A portion of this article has also appeared on Christ Hold Fast.
I am fascinated by the resurrection account as it is presented in both John’s and Luke’s Gospels. Both evangelists relay the sequence of events following the crucifixion in a gradual swell of anxiety and acceptance. The fallout of Calvary was not immediately seen as triumphant. Actually, the feelings that pervaded Jesus’s disciples after seeing their Lord hanging and dying on a cross were ones of defeat, confusion, and bewilderment. John’s record of the resurrection stands out in its wonderful relaying of the apostles’ mindset following their Leader’s death and in its remarkable insistence on the Lord’s condescension to them in their hour of gravest need. Indeed, throughout the Easter narrative in John’s Gospel, we are shown the upshots of the cross turn from despair to hope, proceeding from a rumor to the actual appearance of the risen Lord among the apostles.
Mary’s unexpected witness.
We are told that on the “first day of the week Mary Magdalene” made an early morning visit to the tomb where Jesus was laid. (Jn 20:1) St. Luke tells us that she did so in order to finish the burial preparations on Jesus’s body that were left unfinished because of the “day of preparation” for the Passover. (Lk 24:1; Jn 19:42) She is not alone in this errand, however, even though John does not outright mention the other women that were with her. (Lk 24:1, 10) Much of we know about Mary Magdalene is unsupported in Scripture. Some have identified her with the prostitute who washes Jesus’s feet. (Lk 7:36–50) But other than ecclesiastical tradition, there’s nothing scriptural that would substantiate this connection. Others believe Mary received special revelation and attention from Jesus, even going so far as to blasphemously posture the notion that she and Jesus were married and had a child together. In the end, the only thing we know for certain about Mary Magdalene is that Jesus had miraculously healed her from being possessed by seven demons. (Lk 8:2) And now she is honoring her Lord and Liberator, the One who had rescued her from the deepest darkness.
Upon coming to the tomb, however, Mary sees that “the stone had been removed from the tomb.” (Jn 20:1) The grave was empty. Unsure of what that means — but fearing the worst — she runs to find Peter and John to tell them the news. (Jn 20:2) Mary’s report of the empty tomb is not an affirmation of the resurrection. Rather, it is assumed that the Lord’s body had been “taken,” stolen. (Jn 20:2) The disciples disregard Mary’s report as nothing but an “idle tale.” (Lk 24:11) “Nonsense,” they chide in chorus. The apostles Peter and John, though, have to see this for themselves. (Jn 20:3–4) They, too, find the grave vacant and wonder what it means. (Jn 20:10)
Mary Magdalene stays behind after Peter and John “returned to the place where they were staying,” perhaps hoping to attain more information about her absent Teacher. (Jn 20:10–11) She is overcome with grief, weeping at the sight of the empty tomb. As she peers inside, two angels appear sitting in the place where Jesus’s body had been lying. (Jn 20:12) We are not told whether or not Mary was startled by the presence of these figures. In fact, the text seems to indicate that she conversed with them rather calmly. (Jn 20:13) Perhaps she didn’t know they were angels. Whatever the case, though, Mary repeats the cause of her grief: her Lord is M.I.A. (Jn 20:13) She suddenly turns and another figure appears. It is Jesus, “but she did not know it was Jesus.” (Jn 20:14) Instead she supposes the figure to be merely “the gardener,” the one who tended to the land surrounding the tomb. (Jn 20:15)
Mary’s dismay leads her to accuse this supposed “gardener” of taking away her Lord’s body. “Surely you know where they have taken him, don’t you?” But then comes the moment — the figure speaks her name. “Mary,” the figure says tenderly. (Jn 20:16) And then she knows. Mary recognizes the figure as her Teacher and Master and Lord. She is overcome with faith and reverence for the One she thought dead. (Jn 20:16) Mary had come early to the tomb to properly embalm her dead Teacher — but she was met by something altogether different: a risen Savior. “Instead of the dead body she had hoped to recover,” writes F. F. Bruce, “she found herself face to face with her living Lord.”1
It is remarkable, and quite unexpected, that the very first witness to the resurrected Christ is none other than Mary Magdalene. Some scholars press unnecessarily on this point and make the case from this text for female pastors. But this moment is not a statement about who belongs in the pastorate. Rather, it is a statement about the mysterious scandal of the resurrection. Assorted historical accounts verify that a woman’s testimony, according to the times, was not highly regarded. In fact, it was seldom regarded at all. A woman’s account of an event held little to no public consideration. The disciples, of course, demonstrate this in their dismissal of the women’s report, as has already been noted. (Lk 24:11) In that sense, then, Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene continues his scandalous preference to give good news to the unworthy and unassuming. Sort of like how the first witnesses to Jesus’s birth were shepherds — the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection is women. And with that Jesus gives Mary the charge to tell the apostles what she had seen, namely, the risen Lord in bodily form. (Jn 20:17–18)
The apostle’s unwarranted worry.
Upon hearing the news told to them by Mary and the other women about the empty tomb, Peter and John race to corroborate their story. (Jn 20:3–4) St. John comes “to the tomb first,” but does not go in. He stands at the mouth of the sepulcher, peering inside, noticing the folded grave clothes. (Jn 20:4–5) St. Peter comes up behind him, though, and runs straight into the tomb. He, likewise, finds nothing inside — no evidence that a hostile robbery of the grave had occurred. (Jn 20:6–7) It is worth mentioning that it is very unlikely that this sight of the unoccupied grave incited the apostle’s belief. This wasn’t an “a-ha moment” where suddenly every clicked and all of Jesus’s sermons and parables and prophecies and words finally made sense to them. The phrasing of “saw, and believed” (Jn 20:8) lends itself to the assumption that John believed in the resurrection on the spot. That isn’t necessarily the case, though.
Luke mentions that when Peter departed, he left “amazed,” marveling at what he had seen though not yet believing. (Lk 24:12) Furthermore, John tells us that the apostles had locked themselves in a room “because they feared the Jews.” (John 20:19) The marveling and self-preservation present in the apostles suggests that they had already determined that if Jesus’s body was stolen, they would get blamed for it. They would have to add “tomb raider” to the list of disparagements by which they were known. Therefore, “believed” (Jn 20:8) is not belief in the resurrection so much as it is acknowledgment of the fact that Jesus’s body was gone. The women’s report was true. The subsequent days were, then, spent marveling over what this meant. How could Jesus’s body be gone? Who took it? And what does it mean that his body is gone? “For they did not yet understand the Scripture,” St. John explains, “that he must rise from the dead.” (Jn 20:9)
Despite Jesus’s persistent proclamations of death and resurrection — and despite Mary’s distinct guarantee that she had seen the risen Lord (Jn 20:18), the apostles still did not believe. After the crucifixion, the apostles retreated. (Jn 20:19) Their plans, dreams, and intentions were destroyed. When Jesus died, so did their expectations. They did not immediately connect Jesus’s prophecies about dying and rising with this moment. They were still stuck on the fact that their Teacher and supposed Messiah did not live up to their Messianic assumptions. He was dead, with no kingdom, no glory, and no power to show for it. Just defeat. Just death. Or so it seemed.
That same day — the same day as Mary’s witness and the same day the disciples on the road to Emmaus witness the risen Savior (Lk 24:13–27) — “Jesus came, stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” (Jn 20:19) He appears to the apostles and readies them for their new errand, namely, to continue proclaiming and preaching and spreading the message of forgiveness. (Jn 20:20–23) Jesus’s plans were not thwarted. They had only just begun. Through the apostles, Jesus’s message of hope, peace, pardon, and grace was to continue throughout the world. (Jn 20:21) But perhaps the most pivotal detail of John’s record of this scene is one that is oftentimes glossed over.
In a remarkable display of power and glory, Jesus transports himself through the walls and the locked doors and is suddenly present in the middle of the room. And yet, despite that show of divinity, the apostles are shown Jesus’s hands and side. He may be there in their presence in his resurrected, glorified state, but he is still a Person. The body that walked out of the grave is the same body that was put in the grave — the same human-yet-divine body that was birthed in a manger decades before. Indeed, Jesus inhabits the same body post-rising as before, scars and all. “It was in bodily form that he was there,” F. F. Bruce continues, “the nail-pierced hands and the wounded side identified him unmistakably as the crucified one.”2 Such is what forms the most precious aspect of our belief. Alexander Maclaren sheds a bright light on this for us:
The object of the Christian’s faith is not a proposition; it is not a dogma nor a truth, but a Person. And the act of faith is not an acceptance of a given fact, a Resurrection or any other, as true, but it is a reaching out of the whole nature to Him and a resting upon Him.3
The basis of our faith is, yes, a living hope — but, more specifically, a Living Person. Richard Trench echoes this truth when he writes:
The prerogative of our Christian faith, the secret of its strength, is, that all which it has, and all which it offers, is laid up in a living person. This is what has made it strong, while so much else has proved weak, that it has Christ for a middle point, — that it is not a circumference without a center, — that it has not merely a deliverance, but a Deliverer, — not a redemption only, but a Redeemer as well; for oh how vast is the difference between submitting ourselves to a complex of rules, and casting ourselves upon a living and beating heart; between accepting a system and cleaving to a person.4
We have as the focal point of all our doctrine and devotion and preaching and ministering a Person. A Person who assumed a body just like ours that he might die and rise again to remake our bodies just like his. And it is precisely the sight of this resurrected Person — of their Lord’s risen body — that incites the apostles’ belief.
Thomas’s unfettered welcome.
“Doubting Thomas,” as he is commonly called, receives an undue portion of our disdain for his skepticism of the resurrection. We are told that Thomas “was not with them when Jesus came” to the other apostles on the day of his rising. (Jn 20:24) We are further told of Thomas’s stubborn disbelief of his colleagues testimony and the only conditions on which he would believe. (Jn 20:25) Perhaps this is why we remember Thomas as the “doubter.” His gloomy defeatism leads him to make a hyperbolic request that he would not believe unless he was able to touch the body of the risen Lord. Quite unexpectedly for Thomas, he is granted his request just a few days later. (Jn 20:26)
Jesus shows up again (“even though the doors were locked”) in the room where the apostles were assembled. This time, though, he singles out Thomas. “The he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and look at my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Don’t be faithless, but believe.’” (Jn 20:27) It is stunning to me that Jesus complies with Thomas’s excessive request. In a way, though, that is exactly what he did with the other apostles, too. Even though they were not as vocal about their unbelief, they were still obstinate and unbelieving until they, too, had seen the risen Lord for themselves. In reality, therefore, Thomas is just like the other apostles who did not believe until they saw. “Doubting Thomas” turns into “Confessing Thomas.” “Thomas responded to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (Jn 20:28) His newfound faith and conviction lead to a stirring declaration of Jesus’s true identity. “Thomas might have been slower than his fellow-disciples to come to faith in the risen Christ,” Bruce comments, “but when he did so, his faith was expressed in language which went beyond any that they used.”5
Jesus, then, utters those blessed words. “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” he says. “Blessed are those who have seen and yet believe.” (Jn 20:29) Again, it is important to note that this is a rebuke to every disciple in the room, not just Thomas. They had all delayed their belief until they had seen the risen Lord. These words, though, are incredibly meaningful to those entrusted to them. As Jesus gives the apostles the commission to “make disciples of all nations” they would be fulfilling this bidding of imparting belief without sight. (Mt 28:18–20) Likewise for us centuries later. Every time the Scriptures are opened, we are repeating this scene. Every time the gospel is preached, we are replicating a moment wherein the faithless ones are greeted by their faithful Lord. We are welcomed by the risen Christ who “brings us to his wounded side, and hides us there.”6 Whenever God’s Word is opened, “Doubting Thomases” of all ages are invited to put their hands in Jesus’s wounds and be made to believe again in his all sufficient atonement for us. The power of the resurrection and the promise of redemption are found in the persistence of Jesus’s scars — scars which forever mar the body of our Savior.
F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 389.
Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel According to St. John: Chapter XV to XXI (New York: Armstrong & Son, 1908), 325.
Richard Trench, The Hulsean Lectures for 1845 and 1846 (London: MacMillan & Co., 1880), 222–23.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 291.