Text: John 20:1-18
There is no evidence that she had ever been a prostitute. The idea that she was married to Jesus and carrying his baby at the time of his death is fantasy, pure and simple. What we do know of Mary Magdalene is that she was a Galilean woman from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons. Along with several other women, she accompanied Jesus and his disciples on their travels, and contributed towards their support. She may well have been a woman of some substance and standing, and she is always listed first in groups of named female disciples. Mary was one of the last to remain at the scene of our Saviour’s death, and the very first to come face to face with the risen Lord.
The story of what happened on that first Easter day is told in John 20. But, as we survey John’s account of that resurrection morning, what little faith we find in any who visited the empty tomb, including Mary herself.
1. Such little faith
What were Mary’s expectations in visiting the tomb? She had come to mourn. She had come to pay her last respects to a beloved teacher who had suffered an horrific execution. It was the custom in Palestine to visit the tomb of a loved one for three days after the body had been laid to rest. It was believed that for three days the spirit of the dead person hovered round the tomb; but then it departed because the body had become unrecognizable through decay. Mary could not come to the tomb on the Sabbath, because to make the journey then would have been to break the law. So she came first thing the following day to say “Goodbye” and then to put back together her shattered life as best she could. That was her intention. After all she had seen and heard. She had failed to listen, or to remember, or to understand, all the things that Jesus had said regarding his death and what would follow. You could almost say that Jesus himself had failed as a teacher. Such low expectations. Such little faith.
What did Mary plan to do, as she made her way in the pre-dawn darkness? How did she expect to gain access to the tomb? The tomb would have been quarried out of rock, and sealed with a large disc-shaped stone which would have been rolled down a sloping groove to block the door. It was therefore quite easy to close, but would have taken several strong men to open it. How was she going to get in? She didn’t know. Such muddled plans. Such little faith.
What did Mary see when she arrived at the tomb? She saw that stone had already been moved away, but simply rushed to the conclusion that the body had been taken away, possibly by grave-robbers. That was the only explanation she could think of. Such limited understanding. Such little faith.
Then, when she did see the risen Jesus, v15, why did she fail to recognise him? When he appeared to her, she assumed he was the gardener. Was she half-blinded by her own tears? Was is still too dark for her to make out his features clearly? Was it that his appearance had changed? Or was it that seeing him alive was the last thing on her mind – she simply was not expecting it. She saw him with her own eyes and yet was still blind. She heard him with her own ears and yet was still deaf. Such lack of recognition. Such little faith.
And then, when Jesus did make himself known to her, why did she try to cling on to him, v17, as though life could just return to how it had been? She assumed, perhaps, that a miracle had taken place such as had occurred with Lazarus. He, you will recall, was wonderfully brought back to life by Jesus, but his was a resuscitation rather than a resurrection. Lazarus lived out the rest of his allotted span, and then went the way of all flesh – this time, for good. Mary had no sense that what had happened to Jesus was any different. Such failure to believe all the Jesus had taught. Such little faith.
Such little faith. But, on the other hand, such a great God.
2. Such a great God
Such a great God to act so decisively in space and time. This is no myth. Here is something that actually occurred. Where? Just outside Jerusalem in a tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea. When? on “the first day of the week” following passover in the year AD 33. Note the eyewitness touches: the race to the tomb, v4; the description of the strips of linen and the burial cloth, v6f. Note too the leading place given to the testimony of this woman, Mary Magdalene. No-one would have made that up in the culture of the day. Note too that Jesus had plenty of enemies who would have been only too pleased to refute the story, had it been refutable. Such a great God.
Such a great God to raise his Son so powerfully. I have suggested already that Mary probably assumed that the same kind of miracle had happened to Jesus as had happened previously to Lazarus. It is as though her reaction was, “We thought you were dead, but you’re not! You’re alive, just like before!” Jesus’ response, v17, is not a put-down, but a gentle re-education. He is indeed alive, but not as before. His rising is not simply a return to the former state of affairs, as it had been with Lazarus. Mary and all who love him must get used to practising fellowship with a Saviour they could not touch or see, for he was soon to withdraw from sight till his second coming. “I am returning/ascending”. Such a great God.
Such a great God to deal so wisely and so individually with each visitor to the tomb. Of Peter, v3ff, it is said that he rushed to the tomb, and when he arrived went straight inside, saw the grave-clothes lying there but no body, and then went home. What must he have been thinking, given his recent behaviour? He can scarcely have wanted, let alone expected, to meet the One he had so miserably and repeatedly denied. His restoration would come a little later. Of John it is said that he too ran to the tomb, entered, saw that it was empty save the grave-clothes, and that he believed. Then there is Mary. It is she who sees the angels, v12. Why her, and not the two disciples? It is she to whom Jesus first appears, v14. Again, why to Mary, and not Peter and John? The speaking of her name – “Mary/Miriam”. He doesn’t need to force the door of the heart, he knows exactly which key will fit. Such a great God.
Such a great God to give her a mission, to entrust her with a message, v17f. He sends her with a message to ‘his brothers’ – he doesn’t call them his servants, or disciples, or friends, but ‘his brothers’. And that message is “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” It has often been assumed that this is intended to emphasise a distinction between Jesus’ relationship with the heavenly Father, and our relationship with him. His Sonship is by nature and right, theirs is only by adoption and grace. However, I think that precisely the opposite may be the case; that Jesus is emphasising similarity rather than difference – ‘My Father, who raised me from the dead, is your Father; and my God, to whom I am now returning, is your God.’ Such a great God.
Such weak faith, but such a great God.
I don’t want to be complacent, let alone celebrate weakness of faith. We need more Christians who are mighty in the Scriptures, persevering in prayer, abounding in good works, successful in evangelism, victorious over temptation, mature in Christlikeness, powerful in spiritual warfare. Of course Jesus wants us to be strong in faith.
But he can work with, and nurture and cherish, even weak faith. ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out’ (Isa 42:3/Mt 12:20). And remember: we have a great God.
Death could not hold Jesus back. And, as he had said to those weak disciples, “Because I live, you also will live,” Jn 14:19.
Earth could not hold Jesus back. “I am returning to the Father,” v17. The risen Lord was to become the ascended Lord. Jesus has gone on ahead, blazing a trail for us to follow.
Mary could not hold Jesus back. She wanted to cling on to him, and keep him for herself. But Jesus has declared, Jn 16:7, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.“ Now Jesus can be present by his Spirit wherever and whenever he wills.
We cannot hold Jesus back. We might long for our old familiar ways of being Christians and of doing church, but we cannot hold Jesus in a time warp. Mary was sent with a mission, and so are we. Others must know the good news of Jesus risen, ascended, and ever-present by his Spirit.