Resurrection and Life
- Personal response
John is very clear as to why he wrote his gospel: ‘these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (chapter 20:31).’ A personal response of belief in Jesus is John’s objective and the impact of this is that those who believe ‘may have life in his name.’
John thus presented the account of Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection to promote personal response. This perhaps explains why John’s account of the resurrection morning takes a very different perspective than that of the other gospels.
Look at Matthew, Mark and Luke’s accounts of this most important of mornings and you will see amongst these gospels similar structure and chronology: the women making their way to the tomb with spices and resins prepared for embalming the body, the discovery of the open tomb, the encounter with two angels and so on. In contrast, John focusses on the experience of Mary Magdalene, her discovery of the empty tomb, her statements to John and Peter and her remarkable encounter with the risen Lord. There can be little doubt that John presented his focus on Mary (and to a lesser extent on John and Peter) in order to emphasise that the resurrection is not just a fact of history but that one’s personal response to it is of eternal importance.
- The early hours
It seems that a lot happened in the early hours of resurrection day! Matthew starts his account with Mary and the other Mary ‘at dawn,’ for Mark and Luke they start with a group of women ‘very early in the morning’ and Mark adds ‘just after sunrise.’ In contrast, John tells us about Mary and begins when it’s ‘still dark.’ At a church bible study, we once spent a very enjoyable evening picking our way through all four accounts and tried to work out the sequence of the events on that morning. What is clear is that it was somewhat chaotic! In many ways, the lead character is Mary and she seems to me to have made multiple visits to the tomb; alone while it was still dark, at dawn with the other Mary, just after sunrise with the larger delegation of women. In addition, she was probably the first of the women who went to alert the disciples that the tomb was empty. This tells us something of Mary’s character, she was clearly greatly affected by the death of the Lord and was highly active (and inquisitive) about what was going on.
If Mary is the central character in the group who witnessed the empty tomb that morning, what do we know about her? There are many Marys in the gospel accounts! However, Mary Magdalene is easy to identify as she is always identified with her full name. A simple search of the gospels for ‘Magdal’ reveals three important facts: 1. She had been demon possessed (Luke 8:2) and it was Jesus who drove 7 demons out of her. 2. She was among a group of women who financially supported (out of their own pocket) the Lord Jesus and the disciples (Luke 8:3) and 3. She was there at the cross when Jesus was crucified. We don’t know how or why Mary Magdalene became possessed by demons but we do know that she came from the utter darkness of that situation into light and life in Jesus – and it seems that she devoted her substance and being to the cause of Christ, and unlike the disciples she was there at the cross and was the first to make her way to the tomb on this first day of the week.
The day following the crucifixion must have been a difficult day for all who supported and knew the Lord. His body had been buried, and clearly for many of the disciples hope had been lost. (remember the two on the Emmaus road who said in despair and disappointent ‘we had hoped he would be the one who was going to redeem Israel.’ Doubtless on that Sabbath groups of believers would have met in quiet and stunned gatherings: How did this happen? What do we do now? Is it time to head back to Galilee and accept that this had been a remarkable three years but it was now all over? The Sabbath, with its restrictions, had now come and gone – today was the first day of the working week when at least something could be done. At sunset on the Saturday evening (the start of the first day of the week in Jewish custom) the women had bought and prepared embalming materials, they planned to get to the tomb early the next morning to treat Jesus’ body with some dignity. One can imagine that Mary slept little that night, awoke early, and unable to help herself – she was down at the tomb whilst it was still dark. The other gospel accounts also tell us that Mary likely returned as the dawn arrived with ‘the other Mary.’ At this stage it seems that the stone was still covering the opening to the tomb and likely the soldiers were still on guard. By the time the sun was just up the whole delegation of women, carrying the embalming materials headed for the tomb and being practically minded wondered who could assist them to roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. By the time they arrived they found that the stone had already been rolled away (Matthew 28 tells us that a miraculous event took place to remove the stone as well as the Roman guards!) and not only that: the tomb was empty! I believe that this was in fact Mary’s third visit to the tomb that morning, she knew that something of great importance had just happened! (the tomb had still been sealed on her last visits in the dark and at dawn). She dashed off to tell Peter and John, leaving the other women behind (if you want to know what happened to them you will need to take a look at the other gospels! – see below for a parallel view.)
- Peter and John
The men! If you’ve read the parallel passages above you will have noticed first just how John’s gospel differs in its emphasis from the other accounts, you will also have noticed the prominence of women in this most important of days. If the gospel writers had been concocting a story for propaganda purposes, they would not have given women the role of being the first to see the risen Lord! However, they did because they were simply telling what happened.
The men had not exactly covered themselves with glory since the conversations with Jesus in the upper room – they seemed to be slow to get what was happening and by the time Jesus was arrested they had kept a distinctly low profile. Imagine the scene, Mary bursts into the room with the news that ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t knew where they have put him.’
Peter and John ran to the tomb. It seems likely that during the time it took Mary to find and alert Peter and John and the time it took to return to the tomb,/ that the other women had left the scene. My impression is that it’s also likely that the women met Mary, Peter and John and told them what they had seen: stone rolled away, empty tomb, two angels with the stunning news: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.’ If Peter and John had been running before, now they were really moving, they had to see this for themselves! With Mary close behind, Peter and John ran to the tomb as the rest of the women headed to tell the rest of the disciples.
John got to the tomb first, and looked in to find the linen burial cloths and confirmation that there was no body. Peter was not far behind and went straight into the tomb! What he found was consistent with the women’s story: no body, just the strips of linen and the burial cloth. John followed Peter into the tomb. What a moment of realisation – all was not lost: ‘He saw and believed.’ John adds an editorial note that: ‘They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.’ What seems to be going on here is that John had seen sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus was indeed risen, alive and well. What persuaded him was what he saw: and empty tomb, what he heard: the testimony of the women and probably what he had been taught: by Jesus. What neither he nor Peter had yet grasped was how this event correlated with Old Testament scripture: that would come later. Peter and John had a story to tell the rest of the disciples and headed back to their lodgings – I suspect that they wanted to hear more of the story of the rest of the women and their encounter with angels.
As the women headed back to the disciples, they met the Lord! They did! It seems most likely however that Mary was to meet the Lord just before the rest of the women.
The women had left, John and Peter had left and now it was just Mary alone. I suspect that she had not yet worked things out but would have been reflecting on the impact of Jesus on her life: from demon possession to freedom! And on the tumultuous events of recent days. And now this. It was all just too much, Mary quietly wept at that tomb. She stepped inside the tomb and met two angels! ‘Why are you crying’ they asked. ‘They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.’ Clearly Mary was under the impression that Jesus was not alive.
At this point something rather remarkable happens. Now if I had been Mary I would have been so shocked and intrigued by an encounter with angles that I would have wanted this conversation to have gone on a bit longer. They were angels after all! But Mary became aware of someone behind here, she turned and saw a man – it was Jesus but for reasons we do not fully understand she failed to recognise him. There seems to be some evidence that in his risen body Jesus was not immediately recognizable. In any event, Jesus asks Mary the same question as the angles: why are you crying, and perhaps with that mirth that comes from revealing good news to someone who is about to get a wonderful surprise he asks ‘who is it you are looking for.’ Astonishingly, Mary is still under the impression that her task is to locate Jesus body! One word from Jesus’ mouth changes everything: ‘Mary!’ Mary’s response? She cried out ‘Master!’ Everything changed at that moment for Mary – she had met the risen Lord. Presumably Mary was hugging Jesus as she absorbed this remarkable turn of events, but even in this moment of great joy there was work to be contemplated. Jesus said, ‘do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father, to my God and to your God”’ What could this mean? It seems to me that Jesus was saying to Mary that big changes are coming, things would not go back to where they were before – in that sense she could not hold onto Jesus and the past way of working. Jesus would be returning to the Father, there would be work to do for those he would leave behind.
Mary, presumably with some reluctance left Jesus to do as he had asked: to tell the disciples.
Everything changed when Mary heard the Lord call out her name. It does not seem to me too much of a stretch to say that God knows your name and is calling it out. Will you hear his voice? And if you do will your response like Mary be to call him Master?