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This Tomb Is No Symbol of Death -- Easter 2023 study of John 20:1-18

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Our relationship with Jesus is not based on His physical body.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 20:1-18

The disciples were stuck in a "seeing is believing" rut, and they couldn't even understand what they were seeing. The empty tomb, the angels, and the physical Jesus all together began to help them begin to realize the reality of the Risen Savior and what it meant to them. This tomb was not a symbol of death, but of life.

“Woman,” Jesus said to her, “why are you crying? Who is it that you’re seeking? (20:15)

For obvious reasons, Lifeway chose to study the Gospel of John a bit out of order so as to cover John's account of Easter morning on Easter morning. I guess they're not giving anything away we don't already know, so this works for me.


Starting with Administrative Stuff

Easter Morning Bible Studies

Looking at it from a purely practical perspective, Easter Sunday is a unique day on our calendar. Unlike Christmas, which "floats", Easter always falls on Sunday, so our routines are built around our church services. Many churches and Bible studies have higher-than-normal attendance, and so any prep has to take into account extra voices (literally) and the possible need to recap things we have covered recently. People will come in later than usual (no, really!), and discussions will take longer than "normal".


But this year, Easter falls on "Master's Sunday". (If you're not in the Augusta area, you won't know what that means. We have a golf tournament here the first week of April, and it has a rather outsized impact on our surrounding area. A lot of people clear out of town to avoid the hullabaloo.) So, attendance might actually be a little low.


But, but, this year the weather is shaping up to be pretty rocky. What impact will that have? Will people cancel their travel plans and thus be here Sunday morning? Will people treat this like other rainy Sundays and just stay home completely? I don't know!


And thus our leaders have to be prepared for anything. Say a prayer and a word of thanksgiving for them, read up on your lesson ahead of time, and come ready to participate in a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus!


Aside: The Word "Easter"

I had a friend who so disliked the word "Easter" that she refused to say it and instead called the day "Resurrection Sunday". The word "Easter" is often claimed to have pagan origins, a fact that many non-Christians use as a "very" clever gotcha.

But the truth is we don't know for sure.

And there's a growing argument that it's actually connected to "pesach" ("Passover").

If you dislike the word "Easter", I understand. I know what I mean when I say it, and for good or ill, so do our neighbors. Let's just make sure we keep the focus on Jesus, not rabbits that lay eggs.


A Calendar Surprise

I'm shocked to say that I don't have any notes on this week's passage from previous Easter Sundays. Here are the last few Easter studies and what you can get from those pages. I'm not going to rehash what's covered elsewhere. If you have particular questions that aren't John-specific, please refer to these links.


  • How to study "familiar" passages

  • What does the Resurrection mean for us?

  • Overview of the Great Commission


  • My most thorough "harmony of the Gospels"

  • Focus on Jewish burial practices

  • "Big" discussion topic: what does the Resurrection change of your perspective?


  • When our eyes deceive us

  • Remember, this was just after the Covid shutdown, so it was more lecture


  • Famous tombs

  • Is the Resurrection really that important?

  • A cool "map" of Easter morning

  • Aside on Joseph of Arimathea and angels


[I did not publish a notes page in 2018]


  • Focus on The Case for Christ and The Case for Easter (apologetics)

  • Aside on Jewish understandings of "resurrection"

  • Aside on women's testimony in that culture


 

Getting Started: Things to Think About

When You Have a Big Thing Early in the Morning

Let me give you some examples of what I'm thinking about, and then you can craft this in a way that best suits your group:

  • You have a very important flight that leaves early

  • You have an early interview a couple of hours away

  • Your final exam is first thing in the morning

  • You have a specialist appointment very early, and it's not close by

Things like that. So for me, two examples come to mind: One, when we lived south of Fort Worth, the closest testing center for the GRE (I needed to take it for seminary) was deep in the DFW metroplex (and this was before affordable GPS), and I had the first time slot in the morning. Two, I had a flight that left the Atlanta airport at something like 7:40am, so do the math to figure out when I needed to leave the house.


How did you sleep? What did you do to make sure you got up on time? What was the night like?


Then add the twist of if the morning's event was positive or negative (something you were anticipating or dreading) -- does that affect your night before?


I can't imagine the Saturday Jesus' followers experienced. They were more or less stuck home, and they couldn't do a thing about it (being the Sabbath and the fact that they were already on the watch list). The first moment they were able to be at Jesus' tomb, they were. (Well, the women were -- we will talk about the guys later.) Did they sleep at all?


Your Favorite Way to Share Good News

We all love to share good news. And for good reason! Do you have a favorite experience of sharing or hearing some good news? Maybe you have a go-to method for this.


The internet was filled with downers about this topic (more on that below), but one page had some great ideas for this:

The rest of the internet was about reasons why you shouldn't share good news (either with specific people, or at all):

  • they'll get jealous, they'll tell you why it's not going to last, they'll doubt you, etc.

(Aside: when we get to the reaction of the disciples, this might come in handy.)


I'm not sure there's a better way to share good news than to have an angel announce it, but let's set that aside for the purpose of this discussion :).

 

Where We Are in John

Like I said, we have skipped ahead. Because we know the story, you probably don't need to set aside too much time for this. We will be coming back around to the context in John's Gospel in the next few weeks. Here's the Visual Bible chapter:

We will be coming back to it in a future lesson.


The Week's Big Idea: The Events of Holy Week

Here's a super-quick overview of the week from BibleGateway:

Jesus was buried at the end of Friday. Remember that Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath, so nobody could do any "work" like taking care of Jesus' body, so Jesus' followers were waiting for first light on Sunday to do that.


If you like details (and I like details), Ben put a really good chart of Holy Week Events in our Faith & Home Center in the atrium. Please pick one up the next time you're in our building! But I don't have permission to post that chart on our website, so here is a similar chart that's freely available online:

This chart includes Jesus' teachings under the assumption that everything was recorded chronologically in this section of the Gospels. I'm quite good with that assumption, but know that smart Christians can disagree about exactly on which day some of these things took place. Don't lose any sleep over that.


Bible Gateway put out a different timeline that's based on people -- lines showing when people were together, and when they were separated. I like it, but I don't know how well it will show up on your reading device.

And yes, not everybody is going to agree on all of the details of this chart. Here's how I approach Bible study tools (like this very page I'm writing): it represents how one person is trying to help other people learn the truths in the Bible. It's always on us to go back into God's Word and check these things out for ourselves.


If you want to read this more like a story, this page is pretty thorough, and it focuses on what most Christian traditions agree about:


So there you go. If you don't know where we are in the story of Jesus, you're not trying very hard.

 

Part 1: Examine (John 20:1-10)

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!”
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.

If you have questions about how John's version "harmonizes" with the other Gospels, I recommend checking out my Easter post from 2021:


I believe that some of the confusion comes from the simple fact that "Mary/Maria" was a very common name. (You know, kinda like "Emily" today.) That's why the authors would put modifiers on these names (like "Mary from Magdala", or "Mary the mother of Jesus").


The Sabbath was "the seventh day of the week" (the day God rested), making this the day after the Sabbath. John the author wants us to see this "first day of the week" as a new creation (much like how Paul called Jesus a new and better Adam). Official Sabbath ran from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, so the women probably started their work in the wee hours of the morning.


Why did John only mention Mary Magdalene? That's interesting, because John had only just introduced her for the first time as one of the women at the cross (19:25)! (Luke the author said that Mary had joined the ranks of Jesus' followers early on after Jesus exorcized demons from her (8:2).) My guess is that John really wanted to highlight the exchange Mary with the Jesus in the garden (mainly because of verse 17), and so he removed everything that might have distracted from it.


Luke gives us a few additional details:

23:54 It was the preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed along and observed the tomb and how his body was placed. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and perfumes. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment. 24:1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the tomb, bringing the spices they had prepared.

Remembering your earlier discussion about what it's like the night before a big, early, important event, we can only guess how much the women allowed themselves to sleep (if at all) on Saturday night. Any time after sundown, they would have been released from their Sabbath rest to finish "preparing the spices". You should remember from the Lazarus story that after three days, the dead body would have already begun decomposing and smelling bad. These spices (and oils) were not to reserve the body but only to keep it from smelling too bad -- a final act of devotion to a beloved teacher.

When Mary got to the tomb, she was surprised to find it open. John the author doesn't give any details about the stone, the guards, the angels -- none of that. For John, the only thing that really matters to his narrative is the body of Jesus.


Before we blame Mary for not understanding the significance of the empty tomb, just remember that none of the disciples did (including the "inner circle" of Peter and John!), and that's one of John the author's points of emphasis. Mary saw that the tomb was empty and ran to tell the men. (Incidentally, this is probably where Mary Magdalene's story diverges from the other women -- she was younger enough to be up for the long run from the tomb to the house where the men were hiding.) (And yes, I do think it's worth pointing out that the women were the ones who wanted to perform a last act of devotion, while the men just wanted to sit and brood/hide. To them, doing something was better than doing nothing. There's a sermon in there somewhere.)


John the author has referred to "the disciple Jesus loved" 6 times:

  • 13:1, 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20

According to 21:24, it's the term he used for himself -- not out of pride, but humility, not wanting his own name to get any attention. This means that John the author is the man who cared for Mary the mother of Jesus. We don't know how long she lived, but we can guess that years spent with her made John the author the very thoughtful and spiritual author he became.


I love the detail of John running fast than Peter. I don't think we should read anything into it other than proof that John the author was there personally. After "depressing and sad Easter" became "good news Easter", I'm sure John gave Peter a good ribbing about being faster. And yes, that makes John's account compelling -- he was there. He wasn't the last one at the cross; he wasn't the first one at the tomb. But he was there. Every Jesus movie has to add certain dramatic details, but the ones we can verify from the biblical narratives are worth building around.


These tombs were dug somewhat into the ground, so anyone would have to stoop down or kneel to be able to see inside. John stooped and looked; Peter just went right on it. We shouldn't read too much into that, but it's another fun detail of how the two men responded to the situation.


They both saw "linen clothes" but no body. And that's what John the author is focused on -- the absence of a body. That's what he would have remembered most from that morning. What tomb raider takes the clothes off of a dead body and steals the body? [Key detail: remember how Lazarus was wrapped in linen cloths that he would need help getting out of? It would take effort to remove these clothes.] And the face cloth -- this was a wrap around the head intended to keep the mouth closed (without thinking about it too much, just know that such practice was about decency and respect). But now, the face cloth is neatly folded and set aside where the body was. What strange behavior! What could possibly explain such a strange scenario?!


The answer is so exceedingly obvious to us, the reader. And that's the point. John is taking us on the journey he went through:

  • He and Peter saw but didn't believe

  • Later, they saw and finally believed (Thomas specifically said that unless he saw, he wouldn't believe)

  • But who did Jesus say is blessed? Those who have not seen and yet believe (20:29)

In verse 8, we see the wheels finally start to turn for John the author. Verse 8 -- "saw and believed" is better translated "saw and began to believe" (due to the specific verb tense used). But I don't think this is just about the resurrection! Remember what Paul says in Romans 10:

9 If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.

I think this is John the author finally starting to put it all together. And I mean all of it.

[Btw -- every artwork I saw had zero neatly-folded clothes.]


Verse 10 is interesting and a bit curious. A bit anticlimactic. A bit vague. But it handles two very important functions:

  1. It puts Mary at the tomb by herself.

  2. It reminds us that Jesus has always been the One to go after them.

We read last week:

15:16 You did not choose me, but I chose you.

John the author never lost sight of that.


As far as lesson/group time goes, the most important thing to do here is establish the facts of Easter morning. We don't want to assume that everyone here is fully familiar with it.


Then, take your pick of implications. Some ideas include:

  • What was Mary Magdalene thinking about on her way to the tomb?

  • What went through the disciples' minds when they first saw the tomb open?

  • Why were the disciples so worried about Jesus' body?

We get more of the story in the next few verses, so save some thoughts!

 

Part 2&3: Questions and Answers (John 20:11-18)

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.” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them what he had said to her.

I'm going to combine these sections because I don't understand the value of separating them.


The Klink commentary I like had this amazing observation:

  • "The resurrected Jesus makes the tomb a place of grace not grief."

Even at an empty tomb -- talking to angels, no less! -- Jesus' followers still doubted, misunderstood, and shrank back. And in that very place, Jesus begins the process of healing -- for them! Jesus has conquered sin and hell, but that doesn't stop Him from appreciating the individual encounters with His followers. There's a sermon in there, too.


When Mary looks in the tomb, it's actually not empty. John the author doesn't say that Mary shrieked when she saw the angels (but then again, he doesn't say that she didn't!). She has a rather normal conversation with them.


[About empty tomb art -- I tried to find something not too distractingly inaccurate to include here. Art helps us envision. But all of the artworks I skimmed had at least one major error --

  • The angels had massive wings (like seraphs) and/or were extremely white

  • Mary was in the tomb with them (which she almost certainly was not)

  • The angels were not sitting at the head and feet of the platform for Jesus' body

Once you have to explain that much about why a picture is inaccurate, it's not helpful.]


For starters, don't take for granted the obvious implications -- just as angels announced Jesus' birth, so they announced His resurrection.


The detail Mary remembered enough to insist that John put in His Gospel, that the angels sat at where Jesus' head and feet were, has brought out all of the allegory-mongers. I had always thought this was a nod to the fact that Jesus' head and feet were anointed at Bethany. But leave it to Klink to have a much more spiritual observation:

  • "The location of the angels at each end of the place where Jesus had been lying intends to signify the angels at the two ends of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant."

Yeah, I think I'll just go with that. You might have to read up on the mercy seat, but when you do I'm sure you'll agree that Klink is probably right-on.


Mary focuses on her grief. I'm not convinced she even understood what she was really saying. It has become an obsession with Jesus' body for His followers -- an unhealthy one. No, not because Mary and Jesus were romantically involved (as some weirdos would suggest), but because Mary was like Thomas -- they could only believe in what they could see. As long as they had His body, they couldn't always "remember" what He taught them. And now even His body was gone.


She just couldn't get over the assumption that a tomb was a place of death.


John proves his mettle as an author with this section. Everything drips with irony and sheepishness. Mary is all of us.


How many times have you been praying for something while completely overlooking the answer from God that was staring you in the face?


How many times have you prayed for something without really believing that God would "come through"?


How many times have you gotten really obsessed with a thing and forgotten what was actually important about it?


Give a few examples of those situations, and hopefully all of us can become just a little more sympathetic toward Mary.


Aside on This Garden

It's been a while since we studied Genesis (2015!). There, I suggested that "Eden" likely referred to the entire region we now think of as the Fertile Crescent.

And within this region, God planted a special garden. Some Christians I respect a great deal suggest that the garden in Eden was planted at the location of Jerusalem. (That would certainly explain why God places the New Holy City right there in Revelation.)

Whether that detail is true or not, there is no question that John the author has been alluding to Genesis quite a bit.


We all chuckle when Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener, right? That's the beauty of this mistaken identity: Jesus is the Gardener. This might be very close to where God formed Adam out of the dust of the earth and gave him the perfect place to live. Adam ruined it, but now Jesus had made it right.


Back to the passage.


The question "Who is it that you're seeking?" is the exact same question Jesus asked the mob who came to the garden of Gethsemane. It's the question John the author has made the foundation of his Gospel. He has carefully established Jesus' identity, and now he turns it back to the reader:

  • You have read this Gospel because you are looking for Jesus. Why have you done so? What do you expect to find?

Who are the different groups who have sought Jesus out in this Gospel? Why did they?


Think about the disciples, the Pharisees, the sick, the soldiers, the seekers, who else? What was their reaction to Jesus?


ONCE AGAIN, she misses it. Finally, Jesus does the equivalent of grabbing her shoulders with a clear "Mary". We aren't told the tone of voice, so when I read this, I imagine the tone that I need to hear at whatever moment I read this passage. This is exactly in line with what we studied in chapter 10:

2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought all his own outside, he goes ahead of them. The sheep follow him because they know his voice.

[Aside: much has been wondered of "turning around" in verse 16. Without overdoing it, I think we can definitely assume that John wants us to catch the image of "turning to Jesus" here.]


It's finally time to tackle verse 17. "Do not touch me"/"Don't cling to me" is probably the easiest part of the passage to grasp. This has nothing to do with Jesus having a "fresh resurrection body" -- remember that in just a little bit, Jesus will invite Thomas to touch Him. No, this is about Mary's preoccupation with Jesus' physical body. She needs to learn RIGHT NOW that her relationship with God is not about walking and talking with the physical Jesus but rather the coming indwelling Holy Spirit who will take up His role as the Christians' experience of God.


"But go to My brothers" -- you might be surprised that this is the first time in John's Gospel that Jesus has referred to the disciples as "brothers". I think it's important to note that the word equally means "brothers and sisters", so we have no reason to believe Jesus is only talking about the Eleven. "My Father and your Father" -- in many ways, this passage fulfills what we learned in last week's passage:

15:15 I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.

We are His sheep.

Then His friends.

Then His brothers and sisters.


Wow.


Of course, the primary application is that we should tell others about our personal experience with the Risen Savior. But this is also a chance to reflect on our personal experience with Him. Make sure your group truly celebrates Jesus this day!

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