Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

241. Peter and John (John20:4-l0)

At this point, so Hoskyns very usefully observes, John's narrative is so constructed that the weight of testimony depends on the two chief disciples and not on the women — this for the special benefit of Jewish readers, doubtless: "at the mouth of two witnesses' (Dt. 19:15), and men rather than women.

Peter and John ran as they had not run since the days of boyhood on Galilean hills. Men at the north gate of the city stared at them as they went rushing past. John, more lithe and supple, and probably younger, was soon well ahead of the other. Perhaps, too, his being unembarrassed by a bad conscience made some difference. But Peter, being Peter, was probably already resolved to track down the desecrators of his Lord's tomb and by some desperate act of reprisal make a last futile gesture of loyalty to the one he had denied.

At the tomb - different reactions

So John was at the sepulchre with a good lead With a fineness of feeling which might be expected of him, he was content, on arrival, to stand by the entrance and stoop to peer in. There was just time to take things in before he was pined by Peter breathing heavily, but one quick look was sufficient for him to realize, though with no certainty, the main fact that the body was gone. The linen wrappings were there in position, yet it seemed that there was no body inside them.

Peter had no compunction whatever about going straight into the sepulchre. He went right up to the place where Jesus had been laid and stood staring hard at the grave clothes. John joined him, and quickly saw more than he did.

"He saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead." These words from John's account carry a double difficulty. The expression 'knew not' must surely be taken in a deeper sense: 'they understood not', for of course they were acquainted with the Old Testament passages which anticipated the resurrection of Jesus - the stories of Jonah and of Isaac, Psalm 16, Isaiah 53, the Passover ritual described in Leviticus 23, and so on. With the text of all, or most, of these the disciples would certainly be familiar, but it is one thing to know the words, it is a another to grasp the truth they convey. Not yet did they understand.

The sequence of ideas in this part of John's record presents a much more tricky problem: "he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the Scripture." If John had written': 'even though as yet they knew not...', all would be consistent. But lack of knowledge (or understanding) of Scripture as a reason for believing hardly makes sense. For this reason many, following the fourth century Augustine, have given the words a very different application, thus: John saw the grave-clothes and believed the story brought by Mary (that the body of Jesus had been taken away), and he was the more ready to do this because the Bible prophecies concerning the Lord's resurrection were not understood as yet.

There is, however, one simple fact which disallows this interpretation — quite apart from the not too satisfying conclusion which it leads to. The sight of the linen winding sheet supplied immediate proof that the body of Jesus had not been carried away, for who in their senses wishing to do such a thing would first go to the trouble of tediously unwrapping the corpse? The presence of those linen wrappings was the plainest possible proof that the body had not been removed by either friend or enemy. This must be John's main reason for mentioning the fact.

A problem of interpretation

Then why that perplexing word "for"? This is not the Greek word which in such a place must mean "because." Instead, it is a word which may carry this meaning but which can and often is added simply for emphasis, rattier in the way in which 'truly, indeed, really, actually', are used in modern English. For instance: "But some said, What, doth the Christ come out of Galilee?" (John 7:41 RV; the AV leaves the word untranslated). Again: "Why, herein is a marvellous thing..." (9:30). There is no lack of examples of this kind.

John's statement is now seen to be a clear-cut declaration that it was because of what he saw that he believed Jesus to be risen, not because of what he expected: "Actually as yet they knew not the scripture..."

The circumstantial detail with which John describes what he saw in the tomb shows that he regarded it all as specially significant: "He seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was upon his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself."

From this description, and especially from the word translated "wrapped together," it has been argued that John was wishing his readers to infer his own conviction that the body of Jesus had come through the linen wrappings, leaving them in the shape they had taken round the corpse.

Whilst this conclusion can hardly be said to follow from the expression used in the narrative here, a consideration of a different sort provides strong support for it. My friend, Raymond Mallinder, an analytical chemist of first-rate ability and wide experience, tried the experiment of using muslin and a mixture of myrrh and aloes (as Joseph and Nicodemus had done in burying Jesus; 1 9:39), and he found that if the myrrh and aloes were used in a dry form, as powders, then weeks later the material was unchanged in character. If, however, these spices were wetted either with water or alcohol (wine), the muslin immediately became very sticky and soon set firm like a plaster cast on a broken limb.

It has been argued that since the women who came to the tomb on the resurrection morning were hoping to be able to anoint the body, they must have known that the former method of using the spices in a dry form must have been adopted at the time of interment. But this does not necessarily follow for the two Marys who attended the burial "sat over against the sepulchre" (Mt. 27:61), and therefore (most probably) would not be near enough to see whether the wrappings were wetted or not.


So with the limited information available, it does not seem possible to decide whether, at his coming to life again, the Lord manually divested himself of the wrappings (or was helped by angels), or whether his resurrection body with its extraordinary powers came through the cerecloths, leaving them undisturbed. The word "wrapped (folded)" in John 20:7 might be read as supporting the former conclusion. But neither this point nor any other detail available seems to be decisive. John often thought and wrote symbolically. Those who pore reverently and sympathetically over his gospel can trace this characteristic in many a place (e.g. 3:2; 13:3; 10: 22,23; 19:22; 19:34; there are a great many more). Here — who can doubt it? — is another eloquent example. That separation, so clearly seen even in the dim light of the tomb, between the head-wrapping and winding sheet round the body stamped itself on the memory of John. In years to come he treasured it as a symbolic picture of the divine appointment for the resurrection of the faithful: "Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming." (1 Cor. 15:23; cp. the distinction in Rom. 1:4; 6:4). Between the resurrection of Christ the Head and the rising again of those who are his Body there must needs be a significant space of time during which men either see and believe or are unable to see and yet believe just the same. Even the rather colourless word "place" — "in a place by itself" — may have been intended to have special significance, for very often in the Old Testament (and in several New Testament places also) this word has the specialised meaning of "A holy place, a sanctuary." John's theology (1 Jn. 2:1) and phrasing together suggest an extension of the symbolism.

All this the disciple whom Jesus loved saw with the inspiration of faith but dared not utter. So he went back to his own folk to brood on it, leaving a bewildered, less discerning Peter to go his own way. "Ye shall be scattered, every man to his own." Without Jesus the disciples tended to fall apart. (And when disciples fall apart they show that they are without Jesus). Conversely, the news of his resurrection was to bring them together again (Luke 24:33).

NOTES: John 20:4-10

Came first Gk: protos means first of more than two. Thus it is implied that Mary followed; v.11.

Did outrun Peter, and in faith also.
linen clothes. This assumes that Mt. 28:13 is known. Body stealers would not trouble to unwrap the body.

Stooping down. Souter's lexicon defines the meaning: 'stretch forward the head to catch a glimpse; or peep; or peer in.' Cp. its interesting use in Gen. 26:8 LXX, Jas, 1:25; and especially 1 Pet, 1:12, as though suggesting that angels had preceded the two apostles in this exciting exercise, and are still as eager (in a less literal sense).
Seeth. The words used about John and Peter are different. Peter stared s.w. verses 12, 14. John saw with new enlightenment. Went into. The Gk. is emphatic: went right in.
Gk- from upon his head. Contrast 11:44: Gk. perf The phrase in a place by itself suggests a special place.

The words for wrapped and lying point to a distinction here of both appearance and meaning.

The napkin upon (Gk.) his head was separate. Then what price the Turin shroud? The details of this passage, and also Rom. 1:4; 6:4; 1 Pet. 3:18; Mt. 3:16, suggest a Jesus immortal from the moment of resurrection.
That other disciple, which came first. Why does John say this twice? is it so important? Indeed, why does he say it at all?

believed Jesus to be risen; cp. v.25, 27, 29. In view of this economy of words, the repetition just mentioned is the more remarkable. In this verse, John is careful to emphasise that he was the first of those blessed disciples who believed without seeing (v.29). Note how conviction came to others (a) Mary; (b) the apostles,- (c) the two at Emmaus; (d) Thomas.
Knew not; s.w. 13:12. Consider Mt. 16:21; 17:9-23; 20:19.

He must rise again Gk: it is necessary: (a) because foretold in OT; (b) "raised again for our justification The word must mean- it was necessary.
Unto their own home - and not go and tell all the fellow-disciples they could reach? (Mt. 28:7). Surely not so. It is more likely that this masculine plural means: 'to their own (friends)'

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