11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘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 that he had said these things to her. – John 20:11-18 ESV
John indicates that he and Peter left the empty tomb and “went back to their homes” (John 20:10 ESV). The Greek phrase eis ta idia can also be translated as “to their own.” and since it is unlikely that either of these men had private homes in Jerusalem, it seems more plausible that John is saying that they rejoined the other disciples. But he also indicates that Mary Magdalene lingered at the graveside. She had returned with the two disciples after she had told them about the empty tomb and the missing body of Jesus.
Left by herself, Mary Magdalene stood outside the tomb weeping. She was overcome with sadness and grief at this second blow to her hopes and dreams. Not only was Jesus dead, but now His body was missing as well. Could things get any worse? But she decided to take one last look into the empty tomb.
And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. – John 20:12 ESV
Imagine the shock and surprise she must have felt at this unexpected sight. While John describes these two individuals as angels, there is no indication that Mary Magdalene recognized them as divine beings. When one of them asked the reason for her tears, she responded rather matter-of-factly, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13 ESV). Her answer reveals her lingering sorrow over the loss of her friend, the one who had miraculously cast seven demons from her (Luke 8:2). Jesus had freed her from demonic possession and she had hoped that He was Israel’s Messiah, who would free them from their subjugation to Rome.
But how does John’s narrative fit in with that of Mark’s? In his gospel, Mark indicates that Mary went to the tomb with Mary the mother of James and Salome, in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices (Mark 16:1). Finding the stone that sealed the tomb had been rolled away, they entered, and “saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed” (Mark 16:5 NET).
This “young man,” who was actually an angel, told them, “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has been raised! He is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples, even Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7 NET). Despite the angel’s words, “they went out and ran from the tomb, terror and bewilderment had seized them. And they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8 NET).
But what about Mary Magdalene? Why does John describe her as being at the tomb alone and encountering two angels, not one? It would seem that Mary Magdalene and the other two women had traveled together to the tomb that morning, but that she was the first to arrive and find the tomb empty. She immediately left and ran to tell Peter and John. In the meantime, the other two women arrived and encountered the angel. In shock and terror, they ran from the scene but told no one what they had heard and seen. But Mary Magdalene had leter returned with Peter and John. When the two men had entered the tomb, they had seen nothing but the discarded burial cloth. But when Mary Magdalene had entered on her own, she had been greeted by the two angels.
Most likely, she believed these two men to be groundskeepers or gardeners, so John indicates that, having found the tomb empty, she turned to leave. And when she did, she found herself staring into the face of the risen Jesus. But she failed to recognize Him. John provides no explanation for her inability to recognize Jesus. Perhaps she was suffering from shock. But she would not be the only one who would encounter the risen Jesus and fail to recognize Him. Luke describes two unnamed followers of Jesus who were traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus, having just witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. They were discussing all that had happened in Jerusalem when, suddenly, they found themselves joined by a “stranger.”
Jesus himself approached and began to accompany them (but their eyes were kept from recognizing him). – Luke 24:15-16 NET
They too failed to recognize Jesus. And the text seems to indicate that they were miraculously prevented from doing so. This could have been the case with Mary as well. But whatever the reason for her memory lapse, when this third man spoke to her, she just assumed he was a gardener. He asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?,” and she sadly responded, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15 ESV).
She had come to the tomb expecting to find the lifeless body of her friend and healer, and she had found nothing. At no point does she show any signs that she believed Jesus might be alive. There are no indications that she considered His resurrection as a possible explanation to the empty tomb. She was still hoping to find a body. And her failure to believe what Jesus had said about rising again is made all the more glaring by the fact that He was standing right in front of her.
But when He addressed her by name, everything changed.
She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”). – John 20:16 NLT
She was not even looking at Him when He spoke. She was too busy grieving over her loss and wondering what she was going to do next. But as soon as she heard Jesus speak her name, she turned abruptly and immediately recognized the one whom she had thought to be dead. Her grief was replaced by overwhelming joy and she impulsively wrapped her arms around Jesus, refusing to let Him go. But Jesus lovingly rebuked her, saying, “Don’t cling to me, for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17 NLT).
For Mary Magdalene, the sudden reappearance of Jesus was more than she could have ever dreamed or imagined. He was alive! In a split second, her sorrow had been turned to joy. It must have been similar to the overwhelming sense of freedom and relief she had felt when Jesus released her from the control of the seven demons. But Jesus wanted Mary Magdalene to know that His reappearance would be short-lived. He would not be staying. And He knew that the vice-like grip with which she held Him revealed her desire that He never leave her again.
But there was more for Him to do. He had risen from the dead so that He might return to His Father’s side. His work was done. He had finished what He had come to do. And He had told the disciples that His departure would be necessary and for their own good.
“But now I am going away to the one who sent me…But in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you.” – John 16:6, 7 NLT
And Jesus gave Mary Magdalene an important assignment. She was to find the disciples and give them a message.
“But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” – John 20:18 NLT
Notice the nature of Jesus’ message for the disciples. He didn’t instruct her to tell them that He was risen or alive. He wanted her to let them know that He was ascending to His Father, whom He described as “my God and your God.” Jesus was returning to His rightful place at His Father’s side. This was something Jesus had repeatedly told His disciples was going to happen.
“I will be with you only a little longer. Then I will return to the one who sent me.” – John 7:33 NLT
“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.” – John 14:12 NLT
“Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am.” – John 14:28 NLT
“But now I am going away to the one who sent me…” – John 16:5 NLT
“Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more.” – John 16:10 NLT
“Yes, I came from the Father into the world, and now I will leave the world and return to the Father.” – John 16:28 NLT
As vital as the crucifixion and resurrection were to God’s redemptive plan, the ascension of Jesus was absolutely crucial. With Jesus’ departure, the Spirit of God would come to take up residence within each and every one of His followers. They would receive “power from on high” (Luke 24:49 ESV), enabling them to “do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father” (John 14:12 NLT).
And Mary Magdalene faithfully followed His instructions, finding the disciples and telling them that Jesus was alive and well, and passing on to them the news that He would soon be ascending to the Father.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.