John 20 Open [Tombs] and Shut [Doors]

Questions: What did they see when they went to the tomb? What were they looking for? Did they see Jesus? Why didn’t they (initially) recognize him? How did they (finally) recognize him? Can we trust them?

“Read More” to pursue answers in the Gospel of John.

Lord, make me a Fountain of your Love.
Draw me into your holy Presence, that I might know you as my Father
And manifest the image of Christ in this world, and the world to come. Amen.

John 20:1-31

The first [day] of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

Thus we encounter what must be the most hotly-contested data point in history: the empty tomb of Jesus. Ironically, what I find most compelling about this narrative is the confusion and disbelief with which the protagonists themselves react:

Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, [and looking in], saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.

The disjoint grave clothes highlights one of the things that most “rings true” about John: that he is recording events as they occurred, even if they didn’t (or still don’t!) make sense. John’s gospel feels to me very much like a random-dot stereogram — full of tiny pictures that only click into focus when you step back and stare it for a long while. I find myself agreeing with the man who said, “If John’s Jesus never existed, then one greater than Jesus must’ve wrote it.” (or something like that).

Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

Intriguingly, John believed — though apparently without understand — which implies Peter was still skeptical. And Mary was still confused:

Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, [and looked] into the sepulchre,

Though, not for lack of hints:

And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.

Including from Jesus himself:

And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

Again, this is one of those details too bizarre to be worth fabricating. Why doesn’t she recognize Jesus at first glance? If anything, I’d have been tempted to excise that little glitch from my record to avoid casting doubt on Jesus’ resurrection. But, for whatever reason, her eyes fail her — though her ears to do not:

Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

I can only imagine what she must’ve felt, and how she reacted. Probably enthusiastically enough that he had to warn her to keep her distance:

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and [to] my God, and your God.

Another bizarre statement, especially in contrast to what he tells Thomas later in the chapter. And even though Mary dutifully reports this to the disciples:

Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and [that] he had spoken these things unto her.

It doesn’t seem to have had much impact:

Then the same day at evening, being the first [day] of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews

At least until Jesus himself showed up:

Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace [be] unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them [his] hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

And not just glad, but empowered:

Then said Jesus to them again, Peace [be] unto you: as [my] Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on [them], and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; [and] whose soever [sins] ye retain, they are retained.

Again, I am struck the utter reality of the disciples reactions. The early disciples did a brutally honest job of describing their own cowardice, doubt, and folly — the exact opposite of what you’d expect from people trying convince the whole world to follow them! And none more so than Thomas:

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Which again rings true. In any group that size, there has to be at least one contrarian who refuses to go along with the crowd, who is always on watch against being gulled.

Even if he often has to eat his own words:

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: [then] came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace [be] unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust [it] into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

Which he does, most graciously:

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed:

That, as usual, is the kicker. It is fashionable to claim that belief in Jesus resurrection is unjustified because it is impossible for it to be justified. But, what if they were in Thomas’ shoes? Wouldn’t that be proof enough?

And if Thomas was justified in his belief, then are we not justified in trusting him the same way we would judge any other eyewitness?

blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed.

Which, after all, is the whole purpose of John’s gospel:

And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

The key theme throughout John — indeed, most of reality-based Christianity — is that belief in Jesus is reasonable because of the cold, hard evidence of what he did — as passed on to us by faithful men and women. Moreover, the key to seeing that is understanding the nature of who God really is, which is ultimately the choice between virtue and vice.

Which is easier in theory than it is in practice.


God, I think you for faithful men like the author of the gospel of John, who preserved so many of the brilliant yet confusing sayings of Jesus down through the ages. I thank you that you loved us so much to provide us with so many signs of what you’re really like. I thank you most of all for being so good, loving, faithful, and true. Help me to carry on my part of the saga. I ask this in Jesus name, Amen.