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  • Writer's pictureBishop Vince McLaughlin

The Resurrection: To Perceive With Understanding (John 20:8-18)

++Rt. Rev. Dr. Vince McLaughlin

Please recall that St. John is the writer here and he is recalling events that took place

some 6o years or so ago. In 20:8-9, St. John recalls that he is timid at first at the tomb

but becomes emboldened by Peter to entered the tomb and saw the place where the

Master lay. He remembers that nothing but linen grave-clothes and the additional burial

cloth that had been around Yeshua’s head was present. With sudden intuition he

perceived that the only explanation was that the Yeshua who had been crucified, the

Yeshua who had so recently assigned him his mother, the Yeshua who had been buried

in this new tomb, had risen from the dead.

The beloved disciple saw and believed—and thus the Evangelist introduces the themes

of seeing and believing that reach their climax in v29. The Greek word used here in the

original text means “to perceive with understanding.”

But lest readers of this Gospel get the wrong idea about the quality of the disciples’ faith

at this point, John appended a parenthesis telling us that neither he nor the rest of the

disciples yet understood the connection between scriptural prophecy and the

resurrection. That would await Yeshua’s post-resurrection teaching followed by the

infilling with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

What Scripture might John have had in mind when he wrote v9? Quite possibly Isaiah

53:10–12 or even Psalm 16:10. What did he actually believe if he did not understand the

biblical background of resurrection? Perhaps the best option in the text is to conclude

that John believed Yeshua was alive but could not figure out why or what would happen

next. That fits well with the great surprise of the disciples at post-resurrection

appearances. Nevertheless, once they understood, the message of the living Savior

permeated their preaching throughout the next thirty years. This had been for

them—and for us—a genuine Super Sunday.

It is clear from the New Testament that the early Christians saw the resurrection as

foretold in the Old Testament. But this verse shows plainly that it was belief in the

resurrection that came first. The believers did not manufacture a resurrection to agree

with their interpretation of prophecy. They were first convinced that Christ was risen!

Then they came to see a fuller meaning in certain Old Testament passages. I am going

into this further at the end of this teaching manuscript on how the Early Church engaged

the reality of Yeshua’s Resurrection.

As we begin to exegete the text, we see how beautiful to learn that though the cross

may have killed faith and hope, it could not destroy love. Yeshua told Mary not to hold

to the past. Now there would be a new relationship, and she would be the first witness

to other disciples that Yeshua was alive.

In 20:10–12. The phrase “you will be my witnesses” or “we are witnesses” does not

appear in this chapter of John, but the Lord used it in Acts 1:8 and we see it repeated in

Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39. In all four of those passages, it is always spoken by St.

Peter, and the context always describes the crucifixion and resurrection. But here the

primary witness was not St. Peter but Mary. Peter and John had left, but Mary stayed at

the tomb and St. John, the beloved disciple, offered this loving and passionate account

of the first post-resurrection appearance of our Lord.

Mary wept as we would over the loss of a dear friend. Then suddenly two angels

appeared, and a fascinating conversation took place. We know from Luke’s record that

Mary had been cured of demon possession (Luke 8:2) and also had helped support the

Lord financially. We must not confuse her with the prostitute of Luke 7 or with Mary the

sister of Martha and Lazarus. Empty tomb or not, her grief was unbearable—so deep

that she could not take her eyes off the grave to perceive the living Lord.

No Bible reader is surprised to find angels at the empty tomb. From the birth of Yeshua

(Luke 1:11, 26) to the announcement of the Holy City (Rev. 22:8–9) we find angels

announcing God’s plan. They not only heralded the resurrection and showed up at the

ascension; they even prophesied the second coming (Acts 1:11). One of the major

duties assigned these “ministering spirits” was to appear at crucial times and places to

announce God’s plan to individuals or groups. This is the only place where St. John

mentioned angels in his Gospel.

No description is given of the angels. When angels appear in the Bible, they are usually

recognized by their powers rather than by any significant difference from human form.

Mary did not respond to them in any unusual way, possibly because her eyes were

clouded with tears, or because she was preoccupied with the loss of Yeshua’s body. The

sole feature noted in the text is that angels were clothed in white.

In 20:13–14, St. John records that Mary saw Yeshua. She noticed a person standing

there, but she had no idea who it was. Many interpreters have wondered about this

passage. How could she not recognize Yeshua? Certainly there are many plausible


She had experienced deep trauma; her eyes had filled with tears; it was still dark; she

was very confused. But perhaps most important, she had not considered the

resurrection a possibility. So the idea that she might be talking to a living Christ never

occurred to her. She was looking for a body; she did not expect a resurrection.

In 20:15–16, Mary finally asked the person she thought to be the gardener where the

body might be so she could retrieve it. The engagement of Yeshua with Mary is quite

interesting as we look at the questions asked.

The first (why are you crying?) becomes mild rebuke; the second (Who is it you are

looking for?) becomes an invitation to reflect on the kind of Messiah she was expecting,

and thus to widen her horizons and to recognize that, grand as her devotion to him was,

her estimate of him was still far too small. The evangelistic implications for St. John’s

readers are transparent.

Whatever the cause of her blindness, the single word Mary, spoken as Yeshua had

always uttered it, was enough to remove it. The good shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by

name … and his sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (10:3–4). Anguish and

despair are instantly swallowed up by astonishment and delight. Yeshua spoke her

name and tragedy turned to triumph.

Mary addresses him as she always has: Rabbouni!—an Aramaic word which John

dutifully translates for his Greek-speaking readers. It may not be the highest

Christological confession, but at this point Mary is enthralled by the restored

relationship, not contemplating its theological implications.

This first appearance to a woman shows us the grace and openness of the gospel. This

historic narrative describes what really happened. Yeshua did not show himself to Peter

and John but spoke first to Mary – so much for gender discrimination in the Bible.

It is highly significant that Christ appeared first to a woman and that this appearance is

recorded by all four Gospels. It was not only to a woman, one who in that culture had

been oppressed, but to a person who had known great sin. What a great comfort this

should be to us. Christ always comes first to the poor in spirit.

In 20:17–18, we see a most difficult passage to both translate and provide a solid

exegetical theological interpretation. Many ideas have been put forth to explain the

words, do not hold on to me. But such conjecture is unnecessary, since Yeshua told us

this statement was connected with His ascension. The people who love Yeshua on

earth—beginning with Mary—must learn to live without the physical support of his


There must be no more kissing of His feet, but homage of a sterner, deeper sort; there

must be no more sitting at table with Him, and filling the mind with His words, until they

sit down with Him in the Father’s presence. Meanwhile His friends must walk by faith,

not by sight—by their inward light and spiritual likings; they must learn the truer fidelity

that serves an absent Lord; they must acquire the independent and inherent love of

righteousness which can freely grow only when relieved from the over-mastering

pressure of a visible presence, encouraging us by sensible expressions of favor,

guaranteeing us against defeat and danger.

Mary thus witnessed the resurrection, and her first act upon leaving Yeshua was a report

to the disciples. It is difficult to know from John’s account whether this report or the one

in v2 was rejected by the disciples. But for whatever reason, the women who believed

the reality of the empty tomb could not convince the other disciples what had happened.

The lesson we must learn here centers in the rock-solid unbelief of Yeshua’s closest

friends. We shall learn in a few verses that all reports of a risen Lord failed to convince

the one absent disciple (Thomas) that Yeshua had made a second appearance. The

disciples had no faith in a resurrection.

In 20:18, Mary of Magdala (19:25) did as she was told, not only announcing “I have

seen the Lord!” but also telling them that he had said these things to her. The words the

Lord still do not constitute a confession akin to that of St. Thomas (vv2, 15, 28). At this

point Mary is simply identifying the one she saw in the garden with the Master they all

knew, and knew to have been crucified. But she spoke better than she knew.

St. John does not tell us how the disciples responded, but there is no reason to think

that they reacted any better than they did to the women’s report of the empty tomb (Lk.

24:9– 11).

In conclusion, the transforming process of Mary coming to recognize the risen Lord took

place when Yeshua called her name, “Mary,” or more precisely at this point “Miriam.” It is

fascinating to note that the Johannine evangelist has described transformative

recognition occurring through the use of one word at this point.

In the sea story it occurred when the disciples responded obediently to the stranger on

the shore and cast their nets (in what seemed to be a foolish act) on the other side of

the boat (21:6–7). In the Lukan Emmaus story the recognition occurred in the breaking

of bread. What should be concluded from these examples is that recognition of Yeshua

does not need to follow a single pattern. Coming to the point of conviction that Yeshua is

alive is probably as varied as the nature of the people who believe.

Mary’s response was immediate, for her cries of sorrow turned to a word of exclamation

and personal association. The evangelist John captured the interchange in two singular

statements. For Yeshua it was “Miriam”; for Mary it was “Rabbouni” (my dear Rabbi). In

his concern for Greek-speaking readers, unfamiliar with Aramaic, however, the

evangelist clarified the term by adding another of his linguistic interpretive footnotes

(1:41–42) to identify the term as meaning “teacher,” although the Greek hardly carries

the same personal impact as the Aramaic word.

As we come to the Resurrection of Yeshua, in order to perceive with understanding, we


First, hear Him speak our name as a result of the wooing of the Holy Spirit. There is a

call of our name that brings us to our senses. There are evidences of Him that demand

a verdict of committal response. Miriam turned like an act of repentance to the person

who had jest called her by her name!

Second, in our turning - we must recognize Him with celebratory joy not embracing the

past but the future – for all things are different now.

Third, we must go to proclaim the reality of the resurrection of Yeshua that has

happened personally in your life as Miriam did. “I have seen the Lord!”

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