All the Way to Glory: Mary Magdalene

Mary was alone. She must have followed Peter and John back to the Savior’s tomb after giving them the news that it was empty. But now they were gone. Overwhelmed by grief, she decided to stay a little longer. Memories likely came flooding back of that transformational moment when she met this Man from Galilee who with incomparable authority rid her of the demons in her life and instantly gave her peace. And she wondered how anyone could wish such a Man dead! Tears filled her eyes as she pondered the apparent fact that it wasn’t enough for Jesus’ enemies to cruelly execute Him; now they had desecrated His grave and stolen His precious body. She decided to take a closer look.

“And as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre” (Joh 20:11).1 The sight she beheld earlier was merely the rolled away stone (v1), but now Mary got her first look inside the tomb. Apparently, she could see what John saw (the careful arrangement of Christ’s graveclothes), but did not believe what John believed (that, rather than His body being stolen, the Lord Jesus had risen). Suddenly, she was allowed to see something John did not.  Mary “seeth two angels in white” (v12). It was not merely their presence but their position that was significant, for they were “sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (v12). Their location was meant to convey to Mary that God had done something, that a divine invasion of power was responsible for the absence of Jesus’ body. Mary was given a little more light (or rather, a lot more) to bring her to faith in the resurrection of Christ. But it still was not enough. Her grief was so heavy that not even angels dressed in white could shake her from it. So they asked 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” (v13). She simply could not accept any other possibility than that Christ’s body had been stolen. Why should she not weep! Mary had now seen and spoken to angels, yet remained fixed in her faulty assessment. But all that was about to dramatically change.

First to See Him

“And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus” (v14). Some explain that Mary did not recognize the Lord because tears filled her eyes. That might be true. But there were other occasions when Christ was not recognized by His followers after His resurrection (Luk 24:15-16,36-37; Joh 20:4). In any case, we must not be too hard on Mary. As followers of Christ, we often fail to recognize the presence of the Lord. We have certain expectations about how He will work or what He will do, and because He does not conform to our expectations, we fail to see where He is working and what He is doing. There is, admittedly, a bit of Mary Magdalene in us all. And yet she was the first to see the risen Savior,2 even though she was unaware of it at the time. But she was not only the first to see Him, but also the…

First to Hear Him

“Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou?” (v15). The first words spoken by the risen Christ were a repetition of what the angels asked earlier. The question may have contained a gentle reproof; there was enough evidence for Mary to believe He had risen. But the Lord also asked Mary, “Whom seekest thou?” This second question directed Mary’s attention away from herself to the Lord Jesus. And it may have contained an invitation for Mary to reflect on the kind of Messiah she was expecting.3 John may want readers of his Gospel to reflect on this question also, lest our estimate of Him fall far short.

Notice that Mary was being given a little more light at a time. First, she saw the stone rolled away. Second, she saw the angels and heard them speak. Third, she saw Jesus Himself and heard His voice. How gracious the Lord is with His people, working to manifest our faith.

But Mary’s faith was still forthcoming. She thought the man asking her these questions was the gardener. John has already told us that the tomb was in a garden (19:41), and who would be present this early in the morning in the garden but the person charged with the responsibility of caring for it?4 Therefore, Mary, “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” (20:15).5  Then, as if the Savior could bear Mary’s grief and misunderstanding no longer, He spoke her name. “Jesus saith unto her, Mary” (v16). It was enough. She knew His voice. “He calleth his own sheep by name … they know his voice” (10:3-4). “She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master” (20:16). “Rabboni” is Aramaic and contains more affection than “Rabbi.” John translates it for his Greek-speaking readers as didaskalos. Its meaning in English might be something like “My dear Master.”

At that moment, Mary may have done what the women would later do in Matthew 28:9, hold Him by the feet, but in her case, doing so as if to keep Him from leaving. Perhaps Mary thought His promise in John 14:3 was about to be fulfilled. Christ had “come again” and was about to “receive [her] unto himself.” But this was not His promised return in which He would take believers with Him. The ascension of Christ and sending of the Holy Spirit must come first. Therefore, Jesus instructed her, “Touch me not” (20:17). A better rendering, which reflects the present imperative of the verb, is “Stop clinging to me” (NASB).  Incidentally, this instruction by the Lord to Mary confirms His was an actual physical resurrection, not a vision or hallucination. She was clinging to the body of the glorified Lord. But she must not, Jesus adds, “for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (v17).

Then the Lord gave Mary a mission: “Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend …” (v17). The instruction was not to send the news to His brothers in the flesh (i.e., His siblings). There is no indication that Mary went to members of Jesus’ family with this report. Rather, Christ’s resurrection created a new relationship wherein He now referred to His disciples as “brothers” (see also Mat 28:10; Heb 2:11-14). Notice also that the Lord’s instruction to Mary was to tell his brothers, not about His resurrection, but about His ascension. His resurrection was but a necessary step in His going all the way to glory.

The final bit of news she was to share with them included these words, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (Joh 20:17). This particular wording unites the Lord Jesus with His followers, yet at the same time emphasizes a substantial difference, for He does not refer to “our Father and our God.” As Augustine wrote, “He saith not, Our Father: in one sense, therefore, is He mine, in another sense, yours; by nature mine, by grace yours … my God, under whom I also am as man; your God, between whom and you I am mediator.”6  

First to Tell About Him

Mary wasted no time. She “came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her” (v18). This is consistent with Mark’s report: “And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept” (16:10). We should not conclude that the disciples were all in one place at this moment, although they would be together in the upper room later in the day (without Thomas). Nearly bursting with excitement, Mary likely made visits to a few different homes, sharing this news. But when she did, she was not believed. “And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not” (v11).7 Because her report included news of His ascension, it may have sounded to them as fabricated. They would never see Him again if His ascension was about to occur (or already had). In other words, they may have interpreted Mary’s news as this: “The Lord appeared to me, but it’s not likely He’ll appear to you, for He is ascending.” Yet His words to them earlier in the upper room assured them they would see Him again (16:16-22).

At this point, there were few believers in the Lord’s resurrection. John was the first to believe, but Mary Magdalene was the first to hear His voice, see His face, and share the wonderful news He instructed her to give. The world’s first evangelist was met with disbelief, so don’t be discouraged if people reject the news you bring of a risen, glorified and coming Saviour.

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

2 See Mark 16:9.

3 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 641.

4 Leon Morris, Expository Reflections on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 700.

5 D.A. Carson notes: “That she should offer to make the arrangements to fetch the body and give it a proper burial suggests she was a woman of some wealth and standing (as Luke 8:2-3 attests).”

6 Quoted in Leon Morris, 703.

7 The fact that they did not believe tells us John was likely not among those she visited (for John 20:8 indicates he did believe).