John 20 - Christ is risen!

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

The empty tomb 20:1-10

Early in the morning, coming to the tomb, Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been taken away from its entrance. Immediately she turns to the two major disciples. It comes as no surprise to us that the first person to arrive at the tomb and witness the resurrection of the Lord is ”the beloved disciple of Jesus”.

A small detail in John’s account shows an important feature in the resurrection stories. Every Gospel writer tells his own version of who came to witness Jesus’s resurrection and how they did it. The oldest list of witnesses preserved to us was written by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). It is not necessary to try to harmonize the stories. After all, John has treated his ample material quite freely, too: he says that Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb but, nevertheless, lets her say to Peter and to the beloved disciple, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Neither does John write that Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned in all the Gospels, was alone at the tomb (Matthew 28:1 and Luke 24:10).

What could be seen in the empty tomb? Peter sees all the same things as the beloved disciple but does not understand. Then, it is the beloved disciple who sees the significance of the linen cloths, some of which were apparently lying there, collapsed, and some were folded together carefully. The body had by no means been stolen. When the beloved disciple ‘believed’ (no matter what this word might mean in this context), the first rays of resurrection faith began to light the dark world. However, everything is still hazy.

Two words 20:11-18

Mary Magdalene’s vision of an angel is just a transition to encountering the risen Christ. This is a very beautiful and moving story. There are two words at the heart of it. Despite the empty tomb and the angel vision, Mary is still weeping for the death of her Lord. Not even the appearance of Jesus takes away the sorrow. One single word that Jesus utters, Mary’s name, helps her recognize her Lord and to reply to her Master the way she used to reply. The narrators of the scene have kept the important word in Hebrew (to be precise, in Aramaic) and thus the story still conveys the warmth that had made Jesus irreplaceable to people.

Scholars have gone to a great deal of trouble in trying to explain Jesus’s words when he says that he has not yet ascended to the Father. It is no use trying to read too much into those words – we had better focus on what is most important in what Jesus says. He has now fulfilled his mission, and therefore his Father is now our Father and his God is our God. The only Son has been given as a sacrifice so that the world would not be lost. He gave his life and he got it back.

Jesus sends his disciples 20:19-23

The disciples of Jesus were still gripped by fear. Locked doors do not hold back Jesus who suddenly appears among them and wishes peace to his own. What follows now is John’s equivalent to the familiar Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel to spread the Gospel message and to baptize. John describes only briefly how the Lord showed his wounds and how the disciples were filled with joy. The focus is now on the sending of the disciples. Jesus himself was sent by the Father. Now he sends his followers, not in human strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the Son of man, the Judge-to-be at the Last Judgement, will commit the authority to judge to the people to be used in his kingdom of grace. It has been shown that even in the second century A.D., the church had a confessional practice (Confession and Absolution) based on these words.

The believing Thomas 20:24-29

Sayings about the doubting Thomas are a showpiece of how the Bible can be misread. His account is not the story of a doubting Thomas but of a believing Thomas, a man who, after having had doubts, found faith. Even earlier in the Gospel, Thomas had difficulty in understanding the significance of Jesus (11:16, 14:5). Now he rejects what the others testify of the resurrection of Christ. When he sees the risen Christ, he becomes convinced, and we hear him utter the most magnificent confession of faith in the whole Gospel. With our age-old Christian tradition behind us, we are not able to see anything extraordinary in his words. Yet they are by far one of the highlights of the Gospel. Their significance is all the more prominent as we know that originally the Gospel ended only a few sentences after those words.

The Gospel is completed. As John goes back to the climax of the prologue, we have come full circle: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” (Joh. 1:18) – “My Lord and my God!”

Why this book? 20:30-31

John does not leave his readers in the dark about why the Gospel of John was written. Many things were left untold, but the object of the whole work is clear: it was written to inspire faith, so that the reader would receive life in Jesus. Again, we go back to the prologue: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” At this stage, the reader of the Gospel bears this witness of the Gospel: there is a wonderful light shining from it into the dark world. Do we see this light?