[K:NWTS 1/1 (May 1986) 16-22]


John 20:16

Charles G. Dennison

Jesus said unto her, "Mary!" She turned and said unto him in Hebrew, "Rabboni," (which means teacher) . . . (John 20:16)

In John 20:1-18, we find a story we all know – John's account of the morning of the first day of the week following Christ's crucifixion. But did you notice John's mention of the darkness? Only John among the gospel writers tells us, "It was still dark" (v.1). When it was dark; that is, when darkness still enveloped everything, including those most devoted to Jesus . . . !

It is not as if the light has not shined. Magnificently, light has burst forth in the resurrection of Jesus. This light was like that which burst forth once before, at the very beginning of time. You see, the first day of the week of which John writes reminds us of that very first day in the very first week of creation. Now, as then, God performs a hidden work. At creation no one but God and his holy angels witnessed what took place. Who was there to hear the Almighty say, "Let there be light?" It is the same at the resurrection of Jesus. Here again is a hidden work and in it God brings to life this dark world's light.

You might think, however, that such a work, hidden as it is, has limited value and credibility. God sees things quite differently since it is this hidden act that focuses and proves our faith. Remember what is said about the original creation in another New Testament text. We are told, "By faith we understand that the world was made by the Word of God" (Heb. 11:3). As it was with that first creation, so it is with the new.

But there are other parallels. The testimony of God's original great act was set finally before his creatures–the man and the woman, our first parents–whom God made as the crown of his creating work. Unfortunately, we tend to think of Adam and Eve indiscriminately, as if they were featureless, as if they weren't the consequence of God's sovereign, electing, creating power and disposition. But why them? Why those particular bodies? those brains? those specific features? I am astounded that so many do not believe in God's predeterminative ordination, since you cannot get beyond the first chapter of Genesis without being confronted by it.

Here in the new creation there are once again chosen witnesses before whom the testimony of what God has done is displayed. In the first eighteen verses of John 20, we have three: Simon Peter, that special disciple known as the one whom Jesus loved and, most importantly, Mary Magdalene. We want to look at each in turn, but see them in keeping with the fact that John says, "and while it was still dark."

Jesus has been raised from the dead! The light has come for the nations, and yet John says, "while it was still dark." The three mentioned here then will be related to that darkness, our understanding of the darkness and our understanding and comprehension of the light.

Simon Peter

Simon Peter, called a rock by Christ, followed Jesus early on. You know of his admirable loyalty and fervor when others were deserting the Savior. Jesus asked the twelve if they would leave him too. It was Simon Peter who said, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have come to know that you are the holy one of Israel" (John 6:68).

We also know of Peter'show shall we call it?proud humility, best expressed when he drew back from Christ's attempt to wash his feet. "You'll never wash my feet, Lord," he says, only to be ashamed by his Lord's rebuke to such an extent that he exclaimed that washing his feet would hardly be adequate: "Lord, not my feet but my head; no, all of me, please" (John 13:8,9). There is an ambivalence in Peter, a frailty overlaid with that bold boastthat bravado. "I will lay down my life for you, Lord," he says (John 13:37), only to have that remark answered by his cowardice. "Know him? I neither know him nor revere him."

Now before you are too hard on Peter, I want you to consider him in light of what John says in verse 1 of chapter 20. "While it was yet dark [even though the light has come] . . . . " To be fair to Peter, we must penetrate him at a much deeper level than is ordinarily done. You see, he is more than a solitary figure; he is more than just an individual man. He is that disciple who strikes us at one and the same time with his amazing resilience and even faithfulness, and then amazing bewilderment to the point of offensiveness. Understanding Peter for all that he is, we are compelled to see in this one man the deep agonizing struggle for all within Israel who are longing for their Savior, but are frightened by the prospect that this Jesus might be the one. "Shall we follow Jesus as God's Messiah," they wonder, "0r should we hold back?"

In Peter, Israel is struggling with itself because, even among the faithful, the hope of that people is bound to so many thingsthings like the land, and this Messiah has said, "My kingdom is not of this world." To give up the land? Palestine? "I don't know if I can do it. It has been my life!" comes the response.

But other demands are made by this Messiah. He says that when he is lifted up, he will draw all men, all nations to himself. What then of the indigenous character and purity of the Jewish people? And what about the law? Some are saying, "I don't know what Jesus is doing with the law, but he certainly isn't handling it like our rabbis. It's as if he intends a transformationa bewildering transformation of even the law. How can I give up what I have cherished most for the sake of this Jesus and his gospel?"

So, in the figure of Peter, we encounter a desperate struggle. Even though the sun has risen, it is still dark. Peter is faithful Israel overshadowed by ambivalence.

The Beloved Disciple

Now if Peter speaks to us about uncertainty and ambivalence in Israel, what might we say of the beloved disciple? How fresh he appears in the passage. He outruns Peter. He arrives first at the tomb. He looks in and, after giving place to Petercertainly the olderhe enters; and, we are told, he believed. If Peter is hesitant, uncertain and ambivalent Israel, then in this beloved disciple we find a picture of an almost naive confidence. Here is un-hesitancy, un-ambiguity.

As we have said, he arrived first at the tomb; as we have said, after seeing what Peter saw, he believed. But yet this one who is poised, ready, willingeven for him it is still dark. He realizes so little; he doesn't know what it all means; he doesn't know how it all fits together, much less what to do about it.

We learn then in these two men about the nature of the true Israel of Godthose faithfully waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. In Peter, we have one holding on to the old, even when the new has come. In the beloved disciple, we have one quick, poised, ready to believe and obey, yet not knowing what to do. But both are stymied. They walk and grope in the darkness as yet. They both return to their homes, holding on to life in this world as if nothing had happened (John 20:10).

Mary Magdalene

A better grasp of the magnitude of this darkness awaits us in the figure of Mary Magdalene. She will not merely take us back into the heart of Israel, to the foundation of the nation. She takes us back to the very foundation of the earth; in her we are confronted with the depth and severity of the darkness. So great is this darkness that, to be sure, apart from God's sovereign and gracious mercy, it envelopes Israel's best. But even more, it is as ominous as the kingdom of darkness and as terrifying as that kingdom's dark prince. Its history is as old as Genesis 3, as ancient as the Garden of Eden. It was Eve's seductive intruder, but it has been Mary's and humanity's life-long companion.

And now Mary, as a latter-day Eve, is brought in John 20 to a garden. If in that first garden man died, being disobedient as he was, in the second garden man is made alive. Bringing the woman into perspectiveif in that first garden the woman succumbs, in the second she triumphs. If in the first garden the woman found no onenot even her husbandto stand in her place, to die for her in order that she might be reconciled to the light of the glorious knowledge of the true God, in the second she finds the resurrected Christ who has not only offered himself up for her but now claims her by speaking her name. He elicits from her a sovereignly deposited affirmation: he is Rabboni, "teacher." No one else will instruct her in all the purposes of God. He it is then that perfectly remedies the deceit to which she originally fell prey.

The darkness once chased on creation's first day invaded the earth through sin, bringing with it its dreaded fruitdeath. Even the best of Israel lived under the shadow of death. But now on the first day of the week in the new creation, darkness is chased again. The light shines in the darkness; the darkness will never be able to put it out. It is chased from the Israel of God; it is driven back from the borders of the nations, from those called of God as they are ministered unto by the resurrected teacher, Rabboni, the Lord Jesus Christ. He, the Word of God, brings light. All of us then with Mary must learn as she did from that teacher.

Notice how the darkness still grips her as she looks at Christ. At first she doesn't recognize him. Then she wants to hold onto him as if, in finding him, she has found a true husband, a new second Adamas if she by holding him can bring to pass a new paradise here on earth. But his instruction to her, and through her to us, is that the paradise for which she and we long is not found in any garden of this creation, but rather is above with God, a place unthreatened by any darkness at all. And that is the place to which Christ presently ascends.

In him was life and that life was the light of men. With the instruction that he gives, based upon his resurrection, Jesus Christ chases darkness from the souls and the hearts of men who, till this time, have claimed the earth or vainly believed that the real objective of life is some kind of permanent residence in this world. It is not. His resurrection life brings to light all of the purposes of life itself and makes clear the reason why we are here. We are enlightened by him who has gone to prepare a place for us and will come again and receive us unto himself, that where he is we might be also.

Jesus "commissions" Mary with this message to his brethrenthe message that the life from above, the life from the risen, ascended Lord (no, even more, that from the eternal Word who became flesh), is the light of men. She, as if embodying for a moment the apostolate, strikes the note that distinguishes the gospel. Peter will see the light and instruct us who are aliens and strangers in this world about our certain inheritance "imperishable and undefiled . . . , reserved in heaven" (I Pet. 1:4). And John, presumably the disciple Jesus loved, stamps his gospel with the imprint of Christ's glorious transcendence: "You must be born from above," Jesus says in John 3.

In the new creation these witnesses are the eyes to our faith; they have seen the Lord. But we are by no means deprived; rather we who have not seen the Lord yet love him and believe in him are blessed by his presence in the Spirit. In the day in which the glories of heaven are revealed, we too will see the one upon whom we have fixed our hope. Without the faintest shadow to cloud our vision, we shall say at the new creation's consummation what Mary said at its beginning, "I have seen the Lord."

Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Sewickley, Pennsylvania