A. The empty tomb (20:1–10);
B. The appearance to Mary Magdalene (20:11–18);
C. The appearance to the disciples (20:19–23);
D. The appearance to Thomas and the purpose of the Gospel (20:24–31).
The empty tomb declares that Jesus has risen from the dead. He is no corpse; he is Christ the Lord, whose resurrection is the defeat of sin and death and the declaration that the renewal of creation has begun.
We can discern two cycles of resurrection appearances in the NT: a Galilean cycle (Mark and Matt) and a Judea cycle (Luke). Both cycles find a place in this Gospel - the Judea cycle in John 20 and the Galilean cycle in John 21.
In 2:19, Jesus announced a “sign” to the Jews and (the disciples) of his death and resurrection. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the (seventh) sign, the final and conclusive proof that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. The destruction of “this temple” is portrayed in chapters 18–19 and the raising of that temple in chapter 20.
Moreover, the comments of the Evangelist in John 19:35 - the crucifixion and in John 20:30–31 - after the resurrection, are the only two places in the Gospel where the reader is explicitly invited to “believe”.
20:1 - cf. Luke 8:2–3
The first section of the pericope (20:1–2) introduces the characters of the story (Mary, Peter and the Beloved Disciple) and the problem: the body of Jesus is missing from the tomb.
It is interesting that in all the Gospels - the great Sabbath of that Passover is not mentioned - the ‘story’ moves from Friday to Sunday bypassing the Saturday. As if the night lasted from from Friday evening - the death of Jesus till Sunday morning - his resurrection. As if the sun was waiting for Jesus to rise so it can also rise.
Thus “early” in the morning with the “dark” was still present but fading, Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb of Jesus.
The “darkness/night” that had for so long “overcome” (1:5) the world and had tried to do the same to the Son of Man was here taking its last breath before the Son - the light of the world - arises to claim his victor on the third day.
The Evangelist mentioned only her but, when she reports to the disciples (20:2), she said: “we do not know”. It would suggest that she came with other women (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Luke 24:10).
However, Mary Magdalene appearance at the cross (19:25) and the resurrection of Jesus makes her a primary witness of these events.
Jesus, “the man” (19:5), has completed his work (19:30) and rested from his creative work in a new tomb located in a garden (19:41). And then “on the first”, like in Genesis, the new creation begins. Since then, this day is called the Lord’s Day and also the eight day.
But, at that morning seeing the stone moved away Mary thought that something else took place.
She “ran” from the tomb to the two disciples - in a moment they will run to the tomb.
Mary’s announcement to the disciples is her conclusion from her observation of the tomb of Jesus. Two things are worth to point out:
Who are “they” Mary refers to? The grave robbers? Unlikely. The Jewish authorities? Perhaps. But, we shall never know for sure.
Who are “we”? Here, the answer is easier to provide based on the accounts of other Gospels (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Luke 24:10).
Here, for the first time “the Lord” is used with the definitive article (20:18, 28).
“They” have taken the Lord away, and “we” do not know where they placed him. In a moment Mary will know the answer to her worries.
The Evangelist now turns to the two disciples who received Mary’s news.
Here, for the first time the Beloved Disciple from 20:2 is connected with “the other disciple”. He thus becomes and an (1) ideal author - he was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (2) ideal disciple - he had special access and intimate relationship with Jesus (13:25), and (3) ideal witness - he saw the empty tomb with his own eyes and came to understand its true significance (20:8).
The Beloved Disciple outran Peter probably because he was younger. But this is another indication of the difference between the two. There are four comparison-like between them (13:22–25; 20:3–9; 21:7; 21:20–23), and each communicate something significant. The first shows unity but also the difference in the closeness to Jesus. This one shows the order of the entrance to the tomb.
The Beloved Disciple arrived first, but he did not enter - he only looked inside probably with curiosity. He knelt because the most ancient tombs “had a low entrance”. The fact of seeing the linen clothes is significant.
If the Beloved Disciples was the first to the tomb, Peter was first in the tomb.
In the greater context of chapter 20, Mary, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple all have some privileged position in relation to the tomb’s exterior, interior and belief that separates them from the other two. Yet not one of them can be clearly distinguished as more significant than the others.
The Evangelist gives emphasis to “seeing and believing” in John 20:8 and 20:18. These two acts are best taken as a unified whole, first introduced by the words of the Beloved Disciple and presented to all the disciples by Jesus’ own initiative. Then, the Gospel will end with Thomas as the final disciple to come to an understanding of the relationship between sight and belief in Jesus (20:24–29).
Between verses 6–7, two items are mentioned as having been seen by Peter. The first item - “the linen clothes” (20:7), this would include the tight wrap around the head and face to keep the mouth closed (11:44; 19:40). The second item is “the face cloth” (τὸ σουδάριον, a Latin word) - ‘napkin’, separated from the linen clothes. It was usually placed on the outside of the linen clothes tied around the head of the corpse and therefore detached from them.
The face cloth was located in a different location than the linen clothes. Would that indicate that Jesus after rising from the death removed the cloth from his face and folded it nicely to the side of the stone slab upon which he had just been lying?
The neatness and placement of the grave clothes is evidence that grave robbers had not stolen the body of Jesus. Remember that a hundred pounds of perfume and spices were placed within the linen clothes. A clear sign of resurrection according to St. John Chrysostom.
The imagery of Jesus’ grave clothes is intended to serve as a stark contrast to the grave clothes of Lazarus, who was depicted as coming out of tomb with both the linen clothes and face cloth still tightly wrapped about him, needing to be freed from the chains of the grave.
The term “face cloth” can also be connected to the Hebrew word for the veil covering the face of Moses (Ex 34:33–35). Like Moses, who put aside the veil when he ascended to meet God in glory, Jesus, the New Moses, has put aside the veil of his mortal flesh as he ascends into the presence of God to receive from him the glory which he had with the Father before the world was made (17:5).
Now, the Beloved Disciple enters.
The two verbs “he saw and believed” do not have an object.
The object of sight may be absent, but the narrative could not have been clearer about the object in view. The detail about the articles of grave clothes, both their folding and location, makes clear that these are the objects the Beloved Disciple “saw”.
But what is the object of the Beloved Disciple’s belief? The resurrection of Christ. Some commentators indicate that verb “believed” should be translated as “he began to believe”, because his (their) faith grew with the subsequent encounters with the risen Lord.
Here, we have another explanatory comment by the Evangelist. Here, we realise that Peter also believed - “they did not know” is in plural.
The “Scripture” reveals that the resurrection was “necessary”, divinely ordained and willed by God, but the disciples were till that moment unable to “understand” this fact yet (cf. Luke 24:44–45).
As Jesus explained to the Jewish authorities in 2:22, the resurrection explains the Scripture (what is read) and the Scripture explains the resurrection (what is seen and experienced).
While any number of particular Scriptures might fit the subject matter (Hosea 6:2; Lev 23:10–11 - the feast of first-fruits), the singular “the Scripture” (cf. 2:22; 10:35) suggests that the whole Scripture is in view.
The ending of this pericope is remarkable. After such discovery, they simply went to “their homes” (cf. 16:32). But, Jesus shall pursue them to their homes (1:11), and not even closed door can hinder his mission to them (20:19, 26).
But, the statement seems to indicate that the disciples have not fully understood the meaning of his death or the power of his life.
Now, the Evangelist will focus out attention on Mary Magdalene who apparently came back to the tomb.
The resurrected Jesus makes the tomb a place of grace not grief, declaring that he has fulfilled the old covenant and established the saving power and presence of the Lord through his death, resurrection, and ascension. The Gardener has returned to reclaim his Garden.
The “but” contrasts the departure of Peter and the Beloved Disciple with Mary, who remained “at the tomb”.
Mary, like the Beloved Disciple, did not go into the tomb but simply “knelt to look”.
Her “weeping” is an indication of her grief (20:13,15).
It is interesting to note, that Peter and the Beloved Disciple did not see the two angels. There, the Evangelist focused on the clothes they saw.
Mary, like the women in the Synoptics, see the angel(s) (Mt 28:2; Luke 24:4; see particularly Mk 16:5). This is the first time in the Gospel where the angels participate in the story as characters - before they were mentioned only (1:51; 12:29).
“In white” - the common colour of attire for angelic beings (Ezek 9:2; Dan 10:5; Acts 1:10; Rev 3:3–4; 4:5) and priests in Judaism. Their presence where the corpse previously lay implies that God had something to do with it.
The location of the angels is specified as at the head and at the feet of the place "where the body of Jesus had been lying.
The location of the angels at each end of the place where Jesus had been lying intends to signify the angels at the ends of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant (cf. Ex 25:18–19; 37:1–9). The place between the two angels was “the place of propitiation” or “the mercy seat” (ἱλαστήριον in the LXX), the cover of the ark that was associated with sin offering on the Day of Atonement. It is the “throne of grace”.
The angels (apparently both) speak asking about the reason for Mary’s weeping.
The angels address Mary as “woman” (cf. 2:4; 19:26 - Jesus towards his mother; 4:21- Jesus addressing the Samaritan woman; 8:15 - Jesus addressing the woman accused of adultery; and 20:15 - Jesus addressing Mary).
Mary’s tears and her answer indicate that she still does not understand what had actually happened.
Mary then turns around from the tomb and sees the One for whose lost body she was weeping.
The verb is in the present tense so it could actually be translated as “she is seeing Jesus”. This is the first encounter with the risen Jesus and yet she did not recognise him (cf. Luke 24:16).
Jesus is addressing Mary and asking the same questions like the angels. The question perhaps functions the same way like the straightforward question of the angel in Luke 24:5. There is no place for grief in the presence of the risen One, but the problem is that she cannot “see” him.
But Jesus also asks one more question “Whom do you seek?” A similar question Jesus asked his disciples at the beginning of the Gospel (1:38) and the exact question in the garden to those who came to arrest him (18:4).
Before Mary answers the Evangelist provides the reader with an important explanation of Mary’s mistaken assumption regarding the identity of Jesus - as “the gardener”.
Thus, we have “the gardener” in “the garden”. Jesus is walking through his garden like the Lord in Gen 3:8. But, this time the “woman” does not hide but she asks for something that cannot be given.
Now we understand why the cross is referred to as the tree of life - both the tree of life and the cross are in the garden.
Mary finally recognises Jesus when he spoke her name (cf. 10:3, 4, 16, 27; 18:37). The Shepherd knows his sheep by their name, and their recognise his voice.
It is interesting to note, that Mary “turns” again. Did she not do that already? (20:15). Did she look back again to the tomb, to the angels?
The action would indicate Mary turning back and forth between the tomb and the risen Lord unable to make sense of what had just happened.
The angels are inside the tomb but Jesus is outside the tomb. His crucified body is the seat of Mercy and his risen body proclaims the defeat of sin and death.
20:17 - cf. Ps 22:22 and Heb 2:11–12; Ruth 1:16
This verse belongs to some of the most difficult passages in the New Testament.
The verse does not indicate that Mary actually touched Jesus. He prohibits her at that moment to touch him. The reason for this prohibition is spell out as “for I have not yet ascended to the Father”. This statement was anticipated in the farewell discourse (13:1, 3; 14:12, 28; 16:5,7,10,17,27–28;17:11,13,21–26).
Jesus has to go to the Father in order to fulfil his promise of the sending of the other Paraclete. Only, then Jesus’ mission will be completed and only then Thomas will be permitted to touch him.
Since the ascension and the subsequent giving of the indwelling Spirit completes Jesus’ work, he gives Mary a work to do - to share what she heard from him with the other disciples called here “my brothers”.
This is the first time in the Gospel that the term “brothers” is used for the disciples (cf. 21:23). With Jesus’ resurrection something has changed.
My Father and your Father, My God and your God. There is distinction but at the same time there is unity. As Paul explains, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit we are all God’s children (Rom 8:14–17; Gal 4:6).
This statement brings the children of God in proper relation to God the Father through God the Son.
Jesus’ words here are the fulfilment of 1:12–13. The Ascension not only finalises and substantiates Jesus’ role as the unique Son but fully enables the disciples to receive in their persons the promised sonship (14:1–4,12,20–28; 16:5–23,28).
Mary is not merely announcing the resurrection of Jesus but also his impending ascension, which means she is declaring the fulfilment of all things Jesus taught.
Mary obediently fulfilled what Jesus told her to do.
Mary has had a remarkable role in “the hour” of Jesus: she was near the cross at his death (19:25), she was the first to discover the empty tomb (20:1), and she was the first to see and talk with the risen Jesus (20:14–17). Here she is given the commission to make this important announcement to the disciples. That is the reason she is given the title “an apostle to the apostles”.