The beginning of a new creation

Published on 27 Mar 2018
Peter and John hurry to the tomb

A reflection on the gospel for Easter Sunday by Dries van den Akker SJ

 John 20:1-10

1. Context

In the gospel of John, there is a delay of a day between the last verse of the 19th chapter and the opening verse of the 20th. The 19th chapter closes (19:41-42), ‘At the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in this garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been buried. Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.’ In the following line, time jumps to ‘the first day of the week’. What happened on the day between - the 7th day, Sabbath day, the day on which God rested (! )from his creation work in the creation story…? what happened with Jesus on that day is written in the blank lines.

Mary Magdalene is, so to speak, a perfect illustration of these moments. She ‘jumps’ over the Sabbath day as well. She was present when Jesus died (19:25). In the context of John’s gospel that was the first time (!) we heard of her existence. So in the story of today, that is the second time. Her name is dropped on these two occasions only. She doesn’t figure elsewhere in John’s gospel. She is - so to speak - a frame around that mysterious Sabbath day of which nothing is told.


The text of today is a part of a bigger story: 20:1-18. It is framed by Mary Magdalene (20:1-2 and 20:11-18). It is also framed by the words ‘Not knowing’. In 20:2 she says to the disciples, ‘We don’t know where they have put him.’ And in 20:9 John tells about the two disciples who came to the empty tomb, ‘Till this moment they didn’t know the Scripture: that he must rise from the dead.’ Unfortunately the current translation gives ‘they had still not understood...’ Correct translation. But now we don’t hear anymore that Mary Magdalene as well as the disciples were in a position of ‘not-knowing’. That is important. For after this remark John will tell first how Mary Magdalena came to know... (20:11-18); and after that how the disciples came to know (20:19-28).

There is a third frame, a quite clear one. The two disciples ‘went out [to the tomb]...’ (20:3); and they ‘went away again [from the tomb]...’ (20:10).

A carving showing Jesus and the disciples and Mary Magdelene

The story is framed by Mary Magdalene. Left: she goes to Peter and John. Right: Jesus appears to her. ca 1220. Germany, Magdeburg, Dom

Time indications

It is the day after the Sabbath, first day of the week. Our Sunday. For the Jews, the day that they were allowed to work again. The occasion for Mary Magdalene to go to Jesus’ tomb. John doesn’t explain what she intended to do. Why didn’t she go on Sabbath day?  Wasn’t it allowed to go to a cemetery on Sabbath day? Or was the distance which she had to go too far for a Sabbath? Or wasn’t it allowed to anoint a dead person on Sabbath day? John doesn’t explain.

Or does John emphasize that it was the first day of the week in order to remind us of the creation story? The first day of the week God began the creation. Does John suggest that this first day of the week is the beginning of a new creation? It is possible. In that case we remember that he started his gospel in the same atmosphere (1,1), ‘In the beginning was the Word...’


It was ‘early still dark’ when Mara Magdalene came to the tomb. Remarkable word. For John uses this word ‘early’ only twice: here and in 18:28 (translated in the Jerusalem Bible ‘it was now morning’). But the Greek language uses the word ‘early’ on both occasions. Striking. For that word doesn’t occur anywhere else in John’s gospel. He reserves it for these two moments only. What a difference between these two ‘earlies’. In 18:28: the ‘early’ of Jesus’ passion and death; in 20:1: the ‘early’ of the discovery that the tomb was empty. Between these two ‘earlies’ the mysterious Sabbath day, of which nothing is told.

Still dark

We notice that John gives the word ‘dark’, and not the word ‘night’ as he did on the occasion of Nicodemus (3:2); and as he did on the occasion of Judas (13:30). We also heard the word ‘dark(ness)’ which he uses here, in his prologue (1:5), ‘The light shines in the darkness and darkness could not overpower it.’ This line could be a beautiful title above the stories which are about to be told! And doesn’t Mary Magdalene do what Jesus says in 3:21, that those who are doing good come from the darkness to the light?

2. Two Disciples

Mary Magdalene runs to Peter and to ‘the beloved’ disciple. According to the tradition this ‘beloved disciple’ was John, the very writer of the gospel. To avoid confusion I will consistently speak of ‘the beloved one’ when I mean the disciple of the story; and I will speak about John when I mean the gospel writer.
So Mary runs to these two disciples. Very surprising. They were together during Jesus’ trial (18:15). But in the meantime Peter had denied Jesus. Three times (18:25-27). That was the last thing we heard about Peter. However, about the other disciple, ‘the beloved one’, we heard that he stood at the foot of the cross, together with Jesus’ mother. And that Jesus ordered him to take care of his mother (19:25-27). Apparently these two disciples are still together. And the others? Were they there too? John doesn’t say.
During Jesus’ passion we only hear about these two disciples. Besides Judas of course. So, these two disciples, Peter and ‘the beloved one’, accompany the events around Jesus. The one as a denier, the other one as ‘the beloved one’ who stayed very near to Jesus.
Did the denial of Peter change the relation between these two? Apparently not. Indeed, when both run to Jesus’ tomb, ‘the beloved one’ is faster. Yet he gives Peter the honour to enter into the tomb first, the one of whom it became clear that he was a coward. Or did ‘the beloved one’ have in mind what Jesus had said to Peter during the Last Supper? Peter had promised Jesus to give his life for him. Jesus had answered (13:38), ‘You will give your life for me? This very night you will deny me three times.’ But at the same time Jesus added (14:1-2), ‘Let your heart not be disturbed! I’ll go to the Father to prepare a place for you...’ Although Jesus knew that Peter was heading towards the biggest failure of his life he announced forgiveness before the thing itself had happened!
Did the beloved disciple remember this? He was ‘the beloved one’. Peter had appeared to be the weakest one. And yet that didn’t change anything in the relation between both? Peter was already living in the atmosphere of forgiveness. Or in other words: by giving priority to Peter, the beloved disciple respected the forgiveness which was announced to Peter. Thus the beloved one manifested that he really was the beloved one.

The first

Why does John emphasize this detail about the question who entered the tomb first? Could it be a reflection on the moment when John writes his gospel? Is John about to explain an actual situation in the church of his days?

John and Peter hurry to the tomb.

Peter in brown; the beloved one in white(!). The beloved one is faster... 1898, Eugène Burnand. France, Paris,  Musée d’Orsay

For example, is he explaining why Peter (and his successors?) were placed higher in the ranking of the (later?) disciples?
At the end of the 21st chapter (21:20-22) John returns to the mutual relation between these two disciples. There he relates to the life span of both. Could it be that in today’s story there’s a hint that John would live longer than Peter? According to the tradition Peter died in Rome as a martyr about 67 AD; John died in Ephesus at a very old age about the year 104. Thus Peter entered into the tomb earlier than John...?

3. Meaningful words

‘Taken up’

Mary Magdalene sees that the stone of Jesus’ tomb is moved away. The Greek reads that the stone was ’taken up’. Exactly the same word that we heard in the story of Lazarus. There Jesus says (11:39), ‘take up the stone’. And they ‘took up the stone’ (11,41). ‘Taking up the stone’ seem to be key words. It associates with ‘resurrection from the dead’. In other words, in the story of Lazarus those who were present were prepared to ‘know’ what would happen to Jesus when he would be buried in the tomb. But when his moment has come, his disciples ‘don’t know’ (20:2 and 9).


Mary Magdalene ‘runs’ to the disciples Peter and ‘the beloved one’. She tells her story. And now it is their turn to ‘run’, but ‘the beloved one’ ‘runs’ faster than Peter. Why this haste? No explanation. In the continuing story we will hear that the disciples were staying behind closed doors (20: 19:26) for fear of the Jews. Is it that very fear of the Jews which makes them run? Or is it the panic of Mary Magdalene which is taken over by the two disciples? Or does John anticipate what will happen when Jesus’ spirit comes over his disciples? Then they will be on the move. And that moving will not stop anymore. That moving is a signal that Jesus lives and inspires his disciples. Does he inspire his disciples already here although they don’t ‘know’ it yet?

‘Linen cloths’

Three times we hear the words ‘linen cloths’ (vss 5:6,7). We heard it earlier on the occasion of Jesus’ burial (19:40), ‘They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it in linen cloths.’ There John prepares the story of the resurrection! For when the disciples went to the tomb, they saw the linen cloths, but didn’t see Jesus himself. These linen cloths seems to be meant as silent evidence.


Besides the ‘linen cloths’ there was a ‘sweat-cloth’. The Jerusalem Bible explicitly translates ‘the cloth that had been over his head’. This word occurs only one other time in John’s gospel. On the occasion of the resurrection of Lazarus (11:44), ‘The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with strips of material, and a sweat-cloth over his face.’ It is striking that the face of Lazarus is covered by the same object as Jesus; but they were not wrapped in the same material: Jesus was wrapped in ‘linen cloths’, Lazarus in ‘strips’.
The sweat-cloth of Jesus reminds us of the resurrection of Lazarus. There Jesus ordered to ‘unbind’ him. Wasn’t that an announcement of Jesus’ redeeming work already? Who was it that ordered Jesus to be ‘unbound’? John doesn’t tell. But what he suggests is that death couldn’t ‘bind’ Jesus. Perhaps the fact that the linen cloths and the sweat-cloth are carefully rolled up suggests that Jesus was stronger than death.

‘Rolled up’

This word occurs only three times in the New Testament. We come across it in the gospels of Matthew (27:59) and Luke (23:35). They use this word to describe how the dead Jesus was rolled (wrapped) in the linen cloths. Here John uses this word to describe that these cloths were there rolled up without Jesus!

‘Bend down’

The ‘beloved one’ ‘bent down and saw the linen cloths’. After this story we will hear that Mary Magdalene will ‘bend down’ as well... (20:11). There John uses the same word! (Pity that the Jerusalem Bible doesn’t translate it into the same word). And she will ‘contemplate’ - here John uses a different word than he does in the story of today. The beloved disciple ‘bends down and sees..’. Mary Magdalene ‘will bend down and contemplate’... What will she contemplate? Two angels! They weren’t there some moments ago when both disciples saw the tomb. Since they are gone and Mary is left alone, she contemplates two angels. What does it mean? I will speak about this later.

4. He saw and believed

The beloved disciple ‘saw and believed’. The same thing is not said about Peter. Peter ‘saw the linen cloths lying on the ground and also the sweat-cloth...’ The beloved disciple ‘saw and believed.’ Each of them ‘saw’ but the result of their seeing is different.
To be clear: there is nothing to be seen in the tomb. At any rate, no Jesus. Peter sees the things which can be seen. The beloved disciple sees and believes. What could be the meaning of these words? I see at least three possibilities.

i.Church fathers, such as Saint Augustine and Gregory the Great, suppose that ‘believe’ means here that John believed what Mary Magdalene had said: that Jesus had been taken out of the tomb by ‘them’. Otherwise the remark which follows immediately - that they didn’t know yet about the resurrection - made no sense.

ii. Another explanation says otherwise. On the contrary, John would have believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. In this way the later community around John would have shown that ‘their’ apostle ‘came to faith earlier’(!) than the most important apostle, Peter. Perhaps there is a connection with the Thomas story (20:24-29). Here it is said, ‘He saw and believed.’ Jesus will say to Thomas (20:29), ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ That is what the beloved disciple does at this moment: seeing nothing and believing! For what did he see? Nothing but the cloths. So he saw... [that there was nothing to be seen] and believed.
iii. A third possible explanation is inspired by the fact that the verb ‘believe’ doesn’t have an object. John does not write what the beloved believed. Only that he believed. That could lead to the conclusion that the beloved disciple - seeing the silent witnesses and the empty tomb - adopted the attitude of believing. He supposed that there was more than what he saw. Without knowing at that moment what that ‘more’ could be. As if John suggests that from this moment Jesus was not to be seen anymore and the time of ‘believing’ had come.
The two disciples peer into the tomb, with Mary Magdelene just behind.

The artist didn’t forget that Mary Magdalene was always there. 10th (?) century. Unknown place.

5. Jesus’ absence

Striking in today’s text are two things: the desperation of the disciples and Jesus’ absence. The one of whom it is all about doesn’t figure in the story. Emphasized by the empty tomb. Here, no angel as in the gospel of Matthew (28:5); no two men or one man in white clothes as respectively Luke (24:4) and Mark (16: 5) write. After this story Mary Magdalene will ‘contemplate’ two angels in white clothes (20:12). Here nobody. Only the silent witnesses of the cloths and the stone which was ‘taken up’. The fact that the cloths were rolled up indicates that the body of Jesus not had been stolen. Robbers wouldn’t have been so careful. And ‘taking up’ that stone wasn’t necessary at all. Further in this chapter we will hear that Jesus is able to reach his disciples through closed doors (20:19-26). Shouldn’t he have been able to leave the closed tomb then?

A stained glass showing the disciples in red and blue with golden light behind

The colours tell the story.  In red: the beloved disciple.In blue: Peter. The golden colour as a fire at the background: the - so to speak - present absence of Jesus. 2009, Reyntiens. Germany, Cochem, St-Martin

What reason could John have had to emphasize so clearly the desperation of the disciples? Probably to justify the feelings of the disciples. Luke does more or less the same thing in his story of the two disciples of Emmaus (24:19-24) where he tells about their sadness and disappointment, ‘We had such a hope...’ This hope seemed to be idle. For a very short moment they had been able to believe that God dwelled among them in the person of Jesus; that was a merciful God, as Jesus told and demonstrated. That seemed to be an illusion now.
As if the disciples have to be convinced first that God pursued his work even after Jesus’ human existence. The initiative is not with the disciples but with God (John 15:16), ‘Not you have chosen me, but I you.’


At the end of the story John boldly writes, ‘The disciples then went back home.’ And what about Mary Magdalene? Do they leave her? In her situation? With her distress? Couldn’t they stay awake with her for one hour? This is the introduction to what happens next. That is important for today’s reading as well.

One woman, two men

The history of the two men who run to the tomb is framed by the history of Mary Magdalene. In the culture of the Bible, the testimony of a woman had no value at all. The court needed the testimony of at least two men. Even if there were a thousand women, their testimony would have no weight at all. So, when Mary Magdalene goes to the disciples and tells them that Jesus’ tomb is empty, the disciples are not supposed to pay attention to it. That was the culture of that time. Is it for that reason that John tells us that two men went to the tomb to witness? It will only be credible if they say that the tomb is empty.

If so, then the follow-up of this story is quite surprising. For in the following story we will hear that the first to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection is Mary Magdalene. One woman. That was not very helpful in the culture of those days. For when this woman will go and tell that she met Jesus himself, nobody will believe it. The testimony of one man had no value, the testimony of one woman even less so. But we will hear that the testimony of that woman is founded on the testimony of two messengers, heavenly messengers (20,12). Nevertheless, Jesus will send that one woman to the disciples and her (20,17), ‘Go to my brothers and tell them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Thus the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection will depend on the voice of one woman. And not on two men. She is the only link.

How did Saint Paul say this (1 Corinthians 1,27), ‘God chose those who by human standard are weak to shame the strong.’ And the word ‘weak’ doesn’t have to do with the so called ‘weaker sex’, but what is weak according to the social standards of that moment.

Listen to the story of these women 

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