Monday, April 12, 2021

War of the Worldviews- Colossians 2:8-15

 Currently in our small group on Sunday mornings we are going through a study entitled “War of the Worldviews” in which we compare and contrast Christianity over and against different belief systems that are endorsed in our world today. While we have looked at Jehovah’s witnesses, Mormons, Scientologists, Muslims, Buddhists, and have also discussed Critical Theory, ultimately there are two choices that one has when he comes to deciding what he is going to live by—the way of God as revealed in the Bible (and rightly understood) or the way of the world (regardless of the supposed variations therein). Paul understood this ultimate contrast and educates the church to this end in Colossians 2:8-15. In this passage Paul presents two worldviews and provides a compelling case for the one represented in the Scripture to both protect and encourage the church.



1. WORLDVIEW #1: A Purely Rationalistic Worldview-2:8

As Paul continues to warn the church against falsehood, he identifies an existential and spiritual threat of which they need to be acutely aware—“See to it that no one takes you captive through Philosophy and empty deception” (2:8a). Paul believed the influx of heresy in the life of the church was a well organized and planned attack against Christianity (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 252). Such coordination may have taken the form of vain speculation and false teaching in and around Asia Minor, but ultimately, this attack was motivated by evil forces in the spiritual realm. Here, Paul describes the particular manifestation of this threat as “philosophy and empty deception.” The way that this phrase is constructed connects “philosophy” and “empty deception” together and draws attention to a specific brand of thinking. In other words, Paul is not calling into question philosophy as a whole, but a particular brand of philosophy that is ultimately empty and deceptive—i.e. lacking in any substance, leading nowhere. Such vain speculation that ultimately leads nowhere is not benign/inconsequential. Instead, Paul expends great energy in describing just how dangerous it is by suggesting that it can “take someone captive.” The verb calls to mind an oppressor carrying off booty or captives following a victory in battle. Applied here, the idea involves taking complete control of a person. If the adage “as one thinks so is he” is true, empty deception/vain speculation can completely overwhelm a person and lead them in the wrong direction—away from Christ. Avoiding such thinking is paramount for the church and her people if they are to persevere and continue its mission. Thankfully, Paul provides some helpful characteristics of this brand of thinking that will aid us in identifying it and distancing ourselves from it.

First, vain speculation and empty deceit is humanistic—i.e. man-centric—“according to the tradition of men” (2:8b). In other words, the kind of worldview that Paul warns against places mankind at the center of the universe and believes that he can solve all his problems. Such a view believes that we can think, innovate, work, or win our way out of anything. Such thinking renders God’s revelation unnecessary and/or obsolete. Beware of those with too high a view of the human person and his capacities.

Second, vain speculation and empty deceit is materialistic—“according to the elementary principles of the world” (2:8c). Originally the term “stoixeia” referred to what many believed were the the four basic elements of the world: earth, fire, wind, and water. The term was later used of the basic words of the alphabet. Even later the term suggested the “ABC’s” of something—i.e. the basics. Still others use the word to refer to the signs of the Zodiac and the powers that occupied the planets (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 253). While exactly what Paul is referring to here is somewhat up for debate, generally speaking this calls to mind the humanistic tendency to understand something by means of breaking it down to its components and in this way highlights a very materialistic way of thinking. It is the propensity to believe we can figure everything out if we can add up something’s elements. Scientism and naturalism are more recent expressions of this in our world today. However, different versions of such thinking were also prevalent in the world of Colossae and could very easily lead people away from the reverent awe that comes when one confronts radical complexity and mystery of God and what he has revealed in Christ.

Finally, vain speculation and empty deceit is anti-Christ/sans Jesus---“rather than according to Christ” (2:8d). In fact, one might say that any worldview that does not have Christ as its cornerstone and champion ought to be avoided like the plague, lest is capture you and take you where you ought not be (lest it control you in a godless and faithless way).

Ultimately, the first worldview described in this passage is a purely rationalistic worldview that exalts the human person and the materialism of this world to the neglect of God’s revelation in Christ. Such a worldview is empty and ultimately leads nowhere. Unprepared to ultimately/satisfactorily solve the problems it suggests it can conquer, this worldview only succeeds in capturing unsuspecting/misinformed people and controlling them in ways that bring destruction.

2. WORLDVIEW #2: A Christ-Centered Worldivew-2:9-15

Thankfully, there is another worldview/guiding framework for life—a Christ-centered worldview that is explained in verses 9-15. Notice, Paul devotes far more time, effort, and attention to describing the contours of this much-preferred system of thinking. First, the apostle highlights the realities found in Christ in verses 9-11. In Christ there is found several things that are discovered no where else. Verse 9 indicates that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” While this expression of Jesus’ divinity is unusual, it is always difficult to express the God-man relationship in Christ via human language. “The ‘fullness of deity’ was Paul’s way of stating that Jesus is every bit God” (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 255). This fullness concerns the completeness of the divine nature and does not demand that Christ is all there is of God. In other words, Jesus is every bit God but does not exhaust the dimensions of deity as the Father and the Spirit are also equally divine. Jesus’ divinity is unique in that his deity dwells in bodily form. In the form of Christ, we have the reality of God.

Colossians 1:15-“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”

Not only will you find the full expression of divinity in Christ, but those who embrace Jesus will also find completeness in Christ—“and in Him you have been made complete” (2:10). The perfect tense suggests a past act with ongoing realities. Because the believer has been made positionally/essentially complete in Christ, they are currently undergoing a process of perfect completion (existentially). I.e. “you have been and are being made complete.” This position and process only exists in Christ.

Completeness is a desire implicit within the human person. Much of what is observed in our world today reveals many various quests for being completed or satisfied. Jesus offers true completion and ultimate satisfaction to those who come to him in faith. Who better to offer such than the one in whom exists all deity?

In addition to deity and completeness, believers will also find leadership in Christ—“and He is the head over all rule and authority” (2:10b). Powers both seen and unseen are subject to Jesus. Therefore, those found in Him have nothing to fear as any foe or oppressor must ultimately answer to Christ!

While these incredible blessings are found in Christ and are mainstays in a Christ-centered worldview, these are only available to people because of the actions that Christ performs in the life of believers.

Paul begins listing the may activities Christ accomplishes in the lives of believers by referencing an old idea to illustrate a new application—circumcision. He says, “and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (2:11). This verse remembers one way in which the Israelites (particularly the men) were consecrated unto God. Physical circumcision was one of the signs in the Old Testament Jewish community of God’s people being set apart. However, this outward sign was always intended for more than just a physical marking. It was intended to illustrate an inner-spiritual reality of spiritual separation and holiness. This spiritual reality is what Paul is most concerned with here. Christ offers true/spiritual circumcision of the heart that sets people apart.

Romans 2:28-29-“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”

What existed in sign and symbol in the Old Testament has been fulfilled and ultimately completed in Christ who now uniquely consecrates people unto himself. This is one of the many activities that makes the many blessings “in Christ” possible.

Christ has not only set people apart in a special way through spiritual circumcision, he has also baptized people in a spiritual baptism—“having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). Baptism, like circumcision is a sign of deep spiritual realities. First, it highlights a change of identity in which people go into the water one way and out of the water another way (from the bondage of sin to freedom in Christ). Second, it highlights the process by which this change of identity was made possible (we go into the water as buried with Christ in baptism and we are raised out of the water as those who walk in new life). Physical baptism does not save anyone any more than physical circumcision made someone a true Jew. However, the realities that these outward signs illustrate are very real on a spiritual level as they describe what Christ has done on behalf of those who turn to him in faith.

Romans 6:3ff-“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection,..”

2 Tim. 2:11-“It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him;

Christ not only circumcises the heart and provides spiritual baptism, he also makes alive those who were once dead—“when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him” (2:13a). In this statement Paul combines the two aforementioned activities and suggests that Christ’s completed work in these arenas provides life to those who were formally dead in their sin. As only God can bring life to the dead, this ability associated with Christ further supports Paul’s claim of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ ability to bring life to the dead was tested and proven true in his own death to life episode three days after his crucifixion. Because he is alive from the dead, those who are saved are said to be “made alive together with him.”

Christ provides spiritual circumcision, baptism, life, and he also provides forgiveness—"Having forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13b). It is this forgiveness for wrongdoing that is so necessary for unbelieving sinners to be made right with God their Creator. After all, sin separates all from God and the wrap sheet that has been growing since birth has accrued an enormous debt that people are woefully incapable of paying. Thankfully, Christ has acted in such a way to take care of all of this so that forgiveness can be applied to who turn to him in faith—“having canceled our the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (2:14). Jesus has forever and completely satisfied the debt owed from sin. Not only has he posted bail, he has removed the charges! The verb used for “having canceled” means to cause something to cease by obliterating any evidence.” Praise be to God that forgiveness for sin is possible in Christ.

Finally, Christ has also accomplished total victory. In fact, it was his death on the cross that also defeated sin and death and ensured the ultimate fate of all evil everywhere—“When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him,…” (2:15). This was prophesied in Genesis 2:15 and fulfilled at the cross. In the cross you have a compelling paradox. “Jesus hung naked and disgraced, dying publicly for sinners. The evil forces assumed they had triumphed. In reality, through this act of both sacrifice and triumph, God disgraced evil beings. The tables were turned. God triumphed in the redemptive work of Christ” and those who follow him are led in triumph (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 266).

2 Corinthians 2:14-“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.”

Applied to this context and the war of the worldviews that exist between empty philosophies and Christ-centered thinking, God’s triumph in Christ successfully strips the gaudy clothing off the imposter frameworks and exposes how fruitless and pointless they really are. None should follow such systems.

So What?

This passage demonstrates a real contrast of worldviews. Ultimately there are only two. First there is a worldview that puts people at the center, limits things down to the parts/material, and excludes Jesus altogether. Such a system is called empty and proves destructive in the end. Second there is a worldview that puts Christ at the center (along with all the fullness of deity, completeness, and perfect leadership) and explains how sinners can, in fact, be saved by means of his many successfully completed actions. The first is a worldview that is as limited and wrought with weaknesses as are the people who advance them. The second worldview is as complete and satisfying as Christ is who serves as its cornerstone and champion. Paul’s warning against vain speculation and endorsement of Christ-centered thinking is just as relevant today as it was to his original audience. Which will you choose to guide your thinking and, as a result, your life?  

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Struggle is Real; The Calling is Profound- Col. 2:1-7

 Long-distance relationships are difficult for many. There is something about space that seems to lend itself to miscommunication and a lack of meaningful connection. This is often the case in personal relationships and even takes place in ministry. This past year has illustrated this on so many levels as, given the pandemic and encouraged protocols, distance has existed in places it never has before. Believe it or not, Paul understood what it was like to be in a long-distance relationship. In fact, his many letters to the churches throughout the Roman empire illustrate how hard he worked to transcend the pitfalls/limitations that might exist in such arrangements and encourage the church to fulfill her mission in a variety of contexts. The church in Colossae is one such example. As we continue to look at Paul’s letter to this church today, we learn just how hard Paul worked to encourage this church to be about the right business in a world full of all kinds of pressures. We will stand to learn a lot that we can apply today as we examine two presentations given in Colossians 2:1-7.



1. PRESENTATION #2: Paul’s Personal Struggle-2:1-5

When we last left the Book of Colossians, Paul was talking about his unique ministry as apostle. Remember, Paul had never actually visited this church and the apostle believed it was in the best interest of both himself and this letter’s message for him to establish his credibility for this congregation. In chapter 2, Paul continues along the same lines while shifting to from a general discussion of himself and his ministry to the significance of his ministry for the Colossians and as she faced the threat of false teaching (Moo, The Letter to the Colossians, 163). He writes “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face” (2:1). “For I want you to know” draws special attention to what Paul is about to reveal. Paul reports that he does not just labor in ministry for those he has met; he also strives for those he has never seen. Here, three groups are mentioned as the beneficiaries of his “apostolic ‘contending’”—those in Colossae, those in Laodicea, and the church everywhere who has not seen him. Paul’s perspective in ministry and leadership took into account the big picture (the universal church/the kingdom of God). While he specifically addresses the Colossian church in this letter, he does so with the whole church and mission of God in mind.  

Paul’s struggle/contending for the church in Colossae and throughout the world (those who had seen him and others who had not) was purposeful. First, Paul struggled so that the church might be encouraged—“That their hearts might be encouraged, having been knit together in love” (2:2). The verb “encourage” might best be rendered “strengthened” here (Obrien, 93) and the focus is on the “heart.” While in today’s vernacular the heart is most associated with emotions and feelings, in Scripture the “heart” designates the center of the personality, the source of willing and thinking in addition to feeling (Moo, The Letter to the Colossians, 165). Therefore, “encouraged in heart” might be best understood here as being strengthened to the very core of oneself—in that part of a person that affects everything else.

Here, the passive voice suggests that such inner strength cannot be conjured up in one’s own power but must be injected by an outside third party (in this case, Paul believed it was his role to instill such inner courage in the life of the church). For the church in Colossae (and everywhere else for that matter), such courage was also predicated on compelling community—“having been knit together in love” (2:2). This too was accomplished by an outside third-party (this time the Holy Spirit that calls people to Jesus and baptizes them into the family of God). The church’s level of encouragement was in direct proportion to its receptivity of Spirit-led leadership and Spirit-driven community. Without apprehending what these outside influences provide, the church would suffer. Paul knows this and it is why he worked so hard to instill these in the church.

Paul not only contended to bring the church encouragement, but he also labored to educate the church concerning the things of God—“and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding” (2:2b). In fact, some would argue that these results/desired outcomes of Paul’s ministry build off each other. Here “the full assurance of understanding” is the result of both “encouraged in heart” and being “united in love.” Paul might have wondered how a church could truly understand the things of God without encouragement and unity. Beyond simply being encouraged and living in loving community, Paul desired the church have the full assurance of understanding—i.e. “a full wealth of conviction which understanding brings” (Moo, The Book of Colossians,  167). The apostle wanted the church to know what it believed and understand why they believed it so much so that they would stand by such convictions under pressure.

Ultimately, Paul hoped that all these desired outcomes/results of his striving/contending would lead to “a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself” (2:2c). This final outcome/ultimate result of Paul’s ministry for the church in Colossae and elsewhere involves a experiential, life-changing knowledge of Christ’s person and ministry—something that was hidden in ages past but now has been manifest in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Knowing Jesus would provide inspiration for encouragement, a catalyst for unity, and a source of understanding the things of God.

After all, as Paul continues, it is in Christ where “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden” (2:3). “Christ is the one in whom is to be found all that one needs in order to understand spiritual reality and to lead a life pleasing to God” (Moo, The Book of Colossians, 169). This is highlighted by Paul’s use of “all” in “all the treasures” and the inclusion of both “wisdom” (the application of knowledge), and “knowledge” (the apprehension of information). Such wisdom and knowledge are treasures that have been hidden in Christ, not so that they may not be found, but so that they might be easily discovered and acquired (no map or difficult quest necessary).

Jesus really is an exhaustive source of the information, advice, inspiration, and understanding necessary to live rightly both now and forevermore. He is the perfect revelation of God and perfectly discloses everything one needs to know about him and his will. Christ is not a reference that needs supplementing. This is crucial to Paul’s message for the church in Colossae as she faced heresies and false teachings that called into question the supremacy of Christ and wondered what could be learned from him.

Evidence of this is found in verse 4 when Paul says “I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument” (2:4). This is the first time the apostle warns explicitly against false teaching in the letter. Paul didn’t want the church to be “deceived by arguments or false reasons” given for denying the divinity of Christ. This is why he has said all “this” (in “I say this…”). What is “this”? The answer is everything taught in 1:1-2:3 and includes things like “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth…He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together…Christ in you the hope of glory…”. Paul has, up to this point, flooded the church with high Christology so that she might be prepared to stand against any teaching that would fall short of  portraying Jesus in all the lofty glory he is due.

As the church in Colossae faced the challenge of false teaching, the apostle wanted them to know that not only could they count on this letter to help direct them and Paul’s tireless efforts to encourage them (see 2:2), but they could also count on the fact that he was with them in spirit—“for even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit…” (2:5a). This statement goes beyond merely “you will be in my thoughts and prayers” and involves a profound corporate sense of identity based on and mediated by the Holy Spirit of God (Moo, The Book of the Colossians, 173).

This spiritual connection Paul had with the church was not a one-way street. Instead, this relationship worked in both directions. Paul reveals that in addition to his efforts to encourage the church, he was being encouraged by that same church himself—“rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ” (2:5b).

Let us take a moment to appreciate the deep spiritual connection, responsibility, accountability, and relationship that existed between Paul and a church he had never actually visited. This was possible because of a shared position in Christ and a shared bond in the Spirit. Churches today would do well to recognize their many connections to the church of God at work all over the world and seek to rejoice amid her many triumphs, address and correct her many struggles, and encourage her many efforts. This is what Paul models here.

2. PRESENTATION #2: The Church’s Calling-2:6-7

After presenting his struggle on behalf of the church both in Colossae and around the world (answering why he contends and for what purpose), Paul gives a brief presentation of the church’s calling. This calling is rooted in the church’s reception of Christ Jesus—“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord” (2:6a). This title highlights, once again, a high Christology as it refers to Jesus by means of his messianic office (Christ) and absolute authority “the Lord.” Those who have received him by grace through faith have received no small thing. In fact, receiving Christ Jesus the Lord ought to suffer incredible implications.

Paul expected and, in fact demands, that those who receive Christ Jesus the Lord “walk in him” (2:6b). Behaving appropriately ought to be expected in the lives of those who have received Christ. A godly walk should perpetually evidence the presence of Jesus in a believer’s life (it should be the rule, not the exception). I especially appreciate the locative (“in Him”) language as it provides a great perspective in how to evaluate how you are living as one of his disciples (and how the church is doing in her ministry). Sin does not exist in Jesus; therefore, if one is sinning, he is not walking in Him in that moment. Worry doesn’t exist in Jesus; therefore if one is worried, he is not placing confidence in Jesus in this or that area of one’s life. Division doesn’t exist in Jesus, therefore if a body is divided, it can be assured that elements of the organism are not walking in Christ rightly. Paul’s call for the church is simple but profoundly all-encompassing—"walk in Him.” Impossible you say?

You are right! It is impossible, just as impossible today as it was for the church in Colossae 2000 years ago—that is, impossible in one’s own power/strength. The church’s success in her mission is only possible because of what Paul describes in verse 7—“having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith” (2:7a). Again, Paul links a string of passive-voice verbs together (three here are the beginning of verse 7) that each demonstrate that the actions are performed by a greater outside/third-party force (God). A church can only walk in Christ because she has been firmly rooted, is being built up (“to increase the potential of someone or something, with focus upon the process involved”), and is being established in their faith (“to increase in inner strength, with the implication of greater firmness of character or attitude”) by God. The church of Colossae was set up for success in its mission of walking in Christ because of the work God had and was performing in her ranks (and the same is true today).

The calling of the church to “walk in Him” is also predicated on the instruction it has received (faithful instruction about Christ’s person and ministry) and gratitude—“just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude” (2:7b).  It is clear here that the apostle believed that adequate instruction and an attitude of gratitude went a long way in standing up to and against false teaching. Such a stance was integral for the church as she was about her calling of walking in Christ.

So What?

After examining the presentation of Paul’s struggle and the church’s calling in this passage, we ought to appreciate how relevant this message is for the church today as she stands against falsehood and perseveres amid a multiplicity of pressures. Like the church of Colossae, we ought to appreciate and receive the encouragement of spirit-led church leaders who are struggling/contending for things like loving community, a proper understanding of God’s Word, and a robust engagement with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Again, the church’s level of encouragement in this age, or in any age, is in direct proportion to its receptivity of spirit-led leadership, its participation in loving community, its understanding of God’s Word, and its knowledge of Jesus Christ. Such encouragement is necessary because the call—to walk in Him—is so great. Such a godly walk in any church and among its members ought to perpetually evidence the presence of Jesus in a believer’s life and should not be characterized by anything that is not found in Christ. Thankfully, God has done all the heavy lifting in making it possible to answer this call and to benefit from the encouragement of others. All we have to do is receive it joyfully, and remain faithful to what we have been learned with an attitude of gratitude.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Encounter at the Tomb- John 20:11-18

 Last week we examined the sermon Jesus gave at the cross and learned how forgiveness and the hope of glory came about through the total sacrifice of God the son. The repentant thief on the cross illustrated how brokenness and faith before the Lord is met with God’s grace leading to life. However, how this is the case has yet to be revealed. After all, if Jesus remained dead, what hope would that bring? Thankfully, the story didn’t end on Golgotha, but three days later that first Easter morning. Matthew’s account of the excitement is given as follows:



“There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay’…” (Matt 28:2-6)

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his being raised from the dead three days later demonstrates Christ’s rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords. It also reveals that he is the only hope for salvation now and forevermore. Here is what the Bible has to say about the resurrection and its many implications.

John 11:25-26-“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die…’”

1 Peter 1:3-“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Though this “living hope” will be realized most completely in a cosmic battle of good verses evil in the end, I want to explore what the hope of the resurrection affords the individual today—personal transformation.  Last week we heard a sermon from the cross and today we are going to look carefully at an encounter at the tomb. At this important encounter, Mary is confronted by her risen Lord and undergoes a major transformation—a transformation that is possible for anyone who is confronted by the reality of Easter. This transformation takes place in four phases.

a) PHASE #1: MARY THE GRIEVING FRIEND-20:11-13

A lot happened on that first Easter morning. Here is a brief look at what took place up to 20:11 in John’s narrative.

 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.’ So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.” (John 20:1-10)

We join the chaos following the revelation of the empty tomb late and see Mary “standing outside the tomb weeping; “and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb” (20:11). The action of her weeping is described as a continuous stream of loud sobs.  No doubt Mary was driven to this because (as we will soon learn) her worst fears seemed to be confirmed in the absence of Jesus’ body. Abusing or tampering with the dead was considered an abhorrent offense and this is what Mary believes has happened to Jesus. (All the while her greatest joy should have been realized). By this point, the other disciples, following their brief investigation of the empty tomb, had already left. They had already watched their Savior die an excruciating death and now His body was missing!

Left to sob outside the tomb by herself, Mary decides to do some investigating. Some speculate that her sense of grief and loss may have driven her back to the tomb after some time passed in order to find someone or something that could provide answers. Therefore, “she stooped and looked into the tomb”(20:11).

“and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying” (20:12). The tomb is no longer empty. Instead, two heavenly messengers clad in white catch Mary’s attention. These two angelic beings stand alongside Jesus’ resting place as evidence to Mary that God has been at work in some way (as in every situation in which angels are presented in Scripture).

All these heavenly messengers do is ask Mary a simple question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (20:13a). Though the reason for Mary’s grief might seem obvious, this question is asked to give Mary an opportunity to reflect and put aside her grief with the hopes of putting two and two together (missing body + angelic beings + Jesus’ teaching = ?).

However, unfortunately, Mary is unable to wipe away her tears and add up what she sees and has heard to get the sum of what has happened. Instead, she is so disturbed by the missing body that she replies “because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him” (20:13b). Instead of realizing the greatest joy that Jesus made possible through what He said He would do (rise), Mary along with the disciples assumes the very worst. Blinded by grief, she is unable to remember what Jesus said of Himself and instead believed His body was stolen. 

b) PHASE #2: MARY THE CONCERNED INVESTIGATOR-20:14-15

As she speaks to the angels, someone emerges onto the scene. Suddenly aware of this third presence, Mary “…turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus” (20:14).  If we were to associate her stage of grief at this point, she is at the point of denial—not denying that Jesus was dead (as she was one of the few witnesses of Calvary), but denying that he was now alive. As is common in resurrection narratives, Jesus is not recognized immediately (see 21;4; Luke 24:16; Matt. 28:17). Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus continues this pattern. Neither the stone that had been rolled away, nor the empty tomb, nor the angels inside, nor even the risen Jesus Himself are able to enlighten Mary!

The failure of Mary to recognize Jesus becomes even more dramatic when he begins to question her, “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’”(20:15a). Perhaps Jesus’ first question is a mild rebuke, “why should you weep?” or is Jesus’ way of caring for this woman’s deep concern. Either way, Jesus’ second question (“whom are you seeking?”) is asked to direct Mary’s attention away from herself and to Jesus. Knowing the answer to His own question, Jesus wants Mary to articulate her thoughts in order to set up a special revelation.

Mary’s response is predicated on her misunderstanding of who this man is, “…Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away’…” (20:15b). Aside from grave robbers or other mourners, neither of which would have been likely visitors at this hour, gardeners tending to the grounds where the tomb was located would have been the only people around” (Kostenberger, 568). Her guess of this man’s identity could not have been more wrong, for in this moment she is asking the very person she is seeking for the answer to the mystery of the empty tomb!

In Mary’s mind she sees an empty tomb and assumes that Jesus has been stolen. She observes Jesus Himself and assumes that he is a gardener. However, once things are revealed, all that Mary has observed will prove far greater than she could have ever imagined.

c) PHASE #3: MARY THE RELIEVED CLINGER -20:16-17

In verse 16, Mary is given the clue that answers the riddle, the secret word used to decode the mysterious happenings of the previous hours, and the final piece to the puzzle that pulls the whole picture together. “Jesus says to her, ‘Mary!’…”(20:16a). Though this seems simple enough, when Mary hears her name spoken from Jesus’ lips, she is launched out of grief and into pure ecstasy; she is immediately transported from despair to delight and trades her tears of grief for tears of triumph.

This is evidenced by her response to Jesus, “she turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher)…”(20:16b). Though this word is not wrought with theological significance nor is it a weighty Christological proclamation, it is a familiar term that Mary probably used throughout Jesus’ ministry when she spoke to Him. This specific episode is more about the rekindling of her personal relationship with Jesus than it is about doctrine (at least at this point). With that said, this verse does confirm what Jesus communicated in John 10:3-4, “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

It is obvious by what Jesus says next that Mary probably rushed toward Him in a tight embrace. Not wanting to lose her Savior again, this knee-jerk reaction resembles what a small child might do when his or her parents come home after a long trip. Here, Mary’s teacher had been gone three days and upon His return she did not want to let Him loose! Her King has arrived and she was not letting go now.

However, Jesus suggests that this is not the time for clinging nor for sentimentalities, “’Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’” (20:17a).  Jesus assures Mary that He is not going anywhere (at least for now) and she can let go of Him. 

Rather than remain and cling, Jesus calls Mary to use her newfound joy to proclaim the news of His resurrection to others, “but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’…” (20:17b). Mary’s appointment is incredibly significant as she is not a trained messenger nor a man (as in the ancient world women were not considered credible witnesses). That a woman with a shady past was one of the first to send word of Jesus’ resurrection is compelling evidence of the legitimacy and historicity of this event. Had this story been fabricated, no one would have given the part of first responder to a women given the gender roles and stereotypes of the first century.

The content of the message is simple. In so many words, Jesus wants Mary to tell the other disciples that He had risen and was now in the process of ascending into heaven (something that would take place a few weeks later). He also wants her to tell them that His Father and God is also their Father and God. This statement would have brought incredible hope to the disciples for in it Jesus subtly reveals that the same Father and God who raised Him from the dead is the Father and  God of the disciples.

d) PHASE #4: MARY THE EXCITED WITNESS-20:18

Mary faithfully answers her commissioning and immediately sets out to complete her assignment, “Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples…”(20:18a). The way this is written almost seems to suggest that Mary was in a continuous state of proclamation as she carried this message to her friends. As the first sent one beyond the empty tomb, Mary is the first missionary. The first to receive this “good news” are Jesus’ close confidants.

After making it to the disciples, Mary shares, “’I have seen the Lord,’ and that He had said these things to her…” (20:18b). Answering the call to be sent, Mary shared the message she was given to proclaim without fail. 

So What?

In this passage Mary transforms from a grieving friend to an excited witness. What is to blame for this dramatic transition in her life? –Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Once He was dead and now He is alive. Because of this, grieving loners everywhere can know hope, obtain a mission, find purpose, and joyfully live in this world full of all kinds of life-changing events. However, in order to experience this change, one must take the steps that Mary demonstrates in her odyssey here. First, people must recognize they are grieving loners. Grieving what? The loss of answers, the loss of meaning, the loss of understanding one’s place in the grand scheme of things, and ultimately the loss of a right relationship with God. Once achieved, they must pursue answers to these questions and satisfaction for these needs by becoming concerned investigators of Jesus and the many claims he offered. Thoroughly and honestly vetted, Jesus will inevitably be found alive and well and be understood as God made flesh—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When people believe this and place their trust in this, they become children of God who want as much of Jesus as possible. This will ultimately bring individuals face-to-face with Jesus’ commands, specifically, the commission to go and share the greatest news ever! What is this news? That Jesus was once dead but is now alive! His change gives all the opportunity to transform from grieving loners to excited witnesses. What stage of the journey are you in today? Our King is alive and is coming again! Do you know him? Are you counted as one of his subjects?