John 20

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Discovering the Empty Tomb (1-10)

Verse 1: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. (NIV)

  • ”Dark” here is probably as theological as it is literal. Mark 16:2 notes that the sun had risen, but John often uses time references theologically, here probably signifying that everyone was still in the dark about its significance (Borchert 290).
  • This is the only mention of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John, apart from her appearing briefly at the cross (John 19:25).
  • The other gospels all record multiple women going to the tomb either two (Matthew) three (Mark), or more (Luke). All of them mention Mary Magdalene being there, however.
  • That this was the first day of the week is more important to John than that it was the third day, indicating that this was an event that burned into their thoughts before they sorted through the implications and Jesus' prophecies (Borchert 291).
  • Mary apparently did not see any angels, the body gone, or anything else this first visit. She simply saw something was wrong and went to get the others.
  • Unlike the synoptics, there is no mention of Mary coming to anoint Jesus' body. She just came, possibly to be near her Lord, whether living or dead.


Verse 2: So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!” (NIV)

  • Coming back to the disciples for help indicates Mary's deferring to their authority, and probably also shows some cultural aspects where men are expected to be the leaders.
  • ”The other disciple” had been mentioned before, as has “the one Jesus loved” but this is the first time they have been brought together so we know it's the same person (Moloney 521).
  • ”They” is a troublesome term as we don't know who she was referring to from the text. In context, she is almost certainly referring to either the Jewish leaders or the Romans at the behest of the Jewish leadership.
  • Mary had jumped to a conclusion, but there was no evidence that Jesus body itself was taken. She had only seen the stone removed, not the body removed yet.
  • Mary says “we” don't know where people put Jesus. As Mary is alone she is apparently including the disciples in her lack of knowledge (Moloney 519), though as the other gospels record multiple women being there it could also refer to women that John does not record.
  • The chronology of this statement is odd, because this and the following verses seems to be inserted in the middle of the account of Mary at the tomb.
    • There is no mention of Mary returning to the tomb, which raises the possibility that the account of 10-18 happens before this and the following verses.
    • But then some of what Mary says to the disciples does not fit.


Verse 3: So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. (NIV)

  • Peter is mentioned as going first, taking the initiative. Emphasis in Greek goes to what is at the beginning of the sentence.
  • The other disciple seems to hesitate here, something that he does again when he arrives at the term.


Verse 4: Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. (NIV)

  • While everyone agrees that Peter had a role in witnessing the resurrection, emphasizing that he was not the first disciple there could be contesting the priority of Peter's experience over the other witnesses (Borchert 293).


Verse 5: He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. (NIV)

  • If this happened after Mary saw the angels, then it could be fear keeping him outside.
  • Either way, this disciple is hesitant, and waits long enough that Peter catches up with him. Something is holding him back from going inside.


Verse 6: Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, (NIV)

  • The impression is almost that Peter just kept running right into the tomb without pause, very typical of Peter in terms of rushing in without thinking.
  • The resurrection of Lazarus has Lazarus emerging with his death clothes on him still, so this is something more.
  • The strips of linen indicate that there were no grave robbers (Moloney 523) because they would not have unwrapped Jesus' body.


Verse 7: as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. (NIV)

  • This goes against an idea of a shroud covering the entire body, but seems to indicate two separate pieces of cloth.
  • There has been a tradition lately that the grave clothes were undisturbed from how they were wrapped around him. This is possible, from the wording, but John does not say that (Morris 833).


Verse 8: Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (NIV)

  • It is unclear what the disciple believed, as the next verse indicates that they didn't get the need for the resurrection.
    • He could have believed Mary finally, that the body was missing. But then why didn't he go looking?
    • If Mary encountered Jesus before this, however, this could be a belief in the resurrection.


Verse 9: (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) (NIV)

  • This could indicate that the faith they had was not complete, they didn't know what was going on fully and so this verse is cautionary.
  • Another option is that this verse is praising the other disciple because he arrived at faith without sight and without even scripture.
  • Implicit in this statement is that the gospels are already considered scripture (Moloney 523).


Verse 10: Then the disciples went back to their homes, (NIV)

  • These are separate locations apparently, and not a single meeting place.

Mary Magdalene Sees Jesus (11-18)

There is no mention of Mary returning to the tomb in the text, she simply suddenly reenters the story as standing still, sorrow transfixing her to the spot. That does not seem like someone who already ran away from the tomb and back that morning.

This leaves open two different options for chronology. First, Mary could have returned with the disciples and stayed after they left. This is indicated by this verse, but she is not mentioned as returning.

Second, this could be a continuation of her initial story, and the account with the disciples chronologically follows Mary's meeting with Jesus. This fits the overall story better, and better explains what the disciples had in mind when they believed.


Verse 11: but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb (NIV)

  • If John wrote this portion of the gospel chronologically, then Mary did not believe or did not see the garments like the disciples did.
  • She apparently still thought that Jesus' body had not only been stolen but violated, and burial was a very important part of Jewish tradition (Borchert 298).
  • Mary is portrayed here as static, in both belief and actions, casting her for the moment in contrast to the movement, both physically and towards faith, of the disciples.
  • This is the fist time she has looked into the tomb, which is odd if the disciples had already come. Perhaps it is simply light enough now that she can see inside without going in and so she does.


Verse 12: and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. (NIV)

  • The angels are not mentioned as glowing or shining here, which would explain why she turned away from them to talk to a simple gardener. Matthew does mention a shine.
  • There is no mention of linens here. That minor element is neglected in favor of the major sight of the angels that greeted her.


Verse 13: They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don't know where they have put him.” (NIV)

  • ”Woman” should not be taken as derogative in any way (Morris 837).
  • There is no statement of surprise or reverence or fear on Mary's part like with almost all other angel encounters in the Bible.
    • Mary just answers the question and moves on.
    • It is like she doesn't really seem to understand what is happening around her, in a state of shock.
  • This is almost word for word what she told the disciples earlier in this account, and what she will repeat to Jesus again (Moloney 525).
    • She is just repeating the same things, that's all she can say.
    • The main change is that here she is not saying “we” but “I” don't know, which makes sense as the disciples are not with her anymore.
  • There is no mention of a body in Mary's statement, or of who she was seeking (Morris 839). It was assumed that she meant Jesus, but here the already the language is already anticipating Jesus alive.


Verse 14: At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. (NIV)

  • The angels don't appear to have phased her at all as she quickly turned around to apparently keep looking for the body.
  • Mary was probably in a state of shock at this time. Jesus had died, and his body was missing. Her world had collapsed so perhaps we should not judge Mary too quickly for not recognizing Jesus. She didn't seem to recognize the angels either.
  • Other suggestions for why Mary didn't recognize Jesus are that it was still too dark, her tears were blinding her or that Jesus' had changed post-resurrection (Borchert 299).


Verse 15: “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” (NIV)

  • This is basically the same question and the same answer as what Mary had just given, except instead of saying “someone” took Jesus, she asks this man if he did it.
  • Ironically, Mary is asking the man who she is seeking for more information.


Verse 16: Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). (NIV)

  • In a very real way, this is an answer from Jesus to her question, because it lets her see what has happened to him.
  • Finally Mary snaps out of it and sees what is around her. Where signs and angels didn't do it, her name spoken by her master did the trick.
  • Mary turns around twice to see Jesus, which is odd.
    • There is no indication that either were partial turns, and they both appear to be literal turning around, and not metaphorical ones.
    • Mary apparently turned back away from Jesus and back to staring at the tomb.
  • Two simple words, one for each of them. But they convey such a depth of meaning, relationship, and comfort.
  • Both what Jesus calls Mary and what Mary calls Jesus are Aramaic (Moloney 528).


Verse 17: Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' ” (NIV)

  • We have no mention of Mary latching onto Jesus so perhaps this is preventive, but most likely she fell at his feet or clung to him as she called out to him in the previous verse.
    • Matthew 28:9 mentions the women falling at Jesus' feet and might be intended here as well.
    • There is no sexual connotation here, though there is obviously a great connection here between Jesus and Mary.
    • ”Stop touching me” is a present imperative verb and so indicates the cessation of something, not a preventive measure (Morris 840).
  • ”Brothers” is not a phrase Jesus normally use of the disciples, but of his physical brothers. But we have no record of Mary going to them, only going to the disciples.


Verse 18: Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (NIV)

  • Mary is the first to have truly seen the Lord, but we do not have explicit mention of her belief. Once she had seen him and clung to him, it was obvious that she believed.


Message Ideas/Scripts/Liturgy That Use This Chapter

 VerseDirectionTopicAudienceOccasionCategory
Resurrection Freedom10-18We aren't to look for the dead Jesus, but the risen one who brings us home.ResurrectionAdultsEasterMessage Idea