Danny E. Olinger
Part of the purpose of John’s gospel is to challenge us concerning our faith in Jesus Christ. That is the case in John 20, which presents to us the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. How does his resurrection impact our faith? Does it change the way that we live? Or do we go on our way as if nothing has happened?
In John 20, Mary Magdalene is the one who tells the disciples Peter and John that the Lord has been taken out of the tomb. They run to get there and see the burial clothes left behind with no body. They see and believe, but they do not understand, and they go back to their homes. Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is the turning point of the ages, and yet, Peter and John do not know what to do in response, other than to go on with life as it has been.
But Mary remains. She might be distraught and confused, but she is not going anywhere. She is not leaving the empty tomb. Fighting through her tears, she looks again inside the tomb. This time, she sees two angels in white. They are marking the spot where the body of Jesus had lain, much like how the cherubim marked the mercy seat in the temple (see Ex. 37:6–9).
Their presence testifies to the glory of what has just happened. In this place, the empty tomb, the promise of God has been fulfilled. Death has been swallowed up in victory. The sentence of condemnation has been annulled. The penalty has been paid and satisfaction has been rendered.
The angels know that there is rejoicing taking place in heaven because of what has happened, but Mary remains in the dark. She cannot see anything through her tears but the fact that Jesus’s body isn’t there. This causes the angels to ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
It is a great question. As the angels see it, if the body of Jesus were still there, then tears should flow. It is as if they are saying, “Mary, if you had found a dead corpse, then what joy would there be?”
Mary answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Her presence indicates that she longs to be with Jesus. Where he is, even his corpse, that is where she wants to be.
She turns everything intended to help her—the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, the angels’ presence and question—into another reason for doubt and grief. And yet, there is something utterly admirable about Mary’s posture. She does not return to her home like Peter and John. She stays because Jesus is everything to her.
It is personal for Mary. Jesus is the one who cast out seven demons from her (Luke 8:2). He is her one and only Savior. She says to the angels that they have taken away “my Lord.” She knows what her condition was prior to knowing Jesus. And now, all she can think of is that he is gone.
To be removed from him, what hope does she have? She might be confused about the empty tomb, but she is not confused about Jesus. She believes that salvation only comes through being united to him.
Weeping, she has missed every clue about the significance of what has happened with Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. But Jesus loves her. He has witnessed her struggle—her coming repeatedly to the tomb, her crying, her answer to the angels. On his first day as the risen Lord of Glory, she is the first person to whom he shows himself, a lowly and contrite believer crying in a garden. He says to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” She thinks he is the gardener, and so she says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
But then he says to her a personal word: “Mary.” Hearing his voice, she knows it is her Lord. It is not through seeing that she recognizes Jesus, but through his word.
It is the word of the Good Shepherd who calls his own sheep by name. “Mary,” he says. As one of his lambs, she hears his voice, and she replies, “Rabboni.” It is a personal response to a personal word, and in an instant her world is changed. She knows that Jesus is alive, and that he is here with her. It is what she wants above all else, and so she clings to Jesus.
But Jesus says to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
Why was it important for Jesus to ascend to the Father? Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper [that is, the Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7–8).
Jesus needs to ascend in order to send the Spirit. It is the Spirit’s function to declare the things that are to come, and that includes the realization of the hope of eternal communion with God.
What Mary wants—to be with Jesus always—should be the desire of every heart. It is the realization of the goal set before Adam and Eve in the garden—full fellowship with God without end in a holy realm.
Because of sin, that goal was not reached by Adam and Eve in the garden. But whereas Eve fell in the first garden, Mary triumphs in this new garden. But how is it that Mary, a new Eve, triumphs? Her triumph is not through her work. She triumphs because of the work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ.
Jesus does that which the first Adam did not. He obeys the word of God. He does the will of his Father. But he does not stop there. He also takes the sins of his bride to himself. When Eve sinned in the garden, she had no one to take her place. But Jesus dies for his bride. Jesus gives his life for his church, which includes Mary.
What the ascension of Jesus accomplishes is full fellowship with God in the heavenly places for those who are joined to him by faith. Jesus declares to Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
We have to grasp this, just as Mary did. While Jesus is not here bodily on this earth for us to hug, that does not mean that his presence is not among us. On the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, as we gather together to hear his Word proclaimed, we are worshiping in his presence as we worship in Spirit and truth. He has given us his Spirit as a pledge of the world to come, and with the Spirit there is resurrection power.
In fact, the same power that God the Father worked in Jesus Christ in raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places is the power that is at work in us as believers. In Jesus Christ, we have passed from death to life.
Nothing can remain the same. Returning to our homes, like Peter and John, just will not do in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In fact, this event is the beginning of a new order, the inauguration of a new environment that is not of this world. Jesus is the resurrection and life now. We have resurrection life already, the forgiveness of sins and communion with God, even as we prayerfully await Christ’s return and the consummation, when that resurrection life will be in body and in full.
What we long for is what Mary longed for, to be with Jesus bodily, but not in this earth which is fallen and passing away. It is in the new heavens and the new earth, ushered in through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that we will have fellowship with our Savior forever.
Being joined to the risen Christ by faith, we are gaining strength unto that goal. Our bodies are weakening, but we share in his resurrection. Through the gift of the Spirit, we have fellowship with God now even as we await that fellowship in full.
We know this to be a true, just as Mary did. And as she is commanded by Jesus to share this good news, so are we. For, like Mary, our world has been changed.
© 2021 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church