John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) 2000
If we just had the three synoptic Gospels we might imagine that after his resurrection the Messiah only appeared on the first Easter Sunday, for the ascension from Bethany (Luke 24:50-53), and for the Great Commission given on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20). But in the final two chapters John fills in for us three essential components of our Christian theology of resurrection.
First he gives us his own experience of what Jesus' resurrection body was like (20:1-25). The body was recognizably the same, but in many ways it was a body suited for walking in and enjoying the eternal city of God (Revelation 20:20-26).
Secondly he shows us how the Messiah's appearances to the disciples were intermittent (20:24-29). He did not keep making his presence known every few minutes. As with us in our day, most of the time he left them free to make their own decisions and do what they had to do.
Thirdly the appearances or "comings" to the disciples were when they were gathered together on a Sunday. This is the point of the repeated references to "Early on the first day of the week" (20:1). "When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week" (20:19), "a week later" (20:26), and "After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias" (21:1). In "Eight Sundays from Easter to Pentecost" I make a guess at what might have happened on each of those Sundays.
Certainly for John the first day of the week was very important. He received his revelation when "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day" (Revelation 1:10). Similarly Paul met "to break bread" with the church in Troas "on the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7).
That does not mean the Lord comes to us only on Sunday. But that is the day when Christians have always gathered, and they invite the Lord to be present at the meal with them. "Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me" (Revelation 3:20). This verse is often used by preachers for a personal invitation, but John first heard it as an invitation to a church, gathered to break bread together, on the Lord's day (see Revelation 1:10, 3:14, 20, 22).
In the comment on "It is finished" (19:29-30), we noted that Jesus did not merely breathe his last, but he very deliberately gave up (handed over, delivered) his body to be taken down and buried. We also saw that, both for us and for Jesus, there is a resurrection of the person that takes place immediately as the old body is discarded and the body suited for heaven is put on (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). "The Messiah has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died" (1 Corinthians 15:20). The thief on the cross would that very day be "with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). There is no intervening death or soul sleep. As Jesus had said "These who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (11:25). From earth's point of view there is a death of the body, but for those who welcome eternal life there is no death.
We therefore need to distinguish the death of a person's body (and the earthly body Jesus adopted, 1:14) from the resurrection of the person (and His Person) from this form of life to the eternal life of heaven.
Paul makes clear that in both cases the resurrection is effected by the power of the Spirit: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Romans 8:11).
What then did Jesus mean by saying he must be "killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matthew 16:21, 17:22, 20:18, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Luke 9:22, 18:33, and Paul also said "He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:4). Any answer to explain the third day is speculative and controversial, but we could perhaps distinguish two meanings of the raising of Jesus.
The traditional view is that he himself died and "descended to the dead" (Apostles' Creed) while his body remained in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. He was then raised from the abode of the dead (sheol, Hades) on Easter morning and took up the body in the tomb, which was instantly transformed and suited for heaven.
The model used in this commentary is that Jesus did indeed go down to the abode of the dead while his dead body was still on the cross. But he did not go as a dead person but as the Victor over death to free (redeem) those who were awaiting their resurrection" (see 1 Peter 3:18-19). As John has quoted Jesus' words earlier in the Gospel, "The hour is coming when all who are in their graves (still in sheol) will hear his voice and will come out" to one kind of resurrection or another (5:28-29). Jesus' resurrection therefore effected a cosmic change first in the Old Testament meaning of death. Old Testament believers were released from sheol (Matthew 27:52-53) and now for all who welcome the light of the Son of God (3:19-21) there is no descending into sheol to await a future judgment.
Nor is there a judgment that sends us to eternal damnation. As John made clear earlier in his Gospel "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world" (3:17). When Paul says "We will all stand before the judgment seat of God" (Romans 14:10) and "each of us will be accountable to God" (Romans 14:12) the context is that it is not our business to judge others, but God will evaluate each person's work. There is therefore a continual evaluation of each person's work based on the foundation of the Messiah (2 Corinthians 3:10-11, 5:10), and we can build with "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble" which will be tested by fire. In that sense it is possible for a life work to be burned up, but the person is not excluded from heaven (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
In the Book of Revelation John will use the obviously figurative language of "the second death" (Revelation 2:11, 20:6, 14, 21:8) but the context is clearly the final destruction of satanic forces and death itself (Revelation 20:10, 13-14) and that is nothing to do with individuals being tortured by eternal damnation.
From these difficult (and speculative) considerations of the theology John has offered us, we can conclude that what happened early on Easter day was that the Messiah came to dispose of his old body. That body was now irrelevant, and he did not want it to become an object of veneration. So he disintegrated the corpse in the tomb so that the grave clothes fell to the ground (see note on 20:7). From the point of view of onlookers on earth his body was "raised" when he disintegrated it early that Easter Sunday morning. But from the point of view of heaven he had already been "raised" (accompanied by the thief on the cross) the moment his body died on Good Friday..
The two models make no practical difference to our lives, and there is no point in condemning those who hold the other view. But for this writer the model of immediate resurrection, and disposal of the body a few days later, seems elegant and solves more problems than the other.
Some Christians are worried by the increasingly common practice of cremation. They like the image of the body, like Jesus' body, being put in a grave to await a future resurrection. If we adopt the model of Jesus' immediate resurrection, and his body being laid reverently in the grave, we can perhaps reconcile the imagery of the two methods of disposing of a body. In both cases the corpse is disposed of, either by being reduced to dust in the grave, or by being reduced to dust by cremation. In neither case does the old body have any eternal significance. The assurance of immediately receiving our resurrection body at death seems very important.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned to remind us that women were also baptized as disciples. But the main point is that John was right there as "the other disciple" (mentioned three times in 20:2, 4, 8, and as on previous occasions in 13:23-25, 18:15-16, 19:26-27). He therefore must have heard about the empty tomb from her, and he also went in and saw for himself (20:4-5, 8).
The sequence of events is important. Mary Magdalene and the mother of James (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47), and a woman called Salome who had been at the cross (Mark 15:40) went to the tomb at dawn "so that they might go and anoint him" (Mark 16:1). They were wondering how they would be able to get the stone rolled away (Mark 16:3) since they knew soldiers were guarding the tomb (Matthew 27:64-65).
But when they arrived they found the guards in a state of total shock. They reported there had been "a great earthquake" and "an angel of the Lord, " had " rolled back the stone and sat on it" (Matthew 28:1-4). He said "Do not be afraid; I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised" (Matthew 28:5-6). In the model we are using (see notes above) Jesus was raised by receiving his resurrection body immediately he died, he came early on Easter day to dispose of his corpse by disintegration, and the angel came to roll back the stone for all to see what had happened.
Certainly the three women went in to see the body but found it gone (Luke 24:2-3). They assumed that the authorities had opened up the tomb and stolen the corpse.. That is what Mary Magdalene reported to Peter and "the other disciple" (obviously John, the beloved disciple of 13:23-25, 18:15-16, 19:26-27).
20:3-6 John can never forget his race to the tomb with Peter to the check the news Mary Magdalene had given of the stone rolled away. John twice mentions "the linen wrappings lying there." Obviously if the body had been stolen, it would have been taken away in its grave clothes. We have guessed that it was the Messiah himself who disintegrated his own body to prevent it being kept and venerated as a church relic.
20:7 John is very careful to distinguish the piece of cloth (soudarion), which was tied like an Arab turban around the head and neck, from the "linen wrappings" which had been wound around the body with the 300 pounds of myrrh and aloes (19:39) that Nicodemus had brought to mask the smell of the decomposing body. It is often assumed that the soudarion had been unwound by some angelic hand and neatly "rolled up in a place by itself." But what John saw was the evidence of the trunk of the body having been disintegrated from inside the grave cloths and the head and shoulders disintegrated from inside the piece of material cloth that was around them. Describing this exactly was very important to John as he wrote his Gospel.
20:8 Peter must have told John what he saw, and John then had the courage to go into this awesome empty tomb.
20:9 In spite of the fact that Jesus had on three occasions predicted his own resurrection (Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34, Luke 9:22, 44, 18:32-33) John admits that he had not understood this. . Later that day on the road to Emmaus Jesus explained (from "Moses and all the prophets") that it was "necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into glory" (Luke 24:26-27). In his sermon on the day of Pentecost Peter quoted a resurrection psalm (Acts 2:24, Psalm 16:9-10), and a resurrection from sheol was implied by Psalm 22:15, 21-22 and Isaiah 53:11-12). John did not understand these Scriptures at the time, but he would understand later.
20:10 Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, and the other disciples must each have taken (or camped in) rented accommodation in Jerusalem. This was the common practice for the Passover season which lasted at least two weeks from Palm Sunday to what we will call Thomas Sunday (20:26). After the shock of the empty tomb, they all went back to their lodgings, still having no idea that Jesus himself might appear to them. John could have given us huge amounts of information of what happened among the disciples in the shock of that first Easter Sunday. But he limits himself to the story of Mary Magdalene, which he heard from her very soon after the event. Every detail is important for us to grasp the nature of Jesus' resurrection body.
20:11-13 Mary Magdalene was the only one who went back to the tomb that morning. By then it was not a safe place to be as the guards had reported to the chief priests what had happened, and they were bribed to say "His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep" (Matthew 28:11-15). But of course the body was never found. The Messiah had raised it.
First Mary was crying, as mourners do, by the grave side. Then she decided to take another look into the tomb (as she had already done, Mark 16:5, Luke 24:3). In her grief two angels tried to comfort her, and she complained to them "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where to find him." Obviously till that moment she had no idea that Jesus had already been resurrected three days before by the Spirit (Romans 8:11) the moment he died (see note on 19:30).
20:14-16 In the brief encounter that follows John wants us to know that in his resurrection body the Messiah was standing right behind her. And from behind her he asks her two questions, listens to her complaint, and calls her by her own name. When she recognizes the voice she turns round and calls him Rabbouni (Hebrew for "my Rabbi).
By this conversation between Mary Magdalene and her teacher John makes clear that Mary was a disciple. She would have been baptized by Jesus together with hundreds of other disciples (4:1), and the practice of baptizing women on the same basis as men continued without question in the early churches (as Luke makes clear in Acts 5:14, 8:3, 12, 9:2, 36, 16:15).
20:17 Her first reaction is to want to hug him. But the reestablishment of that kind of earthly friendship with those in heaven is no longer appropriate. After the last appearance to the disciples (usually called the Ascension, Luke 24:50, Acts 1:9) the Spirit will constitute a community of the Spirit (1:7) in which members of a church on earth will greet one another with a loving hug (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, 1 Peter 5:14). But their relationship to the risen Messiah will be by the Spirit. As Paul explained "Even though we once knew the Messiah from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way" (2 Corinthians 5:16).
Luke will record an ascension in which "he withdrew from them (Luke 24:51) and taken "out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). But that was to terminate the Messiah's appearances on earth. And we have suggested that the resurrection of the Son of God to the Father had taken place the moment Jesus decided to leave his body (19:30). John has already given us Jesus teaching about the relationship between the Son of God and the Father (5:17-24, 6:37-40). But Mary Magdalene was charged with reminding the disciples of this, and telling them to go back to Galilee after the Passover season which would end the next Sunday (see 21:1).
20:18 Mary eagerly told the other disciples "I have seen the Lord" and they in turn would see him later that day (see Luke 24:13-35and John 20:19).