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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18)
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18)

John does not describe when Mary returns to the tomb; he simply picks up the story with her there. The emphasis is on her crying (vv. 11, 13, 15). Her great love is poured out in her grief. She thinks she is alone, though "like other sorrowful disciples since" (H. C. G. Moule 1898:48), she actually has angels in front of her and the Lord behind her. When she bends down to look in the tomb she sees the angels. They are sitting, presumably on the shelf, at the two ends of the grave clothes, that is, where Jesus' body had been. Such heavenly messengers appear at many of the significant points in salvation history. Like the grave clothes, their presence witnesses "that the powers of heaven have been at work here" (Beasley-Murray 1987:374).

Often in Scripture the person who encounters an angel is struck with terror. But if Mary felt such a reaction, John does not mention it. Indeed, there is no indication that she even recognizes them as angels, presumably due to is the depth of her grief. The angels speak to her with great compassion: Woman, why are you crying? (v. 13). This is in striking contrast with the angels' triumphant announcement of the resurrection recorded in the Synoptics (Mt 28:5-7 par. Mk 16:6-7 par. Lk 24:5-7). In the face of this grief the angels do not bombard her with good news but rather ask the question that can lead to the healing word.

Mary's answer (v. 13) shows that she is totally focused on the fact that Jesus' body is missing. He is still her Lord even though he is dead; her loyalty is still fixed on him. In saying she does not know where they have put him she seems to assume that Joseph of Arimathea had his workmen move Jesus to a more permanent site (H. C. G. Moule 1898:58).

Her answer gives the angels a perfect opportunity to proclaim the good news, but they are interrupted by the appearance of the Lord himself. Mary turns to see Jesus (v. 14). Perhaps she heard him or simply sensed a presence behind her, or perhaps, as Chrysostom suggests, "while she was speaking, Christ suddenly appeared behind her, striking the angels with awe" (In John 86.1). She saw him, but she did not realize that it was Jesus (v. 14). She had not been able to pick up on the clues provided by the grave clothes nor even recognize the angels who spoke with her. Now she sees the very object of her concern, but she is unable to recognize him. Such can be the blinding effect of profound emotions. In this case her inability to recognize him also seems to be due to the character of Jesus' resurrection body, since such failure is typical of encounters with him (cf. Mt 28:17; Mk 16:12; Lk 24:16, 37; Jn 21:4).

Jesus is well aware of her condition, and he comes to her with great love and gentleness. The good news is not just that Jesus arose but that the character of God is revealed in Jesus. He is life, and he is also love. He asks the same question asked by the angels, Woman, . . . why are you crying? but immediately he focuses it further: Who is it you are looking for? This question, the first thing the risen Jesus says, echoes the very first thing he said at the beginning of this Gospel (1:38). It is a question that reveals the heart.

Mary does not answer the question but assumes that Jesus is Joseph's gardener and that he knows whom she is looking for (v. 15). His appearance has given her hope—hope that she can now find Jesus' dead body. She wants to care for Jesus' corpse. "So she plans a second interment for Jesus, while the living Jesus is there, and just about to lift her in the embrace of His manifested power and love" (H. C. G. Moule 1898:59).

The sight of the grave clothes and of angels and of Jesus himself have not been able to pierce her darkness. But when Jesus calls her name she knows his voice, for she is a true sheep (10:3-4). Rabboni could mean "my dear teacher," and such endearment would be in keeping with Mary's attachment to Jesus. But the term is not always used so (cf. Mk 10:51), and John simply translates it teacher. Jesus calls her by the name he used for her before, and she responds with the title she used before. She would naturally assume that their relationship could pick up where it left off and continue on as before. Jesus' response, however, lets her know there has been a radical change in him and consequently in his relationship with his followers.This change is indicated when Jesus tells her not to touch him (v. 17). The use of the present tense (haptou) suggests in this context that he is not forbidding her to touch him but telling her to stop that which she is already doing. Apparently, then, when Mary recognizes Jesus she approaches him and touches him. John does not describe what exactly happens. It is possible that she is touching him on the arm or hand, to be assured that he is really there (H. C. G. Moule 1898:64-66). In this case, Jesus would be saying, "You don't have to continue to touch me since (gar) I have not yet ascended to the Father—I really am here." Or perhaps she kneels before him and grabs his feet (Mt 28:9; cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:376), not just touching him, but holding onto him, as in the NIV. Such clinging may suggest she is not only trying to assure herself that he is really there, but expressing her desire that he not leave again. In this case, Jesus lets her know that she must not try to restrict him, for he has not yet ascended to the Father.

Jesus says he is still on the move, and he also sets Mary in motion to bear the news to the disciples. She has just found him, and now she is sent away, but she is sent with a commission. As the ancient church put it, she becomes an apostle to the apostles. The message she is given says a great deal about the new phase that has begun in the relations between the Father, the Son and the disciples. Indications of change begin with the commission itself: Go instead to my brothers and tell them (v. 17). This is the first time in this Gospel that Jesus refers to his disciples as his brothers (cf. Mt 12:50 par. Mk 3:35 par. Lk 8:21). This implies not only that Jesus has not put off his humanity in his resurrected state (Alford 1980:980), but that he has inaugurated a new level of intimacy between himself and his disciples. The new community he founded during his ministry became a new family at the cross (19:26-27), and now the disciples are to enter into this new form of relationship.

This new relationship is expressed in the message Mary is to convey: tell them, "I am returning [ascending, anabaino] to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (v. 17). It is perhaps surprising that his first message is not "I have risen from the dead." He does not focus on himself in this way; he focuses on himself in relation to his Father. Jesus had spoken of his going to the Father, both in his general teaching (7:33-36) and in the farewell discourse to his disciples (13:3; 14:2-4, 12, 28; 16:5, 10, 17, 28). The Father is his center of reference, and to return to him is his greatest joy and therefore the joy of his disciples (14:28). So the message I am returning to my Father expresses Jesus' great delight. He has finished the work (19:30) and can now return to the Father.

His returning to the Father is also good news for the disciples, not just because they share in his joy, but also for their own condition. For when Jesus returns to the Father he will send the Paraclete, who will teach them all things and complete their union with the Father and the Son (16:7; cf. 14:16-17, 28; 15:26). This new relationship has already been established through Jesus' death and resurrection, but the disciples will enter into it fully when the Spirit comes. The message Jesus gives Mary shows the christological basis of the new relationship. "Because God is Jesus' Father, he is also their Father; because he is Jesus' God, he is also their God. They are taken up into the fellowship that unites Jesus and the Father" (Ridderbos 1997:640). Jesus is the point of contact between the disciples and the Father (see comment on 17:21-22). The Father is the Father of the disciples in this new intimacy precisely because he is Jesus' Father, for the disciples are now Jesus' brothers.

Jesus characterizes the time of his resurrection appearances as the time when he is ascending to the Father. He has received his orders, and he is about to ship out. This focus implies a contrast between "the passing nature of Jesus' presence in his post-resurrectional appearances and the permanent nature of his presence in the Spirit" (Brown 1970:1015). But it does not mean the resurrection and the ascension have somehow been blended into one another or that the one has been replaced by the other (Carson 1991:645). Jesus must return to the Father before the Paraclete can come (16:7). The fact that Jesus imparts the Spirit later this same day (v. 22) suggests to many that John does not view the ascension as a definite act as described by Luke (Lk 24:51; Acts 1:9-11). But we will see that the account of Jesus' breathing impartation of the Spirit suggests his giving of the Spirit, like his ascension, was not a simple event. John may not describe the ascension, but his account assumes it, as becomes evident in his description of the impartation of the Spirit and what follows.

Mary Magdalene goes off and announces to the disciples what she has seen and heard. John does not mention the poor reception that was given to her message (Mk 16:11 par. Lk 24:11), though the fearful, doubting state of the disciples in the next section implies as much. All a witness can do is share what he or she knows to be true. Christian witness should not attempt to share an experience; it should direct people to Jesus so people can encounter him for themselves. Mary's message could alert the disciples to the fact that Jesus was alive, but they had to come to faith for themselves. Jesus met Mary in a way that was best for her. Now he will do the same for the disciples as a group.

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