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The Life of Jesus - Series 14: Episode 1

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene

| Martin Charlesworth
John 20:1-18
Mark 16:9-11

On Sunday the women discover the empty tomb and tell Peter and John. Mary stays at the tomb and Jesus appears to her and gives her the charge to tell the disciples.

On Sunday the women discover the empty tomb and tell Peter and John. Mary stays at the tomb and Jesus appears to her and gives her the charge to tell the disciples.


Hello and welcome to the Life of Jesus. This is our final series, Series 14 and Episode 1, in which 'Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene'. All eight episodes, in this series, concern the resurrection of Jesus and we are going to have a wonderful time as we see how this incredibly complex, amazing story comes to its final conclusion, with the glorious resurrection of Jesus. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, as the first resurrection appearance, and it is recorded for us in John 20: 1 - 18 which we are going to study in this episode.

Introduction and Recap

Before we come to the resurrection, we will briefly remind ourselves of what happened in the last few days, as Jesus has come to the point of being executed, by crucifixion. From the beginning of Series 11 onwards, we have been looking at the last week of Jesus' life. I am going to focus now on the last events from Thursday evening onwards. By this time, the religious authorities in Jerusalem had access to information that Judas Iscariot was giving to them, having betrayed Jesus, on Wednesday of that week, and decided to work with them for a financial reward. In order to secure Jesus' arrest, they have access to information from Judas and they are waiting for a time to arrest Jesus. This takes place very late on Thursday evening, after the Last Supper. Judas Iscariot leaves the Last Supper, goes and tells the authorities where he thinks Jesus is going to be a little later on, in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is at that place that Judas comes with Temple guards and Jesus is arrested and taken to the High Priest's house, where he undergoes a trial, of sorts, from the Sanhedrin - the ruling Jewish Council. They condemn him as a blasphemer and plan to hand him over to the Romans in the morning. Events are moving very fast. Lots of other things happen around this time: Judas eventually ends up committing suicide in despair, after he has some terrible remorse concerning his betrayal; Peter denies Jesus; and the disciples are scattered. It is a very confusing situation on Thursday evening. Early on Friday morning, the Sanhedrin, and their associates, are ready to go straight to the Roman governor's palace, to Pontius Pilate, to ask him to carry out the sentence of execution, which they are not permitted to do by Roman law. Pilate hesitates for a long time but is eventually persuaded by pressure from the religious authorities in the crowd to execute Jesus. Towards the end of Series 13, we studied the death of Jesus in two episodes and reflected on some of the extraordinary things that happened during those six hours when Jesus was on the cross. We reflected on the seven sayings of Jesus that are recorded in the different Gospels, and their significance.

In the last episode, as we concluded Series 13, we saw how the burial of Jesus took place. We noticed that two members of the Sanhedrin, who had not agreed with the majority, and were secret disciples of Jesus, came together and went to Pontius Pilate, as soon as Jesus had died and asked for permission to have the body, so that they could bury him. These two were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. We noticed very specifically, in the last episode, how a number of women who had travelled with Jesus from Galilee, gathered at the scene of the crucifixion, when most of the male disciples were not recorded as being present. Apart from John, we don't know of any of them being there. But the women were there and we noticed particularly that they took careful note of the site of the burial, which was very near the crucifixion site. They saw Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and probably servants with them, actually burying Jesus in a tomb which was carved out of the rock. They saw the stone that was placed in front, once Jesus was in the tomb, and they saw that whole situation unfolding on Friday evening, somewhere between 3 pm and 8 pm. That is very important for our story now. The Gospel writers identify Mary Magdalene as one of those women who was present there and one of those women who specifically identified the place of the tomb.

Six Sources of Information

As we look through the Gospels, there are six different accounts of the resurrection and we are going to take note of all six, as we reconstruct the story, during the next eight episodes. Four of them are obviously the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us their own information. That is the majority of the information we have. There is also some significant information at the very beginning of the book of Acts 1, concerning Jesus' resurrection appearances a little later on, and towards the time when his ascension took place, and then the evidence from 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul recounts very ancient tradition about the resurrection appearances, and information he received from Peter, and others, although Paul wasn't witness of the resurrection and he recounts this to the Corinthians in the early part of 1 Corinthians 15, naming some specific resurrection appearances. That is our sixth source. We will be keeping note of all of them as we go through. They all view the resurrection from a slightly different point of view, with different evidence, and with different emphases. As is so often the case with the biblical narratives, and the Gospel narratives in particular, as we integrate the information, we find an amazing story unfolding. We are going to integrate all the accounts, particularly the Gospel accounts, and find how the story unfolds, and we are going to find how a great deal happens on Easter Sunday.

The First Easter Sunday

We are going to start with John's account. John writes in chapter 20, concerning the resurrection fom the point of view of Mary Magdalene. She was the one who received the first resurrection appearance and John tells the story very fully. We are going to follow the story according to John 20, as the main text for this episode. We will first of all read the first 10 verses.

‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!” 3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus' head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9Still they did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.’

John 20:1-10, NIV

Very early on the Sunday morning, according to John's account, Mary went to the tomb. It was still dark; it was dawn, just that time where darkness is turning to light, in the very early part of the day. Mary was almost certainly staying in the city and so her journey would be very short - probably less than a kilometre - to walk to the tomb which was just outside the city. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe other women going to the tomb as well. John doesn't mention the other women but it is clear that they are at the tomb at a similar time. They either travel with Mary, or they travel at a similar time to Mary, and arrive at a similar time at the tomb. The story is told here, from the point of view of Mary as an individual, and we are going to follow that story now, and in a subsequent episode we will follow the story of the other women, as told by the other Gospel writers. Matthew adds a very important detail, in Matthew chapter 28: 2 - 4.

2There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

Matthew 28:2-4, NIV

This may well have happened before the women actually arrived. An earthquake: Matthew has already described an earthquake taking place just at the time that Jesus died, as you may recall from an earlier episode. Here is another earthquake, and an angel coming and rolling back the stone and sitting on it. The guards here are the ones that we saw put in place in the last episode of Series 13. They are Temple guards belonging to the Jewish authorities. Pontius Pilate had given them the permission to place an armed guard at the tomb and here they are - but they were terrified when this miraculous event took place.

As we turn back to John's account, we are back in the story of Mary Magdalene, which we are following through. When she saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance, Mary on her own, leaving the other women, came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one that Jesus loved, verse 2, and said ‘They've taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don't know where they've put him.’ The ‘we’ there is the women generally. She doesn't yet believe in the resurrection. She just thinks that something has happened; someone has taken the body, and she wants to tell the disciples, as quickly as possible; she wants them to know that something has happened. The ‘two disciples’ here are Simon Peter and John, verse 2. ‘The other disciple’, the one Jesus loved. In earlier episodes, we have identified John as the disciple whom Jesus loved. This expression is first used in the Last Supper, and John keeps his identity anonymous. He is one of the inner circle - Peter, James and John. He had a particular friendship with Jesus. Jesus confided in him. He is staying there, with Peter, in a residence somewhere in the city of Jerusalem, not far away. They come running down to the tomb. John is fitter than Peter. He arrives first, looks in the tomb but hesitates. Peter comes to the tomb. He doesn't hesitate, he goes into the tomb and then he notices something extraordinary. He notices that the linen cloth, with which Jesus was wrapped when he was buried, is still there and the particular separate cloth used for Jesus' head is placed separately there in the tomb. That is a decisive piece of evidence that Peter sees, and then John comes into the tomb after being initially hesitant and he sees these linen cloths and believes immediately. He realises the body hasn't been stolen because if the body was stolen, you certainly wouldn't see the cloths there; the whole body would have been taken. No one would possibly have considered any good reason to have taken the clothing off the body. Something miraculous had happened. John began to see that Jesus had risen again from the dead. He hadn't had an appearance of Jesus, but the evidence was pointing very clearly to a miracle that had happened. This miracle is gradually going to become clear to all the disciples, and to the women, and ultimately to others as well.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalen

Peter and John, the story tells us, return to their lodging but Mary has come running back to the tomb with them. We can imagine that Mary comes running in after them. John first, then Peter, then Mary. Then John and Peter leave and go back to the residence. Mary is left there all alone. The other women have gone off somewhere else, as far as we can tell, and we will come back to that story in a subsequent episode. Mary is there alone. This is the focus of John's story - what happened to Mary. Let us read the story. John 20: 11 - 18:

11‘Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “ I don't know where they have put him.” 14At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it that you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20:11-18, NIV

What an amazing transformation in a few minutes. Mary is weeping; she is confused, troubled, traumatised by what she has experienced this morning, let alone watching Jesus die on the cross on Good Friday. She looks into the tomb. Two angels appear, speaking to her and then Jesus speaks to her. She mistakes him for a gardener, and then she recognises him, when he speaks to her, using her name. Why is her recognition slow? Was it the bright early morning sunlight? Was it that Jesus wasn't looking at her directly? Was it the tears, the distress and the emotional turmoil that she felt? It could have been any, or all, of these things but there came a moment of recognition. She used the familiar title, Raboni, Rabbi, teacher, as she recognised who it was. Jesus' words to her, ‘Do not hold on to me’ basically mean don't cling to me - not don't touch me at all - but don't cling to me. He spoke about his ascension, basically saying that the resurrection guarantees the ascension. He is reassuring her that death has been reversed. He is going back to glory, and everything he said about himself, was true. He asked her to go and speak to the disciples so Mary rushed back again - her second journey back into the city, in a very short period of time. She finds the disciples. Almost certainly, she would have gone first to Peter and John's residence. The disciples were probably scattered in a variety of different places. We don't know exactly where they were. It was very early in the morning. Some of them might still be asleep, or in their beds, but she comes and she brings the news, ‘I've seen the Lord.’ So the story of the resurrection begins to spread around the discipleship community, very early on that Sunday morning. It is Mary Magdalen who is the first person to be granted a resurrection appearance by Jesus. John focuses on this dramatic story to begin the account of the resurrection.


Let us now reflect on what we learn from this passage, and how it makes us think, and feel. The first thing to say, and to be clear about, is to understand the nature of physical resurrection. We are not talking about a resuscitation of someone who is nearly dead and survives in the tomb for a day and a half and sort of staggers out of the tomb on his own strength. That is not what is being described here. Neither is this an hallucination, or a mystical experience. This isn't something going on just in the mind of the believers, in the mind of Mary Magdalen. She may be very emotional at this time but that is for very understandable reasons, but her experience is a physical experience; it is a tangible experience. She is quite clear that she has seen the Lord.

There is evidence in the tomb that something miraculous has happened. The grave clothes are folded. They are in the tomb. The grave has not been robbed by anybody. Angels have come. God's divine power has come. Jesus' physical body has literally been brought back to life, by a miracle. The body of Jesus is not a ghost. It is as physical as your body or mine. If you saw Jesus, as Mary had seen Jesus, you would be seeing a person that you knew and loved. You would recognise him by his physical appearance and you would be able to touch him and know that he was entirely physical. I will be. making this point again in other episodes. It is very important to understand that the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body is about the physical body. It is not about the immortality of the soul. It is not about psychic experiences or mystical experiences, or hallucinations. It is about something physical that happened. There was a body that was dead, and that body has now been raised to life.

As we go on, and find out more about Christian doctrine later on in the New Testament, we find out that Jesus' resurrection, is described by Paul, as the first fruits (1 Corinthians 15: 20) - the first example and the first results of the power of salvation coming to the human race - and he goes on to teach that Christians will experience physical resurrection too, as a result of the work that Christ has done. What happened to Jesus will happen to us. Our bodies will die but be raised again in physical resurrection. That will be the completion of eternal life. The New Testament teaches this will happen at the time when Jesus returns - the second coming. It is an amazing miracle that we see here.

It is interesting that the first resurrection appearance is granted to a humble female disciple. We identified Mary Magdalene earlier on, when we looked at Luke 8 describing a series of female disciples and followers of Jesus, who went around with Jesus and the Apostles, while Jesus was preaching and teaching, and supported them, using their finances to provide for the practical needs of the travelling group of disciples of Jesus. Mary Magdalene was one of those. We find out that she has been remarkably healed by Jesus, from some evil demonic presence in her life. She is a very faithful disciple and she has travelled all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. She has been on the road for some weeks, or months. She has been with Jesus every day during this fateful week: seen him in the Temple; seen him perform miracles; seen him teach; she was there when he died on the cross; she saw the place where he was buried; and now she is granted the first resurrection appearance. This is a firm endorsement of female testimony, and female discipleship: that God himself should grant to a humble, otherwise insignificant female disciple, the opportunity and the responsibility of being the first to see the risen Christ.

She very quickly told the story to the disciples. If John himself was present in this story, then it is not surprising that he emphasises it; if he was one of those two disciples to whom Mary went, and one of those two disciples who ran back to the tomb and one of the disciples who heard Mary's testimony, when she said, ‘I've seen the Lord’ It is not surprising that he places this story firmly at the centre of the resurrection account.

Mary Magdalen's account is also confirmed by Mark's gospel. Mark's Gospel ends in Mark 16: 8, which identifies the beginning of the resurrection appearances, but he doesn't continue and tell the story of the resurrection in any detail. Scholars disagree as to the reason for that. Either it was the decision to end the Gospel there or the final end of the Gospel has been lost. An addition was added, which is not scripture in the full sense of the term, but has been added as a respected tradition which summarises many of the resurrection appearances described in the other Gospels. Mark 16: 9 - 11 summarises what we have described,

9When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. 11When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

Mark 16:9-11, NIV

Here we have an interesting paradox with which we are going to end this episode. Mary is convinced. John believes that Jesus is risen from the dead in an indirect sense, having just seen the grave clothes in the tomb, but the other disciples as yet do not believe that the physical resurrection has taken place. That will all change in a very short period of time. We will be following the story of the further resurrection appearances in our next episodes.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What evidence is there that Jesus had risen from the dead?
    2. Was it the earthquake that opened the grave? If so, was it just a coincidence?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Track the role of Mary Magdalene in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
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