Spiritual Formation

At the Empty Tomb

So on this, the first day of the week, Mary comes to the tomb with the spices that she has carefully prepared. But she is not alone. Other women are with her, all undoubtedly traumatized and frightened and floundering in a flood of grief.

It is early in the morning, so early that the garden is still dark. Perhaps they come before the sunrise to avoid being seen. Perhaps they are just that eager to minister to Him. Mark and Luke tell us that Mary actually enters the tomb when she finds—to her astonishment—that the stone has been rolled away. John simply records her urgent, and distraught, sprint to tell some of the disciples what she has discovered.

Mary first finds Simon Peter, and then John. And I can only imagine her distress when she tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

Mary doesn’t have to persuade these two disciples to come. She doesn’t have to drag them out of bed. In his telling, Luke includes the rather offensive—but culturally understandable—detail that the disciples thought she was speaking “nonsense,” so they went with the women in order to see for themselves. John simply tells us that upon hearing Mary’s news, Peter and John both bolt to the tomb. John describes their run to the garden as if it were a race. They are neck-and-neck for part of the way, but then the “other disciple” bursts ahead of Peter and arrives at the tomb first.

When the “disciple whom Jesus loves” arrives at the tomb, he stoops at the entrance, peers inside, and sees the linen wrappings. He doesn’t go in. But when Peter arrives, he bursts right through the open door. Then John describes the placement of the burial cloths in detail—because it matters so much. The linen wrappings are lying flat, and the face cloth is rolled up in another spot. Gary Burge explains why this is so significant:

The scene is not chaotic or confused. Rather, something purposeful happened here. If someone had stolen the body, the clothes would be missing or at least strewn about. But here is a scene in which the body is missing but the clothes appear undisturbed. Jesus’ body has simply left them behind.

After a moment, John cautiously follows Peter into the tomb and takes it all in for himself. He records his own immediate response in these simple, but all-important, words. “He saw and he believed” (John 20:8). This might even be called the thesis statement of his book. John sees the empty tomb and the grave clothes lying in this unexpected order, and he can tell that this is not the work of a grave robber or the Roman guard. Rather, John believes, this is evidence of a resurrection. This is proof that Jesus is who He claimed to be. This is a final sign that He is the Son of God.

The scene with Peter and John finishes with a surprisingly simple statement, telling us that they go home.

Only Mary remains.

And she cries. Can you picture her there? Can you understand her grief and her anger and her fear? She misses her Lord. The word used here for “weeping” does not indicate “a quiet, restrained shedding of tears, but the noisy lamentation typical of Easterners of that day” (Leon Morris). So there, by the open grave in the dim light of early morning, she wails and she sobs.

Eventually, she also stoops—still crying—and peers into the cave. Did she see something stirring inside that caused her to take a closer look? Was there a sudden glow emanating from within the tomb when the angels arrive? We don’t know for sure what motivated her curiosity, but we do know that Mary bends down and peers in.

And there, sitting on the burial slab, where the head and the feet of Jesus’ body would have been, are two angels. Two glorious heavenly beings come to minister to her. They call her “woman”—a gentle term of respect—and they ask her why she weeps.

“They have taken away my Lord,” she says through the tears, “and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13).

Interestingly, the angels don’t even have a chance to answer her and explain what has happened. They don’t even have the opportunity to offer a word of comfort. But the fact that they ask her why she cries could be a clue that “sorrow is not what the present moment requires” (Gary Burge).

Turning away from the angels, Mary notices that a man is standing behind her. We know, of course, that it is Jesus. John tells us so. But Mary doesn’t recognize Him yet.

Jesus, too, calls her “woman.” (There’s that term again.) He repeats the angels’ question. “Why are you weeping?” (John 20:15). Then He adds a key question of His own: “Whom are you seeking?”

We don’t know exactly why she comes to her initial conclusion about His identity. Was it still so dark that she couldn’t make out His face? Were her eyes blinded by her tears? Was there only one logical person she thought she might meet by the tomb at that hour? Regardless, she thinks He’s the gardener, and she is desperate for information. If he didn’t move the body himself, maybe he saw who did. She even offers to deal with the body herself.

Then Jesus says one word to her, undoubtedly using the loving tone of voice that He had always used. He utters her name: “Mary!” (v. 16).

Instantly, then, she recognizes Him, and she is filled with immense joy. A joy almost too great for words, it seems, since she turns and cries only one familiar greeting in response: “Rabboni!”

This early morning encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene finishes with an unusual statement of mild rebuke, a great commission, and Mary’s compelling testimony.

Jesus instructs Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

At least in part, Jesus is instructing Mary not to cling to His resurrected body—because things are going to continue to change. Yes, Jesus has conquered death and He is alive for good, but He won’t remain on the earth in this physical form. So He reminds Mary that He is going to soon ascend.

Jesus’ remark also provides the motivation Mary needs to hasten on her way with the good news. Jesus has not yet ascended, but He will soon. Time is of the essence. D.A. Carson paraphrases Jesus’ instruction to Mary (John 20:17) like this:

“I am not yet in the ascended state . . . so you do not have to hang on to me as if I were about to disappear permanently. This is a time for joy and sharing the good news, not for clutching me as if I were some jealously guarded private dream-come-true. Stop clinging to me, but (de) go and tell my disciples that I am in process of ascending (anabainō) to my Father and your Father.”

So Jesus is telling Mary, “Don’t cling to me here and now. I have work for you to do.”

Reluctantly Mary leaves Jesus’ side and brings this astounding report back to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord!”

An obvious question to ask is “Why Mary?”

Yes, she was one of Jesus’ faithful followers, but she certainly wasn’t in His inner circle of disciples. So why did Jesus choose her for His first encounter after the resurrection? Why didn’t He send the angels to surprise Peter and John? Why wasn’t He waiting there, in all of His resurrected glory, when the two men came to have a look? Why didn’t He send them as His first messengers, running to spread the news?

It’s not hard to imagine that Mary herself might marvel at Jesus’ appearance to her and the role He then asks her to play. It’s possible that, when Jesus tells her to go and announce His ascension, she thinks to herself, “Who, me?” In that day and age, women were rarely trusted with such important work. Women typically wouldn’t have played the role of messenger. And they certainly didn’t serve as legal witnesses for crucial events. Gary Burge underscores this truth when he says that “Mary’s commission to run and speak is a deep honoring that Jesus gives her alone.”

Of course, the passage in John doesn’t spell out the motivation behind Jesus’ appearance to Mary, in particular. John doesn’t explain why Jesus chose Mary for this assignment. But it is clear that Jesus values women.

In gospel encounter after gospel encounter, we see how He seeks women out and engages them in soul-searching conversation. He satisfies their varied longings, then sends them back into town to tell all the people (John 4). He sees them and heals them and takes the time to meet their deeper, spiritual needs (Mark 5). He defends them and forgives them and sets them free (John 8). He hears their cry, and loves them, and gives them new life (John 11). He graciously accepts their beautiful gifts and empowers them to serve (Mark 14). And here in John 20 He chooses this woman, this Mary, as the first person to encounter His resurrected form. He selects her to be His “apostle to the Apostles,” His witness to the witnesses. He makes her His mouthpiece and fills her with the greatest message ever to be told.

This is an excerpt from my up-coming book, Pierced & Embraced: Seven Life-Changing Encounters with the Love of Christto be released on August 1, 2017.

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