I Have Seen the Lord!

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Very early in the morning, the first day of the week – our Sunday — Mary Magdalene and a few other women walked a mournful path to the garden tomb, where two nights ago, Jesus’ dead body was laid. The Sabbath imposed a limitation on travel and Jesus’ bereaved and shattered followers would have spent the day in mourning. Jewish custom dictated a responsibility to mourn at the tomb during the first three days (cf. on 11:17) as the soul of the deceased was thought to be still present. Accordingly, the first day of the week, brings the friends of Jesus to the tomb to fulfil that sacred duty. The visit is made very early indeed; ‘before dawn’ would set it between 3 and 6 a.m.
Archaeological excavations give us a distinct impression of the kind of tomb used for Jesus. As well as being quarried out of rock, expensive tombs like Joseph’s would have been sealed with a disc-like stone which was rolled down a sloping groove across the door. While relatively easy to close, it would require several strong men to open it. On arrival, to her astonishment, Mary finds that the stone has been rolled back. Alarmed at the possible implications, she decides to get help. She reaches out to Peter and John. her message indicates her fears that the grave has been plundered, either by the authorities or by grave robbers. Grave robbers were a common problem, which explains the habit of sealing graves. A decree of the Emperor Claudius has been uncovered at Nazareth, prescribing execution for those removing bodies from graves.
Peter and John, sharing Mary’s alarm, head for the tomb at top speed (3–4). John wins the race. Their response is in character. John is more restrained and reflective. He is satisfied with peering inside and noting the discarded grave wrappings. Peter, coming up behind him, rushes straight inside (6).
The evangelist gives some time to describing the grave clothes; clearly they were important for him (6–7). Indeed John’s ‘believing’ in verse 8 is related to his ‘seeing’ the graveclothes. In general the scene is orderly and calm, lacking evidence of the violence and disturbance which intervention by the authorities, or grave robbers, would have involved. More significant is the way the linen cloths are lying. The head turban is folded up by itself, separate from the linen (7). The verb for folded up can be translated ‘twirled’. What John appears to have seen was the clothes which had been wrapped around Jesus’ body lying as if still enfolding it, with the spices adhering to them, and the head turban a little distance away. They appear undisturbed, as though Jesus’ body had simply passed through them.
In verse 10, the scene shifts back to Mary, alone by the tomb after the others have left. She is weeping (11). The loss of the body is the final indignity, the last straw; even her mourning for Jesus is violated. It is not hard to imagine the enormous emotional strain which the last few days had placed on Mary, not least the anguish of having looked on at Calvary. Her tears were more than understandable.
Deciding to look once more into the tomb she sees two angelic figures, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot (12). They ask her about her tears. Woman, why are you crying? (13). From the perspective of heaven nothing is more out of place than tears at the empty tomb of Jesus. If there is one place in space and one moment in time when tears are least appropriate, it is at the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter morning! Mary repeats her concern at the disappearance of my Lord.
Before Mary has time to reflect on the significance of these heavenly visitors she becomes aware of another presence behind her. A man is standing (14). It is Jesus, but unrecognized. Mary would hardly have expected to see Jesus alive at that moment. Jesus has not just been resuscitated, like Lazarus. He has passed through death and is now part of a new order in the glory of the Father’s presence. Accordingly, his appearing ‘different’ in some indefinable sense is entirely as might have been expected.
Mary, at any rate, does not recognize him, but, perhaps sensing an authority in his demeanour, she takes him to be the gardener. Again there is a question concerning her distress. Woman, … why are you crying? (15). ‘She is not yet conscious of the unsuitability of her tears.’ Jesus adds a further question: Who is it you are looking for? There is perhaps an implied challenge in his words. Mary’s problem, in common with all the disciples, was that she did not hold a large enough view of Jesus; she is searching for a corpse instead of seeking a risen, victorious Lord; though it is fair to ask, would we have acted differently?
Still under the assumption that he is the gardener, Mary asks if he is responsible for the disappearance of Jesus from the tomb (15). In the profoundest sense he certainly was!
Then comes the moment of recognition, and it is beautifully told. Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’ (16). One word which remade her world and transformed her life for ever after, and the word was her own name! This is a memorable confirmation of the personal nature of our Lord’s dealings with his people. Mary responds in ecstatic joy, Rabboni! (‘My own dear teacher!’). We are reminded Jesus’ words in John 10: ‘The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name and they recognise his voice.’ Falling before Jesus, Mary clasps his feet in a rapture of delirious happiness and awe. Jesus gently, but firmly, disengages himself. Do not hold on to me , for I have not yet returned to the Father (17).
Jesus is trying to help Mary understand that from now on, although the resurrection appearances are a special exception, Jesus is not to be known by means of touch, as had been the case. The resurrection provides a new kind of relationship with Jesus, to be shared with all disciples in every age and place, that of a faith-union through the Holy Spirit. Mary is further commissioned to take the glad news of his rising to the other disciples (17). Rather than clinging to Jesus and enjoying the blessing being close to Him, there must be a concern for broken men and women who had as much need and right as she to know of his rising. If that is implicit, the application to the church is a direct one.
Tragically, over the centuries the Christian community has shown a far greater interest in sitting at Jesus’ feet, holding on to him amid the comfort of his presence, than in going out into the world to share the good news of the risen Lord with broken, needy hearts who have as valid a claim to know of him as we.
The message she is to give to the disciples are arresting (17). It is a word of victory. Jesus has conquered death. The king lives and continues in his reign.
It is also a message of an amazing privilege: my Father and your Father, … to my God and your God (17). Jesus’ relationship to the Father had been a ‘holy ground’ that the disciples could not even approach, but now by his death and resurrection, there is a new relationship with God. That special communion between the living God and a man in the flesh is thrown open also to us.
Like a good missionary, Mary acts on the Lord’s command and tells the good news to the disciples—a message illuminated by her own radiant testimony, I have seen the Lord! (18).
John’s description of the resurrection of Jesus teaches us three significant truths:
1. The resurrection is historical. John shares the event in precisely the same terms as his earlier descriptions of the ministry of Jesus. In chapter 19 we have ‘carrying … drinking … breaking … wrapping’; in chapter 20 we have ‘running … speaking … weeping … embracing’. Familiar characters reappear, such as John, Peter and Mary Magdalene. The crucifixion takes place on ‘the day of Preparation’ (19:14); the resurrection is set on the first day of the week (20:1). John places the resurrection emphatically as a happening in space and time; the space was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the time was ‘the first day of the week’ following passover in the year AD 33.
There are in addition numerous incidental historical pointers. The fact that the women were the first to discover the empty tomb is certainly authentic, as this alone would have discredited the story with the Jewish public. In Jesus’ society, sadly, women were not even thought fit witnesses in court.
Besides that, the larger realities stand out clearly. The tomb was empty. But if the tomb was empty, how is that fact to be accounted for? The claim that the disciples were responsible for the removal of the body, as well as being in clear contradiction to the records, is simply impossible to believe in the light of their subsequent behaviour, the radiance and sincerity of their faith, and the impressive fact that to a man they suffered excruciatingly for their claims about Jesus. The alternative explanation, that the authorities were responsible, runs aground on the fact that during the subsequent embarrassingly successful apostolic mission, the Jewish leaders would have given anything to have been able to produce the evidence that Jesus was dead and gone. Their silence is eloquent; they did not produce the evidence because it was not available to them. Thus since alternative explanations of the empty tomb are inadequate we are brought back to the one which the available sources unanimously affirm: ‘On the third day he rose again from the dead.’
Then, there is the fact of the preservation of these accounts. Their existence two thousand years after these happenings is due to the church, which emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of his shattering death to become a living, world-wide community whose expanding mission led John to write his gospel, and whose vitality of faith has preserved his record to the present day to be read, studied, and treasured by countless millions in every corner of the globe. ‘The existence of the Church; the existence of the New Testament: these incomparable phenomena are left without adequate or convincing explanation if the resurrection of Jesus be denied.
Faith based upon historical probabilities, rather like the faith based on miracles met earlier in the gospel (cf. 4:48f.), needs to grow beyond that to a full commitment related to all of God’s revelation in his Word and Son, as John himself concedes (9). But, like a miracle, it can be a starting point.
2. The resurrection is personal. The thrust of John’s presentation of Easter is the life-transforming appearance of Jesus to Mary beside the tomb. As in the case of Mary, Christ’s rising is intended to generate a personal discovery of Jesus which will produce a like transformation of life. Mary was weeping at the time, a burdened, sorrowful, and fearful woman. The whole point of the resurrection at this level is that we can meet Jesus today—true, not precisely in Mary’s tangible terms, but through the Spirit and by faith. And the encounter can be no less life-changing. Triumphant over death, he is alive for ever. He still comes to transform broken, sorrowing and fearful lives with the sheer uninhibited gladness of discovering him, alive and with us.
3. The resurrection is universal. The account ends with Mary sent to share the good news with others. Here John anticipates the missionary commission of the risen Lord and this inescapable implication of Easter faith in every generation. For ‘I have seen the Lord!’ must lead to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt. 28:19). The resurrection is the vindication of the life and death of Jesus as the one in whom God, in person, entered our world that salvation might be won for every tribe and people and nation. Easter is gospel, and it belongs to the world!
Go and tell!
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them what he had said to her. Now it’s our turn to tell the world that Jesus is alive.
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