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 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. 


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.


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.


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?

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