“that you may believe . . .” (John 20:31)
So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” John 20:2
The celebration of Easter as recorded in the gospels begins in a way completely different from what we might have desired or even expected. Women and disciples are scurrying back and forth between Jerusalem and the grave site. The opened and empty sepulcher creates consternation and bewilderment. Mary of Magdalene jumps to the conclusion that someone has stolen the body of her Lord. “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mk. 16:8). Others are still mourning and weeping over the loss of their loved One. Even after a report about the appearance of the Living Lord had been circulated, few if any, really believe it.
Confusion. Tears. Unbelief. Fright. Not exactly a heart-warming welcome for the One who had conquered eternal death on their behalf! John 20 marks the beginning of Christ’s exaltation. But how little of it we actually see! His humiliation is over. He is now the Son of Man in glory, clothed in light and immortality. He has been victorious over Satan, obedient in suffering, triumphant in death. He was delivered up for our sins, and raised for our justification1. He is the firstborn of the Dead! The ruler of Kings on earth. The bright Morning Star (Rev. 22:18)! Would we not have wanted the followers of Christ to break out in song and praise? To greet Him with the exuberant and adoring refrain of Psalm 24? “Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” That, at least, would have been fitting for the Saviour of the world! Yet we read nothing even remotely like this in the various accounts about the resurrection. Instead of celebration, there is lamentation. Instead of joy, there is sorrow. Instead of faith, there is doubt. If we would read the gospel accounts, focusing exclusively on God’s people, on Mary, John, or Peter, and on their reactions, then we would come away embarrassed. “What kind of reception is this that awaits the risen Redeemer?”
The Scriptures, however, testify of Christ – also John 20. The focus is on Him, not only as the One who has overcome death, but also as the One who prepares the feast of life so that His children can partake, and as the Host who imbues in their hearts the joy of Easter. Yes, we read about a distraught Mary, but Jesus is also there. He is active, albeit behind the scenes, working to bring His church to the comforting realization that He is alive forevermore. His messianic task was not over on Golgotha. He must and He will have a people who believe in Him, for it is only in that way – the way of childlike faith– that they share in Him who is the Resurrection and the Life.
Though we may feel somewhat disappointed with the way things developed on that historic “first day of the week,” that is not what the inspired apostle John intended when he wrote this detail about Mary running to disciples with the message of a stolen body. John, also when writing about the risen Christ, is doing that under the theme, “…We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (1:14). We have seen. . . . We, the apostles. For three years they have been eye and ear witnesses of His glory: at the wedding feast in Cana, at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, on the mountain of transfiguration, at the grave side of Lazarus in Bethany, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now these same apostles are privileged also to see His glory after His resurrection. These opening words of John 20 testify that they saw the living Lord with their own eyes. With their own hands they touched the Word of Life. They are not just some delirious dreamers or gullible Galileans! They are faithful witnesses, witnesses who are drawn to the evidence by the Lord who uses as His messenger the woman from whom he had cast out seven evil spirits.
In a matter of weeks Christ will ascend to the Father. The world will no longer see Him. No one will touch Him, see Him walking, or hear Him speaking. With the time of His departure approaching, how would He make sure His Word would continue to sound forth? How would the world believe in Him throughout the ages? Through the true testimony of the apostles whom the risen Lord is forming and preparing. Our Saviour had already besought God for this in His high-priestly prayer (John 17). In that prayer He had thanked the Father that He, the Son, had been able to make known His name to His disciples: “For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” In that same prayer, however, Christ adds, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message” (John 17:20).
Even before His crucifixion Christ knew with unshakable certainty those whom the Father has given him are going to believe in him. And that will happen through their word – the word of my apostles. After His resurrection we see that happening. The resurrected Lord is summoning His witnesses. He is leading Peter and John to the grave. John leaves out many other details about the women and focuses specifically on Mary Magdalene because of her role in leading himself and Peter to the grave. The writer of this gospel does not want to place himself in the foreground. All our attention must be riveted on Christ, on His person and His work. That is why in verse two John once again humbly describes himself as “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved.”
Did Christ draw them to the garden near the cross only to convince them of His triumph and to gladden their aching hearts? No. The glorious perspective from which we must view Mary’s running to the disciples is: “that you may believe” (20:31).
At the grave, an angel had told Mary Magdalene and other women, “Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen, He is not here. . . . But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee ’. . .” (Mk. 16:6,7). Mary Magdalene in her flight partially obeys the command of the angel. For she runs to Jerusalem as fast as her legs will carry her and finds Peter and John. You can see it happening before you: Mary bursts into the house (it is still early in the morning) where these two disciples are staying. Panting and out of breath, she blurts out, “They have taken the Lord and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
“But,” you say, “how do you explain such a report to the disciples? The angel had told her ‘Christ has risen,’ yet she tells the disciples ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’ How can she say this when she had heard the truth straight from the angel’s mouth?” Mark, gives us the answer, when he relates that the women were “alarmed;” they were beside themselves with fear; they were overwhelmed by “trembling and bewildered.” In other words, they simply did not believe their eyes and ears. “Jesus alive! Impossible! We saw what they did to Him on the cross!”
How strong our unbelief is! How firmly rooted our doubt; how blind our natural heart! Yes, much more than we even dream is possible. At the same time you see the splendour of the Son of God. He uses a sobbing, confused not-believing woman to haul Peter and John to the place of His triumph over death. By means of Mary Magdalene He rubs their noses, as it were, right in the wonderful fact of His resurrection. Why Peter and John? Because they were two of the twelve apostles whose teaching and testimony had to form the foundation for Christ’s holy catholic church. We have the prophetic Word made more sure in the writings of Peter and John. Easter obligates us to open our Bibles, to search the Scriptures, to grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let the Word dwell in you richly, for the Word is filled with the living Christ.
Excerpt from Clarion, THE CANADIAN REFORMED MAGAZINE Volume 47, No. 7, pg. 156, April 2, 1998
Rev. J. Ludwig is currently the minister of the Canadian Reformed Church in Ancaster, Ontario
1Justification is the declaring of a person to be just or righteous…. Justification is a legal term with a meaning like “acquittal”; in religion it points to the process whereby a person is declared to be right before God. …Justification points to the acquittal of one who is tried before God.