Exegesis of John 20:1-18



It was a difficult week keeping with the discipline and getting through our Holy Week services.  In the sake of time I skipped some of the steps hoping that some others of you have completed them.  I was appreciative of LG filling in the gaps for me.  Hopefully some of the work I did will be helpful to you.


Step One – Initial Acquaintance

English translations:  There is very little difference between the NRSV and the NIV.  The differences are few and those present are insignificant.  1) When the disciples and later Mary are looking for the place where Jesus had been laid following his death the wording is different.  In the NRSV they are concerned about where he had been laid.  In the NIV they are concerned about where they put him. 2) There is a difference in verse 16 between the two translations.  The NIV said that Mary spoke to Jesus in Aramaic.  The NRSV says that she spoke to him in Hebrew.  3) There is also a difference in the terminology regarding the ascension of Jesus.  In the NIV Jesus says he is returning to his father.  In the NRSV it says that he is ascending to his father. 


Textual Issues:


Rough Translation:


STEP TWO – Disposition

Genre: The text is a resurrection narrative split into two episodes.  The first narrative comes from the empty tomb tradition – vs. 1-10. There is a lot of moment in this text. Everyone is running from one place to the next. The Second narrative comes from the ressurection appearance tradition.  It involves Mary Magdalene.  Characteristic of John there is misunderstanding present in the text.  Mary fails to recognize Jesus.  She calls Jesus Sir/Lord when she thinks he is the gardener.  The movement in this text is from grief to joy.  Same word for Lord and sir used here in the text.  I have a feeling that John took these two traditions and wove them into a solitary fabric for his own theological purposes.


Personal Interaction:  1) Verse 1-10 questions first.  The use of darkness here has an impact on me?  Why do they go to the tomb while it was still dark? How do we encounter Easter in the darkness? What is dark about our lives and what light does the resurrection bring to us. Who is the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene, and Peter? What kind of faith do they represent in the story? There is a lot of running in the text? Why?  There is a lot of attention to the detail in the grave clothes.  Could there be a direct relationship to those cloths and the cloths described at the raising of Lazarus?   In verse 9 it says that they did not understand about the ressurection? What does this mean? When would they understand? What will it take for us to understand? It says in John 20:9 that the beloved Disciple saw and believed? What did he see and what did he believe? He believed on the basis on the empty tomb? What kind of faith does the empty tomb inspire? Is this connected to the blessed ones who have believed without seeing? Why did the disciples go back to their homes.


2) Questions for verses 11-18.  What role does Mary play in the text?  It seems she weaves to different strands of stories together for John. Mary is weeping in the text.  Why? Twice Mary says that they have taken away the body of Jesus and twice she wants to know where they have placed him. Why does this happen twice? Why does she fail to recognize Jesus.  She does not recognize Jesus until he calls her name.  Could this be a reference to the text in John 10:17-18, where Jesus says that he knows his sheep by name and that they recognize his voice. Why does he tell her that she should not hold him? Reference is made to his ascension in the text? What role does the ascension play in the Gospel? There is a movement in this text from grief to joy.  How does this happen in our own lives?  The angels are introduced in this text? What role do they play?

3) How does the theological point of view that John brings to the resurrection shape our understanding of it? A young man was killed and his girlfriend was critically injured this weekend.  How does the Easter Story speak to their pain?  How is Jesus the ressurection and the life in the present for them?  It has to be more than the typical “they are in heaven stuff.”  There is new life and hope in this text – how do we proclaim it meaningfully without it being that “future good over yonder” stuff that does nothing but pacifies people.

4) There are some phrases that jump out at me that you could a whole sermon around.


5) I’ve noticed that the Beloved looks in but does not enter.  Peter looks in and charges in.  Mary bends over and looks in. Is there any significance here in their differing responses?  What type of faith or person within our faith community does each of their responses to the gospel represent?


Organization:  The answers to these questions are found in step three, step four, and step five.

STEP THREE - Composition

Immediate Context:  The text is divided into three scenes. Verses 1-2 serves as an introduction.  Verses 3-10 is the first scene involving the empty tomb tradition.  Verses 11-18 involve a ressurection appearance to Mary Magdalene.  It appears to me that the author has woven together two different resurrection traditions to serve his own theological purposes. It appears immediately after the burial narrative of Jesus. Immediately following it is the ressurection appearance to the disciples and then Thomas.


Organization of the Compositional Whole:  The selected text is a part of a series of four ressurection accounts that can be divided into two sections. 


Episode 1 - 20:1-18

Introduction Verses 1-2 – Mary goes to the tomb just before dawn.


Scene 1 Verses 3-10 – Peter and the Beloved Disciple race on foot to the tomb.


Scene 2  Verses 11-18 – The encounter of the risen Jesus with Mary at the tomb.


Episode 2 – 20:19-30

Scene 1 Verses 19-23 - The ressurection appearances of Jesus to the disciples. He passes the Holy Spirit onto them.  Thomas is missing from the scene.


Scene 2 Verses 24-31  - The ressurection appearance to Thomas and the Disciples.  This narrative was meant for those who have believed without seeing. Thomas represents all of us.


Issues of Authorship: On frequent occasions the author refers to the glorification of Jesus.

This refers to three specific events that had to occur.  Jesus was on a time line to fulfill

these three things to come into his glory.  Crucifixion.  Ressurection.  Returning to God.

All three of these events come together in this story.  I find it very interesting that in this

text no one says to go and tell the disciples or anyone for that matter that Jesus is raised. 

Instead Jesus says that he should go and tell them that he is going to be returning to the

father.  The glorification is not complete until he returns to God.  This why he tells Mary

that she must not cling to him.  Nothing can remain as it has been.  He must meet his appointed time.


Primitive Christianity: The basic message of the church is found in 1 Cor. 15:4 –5. “That he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,  and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  Investigation of the ressurection narratives indicates the authors were not concerned about historical accuracy.  They were more concerned about their own theological agenda.  Each author takes his own slant on the tradition.  Volumes have been written about the differences.  Each of them begins with the basic message found in 1 Cor. 15:4-5 and builds on it.  The following scriptures have direct ties to the text:


(John 10:3-4 NIV)  The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.


(John 10:14-18 NIV)  I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too  will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.


(John 14:1-4 NIV)  Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God ; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.


(John 14:15-18 NIV)  "If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.


(John 16:20-22 NIV)  I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.


Old Testament and Judaism:

Hellenistic World:

STEP FIVE - Distillation
Summary of Salient Features:  The glorification of Jesus is not complete until he is 1) crucified 2) Raised 3) Ascended. Thus he tells Mary that she must not cling to him. He is going to the father – who is her father and her God.  The one who calls her by name like the good shepherd who knows his sheep and who recognize his voice is going to God the father.  This is the same one who said he was going there to prepare a place for us. This is the one who said that he is going there so that he can send the paraclete to them.  He does not tell anyone in the text to tell them he has raised? He tells them to tell them he is going to return to the father.  The entire gospel has been building toward this dramatic climax.

Smooth Translation:

Hermeneutical Bridge: I have several seeds for a sermon growing. 1) We have to pass through the darkness to get to the light.  It’s always the darkest just before dawn.  No one is ready to encounter Easter until he has spent time in a dark place. This evening I took a check to a man who lost his son in a car accident 11/2 years ago.  He was standing in the driveway in the dark.  He did not know me from the man on the moon.  Someone had vandalized his cars.   The check was to help him cover the cost.  Standing in the dark he said that since his son died everything had been getting worse and worse for them.  A family who was made aware of their situation made the check possible.  Standing there in the dark I said “this check is just to say that there are people in this community who care about you. There is some good left in the world.  Maybe this is just the start of things turning around for you.” It was a crack from which to pass into the light. Thought there was a glimmer of light in his eyes when I left.


2) Everyone is running everywhere in the text. Reminds me of what the church does without Jesus.  Running everywhere and getting nowhere fast.  Or what is it about the empty tomb that gets us running?


3) The grave clothes could have been an apologetic.  There were those who said that the body was stolen. The description of the detail in the clothes would have been to refute it.  No one would have gone through the trouble of unwrapping a body before moving it.  But there is a theological point possible here.  Lazarus emerged from the tomb wrapped in his grave clothes.  He depended on the word of Jesus to be unwrapped from them.  However, Jesus leaves them behind. Basically symbolizing that he has left death behind.


4) He knows the name of Mary.  Connection here to the good shepherd passage in John 10.  The weeping of Mary. Connection here to the weeping now and joy later text in John 16:20-22.


5) See a relationship to don’t hold me – to not clinging to the past – things can never be the way they were – they have to be different – so you can’t cling to the past and hope it will give you life – you have to look to the future – Jesus here had to ascend to the father.


6) Mary was grieving in the text – he calls her by name - Jesus knew he name.  He knows your name too. And the one who knows your name has returned to the father. 


STEP SIX – Contemporary Address
Description of Audience: As I prepare this Easter message I have sever faces in front of me. I have the faces of those members of our congregation have lost their spouses this past year.  Among those faces are the faces of a couple in their middle years who are coping with the death of their 18 year old son in a car accident with a drunk drive. Behind them I can the face of a couple in their 50s who are about to adopt a baby and a mother has made the decision to give up her child for adoption. I can see the face of several in my congregation who are seeking unemployment who are perhaps only a month away from losing everything.  My message will be delivered to people who need to hear the Good News of new life in Christ in the midst of their personal darkness.

Intended Goals for the Address: My goal is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ victory over sin and death.  My eye will be on those in my congregation who need to hear the good news that they can begin again.  I will focus on key phrases in the text and build toward the phrase (John 20:17 NIV)  …tell them, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”






Why did Mary fail to recognize Jesus?  Why the attention to detail in the burial cloth? What is the significance of the role of the beloved disciple outrunning Peter?  Does Peter believe?