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An Empty Tomb, a New Creation -- the Easter 2024 Bible Study of John 20

Updated: Apr 15

Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth with followers of Jesus.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 20:1-17

Though we studied this passage in 2023, we now have the background of Genesis to appreciate the beautiful touches of John crafting Jesus' ministry as a "second Genesis" in which anyone can trust in Jesus and be born "again" into the kind of life God originally created humanity for (before Adam lost it all in that first garden).

But go to my brothers and tell them...(20:17)


We Studied This Passage Last Easter

I really like last year's post, and I really don't like repeating myself.


I really, really encourage you to skim through last years post. You'll see topics such as

  • The word "Easter"

  • Handling a big, early event

  • Sharing good news

  • A big summary of Holy Week

  • A map of key events

  • John "beginning to believe"

  • The Garden of Jesus' tomb

  • The purpose of John's Gospel

It's thorough; it's useful.


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Something You Didn't Want to Give Up

In this week's passage, when Mary Magdalene realizes it's Jesus, she wants to grab onto Him and not let go. But He tells her that she has to. He is returning to His Father, and she has to let Him go (physically).


I'm not sure I can come up with anything that would be harder to let go than the physically-present Jesus Christ. But let's find other answers. What's something you had a terrible time giving up?


Sure there are some conceptual answers like "childhood" or "innocence". And there are some practical answers like "junk food" or "my sedentary lifestyle". But I'm guessing that the hardest answers will be things like "my friend who moved" or "my loved one who died" or "my child who moved out of the house". Things like that.


What's your answer?


The Fastest You've Ever Run

Peter and John have a footrace to the empty tomb. And it's definitely not out of excitement -- it's out of bewilderment or terror. How about you? What makes you run fast?


I've not had the "run from bullies" experience that Forrest Gump did, but I remember running from a dog once. I am positive that's the fastest I ever ran as a kid. But as a parent, I discovered new levels of fast I didn't know I had. If you're a parent, you know exactly what I'm talking about.


The "fight or flight" chemistry suggests that we run faster when we're scared. Is that the sort of thing that caused your fastest running?


This Week's Big Idea: Genesis and the Gospel of John

As I've said, we studied this week's Easter passage last year when we studied the Gospel of John. And I've also said that I really like last year's post:

So..... let me focus on an obvious topic that I'm shocked didn't come up at all in the Lifeway material -- the relationship between what we've been studying in Genesis and how John crafted his Gospel.


When we studied the Gospel of John, we regularly pointed out the parallels between John and Genesis. Just as Matthew portrayed Jesus as a "new Moses" (and Paul portrayed Him as a "new Adam"), John portrayed Jesus as a "new Genesis". It would be wrong to call John's Jesus a "new Creator" because he makes it clear that Jesus was the original Creator. Instead, John works very hard to show his readers that Jesus fulfills what the original story of creation hinted at.


I would love to take this post to focus on how John's Gospel paints the life and ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of Genesis. Depending on who is a part of your Sunday morning Bible study, you may want to focus on the raw facts of Jesus' resurrection as told in John 20 -- nothing is more important on Easter morning than making sure that everyone who comes to our churches understands what this is day about. But you may find a way to work on some of the beautiful parallels between John's Gospel and the book of Genesis.


It starts with the prologues to both books, as we noted:

Genesis 1

John 1

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

2 He was with God in the beginning.

3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

3 All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.

4 God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.

4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” There was an evening, and there was a morning: one day.

5 That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.

This short "visual commentary" video from the Bible Project does a catchy job of showing how John structured and used his prologue:


If Genesis is about creation, then John realizes that Jesus' coming into the world marks the beginning of a new creation.


Let me share the rest of John's prologue:

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created through him, and yet the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name, 13 who were born, not of natural descent, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. 14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified concerning him and exclaimed, “This was the one of whom I said, ‘The one coming after me ranks ahead of me, because he existed before me.’”) 16 Indeed, we have all received grace upon grace from his fullness, 17 for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.

John focuses on the shocking truth that creation didn't recognize the Creator. And ultimately, they would attempt to kill the Creator, which is the very crisis hinted at in Genesis 3:

4 “No! You will certainly not die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The temptation to replace God, which you might remember is how we explained the shocking parable of the vineyard in Matt 21:

38 But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Today, with the help of the New Testament, we know that their heinous act fulfilled God's plan to save humanity through the sacrifice of His Son. We talked a little bit about that in

And we talked about the symbolism of Abraham and Issac in


But let's get back to the big picture.


When we studied John's description of the events in Gethsemane

we saw lots of parallels with Eden. The Garden of Eden, a place of beauty and prayer, became a place of deception and sin through the wiles of the devil. Likewise, the Garden of Gethsemane was a place of beauty and prayer that became a place of deception and violence through the wiles of the devil. (John is the only author to specifically mention the devil's role in Judas's betrayal -- John 13:2.)


The key difference? Jesus resisted temptation where Adam did not. Jesus could have wiped out His enemies -- and He was tempted to -- but He did not. He chose to fulfill His purpose as a human and die the death we deserve.


John sets up another important parallel in Jesus' trial:

19:5 Then Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

Pilate says, "Look, the man!" John understood well the profound truth in Pilate's declaration. Indeed, Jesus is humanity in that moment -- humanity as we should have been. Giving up our desire to be like God in order to sacrifice ourselves for the good of all. Keeping the integrity of our relationship with God. Putting our faith in God's commands and plans above our desire to preserve our life at any cost.


Yes, when the crowd saw Jesus on trial, they were actually seeing humanity itself on trial. But whereas every other human had failed that trial, Jesus would prevail. He was the human none of us could be. And now in Him, we have access to His kind of humanity.


But the most beautiful parallels of all are found on Sunday morning, "the first day of the week". God created the heavens and the earth in six days, and on the seventh day He rested, right? Why did He rest? Because He had finished the work He set out to do in creation.

Gen 2:2 On the seventh day God had completed his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it he rested from all his work of creation.

Now, what is the last thing John reported Jesus saying on the cross before He willingly gave up His spirit?

It is finished. (19:30)

Jesus was crucified on a Friday, the sixth day of the week. And then on Saturday, on the Sabbath, He waited. (I can't in good conscience say "He rested" because we don't actually know everything Jesus did on that day.)


The point is that John makes it clear that Jesus finished His work on the sixth day of the week. And then on the first day of the week, something new happens.


John went out of his way to describe the place the buried Jesus:

19:41 There was a garden in the place where he was crucified. A new tomb was in the garden; no one had yet been placed in it. 42 They placed Jesus there because of the Jewish day of preparation and since the tomb was nearby.

Another garden. A garden with a place no person had ever been placed before. Jesus would receive life there and emerge on the first day of a new creation.


But it's a new kind of creation. People aren't "born" into this creation, they are "born again". Remember how God gave Adam life? He breathed into him the life of the spirit. And what did Jesus do with His disciples on that first day of the week?

20:19 When it was evening on that first day of the week, the disciples were gathered together with the doors locked because they feared the Jews. Jesus came, stood among them, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 Having said this, he showed them his hands and his side. So the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” 22 After saying this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit."

None of the other Gospels include this description. That's because John -- after decades of reflecting on Jesus' ministry -- saw the symbolism of what Jesus was doing.


What did God say to Adam on the day of his creation?

Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.

And what did Jesus commission the disciples to do?

  • Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth -- but with "born again" humans.

  • Subdue the earth -- but the powers of evil.


Aren't those parallels gorgeous? Surely you can find a way to work some of them in.


Summary:

  • Jesus, the Creator, comes into the world as a "second Genesis", again separating the light from the darkness.

  • Jesus, the "second Adam", succeeds where Adam failed, so in His trial before Pilate, Jesus "won".

  • God's work of creation was finished on the sixth day; Jesus' work of salvation was finished on the sixth day.

  • In Jesus' new creation, which also begins on the first day of the week, He breathes a "new kind of life" into His "born again" followers.


Happy Easter!

 

Where We Are in the Bible

We've been in the book of Genesis, and now we're in the Gospel of John. No problem.


Here's that handy Holy Week chart I shared last year:


And this scary-looking chart is sneaky effective:


And this is probably my favorite map of the events. (Remember that there is still much debate about exactly where the Upper Room was and the Garden Tomb.)


If you want more context, please refer to last year's post:


 

Part 1: The Tomb Is Empty (John 20:1-2)

1 On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she went running to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him!”

Most of your task here is in setting the stage. We studied the Gospel of John just a year ago, so my hope is that most of your group is fairly up on these events. That gives you more time to focus on any guests who may not know much about the Bible.


Aside on Guests: As this is the Easter morning study, our hope and prayer is that all of us will have guests. We've talked about this before in different settings:

  • You don't want your guests to be clueless about what's going on.

  • You also don't want to make your guests self-conscious about what they don't know.

Do your best to include everybody without putting anybody on the spot. If that means you repeat some things just to be safe, then so be it.


This might be a place you share a little about Genesis ("the first day of the week").


Mary's use of "we" makes it clear that she wasn't alone. But the bigger thing to point out is their surprise. And note that the women certainly don't think that Jesus has risen from the dead -- they think someone has stolen His body!


We can go back to John 2:

2:18 So the Jews replied to him, “What sign will you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days.” 20 Therefore the Jews said, “This temple took forty-six years to build, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 So when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made.

Yes, that's a bit esoteric. I'm not sure I would have any idea what Jesus meant by that. But Luke makes sure the disciples have no excuses:

9:20 “But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.” 21 But he strictly warned and instructed them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “It is necessary that the Son of Man suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day.”

And

18:31 Then he took the Twelve aside and told them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. Everything that is written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles, and he will be mocked, insulted, spit on; 33 and after they flog him, they will kill him, and he will rise on the third day.” 34 They understood none of these things. The meaning of the saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

He even digs in with his story about Emmaus:

24:19 “What things?” he [Jesus] asked them. So they said to him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women from our group astounded us. They arrived early at the tomb, 23 and when they didn’t find his body, they came and reported that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see him.” 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

In other words, the disciples knew that Jesus said He would rise from the dead on the third day.


But here we are at the third day, and they are utterly bewildered by an empty tomb.


What teachings in the Bible do you simply have a hard time believing?

 

Part 2: No One Knows Why (John 20:3-10)

3 At that, Peter and the other disciple went out, heading for the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and got to the tomb first. 5 Stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then, following him, Simon Peter also came. He entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 The wrapping that had been on his head was not lying with the linen cloths but was folded up in a separate place by itself. 8 The other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, then also went in, saw, and believed. 9 For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

John wants to make it clear that chauvinism will not avail you. Yes, Mary was shocked to find the tomb empty. But so were Peter and John.


(See last year's post

for more about "the other disciple", the importance of the folded cloths, the meaning of "stooping", and why it doesn't matter who ran faster.)


I'll focus instead on the "he did not go in". Why didn't John go in? And why did John the author mention that in his Gospel?


John doesn't tell us this (I'm just speculating!), but I wonder if he was finally hit with a "wave of recognition". Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a "eureka moment"? (Wikipedia: "the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept".) I have, and those are some of my most favorite memories. It was usually something I was having trouble with at school, and then I would have an "aha!" and would have to stop everything just so I could process what I realized (and not trip and fall).


I think that's what happened to John. That's why in verse 8 he goes on to say that he "also went in, saw, and believed". But the tense John used actually means "he began to believe". That's why he was so quiet for the rest of the day. He was finally beginning to process everything Jesus had said and done.


But he needed one more prompt -- one more piece of the puzzle -- before he could be sure that he understood what Jesus had done.


He needed to see Jesus alive.


Peter has been played as a bit of an oaf through all of this, and perhaps rightfully so. Who else could go from a "Blessed are you" to a "Get behind Me, Satan" in the same afternoon? Peter needed help -- a lot of help (and he would get it!:


But again -- they knew that Jesus was going to die AND that He was going to rise from the dead. They "knew" but they didn't "understand".


What are those things that you have a hard time understanding? This is not to suggest that you're going to get all of those answers this Sunday morning! But perhaps it can give you hope that understand is out there, and one day you can find it.

 

Part 3: Ask the Gardener? (John 20:11-17)

11 But Mary stood outside the tomb, crying. As she was crying, she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels in white sitting where Jesus’s body had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “Because they’ve taken away my Lord,” she told them, “and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus. 15 “Woman,” Jesus said to her, “why are you crying? Who is it that you’re seeking?” Supposing he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you’ve put him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” Turning around, she said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”—which means “Teacher.” 17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus told her, “since I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

My heart so utterly breaks for Mary in this scene. She is so distraught -- so filled with grief over the loss of Jesus -- so desperate to find His body that she...

  • tells angels (!!) who are sitting in Jesus' empty tomb (!!) that Jesus' body is missing (!!!!), and

  • accuses a gardener of being in on some tomb-raiding conspiracy.

Gardeners only get this much street cred in The Lord of the Rings.


Just soak on that first one for a while. They're obviously angels. They're obviously sitting in strategic locations in a crypt. There are obviously strategically positioned grave clothes in the empty tomb. And they ask her, "Why are you crying?"


Have you ever said something to someone only to find out later that they knew a lot better than you what you were talking about?

I've done that at conferences, start talking about something only to later realize that the person who quite literally wrote the book on the topic was in that circle.


Mary was in shock. I'm going to cut her a lot of slack. Peter has certainly spoken out of turn out of shock (see Luke 9:33 -- Luke was not afraid to call out the disciples). Because after she speaks to the angels, she turns away from them (!!!) and sees someone else. Logically, she assumes that this person is the one who took Jesus' body (kinda true), but then she also assumes he must be a gardener (!!!!). Because who else would be stealing bodies from a tomb? (!!!!!)


Shock makes us do and say unbelievable things.


(Aside: really, why didn't she recognize Jesus? There are lots of reasons proposed. I believe that Mary (and others) were spiritually prevented from recognizing Him. He was still Jesus in the same way that we will somehow recognize people in heaven (even if we have never met them). And that ties into the main purpose of this Gospel.)


This leads me to the purpose of John's Gospel --

20:30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John wrote the Gospel so that we as readers would know who Jesus is.


And that's why Jesus framed His question to Mary so oddly --

Who is it that you’re seeking?

That's the question John asks all of his readers. Who are we seeking?


At that moment, Mary seemed to be looking for a "security blanket" and Peter seemed to be looking for his "protective big brother". In the rest of the Gospel, John introduced us to people who were looking for

  • someone to entertain them,

  • someone to solve their problems,

  • someone to fight the battles they were scared to,

  • someone to answer questions,

  • someone to give them free food.

Unless we are seeking the very Son of God, we will not find what we're looking for.


Jesus verbally shook Mary out of her stupor. And He did it by giving her a task -- a very important task: "tell My brothers..."


In last year's post, I mentioned that this is the first time Jesus spoke about the disciples as His "brothers". They were about to enter into a new phase of this relationship -- and a new kind of responsibility.


Here's one last connection to Genesis before I wrap things up:

8:31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you continue in my word, you really are my disciples. 32 You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 “We are descendants of Abraham,” they answered him, “and we have never been enslaved to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 A slave does not remain in the household forever, but a son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.

In the previous weeks, we have established that being a child of Abraham (and thus in God's covenant with Abraham) was the very pinnacle of being Jewish. Thus would they receive God's blessing and presence.


But here in chapter 8, Jesus explains that the true children of Abraham are not traced by physical descent but spiritual lineage. And their lineage must be traced to Jesus, the true Son of God. Now hopefully this verse in the prologue hits home:

1:12 But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name, 13 who were born, not of natural descent, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.

In Jesus Christ, and only in Jesus Christ, do we become children of God. This is the task Jesus gave to Mary and then to the disciples and then to us.

20:21“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you.”

Go! Take the message of the new creation to your world.

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