Let Go and Go Tell

It’s hard to let go of those you love. Yet doing this is a regular experience of life. We let go of our family, friends, neighbors, classmates, cultures, homes, and familiar surroundings when we move to another neighborhood, city, State, or country. We let go when we send our children to college (or when we leave our parents at home when we go to college). We let go when we marry (or when we give our children away in marriage).

In all these difficult encounters with “letting go,” we learn how life really works. Life flourishes when we learn to let go of what and whom we love, when the necessary moments come for doing so. We wonder what life would be like if our kittens never turned into cats, our puppies never turned into dogs, and our cuddly toddlers never turned into adults. But even if we could discover some scientific way for making this happen, we would fail in the end, because life flourishes only when we learn to let go.

The same is true for those who believe in Jesus. As followers of Christ, we must learn to let go rather than hold on. A church may fail to move forward in their mission of reaching their community with the gospel because they cling too tightly to vestiges of the past. Stained glass windows. Longstanding programs, entrenched committees, old traditions and ways of doing things.

But Bible-believing Christianity thrives best when believers learn to let go of physical, temporary relationships and traditions at appropriate times so that they can more effectively go into the world to spread the truth of the resurrected Christ. The fact of the resurrection motivates believers to tell others about Jesus.

As you look ahead to the Spring and Summer ahead, ask yourself whether you are clinging to the past and the present, or whether you are prepared to go out into the world to spread the truth about Jesus? Though you know the truth about Jesus and the fact that he has risen from the dead, are you living in a way that shows you believe and that shows you care? Join me in discovering how John 20:1-18 can help us answer these questions.

The apostles established the fact of the resurrection.

Peter and John, like the other nine disciples, had distanced themselves from Jesus after he died, leaving Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, little-known followers from among the Sanhedrin, to bury him. But when Mary Magdalene informed them about the absence of Jesus’s body from the tomb, they jumped to action. Both men ran to the tomb. John ran faster but stopped at the entrance. Peter ran slower but entered when he arrived.

Both men noticed that the strips of cloth which had been wrapped about Jesus were folded neatly to the side, with a separate piece of cloth sitting neatly across the room. This evidence reveals several important details about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  • First, it indicates that neither grave robbers nor Roman soldiers had removed the body. Thieves would have removed the body quickly without unwrapping it. Soldiers would have done the same, not wanting to be seen. Furthermore, grave robbers would have retained the wrappings on the corpse to preserve the expensive spices which they bound to the corpse. What’s more, if either robbers or soldiers had removed the strips of cloth, carrying the exposed, decaying corpse by itself, they would not have bothered to fold the cloth strips carefully, setting them neatly to the side. They would have removed them hastily.
  • Second, the folded burial wrappings indicated that the disciples had not removed the body. As Jewish men, they would have insisted on leaving the grave clothes intact. For centuries, Jewish people insisted on showing utmost respect for the dead body of those they loved. That’s why the mighty men of Jabesh Gilead traveled through the night to recapture the bodies of King Saul and his sons from the Philistines, so that they might protect them from careless treatment by their enemies (1 Sam 31:8-13). Knowing this, if the disciples had removed the body, they would have kept the burial wrappings in place.

Ultimately, the twofold witness of Pete and John support this important evidence. John saw it from a distance, then Peter confirmed it up close. This fulfills the longstanding expectation that truth be established by two or three witnesses, not one alone (Deut 19:15). In this case, the two men who had witnessed the most of Christ’s trial and crucifixion up close were also the two who initially verified that the tomb was empty.

To confirm that the tomb was empty is a very important fact because the truthfulness of Christianity depends on it. Paul points this out most plainly (1 Cor 15:13-19): “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty, and your faith is also empty … if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.” In other words, if Christ did not resurrect from the dead, then (1) there is nothing to preach, (2) there is nothing to believe, (3) your faith in Christ is useless, (4) you are still in bondage to your sins, (5) you will never see again your believing loved ones who have already died, and (6) Christians – more than anyone else – are the ones for whom all people should feel most sorry. For all these reasons and more, we should be more than glad to know that both Peter and John give credible evidence that Jesus was indeed buried and that he did indeed resurrect from the dead.

In addition to corroborating this evidence, the testimony of John also teaches us an important lesson about genuine, saving faith. Though John saw the empty tomb and the graveclothes of Jesus, he had not yet seen Jesus in person. Despite this partial witness, he had seen enough to bolster his faith. Other disciples, like Thomas, would need to see Jesus in person in order to believe. But in that moment, at the entrance to the empty tomb that day, John saw all the proof he needed to be sure that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Like John that day, you and I must choose to believe the truth about Jesus without the luxury of seeing him in person. We need to hear the truth about Jesus according to the testimony handed down to us by the Holy Spirit, to the apostles, through the centuries. We will learn more about this in later verses, when Jesus spoke with the Apostle Thomas (John 20:29). But are you someone who has believed the truth about Jesus as your God and Savior, as the one-and-only way to God and the one and only person who lived, died, and rose again, never to die again? The testimony of Peter and John in this passage provide yet one more reason why you must believe.

Now, knowing the important role that men like Peter and John played in confirming the timeless doctrine of the Christian faith and message – including the fact of the resurrection of Jesus – we need to ask why John “sandwiched” their crucial testimony between a story about another person, a woman named Mary Magdalene?

This fact rested first on the response of faithful women.

John gave special attention to the response of this Mary (from Magdala), who discovered the empty tomb. She was not a prominent figure. The only other time she appears in this gospel is John 19:25, at the foot of the cross, with the mother of Jesus. Many years later, in AD 591, Catholic Pope Gregory the Great claimed that she had been a prostitute or a notorious criminal. Unfortunately, this perception gained traction, even though the Bible confirms it nowhere. Thankfully, the Roman Catholic Church retracted this error in 1969.

Even so, Mary from Magdala did have a dark and painful past. Luke told us in his gospel that prior to believing in Jesus, she had been possessed or afflicted by seven demons (Luke 7:2). We know nothing more than this, but we can conclude that she suffered greatly from this terrible situation. Nevertheless, being delivered by Jesus had instilled in her heart an undying love for her Savior which brought her to the tomb that day. How is your love for Jesus today? Is it strong? Does influence the choices that you make?

The words of Mary in this passage allude to the other women besides herself, when she said, “And we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). This matches the witness of the other gospel writers who identify other women by name (Mark 16:1; Matt 28:1; Luke 24:10).

Why is it important to highlight these women? Because in first-century Israel, people viewed neither women nor children as credible witnesses. This social flaw resembles the way that the United States prohibited women from voting prior to ratifying the 19th Constitutional amendment in 1920. Thankfully, Christianity did not perpetuate this viewpoint.

The Christian faith champions men and women as equal partners in the plan of God. In fact, all four gospel writers unashamedly uphold this viewpoint by presenting faithful women as front-line witnesses to the resurrection of Christ. Remarkably, these women exhibited faith in God when the apostles themselves had wavered. If you are a woman in the church today, do not underestimate the importance of your role in the work of God, for you play a crucial part.

To learn the important role that these women played, considered what John records about the actions of Mary Magdalene when she discovered the empty tomb.

She visited the tomb early.

Mary and the other women visited the tomb where Jesus had been buried for the purpose of seeing the tomb (Matt 28:1) and bringing additional spices to anoint the body (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1). They did this on the first day of the week because Jewish law prohibited them from doing work or contacting a dead body during the Sabbath day (Saturday) and during the Passover holiday. However, by doing this as the sun began to set, while it was still quite dark, they showed a desire to return to the tomb “as soon as possible,” which exhibits great eagerness on their part.

Women traveling alone outside in the dark would have been a dangerous move. But even more, to travel to the grave site of Jesus would identify them as followers of him. This by itself would be a dangerous move because it would place them at risk of being persecuted just as the Jews had persecuted Jesus.

Despite these dangers, Mary Magdalene and the other women visited the tomb in public view, while the disciples, as men, had locked themselves away in fear (John 20:19). This bravery by the women showed a depth of love and faith which the disciples struggled to exhibit. Perhaps they motivated John to write in another letter, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). Do you fear being identified with Jesus, as the disciples did? Or do you love Jesus so much that you serve him no matter what other people may think?

She ran to tell the disciples.

When Mary discovered the empty tomb, she responded with urgency, running to tell the disciples what she had seen. This urgency was not, as you might suppose, because she discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. After all, she wasn’t expecting Jesus to resurrect; she was expecting him to be buried.

Instead, she acted with urgency because she believed that someone had stolen the body of Jesus away. As a devout Jewish person who also loved Jesus devotedly, she would have been horrified at the thought of an unknown person(s) desecrating the body of Jesus. Unable to resolve this problem by herself, she ran to tell the disciples, hoping that they would be able to do something about this apparent problem.

You appreciate Mary’s urgency. You appreciate her zeal. You appreciate her love for Jesus that overcame her fear. But can you identify with her failure? Though she saw the evidence of the resurrection, she interpreted and understood what she saw in the wrong way. Even the sincerest believer can develop wrong ideas, believing them to be true! Loving Jesus does not automatically mean that you understand what the Bible teaches correctly. Knowing this should inspire increased humility in us all.

She wept at the tomb.

Ironically, Peter and John did nothing to help Mary resolve her dilemma. They ran to the tomb and confirmed her report, but they did nothing more. After seeing the empty tomb, they simply “went away again to their own homes” (John 20:10), leaving Mary and the other women back where they started – alone and bewildered.

Unlike the disciples, Mary did not trudge back to her home. Instead, she responded to the empty tomb with serious devotion; she returned after informing the disciples. She also responded with strong emotion; she wept. This word for weeping appears eight times in John’s gospel, including three times prior to the resurrection of Lazarus; but it appears most in this story (four times), here at the resurrection of Jesus. This word portrays loud, unrestrained wailing, the kind that is common at a Jewish funeral. It revealed that Mary’s heart was filled with deep remorse and with the pain of intense sorrow. Such was not the case with the eleven disciples

What’s more, it is fascinating to observe that while a crowd of people had wept over the death of Lazarus, a nice but ordinary sinner like you and me (John 11:33), only one lady (or a handful of ladies) wept at the tomb of Jesus, even though he was the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one and only perfect Son of God. Though Christ came to die for the sins of the world and wept over the city of Jerusalem, only one woman in all the world and in all the city had come to weep over his tomb.

Like the disciples, do you claim to believe the truth about Jesus while being unmoved by him in a personal, intimate way? Cold, calloused indifference is a dangerous response to the truth about Jesus. It leads to fear rather than courage, to discouragement and depression rather than joy. You will find these experiences among the eleven disciples in the remaining verses of John’s gospel. But from the example of Mary, we should learn to care about Jesus in a real and personal way. Loving Jesus hurts sometimes, but that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to hurt for Jesus.

She held on to Jesus.

As Mary wept, she saw two men sitting in the tomb, men who had not been sitting there before. These were not grave robbers, nor were they Roman soldiers or disciples of Jesus who had come to cover their tracks after stealing the body of Jesus away. No, these were visitors from God, angels from heaven, messengers sent from the spiritual realm to ask her a question that would turn her sorrow into joy and her anguish into victory. They asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:15).

They did not ask this question to learn something new, as though they didn’t know the cause for Mary’s sorrow. I say this because Jesus, who knows all things, soon asked her the very same question.

Standing behind Mary, he also asked, “Whom are you seeking?” The angels and Jesus asked these gentle questions to guide Mary out of her overwhelming sorrow towards clear-minded thinking. After hearing Jesus ask these questions, Mary turned enough to the side that she knew a man was standing nearby.

In her despair and bewilderment, she mistakenly identified this man as the gardener. On this premise, she asked whether he had been the one who removed the body of Jesus. If he were, she offered to recover the body so that she could give it a proper and permanent burial.

To this offer, Jesus answered, “Mary” (which is actually Miriam and would have been a more personal and familiar way of addressing her). To this, she turned around completely and exclaimed, “Rabboni!”

You should know the meaning of these words. Miriam comes from the root word Marah, which means “bitter,” and Rabboni means “my great one” or “my highly respected teacher.” Jesus spoke the truth about Mary. She was filled with sorrow and bitterness in her soul at a moment when she should have been filled with joy and laughter. Likewise, Mary spoke the truth about Jesus. He was indeed her most highly respected teacher, to whom she owed everything, including her undivided loyalty and devotion. What a moment! What a reunion! Mary was reunited with her Lord and Savior, and he was no longer dead, but alive!

This moment fascinates me because it resembles the first time that we read about God speaking to people in a garden. In Genesis 3, we read how the first woman, Eve, succumbed to temptation in the Garden of Eden and how Adam and Eve hid themselves from God when he spoke to them. But here in the Garden of Gethsemane, we read how another woman, Mary Magdalene (and perhaps a group of women) were seeking after God, not running from him.

What an amazing reversal, do you agree? Though a woman, by her actions, opened the way for Adam to sin and draw the entire human race into death, another woman here opened the way for the apostles to discover the fact of the resurrection, which defeated the power of death and offers life to everyone who believes.

There is another way, too, in which this episode in the Garden of Gethsemane mirrors the episode in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, God sent Adam and Eve away from the garden, and here in this resurrection episode with Jesus, he sends Mary away as well.

She let go of Jesus to go tell others about him.

What would have been your first reaction to seeing the resurrected Jesus? In Mary’s case (and she was the first person to see Jesus this way), she appeared to move forward in order to grab a hold of Jesus, as if to hug him tightly or to cling tightly to his feet. Jesus, however, discouraged such behavior. But why?

Jesus did not prohibit her from clinging to him because of some mystical reasons pertaining to his resurrected body. If this were the case, then he would not have told his disciples in the following verses to touch his wounds (John 20:27). Instead, he explained that though now he was resurrected and had returned to them, he would not be staying with them forever in a physical way (John 20:17). He would soon return to heaven, from where he had come and from where he had been from eternity, without beginning or end. For this reason, it would do no good to cling to him. No amount of clinging in the world would keep him there.

Since he would soon return to heaven, Jesus urged Mary to let go of him so that she could do something more important. And this – I think – is the ultimate purpose of this story. The proper response to the resurrection of Jesus was not to hold onto him, as though he would never go away. Instead, the proper response was to let go so that she could go tell others about what she had seen and heard. Jesus wasn’t looking for hugs. He was looking for action! He was looking for those who loved him to go tell others the good news, that he had risen again!

Conclusion

Today, how do you respond to the resurrection of Jesus?

  • Do you – like the disciples – accept the facts, then return to your home in fear of being found out to be a follower of Christ, disinterested in doing anything serious for Jesus?
  • Do you – like Mary – show great love and devotion to Christ, yet you cling to physical things and temporary relationships as if to never let them go?
  • Or do you – as Jesus said – let go of those things which are precious but temporary (like seeing the human Jesus), focusing instead on building up the faith of others and spreading the truth about the resurrected Jesus to the world?

We need to take some lessons from Mary of Magdalene. Though we may believe the fact of the resurrection – as John himself did when he saw the evidence – will we simply “return to our own homes,” carrying on an ordinary life with little difference from anyone else in the world?

Like Mary, we should respond with greater passion and zeal. Yet even so, we must be sure that we do not cling to those things which – no matter how important in faith and service – are temporary and transient. We may say goodbye to those we love, and only God knows the changes he will bring into our lives. Like Mary, we should learn not to cling to such things, no matter how deep our love for them may be. Because of the resurrection, we will all meet again someday when we see Jesus face to face.

What matters most is that we let go so that we might go tell the world the good news and the truth about Jesus. We serve a loving, living Savior whom they must trust and obey for themselves. Will this purpose mark your life? I pray that it will.

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