St. Mark tells us that Christ appeared first to Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9); that appearance is here largely related; and we may observe,
I. The constancy and fervency of Mary Magdalene’s affection to the Lord Jesus, John 20:11.
1. She staid at the sepulchre, when Peter and John were gone, because there her Master had lain, and there she was likeliest to hear some tidings of him. Note, (1.) Where there is a true love to Christ there will be a constant adherence to him, and a resolution with purpose of heart to cleave to him. This good woman, though she has lost him, yet, rather than seem to desert him, will abide by his grave for his sake, and continue in his love even when she wants the comfort of it. (2.) Where there is a true desire of acquaintance with Christ there will be a constant attendance on the means of knowledge. See Hos. 6:2, 3, The third day he will raise us up; and then shall we know the meaning of that resurrection, if we follow on to know, as Mary here.
2. She staid there weeping, and these tears loudly bespoke her affection to her Master. Those that have lost Christ have cause to weep; she wept at the remembrance of his bitter sufferings; wept for his death, and the loss which she and her friends and the country sustained by it; wept to think of returning home without him; wept because she did not now find his body. Those that seek Christ must seek him sorrowing (Luke 2:48), must weep, not for him, but for themselves.
3. As she wept, she looked into the sepulchre, that her eye might affect her heart. When we are in search of something that we have lost we look again and again in the place where we last left it, and expected to have found it. She will look yet seven times, not knowing but that at length she may see some encouragement. Note, (1.) Weeping must not hinder seeking. Though she wept, she stooped down and looked in. (2.) Those are likely to seek and find that seek with affection, that seek in tears.
II. The vision she had of two angels in the sepulchre, John 20:12. Observe here,
1. The description of the persons she saw. They were two angels in white, sitting (probably on some benches or ledges hewn out in the rock) one at the head, and the other at the feet, of the grave. Here we have,
(1.) Their nature. They were angels, messengers from heaven, sent on purpose, on this great occasion, [1.] To honour the Son and to grace the solemnity of his resurrection. Now that the Son of God was again to be brought into the world, the angels have a charge to attend him, as they did at his birth, Heb. 1:6. [2.] To comfort the saints; to speak good words to those that were in sorrow, and, by giving them notice that the Lord was risen, to prepare them for the sight of him.
(2.) Their number: two, not a multitude of the heavenly host, to sing praise, only two, to bear witness; for out of the mouth of two witnesses this word would be established.
(3.) Their array: They were in white, denoting, [1.] Their purity and holiness. The best of men standing before the angels, and compared with them, are clothed in filthy garments (Zech. 3:3), but angels are spotless; and glorified saints, when they come to be as the angels, shall walk with Christ in white. [2.] Their glory, and glorying, upon this occasion. The white in which they appeared represented the brightness of that state into which Christ was now risen.
(4.) Their posture and place: They sat, as it were, reposing themselves in Christ’s grave; for angels, though they needed not a restoration, were obliged to Christ for their establishment. These angels went into the grave, to teach us not to be afraid of it, nor to think that our resting in it awhile will be any prejudice to our immortality; no, matters are so ordered that the grave is not much out of our way to heaven. It intimates likewise that angels are to be employed about the saints, not only at their death, to carry their souls into Abraham’s bosom, but at the great day, to raise their bodies, Matt. 24:31. These angelic guards (and angels are called watchers Dan. 4:23), keeping possession of the sepulchre, when they had frightened away the guards which the enemies had set, represents Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness, routing and defeating them. Thus Michael and his angels are more than conquerors. Their sitting to face one another, one at his bed’s head, the other at his bed’s feet, denotes their care of the entire body of Christ, his mystical as well as his natural body, from head to foot; it may also remind us of the two cherubim, placed one at either end of the mercy-seat, looking one at another, Exod. 25:18. Christ crucified was the great propitiatory, at the head and feet of which were these two cherubim, not with flaming swords, to keep us from, but welcome messengers, to direct us to, the way of life.
2. Their compassionate enquiry into the cause of Mary Magdalene’s grief (John 20:13): Woman, why weepest thou? This question was, (1.) A rebuke to her weeping: “Why weepest thou, when thou has cause to rejoice?” Many of the floods of our tears would dry away before such a search as this into the fountain of them. Why are thou cast down? (2.) It was designed to show how much angels are concerned at the griefs of the saints, having a charge to minister to them for their comfort. Christians should thus sympathize with one another. (3.) It was only to make an occasion of informing her of that which would turn her mourning into rejoicing, would put off her sackcloth, and gird her with gladness.
3. The melancholy account she gives them of her present distress: Because they have taken away the blessed body I came to embalm, and I know not where they have laid it. The same story she had told, John 20:2. In it we may see, (1.) The weakness of her faith. If she had had faith as a grain of mustard-seed, this mountain would have been removed; but we often perplex ourselves needlessly with imaginary difficulties, which faith would discover to us as real advantages. Many good people complain of the clouds and darkness they are under, which are the necessary methods of grace for the humbling of their souls, the mortifying of their sins, and the endearing of Christ to them. (2.) The strength of her love. Those that have a true affection for Christ cannot but be in great affliction when they have lost either the comfortable tokens of his love in their souls or the comfortable opportunities of conversing with him, and doing him honour, in his ordinances. Mary Magdalene is not diverted from her enquiries by the surprise of the vision, nor satisfied with the honour of it; but still she harps upon the same string: They have taken away my Lord. A sight of angels and their smiles will not suffice without a sight of Christ and God’s smiles in him. Nay, the sight of angels is but an opportunity of pursuing her enquiries after Christ. All creatures, the most excellent, the most dear, should be used as means, and but as means, to bring us into acquaintance with God in Christ. The angels asked her, Why weepest thou? I have cause enough to weep, says she, for they have taken away my Lord, and, like Micah, What have I more? Do you ask, Why I weep? My beloved has withdrawn himself, and is gone. Note, None know, but those who have experienced it, the sorrow of a deserted soul, that has had comfortable evidences of the love of God in Christ, and hopes of heaven, but has now lost them, and walks in darkness; such a wounded spirit who can bear?
III. Christ’s appearing to her while she was talking with the angels, and telling them her case. Before they had given her any answer, Christ himself steps in, to satisfy her enquiries, for God now speaketh to us by his Son; none but he himself can direct us to himself. Mary would fain know where her Lord is, and behold he is at her right hand. Note, 1. Those that will be content with nothing short of a sight of Christ shall be put off with nothing less. He never said to the soul that sought him, Seek in vain. “Isa. it Christ that thou wouldest have? Christ thou shalt have.” 2. Christ, in manifesting himself to those that seek him, often outdoes their expectations. Mary longs to see the dead body of Christ, and complains of the loss of that, and behold she sees him alive. Thus he does for his praying people more than they are able to ask or think. In this appearance of Christ to Mary observe,
(1.) How he did at first conceal himself from her.
[1.] He stood as a common person, and she looked upon him accordingly, John 20:14. She stood expecting an answer to her complaint from the angels; and either seeing the shadow, or hearing the tread, of some person behind her, she turned herself back from talking with the angels, and sees Jesus himself standing, the very person she was looking for, and yet she knew not that it was Jesus. Note, First, The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart (Ps. 34:18), nearer than they are aware. Those that seek Christ, though they do not see him, may yet be sure he is not far from them. Secondly, Those that diligently seek the Lord will turn every way in their enquiry after him. Mary turned herself back, in hopes of some discoveries. Several of the ancients suggest that Mary was directed to look behind her by the angels’ rising up, and doing their obeisance to the Lord Jesus, whom they saw before Mary did; and that she looked back to see to whom it was they paid such a profound reverence. But, if so, it is not likely that she would have taken him for the gardener; rather, therefore, it was her earnest desire in seeking that made her turn every way. Thirdly, Christ is often near his people, and they are not aware of him. She knew not that it was Jesus; not that he appeared in any other likeness, but either it was a careless transient look she cast upon him, and, her eyes being full of care, she could not so well distinguish, or they were holden, that she should not know him, as those of the two disciples, Luke 24:16.
[2.] He asked her a common question, and she answered him accordingly, John 20:15.
First, The question he asked her was natural enough, and what any one would have asked her: “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? What business hast thou here in the garden so early? And what is all this noise and ado for?” Perhaps it was spoken with some roughness, as Joseph spoke to his brethren when he made himself strange, before he made himself known to them. It should seem, this was the first word Christ spoke after his resurrection: “Why weepest thou? I am risen.” The resurrection of Christ has enough in it to ally all our sorrows, to check the streams, and dry up the fountains, of our tears. Observe here, Christ takes cognizance, 1. Of his people’s griefs, and enquires, Why weep you? He bottles their tears, and records them in his book. 2. Of his people’s cares and enquires, Whom seek you, and what would you have? When he knows they are seeking him, yet he will know it from them; they must tell him whom they seek.
Secondly, The reply she made him is natural enough; she does not give him a direct answer, but, as if she should say, “Why do you banter me, and upbraid me with my tears? You know why I weep, and whom I seek;” and therefore, supposing him to be the gardener, the person employed by Joseph to dress and keep his garden, who, she thought, was come thither thus early to his work, she said, Sir, if thou hast carried him hence, pray tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. See here, 1. The error of her understanding. She supposed our Lord Jesus to be the gardener, perhaps because he asked what authority she had to be there. Note, Troubled spirits, in a cloudy and dark day, are apt to misrepresent Christ to themselves, and to put wrong constructions upon the methods of his providence and grace. 2. The truth of her affection. See how her heart was set upon finding Christ. She puts the question to every one she meets, like the careful spouse, Saw you him whom my soul loveth? She speaks respectfully to a gardener, and calls him Sir, in hopes to gain some intelligence from him concerning her beloved. When she speaks of Christ, she does not name him; but, If thou have borne him hence, taking it for granted that this gardener was full of thoughts concerning this Jesus as well as she, and therefore could not but know whom she meant. Another evidence of the strength of her affection was that, wherever he was laid, she would undertake to remove him. Such a body, with such a weight of spices about it, was much more than she could pretend to carry; but true love thinks it can do more than it can, and makes nothing of difficulties. She supposed this gardener grudged that the body of one that was ignominiously crucified should have the honour to be laid in his master’s new tomb, and that therefore he had removed it to some sorry place, which he thought fitter for it. Yet Mary does not threaten to tell his master, and get him turned out of his place for it; but undertakes to find out some other sepulchre, to which he might be welcome. Christ needs not to stay where he is thought a burden.
(2.) How Christ at length made himself known to her, and, by a pleasing surprise, gave her infallible assurances of his resurrection. Joseph at length said to his brethren, I am Joseph. So Christ here to Mary Magdalene, now that he is entered upon his exalted state. Observe,
[1.] How Christ discovered himself to this good woman that was seeking him in tears (John 20:16): Jesus saith unto her, Mary. It was said with an emphasis, and the air of kindness and freedom with which he was wont to speak to her. Now he changed his voice, and spoke like himself, not like the gardener. Christ’s way of making himself known to his people is by his word, his word applied to their souls, speaking to them in particular. When those whom God knew by name in the counsels of his love (Exod. 33:12) are called by name in the efficacy of his grace, then he reveals his Son in them as in Paul (Gal. 1:16), when Christ called to him by name, Saul, Saul. Christ’s sheep know his voice, John 10:4. This one word, Mary, was like that to the disciples in the storm, It is I. Then the word of Christ does us good when we put our names into the precepts and promises. “In this Christ calls to me, and speaks to me.”
[2.] How readily she received this discovery. When Christ said, “Mary, dost thou not know me? are you and I grown such strangers?” she was presently aware who it was, as the spouse (Song 2:8), It is the voice of my beloved. She turned herself, and said, Rabboni, My Master. It might properly be read with an interrogation, “Rabboni? Isa. it my master? Nay, but is it indeed?” Observe, First, The title of respect she gives Him: My Master; didaskale—a teaching master. The Jews called their doctors Rabbies, great men. Their critics tell us that Rabbon was with them a more honourable title than Rabbi; and therefore Mary chooses that, and adds a note of appropriation, My great Master. Note, Notwithstanding the freedom of communion which Christ is pleased to admit us to with himself, we must remember that he is our Master, and to be approached with a godly fear. Secondly, With what liveliness of affection she gives this title to Christ. She turned from the angels, whom she had in her eye, to look unto Jesus. We must take off our regards from all creatures, even the brightest and best, to fix them upon Christ, from whom nothing must divert us, and with whom nothing must interfere. When she thought it had been the gardener, she looked another way while speaking to him; but now that she knew the voice of Christ she turned herself. The soul that hears Christ’s voice, and is turned to him, calls him, with joy and triumph, My Master. See with what pleasure those who love Christ speak of his authority over them. My Master, my great Master.
[3.] The further instructions that Christ gave her (John 20:17): “Touch me not, but go and carry the news to the disciples.”
First, He diverts her from the expectation of familiar society and conversation with him at this time: Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended. Mary was so transported with the sight of her dear Master that she forgot herself, and that state of glory into which he was now entering, and was ready to express her joy by affectionate embraces of him, which Christ here forbids at this time. 1. Touch me not thus at all, for I am to ascend to heaven. He bade the disciples touch him, for the confirmation of their faith; he allowed the women to take hold of his feet, and worship him (Matt. 28:9); but Mary, supposing that he was risen, as Lazarus was, to live among them constantly, and converse with them freely as he had done, upon that presumption was about to take hold of his hand with her usual freedom. This mistake Christ rectified; she must believe him, and adore him, as exalted, but must not expect to be familiar with him as formerly. See 2 Cor. 5:16. He forbids her to dote upon his bodily presence, to set her heart on this, or expect its continuance, and leads her to the spiritual converse and communion which she should have with him after he was ascended to his Father; for the greatest joy of his resurrection was that it was a step towards his ascension. Mary thought, now that her Master was risen, he would presently set up a temporal kingdom, such as they had long promised themselves. “No,” says Christ, “touch me not, with any such thought; think not to lay hold on me, so as to detain me here; for, though I am not yet ascended, go to my brethren, and tell them, I am to ascend.” As before his death, so now after his resurrection, he still harps upon this, that he was going away, was no more in the world; and therefore they must look higher than his bodily presence, and look further than the present state of things. 2. “Touch me not, do not stay to touch me now, stay not now to make any further enquiries, or give any further expressions of joy, for I am not yet ascended, I shall not depart immediately, it may as well be done another time; the best service thou canst do now is to carry the tidings to the disciples; lose no time therefore, but go away with all speed.” Note, Public service ought to be preferred before private satisfaction. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Jacob must let an angel go, when the day breaks, and it is time for him to look after his family. Mary must not stay to talk with her Master, but must carry his message; for it is a day of good tidings, which she must not engross the comfort of, but hand it to others. See that story, 2 Kgs. 7:9.
Secondly, He directs her what message to carry to his disciples: But go to my brethren, and tell them, not only that I am risen (she could have told them that of herself, for she had seen him), but that I ascend. Observe,
a. To whom this message is sent: Go to my brethren with it; for he is not ashamed to call them so. (1.) He was now entering upon his glory, and was declared to be the Son of God with greater power than ever, yet he owns his disciples as his brethren, and expresses himself with more tender affection to them than before; he had called them friends, but never brethren till now. Though Christ be high, yet he is not haughty. Notwithstanding his elevation, he disdains not to own his poor relations. (b.) His disciples had lately carried themselves very disingenuously towards him; he had never seen them together since they all forsook him and fled, when he was apprehended; justly might he now have sent them an angry message: “Go to yonder treacherous deserters, and tell them, I will never trust them any more, or have any thing more to do with them.” No, he forgives, he forgets, and does not upbraid.
b. By whom it is sent: by Mary Magdalene, out of whom had been cast seven devils, yet now thus favoured. This was her reward for her constancy in adhering to Christ, and enquiring after him; and a tacit rebuke to the apostles, who had not been so close as she was in attending on the dying Jesus, nor so early as she was in meeting the rising Jesus; she becomes an apostle to the apostles.
c. What the message itself is: I ascend to my Father. Two full breasts of consolation are here in these words:
(a.) Our joint-relation to God, resulting from our union with Christ, is an unspeakable comfort. Speaking of that inexhaustible spring of light, life, and bliss, he says, He is my Father, and our Father; my God, and your God. This is very expressive of the near relation that subsists between Christ and believers: he that sanctifieth, and those that are sanctified, are both one; for they agree in one, Heb. 2:11. Here we have such an advancement of Christians, and such a condescension of Christ, as bring them very near together, so admirably well is the matter contrived, in order to their union. [a.] It is the great dignity of believers that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is, in him, their Father. A vast difference indeed there is between the respective foundations of the relation; he is Christ’s Father by eternal generation, ours by a gracious adoption; yet even this warrants us to call him, as Christ did, Abba, Father. This gives a reason why Christ called them brethren, because his Father was their Father. Christ was now ascending to appear as an advocate with the Father—with his Father, and therefore we may hope he will prevail for any thing—with our Father, and therefore we may hope he will prevail for us. [b.] It is the great condescension of Christ that he is pleased to own the believer’s God for his God: My God, and your God; mine, that he may be yours; the God of the Redeemer, to support him (Ps. 89:26), that he might be the God of the redeemed, to save them. The summary of the new covenant is that God will be to us a God; and therefore Christ being the surety and head of the covenant, who is primarily dealt with, and believers only through him as his spiritual seed, this covenant-relation fastens first upon him, God becomes his God, and so ours; we partaking of a divine nature, Christ’s Father is our Father; and, he partaking of the human nature, our God is his God.
(b.) Christ’s ascension into heaven, in further prosecution of his undertaking for us, is likewise an unspeakable comfort: “Tell them I must shortly ascend; that is the next step I am to take.” Now this was intended to be, [a.] A word of caution to these disciples, not to expect the continuance of his bodily presence on earth, nor the setting up of his temporal kingdom among men, which they dreamed of. “No, tell them, I am risen, not to stay with them, but to go on their errand to heaven.” Thus those who are raised to a spiritual life, in conformity to Christ’s resurrection, must reckon that they rise to ascend; they are quickened with Christ that they may sit with him in heavenly places, Eph. 2:5, 6. Let them not think that this earth is to be their home and rest; no, being born from heaven, they are bound for heaven; their eye and aim must be upon another world, and this must be ever upon their hearts, I ascend, therefore must I seek things above. [b.] A word of comfort to them, and to all that shall believe in him through their word; he was then ascending, he is now ascended to his Father, and our Father. This was his advancement; he ascended to receive those honours and powers which were to be the recompence of his humiliation; he says it with triumph, that those who love him may rejoice. This is our advantage; for he ascended as a conqueror, leading captivity captive for us (Ps. 68:18), he ascended as our forerunner, to prepare a place for us, and to be ready to receive us. This message was like that which Joseph’s brethren brought to Jacob concerning him (Gen. 45:26), Joseph is yet alive, and not only so, vivit imo, et in senatum venit—he lives, and comes into the senate too; he is governor over all the land of Egypt; all power is his.
Some make those words, I ascend to my God and your God, to include a promise of our resurrection, in the virtue of Christ’s resurrection; for Christ had proved the resurrection of the dead from these words, I am the God of Abraham, Matt. 22:32. So that Christ here insinuates, “As he is my God, and hath therefore raised me, so he is your God, and will therefore raise you, and be your God, Rev. 21:3. Because I live, you shall live also. I now ascend, to honour my God, and you shall ascend to him as your God.
IV. Here is Mary Magdalene’s faithful report of what she had seen and heard to the disciples (John 20:18): She came and told the disciples, whom she found together, that she had seen the Lord. Peter and John had left her seeking him carefully with tears, and would not stay to seek him with her; and now she comes to tell them that she had found him, and to rectify the mistake she had led them into by enquiring after the dead body, for now she found it was a living body and a glorified one; so that she found what she sought, and, what was infinitely better, she had joy in her sight of the Master herself, and was willing to communicate of her joy, for she knew it would be good news to them. When God comforts us, it is with this design, that we may comfort others. And as she told them what she had seen, so also what she had heard; she had seen the Lord alive, of which this was a token (and a good token it was) that he had spoken these things unto her as a message to be delivered to them, and she delivered it faithfully. Those that are acquainted with the word of Christ themselves should communicate their knowledge for the good of others, and not grudge that others should know as much as they do.