John 20:1-31

Jesus, the Risen Lord

       J.W. Carter.  March 20, 2005.   2005, American Journal of Biblical Theology
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The Pieta, Michaelangelo

The timing of this study is Easter morning. What has transpired over the last few days in Jesus' ministry?

  • Jesus entered Jerusalem to the praises of the people.
  • Jesus entered the temple to find the court of the gentiles filled with merchants who were changing Roman money for temple money and selling sacrifices. Jesus overturned their tables as an expression of God’s displeasure with this desecration.
  • The Last Supper, the Passover meal, was shared with the disciples as Jesus described the symbolism of its elements as prophesies of the coming Messiah.
  • Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and was taken prisoner after Judas’ betrayal.
  • Jesus was taken for mock trials before Caiaphas & Pilate.
  • Jesus was tortured by Roman guards, crucified in the Roman style, died on the cross, and was buried.

The disciples were frightened and confused by this turn of events, and other than James and John, ran into hiding. Jesus’ family and disciples grieved his death.

First, let's note the traditional method of burial used in their day. It relates to experiences we witness in the burial of both Lazarus and Jesus. When someone died, they first wrapped the body in linens and spices, placing them within the tomb on a stone table. After about four days, being assured of the death of the person, someone would re-enter the tomb and conduct the final preparation of the body including the distribution of more spices, final wrapping of the body, and its placement into a sealed, permanent chamber within the tomb. The raising of both Jesus and Lazarus take place before this second preparation of the body.

The first preparation of Jesus took place immediately prior to his placement into the tomb. Who conducted this preparation?

And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. 39And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. 40Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. 41Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. 42There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand (John 19:38-42).

Don't you think it odd that two religious leaders did this?

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth (Isa 53:9).

During this time an event was taking place which had never happened and will never happen again for all of eternity. The Christ, the Messiah, an eternal person of the triune God was separated from God the Father. A traditional way of describing this is stated in the Apostle's Creed, "He descended into Hell." Therefore, this is an important point. What is Hell? It is an eternal state in the spiritual realm, fully and completely separated from the influence of God. What would hell be like? Every soul born in this world is, unless diverted, destined for Hell: an eternity separated from God. Separated from His love, His grace, and His control.  Absent the Holy Spirit's power ever-present power to protect, the power of evil is wholly unrestrained.  This is a place so violent that the scripture refers it to a "lake of fire."  Because of our sinful state no person can be found worthy to enter the Kingdom of God. 

 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 6:23).

There is only one remedy to our situation: to have our sin forgiven. A study of the Old Testament states that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.

And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission (Heb 9:22). 

The Bible teaches that Christ died on the cross by the shedding of His own blood for the forgiveness of all who would place their faith in him. What would life be like without forgiveness? It would be a life filled with fear and regret, a life filled with attempts to atone for our own shortcomings: a practice that can never be effective, and only frustrating at best. It would be like running a perpetual race that we cannot win.  So, we find Jesus dead, forsaken by God, forsaken by all but a few of his friends. The Sabbath day followed Jesus' death, a day that had been celebrated by Jesus and His disciples with dedicated regularity and purpose: a purpose that pointed to the coming kingdom of God.  However, this Sabbath day would be quite different.  The disciples were in hiding, fearing for their lives.  Then came Sunday. Early in the morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to complete the burial procedure. What did she find?

John 20:1-2.

The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. 2Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

What did Mary think? Some argue that someone had stolen the body. Such a position is not very likely. Pilate gave the order to "seal" the tomb, a process that involved the stationing of an entire guard of soldiers at its entrance. Though he may have "washed his hands" of this affair, one thing that Pilate could not tolerate was any further problems from this situation, and he assured that peace would be maintained by the assignment of that guard. A Roman guard consists of a minimum of 12 men: two on watch while ten sleep in a circle with their heads towards the post they are defending.  Some have refuted the scriptural account of the angel's appearance at the tomb, and argue that the guards were bribed, but again, such a position ignores the cultural and historical context of the situation:  an entire guard would have to have been bribed, and by so doing face the same execution that was meted out on the "prisoner" they were charged to protect.  

Since the guards were not there when Mary arrived, it is apparent that she thought that the Romans had taken the body away. She did not ask who took Jesus’ body. She simply referred to the robbers as "they," and the only persons who had the ability to remove the body without bloodshed were the Romans.

What did she do? Mary ran to get help from the disciples, and encountered Peter and John, telling them that the body was gone, and that she does not know where they took Him. Why did she say, "We"? John mentions Mary of Magdala as one of those who came to the tomb on that Sunday morning, and he does not specifically mention that Mary was not alone. Actually, the task she was to do was not one that would be easily done by a single person. Mary was not alone.

Luke 24:1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

Mat 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

We cannot apply modern literary scrutiny to ancient scripture passages. Each writer is presenting a testimony of a situation from their own perspective, and there was no attempt by either writer to record all of the minute details.  John tells the story from the context of Mary’s experience. Mark, who is most likely repeating Peter’s description of events, lists three women. Matthew lists two. The purpose here is not a roll call of those at the tomb, but rather to report the events that took place there in the context of the resurrection. This is a good example of how it is necessary to understand the historical and literary context of scripture when attempting to learn its truths.  When we see variations in different scriptural accounts of the same event, we may gain a greater insight by "adding" together what we find in those accounts.  To argue that one account is correct and another is incorrect can only be defended with an incomplete exegesis.

John 20:3-7

Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. 4So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. 5And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. 6Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, 7And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.

Notice that a little bit of their personalities comes out here. Though John outran Peter, he did not go into the tomb, but bent over and looked in, seeing the grave clothes neatly folded on the stone table where Jesus had been laid. Why did John stay outside? As we can see later, he is thinking through the situation, probably responding with reverent respect, and not intent on desecrating the grave site.

Upon arrival to the tomb what does Peter do? Reverence never seemed to stand in Peter's way.   He ran directly into the empty tomb... typical of Peter’s impulsive nature. We know this is true because of the Greek word, theoreo, to look closely upon. Peter closely observes the physical strips of linen. Note that the head cloth is described as neatly folded. Though little defense for the resurrection is needed, grave robbers would not take time to fold the linens with a Roman guard standing outside, and if Roman guards found the body stolen they would not be waiting around folding linens either!

John 20:8

Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.

What happens when John enters the tomb? The Greek word used for saw is eido, which means to understand. Though they did not fully understand the scope of what was happening here, the implication here is that they understood and believed at least some of what was taking place. It may mean they believed that Jesus had left the tomb on his own. It may also mean they simply believed that the grave was empty.

John 20:9-10

For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. 10Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.

It seems the men responded to the situation as men typically do. There was nothing left to do, no problem they could solve, so they simply went home. They tried to pick up their lives where they were before Jesus called them. This is a common response of people when they hear the gospel. They profess faith in Christ, only to return to their old lives, unchanged. This is a clear indication that the professed faith in Christ was never actually realized. Faith in Christ involves accepting who He is, including both Savior and Lord. Some want Jesus as a Savior, but do not accept him as Lord. Accepting faith in Christ involves accepting all of who He is, not just a selected part. Such a decision can only be made in the power of the Holy Sprit, and when one turns their heart and lives over to Jesus, the Holy Spirit forever indwells that person as a seal of that decision. A radical change then takes place in the life of the believer, and it is almost impossible to "return home," to go back to that old way of thinking. God transforms the heart and mind so that we would become more like Jesus, and become prepared to continue sharing the gospel, the good news of salvation, with others.  If no such transformation takes place, it is likely that no true submission to Jesus Christ took place.

What did the women do? They stayed behind, dealing with the grief and mixed emotions that came from their belief that the body had been stolen. They stayed, and by doing so were given a gift by God that would forever change their lives.

John 20:11

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,

The women stayed behind and wept. Why did Mary take another look into the tomb? Maybe in her grief she was looking for answers. She wanted to know where the body was. She may have hoped that they had been mistaken, this was all a bad dream, and Jesus is really there. She had a need to know, and God provided a means to meet her need

John 20:12-13

And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.

Just as God used angels to announce the appearance of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2), two angels appeared to Mary. They were seated at the ends of the stone table where Jesus’ body had been placed. They counseled with Mary to help relieve her fear and anxiety, emotions that had apparently been shed by those disciples who left for home.

John 20:14

And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

Why did Mary fail to recognize Jesus. Her failure to recognize Him might have been partially because He was "out of place." She could only remember the horrifying images of the gruesome treatment that Jesus had received on the cross. Have you ever experienced meeting someone whom you know well in an unexpected setting and had difficulty recognizing them? Also, Jesus’ appearance had been changed dramatically from only a couple of days before. There were other examples of where people failed to recognize Jesus after the resurrection: John 20:14, Luke 24:16. He was still recognizable, however. Mary Madalene would later recognize his voice. He still bore the scars of the crucifixion.

John 20:15

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

Jesus repeated the question posed by the angels, whom, apparently she did not recognize as such. She did not look into his eyes; to do so was quite inappropriate in their culture. So who did she think was greeting her? It would be reasonable that the only stranger that she might encounter in the garden this early in the morning would be the gardener. In desperation, she inquires if he had taken the body away. It appears that she was still "looking into the tomb." She was making a mistake that many people still make today. When many think of Christ, they think of him on the cross or in the tomb. They leave him there, grieving over the pain and suffering, feeling guilty for the necessity of His sacrifice. However, while people focus on Jesus' death, what are they missing? Jesus didn't die so that we would grieve his death. He died so that we could share in his resurrection to experience an eternal life with Him! There is such a difference in these two viewpoints. The first is one of grief and frustration that leads to guilt and despair. The second is one of joy and confidence that celebrates the very nature of the risen Christ.

John 20:16

Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

There can certainly be no grief as devastating and debilitating as that experienced by a mother who has just lost her child to a sudden and violent death.  It is equally difficult to comprehend the impossible astonishment and joy that Mary is about to experience.  Mary recognized Jesus when He said something that she had heard many times: He simply referred to her by name. She immediately recognized his voice and the way he said her name. Her response used the name, Raboni, the intimately personal name for rabbi or master. It is literally, "my rabbi" or "my master." We are reminded of John’s record of Jesus’ prayer when Jesus stated that His sheep hear His voice (Chapter 10).  Mary remained faithfully devoted to her son throughout his childhood and youth as she served as the mother of the Messiah, a task she always knew was hers alone to bear.  Once Jesus started his ministry, her relationship with him took on a new dimension as she submitted to His rightful place as her Messiah, her Master, and Her Lord.  Even in death she remained faithful to him, though she was confused and devastated by grief.  Protestants often overlook the faithfulness of Mary as a disciple of Jesus Christ, fearing the elevating of her to a position of deity as some have done.  If any of the disciples deserved to first see the risen Lord, it was Mary, the grieving mother of Jesus.  Her need was greatest, and her faithfulness never wavered.

John 20:17

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

This verse can be confusing. What does Jesus mean when he says, "Do not touch me"? The word for "touch" is translated a variety of ways. Note what took place in Matthew 28:9.

Mat 28:9-10 And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. 10Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.

Some argue that Jesus had some kind of semi-physical, or metaphysical body that could not yet be physically touched. Such a position completely disregards other descriptions of the resurrected Christ. There was no physical limitation that effected contact between him and others. Instead, He was gently telling Mary not to "cling" to him. Her attempt to hold on to him within the context of this world would only serve to increase her grief when He would ascend into Heaven a few weeks later. He was saying what many might say to their grieving ones left behind if they could: "Let me go." Jesus did not want His mother, or the others, to unnecessarily grieve, but to know that He was alive, and that she and the others women should go and tell others. He could have as easily said, "Let me go. Do not grieve my death, for as you can see, I am alive. However, I must leave and go to my Father."

Again, some have misunderstood this verse, thinking that Jesus' body was in some kind of transitory metaphysical state between mortality and immortality that precluded their ability to touch him. This is caused by the use of the word touch, as if He said, "Don't reach out and touch me." Such a doctrine ignores the fact that Matthew records His being grasped by the disciples only a few minutes later, and they received no such rebuke.  A translation of "hold on to" is equally defensible.

John 20:18

Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

What do you suppose the disciples thought when she report that she had seen Jesus? Were they excited, overflowing with joy? It appears that they did not particularly believe Mary. Her report to them would better prepare them for Jesus’ appearance whether they believed or not. Thomas is famous for his disbelief of her message.  Peter and John had seen the empty tomb and might have been inclined to believe Mary.  Some might have wanted to believe her, but to do so would take them further in the direction of faith than any of them had yet experienced.

John 20:19-23

Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. 20And when he had so said, he showed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. 21Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: 23Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

At this point in the lives of the disciples they, for the first time, really recognized the danger of their position. They had returned to their homes only to find that they were identified with Jesus. They feared that they would be caught, tortured, or killed by the Jews as Jesus had been. Consequently, they came back together in a secure place and locked the doors behind them in fear.  It is interesting to note that all of the disciples ultimately died from that very persecution they now feared. All but John were martyred, and John’s life ended in exile on the island of Patmos.  However, when each of these disciples were caught, tortured and killed, did they cower in fear behind locked doors? No, they stood firm in their testimony of the risen Christ. What was the difference that took place in their lives? The Holy Spirit empowered their witness of the truth of the resurrection.  

The life-change took place, not at Pentecost as some assume, but rather here in the upper room where they for the first time received the Holy Spirit.  It is difficult to comprehend how the disciples were able to fully engage in Jesus' ministry without the power of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.  Jesus' presence with them provided this resource.  However, in His absence, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to all of those who place their faith in Him.  It is this Holy Spirit that would encourage the disciples, help them to recall and understand Jesus' teaching, and lead them in the great "revival" of Pentecost.

If anyone could doubt the truth of the resurrection, the testimony of the changed lives of all of the disciples at that moment in history is sufficient to make any doubter appear dogmatically ignorant. What happened to the disciples as a result of the resurrection? They understood the truth, and received the Holy Spirit... They were saved. They became the first born-again spirit-filled Christians after the resurrection, and went on to fulfill the commission that Jesus gave to them.

What were the disciples like prior to the resurrection? They were ignorant, cowardly, bumbling, self-centered, and prideful. What were they like after the resurrection? They were fully knowledgeable of the gospel, confident and courageous, under control, other-centered and humble. Every one of them made a complete turnaround. What happens when a person places their faith and trust in Jesus Christ? They experience a complete turnaround.

  • Did the disciples have to get their life right before God before they received God's gift of Grace?  No, they did not.  They were not able to do so on their own.
  • Did the disciples have to learn all of the correct doctrine before they received God's gift of Grace?  No, they did not.  It was the Holy Spirit who would guarantee their understanding.

Do we have to get our lives in order or learn proper doctrine or do any other work before we can receive God's Grace?  

People search in a variety of places to find fulfillment, to fill that void in their hearts that only God can fill. They seek worldly religions that have rules that make one "righteous," only to know in their hearts that they are still sinners. They seek the advice of psychics who give them short-term answers, but they still lack the joy that comes with a transformed heart. They try to be "good," only to find that they cannot. Note that no such action was needed by any person who came to Christ. Salvation is always a gift of God, given by His grace to those who will accept what He has done for them. We do not need to get our lives right before He will receive us. We do not need to learn all manner of correct truth and doctrine. We simply need to come to Christ just as we are, confess that we have sinned and come short of God’s Glory, and commit our hearts and lives to Him. It is through this act of confession and profession that we are saved.  It is then within the context of this commitment to Him that we choose to submit to Jesus Christ as our Lord, and by so doing, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that regeneration of our lives starts to take place.

John 20:24-25

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

What was the difference between Thomas and the other disciples at this time? Thomas had not been with them when Jesus appeared to them in the upper room. He had not received the Holy Spirit as they had, so he still carried with him that old paradigm that left Jesus hanging on the cross. The testimonies of the disciples sounded like foolishness to him. Likewise, most people today have strong doubts of the truth of the gospel. They prefer to seek allegiances with other world systems, and consider the gospel as foolishness. No manner of testimony or argument could convince Thomas that Jesus was, indeed alive, and the true Lord and Messiah that was prophesied in their scriptures. A week passed before that changed.

John 20:26-31.

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. 27Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. 28And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. 29Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. 30And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: 31But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

This last verse is the key verse to all of John’s writings. His purpose was to enable people to believe that Jesus Christ is, indeed, the promised Messiah, and by placing faith and trust in him, all can be saved.

Today's study is timed for presentation on Easter Sunday. If there is any time during the year that should encourage us to celebrate the joy of salvation it is Easter. Recall:

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).

But Christ did not just die. Just as the grave could not hold Him, it can not hold those who place their faith in Him. The resurrection will take place for all people, both the wicked and the dead. There is a judgment coming for all men.

And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. 14And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15).

You will be in that group, as well as every member of your family, your friends, your acquaintances, all of your neighbors.  All people will be called upon to give an account of their lives. Of this group who will be saved? Let's look at two more passages:

 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. 12For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. 13For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom 10:9-13.)

Who will be saved?  It is those who are found in the "book of life," those who confess Jesus as their Lord, fully trusting in Him.  What does salvation save us from?  Described as the "lake of fire," the "second death," it is the eternal condemnation for our unforgiven sins by a full and complete separation from God at the Judgment.  The judgment is final and eternal.  One is eternally separated from God, or eternally in fellowship with Him and all of those who have placed their faith in Him.  How could anyone choose eternal separation?

1 John 5:13  These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.

John's gospel is organized a little differently from Matthew, Mark and Luke.  John's purpose for writing is more theological than it is historical.  John writes so that people can believe and be saved.  Consequently, of the gospels, it is the writing of John that can often be the most useful to come to an understanding of the gospel.  I often recommend that new Christians read this book before any other in scripture because of its message of grace.  

If anyone reading these words has not yet experienced the peace and joy that comes from the knowledge of their salvation, I encourage you to stop now, and pray a simple prayer:

"Lord, Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I have fallen short of the perfection needed to be worthy of God. Please accept me, as I am. I know that you died on the cross and were raised again so that you might be my own Savior and Lord. I do acknowledge you as my Savior and my Lord. Help me as I strive to be faithful to you. Help me as I seek to learn more about this life as a Christian. Thank you for saving me."

Do not let this opportunity pass.