John 20: The Resurrection, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene, Jesus Appears to the Disciples, The Purpose of This Book
The accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels tend to give different details from the events, which mean that you really have to look at all four books to properly get the details of what happened—but I’m not going to do that here. I’m just going to take the events as John presents them, to bring out the emphases he wants to bring out.
Early in the morning while it’s still dark on the first day of the week—that is, the day after the Sabbath—Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’ tomb, presumably to continue the burial process, only to find that the stone has been rolled away. So she runs to “Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (verse 2) to tell them that someone has taken Jesus’ body, and “we” don’t know where they’ve taken him! (I emphasize the “we” because, even though John is focusing on Mary, there were others with her—as mentioned in other Gospels.)
Peter and the “other disciple”—John—run to the tomb. John outruns Peter to get there, but he stops at the entrance without going in; he just examines the linen cloths from outside of the tomb. Peter then passes John and goes inside the tomb, where he examines those cloths more closely, along with the specific cloth that had been on Jesus’ face, folded up and lying on its own.
And then we see how the disciples still lacked a clear understanding of all that Jesus had been teaching them:
Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (verses 8–9)
After this, Peter and John go back home, but Mary stays at the tomb. She eventually decides to look inside for herself, but there’s someone new there now:
And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 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.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 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.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. (verses 12–18)
Later on that evening the disciples are gathered together (with the doors locked, for fear of the religious leaders1), and Jesus comes and stands among them. He shows them his hands and his sides, and the disciples are “glad” to see him. (“Glad” is John’s word, in verse 20, but I have to believe that’s an understatement!) He then gives them some additional comfort:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (verses 21–23)
One of the disciples, however, wasn’t there at this point: Thomas. Later on the other disciples tell him what had happened and he doesn’t believe them; the exchange is rather [in]famous:
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.” (verse 25)
So, eight days later they’re together again—with Thomas this time—and Jesus appears again:
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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (verses 27–29)
John then finishes the chapter with almost a throwaway line, but an important one:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 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. (verses 30–31)
The things that John wrote about were worth writing about; they were amazing events in history. But John didn’t write about them because he was a journalist or a historian, he wrote about them because he was a pastor: he wants us—all of us—to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and have life in His name.
There are a few things to get into, for this chapter, but I figured it was worth keeping it all together because it all thematically fit with Jesus’ resurrection.
For a lot of people, these accounts of the finding of Jesus’ burial cloths will bring up questions about the Shroud of Turin, but I personally don’t have any thoughts about it. The way John describes the cloths—and he was there to see them firsthand!—it sounds exactly like what you’d expect to see if a dead man, wrapped in cloths, woke up: he’d take off the cloths on his face first, and then the rest. The fact that he took the time to neatly fold the face cloth seems uniquely human, if I can say that without being blasphemous. (And I think I can, since Jesus was fully human while also being fully God.)
When John says that he “believed” (in verse 8, at the tomb), I think all he means is that he believed that Mary had been telling the truth: Jesus was gone. John didn’t yet believe that Jesus had been resurrected.
The ESV Study Bible notes give a nice expository note on this:
As yet they did not understand the Scripture proves that the disciples did not fabricate a story to fit their preconceived notions of what was predicted. Rather, they were confronted with certain facts, which they were initially unable to relate to Scripture. Only later, aided by the Spirit’s teaching ministry … were they able to do so. In referring to “the Scripture,” John may be thinking of specific OT passages (such as Ps. 16:10; Isa. 53:10–12; Hos. 6:2) or of broader themes in the entire scope of Scripture (cf. Luke 24:25–27, 32, 44–47).
The Holy Spirit
Verse 22 seems to indicate that Jesus is giving the disciples the Holy Spirit right at that moment, so what about Acts 2 and the giving of the Spirit to believers on the day of Pentecost? The ESV Study Bible notes indicate that this is probably just a “foretaste” of the Spirit; it may very well be that they had the Holy Spirit in that time with Jesus, but not on an ongoing basis until the day of Pentecost.
Forgiving and Withholding Forgiveness
Verse 23 is a potentially difficult verse:
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld. (verse 23)
This almost makes the Apostles sound like magicians! Pointing at people and deciding who’s forgiven and who’s not—which, right on the face of it, is absurd. That’s God’s job, not humans’! But then what does the verse mean?
I’ll just quote from the ESV Study Bible again:
The expressions they are forgiven and it is withheld both represent perfect-tense verbs in Greek and could also be translated, “they have been forgiven” and “it has been withheld,” since the perfect gives the sense of completed past action with continuing results in the present. The idea is not that individual Christians or churches have authority on their own to forgive or not forgive people, but rather that as the church proclaims the gospel message of forgiveness of sins in the power of the Holy Spirit (see v. 22), it proclaims that those who believe in Jesus have their sins forgiven, and that those who do not believe in him do not have their sins forgiven—which simply reflects what God in heaven has already done (cf. note on Matt. 16:19).
For centuries Thomas has stood as a negative example for Christians; we call him “Doubting Thomas,” and are instructed not to be like him.
It is worth pointing out, however, that what Thomas is asking for is what all of the other disciples have already received. Jesus has already appeared to them and showed them the holes in his hands and the wound on his side; when Thomas says “I won’t believe until I see the holes in his hands and put my hand in his side,” we should really be reading that as, “I won’t believe until I see the holes in his hands too, and I put my hand in his side too.” Given all that we know about the disciples, would any of them have believed if they were told what Thomas was told? My guess is no.
My only point is that we shouldn’t look at lessons from people’s actions in the Bible with a holier than thou attitude; “Thomas was so stubborn, wasn’t he?” we think; “I never would have doubted like that!” But most of us would have, in his place.
And let’s not forget Thomas’ response: “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28). I’ve heard this called one of the strongest declarations of Jesus’ divinity in all of the Gospels.