Mary Magdalen and the Truth of Resurrection (John 20:1-18)
I want to focus on Mary Magdalen’s encounter with the risen Lord because it is so personal.
20:1,2 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.’
John mentions only Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb. It may be that John omits the other women because he is telling the story through Mary’s experience. Or it may be that they became weary and stopped to rest, in which case Mary pushed on, arriving alone.
John says that it was still dark. I’m always inspired by the courage and devotion of the women. They are intent on honoring the body of their Lord, determined to express their love for Him with one final act of kindness. They don’t know that the tomb was sealed with an official Roman notice of jurisdiction nor that a guard of soldiers had been posted nor that the solders had fled. But they do know that a heavy stone has been rolled against the tomb — they were present when Jesus was buried. But love does not ask, “How will I roll the stone?” Love presses on.
When they arrive, Mary can see the stone has already been taken away from the tomb. She may have seen that the tomb was empty or she may have assumed this. Either way, she believes that Jesus’ body had been stolen. She ran back to Jerusalem before coming any closer, hurrying to tell Peter and John. The other women stayed, or arrive moments later at which point they encountered the angelic messengers.
Arriving in the city, Mary informed the apostles of the empty tomb and said, We do not know where they have laid Him. The word we tells us that other women had made the journey with Mary. When Mary brings the news to Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved (that’s John), she mentions only the empty tomb, supposing that someone had taken the body. She had run back to Jerusalem as soon as she saw the stone removed and before the angel had spoken to the other women. Mary did not hear the angel say that Jesus had risen, nor had she met Jesus yet.
20:3-7 So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.
Having received the news from Mary, Peter and John ran to the tomb. John arrived first and stooped to look in. He saw only the linen wrappings. Peter, true to his bold nature, burst into the tomb, finding the linen wrappings and the face cloth rolled up in a place by itself.
20:8-10 So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.
John saw and believed that Jesus had risen. However, neither he nor Peter understood the Scripture, That He must rise again from the dead. John believes but does not understand.
20:11,12 But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.
Mary had followed Jesus through the years of His ministry. She was probably present when the multitude proclaimed Him as their Messiah. She may have been present at the hall of judgment, as He was beaten and mocked. She certainly followed to the cross and to the lonely place of the tomb as the Sabbath shadows gathered. She was a witness to His death and burial.
Now she returns to the empty tomb but because she moved more slowly than Peter and John and was surely weary, she arrived after they had departed. The other women had long since left. Mary is alone and weeping, heartbroken, exhausted, confused, despairing of all hope. She stooped to look inside the tomb and saw the two angels, though she does not recognize them as angels. (It is interesting that the angels did not appear to Peter and John).
20:13 And they said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.’
The angels ask, Woman, why are you weeping? Her answer reveals her broken heart and her hopelessness, Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him. She only wishes to minister one last act of kindness to the Savior who had lifted her out of her sin. She had followed so far and if the only act of worship she could still express would be to anoint the dead body of her Lord, then surely she would. But how could she? Someone had taken the body, or so she assumes. Notice again the complete absence of any hope or expectation that a resurrection has taken place.
20:14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.
Something caused her to turn and she saw someone standing nearby but did not recognize Him nor even His voice at first. It could have been the early morning shadows and mist or her tears or her complete lack of expectancy. The most probable reason is that Jesus, in His glorified body, could only be recognized as He chose to reveal Himself (see the walk to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-16,30,31).
20:15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.’
Mary assumes that this person is the gardener and assures him that she will carry the body to a more decent burial. How will she carry her Beloved? Love does not ask. She is not intimidated by the gardener nor the task of carrying a body. She desires only that she might pour out her anointing oil and from the broken flask of her heart, lavish on Christ the greater perfume of her devotion. She is intent only on her purpose to worship and honor her Lord.
20:16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means, Teacher).
Jesus spoke one word, Mary. She recognizes Him instantly and replies, Teacher.
How did she know it was Jesus? She recognizes Him as He calls her name. Jesus had said, My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me (John 10:27).
The Lord had spoken prophetically through Isaiah, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine (Isaiah 43:1). Jesus knows our names and knows how to speak in a way that we can hear, if only in our soul. Mary knew Him by the way He called her name. In speaking her name, Jesus opened her eyes to see Him.
20:17 Jesus said to her, ‘Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’
She must have fallen at His feet in worship and adoration, clinging to Him so tightly that He has to command her to release Him. He then gives her a commission: Go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’
20:18 Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ and that He had said these things to her.
She returns to the disciples and announces with the absolute confidence and assurance of a witness to the truth, I have seen the Lord. That is the most powerful sermon anyone can preach. But isn’t that our sermon? We too have met the risen Christ. Isn’t this our story? He knows our names and meets us in the places where we were expecting nothing more than the dying of hope and vision. But He calls our name and everything changes. This our story too.
By the way, why were the women chosen to be the first witnesses of the risen Christ?
1. Because they had the courage to follow Jesus to the cross and to the tomb. The most truthful witnesses of a resurrection are those who have seen the death and burial of someone.
2. They were available. They weren’t hiding on that first easter morning. They were seeking to be worshippers.
Those who are willing to follow, those who are faithful worshippers — these are always the truest witnesses of our risen Lord.
The Essential Truth of Resurrection
There must have been some false teachers in the church at Corinth who were denying the truth of the physical resurrection of Jesus. This was an attack on the very foundation of the Christian faith and the Apostle Paul confronted their heresy:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain ... and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:13,14,17).
Look carefully at Paul’s argument.
If the dead are not raised then Christ has not been raised. If Christ did not rise, then our preaching is useless and so is our faith. Why? Because Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin. The result of sin is death and if Jesus did not rise from the dead then He did not conquer death, rather, death conquered Him — sin won the victory, sin killed Jesus and the power of sin is unbroken.
If sin’s power is unbroken, then our faith is useless because we are trusting in a sacrifice for sin which had no effect. We are still in our sins. Faith in a dead Savior saves us from nothing. Our sin debt was not paid and we are still lost in sin, separated from God by sin and under the condemnation of a holy God who must judge sin and sinner.
Further, Paul says that if Christ is not raised, then those who preach a risen Savior are false witnesses, liars (I Cor. 15:15). We might add, so are the Old Testament saints who prophesied a resurrection and Jesus also would be a liar, for He promised that He would rise again. How can we believe the credibility of Scripture if there was no resurrection? How can we trust the Holy Spirit, who has been given to lead us into all truth (John 16:13), if in fact the Scriptures are untrue? How can we trust any of the words of Jesus if, in fact, He said He would rise but did not?
Paul emphasizes that if the dead are not raised, then our faith is worthless because we are still lost in our sins (I Cor. 15:16,17). Equally tragic, Those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (15:18). Those who died trusting in a dead Christ are merely dead, still under condemnation for sin and destined for hell.
Finally, Paul reminds us, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (15:19). Paul and his generation of believers suffered heroically for their faith but their suffering was in vain if their faith was vain. A Messiah who did not rise from the dead is a Messiah who did not triumph over sin or death, a Savior of no one and our faith is in nothing.
In summary, if we deny the resurrection of Christ, then we are denying the truthfulness of Scripture, which testifies that Jesus rose from the dead. We deny the integrity of Christ Himself, for He prophesied that He would rise. We deny the effectiveness of the atonement, for if Jesus did not rise, then He did not conquer sin and death; rather, sin and death conquered Him.
Yet our faith is not vain. They are wrong who say that Jesus did not rise and Paul answers the deceivers with the glorious proclamation, But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by one man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive (I Cor. 15:20-22).
Adam is the one who introduced death into the world. He was the first fruits of death. God had said to him, regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, In the day that you eat from it you will surely die (Genesis 2:17). The seeds of death were planted first in Adam, bearing fruit throughout humanity for these thousands of years. Life, resurrection life, flows from Jesus Christ: But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep (I Cor. 15:20). It is not that Jesus is the first to rise from the dead, but the first to rise and never die again.
The resurrection is God the Father’s vindication of the cross. It is the Father saying to His Son, “I accept your atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world.”
Thus it was that the bodily resurrection of our Lord was a foundation of New Testament preaching and remains a cornerstone of Christian faith. The blessed truth is this, That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation (Romans 10:9,10).
It is impossible to disbelieve the resurrection of Christ and be a follower of Christ. A Christian is someone who believes and confesses that Jesus is the holy Lamb of God who gave His life as a full and perfect sacrifice for our sins and who then physically rose from the dead.
Yet there were some in the church at Corinth who were denying the validity of the resurrection. Who were these resurrection deniers?
They must have been corrupt, for the Apostle Paul said, Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’ (I Corinthians 15:33). Their corrupt lifestyle revealed a corrupt belief system. These ungodly people were corrupting the Corinthian church with their unbelief which was reflected in an ungodly life. Because evil company corrupts good morals, Paul exhorted the church, Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame (I Cor. 15:34).
Who were these corrupt unbelievers? People who had no knowledge of God. They may have held positions of authority in the church, may have been considered wise in the wisdom of the world but they denied the resurrection, not because they were brilliant scholars and theologians but because they were spiritually dead, corrupt sinners.
In every generation they try to corrupt the church with their false teaching. They may profess to be Christians but their denial of the resurrection of Christ reveals a false profession of faith.
Christians down through the ages have based their life, their hope and their eternal destiny on the foundational truth that the death of Jesus Christ was not the last word in His life and ministry, but that He arose triumphant over death. Throughout the centuries, the courageous procession of disciples have stood on Christ’s cornerstone promise, Because I live, you will live also (John 14:19). His resurrection guarantees the certainty of our resurrection.
Encountering the risen Christ, heart-broken followers of a crucified rabbi were transformed into courageous witnesses. The resurrection of Jesus gave birth to the fellowship of saints that became the church triumphant. The world could ridicule them, imprison them, beat them, could even kill them but could never make them deny the reality of the resurrection.
A commando team burst into the prison and broke open the doors of the cells. One inmate was too traumatized to stand so a soldier lay down beside him, looked him in the eyes and said, “We’ll lay here together and when you’re ready, we’ll get up together.”
The Creator of this universe took on human form, lay down in the dust of death with us and rose again. All who believe in Him rise with Him.
In our resurrection, we will possess glorified bodies and minds. The trauma of this world will be washed away. But there will be one person in heaven who will forever carry scars. It is the Savior who lay down in the dust with us. The nail prints, the scar of the spear-thrust will forever inspire our praise for the unmeasured, unfathomable love of God.
But that day is not today. Today we live amidst empires that seduce and deceive, oppress and enslave, persecute and plunder. In the midst of this deafening clamor of chaos, devastation and tragedy, how do we proclaim the great Good News that God has entered our prison, has broken our chains and offers freedom to all who will receive Him?
We proclaim the message as did the first generation of disciples — not merely with words but with the empire-shattering eloquence of transformed lives. Washed and cleansed, forgiven and restored, united to Christ’s death and resurrection through faith, those first followers of Christ experienced a complete metamorphosis of their being. They were transfigured in the life and power of the risen Lord Jesus and they were the proof of His rising.
How do we explain a small band of terrified,
traumatized men and women, emerging from behind locked doors
to fill the streets of Jerusalem with joyful news
who proceeded from that holy, bloody city
to look the Roman Beast in the eye and proclaim revolutionary truth,
at the cost of their bodies and their breath?
How do we explain the witness of millions of men
and women over the centuries, turning from sin to holiness,
from self indulgence and selfish hoarding to sacrificial giving,
from bitterness to mercy, from emptiness to fulfillment?
Who can work such a transformation in human dust?
No lie could have such a revolutionary impact.
No fabricated legend. No cleverly devised myth.
It is the reality of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Testimony echoes across the generations
through the lives of men and women today who,
like those before us, kneel into union with Christ,
into His death and into His resurrection.
Reborn and recreated,
we give up our lives and rise into life.
This is the ultimate, convincing proof that
Jesus rose from the dead:
the living witness of those who encounter Him.
There is no other explanation than this:
Jesus is risen from the dead!
We serve and worship a living Savior!
We are His latest proof:
People can argue with your doctrine,
they can ridicule your dance
they can despise your song
but they cannot argue with a transformed life.
Jesus is risen from the dead!
We serve and worship a living Savior!
We are His latest proof.
In the ancient Nicene Creed, we read,
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God ...
For our sake He was crucified ...
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day He rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures.”
For centuries this has been the confession of the church,
the cornerstone of our faith.
It remains our confession and cornerstone today.
1. How do you explain the transformation of that little band of disciples?
2. What does Paul mean when he says, If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins? ( I Cor. 15:17)