[K:NWTS 7/2 (Sep 1992) 3-14]


John 20:16

Geerhardus Vos

Our text takes us to the tomb of the risen Lord, on the first Sabbath-morning of the New Covenant. It is impossible for us to imagine a spot more radiant with light and joy than was this immediately after the resurrection. Even when thinking ourselves back into the preceding moments, while as yet to the external eye there was nothing but the darkness of death, our anticipation of what we know to be about to happen floods the scene with a twilight of supernatural splendor. The sepulchre itself has become to us prophetic of victory; we seem to hear in the expectant air the wingbeat of the descending angels, come to roll away the stone and announce to us: "The Lord is risen indeed!"

Besides this, we have learned to read the story of our Lord's life and death so as to consider the resurrection its only possible outcome, and this has to some extent dulled our sense for the startling character of what took place. We interpret the resurrection in terms of the atoning cross, and easily forget how little the disciples were as yet prepared for doing the same. And so it requires an effort on our part to understand sympathetically the state of mind they brought to the morning of this day. Nevertheless we must try to enter into their thoughts and feelings, if for no other reason, for this, that something of the same fresh marvel and gladness that subsequently came to them may fill our hearts also. Whether we may be able to explain it or not, the Gospel tells us, that, notwithstanding the emphatic prediction by the Savior of his death and resurrection, they had but little remembrance of these words, and drew from them no practical support or comfort in the sorrow that overwhelmed them. In part this may have been due to the fact of our Lord's having only predicted and not fully explained these tremendous events. At any rate the circumstance shows that there is need of a deeper faith than that of mere acquaintance with and consent to external statements of truth, when the dread realities of life and death assail us. Dare we say that we ourselves should have proved stronger in such a trial, if over against all that mocked our hope we had been able to place no more than a dimly remembered promise? Let us thank God that, when we ourselves enter into the valley of the shadow of death, we have infinitely more than a promise to stay our hearts upon, that ours is the fulfilment of the promise, the fact of the resurrection, nay the risen Lord himself present with rod and staff beside us.

First Visitors to the Tomb

Supplementing the account of John with the statements of the other evangelists, we gain the following conception of the course of events previous to what the text relates. A small company of women went out at early dawn towards the garden, carrying the spices prepared as a last offering to honor Jesus. From among these Mary Magdalene in the eagerness of her desire to reach the place, ran forward, and discovered before the others that the stone had been rolled away. Without awaiting the arrival of her companions she hastens back to tell Peter and John what she supposed to be true: "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb." Roused from the lethargy of their grief by this startling announcement the apostles immediately went to the place, and by their own observation verified Mary's report. John came first, but merely looked into the tomb. Peter, who followed, entered in, and beheld the linen cloths lying and the napkin that was upon the Savior's head rolled up and put by itself. Then entered in John also and saw and believed. For as yet they knew not the Scripture that he must rise again from the dead. Their eyes were so holden that the true explanation never occurred to them. Perplexed, but not moved from a despairing state of mind, they returned to their abode.

Mary Lingers

Mary must have followed the apostles at a distance when these came in haste to see for themselves. We find her standing without the tomb weeping. Is it not remarkable that, while both John and Peter departed, Mary remained? Although the same hopeless conclusion had forced itself upon her, yet it could not induce her to leave. In her mind it only intensified a thousand times the purpose with which she had come. How striking an illustration of the Savior's word that much forgiveness creates abounding love! But may we not believe that still something else reveals itself in this? Mary's attitude towards Jesus, more perhaps than any other disciple's, seems to have been characterized by that simple dependence which is but the consciousness of an ever present need. It was a matter of faith, as much as of love, that made her differ at this time from the others. Unmixed with further motives, the recognition of Jesus as the only refuge from sin and death filled her heart. In a measure, of course, he had been this to the others also. But while to them he stood for many other things in addition, the circumstances under which she had become attached to him made Mary's soul the mirror of saving faith pure and simple. And because she was animated by this fundamental spiritual impulse, drawing her to the Savior more irresistibly than affection or sorrow could have done, therefore she could not but continue seeking him, even though unable for the moment to do aught else than weep near his empty tomb.

In vain does Calvary proclaim that the Lord is dead, in vain does the tomb declare that he has been buried, in vain does the absent stone suggest that they have taken him away—this threefold witness will not convince Mary that he has gone out of her life forever. And why? Because in the depth of her being there was an even more emphatic witness which would not be silenced but continued to protest that she must receive him back, since he is her Savior. Contact, communion with Christ had become to her the vital breath of her spiritual life; to admit that the conditions rendering this possible had ceased to exist would have meant for her to deny salvation itself. There is, it is true, a pathetic incongruousness between the absoluteness of this desire and the futile form in which for the moment she thought it could be satisfied. In the last analysis what was she doing but seeking a lifeless body, in order that by caring for it and feeling near it she might still the longing of a living faith? Suppose she had received what she sought, would not in the next moment the other deeper desire have reassured itself for that in him which it was absolutely beyond the power of a dead Jesus to give her? Still, however incongruous the form of expression, it was an instinct to which an outward reality could not fail to correspond. It arose out of a primary need, for which provision must exist somewhere, if redemption exists at all. Though unaware of the resurrection as a fact, she had laid hold upon the supreme principle from which its necessity flows. Once given the intimate bond of faith between a sinner and his Savior, there can be no death to such a relationship. Mary, in her simple dependence on Jesus, had risen to the point where she sought in him life and sought it ever more abundantly. To her faith he was conqueror over death long before he issued from the grave. She was in rapport with that spiritual aspect, that quickening quality of his person, of which the resurrection is the sure consequence.

Here at bottom lies the decisive issue for everyone as regards the attitude to be assumed towards this great fact. Ultimately, stripped of all accidentals, the question resolves itself into this: What means Christ for us? For what do we need him? If we have learned to know ourselves guilty sinners, destitute of all hope and life in ourselves, and if we have experienced that pardon, peace and strength came to us from him, will it not sound like mockery in our ears, if somebody tells us that it does not matter whether Jesus rose from the dead on the third day? It is of the very essence of saving faith that it clamors for facts, facts to show that the heavens have opened, that the tide of sinful nature has been reversed, the guilt of sin expiated, the reign of death destroyed and life and immortality brought to light. And because this is the insuppressible cry of faith, what else should faith do when it sees doubt and unbelief emptying the gospel of the living Christ, what else should it do but stand outside weeping and repeating the plaint: They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid him?

Mary Grieves

But although these things were in principle present in Mary's heart, she did not at that moment perceive the pledge of hope contained in them. Here grief was too profound to leave room for introspection. It even hid from her vision the objective evidence of the resurrection that lay around her. Worse than this, she turned what was intended to help her into an additional reason for unbelief. But who of us shall blame her? Have not we ourselves under as favorable circumstances made the mistake of nourishing our unbelief on what was meant to be food for our faith? Do we not all remember occasions when we stood outside the grave of our hopes weeping, and did not perceive the hand stretched out to prepare us, by the very thing we interpreted as sorrow, for a higher joy? From Mary's experience let us learn to do better. What the Lord expects from us at such seasons is not abandon ourselves to unreasoning sorrow, but trustingly to look sorrow in the face, to scan its features, to search for the help and hope which, as surely as God is our Father, must be there. In such trials there can be no comfort for us so long as we stand outside weeping. If only we will take the courage to fix our gaze deliberately upon the stern countenance of grief, and enter unafraid into the darkest recesses of our trouble, we shall find the terror gone because the Lord has been there before us, and, coming out again, has left the place transfigured, making out of it by the grace of his resurrection a house of life, the very gate of heaven. 

This was just what happened to Mary. Not forever could she stand weeping, forgetful of what went on around her. "As she wept she looked into the tomb, and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain" (Jn. 20:11, 12). It was a step in the right direction that she roused herself from her inaction. Still, what strikes us as most characteristic in this statement is its implying that even the vision of angels did not sufficiently impress her to raise the question, to what the appearance of these celestial messengers might be due. Probably this was the first time she had come in direct contact with the supernatural in that particular form. The place was doubtless charged with the atmosphere of mystery and wonder angels bring with themselves when entering into our world of sense. And yet no tremor seems to have run through her, no feeling of awe to have made her draw back. A greater blindness to fact is here than that which made her miss the sign of the empty grave. What more convincing evidence of the truth of the resurrection could have been offered than the presence of these two angels, silently, reverently, majestically sitting where the body of Jesus had lain? Placed like the Cherubim on the mercy-seat, they covered between themselves the spot where the Lord had reposed and flooded it with celestial glory. It needed no voice of theirs to proclaim that here death had been swallowed up in victory. Ever since the angels descended into this tomb the symbolism of burial has been radically changed. From this moment onward every last resting place where the bodies of believers are laid is a furrow in that great harvest field of Christ whence heaven draws upward into light each seed sunk into it, whence Christ himself was raised, the first fruits of them that sleep.

Let us not overlook, however, that Mary's disregard of the angels revealed in a most striking form something good also, to wit, her intense preoccupation with the one thought of finding the Lord. For him she had been looking into the tomb. He not being there, it was empty to her view though filled with angelic glory. She would have turned aside without speaking, had not the angels of their own accord spoken to her: "Woman, why weepest thou?" These words were meant as an expression of sympathy quite natural in beings wont to rejoice over repenting sinners. But in this question there is at the same time a note of wonder at the fact that she should be weeping at all. To the mind of the angels the resurrection was so real, so self-evident that they could scarcely understand how to her it could be otherwise. They felt, as it were, the discord between the songs of joy with which their own world was jubilant, and this sound of weeping coming out of a world of darkness and despair. "Woman, why weepest thou?" Tears would be called for indeed, hadst thou found him in the tomb, but not at a time like this, when heaven and earth unite in announcing: he is risen in glory, the King of life!

Mary's answer to the angels shows that neither their sympathy nor their wonder had succeeded in piercing her sorrow. "She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him" (Jn. 20:13). These are almost the identical words in which she had informed Peter and John of her discovery of the empty tomb. Still a slight change appears. To the apostles she had said "the Lord" and "we know not." To the angels it is "my Lord" and "I know not." In this is revealed once more her intense sense of proprietorship in Jesus. In that sense the angels could not have appropriated him for themselves. They might hail him as their matchless King, but to Mary he was even more than this, her Lord, her Savior, the one who had sought and saved and owned her in her sins.

Mary Encounters Jesus

Having given this answer to the angels, she turned herself backward and beheld Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. No explanation is added of the cause of this movement. It matters little. Our interest at this stage of the narrative belongs not to what Mary but to what Jesus did. On his part the encounter was surely not accidental but intended. He had witnessed her coming once and again, her weeping, her bending over the tomb, her answer to the angels, and had witnessed not only these outward acts, but also the inward conflict by which her soul was torn. And he appears precisely at the point where his presence is required because all other voices for conveying to her the gladsome tidings have failed. He had been holding himself in readiness to become in his own person the preacher of the gospel of life and hope to Mary. There is great comfort for us in this thought that however dim our conscious faith and the sense of our salvation, on the Lord's side the fountain of grace is never closed, its connection with our souls never interrupted; provided there be the irrepressible demand for his presence, he cannot, he will not deny himself to us. 

The first person to whom he showed himself alive after the resurrection was a weeping woman who had no greater claim upon him than any simple penitent sinner has. No eye except that of the angels had as yet rested upon his form. The time was as solemn and majestic as that of the first creation when light burst out of chaos and darkness. Heaven and earth were concerned in this event; it was the turning-point of the ages. Nor was this merely objectively so: Jesus felt himself the central figure in this newborn universe; he tasted the exquisite joy of one who had just entered upon an endless life in the possession of new powers and faculties such as human nature had never known before. Would it have been unnatural had he sought some quiet place to spend the opening hour of this new unexplored state in communion with the Father? Can there be any room in his mind for the humble ministry of consolation required by Mary? He answers these questions himself. Among all the voices that hailed his triumph no voice appealed to him like this voice of weeping in the garden. The first appearance of the risen Lord was given to Mary for no other reason than that she needed him first and needed him most. And what more appropriate beginning could have been set for his ministry of glory than this very act? Nothing could better convince us that in his exalted state he retains for us the same tender sympathy, the same individual affection as he showed during the days of his flesh. 

It is well for us to know this because otherwise the dread impression of his majesty might tend to hinder our approach to him. Who of us has not at some time of communion with the Savior felt the overwhelming awe that seized the seer on Patmos, so that we could not utter our prayer, until he laid his hand upon us and said: Fear not. We should be thankful then for the grace of Christ which has so arranged it that between his rising from the dead and his departure for heaven a season of forty days was interposed, a transition period, helping, as it were, the feebleness of our faith in the act of apprehending his glory. Perhaps the Lord for the same reason also intentionally placed his meeting with Mary at the threshold of his resurrection-life. Like other acts recorded in the Fourth Gospel this act rises above the momentary situation and acquires a symbolic significance, enlarging before our eyes until it reveals him in his priestly ministration conducted from the throne of glory.

Mary Talks with Jesus

However not the fact only of his showing himself to Mary, but likewise the manner of it claims our attention. When first beholding him she did not know the Lord, and even after his speech she still supposed him to be the gardener. The chief cause for this may have lain in the change which had taken place in him when the mortal put on immortality. Now behold with what exquisite tact the Lord helps her to restore the broken bond between the image her memory retained of him and that new image in which henceforth he would walk through her life and hold converse with her spirit. Even these first words: "Women why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?" though in form scarcely differing from the question of the angels, go far beyond the latter in their power to reach Mary's heart. In the word "woman" with which he addresses her speaks all the majesty of one who felt himself the Son of God in power by resurrection from the dead. It is a prelude to the still more majestic, "Touch me not" spoken soon afterwards.

And yet in the words, "Why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?" He extends to her that heart-searching sympathy which at a single glance can read and understand the whole secret of her sorrow. He knew that such weeping results only there where one who is more than father or mother has been taken away. And how instantaneous the effect these words produced! Though she still supposes him the gardener, she takes for granted that he at least could not have taken the body with evil intent, that he will not refuse to restore it: "Sir, if thou hast born him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away" (Jn. 20:15). A certain response to his sympathy is also shown in this, that three times she refers to Jesus as "him," deeming it unnecessary to mention his name. Thus in the way she met the gardener there was already the beginning resumption of the bond of confidence between her and the Lord. And thus Jesus found the way prepared for making himself known to her in a most intimate manner. "Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turneth and saith unto him, Rabboni" (Jn. 20:16). It happened all in a moment, and by a simple word, and yet in this one moment Mary's world was changed for her. She had in that instant made the transition from hopelessness because Jesus was absent, to fullness of joy because Christ was there. 

We may well despair of conveying by any process of exposition the meaning of these two words. This is speech the force of which can only be felt. And it will be felt by us in proportion as we clearly remember some occasion when the Lord spake a similar word to us and drew from us a similar cry of recognition. Doubtless much of the magical effect of Jesus' word was due to the tone in which he spoke it. It was a tone calling to her remembrance the former days of closest fellowship. This was the voice that he alone could use, the same voice that had once commanded the demons to depart from her, and to which ever since she had been wont to listen for guidance and comfort. By using it he meant to assure her that whatever transformation had taken place, there could be and would be no change in the intimate, personal character of their relationship. And Mary was quick to apprehend this. The evangelist takes pains to preserve for us the word she uttered in its original Aramaic form because he would have us understand that it meant more at this moment than could be conveyed by the ordinary rendering of "Teacher" or "Master." "Rabboni" has a special untranslatable significance. It was the personal response to the personal "Mary," to all intents a proper name no less than the other.

By speaking it Mary consciously re-entered upon the possession of all that as Rabboni he had meant to her. Only one thing she had yet to learn, for teaching her which the Lord did not deem even this unique moment too joyful or sacred. In the sudden revulsion from her grief Mary would have given some external expression to the tumult within by grasping and holding him. But he restrained her saying: "Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended unto the Father; but go unto my brethren and say to them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God" (Jn. 20:17).

At first sight these words may seem a contrast to those immediately preceding. And yet no mistake could be greater than to suppose that the Lord's sole or chief purpose was to remind her of the restrictions which henceforth were to govern the intercourse between himself and her. His intention was much rather to show that the desire for a real communion of life would soon be met in a new and far higher way than was possible under the conditions of local earthly nearness. "Touch me not" does not mean: Touch is too close a contact to be henceforth permissible; it means: the provision for the highest, the ideal kind of touch has not been completed yet: "I am not yet ascended to my Father." His words are a denial of the privilege she craved only as to the form and moment in which she craved it; in their larger sense they are a pledge, a giving, not a withholding of himself from her. The great event of which the resurrection is the first step has not yet fulfilled itself; it requires for its completion the ascent to the Father. But when once this is accomplished then all restrictions will fall away and the desire to touch that made Mary stretch forth her hand shall be gratified to its full capacity. The thought is not different from that expressed in the earlier saying to the disciples: "Ye shall see me because I go to the Father." There is a seeing, a hearing, a touching, first made possible by Jesus' entrance into heaven and by the gift of the Spirit dependent on the entrance.

Mary Talks to the Disciples

And what he said to Mary he commissioned her to repeat to his brethren that they also might be taught to view the event in its proper perspective. May we not fitly close our study of the text with reminding ourselves that we too are included among the brethren to whom he desired these tidings to be brought? Before this he had never called the disciples by this name as he had never until now so suggestively identified himself with them by speaking of "your Father and my Father" and "your God and my God." We are once more assured that the new life of glory, instead of taking him from us, has made us in a profounder sense his brethren and his Father our Father. Though unlike Mary and the disciples, we have not been privileged to behold him in the body, yet together with the believers of all ages we have an equal share in what is far sweeter and more precious, the touch through faith of his heavenly person for which the appearances after the resurrection were but a preparation.

Let us then not linger at the tomb, but turn our faces and stretch our hands upwards into heaven where our life is hid with him in God, and whence he shall also come again to show himself to us as he did to Mary, to make us speak the last great "Rabboni," which will spring to the lips of all the redeemed, when they meet their Savior in the early dawn of that eternal Sabbath that awaits the people of God.

Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey