John 20:1-10

Jesus’ Hour – Raised to the Father

Interpreting the Resurrection Narratives

Artists have used quite different techniques to introduce their viewers to the reality of the Risen Christ. One favoured way has been to depict the resurrection stories in realistic, if imagined, detail. Their use of perspective leads the viewer into the scene. Details heighten the sense of reality; shapes and colours guide the eye towards the image’s focal point, situating it in a definite place and relating it to its context; and the realism and detail aim to engage the viewer emotionally.

Another favoured medium has been the icon. In the icon, the figure seems to move out from its background to engage immediately with the viewer. Details are stylised and symbolic, rather than realistic; they serve not so much to illustrate as to suggest. The artist seeks to engage the viewer’s spiritual, not emotional, response; and invites into wordless contemplation in stillness. 

Throughout the Gospel, the author has sought to present the verbal equivalent of the icon, rather than a work in realistic detail. The details noted suggest, rather than illustrate. Consistently, the author has sought to lead the reader into a contemplative encounter with the now risen Lord, and what details have been presented have been stylistically and symbolically shaped for that one over-riding purpose.

When the author deals with the actuality of the Risen Christ, he uses words to suggest what words cannot convey literally. He engages with mystery, hoping to draw his readers into stillness and contemplation. 

Discovering the Empty Tomb

John 20:1-2     Mary Magdalene Finds the Tomb Empty

1 It was the first day of the week.  
Very early, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb,

Nothing was said of the disciples’ experience on the Sabbath that immediately followed Jesus’ death. 

Mary Magdalene had been one of the three women witnesses of Jesus’ death. Her fidelity, despite derision and possible danger, was indication of the undoubted depth of her relationship with Jesus. With the Sabbath over, she was free to move, but waited until early next morning, well before sunrise. It was still dark. What did Mary intend to do? What did she expect to find? She herself was still in the dark – with no expectation of immediate resurrection. Many contemporaries believed in resurrection. Jesus had himself spoken of it. But the prevailing expectation envisaged a communal resurrection to happen only on the last day, the Day of the Lord – certainly not within a day and a half of death.

… and saw the stone removed from the tomb. 

The Gospel gave no description of Jesus’ resurrection, nor any indication of precisely when it happened during the preceding thirty-six hours.

2 She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved,
and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb.  
We do not know where they have put him.”

She used an undefined they, and the plural, we; but the narrative’s focus was on her alone. Seeing the open tomb, and not expecting resurrection, she had drawn the natural conclusion – that the tomb had been desecrated and the body stolen by unknown robbers. She ran to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who seemed to have been together, perhaps by themselves (though possibly with the others). [At last, the narrative identified the other disciple, already mentioned regularly, particularly in the later chapters, as the Disciple whom Jesus loved.]

John 20:3-10     Peter and the Beloved Disciple Check the Tomb

3 Peter and the other disciple left the house to go to the tomb. 
4 The two started running together.  
The other disciple ran faster than Peter
and came to the tomb first.

Over the centuries, different commentators have read different meanings into the otherwise irrelevant details. A favoured interpretation, soon to be supported by the concluding incidents of the narrative [21:7-8; 15-17], sees Peter as representing the ministry/charism of responsibility and authority within the community of disciples; and the Beloved Disciple as representing the energy and attraction springing from the vocation to relationship that is proper to every disciple. The impatient desire springing from vocation brings disciples first to the scene of mystery, but the responsibility of verification is referred to the more cautious bearer of institutional authority.

5 He leant forward and saw the cloths lying there
but he did not go in. 
6 Simon Peter arrived following him,
and went into the tomb.  
He saw the cloths lying there, 
and also the face cloth that had covered his face.  
It was not lying with the cloths,
but was rolled up separately in a place of its own.
8 The other disciple who had arrived first came up and entered the tomb.  
He saw and he believed.

What did they see? The translation, lying there, is not highly descriptive. The translation could, and probably does, mean that the wrappings had caved in on themselves since there was no longer a body inside. The quite separate smaller face cloth around Jesus’ head had been tied around the crown and jaw to keep his mouth closed in death. It could not collapse on itself, but retained its original shape, though there was now no longer any head for it to be rolled around.

The Beloved Disciple recognised what the shape of the cloths indicated. The body had not been first uncovered and then stolen or otherwise removed. It had simply disappeared of itself, the cloths untouched. He saw what had happened to the cloths, and his faith led him to conclude that Jesus had risen from death.

The Beloved Disciple had not seen Jesus. He had seen the startling absence of Jesus – and had, somehow, come to Easter faith. Easter faith is not a factor of observation, but is gift of God. (Nothing was said of the conclusions reached by Peter.)

9 So far they did not know the Scripture that he must rise from the dead.

Not surprisingly, neither Peter nor the Beloved Disciple had understood how the Scriptures had foreseen the fact of the Messiah’s (or the Suffering Servant’s, or the Son of Man’s) personal and immediate resurrection. Against the backdrop of Lazarus’s resuscitation from death, the Beloved Disciple had rightly interpreted, not the Scriptures, but the empty cloths. This was not resuscitation (as had been the case with Lazarus, who needed to be unwrapped [11:57]); this was something altogether new. Understanding of the Scriptures would come as disciples opened to the action of Jesus’ Spirit, who would teach them everything, and remind them of all Jesus had said to them [14:26]. Like the Beloved Disciple, without seeing the risen Jesus present in their midst, they would be led to believe.

10 Then the disciples went back to their home.

The two disciples who, before going to the empty tomb, had been together, now went back to their home, the Beloved Disciple quietly believing; Peter, perhaps wondering and confused, or, perhaps believing.

Next >> John 20:11-18