AN EXPOSITION OF John 20: 13-23.
ROBERT GOVETT, M.A.
It is a second point remarkable, that the account of the honour given to Mary Magdalene was written for us by John; to whom, as a son, Mary had been handed over by our Lord. He was not deficient in affection for her. But for the Church’s sake, he, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, testifies of the honour rendered to Mary Magdalene by the risen Jesus. A new principle of honour, greatly above that of nature, or the flesh, has come in. This is formally testified by Paul (2 Cor. 5: 16). It was Mary’s supreme love to Christ which seems to have opened to her this honour. Affection to Christ is the great link: the flesh is a broken link now, ‘Tis the Spirit!, That no flesh should glory in His Presence.’
The two disciples had gone away back - ‘No more was to be seen! It was of no use to tarry!’ So with ourselves and God’s written word! ‘All that can be got from it is got at a glance we are apt to think: while those who pray and ponder over it obtain great and deep accessions of truth and grace. Mary lingered there in love, as did the sisters at Lazarus’s tomb. ‘But her tears were unbelief and ignorance!’ Nevertheless, the Lord does not refuse the good because of the evil.
She looks within. Apparently it was for the first time. For she had merely guessed before, that the open door betokened the body carried off. She had arrived at the tomb later than Peter and John; out of breath, with her precious running. Did they tell her that the body was not there? At all events, it was not the glance of strong curiosity.
The same word in the Greek, that has been noticed before, describes her look also. There is a difference between what she sees, and what was seen by the previous two disciples. She beholds two angels, while they saw only the linen clothes. How was that? They have the power of appearing or disappearing as they please. Their dress was white. This has been often noticed. That colour is the favourite colour of the saved in the world to come: not the rainbow-hues of present life. When the soul is perfect within, small will be the care of the colour of the vestments without. They were not dressed in black, as mourners with us. For they knew their Lord risen, and rejoiced.
‘Two Angels!’ A wonderful difference now appears between Christ's humiliation and His commencing exaltation. At the cross, His executioners divided the spoil of His clothes. And two robbers are crucified with Him; one on the right hand, and one on the left. Now these two angels are like the cherubs, one at each end of the mercy-seat; looking down on the proofs of the great atonement completed. ‘These things the angels desire to look into.’ Do you think, reader, that these angels quarrelled which was to sit at the head, and which at the feet? I think that as blessed spirits, they would be ready in honour to prefer one another. Shall we not imitate these ministers of Christ? The little child in these things is made our model by the Lord.
How could it be known, which was the place of our Lord’s head, and which of His feet, if the dead-clothes were folded up in one heap? This proves that the clothes had not been stirred. The napkin which had covered His head lay there still, where the head had rested. The other end of the linen rollers showed where the feet had lain. And, it is evident, that the ledge where the body had been laid was just fronting the door.
The angels speak to her. They know her language; though she knows not theirs. Their question is a natural one, bespeaking their interest in her. Ours is a world of sorrow, though few openly manifest their tears; and though in most cases of woe we are powerless to comfort or help.
Her reply is still as before. She was seeking her Lord, for some unknown parties had borne Him away. Here again love and unbelief mingle. But how strangely devoid of curiosity she is! Was it not strange that at that early hour two men should be in the tomb? Was it not strange that they should be apparelled in white, and not in sackcloth and ashes? Was it not strange that they should be seated in the tomb, when the body was there no longer; and they were seemingly only guardians of grave-clothes? All this has no effect on her. She is so overmastered by the feeling of sadness, that her soul is not free to the play of the lighter sentiments of our nature. She is so absorbed by the dead, that she cares not for the living.
14-19. " ‘And when she had said this, she turned back, and seeth Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith to her, "Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?" She, supposing it to be the gardener, saith unto Him - "Sir, if Thou have carried Him away, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away." Jesus saith to her, "Mary!" She turned, and saith to Him, "Rabboni" (that is, "Teacher!"). Jesus saith to her, "Touch Me not; for I have not yet ascended to My Father;* but go to My brethren. and say unto them, ‘I ascend to My Father, and to your Father; and to My God, and to your God.’ "
[* How strange and contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, when Christians believe the time of death is the same also for resurrection and ascension.]
everyone who turns back from angels,
beholds the Lord
Himself! Her tears
wove a veil, which
prevented her from seeing clearly. The
enquiry the Lord makes of Mary is still the same question of kindly
interest. We need
to learn, what of the many causes of
tears in this vale of tears is affecting any whom we see weeping. And Jesus now speaks as a
man. The thought
that as this is a garden, he is the man who has charge of
it; and that
now, at length, she shall learn who has carried off the corpse. No suspicion of resurrection
has entered her
mind. Jesus has
died, like all others;
His body must
then be passive, like those of all the dead.
But, indeed, great
was the real but
unexpected difference. Adam
first gardener. God planted a garden eastward in
Observe how her intense love and grief make her insensible to the usual style of address. Three times - to a man whom she never saw before, as she supposed - she asks respecting Him, without giving any hint as to the person she meant. ‘If thou have borne Him, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will bear Him hence.' To her there is but one ‘Him’, who fills her soul; and she thinks that all the world must be as full of Jesus as she is herself. Is not that nature? Her love is greater than her strength. Could she bear away the body alone? But that troubles her not!
‘Mary!’ This Shepherd knows His own sheep, and calls them by their names.
Jesus’ reply is but one word, but it recalls her to faith. It savours slightly of reproach. Did she not know her Saviour? Did she not credit His words, that He would bear Himself away from the tomb in life? Had she not heard, ‘I am Resurrection and Life’? No doubt ‘twas the same old tone with which she was familiar. Her face was partly averted from Him, but this word makes her start, and gaze at the Risen One. Her reply is but one word also! When the heart is full of intense feeling its words are few, but laden with meaning. Her former instructor, then, from whom she had drunk in the truth of salvation, stood before her! The tomb could not hold Him!
‘But go! She was not now to abide in the Saviour’s presence, and converse with Him, but to carry good tidings to the cast down. Even so the Christian is not always to be in prayer and over the Scripture for himself, but to carry to others the message of life. This is the day of work. The hour of rest is coming, when we shall be evermore with the Lord.
Jesus' reply is a difficult one to interpret, and many are the meanings suggested. Why was she not to touch? Specially, why not, when very speedily thereafter the two women companions, 'held Him by the feet and worshipped Him'. And that evening He calls on the eleven to handle Him, in proof that He was no ghost. From the word, ‘Touch Me not’, it seems that on her part there was a movement forward to embrace His feet, as in the case of her companions; which our Lord checked by these words of His. It would seem from what follows, as if our Lord meant that His intercourse with her was not to be upon the same footing as before. Else she would naturally have gathered, as He addressed her by her usual name, and she Him by the customary title, that all was henceforward to move on the same level as before. Behold us, then, restored to each other, never more, to be severed! Now shall come the kingdom and the glory! Nay, there is that which must precede. The Father calls for His Son’s return.
Jesus was to ascend to His Father, as He had said. That must first take place ere His dwelling with us, and ours with Him.
‘For I am not yet ascended to My Father!' Why should Mary not touch Him because of this non-ascent! It would seem to imply that the full intercourse between the Saviour and His saved ones should only take place after His ascent thither. Perhaps this was Mary’s thought, that every barrier was now past, and nought but the kingdom was at hand! But let us notice the point here stated. Jesus, up to that hour, had not ascended to His Father. This is important, as testifying against the mistake made by many. Many suppose that our Lord mounted up to His Father as an unclothed spirit, between the time of His death on the cross, and His resurrection. The Word of God, however, is very distinct respecting the general truth, that none may present themselves to God in the glory, while unclothed of their bodies. God refuses to accept the naked (Ex. 20: 26; 28: 42; 32: 25). And this general truth is here specially authenticated to us by the testimony of our Lord touching His own case. If He did not ascend to God till after resurrection, much less has any of the spirits [souls]* of the departed done so. ‘David is not ascended to the heavens.’ Not till all traces of death and the curse are swept away is man fit for the presence of God. If Jesus did not mount up to God’s heaven as soon as He died, neither do we.
[* The animating spirit of man ascends to God at the time of death. Better to have said: ‘If He did not ascend to God till after resurrection, much less has any disembodied soul of the departed done so.’ The soul is the person, not the spirit, or the body.]
is entrusted with a commission to apostles. They
take a new and closer title now. Not
‘My apostles’ but 'brethren'.
Thus the Saviour showed His
grace. Else we might have thought - ‘He is now so greatly exalted, He
us the increased distance between us and Him.’ 'Tis
the first time of His employing the title towards them. Jesus is, as the Risen One,
on a new footing
with regard to them. They
were before ‘disciples’
or even ‘friends’.
is a nearer
title. Jesus gives
them the name by
which He can embrace every [regenerate] believer. While
The results of Jesus’ death begin to appear in resurrection. Now is God the Father of those who, believe, the Father in Christ, the Son, and the Risen Man of Righteousness. God is our God too. He will prove His Godhead to us, and to Abraham, as He did to His Son, by raising us from the dead. For He is not visibly the God of Abraham while he is in the tomb. It is only when Abraham shall be risen, while Esau and Absalom and the array of sinners remain in the tombs, that Jehovah shall be seen to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Jesus’ resurrection then was beheld by Mary. But He moves onward in thought and word. Resurrection is a step towards ascension. He was to leave the world of sin and death that had rejected Him. ‘I ascend.’ By His own power and activity He was to ascend. Not as Elijah - ‘The Lord will take your Master from your head to-day,’
Christ's work was not for himself, but for us. Now He, having met and paid our debts in righteousness, God is free in grace to give us out of all the fulness of Christ. ‘My Father and your Father.' Then love and kindness, then eternal inheritance are ours. ‘My God and your God.’ Then Omnipotence, all-creative, is engaged on our behalf. Is God my Father if I believe in Christ? Then all is mine. Not of my desert, for I am bankrupt; but according to His gift! And Christ the True Witness bears record of all my blessing!
‘I am ascending.’ This was to prepare the disciples for His approaching severance from them. He was going to His Father on high, and the way to it was the supernatural one of ascension. The twelve, then, might know that was the way in which He was to take His leave, and thus they were to understand whither He was gone.
The Saviour has given to us who believe a standing before God like His own. He does not say, as would be natural, ‘I ascend to our God and Father.’ No! Even in this His most gracious testimony to our nearness to Him, and His value for this, we are yet to learn that He occupies a nearness to God which we have not. He is with God from eternity: we, only through Him, and in time.
19, 20. ‘Now that same day at evening being the first of the week, when the doors were locked where the disciples were, because of their fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, "Peace be unto you." And when He had said this He showed unto them His hands and His side. The disciples, therefore, rejoiced, when they saw the Lord.’
It was not all at once that the Saviour manifested Himself to His assembled disciples. It was arranged by the Lord in His wisdom that the light should break in upon them by degrees, each discovery preparing the way for the other and fuller ones. This seems to be the occasion of which we read in Luke after the return of the two from Emmaus. Peter was the only one of the apostles who had then beheld Him (Luke 24: 33). But it was the same day - the first of the week, which we are accustomed to keep as, the memorial of the resurrection of our Lord, the foundation of our faith. Jesus would not allow a day to go by, before the proof of that great event should be submitted to the believers in Himself. For on this all turned. We do not keep then the seventh, day, or ‘the Sabbath’ of the Law; nor do we rest for the reason assigned in the Law - because God the Creator on that day rested from His creation-work. We do not rest in fallen creation; but in redemption, or the new creation. We rest, because Christ rested; and the Father rests in Him, as having completed atonement. Our rest, then, is with God, on another day, and for another reason than that under Law.
‘The same day at evening.’ According to the Law, that would have been the beginning of another day. Now a new computation of time is come in, which we use.
as we learn from the Acts, was engaged after His resurrection in two
(1) in establishing the proof of His resurrection; and (2) in
about the present and future
The doors were ‘locked’ - not merely ‘shut’. But though able to keep out foes, they could not keep out the Son of God. Observe the difference, and contrast between ‘the disciples’ of Christ, and ‘the Jews’. ‘The Jews’ were no longer God’s disciples. They refused the Son, and they were left to their sins, and to their natural hatred against the sons of God, who had put the Son of God to death. John no longer, though by birth a Jew, reckons himself one of them. The disciples were still in the world; and power, both political and natural, was with their foes. But the day is coming that will alter all that; when disciples will have judgment given to them, and reign.
‘Jesus came and stood in the midst.’ John goes on in giving his proofs that Jesus Christ is, not two persons, but one. He comes who is Jesus ‘the Man’ risen. But He is also ‘the Lord’. He is the same person after resurrection that He was before it; He carries on the same plan and carries out the same promises which He had announced before His death. Men in general, though friends, must knock at the locked door, and wait for admittance at the pleasure of those within. But this is no longer the case with our Lord. He enters by a new way because the properties of His resurrection-body are altered. His was no longer an animal body, but a spiritual one. He was not dependent upon food and air, and the circulation of the blood. The blood had been entirely withdrawn from Him. We and He, at first, are composed of ‘flesh and blood,’ But Christ says after His resurrection, while asserting the reality of His body, ‘A spirit bath not flesh and bones as ye see Me have’ (Luke 24: 36). He could come out of the tomb before the angel rolled the stone. He could pass through walls. He can make Himself visible or invisible, like the angels. All this is the property, we may suppose, of the resurrection-body; a body whose life is no longer dependant on blood; and whose vitality cannot, therefore, be taken away by the shedding of blood. Thus it tells us of privilege to be enjoyed by ourselves also at the rising, from the dead. We are to be ‘equal unto angels, and to be sons of God, because children of the resurrection.’
He says ‘Peace’. (1) Though they had forsaken Him and fled, He would bear them no ill-will because of it: the offence should be forgiven. (2) He brings peace, as supposed to their trouble and sorrow at the thought that they had for forever lost Him in death. He brings peace as the result of pardon. He tells of peace with God, which could console them, and take away the fear of the Jews. Who speaks this? ‘The Prince of Peace!’
This peace, is founded on Jesus' death and resurrection. Hence he shows the signs of death together with the proofs of life. He eats before them. His body was not yet glorified, and that was wise. For how could they test clearly a body that shone like the sun? They touched the body as Jesus bids them to do in Luke, and as John, in the next paragraph, tells us that Thomas did. To this also John in his Epistle bears witness, that they gazed on, and felt with their hands the Word of Life, Who was from eternity with the Father (1 John 1.).
As, then, at Jesus’ death the disciples mourned, so at His resurrection they rejoiced. It was the first fulfilment of that word, ‘I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice and your joy no man taketh from you.’
Thus they are first, by evidences presented to them, grounded in the truth of the resurrection, who are to proclaim it to others.
‘He saith. unto them, Peace unto you!' This was, and is, a common salutation among Easterns. It referred to their standing among men, and in relation to each other. 'Is it peace, Jehu?’ is the question sent when that captain was riding furiously towards the palace. And the answer - 'What hast thou to do with peace?' refused the appeal. It was war; as the speeding arrow that quivered in the King's heart showed. But now that which was only before a word of ceremony, a testimony of one man’s standing towards another, becomes a reality. It is peace towards God, brought in by the blood of the new covenant, and by the Priest of God. He who bore our sins in death has brought our peace in resurrection. We are no longer at war with God. God is at peace with us. This is the first fruit of faith. ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
Hence, He points out to them the wounds whereby our Peace was made. He is the Lamb of the Great Sacrifice - the ‘Lamb as it had been slain.’ He stands before them as the recovered from the death of crucifixion, the mark of the nails in hands and feet being still apparent. But He is distinguished from others who were crucified, by that spear-thrust in the side, which John alone has recorded. His body was flesh still. It had not been put off altogether; as Swedenborgians vainly assert. The body is an eternal part of the man. Though it corrupts and moulders away whilst it is exposed to the penalty of death, yet as soon as the power of life from Christ enters it, it shall be again to the spirit [and soul] no more to be severed.
The disciples present - as from Luke we learn that more than the ten apostles were there - recognized by these marks, that it was Jesus who was before them; and they rejoiced. His words were true. The grief they had felt at His sad departure was gone. Man had done his worst against Him who is ‘Resurrection and Life’ and lo! He had survived it. This, then, presents Him as not Jesus only, or the mere man, but as ‘the Lord’, possessor of all power in Himself, and now by gift of the Father.
21 - 23. 'He said, therefore, to them again, 'Peace be to you; as MY Father sent Me, I also send you. And when He said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive ye a holy spirit! Whatsoever sins ye forgive they are forgiven to them. Whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained."’
By the fall, God’s image was lost. By the redemption in Christ and through the Holy Ghost, that is more than restored, and a new dominion is here given. It looks onward to the great day of the [millennial] kingdom to come.
Jesus again puts on them His ‘Peace’ - a double portion, designed apparently to belong to disciples as bearers to others of the Peace of God. The twelve, as originally sent forth by Christ, were to offer peace to any house they entered. If it refused it, their peace was to return to them (Matt. 10.),
Shoes of preparation of the Gospel of peace are part of our armour, provided to enable us to fight the good fight. None can properly go forth to fight the devil, but he who has peace with God. None can speak of pardon rightly to others, but he who has first found peace himself.
The Holy Trinity are all engaged in the great work. The Father sends the Son; the Son sends the [Holy] Spirit; the Son and the Holy Spirit send and furnish the disciples for their great embassy. This mission of the disciples was fully according to the Father’s mind.
Jesus now sends these His ministers and messengers with the same commission as His own. They were to bear witness to the Son of God, taking his place of testimony on earth, and possessed of His power. We should naturally have limited this position to the twelve apostles. But Scripture does not. Jesus was not addressing apostles as such. They are called ‘disciples’ only eleven times in this chapter, which was originally the closing chapter of this Gospel. They are never called in John’s Gospel by the official title of ‘apostles’. Moreover, these words were spoken to those present, while Thomas was away. If these were words addressed to those officially apostles, and to those only, then Thomas had no part in them, and so was not a commissioned apostle.
Jesus now sends the disciples as His witnesses into the world, even as He Himself had been sent by the Father. They were by the [Holy] Spirit to bear witness to the Son of God, as the Son had borne witness to the Father. He had previously by Mary Madgalene given them His standing before God. God was to them their God and Father, and they were now to testify to the work of Christ as giving them this place. And by their witness they were to lead others, God’s elect, into the same blessed standing.
Jesus breathes on the assembly. He was the second Adam, the risen from the dead, taking the place of the old Adam before God. But He was also the Son of God - Life and Resurrection. ‘The first Adam was made a living soul, the last Adam was made a life-giving spirit.’ When the body of the first Adam had been moulded by Jehovah out of the dust, He breathed into His nostrils the breath of life. But the disciples are possessed of a better life, for He Who inspires now bestows a spiritual gift.
I understand those words, ‘Receive ye a holy spirit’ (the article is not there), to be parallel with the words in Luke relating to this scene. ‘Then opened He their understandings that they might understand the Scriptures’ (Luke24: 4, 5). It was a gift of inspiration in relation to Old Testament Scriptures; and it was by virtue of this inspired intelligence that Peter acted in the first of Acts, according as the Psalm directs - that another apostle should be chosen in the place of Judas. It did not make needless the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, of which our Lord in this Gospel had abundantly, testified, as the near hope of the disciples.
There is first (1) the sign, and then (2) its significance.
Breath is the sign of life. Here it is not needed for Christ, but imparted to others. As the breath comes forth from the breast, so this spirit from Christ. Jesus is possessed of the Spirit after, as well as before, His resurrection.
But this inbreathing of the Spirit was to be followed by peculiar power and privilege. The words which follow are full of difficulty.
How, then, are we to understand the difficult speech of our Lord concerning the disciples’ forgiving or not forgiving sin?
There are two main views about them.
1. That they are spoken concerning bishops and persons of authority in the church, possessed by virtue of their office, of this special power. Against this we may set the decisive Scripture plea that the word is addressed, not to disciples of a special and peculiar class, but to ‘disciples’ in general. We may add, that bishops and ‘presbyters’ (commonly called ‘priests’ ) are not the same as apostles. So that if this word belongs to apostles alone, then, as they have now no successors, the privilege has ceased.
2. But there is another view which empties the words of their meaning, as the other restricts them beyond God’s sense. According to this, the forgiving of sins is only the testimony of the preacher, proclaiming under the Gospel the general terms according to which sins can be forgiven or not. It is the Evangelist testifying to the world, that the sins of all who repent and accept the Gospel are forgiven; while ‘he that believeth not shall be damned’.
3. That certainly is not the sense. There are two kinds of forgiveness; or, at any rate, two divisions of pardon differently administered. There is the preaching of the Gospel of God’s grace: the testimony that whoever believes receives the pardon of sin. Some accept this testimony of God, and are forgiven by Him. Then the power here granted begins to come into play. The disciples admit believers to their fellowship, as being the communion of those pardoned by God. Their sins forgiven by God are owned by disciples also to be forgiven. The testimony of God is confirmed by the testimony of the sons of God. The admitted have a second reason for believing their forgiveness by God.
But offences arise among those so admitted to the Church. Some offend against those words of the Lord Jesus, which require a putting out of offenders from the assembly of the pardoned. The disciples agree to put out the offender, because of the offence proved. Then that his sin is retained. The general previous forgiveness of God is not done away. That rested on God’s forgiveness, and the elect one is still a son of God. But until he is restored by the disciples, that sin is imputed to him. He is put out of the church; put back into the world.
The history of the Acts gives us examples. (1) Ananias and his wife offend against the omniscience of the Spirit of God. They were numbered among the disciples; but this special offence brings them under the power and judgment of Peter, who retains the offences; and they are cut off.
Among those admitted to fellowship at
(3) Of retaining sins we have a third example, in Paul’s delivering over to Satan, Hymenaeus and Alexander, because of their leaving the faith of Christ, and then blaspheming it. So, in regard of the world’s sins, we have the smiting of Barjesus, and the shaking off the dust of the feet against refusers. The ‘forgiving’ here answers to the ‘loosing’ in Matt. 16. and 18., and the ‘binding’ there answers to the ‘retaining’ here. In Matthew we have two views of the same power; in Matt. 16. as related to Peter, and the other apostles, virtually. In Matt. 18. it is a power made over to the assembly of believers.
While, then, it is not said - ‘None are forgiven but those whom you forgive’ - so on the other hand, it is not merely the general statement of forgiveness as applicable to certain descriptions of persons; but it has a particular application to particular individuals. And so great is the authority and the efficacy that is made over to disciples hereby, that it is called not ‘power to forgive’, but forgiveness. Under the Old Testament there was a year of remission of debts. Now its reality is come.
The Corinthian offender acknowledges his offence; thereupon the apostle and the disciples forgive his sin ‘in the person of Christ’ (2 Cor. 2). The offence pardoned below is pardoned above; and the offender is restored to his place among the disciples.
"But do you not open a wide door to mischief thus? There are assemblies of believers where some are put out wrongly - as suppose, for being immersed according to Christ’s command. Is the One so put out guilty of sin? and is his sin unforgiven by Christ? so that it will stand against his partaking of reward in the day to come?”
By no means! Such exclusion would not be according to, the spirit breathed into the disciples, but according to the flesh. Such rejection, as being against Christ’s written words also would tell, not against him who was acting in obedience to Christ, but against themselves, who were disobeying Him. It would tell against their own acceptance and reward by Christ at His coming. This is a point of the utmost moment, which I would urge on all ‘Exclusives’. Jesus says, ‘With the same measure you measure, it shall be measured unto you again.’ If so, then Jesus must at last speak to such offenders some such word as this: 'You unjustly shut out from their Lord's table those whom you owned to be sons of God; on Me then it devolves, to shut you out from sitting down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God.'