A Bible Lesson on John 20

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This chapter is John’s account of Resurrection Sunday.  Recall what John says in the first epistle of John.

1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—

John was there, he saw these things and he recognizes that it is vital that you and I know that we’re hearing the account of such a witness.

John 20:1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

This is “early,” probably before dawn and it may be that here Mary Magdalene is alone.  Matthew and Mark place 2 Marys and Salome at the tomb later (at dawn).  But it is also possible that there are others here and John is simply concentrating on Mary Magdalene.

Ryle wrote of this scene, “… her conduct this memorable morning was so remarkable and prominent that St. John speaks of her alone.  All the women showed faith and courage and love, he seems to intimate; but none so pre-eminently as Mary Magdalene.  She was the first to come near the tomb, first to discover that the stone was rolled away, first to conjecture that something remarkable had happened, and the first to act at once on what she saw.”  He further said, “… we are distinctly told that she was one out of whom the Lord had cast ‘seven devils’ (Mark xvi. 9; Luke viii. 2), –one who had been subjected in a peculiar way to Satan’s possession, –and one whose gratitude to our Lord for deliverance was a gratitude that knew no bounds.  In short, of all our Lord’s followers on earth, none seem to have loved Him so much as Mary Magdalene. None felt that they owed so much to Christ.  None felt so strongly that there was nothing too great to do for Christ. Hence, as Bishop Andrews beautifully puts it, — ‘She was last at His cross, and first at His grave. She staid longest there, and was soonest here.  She could not rest till she was up to seek Him.  She sought Him while it was yet dark, even before she had light to seek Him by.’  In a word, having received much, she loved much; and loving much, she did much, in order to prove the reality of her love.”  He went on to infer that relative lack of passion for Christ and His Gospel follows from “a low sense of debt and obligation to Christ,” an inadequate grasp of the enormity and eternal implications of our sin.

John also doesn’t tell us the details of the stone.  By the time he is writing here, the synoptic Gospels are in wide circulation.  He expects his reader to know those accounts and doesn’t feel the need to repeat all the details from them … rather, he concentrates on those that are most relevant to his stated purpose in John 20:31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  

2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

The synoptics put Mary of Magdalene at the tomb with Mary the mother of James and Salome.  Ryle believed that immediately upon seeing the stone, Mary Magdalene ran off to get Peter and John, and in the meantime the angels appear to the other women, who are gone by the time she returned.  In any case, mark Mary’s reaction.  The furthest thing from her mind here is the possibility that Jesus has risen.

3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.

4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

We have here, not a single witness, but two, in keeping with Old Testament teaching on the importance of corroboration.  Modesty forbids John to say directly that it is he who outran Peter!

5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.

6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there,

Peter is always Peter.  He charges right into the tomb, not hesitating the least in the possibility that the evidence that he’s observing concerns the most important occurrence of human history.  Ryle wrote, “Grace does not alter natural temperaments, when it changes hearts.”

7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

In telling us the details about the grave clothes, John wants us to know that this is a real, physical, space-and-time resurrection, not some make-believe fairy tale kind of thing.  Nor is it the work of grave robbers.  Grave robbers wouldn’t leave behind the grave clothes and try to handle a naked, cold, slippery, stiff corpse.  Nor would they take time to fold up the cloth that had been around his head.

8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;

We have the picture of Peter standing and gawking, not knowing what to make of the scene.  John enters and believes.  This is a detail that only an eyewitness could or would supply.  He believes that Jesus has been resurrected.

9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

John is saying that while he has believed that Jesus has been resurrected, he doesn’t see how it fits into the big picture.

Note that the disciples were caught completely by surprise.  The secularist attempt to explain this away as some kind of hoax that the clever disciples carried off just doesn’t square with their state of mind or with their fairly bumbling unsophisticated backgrounds and ways.

10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

“to their homes” is literally “to themselves”  They went back to where they were staying while in Jerusalem.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.

John has apparently not filled Mary in on what he thought he knew about what has happened.  Mary is crying, upset about the location of the body.  From one perspective it is her incredible loyalty and love for Christ that puts her here to begin with, and especially after the men have left.  The “But Mary stood” is in contrast to the men who had gone.  But she’s also as thoroughly human and as blind as any of us.  Thank God the tomb was empty!  Thank God she doesn’t get what she thinks she wants!  Mary’s concern at this point is simply for the dead body.

12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.

Despite the fact that there is no natural explanation for how these beings got there without Peter and John seeing them, Mary may not recognize them as angels.  And even if she dis, she wasn’t going to let the appearance of angels get her off track from her grief over the missing body.

13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

The angels surely know why she is weeping.  They are not asking to gain information.  They are asking to prod her to think this through and figure out “Hey! This is wonderful! The tomb is empty!  He’s not here!”  Mary, in her authentic humanity, clings to her grief over the death.

14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

Apparently the phrasing in the Greek describing Mary’s turning is a bit odd, and has led commentators to speculate on why Mary turned.  Ryle saw the angels stirring at the entrance of Christ, and Mary being alerted to His presence behind her.  But she doesn’t know that it’s Him.  This is not the only time that His followers fail to recognize the resurrected Jesus.  His appearance must have been somewhat different than before.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” 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.”

Why are you weeping?  Who is it that you are looking for?  Like the angels before, Jesus hints to Mary that she wasn’t on the right track.  She was looking for a corpse, when she should have been looking for a person.  She was blind to her Help and Master, though He was right there beside her.  Indeed, why was she weeping?  And who was it that she thought she was looking for?  Was it a dead prophet, or the living Son of God?  She was indeed faithful and loving, but she was so absorbed in the situation that it didn’t even occur to her to use Jesus’s name describing the situation.  When she speaks it’s simply “him” who has been carried away, the one who is in the center of her thinking and her world.  But she also was a frail human being who wasn’t keeping clear in her head the divinity of her Master and His teaching on His resurrection.

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

When the Good Shepherd calls His sheep, they know His voice.  Now Mary “gets it.”  Rabboni, (my) teacher.  This is a bit of an odd word.  It was usually used in calling out to God in prayer.  It was a somewhat more respectful form of “Rabbi.”

17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “


John 14:1  “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.

2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 

It seems likely that Mary thinks that Jesus is back for the disciples.  Jesus says, “I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  He can’t mean that He’s been hiding in Jerusalem and isn’t yet ready to go see the Father.  It is, rather, likely that He’s saying that He hasn’t yet gone away in the John 14 sense.   He has not yet completed His ascent to the Father in the sense of leaving until the second coming.  Jesus’s command that she not cling to Him simply means that Mary’s desire for a physically-present Jesus won’t be realized at this time.  John 16:16 isn’t going to be realized in the way she expects.

John 16:16   “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”

Mary, the real human being she is, is making too much of the immediate physical presence of Jesus.

I am ascending”  is “I am in the process of ascending”  Things are not simply going back to the way they were before the crucifixion and resurrection.  Things are fundamentally different.

to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”  That language is parallel to Ruth 1:16.  Coming from the lips of Jesus, it emphasizes the great honor that God does us by inviting us into His family.  What mercy and grace there is in this language.  Jesus says, “go tell my brothers.”  Go tell the same ones who had a couple of days earlier deserted Him.  Jesus knows our weakness and frailty and in mercy calls such as you and me His brothers.

John 20:18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

It’s worth noting that the first to carry the news of resurrection was Mary. Brentius said, “Jesus made Mary Magdalene an Apostle to the Apostles.”

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Peace be with you.”  Shalom.  May God give you every good thing and set all things right.  This is perhaps an ordinary Jewish greeting, but likely much more.  Remember that on just Thursday night Jesus spoke to them the words of John 14:27-28.  Here He’s confirming that indeed all is well, but that He is going to the Father.

Joh 14:27  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

In view of their behavior on Friday morning , the disciples might have expected worse.

John 20:20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

Jesus’s resurrection body is both similar and dissimilar to our present earthly bodies.  He entered the locked room, and yet they can see the wounds in His hands and side.  Luke 24:36-43 gives us more details.

Luke 24:36  As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!”

37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.

38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?

39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.

41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,

43 and he took it and ate before them.

John 20:21  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

Here’s a tall order.  Think of some of the implications of this.  Jesus’s mission is now our mission.  The Son must be present with us just as the Father was with Him.  Whoever saw Jesus saw the Father, so whoever sees us should see Jesus.  Jesus was submitted to the Father’s will and we should be to His.

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

This should remind us of Genesis 2:7 and Ezekiel 37:3-5.

Genesis 2:7  then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Ezekiel 37:3  And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord

GOD, you know.”

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

breath/spirit are the same word in both Greek and Hebrew.  Here the Holy Spirit is giving real, eternal life.

John 20:23  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

This famous verse has been the subject of much exegesis over the years.  Various interpretations have been offered.  Possibilities are 1) a statement of the church’s power of excommunication, 2) the bringing of guilt when the church declares the truth and it is ignored (more of John’s theme of implicit judgement). and 3) that the church’s forgiveness or lack thereof is really only of a declarative nature  (that is, that it is simply saying only what God has already determined).

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.

Thomas is a hard-headed, skeptical, but intensely loyal guy.

John 11:16  So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John 14:4  And you know the way to where I am going.”

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

John tell us about Thomas because there is value in watching an extremely cautious man come to faith.  This is not just some kind of mass hysteria going on here.  And in the end, Thomas’s confession of Jesus is the fullest and most magnificent in John’s book.  Barclay said “he was not airing his doubts just for the sake of mental acrobatics; he doubted in order to become sure; and when he did, his certainty was complete.”

John 20:25  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

The sense of the verb is that the other disciples “kept on telling him.”  He doesn’t believe the other disciples in spite of their repeated testimony.  In fact, he wants more evidence that they’re even claiming to have had.  He’s not interested in either participating in some kind of religious make-believe or in some kind of non-physical “spiritual” ghost-type resurrection.  The “I will not believe it” is closer to “I will certainly not believe it.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Jesus could have been touched in exactly the physical way that Thomas talked about.  This was a real, physical event.  Nevertheless, there is probably a note of rebuke in Jesus’s statement.  Thomas crossed the line into impudence.  Jesus invites him to “stop doubting, but on the contrary believe.”

28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas recognizes 1) Jesus’s miraculous presence, 2) Jesus’s supernatural knowledge, and 3) his own impudence, and makes the most complete Gospel confession of Jesus.

John 8:28  So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.

When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM.

John 20:29  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

It was vital that there be witnesses, but the ordinary person is promised no glimpse of the risen Christ in this life.  We are encouraged to rely upon the written accounts of reliable witnesses.

Romans 10:17  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

“Blessed” Not any more blessed than Thomas, but blessed indeed.

John 20:30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;

31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

This is John’s wrap-up of the main part of his account.  This is the plain statement of why he has written.  He’s hit the high point and the rest is epilogue.  Nothing greater could be said about Jesus.  One of the commentators said about these verses that if you are writing biography of a great dead person, you strive to be complete, but John’s not doing that.  He’s introducing us to One who is living.

He couldn’t tell everything, but he’s given us enough that we can believe and thereby have life.  The perfect tense that he uses to say “these are written” carries an air of permanence.  John has written to bear witness to the grand fact that God has acted on our behalf in Christ, and that there is thus life and wholeness if we will take it.  John says this reliance upon God has content.  It is not some vague thing.  It is reliance upon the facts that Jesus is Messiah, God’s anointed One, and that He is the Son of God, one with the Father.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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