Commentary on John 20:1-18
John 20:1–18 divides into two parts: verses 1–10 and 11–18.
[Looking for commentary on Matthew 28:1-10? See this commentary for Easter Vigil by Judith Jones.]
In the first portion, Mary arrives early in the morning at Jesus’ tomb. Unlike Synoptic accounts, where Mary is joined by other women to anoint Jesus’ body, here Mary is alone and Jesus’ body has been anointed for burial twice already (12:1–8; 19:39–42). Mary’s solitude, walking to the tomb even before the sun rises, emphasizes the sorrow of the moment. Like Mary of Bethany in John 11, this Mary is in mourning. When she sees an open tomb, it does not bring about the memories of Lazarus’ resurrection, but rather a logical assumption: an opened tomb signals a tomb robbery! Unfortunately, such acts were well-known in antiquity, so much so that tomb robbery was listed as a heinous crime in rhetorical handbooks and was a trademark of pirates in ancient novels.
Rather than looking into the tomb, Mary runs away from it (20:2). Assuming Jesus’ body has been stolen, she seeks help from two disciples: Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Peter’s inclusion seems odd; does Mary (or anyone) know what Peter did in the courtyard? The last time he appeared, it was while denying Jesus three times (18:15–27). In contrast, the Beloved Disciple stood by Jesus even as he hung on the cross (19:25–27). These disciples race to the tomb, their presence together already signaling Peter’s future reinstatement and Jesus’ gracious forgiveness (21:15–19). There is room for both faithful and failing disciples in the family of God because of this forgiveness and love.
Mary’s desire for comfort from these two disciples, however, will leave her empty. Both men eventually look into the tomb and see that Jesus’ body is gone. Even the Beloved Disciple, who is said to “believe” in verse 8, offers no words of hope to Mary. Instead, all three disciples are scattered (see also 16:32). The men “returned to their homes,” while Mary remains outside the tomb, weeping. In fact, given the sequence of events in 20:8–10, it seems probable that the Beloved Disciple “believed” Mary’s report of Jesus’ body being stolen rather than believing in the resurrection, since verse 9 continues: “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” If the Beloved Disciple “believed” in the resurrection at this point, his silent return home is cruel, and a significant departure from his otherwise inquisitive and helpful character in John 13 and 19.
In 20:11, Mary is again alone at the tomb. We can imagine light has begun filtering into the garden around her. Her sorrow brings to mind Jesus’ final words to his disciples in 16:20: “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain but it will turn into joy.” To emphasize his point, Jesus uses the image of a woman in childbirth to describe his disciples’ sorrow; but, like a new mother holding her living child, they will also rejoice. “And,” Jesus says, “no one will take away your joy” (16:21–22). Mary, crouched beside the tomb, is that woman laboring in sorrow. But, soon, she will experience the beginnings of unending joy.
In contrast to the silence Mary received from the fleeting disciples—who ran to the tomb only to later abandon her there—Mary is visited by three beings in 20:11–18. Two angels are the first to acknowledge her pain: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (verse 13). Seemingly blinded by her tears, Mary does not hesitate to answer the angels, not showing the fear so characteristic of other angelic visitations in the Gospels and unbothered by their sudden presence in what was before an empty tomb. When she turns and sees Jesus a few verses later, she overlooks his identity as well. Jesus repeats the acknowledgement of her blinding pain, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (verse 15).
The conversation here parallels in many ways Jesus’ first collection of disciples from John 1:35–42. Jesus’ question: “Whom are you looking for?” is the same one he asked in 1:38: “Whom are you seeking?” The disciples also call Jesus “Rabbi” or “Rabbouni” (“my Rabbi”), and in both cases the author translates the title as “Teacher” (1:39; 20:16). Jesus also names disciples in these stories: “Mariam” in 20:16, and “Peter” in 1:42. Finally, in both scenes disciples go to share the good news of Jesus’ presence with “brothers”: in John 1:41, Andrew goes to his biological brother, Peter; in 20:17–18, Mary is sent as the first apostle to Jesus’ newly reborn “brothers,” the disciples (see also 3:5–8).
Yet, there is a significant difference between these two scenes as well. In John 1, the disciples collected by Jesus will “remain” or “abide” with him physically; they follow him to stay in the same place. In John 20:17, however, Mary is explicitly told to “let go” of Jesus’ body so that he can “ascend” to his Father in heaven. Mary’s physical reaction to cling to Jesus is entirely understandable, and it emphasizes the corporeal reality of Jesus’ raised body. Jesus, though, tells Mary this is not the time to remain physically with him; she cannot follow him quite yet (13:36–14:7). Instead, now is the time to go and tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary, in full obedience, does just that (20:18).
In many ways, we can relate to Mary. We have experienced the sorrow of Good Friday together and, now, we meet the resurrected Jesus and begin to rejoice. But Jesus also tells us we cannot remain in the garden, clinging to him. Instead, we must continue to trust his word and go. While we cannot be with Jesus physically just yet, we rejoice and experience his presence by means of the Holy Spirit he breathes over us as a community, a newly-founded family of God, blessed by believing even without sight (John 20:29–31).