Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

242. "Rabboni!" John 20:11-18.

Mary, who had followed Peter and John back to the tomb, still lingered disconsolately there after the two apostles had gone away. There was no reason at all why she should, except that this was the spot where she had last set eyes on her Saviour. In the past two days she had shed tears as never before, and now, more than ever, they refused to be restrained. If only her love and deep loss might express themselves in some practical act of service and solicitude, if only she might have the opportunity to lavish all her devotion on his poor crucified body! But now that her Lord had been mysteriously removed, even this crumb of comfort was denied her.

Could it be that Joseph of Arimathea had decided, for some reason which she was unable to guess, that it would be better to have Jesus interred elsewhere? But then, in that case he would hardly have acted with such unseemly haste, nor would he have taken such a step without consulting or at least informing the disciples.

Unable to make any sense of the situation, she wept the more. Then it suddenly dawned on her that as yet she had not seen for herself. Was there anything to be learned from a closer examination of the sepulchre? So, as the apostles had done, she also stooped to peer within — and immediately saw two men sitting there, as though at the head and feet of Jesus. But there was no Jesus!

Perhaps she was greatly startled to see these men, and showing it, was quickly reassured by them. But there is no sign of this in the narrative. More likely she assumed without surprise that these were two of Joseph's men. Only in later days did she, and John also, see the wondrous significance of two angels sitting in this dark Holy of Holies and between them the stain of blood shed to take away the sin of the world. In the temple on Mount Zion no ark of God's covenant, no over-arching cherubim of gold, sanctified the sanctuary as the place where sin was put away. Instead, here in this lonely spot, witnessed by only one worshipper (and she blinded by tears and imperfect knowledge), was the true Mercy-seat. Within a matter of minutes Mary was to understand it all.

Dramatic encounter

"Woman, why weepest thou?" Why indeed? "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him." Yet she would have had much greater cause for weeping had she found Jesus lying there!

Even as she spoke, she turned away again. Was it because she assumed that they could not help her, for they would surely have given her news immediately, if they had news to communicate? Or was it because the two men in the tomb stood to greet one whom they could see behind Mary? The Greek text seems to imply a sound of footsteps behind her.

There came a dramatic change. Staring into the rising sun she was able to see only the outline of the stranger who now drew near. This, for certain, must be Joseph himself. He would be able to help her. And all her love and anxiety were poured out in one intense irrational plea: "Sir" — the word is really Lord;' imagine it addressed to a gardener! But how appropriate for the garden's owner (and this is a possible reading),-"If thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away." As though she could — a weak woman, and single-handed!

Alternatively this part of the resurrection narrative should be interpreted differently. "Woman, why weepest thou?" Why did Mary not recognize the voice? Perhaps her instinctive recognition was expressed in the word "Lord" — but then 'common-sense' re-asserted itself: 'Of course, it is not Jesus speaking to me. It cannot be!' Her mind would move quickly to the only alternative — he must be the gardener. It would seem that Mary expected nothing of help or comfort in response to her appeal, for she was already moving away when one more spoken word arrested her. The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name (Jn. 10:3,4). She turned again, stared incredulously, and then in a moment was at his side, grasping his hand and feeling his arm and shoulder for the reassurance by which to turn the impossible into certainty, and all the while incoherent with gladness. (Or did she prostrate herself before him, holding his feet? cp. Mt. 28:9). There was nothing she could say except one exultant word of greeting and of self-reproach: "Rabboni!" The bourn from which no traveller returns' had yielded back the one whom she longed to see above all other, and how blind her eyes had been not to recognize the fact. Instinctively and appropriately, she used the title which Bartimaeus had bestowed on Jesus in the day when his blindness was taken away (Mark 10:51). A wild welter of glad emotions jostled for supremacy in her mind, and all the while she sought to make assurance doubly sure by the renewed evidence of her own senses.

It became needful to restrain her. "Do not keep on touching me" he said —and with reluctance, one may be sure, for he too was unspeakably glad to be once again with so loyal a friend. Yet, precious as the moment was for both of them, he could not stay longer. "Do not keep on touching me for I am not yet ascended to my father."

The words have often been read as the equivalent of: 'Keep away, I am not to be touched. The uncleanness of death is still upon me. I am still as mortal as you are — I have not yet ascended to tht; divine nature of immortality.' It cannot be too strongly stressed that there is no Bible evidence whatever for such an interpretation. But there are several serious difficulties in its way:

  1. The Greek continuous imperative implies definitely that he was being touched.
  2. Suppose the Lord were still in a mortal condition, why should he not be touched? In his mortality before crucifixion people had touched him often enough.
  3. There is no Bible evidence that "ascended to the father" signified a change of physical nature.
  4. The normal meaning of the word is that of "go up to the temple," "go up to Jerusalem," "ascend to heaven" (John 7:14; 5:1: 1:51).
So this interpretation, so often given uncritical acceptance, is only to be received if there is no other available.

On the other hand, to take "I ascend to my Father and your father" as having reference to the ascension from the mount of Olives forty days later, is to reduce the words of Jesus to incoherence: 'Do not touch me because I have not yet gone to heaven, but go and tell the disciples that I shall do so in six weeks time.'

Neither does this satisfy.


The only alternative seems to be this: Jesus was speaking of an ascension to the father which must and did happen at that very time.

There is something singularly appropriate about this idea. In the sacrifices under the Law, the evidence of the slaying of the animal was always brought into the presence of God — blood at the foot of the altar, or blood smeared on the horns of the altar of incense, or (in the case of the most important sacrifice of all) blood sprinkled on the mercy-seat in the Holy of Holies. In that sacrifice which all these foreshadowed must there not be something which corresponded to this vital feature? And how else could this happen in the experience of Christ except by his appearing in the presence of the Father with the tokens of his sacrificial death evident in pierced hands and side?

The typology of the Passover ritual is specially instructive here. The Law prescribed that on "the morrow after the (Passover) sabbath — i.e. on the morning Christ rose — there must be offered a wave-sheaf of barley, without leaven: "Christ the first-fruits" (1 Corinthians 1 5:20,23). With this there was also offered "an he-lamb without blemish of the first year, for a burnt-offering unto the Lord" (Leviticus 23:1 2). Here was the Passover lamb come into life again, so to speak, and re-consecrated to the service of God.

Normally these offerings were presented in the temple at the time of the morning sacrifice — the very time when Jesus appeared to Mary in the garden. Hence the urgent words, implying: 'Do not detain me here, for a higher duty calls me. But go and tell my brethren. This will explain to them why they do not see me through the rest of this day.'

Other Scriptures conform to this interpretation "The Lord hath said unto me (the Messiah), Thou ar» my Son; this day have I begotten thee." (Hebrews 5:5 applies this Scripture to the glorifying of Cnrist "to be made an high priest," thus pointedly referring the words to the resurrection — and not the birth or baptism —of Jesus). When, it may be asked, did God make this declaration to His Son on "this day,' except at this "ascension to the Father"?

Again, it was appointed in the ordinance for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:6) that, before the blood of the sin-offering on behalf of the people be brought into the Holy of Holies, Aaron must first go into the Sanctuary to "offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself alone."

Also the experience of Hezekiah — one of the most outstanding types of Messiah in the Bible— must surely have its counterpart in the greater work of Christ: "Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy Father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up to the house of the Lord" (2 Kings 20:5).

Although not actually seeing their risen Master until near the end of this day of tantalizing uncertainty, the disciples were to be reassured, if they were willing to be, by the intimate nature of the message which Mary brought: "Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God and your God." Yet even as these words emphasized the close kinship to subsist henceforth between Father and Son and brethren, they also maintained a distinction. Jesus did not speak of "our Father." for his own relationship to the Almighty was necessarily far more intimate than it could possibly be as yet for his disciples.

Would that expression "my brethren" remind them again of the words of Psalm 22 which had been repeatedly forced upon their minds throughout the day of his crucifixion: "I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee" — and the name of God which he declared unto them was "Father." The psalm, if recalled, would also carry a strong assurance that, even though long slow hours would pass that day and he be still absent from them, he would yet come among them, declaring the Father's name "in the midst of the congregation."

Mary would fain have lingered there, convincing herself, again and again, that her Lord was truly risen, but he himself was taking leave of her. Ana had he not given her a commission to fulfil? No messenger ever had more joyful news to impart. So again she went away as fast as she could go to find Peter and John once more, again to gasp out excitedly the news of an empty tomb, but this time with the true heart-warming explanation to impart solidity to the new-born faith of John and to kindle a spark of hope in the mind of a puzzled wretched Peter.

NOTES: John 20:11-18

And: in Gk. text therefore, to be linked with v. 13 because
Sifting: "They sit m the empty tomb who stand in the presence of God; Lk. 1:19.
Why weepest thou? There would have been good cause for weeping if the tomb were not empty
She turned herself back Any link here with Gen. 22.13? See also John 1:27, 29

And saw Jesus The Lord's first appearance was not to his mother.

Why these remarkable resemblances? Jesus standing (Rev 5:6); Mary weeping (Rev. 5:4); she turned herself (Rev. 1:10,12).
Whom seekest thou? Whom? not What? Then did Mary hope that Jesus would rise? Here, questions lead to a confession of faith; in Gen. 3:9,11,13, to a confession of sin

Supposing, NT. usage; fairly sure.

The gardener This second Adam in this garden is a "gardener" (Gen 2:15)
Rabboni; normally used for an outstanding teacher Jesus was certainly that now, by his very appearance, and more so, by v. 17
Touch me not In nearly all NT occurrences, the word means "touch". But the parallel to Mt 8:15 in Mk. 1:31 definitely means "hold" or "grip"; and this is the usual meaning in classical Greek (L. & S.). Perhaps also in Lk 7:14; 1 Jn. 5:18. The imperfect tense requires the idea just mentioned.

Do not keep holding me. The alternative explanation that the uncleanness of death was still on Jesus cannot be sustained.

My brethren. Jesus brought this term into use after his resurrection: Ps. 22:22; 1 22:8; Mt. 28:10; 25:40; Rom. 8:29; Jn. 21:23; Acts -frequently. Heb. 2:11.

I ascend; 16:16,28.

My God Spoken after resurrection, these words veto trinitarian doctrine. Compare also Eph. 1:17; Heb. 1:9; Rev. 1:6; ch.3:2,12; Mt. 27:46.
I have seen: Gk. pf. tense implies: And what I saw is still vivid in my mind. So also v.25,29; Lk. 24:23. John's Greek splendidly represents Mary's disjointed speech.

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