John 20:1-18


The flurry of activity on the first Easter is unparalleled in the Gospels. Each evangelist gives his account. All are true. There was a great deal of activity, once it was known that Jesus rose from the dead. For harmonization of the four accounts, the following may be consulted: Beck, THE CHRIST OF THE GOSPELS (composite account), pp. 202-205; Ylvisaker, THE GOSPELS, pp. 759-765; Fahling, THE LIFE OF CHRIST, pp. 687-693; Farrar, THE LIFE OF CHRIST, pp. 452-457; Edersheim, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS THE MESSIAH, vol. 2, pp. 630-637; Stoeckhardt, NEW TESTAMENT, pp. 312-318; Arndt, LUKE, pp. 485-487.

Some questions must be left unanswered but that neither amounts to contradiction nor to lack of historicity. John, who wrote much later, assumes that his readers know the accounts found in the synoptists. He stresses the part which Mary Magdalene played in the Easter account. John's account is very vivid. In volume 2, pp. 979-980, of his Commentary on John, Raymond E. Brown notes the verbs in the historical present tense:1: came, saw; 2: went running, told; 5: saw; 6: came along, observed; 12: observed; 13: asked, told; 14: caught sight; 15: asked, said; 16: said, said; 17: told; 18: went.

John 20:1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.

"Early" simply carries on the narrative from chapter 19. "On the first day" could mean either "on the first day after the Sabbath" or "on the first day of the week." The latter is preferable.

Hendriksen: It makes little difference whether one conceives of the Greek plural for Sabbath as referring to the day or to an entire week. . . In either case Sunday is meant. The plural noun used in the original may mean either Sabbath-day or Week.

"Removed," a perfect passive participle, denoting existing state, likely indicates that the stone had not only been rolled but also thrown out of its track.

John 20:2 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!" 

"So" is inferential. The removal of the stone caused her to run. Note that "the other" is used twice. Some commentators feel that this indicates that Peter and John were in different places. Perhaps.

Here we find "loved," the love of affection. On the difference between forms of the verb "love" applied to John look at John 11:3 and 5. Note that "we don't know" occurs, clearly shows that other women went with her to the tomb, as is recorded in the synoptics. Forms of "know" occur here, 9, 13 and 14, in each case denoting inherent as opposed to conferred knowledge.

John 20:3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb.

Here begins a subparagraph. Now Peter and John take the initiative. Note that both "started" here and "running" in verse 4 denote vivid continued action. There are those who think that "started" denotes walking as opposed to "running." That may be but cannot be proved. Those who think there is difference suggest that according to Matthew 28:10 the other women may have informed Peter and John that they had seen Jesus and that therefore the two men began to run.

John 20:4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

"The other" of comparison. Perhaps John was younger and lighter than Peter. In any case the account is very vivid and human. Both were anxious and ran strenuously. "First" is an adjective, not an adverb. It denotes the order in which they arrived, not the order of things done.

John 20:5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in.

Lenski is exercised over the meaning of "bent over" It simply denotes stooping, despite what Lenski says. Why did John not enter the tomb?
Bengel: He seems to have kept back through fear.


John 20:6 Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there,

"Then" simply carries on the narrative. Peter passed John at the entrance of the tomb. Of John it said that he "looked at" the linen clothes. But of Peter it is said that he "saw" which carries with it the idea of "gaze at." 

John 20:7 as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.

"Burial cloth" is the Latin and Greek word for "handkerchief." It means "sweat-cloth." But it was also used for the headcloth for a corpse.

The verb though imperfect, must mean "had been." The antecedent of "head" is Jesus. Here is a good place to point out that words have meaning only in their context. The head cloth was lying but "not lying with the linens." We point this out only because it has been suggested that the headcloth was not even lying there but was outside the tomb. Ridiculous.

Here we must pause because both commentators and translators understand verses 6 and 7 variously:

  1. Bengel was of the opinion that "the angels without a doubt ministered to Him at His resurrection; and one of them laid in order the linen clothes, the other the napkin." This implies that either Jesus removed the grave clothes from Himself or the angels helped Him;
  2. Lenski writes:  "We are not to imagine that they (the linens) had been unwound from the body as was done with the grave bands of Lazarus when he came to life. . . They lay just as they had been wound about the limbs and the body, only the body was no longer in them, and thus the wrappings lay flat. . . The head cloth lay in a place apart from the wrappings, neatly folded up, or we may say, rolled up. ..Folding up the cloth and placing it apart from the bands indicates an ordering hand. We may think of an angel." This means that Jesus passed through the linen clothes, leaving them as they were, but that Jesus removed the head-cloth and then an angel folded it;
  3. But Hendriksen:  "Ideas such as these, namely, that the headband was lying there as if it has not been removed from the head, and that the bandages were lying there just as if the limbs of Jesus were still enclosed by them, or as if the body had been abstracted from them, are foreign to the text. We do not even know exactly where the linen bandages and the sweat-band were lying." 
  4. A fourth view is that, owing to embalming, the linen clothes and headband became somewhat hardened and that therefore they lay exactly as if the absent body were still in them.

These notes espouse the view that Jesus passed through all the grave clothes in such a manner that they still lay just as if He were still there, whether "deflated," assuming that there was no hardening or in their original state, assuming hardening. But we must point out a serious difference between Lenski and Hendriksen. Lenski interprets verses 6 and 7 according to the genus maiestaticum, that in the state of exaltation, at this point, Jesus' human nature more fully used the attributes of the divine nature. Hendriksen is Reformed and shows his hand here. He must admit, with Lenski, that Jesus' body passed from the tomb before the stone was rolled away. But here he balks.

Lenski says beautifully (with reference to verse 12): "The linen bands and headcloth were two earthly witnesses, and these angels two heavenly witnesses to attest the Lord's resurrection to men. Heaven and earth unite in the tomb of Jesus."  The translations of verse 7 are interesting: KJV has "wrapped together,"  AAT, RSV, JB, NASB, LB, TEV have "rolled up," NEB has "rolled together," NKJV has "folded together," and NIV has "folded up." Perhaps those who translate "folded" mean that either Jesus or the angel "folded" the cloth. Perhaps those who translate "rolled" indicate that Jesus passed through the head-cloth without disturbing it. But we can't be sure.

John 20:8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.

"Finally" simply continues the narrative. The last four words of this verse are disputed. And their interpretation depends, at least in part, on the meaning of verse 9. Perhaps it is best to deal with verse 9 first. The majority of our translations understand verse 9 as does NASB: "For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead." But LB, JB and NEB understand thus: "till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of Scripture, that he must rise from the dead." (JB ). The former view means that they returned home not yet understanding the Scriptures. The latter view means that when they saw the empty tomb and the grave-clothes, they understood the Scriptures. In view of passages such as John 20:19-29; 1 Corinthians 15:5; Luke 24:37-49, Lutherans espouse the former view. Bengel goes so far as to say that the last four words of John 20:8 mean that John believed only that Jesus' body had been removed elsewhere, not that he believed in the resurrection of Jesus.

Lenski: John explains how it came about that he had to see before he believed. This was the trouble, they followed their own thoughts even when Jesus spoke so plainly to them. Take Luke 18 :31-34, where Jesus foretold his passion and his resurrection in the plainest terms and yet 'they understood none of these things'. With deep regret John again brings out this blindness. . . Here we learn the minor value of signs; they are only steppingstones to faith. The real basis of faith is the Scriptures, the revealed and inspired Word of God. On this basis faith is to rest.
Kretzmann: If all the disciples, men and women, had closely remembered the prophecies of the Lord concerning His Passion and resurrection, they would have saved themselves many a bitter heartache. Christians must learn ever better to search the Scriptures, to turn to the Word in all the various vicissitudes of life, instead of following their own ideas and feelings. . . Reasonable proofs of the resurrection of Christ can never give the heart the firm faith which is necessary for salvation. Under circumstances it is a good thing to be able to stop the mouths of the gainsayers by showing them the foolishness of their position; but the most convincing arguments are the statements of Scriptures themselves.

But listen to this interpretation from Hendriksen:

What did John believe? That Jesus was actually risen from the dead, and was the real Messiah, the Lord of Glory, the Son of God in the most exalted sense. This is nothing less than living faith in the act of embracing the truth of the resurrection. At this point some commentators seem to think that the purpose of the text is to emphasize the weakness of the apostles' faith, for they needed to see before they were willing to believe. However, that is probably not the sense of the words. What is meant is this: they NOW saw and believed. . . Scripture also began to take on a new meaning now. . . NOW these same passages were beginning to assume significance.

Why this difference between the Lutheran and the Reformed? It is the old Reformed thesis that the Holy Spirit works apart from the Word. Reformed theology is subjective, depending on the feelings of people. Lutheran theology is objective, pointing only to what the Word says. In all four Gospel-accounts all the disciples, men as well as women, are pictured as fearful, wondering, running this way and that. But Jesus was patient, came to them and spoke the Scriptures.

John 20:9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

We have already discussed this verse but several things need to be added. Note that we have a form of  "understand," to know on one's own. If, on this occasion, Peter and John would suddenly have realized what the Scriptures truly said, likely a form of "know"  (to realize, to learn from an outside source) would have been used.

Jesus had to rise from the dead. In what sense? God had foretold it and had promised it. He never goes back on His Word.

John 20:10 Then the disciples went back to their homes,

"Back to their homes" means "to their own homes" which might indicate, as Bengel points out, that they did not live in the same house. Compare the 25th and 26th editions of Nestle Greek text here. Some manuscripts have the reflexive pronoun.

John 20:11 but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

Our pericope, verses 1-18, really comprises two episodes: verses 1-10 and verses 11-18. Mary Magdalene is central to both, but more so in the second. After Mary had informed Peter and John (verse 2), she must have followed them back to the grave. They must have left before she arrived and very likely took a different road or street than she did. In any case, here we have her again. It is clear from the entire account that Mary had an intense love for Jesus.

Bengel: Two angels, sitting as if after having performed some service, and waiting for some one whom they might instruct.

Why these angels did not appear to Peter and John and why nothing is said about Mary seeing the grave-clothes, we don't know. Someone has said that the two angels, one at the head and one at the feet, are reminiscent of the two Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. "Had been" contextually must be translated "had lain." The point of the verse is that heavenly messengers had replaced the body of Jesus. Whether or not these two angels were the same as mentioned in Luke 24:4, we don't know.

John 20:13 They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." 

Note from here on that, in all conversations between Mary and the angels or between Mary and Jesus, informal forms are constantly used, denoting uninhibited conversation. "Woman"  reminds one of Jesus' address to His mother, John 2:4; 19:26. "Why are you crying?" implies that there is no reason for sobbing and weeping. Compare what she says here with what she had said in verse 2. Here "we" is changed to "I." Now she suffers all alone. She was depending on her own knowledge, not that of Scripture.

John 20:14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

From verses 11-12 it is clear that Mary had been facing the tomb. Now she turned completely around. What caused her to turn? We don't know. Maybe Jesus' feet caused a rustling. He was human. "Saw" clearly indicates that she really saw Him. We should not invoke reasons like tear-filled eyes or the haze of dawn. "But" means "and yet." Again a form of "know." She clearly saw but did not know on her own. That's the point.

John 20:15  "Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." 

Jesus' first question is the same as that of the angels.

Hendriksen: Notice a very similar correspondence between the words of the angel to the women (Matthew 28:5.7) and the words which they heard from the lips of the Lord Himself a little later (Matthew 28:10).

He adds a second question: Not WHAT are you seeking but WHOM are you seeking. For several reasons Mary's words are irrational. Of what use would a dead Savior be? And how could she, a woman, carry a corpse by herself? That Mary loved Jesus intensely is clear. He had driven seven devils out of her. But what she needed now was Gospel. Here the preacher should learn the dear lesson of applying Gospel, and Gospel alone, to the grief-stricken parishioner who, despite his love for Jesus, flounders in dependence on himself, unable to find comfort.

John 20:16 Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).

This verse has been called the shortest and most effective recognition scene in all of literature. It involves only two words: "Mary-Rabbouni." Jesus must have spoken in such away that Mary recognized immediately. And, obviously, He was alive. That's Gospel. He preached a whole sermon in one word. And her entire devotion came out in one word. "She turned" surely does not mean that Mary turned around again, facing the tomb. As in Luke 9:55 it means "to give full attention to." 

By the way, this verse reminds us immediately of Isaiah 43:1 and John 10:27. Jesus treats each floundering believer as if there were none other.

John 20:17 Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" 

Luke 24:39 clearly shows that the risen Christ was not averse to people touching Him. Matthew 28:9 shows that He did not prohibit their taking ahold of Him. Here "do not hold" means "Stop clinging to me" as the NASB translates. Except for KJV and LB, the others have "Do not hold me," "Do not hold on to me," or "Do not cling to me." Jesus gives the reason introduced by an explanatory "for." Jesus does not criticize Mary for having done something wrong, much less obscene. But He deals with each believer's needs personally. Evidently Mary, in her fear of losing Jesus again, clung to Him physically.

But in what Jesus says to her, two things are evident:

  1. The former way of life between Savior and disciples, before His suffering, death and resurrection, is over; and,
  2. There is no reason for fear in view of the coming Ascension, the final step in His saving work and exaltation.

Note that Jesus calls the disciples "brothers" here. See Romans 8:29 and Hebrews 2:llff. Before His crucifixion He referred to them as "disciples." Thereafter it's  "brothers." Mary is to carry a message to the brothers: "I am ascending to My Father and your Father and to My God and your God." Some precious things have been said about this.

Bengel: We have our relationship to God through Him; He has His in a manner altogether peculiar to Himself and primarily.
Augustine: It is one thing when he says MY, it is another when Jesus says YOUR; by nature MINE, by grace YOURS. MY God, under whom I also am as man, YOUR God, between whom and you I am the Mediator.
Bernhard: The blessed relationship between us and Christ, our most wealthy brother, who owns heaven by a double right: once it is his from eternity, and again he has obtained it in time; the former is for his own enjoyment eternally, the latter he presents to his brethren.
Hendriksen: Jesus makes a distinction here, and at the same time emphasizes the closeness of fellowship between himself, his Father, and the disciples. The distinction is clearly evident from not saying our Father. The closeness of fellowship is also stressed: the same God who is the Father of Jesus is also the Father of the disciples.
Kretzmann: The words of Jesus are unmistakable: He gives to His believers the high and great honor, placing them absolutely on the same level with Himself. That is the glorious fruit and result of His word of redemption.

John 20:18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary does not object but goes immediately. Read 1 Corinthians 15:14ff. The fact that Christ is alive changed Mary's grief into instantaneous joy. She could leave Him joyfully because she believed. She had a two-fold message for the disciples: "I've seen the Lord," and "This is what He told me to tell you." In the first we have a confession. In the second we see her as a missionary. Both involve true faith.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1980, pp. 82-85. Used with permission.

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