John 20:1-18, The Firstborn of All Creation

[April 24, 2011] In John 12:3 Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus for His burial (12:7); and in 19:41-42 He was buried with spices in a virgin tomb in a garden. We followed that scent of nard from Song of Solomon 1:12—where the king reclines on his couch—to 4:13-14—where the bride is compared to a garden of spices (with springs and fountains and flowing wells) and the royal marriage is consummated; and were reminded of the queen’s desire expressed in 8:6: “Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death … Many waters cannot quench love, nor do floods drown it.” Now we are reminded of 3:1-4, where the bride, and 5:6, where the newlywed, found that her beloved was gone, “I sought him, but found him not.”

Chapter 20 opens with an explosion of Biblical associations rich in meaning. We will try to follow the heart of the Gospel here with the help of Bruno Barnhart’s book, The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993), pages 216-233.

The Empty Tomb (John 20:1)

“Now on the first day of the week … while it was yet dark.” We cannot help but think of the first day of creation in Genesis 1, a day that also began in darkness. Perhaps we may also think of the darkness in John 6:17 during the sea crossing, when Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water.

“The stone [was] taken away from the tomb.” This reminds us of the well of Jacob in Samaria (John 4:6) and the story in Genesis 28-29. “Jacob awoke from his sleep” and anointed the stone on which his head had rested. He continued on with his journey and came to the land of “the children of the east.” There he found a well with a large stone covering it. Rachel came with her flock and “Jacob drew near and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well and watered the flock.” Rachel became Jacob’s wife. In John 4 Jesus offers living water to the woman, and in John 7:39 we are told that the living water is the Spirit, who “was not yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.” Jesus was asleep in (not on) the stone, but like Jacob He awakens from His sleep, though the sleep of death. The tomb then becomes like a well of living water and the stone that had covered it is taken away. Mary, then, reminds us of Rachel with the nuptial intimations (as there were at the wedding of Cana, and with the Samaritan woman by association with Jacob’s well, and with Mary of Bethany—for Mary here is representative of the bride whom Christ has won). A straight line moves from the wedding in Cana through John the Baptist’s pronouncement in 3:29 that, “He who has the bride is the Bridegroom,” to Jesus in the garden (like Adam) awakening from His sleep and naming Mary of Magdala.

The tomb is a hole in a rock, symbolic of a womb. This, moreover, is a “virgin” tomb “in which no one had ever yet been laid.” From it emerged the beginning of the new creation, creation divinized with the properties of the divine nature. The resurrected Jesus is thus the Firstborn of the creation as the Firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:15, 18). His divinized humanity is the beginning of a transformation that will overtake the entire creation, a transformation for which the creation was originally intended. It is appropriate then that He should be “born” from the womb of the earth. According to 1 Peter 1:23, the living and abiding Word of God is an incorruptible Seed. The Father planted this Seed, who is Christ, in the tomb, the womb of the earth, so that on Easter It might rise transformed.

This fulfills the words God spoke to the earth, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.” The first creation began lifeless and eventually brought forth vegetative and conscious life, but humanity became very ugly. The writer of Hebrews says of Psalm 8, “But now we do not yet see all things subjected to Him, but we see Jesus …” (Hebrews 2:4-9). Likewise, it is the resurrected Jesus and His bride who fulfill the role of the male and female in Genesis 1:26-27.

The hole in the rock might also remind us of the hole in the stone core of a wheel through which the axis is inserted. From this stone radiates the spokes of the wheel, whether this refers to the Gospel itself or the Gospel according to John.

The Revelation inside the Rock (20:2-10)

Mary runs to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved (John). They run to the tomb. John runs ahead of Peter but allows Peter to enter the tomb first. When they enter, they discover the empty linen cloths and the handkerchief folded up by itself. John sees and believes. Then they go back.

Mary reminds us here of the Samaritan woman who also left the well and went away into the city to tell the people about Jesus, who then went out of the city and came to Him (John 4:28-30). We are also reminded of chapter 1, where John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to the brother of Peter and an unnamed disciple (perhaps John), and they came to Jesus wanting to know where He abided. (But the wilderness of John the Baptist has become a garden in chapter 20.) Peter and John now come to the place where Jesus was abiding.

We are also reminded of Rahab who offered a hiding place in her feminine enclave to the two Israelite spies who came to scout out the Promised Land. The Promised Land is the Sabbath rest of the people of God (Hebrews 3-4). Just as the two spies scout out the land ahead of the others, Peter and John come to empty tomb to discover its riches before the other disciples do (even though Peter still has a veil over his eyes). Mary brings them to the tomb as a feminine enclosure just as Rahab brought the spies to her enclosure. The secret of the tomb (its emptiness reveals the resurrection) hides the reality of the Promised Land.

Peter and John are both representative figures. Peter represents the apostolate while John represents the disciples. In the beginning of the gospel Jesus calls Peter a stone (with reference to the house of God, Beth-el), and at the end of the gospel he is told to shepherd the sheep. Though John arrives first, Peter enters first. He is the man of action (who loves Jesus, 21:15-17), while John is more receptive, the disciple loved by Jesus. Peter is the leader and spokesperson. When others doubt, Peter says to Jesus, “You have words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (6:68-69). His counterpart is Martha who also confessed, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, He who comes into the world” (11:27).

Yet John enjoys a greater intimacy with Jesus than Peter (his counterpart is Mary). Peter may be associated with the church in an exterior sense, but John’s association is interior. The Gospel according to Mark, Peter’s gospel, is a gospel for martyrs. John’s gospel never speaks explicitly of baptism or the Lord’s Supper but rather alludes to their meaning(rather constantly). He thus is concerned with the inner life rather than the outer, the contemplative life rather than the active. He represents the inner life of discipleship rather than the active life of the apostolate; and in this way is associated with the women of this gospel (though women are also active in the apostolate).

John defers to Peter, for one is not without the other, but John also believes before Peter does (John 20:8), even if he does not yet fully understand. In fact, John is the first one to believe in the significance of the empty tomb.

It is when John enters the hole inside the rock (the tomb) that he believes. The rock, or rather the empty rock, thus becomes a symbol of faith, faith in the resurrection of Jesus. In Daniel 2:34-35, “a stone was cut without hands, and it struck the image at its feet of iron and clay and crushed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed all at once, and they became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” The colossal statue represents all the kingdoms of the world which are founded on idolatry. The stone is Christ. The final words of John’s first epistle are, “Guard yourselves from idols.” The antidote for idolatry is faith in the resurrection of Jesus, which is what is meant when we are told that John “believed” as he stood inside the stone tomb. It is upon this rock—this faith—that the church is built (1 Peter 2:4-8). We are reminded again of the stone on which Jacob’s head rested when he slept. It is this stone that he anointed as the house of God and the gate of heaven (John 1:51). It is this faith that forms the foundation of the House of God which is the church.

Moses struck a rock and water gushed forth for the people to drink. The water that Christ gives will become within the one drinks it a fountain of water gushing up into eternal life (so Jesus told the woman of Samaria).

But there is another significance here. When Elijah fled from Jezebel, he came to the mountain of God and stayed in a cave. There, God passed by with a strong wind that broke the rocks in pieces, and with an earthquake and with fire, but God was not in these. Then God spoke to him in a gentle, quiet voice (1 Kings 19:9-13). This seems to foreshadow how the great outward figures and institutions and events orchestrated by God in the Old Testament Scriptures are only types and images and symbols of the real, not the reality of God’s Presence itself, which is Christ.

In Exodus 33:18-23, when Moses wanted to see God’s glory, God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock. He then covered Moses’ face with His hand and passed by while revealing His name (YHWH, God compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in loving-kindness and truth), only removing His hand when He had passed by so that Moses could see just His back, not His face. God then gave Him new tablets of the Law and other commandments. When Moses descended from the mountain, “the skin of his face shone,” and he was required to where a veil over his face.

The vision of God that Moses received in the cleft of the rock reminds us of the sight that John received when, inside the rock of the tomb he saw and believed. We are also reminded of the discarded linen cloths lying there—for these speak of the types—the figures and images—of the Old Testament that no longer veil their meaning. They had concealed Christ, but now they no longer do so as He is revealed in His glory.

Notice in particular “the handkerchief which had been over His head.” Like the veil that covered Moses’ face, this cloth covered Jesus’ face. In 2 Corinthians 3:13-18, Paul compares the veil that covered Moses’ face with the veil that covers the hearts of the sons of Israel when they read the old covenant. The veil is done away with in Christ when their hearts turn to Him. For us who believe there is no veil, but “beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit.”

What we behold is “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” the light of that radiance being like the light on the first day of creation (2 Corinthians 4:6; see John 20:1).

“YHWH God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skins and clothes them,” for “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:21, 7). Their eyes were opened to their alienation from God, to their shame. Before, they “were naked and were not ashamed before each other” (2:25). When Jesus laid aside His garments, it signified that the shame had been removed. In the new creation, our eyes are opened, not to our shame but to the glory of God, which now clothes us with honor. John sees and believes. Throughout the Gospel according to John, seeing is significant of spiritual perception. Just as we see through the types and figures and images to their reality in Christ, so we see Christ Himself for who He is, and the glory of God in His face.

The word for “handkerchief” (soudarion) comes from the word “sweat,” denoting the cloth that a worker used to wipe sweat from his brow. God told Adam, “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:19). Jesus laid this aside, signifying that the curse is lifted, the “six days of labor” are over and the Sabbath rest of the Promised Land has begun. Jesus Himself is the Promised Land that we enter when we believe into Him, just as abiding in Him is our Sabbath rest.

In John 11:44 this same soudarion covered the face of Lazarus. When Jesus raised him from the dead, He commanded, “Unbind him and let him go.” Lazarus was raised by Jesus. But Jesus raised Himself (see John 2:19; 10:17-18). He has the power of life in Himself and He has the authority to use it to raise others.

The veil that lies over our eyes is not yet completely removed. Slowly it is coming off as Christ in His fullness is unveiled to us. But we still live in this creation; we still live under signs and images, we still baptize and partake of the Lord’s Supper, and Israel still keeps the Torah. One day humanity and creation itself will become transparent with the glory of God and the limitations and restrictions of our condition will be put aside.

Within the rock of the empty tomb John is also born as he “sees and believes.” Already, Jesus’ death becomes fecund by His resurrection. John already believes, but he has not yet seen the risen Christ. That is left for Mary of Magdala, when the light of the first day of creation dawns on her.

Mary (20:11-18)

After the disciples leave, Mary remains at the tomb weeping. Only the Gospel according to John mentions her tears. As the day begins to dawn and there is more light, she goes into the tomb to see for herself. As she looks, there are two angels in the tomb, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had lain, and they ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She ignores them and sees Jesus, but does not recognize Him. He too asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” And just as He asked the disciples at the beginning of the gospel, He asks her, “Whom are you seeking?” (He asked the disciples “what” they were seeking) for she does not recognize Him for she is looking for the Living One among the dead.

She is concerned for the body of Jesus, as was Mary of Bethany when she anointed Him. Jesus also asked the Samaritan woman for a drink, for He was weary, and therefore she too ministered to His body (or was asked to). The body, like the creation itself, is a special concern of the people of God, as it is of God Himself, for it is the body that is the location of the new creation.

Mary does not recognize Him until He speaks her name, “Mary!” Then she takes hold of Him (the verb usually translated “touch,” with the genitive means “to hold” and in the middle present tense it further means to “be holding onto” something).

At this point, we are reminded of the bride in Song of Solomon 3:1-4 (and, with a little less resonance, the newlywed in 5:6). “On my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not. I will rise now and go about in the city; in the streets and in the squares I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen who go about in the city found me—‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’—scarcely had I passed them when I found him whom my soul loves; I held him and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house and into the chamber of her who conceived me.” The bride is in Solomon’s palace. He had lain with her, and when she awakens during the night she cannot find her lover. She begins to look for him in the other rooms. “The watchmen of the city” are the eunuchs. Just as she passes them, he comes to her. Her “mother’s house” and “the chamber of her who conceived me” is a euphemism for her sex (her womb). Mary’s actions are similar to the bride’s. Jesus, of course, is He whom her soul loves. The angels in the tomb are like the watchmen of the city. When she “finds” Jesus she holds onto Him.

At first she thinks He is the gardener, and we are reminded again of the Garden of Eden (2:15). When Jesus says her name, it reflects the same context. Before this, in the gospel, Jesus never spoke the name, “Mary.” In Genesis, when Adam woke from his sleep and laid eyes on Eve, he said, “This time this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘Woman’ because out of man this one was taken.” Adam named Eve “Woman,” which is what Jesus called His mother in Cana and when He was on the cross. At first He addresses the Magdalene the same way. But in Cana, Jesus told His mother that His hour had not yet come. Now His hour had come. The “Woman” of the old creation now becomes “Mary.” By naming her, as He named Lazarus when He called Him out of the tomb, He calls her forth into life and into light. It is only then that she recognizes Him.

Let us return to her tears, for water is significant in the Gospel according to John. Her tears remind us of the six stone vessels that they filled with water at the wedding in Cana (like the six days of sweat which the handkerchief signified). The water there represents all the sorrow and grief of this mortal life just as Mary’s tears speak of her sorrow and grief for the One she has lost. The first speaks of the loss of God’s presence; the second of the personal loss of Christ. The difference is that the stone vessels of water, which were empty until filled, are exterior and objective, but Mary’s water is inside her, welling up from her emptiness. In a sense they are her. But as the water at the wedding was turned to the wine of joy, the joy of nuptial union, so Mary’s tears are transformed into tears of joy as she embraces Jesus.

As Eve was brought to Adam when he awoke from his sleep, so God has brought Mary to Jesus when He awoke from death. It seems in fact as if Jesus hid Himself from all others until Mary was alone. He waitedfor her. As Adam named Eve “Woman” (and they became one husband and wife), so Jesus names Mary. She calls Him “Rabboni,” signifying that she is a disciple and He the Master, yet she is also His beloved (just as the disciple John is also called His beloved). This shows us the inner meaning of discipleship. Mary as the beloved of Jesus is the secret meaning of every believer.

Just as Solomon in the Song of Solomon does not fill his bride’s “mother’s house … the chamber of her who conceived me,” until the night of the wedding (see 5:1), so Jesus does not allow Mary to hold onto Him, for their true union cannot take place until after He ascends to His Father. “He ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill allthings” (Ephesians 4:10). After He enters the Holiest of Holies with the atoning blood, then from the Father can come the glory (the Shekinah) that shall fill the mother. It is thus only when He ascends to the Father that He can become interior to the disciples when He dwells in them through the Holy Spirit.

This is where Song of Solomon 5:6 comes true for Mary. She finds Him again when He comes to her in Song of Solomon 6:2-3.

Perhaps the woman of Samaria is unnamed because she (her “type”) is not “completed” until now, whereas the other women are all complete in themselves. The woman of Samaria, representing the opposite end of Mary of Bethany, is nuptially unfulfilled in her many marriages (this is her thirst). Mary of Magdala, instead of thirsting for water, sheds tears of water—just as Mary of Bethany poured out her oil—but finds the fulfillment of her joy in Christ in their spiritual union (which is inclusive of her bodily existence).

Mary not only stands before Jesus in the place of the church, as His bride, but also as the “mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20), as the first to receive Him in resurrection. As Mary of Nazareth gave birth to Jesus Himself, so Mary of Magdala is sent to open the well of living water to the Lord’s “brothers” (never before did He refer to them as “My brothers”) to testify to His rising and to say to them, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.” By faith in Him, by believing in His resurrection, they step into the place where He is the Only-Begotten in the bosom (womb) of the Father (John 1:18): “that they also may be with Me where I am” (John 17:24).

In John 16:21 Jesus said, “A woman, when she gives birth, has sorrow because her hour has come; but when she brings forth the little child, she no longer remembers the affliction because of the joy that a man has been born into the world. Therefore you also now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you.”

As a woman brought Jesus into the world and the same woman midwifed “the beginning of signs [that] Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee [when He] manifested His glory,” and a woman anointed Him King in preparation for His conquest on the cross, so now a woman greets Him with joy upon His emerging from the womb of the earth.

Israel gives birth to Jesus in His resurrection, through the travail of the cross. This motherhood is represented by the four women at the cross. As one of the four, Mary of Magdala carries this role forward as she weeps at the tomb. But when she rejoices at seeing and receiving the Newborn, she also stands in for the mother that gave birth to Him in Bethlehem. Hers is the voice of the earth which provides the womb of His grave. As she is named by Jesus and her eyes are opened to see and know Him, she embraces and receives Him and thus begins to share in the new creation of which He is the Firstborn. When she announces Jesus to the other disciples, she continues to be His mother, for then He comes into their midst and is born in them.

Thus, not only does she symbolize the bride of Christ, and therefore the prize of His conquest, but also His mother in the church.

The women in the Gospel according to John thus fulfill one type that moves through the gospel in mandalic fashion from Mary of Nazareth in Cana of Galilee, to the unnamed woman of Samaria, to Mary of Bethany, to Mary of Magdala. She is the earth, and the people of God, and the vessel of the feminine Presence of God, God’s Wisdom, the Holy Spirit: the immanent counterpart of the transcendent Word, both bride and mother.


I hope, using this array of images, we can see the resurrection of Christ (1) in terms of the birthing of the divine nature in our own humanity and (2) as the nuptial reunion and fulfillment of the divine “face” and our own—and, by extension, of “faces,” in general—the “face” being a euphemism of the person, the meeting of hearts, when our heart is centered in spirit and thus inclusive of our hypostatic wholeness.

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