Scripture Characters

JOHN xx. 1-18.

As a sequel to the sketch which we have been giving of the friendship between Peter and John, a friendship growing all throughout their attendance on the Lord's ministry, and especially hallowed by its closing scenes, we may find it interesting to notice what passed at the sacred sepulchre on the morning of the resurrection. And all the rather may this interest us, because it introduces another character, and places in a most affecting light the tenderness of another true penitent's heart. Mary, surnamed Magdalene from the place of her birth or residence, pre-eminent in sin and suffering, and in her debt of obligation for sin forgiven and suffering relieved, has the high honour conferred upon her of being among the first to hear of the risen Saviour, and the first to see himself. In this honour she has associated with her Peter and John; and thus these three together become the witnesses of the fact of the resurrection.

In tracing the incidents of that memorable morning we follow chiefly the narrative of the last of the four evangelists. His narrative is here, as usual, supplementary to those of the other three; and is, besides, more definitely directed to a special end. The object of John in all his history, and especially in this portion of it, is not merely in general to record miscellaneously certain circumstances connected with the Lord's resurrection; but in particular to establish this precise truth, that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" and that they who "believe have life through his name." With this view, he dwells chiefly on those features in this event, and on those sayings of his beloved Master, which tended to bring prominently forward the high dignity of his person, and the purpose of love for which he "died, and rose, and revived" (Rom. xiv. 9).

I. The first particular which the evangelist notices, is the arrival of Mary Magdalene at the tomb: "The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre" (John xx. 1).

Although John mentions Mary Magdalene, and none else by name, and gives no hint of any others being with her, he says nothing inconsistent with that supposition. He singles out Mary, because it is exclusively with what happened to her that he is concerned. But he does not assert, nor do his words at all imply, that she was alone. And we gather from the other narratives that she was not alone. It must be confessed, indeed, that the harmony of the several evangelical accounts of the resurrection is by no means very clearly ascertained with any general consent, or unanimity of interpreters; and it would be unsafe and unwise to pronounce very positively on any point that depends on an exact adjustment of independent testimonies, all consistent with one another, but evidently not intended to be reduced into one full and formal history. It is not difficult to prove that they need not be understood as contradicting one another, that where their statements seem to conflict, a very little attention will suggest a sufficiently probable explanation, and show how they may be reconciled. But, on the other hand, it is to be remembered that the sacred narratives being all of them of a fragmentary character, and consisting chiefly of incidental notices or reminiscences may not, even when taken together, afford all the materials of a complete history. We would probably require to know more of what passed than all the four evangelists have told us, before we could assign to each circumstance exactly its proper place, and explain its relation to other matters. This consideration might be useful to all who attempt formally to harmonize the Gospels; and it may satisfy us in declining, in the present instance, to make the attempt at all. It is enough to observe, that in what the four histories record as to the resurrection, there is really no contradiction.

Mary Magdalene, then, came early in the morning, the first day of the week, along with the other women who had been making preparations for anointing the body of Jesus. They had been saying to themselves, as they drew near the tomb, "Who shall roll us away the stone?" They found the stone already removed. On perceiving this, it would seem that Mary, without waiting to make any further examination, abruptly left her companions at the grave, and hastened to carry this intelligence to the disciples: "Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him" (ver. 2). This is her inference from what she had seen. She is greatly agitated. The mere sight of the stone rolled away throws her into confusion; and the idea at once rushes into her mind, that the grave must have been rifled, and the Saviour's body taken away. Full of this impression, she runs into the city.

The other women, meanwhile, remain at the tomb. There they see, first one angel, and then two. One angel had descended previous to the arrival of the women: "and, behold, there had been a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it" (Matt, xxviii. 2, marg. reading). This angel had taken his station at first on the outside of the sepulchre; and thereafter, along with another heavenly visitor, he seems to have appeared to the women and conversed with them within the sepulchre. The two angels sat or stood within the sepulchre, on either side of the place where Jesus lay, varying their posture as they welcomed and addressed the women. With what passed between the angels and the company of women we are not now particularly concerned. The women received a gracious message to the disciples, and to Peter by name, - such tenderness was shown to the erring apostle. They were informed that the Lord had risen; they were reminded of his having himself told them that he would rise, and that he would meet them in Galilee. And now, for the first time understanding the import of their Lord's prediction, they hastened to execute his commission, and to "bring the disciples word" (Matt, xxviii 5-8 ; Mark xvi. 5-8 ; Luke xxiv. 3-10).

All this may have occupied some time after Mary Magdalene left them. For that she had parted company with them before their interview with the angels, immediately on perceiving the stone rolled away, is plain from what she says to Peter and the other disciple, who, as we have seen, was his friend John: "They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him" (John xx. 2). This she could scarcely have said if she had heard the angels deliver their message. That message must have reassured her, as it reassured the other women: "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen." So the angels, or one of them, spoke. And the women, assured that he was "going before his disciples into Galilee and that there they were to see him," "departed quickly from the sepulchre, with fear and great joy."

Evidently Mary Magdalene had not received this assurance, when, immediately on seeing the stone removed, she hurried off with the tidings to Peter and John. She had not waited with the rest of the women. She could not stand the shock of this new and sudden disappointment. She - out of whom the Lord had cast seven devils - she, being forgiven much, loved much. What she suffered, when the Lord whom she loved died on the cross, who can conceive? Now, her whole heart is bent on honouring him, though dead. She has looked forward, with intense longing, to the hour when she may anoint the body of Jesus. Though crucified, he is still dear to her; and, by every token of grateful remembrance, she will testify her attachment. The moment when she is to render to him this last service is come. But the melancholy gratification is denied to her. She rushes from the open sepulchre, and gives vent to her bitter grief in that singularly affecting exclamation, "They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him."

Shall we blame this poor mourner for her haste and precipitation? Had she lingered a little longer at the tomb; had she inquired more diligently, and searched all around more patiently; she might have learned something of Him whom she sought, something better far than anything that she could have expected beforehand. If she had not found him where she sought him, she would at least have learned where she might seek and be sure of finding him now; and, above all, she would have been taught to look, not for a dead, but for a living Saviour. Shall we reflect upon her folly in depriving herself of this opportunity by so abruptly quitting the scene where she might have hoped, if she had persevered, ere long to be satisfied? Shall we not rather rejoice that she is led so soon to return to it? They, to whom she flies to unburden all her grief, happily direct her, by their example, in the right way; for they hasten to the spot, and, as we shall soon see, she herself hastens after them.

If she erred in yielding to her disappointment too easily, her error is speedily repaired. If she left the place the Lord's burial too hastily, she is immediately brought back to it again. Is there ever a time when, in any measure, your experience is analogous to hers? You have come - very lately, perhaps - to the sepulchre, on the first day of the week, on a communion Sabbath. You have come to contemplate your Lord in his death, and to perform a simple and touching service in remembrance of him. You intended to do him honour, and you expected to enjoy a certain meditative and mournful pleasure in thus showing your attachment to your crucified Lord. You have been disappointed. You have not received those impressions which you thought would be made on you; nor have you, to your own satisfaction, been able to render that homage and service which you proposed. You feel as if you had come to discharge a pious office, and had found nothing but an empty form. And now you are ready to complain that your devotion has been all in vain.

We would not, in such a case, inquire too particularly what your views and anticipations may have been. You may have come under the impulse of a kind of natural feeling, a blind and vague desire to testify, in this way, your regard and reverence for Him who died on the cross, having but a very imperfect and inadequate idea of the terms on which you should have been looking and waiting for him. You may have come, as you imagined, to discharge a debt or duty of gratitude, with but little apprehension of the real nature of the service for which you have to be grateful with but little intelligent or spiritual faith in Jesus, as delivered for your offences, and raised again for your justification. But whatever may have been your purpose in coming, if only you came honestly and in sincerity, we would not now upbraid you. It may be matter of regret, however, that you have too hastily withdrawn yourselves from the scene and the subject to which you recently resorted; and it may be a good deed to lead you back to those memorials of the Saviour's death which you have somewhat too abruptly left. Return again to the place where your Lord lay, return even to the empty sepulchre. Resume your meditations on that death which you have so lately been commemorating. Place yourselves once more in the position which you then occupied. Pursue the studies; prosecute the inquiries, in which you were then engaged. Go with Peter and his companion and the Magdalene - go anew to the tomb. Give yourselves anew to devout thought respecting all the wondrous issues of the decease which was accomplished at Jerusalem. And, in prayer, and patience, and faith, await the clearer discoveries that may be made to you, and the deeper impressions under which you may be brought.

II. The second particular noticed by this evangelist, is the visit of Peter and another disciple to the sepulchre. That other disciple was John himself. The incident here narrated is, in all its circumstances, peculiarly characteristic. That the two brethren, on hearing the strange tidings, which Mary had to tell, should hasten to satisfy themselves as to the real state of the case, was just what might have been expected. That in running, John should outstrip Peter, was not surprising, if we consider both the greater youth of John and the warm enthusiasm of his love to Jesus. That Peter, again, though coming last to the tomb, should be the first to enter in, is precisely in accordance with his usual forwardness and the natural impetuosity of his spirit: "Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he, stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead" (John xx. 3-9).

The beloved disciple bent down to examine the sepulchre. The body, it clearly enough appeared, was no longer there. But a remarkable circumstance presented itself. The linen clothes were lying in decent order. The body, then, had not been carried off by enemies; for they could not have rifled the tomb without leaving some traces of violence. Neither had it been removed friends - as by Joseph of Arimathea or by Nicodemus - intending to bury it in another place more deliberately and more honourably than time permitted them to do the evening on which he died; for even in that case the clothes would not have been left lying, since they would have been needed wherever the body was taken. Here, then, is a startling appearance meeting the eye of John.

He pauses. Is it in perplexity in amazement? Does a faint surmise, a supposition of the truth, come into his mind? Can it be? The beloved disciple is filled with awe; he is profoundly moved and he stands as if fixed and rooted to the spot. But his more eager and practically energetic friend now joins him. At once, and without hesitation, Peter proceeds to ascertain how the matter stands. He enters, followed by John; and they find, on a closer and more careful examination, that in very truth the clothes are so arranged as to preclude the idea of the body having been removed by any human hand. The inference immediately flashes upon them; and now, at last, for the first time they understand the scripture, "that he must rise again from the dead."

What a light then burst upon these followers of Jesus, amid the darkness of their Master's silent and vacant grave! How must they have marvelled at their own strange insensibility! Awakened as from a trance, roused from the stupor of a dream, they feel the scales falling from their eyes and a new world opening to their view. The resurrection of Jesus! This, now that they realize it, is a new idea, and of how many new ideas is it the source! Strange that they should not have apprehended it before. Is there not here the element of a new life, of new faith, of new hope? Not the least remarkable feature in this process of conviction and awakening is the fact, that it is wrought without any extraordinary or miraculous interposition, by the simple contemplation of what might have been regarded as an immaterial circumstance, or an unimportant accident. There is no vision of angels granted to the two apostles; these heavenly attendants seem to have withdrawn themselves while Peter and John were at the sepulchre. They are not to receive direct intimation of their Lord's having risen, from any divine messenger. The Spirit of God needs not always such instrumentality. By means far more insignificant, yet in his hands equally effectual, he can enlighten and awaken men: and the slightest incidental hint he can so impress upon the understanding, and so apply to the conscience, that it shall work conviction as swift, and as sure, and as satisfying, as any herald from the skies could do.

What is to hinder his working such conviction in you? You may need it as much as did Peter and John. When you came to deal with the memorials of your Lord's death, you may have been, to all practical and spiritual purposes, almost, if not altogether, as ignorant as they were. It is true you knew the fact of the Lord's resurrection, and as a matter of history you believed it. But as a matter of doctrine, or as a matter of experience, did you understand? did you apprehend? did you realize it? Did you perceive all its bearings on the death which preceded it, and on the glory which followed it? How it seals to you the efficacy of that death as a full atonement for all your sins, and opens to you the prospect of that glory as the everlasting portion of your bodies and your souls.

Come, see the place where your Lord lay; see it as reminding you that he is not here, he is risen. That which, at a communion-table, you might touch and taste and handle as his body, is now gone; the outward drapery which covered it is decently preserved; the linen clothes, as it were, are wrapped together and laid in an orderly manner aside. Ah! If you came at all with carnal and worldly views, seeking to honour Christ by any merely bodily service, or to enjoy him in any merely sensible way, may you not now, by this token, be made to know the scripture, that he must needs rise from the dead, and that you must rise with him? Seek no longer, then, the living among the dead. Let your eyes and your hearts be opened to the reality of his life, as well as to the remembrance of his death; and consider well that it is with a living Saviour that you have now to do. You are not merely to pay decent respect to his death, anointing, as it were, and honouring his body, gratefully remembering his dying love as a thing past and gone, of which only the memorials are present. By these very memorials, as lively signs and tokens, you must be moved to enter into the meaning of his resurrection, as justifying you from all your iniquity, and raising you to newness of life. Muse not merely on the death of Christ indulging those natural emotions of pity and remorse which it is fitted to call forth, nor think that, when you have come to pay your tribute of homage at his tomb, all is over, and you may either sit down disconsolate, or go back to the vain world again. No; let the empty sepulchre and the linen clothes lying - let the ordinances on earth, so soon found to be in themselves vacant and formal remind you that he is risen, that he has broken the bands of spiritual death, and opened to you the gates of eternal life. And let this thought revive and reanimate your souls, dispel the vapours and the gloom of earth, and rouse you to the pursuit of heavenly glory.

III. Thus instructed, "the disciples went away again unto their own home" (ver. 10). But another mourner still remains to be consoled; for we return once more to Mary Magdalene. She had followed Peter and John to the tomb; and, as they ran swiftly, she probably did not reach it till they had gone away again unto their own home. It is not likely, either that she was with them at the sepulchre, or that she met them by the way on their return; else surely they would have imparted to her some of their own reviving confidence. We are to remember in all this narrative that between the sepulchre and the city there must have been many different roads and streets; so that parties going and coming, especially to and from different parts of the city, might easily miss one another. So perhaps it happened in this instance. Peter and John had left the sepulchre before Mary reached it; and she came without having encountered them going to their own home. Thus she found herself alone at the sepulchre; all human counsel and human companionship seemed to have failed her. She stood without at the sepulchre weeping.

Now for the first time she stooped to look into the sepulchre. The angels, guardians of the place where Jesus lay, had returned to their post: "But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth, two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain" (ver. 11, 12). For while the apostles apparently were left to judge for themselves, it was the women, to whom, perhaps on account of their deeper dejection and more lively feeling of disappointment, such ministry was more necessary; it was the women, first those whom Mary Magdalene in her haste left at the tomb, and then Mary Magdalene herself on her return to the tomb; it was the women, and not the apostles, who were favoured with the sight and converse of angels. These heavenly messengers, touched with Mary's sorrow, tendered their sympathy, asking affectionately, "Woman, why weepest thou?" She answers almost in the very words, which she had addressed to Peter and John, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him." (ver. 1 3).

Oh woman! Thy love is strong. The dead, the crucified body of thy Lord what wouldst thou give to see it once more? To all whom thou meetest, to all who find thee, thy language is still the same, "Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?" What follows is too simple and touching to admit of comment: "And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, "Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away'. Jesus saith unto her, 'Mary'. She turned herself, and saith unto him, 'Rabboni'; which is to say, Master" (ver. 14-16).

How blessed is this recognition! Mary, turning half round from the tomb, sees Jesus at first but indistinctly. In the early dawn, and amid her blinding tears, she merely perceives that a man is standing beside her. Absorbed in her own grief, she mechanically hears, and answers the question of the stranger, naturally enough imagining that it must be the gardener; for he alone could be supposed to have business there at that early hour. A single word dispels her sad stupor. Jesus calls her by name, "Mary;" and the well-known accents of love reach her heart. Yes, it is her Lord; to whom instinctively, as of old, she addresses the prompt reply of recognition and loving devotion, "Rabboni, Master."

Surely this Mary too, as well as the other Mary, is "highly favoured among women." Not an angel merely but the Lord himself salutes her. To her first he appears after he is risen; to her, out of whom he had cast seven devils. And now, it might seem, her soul found rest. Her mourning is turned into joy. She has found him whom her soul loveth. She will hold him, and not let him go. But stay - yet again there is another disappointment.

The Lord seems to put her away from him: "Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (ver. 17). What can this mean? Is there any mystery here connected with the nature of the Lord's risen body, as if it were of too spiritual and ethereal a mould to be pressed by mortal hand? Certainly the body of Jesus was changed, as is plain from the manner in which, after his resurrection, he appeared and disappeared, concealed and revealed himself. But it was not so changed that it might not be handled. It was his real body, consisting of real flesh and bones. Jesus permitted the other women, when he met them, to embrace him. Why, then, did he say to Mary, "Touch me not?"

Surely he had some lesson to teach her. He was not merely, as some say, in haste to dismiss her, that she might carry his message to the disciples; nor did he mean, as others suggest, to hurry her abruptly away, with the assurance that she would have other opportunities of embracing him, because he was not yet ascended. If this had been all that he intended, he might have allowed time for so brief and simple an act of homage and of love. There is more in his answer than any such supposition implies. He is dealing with Mary as a disciple; he has a lesson to teach her; he has an end in view connected with her peace and her holiness. In a word, he has to reconcile her to the idea of his ascension: "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father." For that idea is new to her. Mary, like the other disciples, when she admitted the thought of the Lord having come back to life, seems at once to have rushed to the conclusion that he was come back permanently to remain, that he was now to abide among them, and to fulfil at last all their expectations. It was probably under this impression that the apostles afterwards put to him the question, "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts i. 6.) Mary, we may well believe, did not care so much for the temporal glories of the kingdom whose establishment they then expected. But she did care for the actual presence of her Beloved upon earth. Before his death, she had begun to understand that the Messiah must needs go away and come again. Well, he has been absent three days, and that in her estimation is long enough. He had gone, and he now comes again. The necessary separation is over. Now she may embrace and cling to him, to be parted from him no more.

Nay, but, O woman! that time is not yet come. It will come. Thy Redeemer liveth, and will stand at latter day upon the earth, and in thy flesh thou shalt see God. Then thou shalt hold thy Beloved in thine arms; then thou shalt welcome and embrace him;- then thou shalt be forever with the Lord. But touch him not now. Hold him not, as if the wouldst detain him. This is not that final and permanent return of which he spoke, when he assured his followers that he would come again to receive them himself. This is but a flying visit - a passing call. He is on his way to heaven. Suffer him to go. If thou lovest him, rejoice that he goes to his Father.

Yes, however hard it may seem to flesh and blood to be thus tantalized with but a glimpse of him whom thy soul loveth, and whom thine arms would fain grasp in an indissoluble embrace, thou mayest suffer him to depart. For hear the gracious message, which, in reference to his departure, he leaves for his disciples "But go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (ver. 17). He calls them his brethren. He is not ashamed to call them brethren, to associate with himself the children whom God hath given him. They are God's dear children now, and his brethren beloved. And He to whom now he is ascending is their Father, as well as his Father, their God, as well as his God.

Ah! Well may the Lord's disciples consent, on such a footing as this, to forego for a little longer the joy of his personal presence with them. Earth would indeed be a desert without him, could they think that he had utterly forsaken them. If they had neither his dead body, on which they might lavish the tears and the pledges of a fond but vain remembrance, nor his living eye to smile on them, and his living voice to cheer them, and if he were gone to an unknown region and a land of strangers, they might be desolate indeed. But he is gone to his Father's house, where there is room enough for them; and his Father is now their Father, his God is their God. He must be absent from them for a season; but it is to be with One who is now no stranger to them, and it is to be with Him on their behalf. It is to plead their cause, and prepare a place for them; it is to send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, and to rule over all for their good. He ascends, and even his brethren cannot hope to keep him here; but he ascends to his Father, and their Father, to his God, and their God.

Let us ponder the sayings of the angels and of our Lord himself.
1. "Come see the place where the Lord lay." Come again, if ye have come before. Visit the holy sepulchre; not in the spirit of carnal superstition; not in the indulgence of merely natural feelings, not seeking either to excite or to express your devotion by any merely outward service, however touching and tender as a remembrance of him. No! In that case you will be apt to turn unsatisfied away. You find not the Lord's body. Still come and see where it lay; and think why it lay there once, and why it lies there no more. See here, in the very void and emptiness of the sepulchre, and of every earthly memorial of it, the proof and pledge of sin atoned for, and death overcome. He who bore your guilt, and lay in that grave in your stead, could not be detained a prisoner there. He is risen and you in him are now free.

2. He is risen and he will meet you, as he said. He will manifest himself unto you in another way than he doth unto the world. He will come to you, as you weep over his death. "He goeth before you into Galilee." Yes, believers, your Lord will continue to be known to you, and your fellowship will be with him. He will find opportunities of communicating with you, not only beside the sepulchre, where in holy retirement you muse and mourn; but in Galilee, amid the ordinary scenes of your daily avocations, when you return again to your houses and your labour, to your fields and to your nets, Jesus will be with you. He will be known to you in the breaking of your common bread. He will be known to you in the blessing he bestows on your common toil. He will be known to you as he opens up the Scriptures, which are your daily meditation. He will be known to you as you sit in the secret chamber and walk on the highway. Be sure that Jesus is often near you, when your eyes are holden that you do not recognise him; for do not your hearts burn within you as he talks with you? and may you not often have cause to say with Jacob, "Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not?"

3. Finally, While you prize these precious interviews, and ask to have them multiplied, while you rejoice to believe that your Lord is always with you, even to the end of the world, still remember that you embrace him not now as if this were your rest, or as if it were the consummation of your blessed union and communion with him. You may hope to recognise him as often near you upon earth; but remember he ascends to his Father, and your Father; to his God, and your God. There, in his Father's house, seek even now in the Spirit to have your fellowship with him. Let your life be hid with Christ in God. Your treasure is in heaven, let your heart be there also; and rejoice in all that he is doing for your welfare, and for the salvation of all his people. Above all, wait for his coming again, his final return to receive you to himself, when all the purposes of his ascension are fulfilled, and all is made ready in his Father's house for you. Then your embrace of him will be forever; for there is no farther separation after that.

Go To Chapter 17


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