth Evangelist’s aim is to elevate the Beloved Disciple, not to denigrate Peter.
The disposition of the wrappings (verse 5) may serve an apologetic purpose. The fact that the linens and the facecloth were neatly disposed argues against the theft of the body. Thieves would have left the body wrapped or, if they removed any linens, would not have done so in a tidy fashion.
Verse 8 is odd: “He saw and believed.” The faith of the Beloved Disciple does not jive with the very next clause: “For as yet they did not understand the scripture.” In addition, it is strange that this disciple did not inform Peter or Mary about his insight. As in a few other places in John, one wonders if the text was supplemented in the process of composition, and such infelicities were never edited out.
At first, Mary does not know that Jesus stands before her. Scholars call this the “non-recognition” motif, i.e., the disciples’ inability to recognize Jesus in his glorified state (cf. Luke 24:15-16). John 20:14 may be another example. Alternatively, more ordinary reasons could account for Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus: emotional distress, tears, darkness, etc. Weighing in favor of a theological motive is the significance of Mary’s being called by name.
Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me!” (cf. the King James Version’s “Touch me not!”) The Greek implies, “Stop doing what you are doing.” Varied explanations have been given to explain Jesus’ words here. They range from the absurd (Jesus’ wounds were still sore) to the fanciful (Having heard of the Eucharistic meal, Mary was wanting Jesus to serve her Holy Communion) to the risque (Jesus’ risen body was naked, so touching was inappropriate!).
Yet Jesus’ explanation is simple: he must ascend to the Father. His words imply an action in progress though not yet complete. John seems to understand the ascension as occurring immediately after the appearance to Mary. Later appearances would then be appearances from heaven.
Jesus’ final words in the scene have perplexed interpreters: “To my Father and your Father, to my god and your God” (John 20:17). Some have thought that Jesus’ words here are meant to differentiate between the relationship he has with God and the one the disciples have with God. It may, however, be a statement of identification, not of difference. In other words, Jesus’ departure (to the Father) and sending of the Spirit will enable his disciples to have a similar relationship to God.
There are several angles that the preacher might take to draw out the significance of this text:
- The appearance of the Beloved Disciple suggests that love for Jesus enables one to have special insight. The intimacy that this disciple has with Jesus (John 13:23-25; 19:26-27; 21:7) makes him the ideal follower of the Lord. Whether the faith of the Beloved Disciple in 20:8 is a historical fact or a literary/theological motif, the lesson for the reader is that closeness to Jesus confers a special kind of understanding.
- Mary’s moment of recognition comes with the mention of her name. She thus acts out the truth of John 10:3-4: “He calls his own sheep by name… and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Using someone’s name, especially a first name, assumes familiarity, intimacy, and closeness. Jesus’ followers have a relationship with their Lord that goes well beyond a formal or institutional connection. The preacher might consider the various modes of perception. Mary fails to recognize Jesus visually. Moments later she recognizes him aurally. Does the Lord sometimes communicate in ways or forms that we do not expect and thereby fail to notice?
- Finally, one might deliver a 1st person sermon in the guise of the gardener (vs. 15). “Hi, I’m Ezekiel; you know, the gardener at the cemetery just outside of Jerusalem. Do I look familiar? If you detect a resemblance between me and Jesus, I wouldn’t be surprised. We’ve been confused before! Let me tell you about it.”