Seeing the empty tomb and meeting the risen Jesus in John 20

The discovery by two disciples of the empty tomb, and Mary Magdelene’s encounter with Jesus, in John 20.1–18, is one of the main options for the gospel reading for Easter Sunday in Year C (the alternative is Luke 24.1–12). And it is, in many ways, the most appealing choice, because of its polished literary form, its focus on individuals, and its description of the moments of recognition.

The passage is full of features worth noting, many of which make it quite characteristic of the Fourth Gospel:

  • The double meaning of timings and descriptions which have both literal and symbolic significance;
  • The selection of individuals to focus on, including one-to-one encounter with Jesus, when there were clearly others present;
  • The repeated ironic theme of reversal, expressed in both implicit and explicit ways;
  • The importance of seeing and believing leading to faith;
  • Literary and thematic connections with earlier passages in the gospel, particularly chapter 1 (the ‘prologue’) and chapter 11 (the raising of Lazarus) as well as chapters 9 and 10.

The narrative begins where the previous part of the story had left off, at the tomb where Jesus had been laid. There is simply no mention, here or in the other gospels, of anything of ‘silent Saturday’; the followers of Jesus rest in grief and silence as Jesus rests in the tomb. Where Matthew and Mark offer absolute time markers (‘after the Sabbath’) this gospel typically uses a relative time mark ‘On the first day of the week…’ The first week of testimony to the risen Jesus (‘about a week later’ John 20.26) matches the first week of testimony in chapter 1. This is not the end of the story; it is a new beginning.

Mary Magdalene becomes the central figure in this episode, which is interesting since she had made no appearance in this gospel prior to her presence being noted at the cross in John 19.25 (though Luke 8.2 notes that she has been accompanying Jesus for some time in his ministry). It is striking that, though we know almost nothing about her before this, within this narrative we feel as though we get to know her. Though she alone is mentioned here, it is apparent that she has not come alone, since she tells the men that ‘we do not know’ in verse 4. In the light of this gospel’s focus on individuals, there is no reason to think that this account contradicts the mention of other women in the three other gospels—it is just being highly selective.

The description of it ‘still being dark’ isn’t really a contradiction to the other gospels’ mention of ‘early dawn’ or ‘the sun has just risen’, since Mary appears to be able to see the tomb and the stone that has been moved. The darkness here has symbolic importance; in chapters 3 and 4 the contrast between Nicodemus coming in the dark of evening and the woman meeting Jesus in the light of day was less the contrast between faith and unbelief and more an indication of degree of understanding. Mary is still in the darkness of grief, but her understanding of what is going on has not yet dawned.

Mary sees that the stone ‘had been taken away’ from the tomb, using different language from the other three gospels that the stone was ‘rolled away’ (Matt 28.2, Mark 16.4, Luke 24.2). Some have suggested that, where the Synoptics describe a disc-shaped stone, John is describing a more common rock plug that would be dragged away. But there is no need to suppose this; the word used, airo, is a general term for removal, and was the term used for the removal of the stone closing the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11.39, 41.

Here is the first of a series of (physical and metaphorical) reversals: Mary turns from the tomb and runs to the other disciples. The ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ has traditionally been identified with John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve. He claims to be the one who has written this gospel (John 21.24), but he features only in the second half of the gospel, his testimony focusses on Jerusalem, the gospel makes no mention of James (the brother of John) and it gives little prominence at all to The Twelve. Richard Bauckham makes a persuasive argument that he is a Jerusalem-based disciple, and not one of the Twelve, so he would be a natural one to go to, if he was someone with local knowledge. Mary’s assumption is that someone has come and reburied Jesus in another location; her understanding is still shrouded in the darkness of grief.

There is a sense of excited but anxious hurry in this first part of the story, portrayed in part by Mary running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, then them running back to the tomb. But it is also created by the constant changes of tense, mixing past tenses with ‘historic present’. Mary runs…and comes…and says, whilst the two men went…and were going…and were running.

There is something of a rivalry between these two, with contrast and reversal threaded through the description of them, something that will be revisited in the final chapter of the gospel. Peter sets out first; then the other disciple overtakes him; but he stops at the entrance, whilst Peter comes past him and goes right in. The language of ‘stooping’ to look in makes little sense in different times and cultures—I cannot think of ever having had to stoop to look at a tomb. But it makes perfect sense in historical context, since rock-cut tombs of this period would have low doors, and you cannot see much without stooping down, and even entering the chamber which broadens out beyond the low, narrow entrance.

The mention of the ‘linen cloths’ (othonia) and the ‘face cloth’ (ESV, NET) or ‘napkin’ (AV) (soudarion) is perhaps the most intriguing feature of this account. The other disciple sees only the first of these, which were used to wrap the body of the dead person; if Jesus’ body had been laid on a shelf on one side of the chamber, with his head nearest the entrance, then you could not see the soudarion without going in to look around the corner. Mention of both of these recalls, once more, the raising of Lazarus, where the dead man comes out walking, with the othonia around his body and legs and the soudarion around his head, which Jesus instructs the people to remove (John 11.44). But there is, of course, no need for any human intervention here: Jesus has escaped the clutches of death and its apparel without any assistance.

Here comes yet another reversal: Peter is the first to see, but the other disciple is the first ‘to believe’. This raises two key questions: what did he believe; and why? Taking these questions in reverse order, the narrative simply gives the facts of the two pieces of cloth as the reason for the disciple’s belief, without much explanation. (Jo-Ann Brant Paideia commentary, p 267, notes that this is a recognised feature of Latin drama, known as energeia, where the facts are described without any explanation being given. It offers the whole narrative a sense of directness and immediacy, rather the opposite of Hercule Poirot’s laboured explanations of the details in an Agatha Christie novel!)

The soudarion is ‘folded’ or ‘rolled up’ ἐντετυλιγμένον, entetuligmenon; Brant and Craig Keener suggest that Jesus, having been restored to life, casually folded it up and placed it down. But the language here is exactly the same that has been used in Matthew 27:59 and Luke 23:53 for Joseph wrapping Jesus’ body up at his burial—and the narrative emphasises that it is separate from the othonia; the implication here is that the linen strips are still in the place where the body of Jesus had been, and the head cloth is still in the place where his head had been. Not only does this contradict the idea that the body has been taken and moved, or robbed from the tomb—it shows that Jesus has been raised to life through the cloths, which have simply collapsed in their place. This is rather cleverly illustrated on the right by Andrew Sach using contemporary clothes!

As the sun rises, and dawn becomes clearer, this disciple sees and believes—but as yet he only sees this sign. He has not yet connected this with the teaching of the Scriptures (which Jesus expounds to the two travelling on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24)—nor has he yet had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. It is the dawn of faith, its first rays coming over the horizon, but not yet in its full radiance.

With faith half formed, and much still to ponder, the two disciples return to their homes, without yet having a message to share. But Mary lingers at the tomb, still in grief, probably not merely weeping but most likely (in that culture) continuing to express her grief by open wailing. She too stoops and looks into the tomb, and sees angelic figures which she appears not to recognise. Again, there is no particular need to see the descriptions of the angels here as contradicting the accounts of the other gospels, since each is being selective—and angels are able to come and go! Just as Jesus has asked a repeated question of Martha and Mary in John 11 with variations of answer, so we have a repeated question asked of this Mary, with a variation in her answer. ‘The Lord’ in her report to Simon Peter and the other disciple has now become ‘my Lord’; he will soon become ‘my Teacher!’

Having turned to the tomb, she now reverses direction, and turns to see Jesus himself—though the light has still not yet fully dawned. She assumes he is a humble gardener (not surprising if, as in the picture at the top, he is carrying a mattock!)—and there is gardening of a sort involved, as Jesus has taught in John 15. But Jesus adds to the question of the angels a question that he has been asking since the beginning, of the first disciples in John 1.38: ‘Whom do you seek?’ The moment of recognition comes when Jesus calls her by name—for, as we know from John 10.3, ‘the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name.’ She responds in the most personal terms; where in John 1.38 he was just ‘Teacher’, now for Mary he is ‘My Teacher’, literally ‘My great one!’ This is an acclamation that will not be confined to one small group, in their own culture and language, but will need to be translated into Greek, the lingua franca of the day, so that all might hear this good news—and so the writer of the gospel provides us with the translation, both of the expression and of the gospel news. Now the sun has fully risen, and will very soon illuminate the whole world.

In this abbreviated narrative, Jesus’ command ‘Do not cling to me’ implies that she has flung her arms around him. It is very unfortunate that the episode has mostly been circulated in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation Noli me tangere, ‘Do not touch me’, suggesting either that Jesus was too fragile or holy to touch, or that he wasn’t really physically, bodily raised. But we do here get the first suggestion that Jesus’ ultimate future—and therefore the ultimate nature of faith—is for him to be ascended and to send his Spirit. Seeing and believing are the foundations of apostolic faith, but believing without seeing, based on apostolic testimony, will be the reality for successive generations. The new reality, that God is Father not only to Jesus but to all who believe, so that we are together brothers and sisters of Jesus, is established here but made real by the Spirit (Romans 8.15).

Whilst the other disciple is the first to have believed, Mary Magdalene is the first to bear apostolic witness—and the narrative is emphatic here, that she is the apostle to the apostles. In her grief, she has encountered angeloi, the angelic messengers sent from God; now in her belief she is sent to proclaim, the verb angello, by Jesus himself. In the last great reversal in this narrative, she really is now on the side of the angels!

(The illustration is a 12th century Spanish ivory plaque, with the superscription ‘D[omi]n[u]s loquitur Marie’, ‘The Lord said “Mary.”‘ I like it chiefly because it looks as though Mary and the risen Jesus are engaging in a dance of joy together, their clothes swirling around them as they dance. It seems to be a great expression of what the resurrection means.)

This whole episode is in an interesting place within the Fourth Gospel. The whole narrative was building to the crucifixion as the moment of Jesus’ glory, his enthronement and his exaltation. What importance does the resurrection have within this theological shape? If the cross achieved everything, if there ‘It is finished!’ what is the meaning of the resurrection?

The cross is Jesus’ exaltation. The resurrection is the exaltation of the believer from grief to joy, from despairing doubt to exuberant confession, from loss to blessing. (Jo-Ann Brant, Paideia commentary, p 265)

We need to note that the disciples, including Mary, are not witnesses to the resurrection, but to the empty tomb and the raised Jesus. The resurrection is the ultimate reversal of all that has appeared to triumph in the earlier narrative. And the disciples move, by stages, in having their eyes opened and their hearts changed as they meet the risen Lord. First, they see physical evidence—the empty tomb, the laid-out clothes—then an understanding of the Scriptures, and finally a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. It is only when all three come together—evidence, Scriptures, encounter—that faith fully dawns.

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12 thoughts on “Seeing the empty tomb and meeting the risen Jesus in John 20”

  1. Truly a miracle we can scarcely grasp. More especially when we learn it is a resurrection to a new order of life… eternal life.

    And, dare I mention it without detracting from the glory of the event. The chief witness is a woman though it is the men who are mentioned in 1 Cor 15. Grace gives the revelation to the heart that loved the most – Mary.

    • A comment befitting our ‘gender’-identity-conscious age. It could equally be that her sex is incidental and of most significance is that she had once been possessed by seven demons; or if her sex is significant, that she contrasts with Eve in the first garden.

      The reason why Jesus appeared to the women first is because they were the first at the tomb: having gone there to anoint the body with spices. The (male) disciples arrive on the scene because the women go back to tell them.

  2. Thanks for Ian. I picked up the idea of “stooping down” in a new hymn which I wrote recently. I’ve reproduced the words below in case blog readers might appreciate it. It goes to the tune “Ellacombe” (used for “The day of resurrection, earth tell it out abroad”). Happy Easter everyone!

    1. Stoop down, stoop down and enter
    See incarnation joy
    In house so poor and humble
    Creator made a boy.
    As God becomes a servant
    And heaven holds its breath
    Our Saviour born of Mary
    To free our souls from death

    2. Stoop down, stoop down in sorrow
    Gethsemane’s shadows fall
    No friend to share his suffering
    Or hear his anguished call.
    As God himself seems distant
    The pain of nails draws near
    But Jesus goes to battle
    For us he conquers fear.

    3. Stoop down, stoop down in wonder
    The stone is rolled away
    The graveclothes folded empty
    On resurrection day.
    For Jesus Christ is risen
    He breaks death’s barrier down
    And we can follow after
    His vict’ry now our own.

    4. Stoop down, stoop down and enter
    Remake my life today
    My heart’s desire is wholly
    To follow in your way.
    Your grace is never failing
    Your mercy always true
    My hope, my joy, my ending
    I give my life to you.

  3. The darkness here has symbolic importance; in chapters 3 and 4 the contrast between Nicodemus coming in the dark of evening and the woman meeting Jesus in the light of day was less the contrast between faith and unbelief and more an indication of degree of understanding. Mary is still in the darkness of grief, but her understanding of what is going on has not yet dawned.
    It was still dark, I suggest, because it was actually still dark, any symbolic significance being incidental. Nicodemus comes at night because he doesn’t want to be seen, but later he defends Jesus before the Pharisees and in John 19:39 publicly associates himself with the crucified Jesus. He is changed by the encounter at least as or more than the woman at the well, whom we do not hear of again.

    As the sun rises, and dawn becomes clearer, this disciple sees and believes.
    More eisegesis (the text does not even mention the sun). Of course, it is true that Mary and the two disciples are finding it difficult to believe what has happened, so that the truth does indeed dawns on their darkened understanding. But we see that well enough without any stage lighting effects.

    Later that day, when it was evening, the disciples are still in a state of some darkness. Then Jesus appears to them – like a bright light, one might say. But the sky outside remains dark.

    • No, not eisegesis, but noting both the literal and symbolic significance.

      It was not ‘actually dark’; she could see the tomb and the stone. Giving that the other gospels say ‘the sun had just risen’, we need to ask why John uses the language of ‘darkness’ here when the others don’t.

      When Judas leaves, ‘and it was night’ in John 13.30, are you suggesting that the gospel writer is giving us merely chronological information?

      • Yes I think physical darkness can symbolise spiritual darkness in John and you may be right about the darkness of grief. It is surely a legitimate ‘preacher’s’ point… an application even if it were not an interpretation.

        Nicodemus and Judas associated with night is surely a spiritual observation by John.

      • I think my point re Nicodemus and the woman at the well and the disciples in the evening stands. Regarding ‘the other gospels say “the sun had just risen” ‘, the phrases are:

        Matt 28:1 ἐπιφωσκούσῃ – as it was growing light.
        Mark 16:2 ἀνατείλαντος τοῦ ἡλίου – the sun having risen
        Luke 24:1 ὄρθρου βαθέως – at dawn
        John 20:1 πρωῒ σκοτίας ἔτι – early, while it was still dark

        Notwithstanding your contradiction, John says it was actually dark, and you yourself note that he uses the language of darkness. In their different ways the gospel writers are all indicating the same time, when the light is still dim. The difference between light and darkness in the spiritual sense is indeed a motif in John, from the first chapter. My point is that John’s time marker is what required of any account of this historically crucial moment, and accordingly all the gospel writers provide it. The resurrection happened before dawn, and the women arrive at daybreak.

        Despite the motif of light and darkness, interestingly, John is the only gospel writer not to record the darkness at the crucifixion (Matt 27:45).

  4. While I understand that this is following Sunday by Sunday liturgical scripture readings, where dooes the crucifixion of the Christ come into Anglican Holy Week.
    Come to think of it, and cleary I could be wrong here, I can’t recall seeing much on your site Ian, over the last 3/4 years on the Cross.
    As it is there has been a movement from triumphal Entry to triumphal Exit. But it is only ever cruciform in shape and dimension, centripetal and centrifugal. Humanity’s coronation of our Lord, that speaks of a higher enthronement.
    “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?”

  5. Thanks as always.
    Two things that strike me which may or may not be significant.
    The disciples return pros autous, to their place of lodging – Peter is Galilean so not his “home” as such – though the other may be a Jerusalemite, but Mary stayed weeping – the more profound encounter comes to the one who is in the deeper sorrow.

    I think in the gospels there is little reference to Resurrection but quite a bit to being raised. Resurrection is better as a verb than a noun as it were.
    The risen / raised Jesus meets Mary in her grief, and we can join in the acclamation – He is risen indeed.
    And all of this presupposes the Cross and death; and violent death, “premature” death and mortality remain the context in which we experience that Jesus has been raised. Easter is not a bypass but proof of a through-route, the opening of the Way


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