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The chapter we have now begun takes us from Christ’s death to Christ’s resurrection. Like Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John dwells on these two great events with peculiar fullness and particularity. And we need not wonder. The whole of saving Christianity hinges on the two facts, that Christ died for our sins, and rose again for our justification. The chapter before our eyes deserves special attention. Of all the four evangelists, none supplies such deeply interesting evidence of the resurrection, as the disciple whom Jesus loved.
We are taught in the passage before us, that those who love Christ most are those who have received most benefit from him.
The first whom John names among those who came to Christ’s sepulcher, is Mary Magdalene. The history of this faithful woman, no doubt, is hidden in much obscurity. A vast amount of obloquy has been heaped upon her memory, as if she was once an habitual sinner against the seventh commandment. Yet there is literally no evidence whatever that she was anything of the kind! But we are distinctly told that she was one out of whom the Lord had cast "seven devils" (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2),—one who had been subjected in a peculiar way to Satan’s possession,—and one whose gratitude to our Lord for deliverance was a gratitude that knew no bounds. In short, of all our Lord’s followers on earth, none seem to have loved Him so much as Mary Magdalene. None felt that they owed so much to Christ. None felt so strongly that there was nothing too great to do for Christ. Hence, as Bishop Andrews beautifully puts it,—"She was last at His cross, and first at His grave. She stayed longest there, and was soonest here. She could not rest till she was up to seek Him. She sought Him while it was yet dark, even before she had light to seek Him by." In a word, having received much, she loved much; and loving much, she did much, in order to prove the reality of her love.
The case before us throws broad and clear light on a question, which ought to be deeply interesting to every true-hearted servant of Christ. How is it that many who profess and call themselves Christians, do so little for the Savior whose name they bear? How is it that many, whose faith and grace it would be uncharitable to deny, work so little, give so little, say so little, take so little pains, to promote Christ’s cause, and bring glory to Christ in the world? These questions admit of only one answer. It is a low sense of debt and obligation to Christ, which is the account of the whole matter. Where sin is not felt at all, nothing is done; and where sin is little felt, little is done. The man who is deeply conscious of his own guilt and corruption, and deeply convinced that without the blood and intercession of Christ he would sink deservedly into the lowest hell, this is the man who will spend and be spent for Jesus, and think that he can never do enough to show forth His praise. Let us daily pray that we may see the sinfulness of sin, and the amazing grace of Christ, more clearly and distinctly. Then, and then only, shall we cease to be cool, and lukewarm, and slovenly in our work for Jesus. Then, and then only, shall we understand such burning zeal as that of Mary; and comprehend what Paul meant when he said, "The love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge that if One died for all, then were all dead: and that He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them, and rose again." (2 Corinthians 5:14-15.)
We are taught, secondly, in these verses, that there are widely different temperaments in different believers.
This is a point which is curiously brought out in the conduct of Peter and John, when Mary Magdalene told them that the Lord’s body was gone. We are told that they both ran to the sepulcher; but John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, outran Peter, and reached the empty grave first. Then comes out the difference between the two men. John, of the two more gentle, quiet, tender, reserved, retiring, deep-feeling, stooped down and looked in, but went no further. Peter, more hot, and zealous, and impulsive, and fervent, and forward, cannot be content without going down into the sepulcher, and actually seeing with his own eyes. Both, we may be sure, were deeply attached to our Lord. The hearts of both, at this critical juncture, were full of hopes, and fears, and anxieties, and expectations, all tangled together. Yet each behaves in his own characteristic fashion. We need not doubt that these things were intentionally written for our learning.
Let us learn, from the case before us, to make allowances for wide varieties in the inward character of believers. To do so will save us much trouble in the journey of life, and prevent many an uncharitable thought. Let us not judge brethren harshly, and set them down in a low place, because they do not see or feel things exactly as we see and feel, and because things do not affect or strike them just as they affect and strike us. The flowers in the Lord’s garden are not all of one color and one scent, though they are all planted by one Spirit. The subjects of His kingdom are not all exactly of one tone and temperament, though they all love the same Savior, and are written in the same book of life. The Church of Christ has some in its ranks who are like Peter, and some who are like John; and a place for all, and a work for all to do. Let us love all who love Christ in sincerity, and thank God that they love Him at all. The great thing is to love Jesus.
We are taught, finally, in these verses, that there may be much ignorance even in true believers.
This is a point which is brought out here with singular force and distinctness. John himself, the writer of this Gospel, records of himself and his companion Peter, "As yet they knew not the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead." How truly wonderful this seems! For three long years these two leading Apostles had heard our Lord speak of His own resurrection as a fact, and yet they had not understood Him. Again and again He had staked the truth of His Messiahship on His rising from the dead, and yet they had never taken in His meaning. We little realize the power over the mind which is exercised by wrong teaching in childhood, and by early prejudices imbibed in our youth. Surely the Christian minister has little right to complain of ignorance among his hearers, when he marks the ignorance of Peter and John, under the teaching of Christ Himself.
After all we must remember that true grace, and not head knowledge, is the one thing needful. We are in the hands of a merciful and compassionate Savior, who passes by and pardons much ignorance, when He sees "a heart right in the sight of God." Some things indeed we must know, and without knowing them we cannot be saved. Our own sinfulness and guilt, the office of Christ as a Savior, the necessity of repentance and faith,—such things as these are essential to salvation. But he that knows these things may, in other respects, be a very ignorant man. In fact, the extent to which one man may have grace together with much ignorance, and another may have much knowledge and yet no grace, is one of the greatest mysteries in religion, and one which the last day alone will unfold. Let us then seek knowledge, and be ashamed of ignorance. But above all let us make sure that, like Peter and John, we have grace and right hearts.
The two last chapters of John’s Gospel are taken up with accounts of our Lord’s appearances after His resurrection. Like Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John dwells very fully on the history of the crucifixion and resurrection. But, as in other parts of his Gospel, so here also, he supplies many deeply interesting details, which the other Evangelists, for some wise reasons, have not recorded. A few preliminary remarks on the whole subject will not perhaps be found uninteresting. The matter is one about which every Christian ought to have very clear and correct views.
(a) Concerning the importance of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, it would be hard to speak too strongly. It is a cardinal article of the Christian faith, second to none in value.—It is the grand proof that He was the promised Messiah whom the Prophets had foretold. It is the one great sign which He named to the Jews when asked to give convincing evidence of His Divine mission,—the sign of the Prophet Jonas, the rebuilding of the temple after destruction. (Matthew 12:39; John 2:19-21.) If He did not rise again after three days, they were not to believe Him.—It is the completion of the work of redemption which He came into the world to accomplish. It proved that the ransom was accepted, and the victory over sin and death obtained. Christ "was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification."—"We are begotten again unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."—(Romans 4:25; 1 Peter 1:3.) If He had not risen again, our hope would have been a huge uncertainty.—It is a fact which has the closest connection with the spiritual life, and position before God, of all believers. They are counted by God as "risen with Christ," and they should regard themselves as partakers of Christ’s resurrection life, and sitting in heavenly places.—Not least, it is the pledge and assurance of our own resurrection at the last day. We need not fear death, and look at the grave with despair, when we remember that Jesus Christ rose again in the body. As surely as the Head rose, so shall the members be raised.—Let these points never be forgotten. When we think of them we may understand why the Apostles, in their preaching and Epistles, dwell so much upon the resurrection. Well would it be if modern Christians thought more about it. Myriads seem unable to look at anything in the Gospel except the sacrifice and death of Christ, and altogether pass over His resurrection.
(b) Concerning the evidences of Christ’s resurrection,—the proofs that He actually did rise again from the grave with His body,—it is most remarkable to observe how full and various they are. He was seen at least eleven times after He rose again, at different times of day, in different ways, and by different witnesses. He was seen first by one woman alone, then by several women together, then by one man, then by two men, and each time in the open air. Then He was seen by ten disciples in the evening in a room, then by eleven disciples again in a room, and afterwards on five different occasions, at one of which no less than five hundred people were present. Those to whom He appeared, touched Him, talked with Him, and saw Him eat and drink. (Matthew 28:9; John 20:27; Luke 24:42.) Nor must it be forgotten that all who saw Him were most unwilling at first to believe, and most slow to credit the report of His resurrection. Yet they were all finally convinced! If there is any fact in Christianity that is well supported by evidence, it is the fact of Christ rising again from the dead. It is the one fact that no infidel has ever fairly grappled with. One thing at any rate is most undeniably certain, and no infidel can escape it. The Apostles a few weeks after our Lord’s crucifixion, were utterly and entirely different men in every way from what they were before the crucifixion,—bolder, more decided, more unhesitating followers of Jesus of Nazareth, than they used to be, to a most enormous extent. Even such men as the German Rationalists, Paulus and Strauss, according to Tholuck, are obliged to make the curious admission,—"Something extraordinary must have occurred."
(c) Concerning the best mode of harmonizing the accounts which the four Evangelists give of our Lord’s appearances, after He rose again from the dead, there is undeniably some difficulty. But it is probably far more apparent than real. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, each tell their own story. There is a most decided absence of any appearance of concert or collusion about them. How to reconcile the seeming discrepancies in their narratives, has exercised the skill of commentators in every age. Dean Alford says flatly, that he "attempts no harmony of the accounts, and that he believes all such attempts to be fruitless." I do not agree with him at all, and I think the statement to be unworthy of the able writer who makes it. I think the accounts can be harmonized and reconciled, and that too without any unfair violence to the narratives of the four Gospels.
The order of Christ’s eleven appearances between His resurrection and ascension, I believe to be as follows: (1) to Mary Magdalene alone (Mark 16:9; John 20:14); (2) to certain women returning from the sepulchre (Matthew 28:9-10); (3) to Simon Peter alone (Luke 24:34); (4) to two disciples going to Emmaus (Luke 24:13); (5) to ten Apostles at Jerusalem, and some other disciples, Thomas being absent (John 20:19); (6) to eleven Apostles at Jerusalem, Thomas being present (John 20:26-29); (7) to seven disciples fishing at the sea of Tiberias (John 21:1); (8) to eleven Apostles on a mountain in Galilee, and perhaps some others with them (Matthew 28:16); (9) to above five hundred brethren at once (1 Corinthians 15:6); (10) to James only (1 Corinthians 15:7); (11) to all the Apostles, and probably some others, on Mount Olivet, at His ascension.
Most of these eleven appearances require little or no explanation. The ninth and tenth in the list are only recorded by Paul; and some think that the appearance to five hundred at once, is the same as that to the eleven in Galilee, though I doubt it. The appearance to Peter is one of which we know nothing except the fact; and, in my judgment, it certainly is not the same as the appearance to the two who were walking to Emmaus. The only appearances, after all, about which there is any difficulty, are the two first in the list, and to my own mind the difficulty is by no means insuperable. The knot to be untied is this. Mark expressly says that our Lord appeared first to Mary Magdalene. (Mark 16:9.) John also describes this appearance; and it is quite plain from his account that Mary Magdalene was alone. (John 20:11-13.) Yet Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the sepulchre together,—saw an angel, and heard that our Lord had risen,—ran to bring the tidings to the disciples, and were met on the way by Jesus, and both saw Him at the same time. Now how is this to be explained? How can the account of these three witnesses be made to harmonize and agree? I will try to show.
(1) I believe that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did not go alone to the sepulchre, on the morning of the resurrection. By comparing Mark 16:1, and Luke 23:55, and Luke 24:1, with Matthew 28:1, it is quite evident that several "other women" accompanied them.
(2) I believe that, on drawing nigh the sepulchre, the company of women saw the stone rolled away from its mouth. At once, on seeing this, it flashed on the mind of Mary Magdalene that the body of Jesus had been removed from the tomb, and, without waiting a moment, she ran off to Peter and John, and told them, as recorded in John 20:1-2. This is the view of Chrysostom and Cyril.
(3) I believe that, while Mary Magdalene ran off to tell Peter and John, the other women went up to the sepulchre, found the body gone, saw a vision of angels, were told that Jesus had risen, and were commanded to go and tell the disciples. They departed to tell the news. Some went in one direction and some in another; Mary and Salome with one party; Joanna with another.
(4) I believe that while this was going on, Mary Magdalene, who had run off alone to tell Peter and John, had found them, and that they all three came to the sepulchre shortly after the other women went away. Whether Mary got there so soon as Peter and John, perhaps admits of doubt.
(5) I believe that Peter and John saw the empty sepulchre, and went away, leaving Mary Magdalene weeping there.
(6) I believe that, as soon as Peter and John went away, Mary Magdalene saw the two angels, and immediately after saw our Lord Himself, and was told to carry a message to His brethren. (John 20:17.)
(7) I believe that in the mean time the other women had gone in two or three directions, to tell the other disciples who lived in a different part of Jerusalem from that where Peter and John lived. Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Salome, were yet on their way when Jesus met them, very shortly after He had appeared to Mary Magdalene.
(8) I believe that one party of the women, with Joanna at their head, saw nothing of our Lord, but went to the disciples and told them the message of the angels.
(9) I believe that, shortly after this, our Lord appeared to Simon Peter, who very likely had gone again to the grave on hearing Mary Magdalene’s report.
(10) I believe that in the course of the same day our Lord appeared to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, who had left Jerusalem after Joanna and the women reported the vision of angels, but before our Lord had appeared to Peter.
(11) Finally, I believe that in the evening of the same day our Lord appeared to the Apostles, and others with them, Thomas being absent. Luke says, "The eleven Apostles were gathered together." But he evidently means the Apostles generally, as a body. (See my note on Luke 24:34.) This was our Lord’s fifth appearance on the day that He rose.
I know not whether this scheme of reconciliation will satisfy all my readers. On a point so much controverted, it becomes a commentator to speak humbly and diffidently. I content myself with saying that I see far fewer difficulties in it than in any other scheme that I have met with. I see, moreover, nothing unfair or unreasonable about it, and nothing which is not consistent with the variety that may justly be expected from the testimony of four independent witnesses.
To those who wish to study the subject more fully, I strongly recommend a careful study of "West on the Resurrection," and "Birks’s Horæ Evangelicæ."
v1.—[The first day of the week.] This, I need hardly say, means our Sunday, the Lord’s day, the first day following the Jewish sabbath. Between the end of the nineteenth chapter and these words, we must suppose an interval of thirty-six hours to have passed away. During these hours our blessed Lord’s body lay still in the tomb, and His soul was in paradise, while the disciples were quiet in their respective abodes, and honoured the fourth commandment. The chief and principal breakers of this Sabbath were the priests and Pharisees, who came to Pilate and obtained leave to set a watch around the tomb, and put a seal on the stone which lay at its mouth. The very men who made a boast of the law, through breaking of the law dishonoured God, and disgraced themselves. The very followers of Him whom they had slain, kept the law more strictly than they did.
[Cometh Mary Magdalene...early...dark...sepulchre.] John names none but Mary. Yet it is clear, by examining the account of the other three Gospel writers, that she did not come alone. She was only one among several women from Galilee,—including Mary the wife of Cleophas, or Alpheus, Salome the mother of John and James, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward. These all appear to have been near our Lord when He was crucified, and to have looked on, if they did not actively help, when He was buried. They then probably agreed to come to the tomb early on the morning after the sabbath, in order to do more for our Lord’s body than there was time to do on Friday afternoon. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. They now came as early as they could, even before the sun was up, in order to begin their pius work as soon as they had light to do it. Foremost among the whole party was Mary Magdalene.
Rupertus and Ferus maintain that Mary Magdalene lived at Bethany, and therefore came alone to the sepulchre, from a different road to that by which the other women came. But this seems pure conjecture, and probably arises from confounding Mary Magdalene with Mary the sister of Lazarus.
[And seeth...stone...sepulchre.] It seems to me, from these words, that Mary Magdalene was the first who detected in the dim twilight that the stone was rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. It may be that she was in advance of the other women, and thus saw it first. It may be that strong feeling and anxiety made her more quick-sighted and keen of observation than her companions. Indeed we do not know for a certainty that all the women came together in a body. For anything I can see they may have come separately, or by twos and threes, and Mary may have been the first of the party. It is quite consistent with her character to suppose this. In any case her conduct this memorable morning was so remarkable and prominent, that John speaks of her alone. All the women showed faith and courage and love, he seems to intimate; but none so pre-eminently as Mary Magdalene. She was first to come near the tomb, first to discover that the stone [was] rolled away, first to conjecture that something remarkable had happened, and first to act at once on what she saw.
Let us note Mary’s courage, and zeal to honour her buried Lord. Not every woman would have dared to go outside the city while it was yet dark, to a grave, and specially during the passover feast, when thousands of strangers were probably sleeping under any slight shelter near the walls of Jerusalem.
Let us note how John takes it for granted that his readers were acquainted with the other three Gospels, and knew that "a stone" had been rolled to the door of the sepulchre. He here speaks of "the stone." Yet he has said nothing about it before.
There seems strong internal evidence that Mary, and the other women who agreed to come with her to the sepulchre, could not have known of the Roman guard having been placed around it. It seems, at all events, highly improbable that they would have gone there before the sun was up, if they had expected to find Roman soldiers at the place.
Andrews observes that four special favours were granted to Mary in one day: (1) To see the angels; (2) To see Christ at all; (3) To see Him first of all; (4) To be employed by Christ to carry a heavenly errand. And why? Because she loved much. He adds, "We cannot say she believed much. By her thrice repeated saying her Lord was ’taken away’ (John 20:2, John 20:13, John 20:15), it seems she believed no more than the high priest would have had the world believe, that He was taken away by night."
v2.—[Then she runneth.] I believe this expression means that Mary Magdalene, the moment she saw the stone rolled away from its place, ran off alone to tell the news to Peter and John. She did not go a step nearer to the tomb, but left the other women to go up to the grave and look in, and thus missed seeing the angel whom they saw. She waited for nothing. The stone was moved. The body, she at once concluded, had been taken away. She turned on her heel at once, and ran off to tell the two chief Apostles. The rest of the party probably drew near to the grave slowly and hesitatingly, not knowing what to think or expect; and Mary was probably a long way on the road to the dwelling of Peter and John, before they finally turned away from the tomb. This should be carefully noticed, if we would reconcile the narratives of Matthew and John. It is clear to my own mind that there was something peculiar and striking in the conduct of Mary Magdalene this wonderful morning, and John desires on that account to direct our special attention to it. "Mary," he seems to say, "was the first to come to the tomb, the first to see that the stone was removed, and the one that ran off alone to tell me and Peter. Many of the Galilean women showed faith, and love, and zeal that morning, but none more than Mary."
[And cometh...Peter...other disciple...loved.] The other disciple here mentioned was unquestionably John. Mary’s reasons for running to tell these two first were probably these, (a) They were chief men among the Apostles. (b) They had been the two who had stuck most closely to Jesus up to the last, and shown most faith and love, and were naturally most anxious to know about His body, (c) Wherever John was, Mary the mother of our Lord was. Can we doubt that Mary Magdalene would think of her, as one among the first to be told about the stone being rolled away? It is moreover highly probable, though a matter of conjecture only, that Peter and John were staying at some house very near the sepulchre. It is most likely that the other Apostles were "scattered," according to our Lord’s prophecy, in different parts of Jerusalem, and none were so near the tomb as Peter and John.
It is interesting to notice how, all through the Gospels and Acts, Peter and John seem to have been peculiarly drawn together, and to have been close friends and companions. As fishermen, we are told that James and John were partners with Simon. (Luke 5:10.) Three times the name of James is joined with their’s,—on the mount of Transfiguration, at the house of Jairus, and in the garden of Gethsemane. But the special intimacy between Peter and John comes out at the last supper, in the high priest’s house, on the occasion now before us, at the Sea of Tiberias, at the end of this Gospel, and in the third of Acts, where the lame man was healed. All point to that mysterious drawing together between two men of widely different temperaments, which every observing eye must occasionally see in the world. John alone, of all the Apostles, had witnessed Peter’s sad fall in the high priest’s house, and observed his bitter weeping afterwards. Can we not understand that from Friday night to Sunday morning John would be lovingly employed in binding up the broken heart of his brother, and telling him of our Lord’s last words? Can we doubt that they were absorbed and occupied in converse about their Master on this very morning, when Mary Magdalene suddenly ran in with her wonderful news?
The love and tender charity of John’s character come out beautifully in his affection for Peter, even after his denial of Christ. How many modern Churches would have excommunicated Peter, and put him in a low place for months. John clings to him, and has him under his own roof, wherever that was. When Judas fell, he had no friend to raise and cheer him. When Peter fell, there was a "brother born for adversity," who did not despise him.
Bengel thinks, from the repetition of the preposition "to," in the Greek,—"to Peter, to John,"—that the disciples were not together. But I cannot think this at all likely.
[And saith...taken away...know not...laid Him.] Mary’s announcement was a very short one. Whether she had actually looked inside the tomb and seen that it was empty, seems more than doubtful. It would rather appear, by comparison of the four Gospels, that she had only seen the stone rolled away from the door. But that was enough for her. She had at once jumped to the conclusion that the body of "the Lord" was taken away, and so she announces it. And after all she had reason on her side. Who would have taken the trouble of rolling away the stone, but one who wanted to take away the body? If the stone was rolled away, she justly concluded the body was gone.
One thing, at any rate, will be observed by every one who carefully compares John’s narrative with that of the other three Evangelists. Mary Magdalene had evidently not seen "the vision of angels" which the other women saw, or else she would certainly have mentioned it to Peter and John. She does not say a word about it! She had not heard the comfortable tidings that the Lord had "risen," or else she would surely have told it. She clearly knew nothing of all this; and the conclusion is plain to my mind, that she ran off as soon as she saw the stone rolled away, and waited for no companion.
Another thing should be observed. John’s narrative here lets out the fact that Mary Magdalene did not go to the sepulchre alone. For what does she say? She speaks in the plural number: "We know not where they have laid Him." That "we" can only apply to herself and the other women who had gone with her to the grave.
We should notice that Mary’s mournful announcement is almost the same that she made to the angels, when they asked her why she wept. (John 20:13.) Her repeated dwelling on the body being gone, and her wanting to know where it was "laid," should be noticed. May we not suspect that this holy woman, with all her faith and love, had not yet realized the great truth that Jesus was to rise again. She talks of His body, and longs to know where it is laid, and seems to think it must be a cold dead corpse still, and wishes to do it more honour. But she has forgotten altogether His repeated prediction that He would rise again! Alas, how little of Christ’s teaching the best of us take in! How much we let fall!
By the word "they" we must suppose Mary meant our Lord’s enemies,—the chief priests, or the Roman soldiers. Perhaps we should not press the word too closely. It may be that the good woman, in her excitement and trouble, hardly knew whom she meant, and spoke indefinitely;—"somebody" has taken away. She can hardly have meant that the chief priests had taken away the body, in order to exhibit it as the dead corpse of a conquered, wicked impostor.
It is fair to say that Ecolampadius actually thinks that Mary saw the angels, talked with them, and received the message for the disciples that Christ had risen, but quite forgot it! This, however, seems to me an extremely improbable view!
v3.—[Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, etc.] The announcement of Mary Magdalene was so startling, that the two disciples arose at once, and went to the sepulchre, in order to find out what this rolling away of the stone meant, and to make sure that the Lord’s body was gone. We need not doubt that they would at once ask Mary, "How do you know the body is gone?" and would receive the answer, "Because the stone is rolled away." But finding then, that Mary had not actually been inside the sepulchre, and seen it empty, they judged it best to go and see for themselves. When we remember that Mary the mother of our Lord was, in all human probability, in the house where Peter and John were, we may well imagine that she would be deeply anxious to have the whole matter cleared up at once.
Luke, we may recollect, only mentions Peter going to the sepulchre. The verse before us fills up the narrative, and tells us that John went with him. Two witnesses would be better than one.
v4.—[So they ran both together, etc.] The simple fact here mentioned shows the anxiety and excitement of the two loving Apostles. We can well suppose that Mary Magdalene’s sudden announcement completely overwhelmed them, so that they knew not what to think. Who can tell that thoughts did not come in their mind, as they ran, about our Lord’s oft-repeated prediction of His resurrection? Could it really be true? Could it possibly prove that all their deep sorrow was going to turn to joy? These are all conjectures, no doubt. Yet a vast quantity of thoughts may run through a mind, at a great crisis, in a very few minutes. Those who have had a narrow escape from drowning know that very well.
Why John outran Peter we know not. The common opinion is that John was the younger man of the two, and so he has been always represented by painters in every age of the Church. The only evidence, however, that we have of this difference of age, is the fact that John’s father is mentioned as being alive, following his calling as a fisherman with his sons, while Peter’s father, Jonas, is not mentioned in the same way. Moreover, John outlived all the rest of the Apostles by many years. So he may have been a comparatively young man, when our Lord called him to be an Apostle.
After all, the matter is of little importance. Bodily strength and agility are no evidence that a man possesses superior grace. The holiest saints have often had very weak and infirm bodies. Holy and zealous as John was, we have no right to contend that he felt more zeal than penitent, broken-hearted Peter, when he outran him on this eventful morning
Lampe thinks it just possible that Peter was troubled in conscience by reason of his recent fall, and therefore went to the grave with a slow and hesitating step. But I doubt this.
v5.—[And he stooping down, etc.] The opinion of well-informed persons who have seen the tombs near Jerusalem, is, that our Lord’s sepulchre was a kind of cave hewn out of the side of a rocky hill, and that there was either a hollow place, hewn out at a little distance within the entrance of the cave, to receive the body, or that the cave sloped gradually backwards, and the body was laid at the back part of the cave. In either case we may understand that a person coming to the door of the cave (which must have been small, if a single stone could close it), could only see what was inside, by "stooping down," as we are here told John did.
When John looked in, he saw nothing whatever but the empty grave, and the linen clothes in which our Lord’s body had been wrapped lying together. Not going in, it is evident that he could not see very clearly the precise state of a dark cave, with only one small entrance. He only saw enough to satisfy him at a glance that the body of Christ was not there, and that the linen clothes were there.
Why the beloved apostle "went not in," we do not know, and are left to conjecture. It may be that he was at once satisfied that the body of his Master was gone, and that was all he cared to know. It may be that he felt a holy reverence for the place where our Lord had lain, and shrunk from going in. It may possibly be that he felt some fear, and hardly knew what to expect next, remembering the earthquake and the rending of graves on the previous Friday. It may be that, being the younger man of the two, he waited for his elder brother to take the lead, and would touch nothing, do nothing, and take no step, without another witness beside himself. We cannot tell. The incident is precisely one of those little circumstantial details which bring out men’s natural temperament.
It is noteworthy that John himself is the writer who records that he "went not in." Be the motive what it may, he generously gives his brother Peter the whole honour and credit of being the first of the two to go inside the grave, and thoroughly investigate the condition of it in every particular.
We should not forget that the simple fact of the "linen clothes lying," was enough to satisfy any thinking mind, that something extraordinary must have occurred. No enemy or thief, in removing our Lord’s body, would have taken the trouble to remove the linen clothes in which He was wrapped. Reason points out that it would save time and trouble to take the body as it was, with the linen wrapped around it.
Lampe thinks it possible that John did not go in from fear of being made unclean by a dead body. But I can hardly think this.
v6.—[Then cometh Simon Peter, etc.] In this verse we see how differently different men act under the same circumstances. Grace does not alter natural temperaments, when it changes hearts. What John for some reason would not do, Peter did. On arriving, he went down at once through the mouth of the cave into the inside of the sepulchre. Then he saw, as John had seen, that the body of our Lord was not there, and that the linen clothes in which the body had been wrapped were lying there, and had been removed in some way from the body. How much linen was used by Joseph and Nicodemus we cannot tell But when we consider that one hundred pounds of aromatic powder had been used in wrapping up the body, it is not unreasonable to suppose that many yards of linen had been employed. The quantity of linen wrapped round the corpse of an Egyptian, we know from the mummies, was prodigious. It is probable that the linen wrapped round our Lord’s body, which Peter saw "lying," was no small heap.
It is noteworthy that two different Greek words are used, in this and the preceding verse, to express seeing. John "saw" at a glance. Peter saw as a spectator, looking round and examining. The Greek word rendered "lying" in one verse and "lie" in the other, is precisely the same, and without reason our translation varies. In both it should be "lying."
v7.—[And the napkin, etc., etc.] The object of this verse seems to be to show that Peter found in the empty tomb the clearest evidence of a deliberate, orderly, and calmly-done transaction. The linen clothes, in which our Lord’s body had been wrapped, were lying by themselves. The napkin which had been tied round His head was rolled up by itself in another place, separate from the linen clothes. There were no symptoms of hurry, haste, or fear. All had been done decently and in order. Everything that Peter saw contradicted the idea that the body had been stolen. No thief would have taken so much trouble about the clothes and napkin. In fact the person who had removed the body, whoever it was, must have entailed on himself needless labour, if he removed it as a dead corpse, by unwrapping the linen clothes in which the corpse was buried. The easiest plan would have been to carry away the body just as he found it, wrapped up in linen. Why were the linen clothes taken off and left behind? Why were the removers of the body so careful to take away nothing but the body? Questions like these must have sorely perplexed Peter’s mind. The body, he saw plainly, was gone. But there was something in the whole appearance of things which he could not understand.
Chrysostom observes, "The linen cloths lying was a sign of the resurrection. For neither if any person had removed the body, would they, before doing so, have stripped it; nor if any had stolen it, would they have taken the trouble to remove the napkin, and roll it up, and lay it in a place by itself. They would have taken the body as it was. On this account, John tells us, by anticipation, that it was buried with much myrrh, which glues linen to the body not less firmly than lead, in order that when thou hearest that the napkin lay apart, thou mayest not endure those who say He was stolen. A thief would not have been so foolish as to spend so much time on a superfluous matter. Why should he undo the cloths? How could he have escaped detection if he had done so? He would probably have spent much time in doing it, and been found out by delaying. But why did the clothes lie apart, while the napkin was wrapped together by itself? That thou mayest learn that it was not the action of men in confusion or haste, the placing some in one place and some in another, and the wrapping them together."
Theophylact, as usual, follows Chrysostom; and adds, that linen cloths wrapped round the body with myrrh, would stick to it like pitch.
The word translated "napkin," is only used four times in the New Testament. On one occasion, and one only, it is rendered "handkerchief." (Acts 19:12.)
v8.—[Then went in also that other disciple, etc.] We are here told how John at last followed Peter, and went inside the tomb. He does not seem to have gone in at first with Peter, but to have waited without, while his brother Apostle investigated and examined everything. Then, on hearing his report, he resolved to go inside himself, and see with his own eyes. Why he hesitated at first, we are left to conjecture. Perhaps, like Mary Magdalene, he was so absorbed and overwhelmed by the fact that his Master’s body was gone, that he could pay no attention to the minor details of the transaction. But when he did go inside the tomb, and saw with his own eyes the clear evidence of a deliberate, orderly removal of the body only, and the cloths left behind, it seems to have flashed across his mind that the Lord must have risen. For we are told that he "believed."
Concerning the true meaning of this word "believed" in this place, there has been some dispute, but without good cause. It cannot of course mean that John became a true believer now for the first time. Such an idea is absurd. Nor yet can it only mean, I think, that John at last believed that the body of our Lord was not there. Such an interpretation seems to me cold, tame, and shallow. I hold that it can only bear one meaning, and that is, that John, when he saw the state of the tomb, believed that Christ had really risen from the dead. In short, he was the first of all our Lord’s followers that believed His resurrection.
v9.—[For as yet they knew not, etc.] This parenthetical comment of the Evangelist is hardly rendered with accuracy in our English version. It would be more literally translated, "As yet they had not known," in the pluperfect tense. The meaning obviously is,—"Up to this time these two disciples, like all the rest of our Lord’s followers, had not fully understood the meaning of the Scriptures, which taught that Christ must rise again from the dead, after dying for our sins."
Augustine suggests that one reason why the disciples did not understand our Lord’s prediction of His own resurrection, was His custom of using parables in His teaching. "Being accustomed to be spoken to in parables by Him, they supposed Him to be signifying some other thing." But the worthy Father rather seems to forget that although our Lord spoke parables to the multitude, "when He was alone He expounded all things to His disciples." Yet the suggestion is worth remembering. Dwellers in the cold prosaic north, can have little idea of the enormous quantity of figurative and flowery language used in oriental countries. An Englishman going for the first time among Orientals, finds it hard to know whether those around him are using flowery expressions which mean nothing, or speaking of facts.
Whether John referred to any particular text, in using this expression about "Scripture," is matter of doubt. To me it is far more likely that he had in view the general teaching of the whole Old Testament, both in types and typical events, as well as in direct texts. I suspect that he refers to such things as the receiving back of Isaac by Abraham on Moriah after he had offered him, the whale casting up Jonah on the dry land, the living bird being let go free in cleansing the leper, the scape-goat being let go alive on the day of atonement, and other like things written for our learning.
The subject, I must honestly say, is a very deep one. It is vain to deny that the manner in which texts are quoted from the Old Testament in the New Testament, is sometimes very puzzling. The safest and most reverent line of thought is to believe that there is a fulness in Scripture which many of us have never realized; and that scores of texts refer to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, though we know it not.
When it says here, "He must rise again," the meaning is literally, "It is necessary, or it is becoming that He should rise." It was necessary for the accomplishment of man’s redemption, and for the completion of the work which Jesus came to do as our Substitute and Representative. The second Adam must die and rise again, in order to win back what the first Adam lost.
The case of the Apostles is a striking example of the extent of spiritual ignorance there may be in a man, while his heart is right with God. Who would think of denying that Peter and John were true believers, and loved Christ, and were on the way to heaven? Yet here we are plainly told, that up to this time they had not understood that Jesus must rise again on the third day, after dying for our sins on the cross. Surely we must take care that we do not hastily condemn men as heretics, and set them down as graceless and godless, because they are deficient in head-knowledge. After all, how many Christians there are in the present day, who talk much about Christ’s blood and Christ’s death, but seem to know nothing of Christ’s resurrection, and hardly give it a place in their religion, except as a fact.
It is very noteworthy, that while Peter and John and their companions seem to have overlooked and forgotten our Lord’s predictions that He would rise again the third day, there were certain Jews who did not forget them at all. And who were they? The very last men that we might have expected,—the chief priests and Pharisees! It is written in Matthew (Matthew 27:62-64), that they went to Pilate, and said, "We remember that deceiver said, while He was yet alive, after three days I will rise again." What a curious fact is that! Peter and John forgot their Lord’s predictions, while Caiaphas and his wicked companions remembered them!
Burgon quotes from Ainsworth, a saying of a Jew, commenting on Genesis 22:4 : "There are many a three things in the Holy Scripture, of which one is the resurrection of Messiah."—I add to this, that any one who examines Ainsworth’s commentary on this verse will find, that he gathers together as many as fifteen places in the Old Testament where "three" is spoken of as a mystical number.
v10.—[Then the disciples went...their own house.] This verse describes the end of the visit which Peter and John made to the grave. They had seen with their own eyes proofs positive that Mary Magdalene’s report was true. The grave was empty, and their Master’s body was gone. They both felt that there was no need for tarrying at an empty sepulchre, and resolved to return to their lodging. They could do no good by staying longer. They might do good by going away. They therefore went home: Peter confounded and perplexed, and unable to account for what he had seen; John convinced and persuaded by what he had seen, that his Master had risen from the dead. Doubtless he could not prove it yet, had not seen Him alive, and could not convince Peter of it. But for all that he believed it.
The Greek words which we render, "To their own home," mean literally, "To themselves." It can only signify, in my judgment, the lodging which they occupied in Jerusalem. Though John was acquainted with the high priest, and may have occasionally visited Jerusalem on the business of his fisherman’s calling, there is not the least likelihood that he had a house there. Wherever John was in Jerusalem, it is interesting to remember, in looking at the events of this wonderful morning, that Mary the mother of our Lord was probably under his roof, in accordance with our Lord’s last command. May we not fairly suppose that one reason why the disciples did not linger at the tomb, like Mary Magdalene, was their earnest desire to return home, and tell the mother of our Lord what they had seen? I see nothing fanciful or unreasonable in the thought.
Cyril suggests, with some probability, that one reason why Peter and John went away from the tomb so soon, was fear of the Jews. They might well expect that the anger of Caiaphas and his companions on finding the sepulchre was empty, and the body of Jesus gone, would be very great, and they would naturally turn their wrath on the helpless disciples. The day was breaking, and the sooner they got home the better. Mary Magdalene might stay near the tomb with more safety.
Beza thinks that this verse leaves John, Peter, and Mary in three different states of mind. John was convinced, and believed that Jesus was risen from the dead. Peter was uncertain, wondering, and amazed. Mary could not yet believe it at all.
The interview between the Lord Jesus and Mary Magdalene immediately after His resurrection, described in these verses, is a narrative peculiar to John. No other Evangelist has been inspired to record it. Of all the accounts of the appearances of our Lord, after He rose from the dead, none perhaps is so affecting and touching as this. He that can read this simple story without a deep interest, must have a very cold and unfeeling heart.
We see, first, in these verses, that those who love Christ most diligently and perseveringly, are them that receive most privileges from Christ’s hand. It is a touching fact, and one to be carefully noted, that Mary Magdalene would not leave the sepulcher, when Peter and John went away to their own home. Love to her gracious Master would not let her leave the place where He had been lain. Where He was now she could not tell. What had become of Him she did not know. But love made her linger about the empty tomb, where Joseph and Nicodemus had recently laid Him. Love made her honor the last place where His precious body had been seen by mortal eyes. And her love reaped a rich reward. She saw the angels whom Peter and John had never observed. She actually heard them speak, and had soothing words addressed to her. She was the first to see our Lord after He rose from the dead, the first to hear His voice, the first to hold conversation with Him. Can any one doubt that this was written for our learning? Wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, this little incident testifies that them that honor Christ will be honored by Christ.
As it was in the morning of the first Resurrection day, so will it be as long as the Church stands. The great principle contained in the passage before us, will hold good till the Lord comes again. All believers have not the same degree of faith, or hope, or knowledge, or courage, or wisdom; and it is vain to expect it. But it is a certain fact that them that love Christ most fervently, and cleave to Him most closely, will always enjoy most communion with Him, and feel most of the witness of the Spirit in their hearts. It is precisely them that wait on the Lord, in the temper of Mary Magdalene, to whom the Lord will reveal Himself most fully, and make them know and feel more than others. To know Christ is good; but to "know that we know Him" is far better.
We see, secondly, in these verses, that the fears and sorrows of believers are often quite needless. We are told that Mary stood at the sepulcher weeping, and wept as if nothing could comfort her. She wept when the angels spoke to her; "Woman," they said, "why weepest thou?" She was weeping still when our Lord spoke to her,—"Woman," He also said, "why weepest thou?" And the burden of her complaint was always the same,—"They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him." Yet all this time her risen Master was close to her, with "body, flesh, and bones, and all things pertaining to the perfection of man’s nature." Her tears were needless. Her anxiety was unnecessary. Like Hagar in the wilderness, she had a well of water by her side, but she had not eyes to see it.
What thoughtful Christian can fail to see, that we have here a faithful picture of many a believer’s experience? How often we are anxious when there is no just cause for anxiety! How often we mourn over the absence of things which in reality are within our grasp, and even at our right hand! Two-thirds of the things we fear in life never happen at all, and two-thirds of the tears we shed are thrown away, and shed in vain. Let us pray for more faith and patience, and allow more time for the full development of God’s purposes. Let us believe that things are often working together for our peace and joy, which seem at one time to contain nothing but bitterness and sorrow. Old Jacob said at one time of his life, "all these things are against me" (Genesis 42:36); yet he lived to see Joseph again, rich and prosperous, and to thank God for all that had happened. If Mary had found the seal of the tomb unbroken, and her Master’s body lying cold within, she might well have wept! The very absence of the body which made her weep, was a token for good, and a cause of joy for herself and all mankind.
We see, thirdly, in these verses, what low and earthly thoughts of Christ may creep into the mind of a true believer. It seems impossible to gather any other lesson from the solemn words which our Lord addressed to Mary Magdalene, when He said, "Touch Me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father." No doubt the language is somewhat mysterious, and ought to be delicately and reverently handled. Yet it is only reasonable to suppose that the first surprise, and the reaction from great sorrow to great joy, was more than the mind of Mary could bear. She was only a woman, though a holy and faithful woman. It is highly probable that, in the first excess of her joy, she threw herself at our Lord’s feet, and made greater demonstrations of feeling than were seemly or becoming. Very likely she behaved too much like one who thought all must be right if she had her Lord’s bodily presence, and all must be wrong in His bodily absence. This was not the highest style of faith. She acted, in short, like one who forgot that her Master was God as well as man. She made too little of His divinity, and too much of His humanity. And hence she called forth our Lord’s gentle rebuke, "Touch Me not! There is no need of this excessive demonstration of feeling. I am not yet ascending to my Father for forty days,—your present duty is not to linger at my feet, but to go and tell my brethren that I have risen. Think of the feelings of others as well as of your own."
After all, we must confess that the fault of this holy woman was one into which Christians have always been too ready to fall. In every age there has been a tendency in the minds of many, to make too much of Christ’s bodily presence, and to forget that He is not a mere earthly friend, but one who is "God over all, blessed forever," as well as man. The pertinacity with which Romanists and their allies cling to the doctrine of Christ’s real corporal presence in the Lord’s Supper, is only another exhibition of Mary’s feeling when she wanted Christ’s body, or no Christ at all. Let us pray for a right judgment in this matter, as in all other things concerning our Lord’s person. Let us be content to have Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith, and present when two or three are met in His name, and to wait for the real presence of Christ’s body till He comes again. What we really need is not His literal flesh, but His Spirit. It is not for nothing that it is written, "It is the Spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing." "If we have known Christ after the flesh, yet henceforth know we Him no more." (John 6:63; 2 Corinthians 5:16.)
We see, lastly, in these verses, how kindly and graciously our Lord speaks of His disciples. He bids Mary Magdalene carry a message to them as "His brethren." He bids her tell them that His Father was their Father, and His God their God. It was but three days before that they had all forsaken Him shamefully, and fled. Yet this merciful Master speaks as if all was forgiven and forgotten. His first thought is to bring back the wanderers, to bind up the wounds of their consciences, to reanimate their courage, to restore them to their former place. This was indeed a love that passes knowledge. To trust deserters, and to show confidence in backsliders, was a compassion which man can hardly understand. So true is that word of David: "Like as a Father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust." (Psalms 103:13-14.)
Let us leave the passage with the comfortable reflection that Jesus Christ never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. As He dealt with His erring disciples in the morning of His resurrection, so will He deal with all who believe and love Him, till He comes again. When we wander out of the way He will bring us back. When we fall He will raise us again. But he will never break His royal word,—"Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out." (John 6:37.) The saints in glory will have one anthem in which every voice and heart will join: "He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities." (Psalms 103:10.)
v11.—[But Mary stood without...weeping.] The question naturally arises, "Why did not Mary go away from the tomb with Peter and John?"—The answer to that question must probably be found in the curiously different temperaments of men and women. Mary acted like a woman, and Peter and John acted like men. The head of a woman is generally weaker than that of a man, but the affections are generally stronger.—In the case before us the heart of Mary was not satisfied. Her mind was not convinced, like that of John, that our Lord had risen from the dead. It was not enough for her to know that the body was gone, and the tomb empty, and something wonderful had occurred, as it was for Peter. Her strong love and gratitude towards our Lord made her linger near the tomb, in the faint hope that something might yet turn up to explain where the body was gone. At any rate she could not tear herself away from the place where her Master’s body had last been seen, and when Peter and John departed she stayed behind, like a real warm-hearted woman, and gave a natural vent to her feelings in tears. She felt as if she must see something, before she could be satisfied, and so lingered near the grave, perhaps hardly knowing what she expected to see. The Lord had compassion on her. Her deep love was richly rewarded.
On Mary staying at the sepulchre, Andrews remarks, "The going away of Peter and John commends Mary’s staying behind. To the grave she came before them, from the grave she went to tell them, to the grave she returned with them, at the grave she remains behind them." "To stay, while others do so, while company stays, that is the world’s love. But Peter is gone, and John too; all are gone and she left alone. Thus to stay is love, and constant love."
Epiphanius, an ancient writer (A. D. 390), according to Heinsius, maintains the monstrous theory that the Mary here spoken of is the mother of our Lord, and not Mary Magdalene! It is well to know that the ancient Fathers were not always wise, and are certainly not infallible in expounding Scripture.
Tholuck thinks that Mary did not go to the sepulchre with Peter and John, but followed them alone, more slowly. This is possible; but I rather doubt it.
[And as she wept...stooped...sepulchre.] How long Mary wept, after she was left alone, we are left to conjecture. Probably not very long. At last it came into her mind to stoop down and look into the grave, through the small door or opening against which the stone had been rolled. It is worth noticing that we are not told that she had either entered, or looked into the sepulchre, before. Up to this time apparently she had only heard the report of Peter and John. Now, left alone, she probably felt a natural curiosity and anxiety to see with her own eyes what they had reported, and so, in the middle of her weeping, she stooped down and looked in, and at once saw a wondrous sight.
I think Mary’s case teaches us that heart is of more value in God’s sight than intellect. Those who feel most and love most get most privileges. The more we love, the more we are like to Christ.
v12.—[And seeth two angels...white...sitting, etc.] The incident here recorded is very remarkable and interesting. Mary saw figures in white sitting inside the grave. They evidently looked like men, but they were in reality angels,—two of those mysterious ministering spirits whom the Bible teaches us that God is pleased to employ on great occasions. An angel announced the coming birth of John Baptist and of Christ himself. Angels told the shepherds that Christ was born. Angels ministered to our Lord after the temptation, and an angel strengthened Him in Gethsemane. And now also angels appeared in the day of our Lord’s resurrection. They first announced that He was born, and they again, after thirty-three years, announced that He was risen.
The whole subject of angels is very deep and mysterious, and one about which we must beware of holding anything that is not revealed. But the case before us teaches one or two wonderful things, which we should do well to remember. These angels evidently came and went away, appeared and disappeared, after a manner supernatural, invisible, and inexplicable to our minds. It is clear that angels were at the tomb, when the party of women arrived there, after Mary Magdalene had run to tell Peter and John. It is equally clear that they were not to be seen, when Peter and John ran to the grave on hearing Mary’s report. Not one word do we read of their seeing angels. Yet it is equally clear that when Mary Magdalene looked in, after Peter and John went away, she saw two angels and talked with them. These are very deep things. They prove plainly that the angels of God appear and disappear, are visible or invisible, instantaneously and supernaturally, according as God commissions them. In short they are beings of a totally different nature to our own, and are in all the conditions of their constitution totally unlike us. For anything we know, they were in the tomb when Peter and John inspected it, but at that moment were invisible. For anything we know, they are now very near us every minute of our existence, and doing God’s will concerning us, though we are utterly unaware of their presence. All this no doubt is very mysterious, and past the power of man to explain and comprehend. One thing, however, is very certain. Neither here nor elsewhere do we ever find the slightest warrant in Scripture for praying to angels, any more than to dead saints, or for giving them the smallest portion of worship, as if they were divine. Like ourselves, after all, they are only God’s creatures.
The expression "in white," means literally "in white robes or garments." It is an adjective, and we are left to supply the substantive. The Holy Ghost here abstains from telling us the precise fashion of apparel which these angels wore. The garment worn by the angel mentioned in Mark, at the resurrection, was a long stole or flowing robe. (Mark 16:5.) It is worth noticing that "white" was the colour of the Lord’s raiment in the transfiguration, and white is the colour in which the angels always seem to have appeared. It need hardly be said that the colour is symbolical of that perfect purity and freedom from defilement, which is the character of the inhabitants of heaven. It will be the garment of the saved souls in glory. (Revelation 3:4; Revelation 7:9.)
The attitude in which the angels were seen by Mary deserves attention. "Sitting one at the head and the other at the feet," where our Lord’s body had lain, they would seem to have been placed there by God as watchmen and guards over the sacred body of our Lord, during the time He was in the grave. It is written, "He shall give His angels charge over Thee." (Psalms 91:11.)
Some have thought that the position of the angels points to that of the Cherubim, who sat on the two ends of the mercy-seat, over the ark, with their faces toward each other. (Exodus 25:20; 2 Chronicles 3:13.)
Bengel thinks that this "sitting" was meant to intimate that their work was done. This seems to me doubtful, because angels need no rest.
Cyril thinks that the attitude of the two angels was meant to show Mary, that our Lord’s body had been safely guarded by them, and that no one could have stolen it away against their consent. If one angel could slay 180,000 of Sennacherib’s army, what could two do?
Andrews observes, "We learn that between the angels there was no striving for places. He that sat at the feet was as well content with his place, as he that sat at the head. We should learn from their example. With us both angels would have been at the head, and never a one at the feet. With us none would be at the feet by his good will: we must be head-angels all!"
v13.—[And they say unto her, Woman, why, etc.] The address of the angels to Mary is that of gentle and kind inquiry. We cannot doubt that they knew well why she wept. They ask the question in order to stir up in her mind self-inquiry, as to whether she had cause to weep or not. "What is the reason of this excessive lamentation? Search your own heart. Are you quite sure that this empty tomb does not show that you ought to be rejoicing?"
Mary’s reply to the angels is almost word for word what she had told Peter and John, only in the singular number. It shows plainly that the one thing that weighed on her mind was the disappearance of our Lord’s body, and her ignorance what had become of it. Of His resurrection she evidently had no idea at present. Her only thought was that His body was dead, that it had been taken away, and that she wanted to know where it was. To this one notion she sticks, and not even the appearance of angels can make her give it up. And yet the good woman must have often heard our Lord foretell His death and resurrection. How slow we are to give up long-standing prejudices! How backward to receive truths which contradict our little private systems of religion!
It should be observed that Mary told Peter and John that "the Lord" was taken away. When she speaks to the angels here, she says, "My Lord." In both cases she speaks indefinitely of "they," without indicating whom she means.
The calmness of manner with which Mary speaks to these two angels can hardly fail to strike us. She cannot have supposed they were two men only, whether enemies or friends. The mere fact that Peter and John had not seen them in the grave, must surely have shown her that they were angels. Yet she answers their question without hesitation, like one who feared nothing in her anxiety about her Lord. May we not however consider that a belief in the reality and ministry of angels was far more common among Jews than it is among Christians? They perhaps believed too much about them. It may be feared that we go into the opposite extreme, and believe too little.
Andrews remarks on Mary’s needless weeping,—"All was in error: tears of grief,—but false grief, imagining that to be which was not, and Him to be dead which was alive. She weeps, because she finds the grave empty, which, God forbid she should have found full, for then Christ must have been dead still, and there would be no resurrection. And this case of Mary Magdalene is our case oftentimes. It is the error of our conceit to weep when we have no cause, and to joy when we have as little. False joys and false sorrows, false hopes and false fears, this life of ours is full of. God help us!"
v14.—[And when...turned...back...saw Jesus standing.] Why Mary turned back at this moment we are not told. I feel no doubt there was some reason. The Greek words are very emphatical: "She turned to the things or places behind her." (a) It maybe that she turned away from the questioners, as not caring to continue conversation with them. (b) It may be that she heard a footstep behind her, and turned to see who it was. (c) It may be that the shadow of some one behind her fell on the entrance to the tomb. The sun would be in the east, and if the tomb faced that way, its horizontal rays would throw the shadow of any person behind her on the tomb. (d) It may be that she observed some gesture or motion on the part of the angels with whom she was talking, which told her that some one was behind her. Who can tell but these holy spirits, who doubtless recognized the Lord, rose respectfully from their sitting position, as soon as they saw Jesus appear. I like this last solution best, for my own part. I cannot for a moment suppose that the angels would remain sitting motionless, when Jesus appeared. And I believe that Mary, as she talked with them, detected at once by their altered manner, that there was some one behind her. This it was that made her "turn herself back." Such little touches give a wonderful life and reality to the whole narrative, in my judgment.
Chrysostom observes, "While Mary was speaking, Christ suddenly appearing behind her, struck the angels with awe; and they, beholding their Ruler, showed immediately by their bearing, their look, their movements, that they saw the Lord. This drew the woman’s attention, and caused her to turn."
The same view is taken by Athanasius, Theophylact, Brentius, Gerhard, and Andrews.
[And knew not that it was Jesus.] There are but three ways in which we can explain Mary not recognizing Christ at once. (a) She was weeping bitterly, and her eyes were dim with tears. This, however, seems very improbable. (b) It was not broad day-light yet, and it was too dusky to distinguish any one. This is Cyril’s view; but it can hardly be correct, considering all that had already occurred this Sunday morning. (c) Her eyes were holden supernaturally, like those of the disciples walking to Emmaus, so that she did not distinguish the figure before her to be that of our Lord. This appears to me by far the most likely solution, miraculous as the circumstance certainly was. But the condition of our Lord’s risen body was altogether different from that of His body before crucifixion. We cannot pretend to explain in the least where He was, and what He was doing in the intervals between His various appearances, during the forty days before His ascension. We need not therefore hesitate to believe that He could assume such an appearance, that even a disciple like Mary did not recognize Him at first, or that He could cause her eyes to be unable to distinguish Him, even when close to her.
After all, what a striking emblem this little incident supplies of the spiritual experience of hundreds of Christ’s believing people even at this very day. How many are ever mourning and sorrowing, and have no comfort in their religion, while Christ is close to them. But they do not know it, and, like Mary, go on weeping.
v15.—[Jesus saith....Why weepest thou....seekest thou.] The first question that Jesus asked of Mary was precisely the same that the angels had asked. "Woman, why art thou weeping? Art thou quite sure that thou art right to weep over this empty grave, and oughtest not rather to rejoice?"—The second question was even more searching than the first. "Whom seekest thou? Who is this person that thou art seeking among the dead? Hast thou not forgotten that He whom thou seekest is one who has power to take life again, and who predicted that He would rise?"—I must think that in both these questions there was a gentle latent reproof intended for this holy woman. Faithful and loving as she was, she had too much forgotten her Master’s teaching about His death and resurrection. These questions were meant to rouse her to a recollection of things often said in her hearing. Of course our Lord knew perfectly well why she was weeping, and whom she was seeking. He needed not to ask her. He asked for her benefit rather than His own information. But excessive grief has an absorbing and stupefying effect on the mind and memory. Mary could think of nothing but that her Lord’s body was gone, and this swallowed up all her thoughts.
[She supposing Him, etc.] Here we see what Mary’s first thought was, when she heard a strange voice, and saw a strange figure. She catches at the idea that this person may be the keeper of the garden in which Joseph’s sepulchre was, and that, having probably been keeping watch over the garden all night, he may know what had become of her Master’s body, or may even have removed it himself. "Sir," she says, "If thou art the person who has taken away my Lord out of the tomb, only tell me where thou hast carried His body, and I will take Him away."—Once more we see that this holy woman could only think of her Master as one dead, and that her one absorbing idea was how she could recover His corpse and do it honour. As for His resurrection and victory over death, she seems utterly unable to get hold of it at present. Wonderful is it to see how much of Christ’s teaching was apparently thrown away on His disciples, and clean forgotten! Ministers who complain of the ignorance of their hearers, should learn patience, when they mark the imperfect knowledge of Christ’s own followers.
The Greek word rendered "Sir," in this verse, might have been equally correctly rendered "Lord." But it is rendered "Sir," in like manner, in the conversation between our Lord and the Samaritan woman, in the fourth chapter of this Gospel. In both cases it is a term of respect, such as a Jewish woman would address to a man.
It is noteworthy that Mary does not name her Master to the supposed gardener. She simply says "Him,"—"if thou hast borne Him hence, I will take Him away." It is the language of one so absorbed in the thought of her Lord, that she thinks it needless to name Him; and assumes, as a matter of course, that the gardener will understand whom she means.
It is noteworthy that Mary talks of "taking Him away." How one weak woman like her could suppose that she was able to lift and carry away the dead body of a man, we cannot of course understand. It is clear that she either meant (a) that she would soon find friends who would remove the body, or else (b) that she spoke hurriedly, fervently, impulsively, and passionately, without reflecting on what she was saying. I incline to think the latter view is the correct one.
Luther, quoted by Besser, remarks on this verse, "Mary’s heart was so filled up with Christ and thoughts about Christ, that besides Him she neither hears nor sees anything. She stands alone by the sepulchre. She is not frightened at the sight of angels. She addresses Christ abruptly, supposing Him to be the gardener; and if he has taken Him away, she is ready to carry Him back to the sepulchre."
Andrews observes, "Him is enough with love. Who knows not who it is, though we never tell His name, nor say a word more?"
v16.—[Jesus saith unto her, Mary, etc.] We are here told how our Lord at last revealed Himself to this faithful disciple, after her patience, love, and boldness had been fully proved. Little as she had shown herself able to understand the great truth of her Saviour’s resurrection, she had at any rate shown that none loved Him more, or clung to Him more tenaciously, than she did. And she had her reward. One single word was enough to open her eyes, to let the whole truth shine in upon her mind, and to reveal the great fact that her Saviour was not dead but alive, and that He had won a victory over the grave.—Speaking in His usual well-known voice, our Lord addressed her by her name,—the name by which, no doubt, He had often addressed her before. That single word touched a spring, as it were, and opened her eyes in a moment. Need we doubt that at once the whole world seemed turned upside down to the astonished woman; and that under the influence of such an amazing revulsion of feeling as that much-loved voice must have caused, her mind could only find expression in one passionate word—"Rabboni," or Master.
The expression, "turned herself," in this verse, is rather curious. We know, from John 20:14, that Mary had already turned once from the grave, when Jesus appeared behind her. Here again we are told that she "turned herself." The simplest explanation seems to be, that when she did not recognize the person who spoke to her, and thought He had been the gardener, she partially turned away, as a woman naturally would from a strange man, and hardly looked at Him, while she spoke of taking the body away. But the moment the voice of Jesus sounded in her ears, she turned again directly to Him, and made some movement towards Him, as she uttered the cry, "Rabboni."—Thus there were three movements: first, a turning round to see who was behind her; second, a partial turning away, when she heard a voice she did not recognize; and finally, a quick, passionate turning round entirely, when the well-known voice of her Master said, "Mary." So at least it appears to me.
Chrysostom says, "It seems to me that after having said, ’Where hast thou laid Him?’ she turned to the angels to ask why they were astonished; and that then Christ, by calling her by name, turned her back to Himself from them, and revealed Himself by His voice."
The boundless compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ to His believing people comes out wonderfully in this verse. He can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He knows how weak our bodily frame is, and how much excessive sorrow can unnerve and stupefy our minds. He can pass over much darkness of understanding, much slowness of comprehension, when He sees real, genuine, hearty, bold, persevering, thorough love to Himself and His Person. We see this prominently brought out in His dealing with Mary Magdalene, when He revealed Himself to her. He graciously pardons her forgetfulness of His oft-repeated declaration that He would rise again after His death, pities her deep sorrow, and abundantly rewards her love. These things are written for our learning. Jesus never changes. What He was, when He revealed Himself to Mary Magdalene, He is at this day.
Rabboni, according to Parkhurst, "is nearly of the same import as Rabbi. John explains both by the same word,—teacher. But Lightfoot and others say it was a term of higher respect." Parkhurst thinks it is formed from the Chaldee, and includes the idea, "MY Master."
v17.—[Jesus saith...Touch Me not...my Father.] This saying of our Lord is undeniably a very "deep thing," and the real meaning of it is a point which has greatly perplexed commentators. I suspect it is one of those things which will never be fully settled until the Lord comes. In the meantime we must be content to make humble conjectures. It will clear our way to remember that our Lord could not possibly mean by saying, "Touch Me not," that there was anything sinful or wrong in Mary touching His risen body. The mere fact that a few minutes after this interview with Mary, He allowed the other women who had been to the grave to "hold Him by the feet " (Matthew 28:9), completely settles that point. Moreover, within a week after this very day, He says to Thomas, "Reach hither thy hand and thrust it into my side." (John 20:27.) This alone entirely contradicts the notion that our Lord’s body might not be touched before His ascension. But having cleared the way negatively, the question yet remains, "What did our Lord mean positively?"
In order to understand the meaning of "Touch Me not," we must try to realize the state of mind in which Mary Magdalene was, when our Lord revealed Himself to her. A very slight knowledge of human nature, and especially of woman’s nature, will tell us that the sudden discovery that Jesus was alive and standing before her, would throw her into a violent state of excitement, and produce an immense revulsion of feeling, from deep despondency to extravagant joy. May we not well believe that under the influence of this excitement, this holy woman might be more demonstrative than was seemly, and might exhibit her feelings by actions and gestures that our Lord saw it absolutely needful to repress?—Can we not understand that a warm-hearted, impulsive Jewish woman, holy and pure-minded as she certainly was, would be likely to cast herself at our Lord’s feet, to say the least, in a passionate ecstasy of delight, and to hold them fast, kissing and embracing them, like the woman in Simon’s house, as if she would never let them go?—And can we not well understand that our wise Master, who knew all hearts, thought it good to check and repress her, and therefore, for her soul’s benefit, and not unkindly, said, "Touch Me not."—Nothing would be more likely to calm the good woman’s mind, and to recall her to a reverent sense of what was due to herself and to her Lord, than this prohibition to "touch." Such is my view of this wonderful expression. It is to my mind a very suggestive one, and deserves the especial attention of ministers, in carrying on their private pastoral work. But I forbear. Let it however never be forgotten (and I desire to speak with the utmost reverence and delicacy), that when our Lord allowed the women, mentioned by Matthew (Matthew 28:9), to "hold Him by the feet," there were several women present together, and some of them mothers and not young. When, on the contrary, He said to Mary Magdalene, "Touch Me not," He spoke to one who in all probability was a young woman, and He and she were alone!
The Greek word we render "touch," according to Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon, frequently means "fasten oneself to, cling to, hang on by, lay hold of, or grasp." Homer constantly uses the word in this sense. This deserves special notice. Schleusuer and Parkhurst agree with Liddell and Scott.
The words, "for I am not yet ascended to my Father," are even more difficult than "Touch Me not;" and the connection between the two sayings is the hardest knot of all the sentence.
(a) Some think that the sense is, "I have not yet ascended to my Father. Till I have ascended and taken my seat at His right hand, my work as your Saviour is not perfect and complete. Do not therefore touch Me and fasten upon Me, as if you would fain keep Me upon earth for ever, now that I have risen again. Remember that my ascension is as much a part of my great work of redemption as my crucifixion and resurrection. I have not yet ascended. Do not, therefore, behave as though you wished to detain Me here below, and never to part with Me again."
(b) Some think that the sense is, "I am not yet ascending to my Father. I shall not ascend for forty days. There will, therefore, be abundant time for seeing, touching, hearing, and conferring with Me. Do not therefore now waste precious time on this eventful morning by embracing my feet, and demonstrating your affection to my person. Rather rise, and lose no time in going to my brethren, and telling them that I am risen. Think of others; and do not occupy yourself, as you are disposed to do, in touching my feet and gratifying your own feelings. Natural as it is, there is other work to do now. Go and do it, and do not linger here. Touch Me not." This is the view of Beza, Brentius, and Bishop Hall.
(c) Some think, as Melancthon, that our Lord had in view His second advent and kingdom, when all who have known and loved Him on earth, shall at length dwell with Him in holy familiarity, and go out from His presence no more. Melancthon says, "It is as if Christ would say, Then shall you touch Me, when I have ascended to my Father: that is, when I shall bring thee and all my Church to the Father at the last day. Another kingdom and another life remains yet to be given, in which you shall enjoy fellowship with Me and my Father."
I honestly confess that I find it almost impossible to say which of the three opinions I have here described deserves most attention. If I must decide, I incline to prefer the second one, and I think it is more in keeping with the latter part of the verse. The weakest point of this view is the future sense which it puts on the words, "I am not ascended." The Greek word is in the perfect tense, and the perfect is undoubtedly used sometimes in the sense of a future. (Compare Romans 14:23; John 17:10; and see Telf’s Greek Grammar, vol. ii., p. 65; and Winer’s Grammar, p. 288. Clark’s edition.) But it is rather awkward that "I ascend" comes immediately after in the present tense. The reader must decide for himself which view he prefers.
Chrysostom says, "Methinks Mary wished still to converse with Jesus as before, and in her joy perceived nothing great in Him, although He had become far more excellent in the flesh. To lead her therefore from this idea, and that she might speak to Him with awe (for neither with the disciples doth He henceforth appear so familiar as before), He raiseth her thoughts, that she should give more reverent heed to Him. To have said, ’Approach Me not as you did before, for matters are not in the same state: nor shall I henceforth be with you in the same way,’ would have been harsh and high-sounding. But the saying, ’I am not yet ascended to my Father,’ though not painful to hear, was the same thing. For by saying, ’I am not yet ascended,’ He showeth that He hasteth and passeth thither, and that it was not meet that one about to depart thither, and no longer to converse with men, should be looked on with the same feelings as before."
Augustine says, "There is a spiritual meaning latent here.—Either this is so spoken, ’Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended,’ that the woman is a figure of the Church of the Gentiles, which did not believe on Christ until He was ascended unto the Father;—or else Jesus would have men so believe in Him, or touch Him spiritually, as knowing that Himself and the Father are one.—Mary might believe in such a way as if she thought Him unequal to the Father, which thought is forbidden to her. ’Touch Me not’: i.e., ’Do not believe in Me in such wise as thou art yet minded in thy thoughts of Me: let not thy perception reach only to the thing I was made for thee, without passing beyond to that by which thou wast made. I am not yet ascended to my Father. Then shalt thou touch Me, when thou believest Me to be God not unequal to the Father.’"
Calvin says, "The meaning of these words is, that Christ’s state of resurrection would not be full and complete, until He should sit down in heaven at the right hand of the Father. Therefore Mary did wrong in satisfying herself with having nothing more than the half of His resurrection, and desiring only to enjoy His presence in the world."
Lightfoot says, "These words relate to what Christ had spoken formerly about sending the Comforter, and that He would not leave them comfortless, but would come to them. Christ says to Mary, ’I must first ascend to my Father, before I can bestow those things upon you which I have promised. Do not therefore touch Me, and detain Me upon any expectation of that kind. Rather wait for my ascension, and go and tell the same things to my brethren for their encouragement.’"
Poole says, "The best opinion seems to be the opinion of those who think our Saviour saw Mary too fond, as if she thought He had been raised up to such a converse with them as He had before His death. This error is all He tasks her of, not forbidding any kind of touching, so as to satisfy herself He was truly risen, but restraining any gross conception.—He reminded Mary that He was about to ascend to His Father, though He had not yet ascended, and was therefore not to be enjoyed by them with so much freedom and familiarity as before."
Bishop Hall says, "There may be a kind of carnality in spiritual notions. ’If I have known Christ after the flesh, from henceforth I know Him no more.’ That Thou livedst here, my Saviour, in this shape, that colour, this stature, that habit, I should be glad to know: nothing that concerns Thee can be unuseful. Could I say, here Thou satest, here Thou layest, here Thou wast crucified, here Thou wast buried, I should with much content see and recount those ceremonials of Thy presence. But if I shall so fasten my thoughts on them, as not to look higher, to the spiritual part of these achievements, to the power and issue of Thy resurrection, I am none the better.’"
Rollock says, "The meaning in effect is this. It is not time for thee to touch Me now, till that time I be in glory, and then touch Me by the arm of faith as much as thou canst or mayest. Ye must consider that she was too much addicted to His bodily presence. She thought He should have remained and dwelt on earth as He did before. Therefore He would not let her come near Him, until He instructed her of a spiritual touching, and that He was not to stay here, but to dwell with His Father in heaven.
"Mark this lesson. Some men love the Lord entirely, and yet when they come to His service they fail: for such is the grossness of our nature that we cannot incline to that spiritual service which He chiefly requires. Popery is full of this grossness. They can do nothing if they have not His carnal presence, either in Himself, or in a stock or stone, or in a piece of bread, and therefore they draw a bodily presence of Him in the sacrament. All their religion is earthly,—no grace, no spirit in it. But did the Lord accept that gross service that Mary offered? I am certain He loved Mary better than the Pope and all his priests; yet well as He liked Mary, He liked not her service. He says to her, Touch me not! The Lord keep us from gross service, and make us touch Him by faith."
Andrews says, "The most we can make is that here Mary failed in somewhat. Not that she did it in any immodest or indecent manner. God forbid! Never think of that. But she was only a little too forward, it may be: not with the due respect that was meet."—"I tell you plainly I do not like her Rabboni. It was no Easter-day salutation; it should have been some better term, expressing more reverence."—"The touch was not the right touch, and all for want of expressing more regard; not for want of reverence at all, but of reverence enough."—"It is no excuse to say it was all out of love. Never lay it upon that. Love, Christ loves well. But love, if it be right, doth nothing uncomely, keeps decorum, forgets not what belongs to duty and decency, carries itself accordingly."—"A strange kind of love, when for very love to Christ we care not how we use Him, or carry ourselves toward Him. Which, being Mary’s case, she heard and heard quickly. Touch Me not,—you are not now in case till you shall have learned to touch after a more regardful manner."
Sibbes says, "Mary was too much addicted to Christ’s bodily presence. It is this that men have laboured for from the beginning of the world,—to be too much addicted to present things and to sense. They will worship Christ; but they must have a picture before them. They will adore Christ; but they must bring His body down to a piece of bread: they must have a presence. And so instead of raising their hearts to God and Christ in a heavenly manner, they pull down God and Christ to them. And, therefore, saith Christ, ’Touch Me not in that manner: it is not with Me as it was before.’ We must take heed of mean and base conceits of Christ."
Sherlock, in his "Trial of the Witnesses," says, "The natural sense of this place is this: Mary Magdalene, upon seeing Jesus, fell at His feet, and laid hold on them, and held them as if she never meant to let them go. Then Christ said to her, "Touch Me not, or hang not about Me now. You will have other opportunities of seeing Me, for I go not yet to my Father. Lose no time then, but go quickly with my message to my brethren."
West, on the Resurrection, says, "I take Christ’s forbidding Mary to touch Him, to have been meant as a signification of His intention to see her and the disciples again; just as in ordinary life, when one friend says to another, ’Do not take leave, for I am not going yet,’ he means to let him know that he purposes to see him again before he sets out on his journey."
Lampe mentions a strange view of "Touch Me not" maintained by Bauldry, a German professor. He would put a full stop at "not," and place it first in the sentence, rendering it thus, "No! I am not the gardener. Touch Me, and see that I am Thy Saviour risen." He also mentions a view held by many, that it means, "Do not try whether I am risen by touching Me. It is I myself." Both views, however, seem very improbable.
Paulus, the German theologian, maintains the monstrous notion that our Lord meant, "Do not lay a finger on Me, because my wounds still smart." This is simply ridiculous, to say the least.
Hengstenberg says, "The reason of the prohibition must be sought in the personal character of Mary, and in the passionate nature of the touch which sprang from that character. She thought that the limits which had formerly existed between herself and the Lord (the old style of confidence is a very incorrect idea) were, now that the Saviour had passed into another form of existence, removed, and that she might now give free course to her feelings without fearing the admixture of anything human in her sentiment toward her Lord. But her Lord repelled her: Touch Me not."
Wordsworth says, "The term (in the Greek) indicates not only a prohibition of a particular act, but forbids a habit: i.e., of clinging to Him with a bodily touch. And the words, ’I have not ascended,’ contain a precept concerning the time when the habit of touching Christ may be exercised. He is to be touched after He has ascended,—that is, He is then to be truly touched, when He is beyond the reach of the bodily touch. And one of the purposes of His absence and His ascension into heaven was to elicit and exercise that touch,—the touch of faith."
Burgon remarks what a strange thing it is, that "both the old world and the new should have begun with the same prohibition, Touch not."
[But go...my brethren...say unto them.] This sentence is strikingly full of wisdom, tender thoughtfulness, and kindness. Wisely our Lord summons Mary Magdalene to an act of duty to others. He bids her not spend time in demonstrations of affection, but arise and be useful.—Thoughtfully our Lord’s first consideration is for His poor scattered disciples. Weak and erring as they had been, He still loved them, and at once sends them a message. He did not mean to cast them off, or forget them.—Kindly He calls them "my brethren." All was pardoned and forgiven. He still regarded them as His dear brethren,—risen, conqueror over the grave as He was,—and would have them look on Him as an elder brother. This is the first time our Lord ever called the disciples "brethren."
Bucer thinks that "my brethren" in this place really means "my brethren according to the flesh:" i.e., James and others, whose faith was weaker perhaps than that of the other Apostles. But the vast majority of commentators see in the expression nothing of the kind, and regard it only as a term of affection applied to all the Apostles. Calvin properly refers us to Psalms 22:22 : "I will declare thy name unto my brethren." See also Hebrews 2:11.
Andrews remarks that the words "my brethren" was "a word to be touched and taken hold of. It was so once when Benhadad’s servant laid hold on the word of the King of Israel, ’He is my brother.’" (1 Kings 20:32-33.) He adds that it implied identity of nature, and identity of love and affection after the resurrection, and no change.
Let us mark what a strong proof we have here of the duty of telling others the good news of the Gospel. The very first work that a risen Christ proposes to the first disciple to whom He revealed Himself, is the work of telling others. It was a deep saying of the four leprous men: "This day is a day of good tidings, and we hold our peace: if we tarry till the morning light, some mischief will come upon us." (2 Kings 7:9.)
Cyril remarks what an honour was put on women, when a woman was commissioned to be the first person to proclaim the tidings of the resurrection.
[I ascend...my Father...your God.] The message which our Lord desires Mary to carry to His disciples is remarkable. He does not bid her say "I have risen," but "I ascend." He would evidently have them understand that His resurrection was only a step towards His ascension, and that He did not rise again in order to tarry with them upon earth, but in order to go up to heaven as a conqueror, and sit down at God’s right hand as their forerunner, representative, priest, advocate, and friend. The message is clearly elliptical. It is as though our Lord said, "Say unto them that I have risen from the dead, and that I am soon about to ascend into heaven, to Him who is my Father and my God, and their Father and their God also."
When our Lord dwells on His ascension more than His resurrection, it seems to me that He names it as the great conclusion and accomplishment of the work He came to do, and the necessary consequence of His rising again. It is as though He said, "My work is finished, my battle is won, and I shall not be much longer with you in the world. Get ready to receive my last instructions."
Calvin says, "Christ forbids the Apostles to fix their whole attention on His resurrection viewed simply in itself, but exhorts them to proceed further, until they come to the spiritual kingdom, the heavenly glory, and God Himself."
Andrews remarks, "We ourselves had better lie still in our graves, better never rise, than rise and rising not ascend."
Flavel remarks, "If Christ had not ascended, He could not have interceded, as He now does in heaven, for us. And do but take away Christ’s intercession, and you starve the hope of the saints."
When our Lord speaks of God as "My Father and my God," He seems, as usual, to point to the close and intimate union which He always declared to exist between Himself and the First Person in the Trinity. "The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:3), is a kindred expression.—He does not, we should observe, say, I ascend unto "our Father," etc., but "my Father and your Father." He thus shows that there is a certain distinction between His relation to the Father and our’s. Believers are not naturally sons of God: they only become so by grace, by adoption, and by virtue of union with Christ. Christ, on the contrary, is in His nature the Son of God by an eternal generation.
When our Lord speaks of "Your Father and your God," He seems to me to speak with a special view to the consolation of His disciples. It is as though He said, "Do not be troubled because I go away. He to whom I go is your Father and your God as well as mine. All that He is to me, the Head, He is also to you, the members."
It may well be doubted, when we read this verse, whether Christians, as a rule, assign sufficient importance to the great truth of Christ’s ascension into heaven. Let us never forget that if our Lord had not ascended into heaven, and sat down on the right hand of God, His resurrection would have been of little value. It is His going into heaven itself, to appear in the presence of God for us, that is the great secret of Christian comfort. It is not for nothing that Paul answers the question, "Who is he that condemneth?" by saying, "Christ hath died,—yea, rather hath risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." (Romans 8:34.) The death, the resurrection, the ascension, the intercession of Christ, are four great facts that should never be separated.
It ought not to be forgotten that there seems to be a close connection between the ascension of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost. This, at least, seems to be the meaning of the text in the Psalms, quoted by Paul: "When He had ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and received gifts for men." (Psalms 68:18. Ephesians 4:8.)
v18.—[Mary Magdalene came and told, etc.] In this verse we see the effect that our Lord’s words had on the loving disciple to whom He first appeared. She meekly accepts the reproof of her over-forward zeal to touch Him, without gainsaying or answering again. Like a good servant, she proceeds at once to do what she is told. The use of the present tense shows the promptness of her obedience. The Greek words would be more literally rendered, "Mary Magdalene cometh, telling or declaring to the disciples that she has seen the Lord, and that He has said these things to her,"—that He has given her this message to carry to them, and that He calls them His brethren. The use of the participle makes the words sound as if she went open-mouthed, telling every disciple as she went, and hardly stopping to sit down, till she had told every one whom she could find in Jerusalem. We need not doubt that the first house she went to was that where Peter and John lodged, and one of the first persons to whom she told the joyful news was the mother of our Lord. A few minutes after she departed on her joyful errand—running, we need not doubt, as she had run before,—our Lord appeared to the other women, as is recorded by Matthew. (Matthew 28:9.)
Brentius remarks what honour this passage puts on women. Sin came into the world by Eve, a woman. Yet God, in mercy, ordered things so that of a woman Christ was born, to a woman Christ first appeared after He rose from the dead, and a woman was the first to carry the news of His resurrection. He quaintly says, "Jesus made Mary Magdalene an Apostle to the Apostles."
Cecil remarks, "Singular honour is reserved for solitary faith. Mary has the first personal manifestation of Christ after His resurrection. She is the first witness of this most important and illustrious fact, and the first messenger of it to His disciples."
The verses we have now read contain things hard to be understood. Like all the events which followed our Lord’s resurrection, there is much in the facts before us which is mysterious, and requires reverent handling. Our Lord’s actions, in suddenly appearing among the disciples when the doors were closed, and in breathing upon them, might soon draw us into unprofitable speculation. It is easy, in such cases, to darken counsel by words without knowledge. We shall find it safer and wiser to confine our attention to points which are plain and instructive.
We should observe, for one thing, the remarkable language with which our Lord greeted the apostles, when He first met them after His resurrection. Twice over he addressed them with the kindly words, "Peace be unto you." We may dismiss as untenable, in all probability, the cold and cautious suggestion, that this was nothing better than an unmeaning phrase of courtesy. He who "spake as never man spake," said nothing without meaning. He spoke, we may be sure, with special reference to the state of mind of the eleven apostles, with special reference to the events of the last few days, and with special reference to their future ministry. "Peace" and not blame,—"peace" and not fault-finding,—"peace" and not rebuke,—was the first word which this little company heard from their Master’s lips, after He left the tomb.
It was meet and fitting, that it should be so, and in full harmony with things that had gone before. "Peace on earth" was the song of the heavenly host, when Christ was born. Peace and rest of soul, was the general subject that Christ continually preached for three years. Peace, and not riches, had been the great legacy which He had left with the eleven the night before His crucifixion. Surely it was in full keeping with all the tenor of our Lord’s dealings, that, when He revisited His little company of disciples after His resurrection, His first word should be "Peace." It was a word that would soothe and calm their minds.
Peace, we may safely conclude, was intended by our Lord to be the key-note to the Christian ministry. That same peace which was so continually on the lips of the Master, was to be the grand subject of the teaching of His disciples. Peace between God and man through the precious blood of atonement,—peace between man and man through the infusion of grace and charity,—to spread such peace as this was to be the work of the Church. Any religion, like that of Mahomet, who made converts with the sword, is not from above, but from beneath. Any form of Christianity which burns men at the stake, in order to promote its own success, carries about with it the stamp of an apostasy. That is the truest and best religion which does most to spread real, true peace.
We should observe, for another thing, in these verses, the remarkable evidence which our Lord supplied of His own resurrection. He graciously appealed to the senses of His trembling disciples. He showed them "His hands and His side." He bade them see with their own eyes, that He had a real material body, and that He was not a ghost or a spirit. "Handle Me and see," were His words, according to Luke: "a spirit hath not flesh and bone, as ye see Me have." Great indeed was the condescension of our blessed Master, in thus coming down to the feeble faith of the eleven Apostles! But great also was the principle which He established for the use of His Church in every age, until He returns. That principle is, that our Master requires us to believe nothing that is contrary to our senses. Things above our reason we must expect to find in a religion that comes from God, but not things contrary to reason.
Let us lay firm hold on this great principle, and never forget to use it. Specially let us take care that we use it, in estimating the effect of the sacraments and the work of the Holy Ghost. To require people to believe that men have the quickening power of the Holy Spirit, when our eyes tell us they are living in habitual carelessness and sin, or that the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are Christ’s real body and blood, when our senses tell us they are still bread and wine,—this is to require more belief than Christ ever required of His disciples. It is to require that which is flatly contradictory to reason and common sense. Such requisitions Christ never made. Let us not try to be wiser than our Lord.
We should observe, lastly, in these verses, the remarkable commission which our Lord conferred upon His eleven Apostles. We are told that He said, "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." It is vain to deny that the true sense of these solemn words has been for centuries a subject of controversy and dispute. It is useless perhaps to expect that the controversy will ever be closed. The utmost that we can hope to do with the passage is to supply a probable exposition.
It seems then highly probable that our Lord in this place solemnly commissioned His Apostles to go into all the world, and preach the Gospel as He had preached it. He also conferred on them the power of declaring with peculiar authority whose sins were forgiven, and whose sins were not forgiven. That this is precisely what the Apostles did is a simple matter of fact, which any one may verify for himself by reading the book of the Acts. When Peter proclaimed to the Jews, "Repent ye, and be converted,"—and when Paul declared at Antioch of Iconium,—"to you is the word of this salvation sent,"—"Through this man is preached the forgiveness of sins, and by Him all that believe are justified,"—they were doing what this passage commissioned the Apostles to do. They were opening with authority the door of salvation, and inviting with authority all sinners to enter in by it and be saved. (Acts 3:19; Acts 13:26-38.) It seems, on the other hand, most improbable that our Lord intended in this verse to sanction the practice of private absolution, after private confession of sins.
Whatever some may please to say, there is not a single instance to be found in the Acts of any Apostle using such absolution after confession. Above all, there is not a trace in the two pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus, of such confession and absolution being recommended, or thought desirable. In short, whatever men may assert about private ministerial absolution, there is not a single precedent for it in God’s Word.
Let us leave the whole passage with a deep sense of the importance of the minister’s office, when that office is duly exercised according to the mind of Christ. No higher honor can be imagined than that of being Christ’s ambassadors, and proclaiming in Christ’s name the forgiveness of sins to a lost world. But let us ever beware of investing the ministerial office with one jot more of power and authority than Christ conferred upon it. To treat ministers as being in any sense mediators between God and man, is to rob Christ of His prerogative, to hide saving truth from sinners, and to exalt ordained men to a position which they are totally unqualified to fill.
v19.—[Then the same day at evening, etc.] This verse describes our Lord Jesus Christ’s first appearance to the Apostles, in a body, after He rose from the dead. It took place in the evening of the same Sunday when He had appeared to Mary Magdalene in the morning. Between that morning and that evening He had already appeared three times,—once to the company of women returning from the sepulchre, as described by Matthew,—once to Simon Peter, as we are told by Luke and Paul,—and once to the two disciples walking to Emmaus. (Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5; Luke 24:13, etc.) This, therefore, was the fifth appearance which our Lord graciously vouchsafed. Each of the five appearances, we should observe, was peculiar in its circumstances, and unlike the others. We need not wonder that this Sunday, from the earliest ages, was always marked by the Church as a day which ought to be had in remembrance, and kept with peculiar honour.
The beginning of the verse would be more literally rendered, "When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week." The precise hour is not specified; but, considering all things, it seems probable that it was after sunset, and when it was dark, in order to avoid observation.—The cause of the disciples assembling, we may reasonably suppose, was the tidings received from no less than four distinct sets of witnesses, that Jesus had risen from the dead, and was alive. It would have been strange indeed if they did not assemble on hearing such news.—The place where the disciples assembled is not mentioned. But at a time like the passover feast it would not be difficult to find some "upper room," where ten men might meet together. I can see no improbability in the supposition that the very room where the Lord’s Supper was instituted on the previous Thursday evening, might be the same room where the disciples gathered together on Sunday night. The words of Mark incline me to think that the person to whom the "upper room" belonged was one of those Jews who were friendly to Christ, though they had not courage to confess Him openly. (Mark 14:13-15.)
That the "doors" should be "shut, where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews," is a circumstance that need not surprise us. The Apostles might well regard their lives as being in imminent danger, when they remembered how their Master had just been treated. Moreover, the story of the guard placed round the sepulchre, that "the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus," might reasonably incline them to expect further ill-treatment themselves. They did their best therefore to avoid observation, and closed the doors of the room where they assembled after sunset.
Concerning the precise manner in which our Lord appeared to the disciples, there is no little difference of opinion. (a) Some think, as Calvin, and many of the divines of the seventeenth century, that He suddenly caused the doors to open, passed through them when open, and suddenly stood in the midst of the company assembled. (b) Some think, as Chrysostom, Cyril, Augustine, the Romanists, and nearly all Lutherans, that the doors continued fastened, and that our Lord miraculously appeared standing in the room where the disciples were, instantaneously, in a moment, and without notice. I do not know that it signifies much which view we take. In either case a miracle was wrought. Our Lord’s risen body must evidently have had a power of moving from one place to another, and of being visible or invisible, as He thought fit, according to His good pleasure, after a manner that we cannot understand. In any case, we must carefully remember that it was a real, material body,—a body that could be touched, and felt, and seen, and handled, and yet a supernatural and peculiar body. With such a body it was as easy for our Lord to appear suddenly standing in the middle of the room, while the doors remained fastened, as it was to open the doors (as He did the doors of Peter’s prison), and to walk into the room, like another man. To my own mind there is no proof positive either way, and I must leave it to my readers to choose for themselves. One thing alone we must not forget. Even if our Lord did appear in the room, without unfastening the doors, it is no proof that He can be literally, and locally, and corporally present in the Lord’s Supper, under the forms of bread and wine. Moreover, it does not follow, because He could move from place to place invisibly, that His body could ever be in more than one place at one and the same time. When He rose from the dead, He rose with a body of a far more spiritual kind than He had before, but a body for all that which was a real human body, and not a mere seeming and shadowy body, like that of a ghost or a spirit.
The first words that our Lord spake to the disciples afford a beautiful proof of His loving, merciful, tender, thoughtful, pitiful, and compassionate spirit. He said, "Peace be unto you." That expression, in my opinion, must on no account be taken as a mere formal salutation, without meaning. It was intended to reassure and cheer the minds of the disciples, by exhibiting at once His mind towards them. Not a word of reproof, or rebuke, or fault-finding, or blame falls from our Lord’s lips, notwithstanding all their sad faint-heartedness and desertion on the preceding Thursday night. All is forgiven and forgotten. The very first word is "Peace." This was almost the last word that our Lord had spoken on Thursday night before He prayed: "These things I have spoken, that in Me ye might have peace." (John 16:33.) This was the last legacy He had left His disciples: "Peace I leave with you: my peace I give unto you. Let not your hearts be troubled." (John 14:27.) Can we doubt that this comfortable word would cheer and calm the minds of the little company, when our Lord suddenly appeared?—"Once more I stand among you: and once more I proclaim peace;—not excommunication, not rejection from my friendship, not rebuke, but peace." We cannot realize the fulness of comfort which the word would supply, unless we bear in mind the events of the last few days, and especially the conduct of the Apostles on the night before the crucifixion, when, after loudly professing their faithfulness, they all "forsook Him and fled."
The parallel account in Luke would lead us to conclude that there were others present on this occasion beside the Apostles. He speaks of "Them that were with them." (Luke 24:33.)
v20.—[And when He had so said, etc.] After speaking, our Lord proceeded most graciously to supply tangible evidence that He had really risen from the dead, and stood before His disciples with a material living body. When it says He "showed them His hands and side," we cannot doubt that He bade them touch Him. In fact Luke, when describing this very same interview, expressly records that our Lord said, "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see Me have." (Luke 24:39.)
The mention of the "hands and side" points clearly to the wounds made by the nails on the one, and by the spear in the other. Those wounds appeared visibly and unmistakably in His risen body, and our blessed Master was not ashamed of them. Even in the glory of heaven, according to Revelation, John saw Him appear as a "Lamb that had been slain." (Revelation 5:6.) I think we need not doubt that when He ascended up into heaven, those wounds went with Him, and are a perpetual witness to angels that He has actually suffered for man’s sins. When we see His real presence in the day of His appearing, we shall see "the man Christ Jesus," and see the marks of His crucifixion. I give this however as my private opinion, and I think it fair to say that many divines think differently. For instance, Calvin strongly holds that our Lord’s "use of the wounds was only temporary, until the Apostles were fully convinced, and that His glorified body is without them." I cannot, however, agree with him. After a great victory, the scars of a conqueror are marks of honour.
Concerning the actual condition of our Lord’s wounds it becomes us to speak reverently. A very slight acquaintance with surgery will tell us, of course, that a lacerated wound in the hand or foot, or a deep wound in the side inflicted on Friday, would naturally, to say the least, be very painful and inflamed on Sunday night. But we must carefully remember that our Lord’s risen body, though a real and material body, was evidently not subject to all the conditions of an ordinary human body, or of His own body before His death. It was in fact such a body as we may hope to have when we rise again. We may, therefore, conclude that the wounds made by the nails and spear were not wounds that were sore and inflamed, though it is equally certain that they were not closed up, and only scars left behind.
How it was that the two disciples going to Emmaus did not recognize our Lord by the wounds in His hands and feet, is a question that admits of two answers. Either we must suppose that "their eyes were holden," and that they were miraculously unable to discern who it was that walked with them, and did not even know Him by His voice; or else we must suppose that our Lord’s hands and feet were covered during the walk, and that they only saw the wounds in His hands when He broke the bread. Mark’s account would lead us to believe that our Lord was pleased to assume another body on the way to Emmaus. He says, "He appeared in another form." (Mark 16:12.)
The expression "were glad when they saw," would be more literally rendered "rejoiced seeing," and "having seen." I cannot myself think that these words fulfilled our Lord’s saying, "I will see you again, and jour heart shall rejoice." (John 16:22.) That joy, I believe, is the joy of the whole Church at the Lord’s second advent, and is yet to come. It is a joy of which our Lord said, "No man taketh it from you." I believe the phrase before us simply means that the disciples were greatly delighted and rejoiced, when they saw before them their risen Master. It relieved their anxious minds, revived their hopes, and set at rest all their fears. "Our Master is actually alive again and has overcome death. Now all will be right."
We should not fail to observe how our Lord condescended to satisfy the senses of His disciples,—the sense of sight, and the sense of touch,—when He showed Himself to them after His resurrection. If their senses had contradicted the news that His body had risen again to life, He would not have required them to believe it. Things above reason and sense the Gospel calls on us to believe often, things contrary to reason and sense never. This is precisely what we should remember when a Romanist bids us believe that the consecrated wafer in the Lord’s Supper is the real Body of Christ. Sense, sight, taste, and chemical analysis, combine to tell us that the wafer is still bread. The Romanist, therefore, has no right to demand our belief.
Rollock remarks, "When I mark this place, I see in it what then shall be the estate of the godly, when they shall meet with their Lord. The first sight shall so ravish them, that they shall wonder there ever could be such glory."
v21.—[Then said Jesus...again...etc.] In this verse our Lord proceeds to tell the disciples the work which He now wished them to do, but in general terms. He meant to send them forth into the world to be His ministers, messengers, and witnesses, even as the Father had sent Him into the world to be His messenger and witness. (Hebrews 3:1; John 18:37.) As He had gone up and down preaching the Gospel, testifying against the evil of the world, and proclaiming rest and peace to the heavy laden, so He intended them to go up and down, as soon as He had ascended up into heaven. In short, He at once prepared their minds for the work which was before them. They were to dismiss from their minds the idea that the day of ease and reward had come, now that their Master had risen and was with them once more. So far from that being the case, their real work was now to begin. He Himself was about to leave the world, and He meant them to take His place. And one purpose for which He appeared among them was to give them their commission.
The repetition of the salutation, "Peace be unto you," is very noteworthy. I cannot doubt that it was specially intended to cheer, and comfort, and animate the disciples. Glad as they doubtless were to see the Lord, we may easily believe that they were frightened, and overcome by a mixture of feelings; and the more so when they remembered how they had behaved when they had last seen their Lord. Jesus read the condition of their hearts, and mercifully makes assurance doubly sure by repeating the gracious words, "Peace be unto you." As Joseph said to Pharaoh, "the thing was doubled," in order to make it sure and prevent the possibility of mistake.
Augustine says, "The iteration is confirmation. It is the ’peace upon peace’ promised by the prophet." (Isaiah 57:19.)
It is curious that two entirely different Greek words are used to express the English "sent" and "send" in this verse. Parkhurst says that the word used where our Lord says "My Father hath sent Me," is a more solemn word than the one used when our Lord says, "I send you." Yet I do not think this is proved; and certainly Liddell and Scott flatly contradict the idea. At any rate the second or less solemn word is repeatedly used in Luke in the most solemn sense. (John 5:23-24, John 5:30.) It is just one of those things which we ought to notice, but cannot explain. There is doubtless some reason why two words are used, but what it is has not yet been discovered.
v22.—[And when He had said....breathed, etc.] In this verse our Lord proceeds to confer a special gift on the disciples, and, as it were, to ordain them for the great work which He intended them to do. And we have in it a remarkable emblematical action, and a no less remarkable saying.
The action of our Lord, "He breathed on them," is one that stands completely alone in the New Testament, and the Greek word is nowhere else used. On no occasion but this do we find the Lord "breathing" on any one. Of course it was a symbolical action, and the only question is, What did it symbolize? and Why was it used? My own belief is that the true explanation is to be found in the account of man’s creation in Genesis. There we read, "The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7.) Just as there was no life in man until God breathed into him the breath of life, so I believe our Lord taught the disciples, by this action of breathing on them, that the beginning of all ministerial qualification is to have the Holy Spirit breathed into us; and that, until the Holy Ghost is planted in our hearts, we are not rightly commissioned for the work of the ministry.
I do not however feel sure that this view completely exhausts the meaning of our Lord when He breathed on the disciples. I cannot forget that they had all forsaken their Master the night that He was taken prisoner, fallen away from their profession, and forfeited their title to confidence as Apostles. May we not therefore reasonably believe that this breathing pointed to a revival of life in the hearts of the Apostles, and to a restoration of their privileges as trusted and commissioned messengers, notwithstanding their grievous fall?—I cannot help suspecting that this lesson was contained in the action of breathing. It not only symbolized the infusion for the first time of special ministerial gifts and graces. It also symbolized the restoration to complete power and confidence in their Master’s eyes, even after their faith had so nearly breathed its last, and given up the ghost. The first symptom of returning life, when a man is recovered from drowning, is his beginning to breathe again. To set the lungs breathing, in such cases, is the first aim of a skilful doctor.
When we remember that the wind is pre-eminently an emblem of the Holy Ghost (John 3:8; Ezekiel 37:9; Acts 2:2), we cannot fail to see that there is a beautiful fitness in the symbolical action which our Lord has employed.
Lampe thinks that our Lord breathed on all the disciples at once, and not on each separately. It is probable that it was so, in my judgment.
Hooker remarks (Eccles. Pol. 6, v. c. 77), "The cause why we breathe not, as Christ did on the disciples unto whom He imparted power, is that neither Spirit nor spiritual authority may be thought to proceed from us, who are but delegates and assigns to give men possession of His grace."
The words, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost," are almost as deep and mysterious as the action of breathing. They can only signify, "I bestow on you the Holy Ghost." But in what sense the Holy Ghost was bestowed, is a point that demands attention, and we must beware that we do not run into error.
(a) Our Lord cannot have meant that the disciples were now to "receive the Holy Ghost" for the first time. They had doubtless received Him in the day when they were first converted and believed. Whether they realized it or not, the Holy Ghost was in their hearts already. "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost." (1 Corinthians 12:3.)
(b) Our Lord cannot have meant that the disciples were now to "receive the Holy Ghost," for the purpose of working miracles and speaking with tongues. They had worked many miracles already, and the gift of speaking with tongues was specially conferred afterwards, on the day of Pentecost, when they were endued with power from on high.
(c) Our Lord, in my opinion, must have meant, "Receive the Holy Ghost as the Spirit of knowledge and understanding." He must have meant that He now conferred on them a degree of light and knowledge of divine truth, which hitherto they had not possessed. They had been greatly deficient in light and knowledge up to this time. With all their faith and love towards our Lord’s Person, they had been sadly ignorant of many things, and particularly of the true purpose of His coming, and the necessity of His death and resurrection.—"Now," says our Lord, "I bestow on you the Spirit of knowledge. Let the time past suffice to have seen through a glass darkly. Receive the Holy Ghost, open your eyes, and see all things clearly."—In fact I believe the words point to the very thing which Luke says our Lord did on this occasion: "then opened He their understanding that they might under stand the Scriptures." (Luke 24:45.) Light was the first thing made in the day of creation. Light in the heart is the first beginning of true conversion. And light in the understanding is the first thing required in order to make a man an able minister of the New Testament. Our Lord was commissioning His first ministers, and sending them out to carry on His work. He begins by giving them light and knowledge:—"Receive ye the Holy Ghost. I commission you this day, and confer on you the office of ministers. And the first gift I confer on you is spiritual knowledge." That this is the true view of the words, is proved to my own mind by the extraordinary difference in doctrinal knowledge which from this day the Apostles exhibited.
Theophylact thinks that our Lord only meant, "Become fit for receiving the Holy Ghost." This seems weak and poor.
The expression before us is one of those which seem to me to supply strong indirect proof of the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Son, as well as from the Father. It seems to me that when the Lord Jesus Christ could say with authority, "Receive the Holy Ghost," it is very strange to say that the Holy Ghost does not proceed from Him! Yet the Greek Church does not admit this.
The expression before us is one, which, strictly speaking, no one but our Lord Jesus Christ could use. It is evident that no mortal man has the power of conferring the Holy Ghost upon another. This is a prerogative of God alone and of His Christ. When, therefore, the ordination service for Presbyters, in the Church of England Prayer-book, puts into the Bishop’s mouth these solemn words, "Receive the Holy Ghost," I have never felt a doubt that the compilers of our Liturgy only meant the words to be used as in an optative, and not a positive sense, as a prayer: "I pray that thou mayest receive the Holy Ghost."—Archbishop Whitgift, in his Reply to the objections of the famous Cartwright, says, "To use these words in ordaining of ministers, which Christ Himself used in appointing His Apostles, is no more ridiculous and blasphemous than it is to use the words that He used in the Lord’s Supper."—"The Bishop, by speaking these words, doth not take upon him to give the Holy Ghost, no more than he doth to remit sins, when he pronounceth the remission of sins; but by speaking these words of Christ, he doth show the principal duty of a minister, and assureth him of the assistance of God’s Holy Spirit, if he labour in the same accordingly." (See Blakeney on the Common-Prayer, p. 513.) While, however, I say this, I shall never shrink from expressing my regret that the words, "Receive the Holy Ghost," were adopted by the compilers of our Prayer-book. They do not trouble my conscience, but I consider them likely to offend the consciences of many, and I think it would have been wiser to throw them distinctly and unmistakably into the form of a prayer. It is a simple historical fact which ought not to be forgotten, that these words were never used, in the ordination of ministers, for more than a thousand years after Christ! (See Nicholls and Blakeney on the Common-Prayer.)
One practical lesson, at any rate, is very plain in this expression. The first thing that is necessary, in order to make a man a true minister of the Gospel, is the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. Bishops and presbyters can lay hands on men, and make them clergymen. The Holy Ghost alone can make a "man of God," and a minister of God’s Word.
v23.—[Whose soever sins ye remit, etc.] In this verse our Lord continues and concludes the commission for the office of ministers, which He now gives to His Apostles after rising from the dead. His work as a public Teacher was now finished. The Apostles henceforth were to carry it on.—The words which form this commission are very peculiar, and demand close attention. The meaning of the words, I believe, may be paraphrased thus: "I confer on you the power of declaring and pronouncing authoritatively whose sins are forgiven, and whose sins are not forgiven. I bestow on you the office of pronouncing who are pardoned, and who are not, just as the Jewish high priest pronounced who were clean, and who were unclean, in cases of leprosy."—I believe that nothing more than this authority to declare can be got out of the words, and I entirely repudiate and reject the strange notion maintained by some, that our Lord meant to depute to the Apostles, or any others, the power of absolutely pardoning or not pardoning, absolving or not absolving, any one’s soul. My reasons for maintaining this view of the text are as follows.
(a) The power of forgiving sins, in Scripture, is always spoken of as the special prerogative of God. The Jews themselves admitted this, when they said, "Who can forgive sins but God only?" (Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21.) It is monstrous to suppose that our Lord meant to overthrow and alter this great principle when He commissioned His disciples.
(b) The language of the Old Testament Scripture shows conclusively, that the Prophets were said to "DO" things, when they "DECLARED them about to be done." Thus Jeremiah’s commission runs in these words, "I have this day set thee over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:10.) This can only mean to declare the rooting out and pulling down, etc.—So also Ezekiel says, "I came to destroy the city" (Ezekiel 43:3); where the marginal reading is, "I came to prophesy the city should be destroyed." The Apostles were doubtless well acquainted with prophetical language, and I believe they interpreted our Lord’s words in this place accordingly.
(c) There is not a single instance in the Acts or Epistles, of an Apostle taking on himself to absolve, pardon, or forgive any one. The Apostles and preachers of the New Testament declare in the plainest language whose sin is pardoned and absolved, but they never take on themselves to pardon and absolve. When Peter said to Cornelius and his friends, "Whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:43); when Paul said at Antioch, in Pisidia, "We declare unto you glad tidings;" "Through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins" (Acts 13:32, Acts 13:38); and when Paul said to the Philippian jailor, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31),—in each case they fulfilled the commission of the text before us. They "declared whose sins were remitted, and whose were retained."
(d) There is not a single word in the three pastoral Epistles, written by Paul to Timothy and Titus, to show that the Apostle regarded absolution as part of the ministerial office. If it was he would surely have mentioned it, and urged the practice of it on young ministers, for the relief of burdened souls.
(e) The weakness of human nature is so great, that it is grossly improbable that such a tremendous power as that of absolutely pardoning and absolving souls, would ever be committed to any mortal man. It would be highly injurious to any man to trust him with such a power, and would be a continued temptation to him to usurp the office of a Mediator between God and man.
(f) The experience of the Romish Church, in which the priests are practically regarded as having the power to absolve sinners, and shut heaven against persons not absolved, affords the strongest indirect evidence that our Lord’s words can only have been meant to bear a "declarative" sense. Anything worse or more mischievous, both to minister and people, than the results of the Romish system of penance and absolution, it is impossible to conceive. It is a system which has practically degraded the laity, puffed up and damaged the clergy, turned people away from Christ, and kept them in spiritual darkness and bondage.
A question of no small interest arises out of the text before us, which it may be well to consider. Was the ministerial office and commission conferred on the Apostles by our Lord in this place an office which they transmitted to others, with all its privileges and powers?
I answer, without hesitation, that in the strictest sense the commission of the Apostles was not transmitted, but was confined to them and Paul. I challenge any one to deny that the Apostles possessed certain ministerial qualifications which were quite peculiar to them, and which they could not transmit, and did not transmit to others. (1) They had the gift of declaring the Gospel without error, and with infallible accuracy, to an extent that no one after them did. (2) They confirmed their teaching by miracles. (3) They were, some of them, plenarily inspired by the Holy Ghost to write portions of the New Testament. (4) They had the power of discerning spirits, and knowing the hearts of others to an extent that no one after them possessed, as we see in the case of Peter’s dealing with Ananias, Sapphira, and Simon Magus. In all these respects they stood alone, and had no successors. In the strictest sense there is no such thing as Apostolical succession. Modern ministers are not successors of the Apostles, but of Timothy and Titus. The Apostles were peculiarly qualified, and gifted, and furnished for the very peculiar work they had to do, as the first founders of Churches. But, in the strictest and most accurate sense, their office was one which was not transmitted. With them it began, and with them it ended.
But while I say all this, I maintain as strongly as any one, that there is a sense in which the verse now before us applies to all Christian ministers, and in this sense their commission resembles that of the Apostles. It is the office of every minister of Christ to declare boldly, authoritatively, and with decision, out of God’s Word, who they are whose sins are forgiven, and who they are whose sins are retained. This is his commission, and this the work for which he is set apart and ordained. Whenever a minister in his pulpit proclaims the full Gospel of Christ faithfully, he does the work which our Lord in this verse commissioned the Apostles to do, and may take comfort in the thought that he may expect our Lord’s blessing. He cannot do it with such infallible power as the Apostles, but in a sense he is really their follower and successor.
The whole subject opened up in this verse is so important in modern days, that I make no apology for quoting the following passage from Bishop Jewell’s Apology, which throws light on it.—
Jewell says, "We say, that Christ has given to His ministers the power of binding and loosing, of opening and shutting. And we say, that the power of loosing consists in this, that the minister, by the preaching of the Gospel, offers to dejected minds and true penitents, through the merits of Christ, absolution, and doth assure them a certain remission of their sins, and the hopes of eternal salvation; or, secondly, reconciles, restores, and receives into the congregation and unity of the faithful, those penitents, who by any grievous scandal or known and public offence have offended the minds of their brethren, and, in a sort alienated and separated themselves from the common society of the Church and the body of Christ. And we say the minister doth exercise the power of binding or shutting, when he shutteth the gate of the kingdom of heaven against unbelievers and obstinate persons, and denounceth to them the vengeance of God and eternal punishment; or excludeth out of the bosom of the Church, those that are publicly excommunicated; and that God Himself doth so far approve whatever sentence His ministers shall so give, that whatsoever is either loosed or bound by their ministry here on earth, He will in like manner bind or loose and confirm in heaven. The key with which these ministers do shut or open the kingdom of heaven, we say, with Chrysostom, is the knowledge of the Scripture; with Tertullian, is the interpretation of the law; and with Eusebius, is the Word of God. We say the disciples of Christ received this power (from Him) not that they might hear the private confessions of the people, and catch their whispering murmurs, as the Popish priests everywhere now do, and that in such a manner as if all the force and use of the keys consisted only in this; but that they might go and preach and publish the Gospel, that so they might be a savour of life unto life, to them that did believe; and that they might be also a savour of death unto death, to those that did not believe; that the minds of those who were affrighted with the sense of their former ill lives and errors, after they beheld the light of the Gospel, and believed in Christ, might be opened by the Word of God, as doors are with a key: and that the wicked and stubborn, who would not believe and return into the way, might be left, shut up, and locked, and, as Paul expresseth it (2 Timothy 3:13), might "wax worse and worse." This we take to be the meaning of the keys, and that in this manner the consciences of men are either bound or loosed."
Calvin observes, "When Christ enjoins the Apostles to forgive sins, He does not convey to them what is peculiar to Himself. It belongs to Him to forgive sins. This honour, so far as it belongs peculiarly to Himself, He does not surrender to the Apostles. He only enjoins them, in His name, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, that through their agency He may reconcile men to God."
Brentius says, "This is the true and heavenly mode of remitting sins: to wit, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who do not preach the Gospel of Christ have no power of either remitting or retaining sins."
Bullinger says, "The Apostles remitted men’s sins, when by the preaching of the Gospel they taught that the sins of believers were remitted, and eternal life granted through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They retained men’s sins when they announced that the wrath of God remained on those who believed not."
Gualter says, "At this day ministers are said to remit sins when they promise remission of them in Christ to those who believe, and to retain sins when they denounce damnation on the unbelieving and obstinately impenitent."
Musculus says that this promise does not belong "to every and any minister, but to the real minister of the Gospel, who teaches nothing, promises nothing else but this,—that those who repent and believe on Christ have remission of sin and eternal life, and that those who are impenitent and unbelieving remain in their sins and death. Doctrine like this is ratified and confirmed before God, because it is agreeable to the Gospel of the Son of God."
Lightfoot thinks that, in interpreting these words, we must carefully remember that they were probably spoken in close connection with our Lord’s words in Luke, when He says that "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name, beginning at Jerusalem." (Luke 24:47.) He thinks that on hearing these words, scruples might arise in the Apostles’ minds: "Is this so indeed? Must remission of sin be really preached in Jerusalem to men stained with Messiah’s blood?" And then he thinks these words are spoken to encourage them. "Yes: you are to begin at Jerusalem. For whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them." Finally, Lightfoot asks, with much sense, "On what foundation and with what confidence could the Apostles have preached remission of sins to such wretched men as the murderers of their Lord, unless authorized by a peculiar commission granted by the Lord Himself?"
Poole says, "The question among divines is whether Christ in this text has given authority to His ministers actually to discharge men of the guilt of their sins; or only to declare to them that if their repentance and faith be true, their sins are really forgiven. The former view is contended for by many. But it does not seem reasonable (1) that God should betrust man with such a piece of His prerogative; and (2) that God who knoweth the falsehood of men’s hearts, and the inability of the best minister to judge of the truth of any man’s repentance and faith, as also the passions to which they are subject, should give to any of the sons of men an absolute power under Him to discharge any from the guilt of sin. Certain it is that without true repentance and faith in Christ no man hath his sins forgiven; so that no minister, who knoweth not the hearts of men, can possibly say to any man with certainty, Thy sins are forgiven. What certainty the Apostles might have had by the Spirit of discernment, we cannot say. But certain it is, that none hath now such certainty of any man’s faith and repentance. Hence it is to me apparent, that no man hath any further power from Christ than to declare to men, that if they truly repent and believe, their sins are really forgiven. Only the minister, being Christ’s interpreter and ambassador, and better able to judge of true faith and repentance than others (though not certainly and infallibly), such declarations from a faithful, able minister are of more weight and authority than from others. This is the most, I conceive, should be in this matter."
I leave the whole passage with one general word of caution. Whatever sense we place on the words, let us beware that we do not give to ministers, of any name or denomination, a place, power, authority, position, or privilege, which Christ never gave them. Putting ministers out of their proper place has been the root of endless superstition and corruption in Christ’s Church. To regard ministers as mediators between Christ and the soul, to confess to them privately and receive private absolution from them, is a system for which there is no authority in the New Testament, and the high road to every kind of evil. It is a system equally mischievous to ministers and to people, utterly subversive of the Gospel, and thoroughly dishonouring to the priestly office of Christ.
The three absolutions found in the Liturgy of the Church of England, (1) that in the Morning and Evening Prayer, (2) that in the Communion Service, and (3) that in the Visitation for the Sick, were all, in my judgment, intended to bear only a declarative sense. But I can never refrain from saying that the absolution in the Visitation Service is liable to be misunderstood, and its wording is to be regretted.
Shepherd, on the Common Prayer, remarks, "The Church of England neither maintains nor countenances the opinion, that a priest, by virtue of his ordination, has an absolute, unconditional power to forgive sin. The power that the clergy have received and exercised, is purely ministerial, being defined and limited by the "Word of God, which expressly declares upon what condition sin shall be remitted, and upon what retained. To suppose that any minister of Christ, since the Apostles, possesses the power of remitting or retaining sin at his discretion, is repugnant to the whole tenor of Scripture, as well as to every dictate of reason and common sense."
The story of the unbelief of Thomas, related in these verses, is a narrative peculiar to the Gospel of John. For wise and good reasons it is passed over in silence by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and was probably not given to the world till Thomas was dead. It is precisely one of those passages of Scripture which supply strong internal evidence of the honesty of the inspired writers. If impostors and deceivers had compiled the Bible for their own private advantage, they would never have told mankind that one of the first founders of a new religion behaved as Thomas here did.
We should mark, for one thing, in these verses, how much Christians may lose by not regularly attending the assemblies of God’s people. Thomas was absent the first time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, and consequently Thomas missed a blessing. Of course we have no certain proof that the absence of the Apostle could not admit of explanation. Yet, at such a crisis in the lives of the eleven, it seems highly improbable that he had any good reason for not being with his brethren, and it is far more likely that in some way he was to blame. One thing, at any rate, is clear and plain. By being absent he was kept in suspense and unbelief a whole week, while all around him were rejoicing in the thought of a risen Lord. It is difficult to suppose that this would have been the case, if there had not been a fault somewhere. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Thomas was absent when he might have been present.
We shall all do well to remember the charge of the Apostle Paul: "Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is." (Hebrews 10:25.) Never to be absent from God’s house on Sundays, without good reason,—never to miss the Lord’s Supper when administered in our own congregation,—never to let our place be empty when means of grace are going on, this is one way to be a growing and prosperous Christian. The very sermon that we needlessly miss, may contain a precious word in season for our souls. The very assembly for prayer and praise from which we stay away, may be the very gathering that would have cheered, and stablished, and quickened our hearts. We little know how dependent our spiritual health is on little, regular, habitual helps, and how much we suffer if we miss our medicine. The wretched argument that many attend means of grace and are no better for them, should be no argument to a Christian. It may satisfy those who are blind to their own state, and destitute of grace, but it should never satisfy a real servant of Christ. Such an one should remember the words of Solomon: "Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors." (Proverbs 8:34.) Above all he should bind around his heart the Master’s promise: "Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20.) Such a man will rarely be left like Thomas, shut out in the cold chill of unbelief, while others are warmed and filled.
We should mark for another thing in this verse, how kind and merciful Christ is to dull and slow believers. Nowhere, perhaps, in all the four Gospels, do we find this part of our Lord’s character so beautifully illustrated as in the story before our eyes. It is hard to imagine anything more tiresome and provoking than the conduct of Thomas, when even the testimony of ten faithful brethren had no effect on him, and he doggedly declared, "Except I see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands, I will not believe." But it is impossible to imagine anything more patient and compassionate, than our Lord’s treatment of this weak disciple. He does not reject him, or dismiss him, or excommunicate him. He comes again at the end of a week, and apparently for the special benefit of Thomas. He deals with him according to his weakness, like a gentle nurse dealing with a froward child:—"Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side." If nothing but the grossest, coarsest, most material evidence could satisfy him, even that evidence was supplied. Surely this was a love that passeth knowledge, and a patience that passeth understanding.
A passage of Scripture like this, we need not doubt, was written for the special comfort of all true believers. The Holy Ghost knew well that the dull, and the slow, and the stupid, and the doubting, are by far the commonest type of disciples in this evil world. The Holy Ghost has taken care to supply abundant evidence that Jesus is rich in patience as well as compassion, and that He bears with the infirmities of all His people. Let us take care that we drink into our Lord’s spirit, and copy His example. Let us never set down men in a low place, as graceless and godless, because their faith is feeble and their love is cold. Let us remember the case of Thomas, and be very pitiful and of tender mercy. Our Lord has many weak children in His family, many dull pupils in His school, many raw soldiers in His army, many lame sheep in His flock. Yet He bears with them all, and casts none away. Happy is that Christian who has learned to deal likewise with his brethren. There are many in the Church, who, like Thomas, are dull and slow, but for all that, like Thomas, are real and true believers.
We should mark, lastly, in these verses, how Christ was addressed by a disciple as "God," without prohibition or rebuke on His part. The noble exclamation which burst from the lips of Thomas, when convinced that his Lord had risen indeed,— the noble exclamation, "My Lord and my God,"—admits of only one meaning. It was a distinct testimony to our blessed Lord’s divinity. It was a clear, unmistakable declaration that Thomas believed Him, whom he saw and touched that day, to be not only man, but God. Above all, it was a testimony which our Lord received and did not prohibit, and a declaration which He did not say one word to rebuke. When Cornelius fell down at the feet of Peter and would have worshiped him, the Apostle refused such honor at once: "Stand up; I myself also am a man." (Acts 10:26.) When the people of Lystra would have done sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, "they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you." (Acts 14:14-15.) But when Thomas says to Jesus, "My Lord and my God," the words do not elicit a syllable of reproof from our holy and truth-loving Master. Can we doubt that these things were written for our learning?
Let us settle it firmly in our minds that the divinity of Christ is one of the grand foundation truths of Christianity, and let us be willing to go to the stake rather than let it go. Unless our Lord Jesus is very God of very God, there is an end of His mediation, His atonement, His advocacy, His priesthood, His whole work of redemption. These glorious doctrines are useless blasphemies, unless Christ is divine. Forever let us bless God that the divinity of our Lord is taught everywhere in the Scriptures, and stands on evidence that can never be overthrown. Above all, let us daily repose our sinful souls on Christ with undoubting confidence, as one who is perfect God as well as perfect man. He is man, and therefore can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He is God, and therefore is "able to save to the uttermost all who come unto God by Him." That Christian has no cause to fear, who can look to Jesus by faith, and say with Thomas, "My Lord and my God." With such a Savior we need not be afraid to begin the life of real religion, and with such a Savior we may boldly go on.
v24.—[But Thomas one...twelve...Didymus.] The story of the second appearance of Christ to the whole company of the Apostles, for the special benefit of Thomas, is one of those narratives which are only found in John’s Gospel. We ought to feel thankful that it has been recorded. It is precisely one of those stories, which supply strong indirect evidence of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures and the genuine honesty of the Gospel writers. An uninspired man, much less a dishonest impostor, would not have told us of the unbelief of a chosen Apostle. Moreover it is one of those stories which throw most useful light on a very interesting subject. That subject is the great variety of temperament which may be found among true Christians.
Chrysostom remarks, "Observe the truthfulness of the disciples. They hide no faults, either their own or others; but record them with great veracity."
Cardinal Bellarmine, according to Gerhard, goes so far as to say that the history of Thomas, like that of Noah’s drunkenness, David’s adultery, and Peter’s denial, is a reason why the laity ought not to read the Bible, lest forsooth they should get harm! The worthy Cardinal forgets that we need beacons to warn us against danger, and examples of Christ’s mercy to sinful and dull people in order to encourage us to repent.
Concerning the Apostle Thomas we know little. Twice in the Gospel of John we find him saying something, and on each occasion he appears in the same character. When our Lord declared his intention of going to Bethany, and says plainly that Lazarus is dead, Thomas says to his fellow-disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." (John 11:16.) When our Lord in His parting address to His disciples said, "Whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. Thomas saith unto Him, Lord, we know not whither Thou goest; and how can we know the way?" (John 14:4-5.) He always seems to be one of those desponding, fearful, gloomy-minded Christians, who look at the dark side of every subject and condition, and can never see a bit of blue sky,—who go on their way to heaven with real faith and true grace, but are so full of doubts and fears that they are unable to enjoy religion, and are a trouble to themselves and all around them. This I believe to be the true account of his character. The modern theory that he was a man of free thought and wide range of intellect, who wisely required reasonable evidence of everything in religion, and properly dreaded taking anything on trust, is a theory which I believe to be utterly without foundation, and I cannot receive it for a moment. He was simply a good man with a very doubting and gloomy turn of mind;—a man that really loved Jesus and was willing to die with Him, but a man who saw little but the dangers attending everything that a disciple had to do, and the difficulties belonging to everything which a disciple had to believe. There are many like him. It is a very useful picture. John Bunyan’s "Fearing," "Despondency," and "Much afraid," in Pilgrim’s Progress, are types of a large class of Christians, who are successors of the Apostle Thomas.
[Was not with them...Jesus came.] The reasons why Thomas was not with the other ten Apostles on the Sunday night when Jesus appeared to them are not given, and we have no clue whatever to them. Most commentators consider that he was to blame; and that by his absence he missed a blessing, and was kept in suspense a week. I admit that this may be true, and I think his example teaches indirectly that it is unwise to be ever absent from the assembly of God’s people without good cause. But I believe we must not press this point too far, and must not lay too much blame on the Apostle, in the absence of direct evidence that he was in fault. For anything we know, he may have lodged at a greater distance from the place of meeting than any of the eleven, and thus been unable to reach the place at an earlier hour; or he may have been detained by necessary business. One thing is very certain: the disciples found no fault with Thomas for his absence when they said, "We have seen the Lord." Moreover, our Lord Himself, when He appears, does not blame Thomas for having been absent on a former occasion, but only chides his unbelief. The simplest view of the subject appears to me to be, that Thomas’s absence was a part of his character. He was slow and dull in action as well as in perception,—the sort of man who would always have been last in Church, and last in a meeting. In the present instance I venture to conjecture that he meant no harm, and intended to have been present when the ten Apostles met; but that he probably started late, walked slow, and was so absorbed in doubts, and fears, and anxious meditations about the prospects of Christ’s disciples, that he never reached the place of meeting till Christ had withdrawn Himself.
The question has been needlessly raised by some, whether Thomas was not deprived of the gifts and privileges conferred on the other Apostles by his absence. Lightfoot sensibly replies, "Surely not: it was a privilege common to the whole Apostolate, and peculiar to them as Apostles. Paul was distant, while these things happened, both from apostleship and religion. Yet, when made an Apostle, he was at once adorned with this privilege." Some think that his case is like Eldad and Medad, who had their share of the Spirit, though absent, like the rest of the seventy elders. (Numbers 11:27.)
v25.—[The other disciples...said...seen the Lord.] We are not told when and where the disciples said this. I incline to believe that they said it the very evening that our Lord first appeared to them, and that Thomas came into the assembly very shortly after the Lord disappeared. To my eyes it reads as if the ten Apostles all exclaimed together, full of joy and delight at what they had seen and heard, "Thomas, we have just seen our Lord and Master! If you had been here a little sooner, you also would have seen Him." I think this for two reasons. (a) The words of the twenty-sixth verse, "after eight days," seem to indicate that there were eight days between our Lord’s first appearance and his second, and also eight days between Thomas’s expression of unbelief and his being convinced. (b) It seems highly improbable that Thomas would allow a whole day and night to pass away, after the rumour of our Lord’s body having been removed from the sepulchre had spread through Jerusalem, without seeking out the other Apostles and inquiring what it meant. Slow and dull in faith as he was, he would hardly sleep without finding out something about it. These considerations incline me to believe, that before the ten Apostles had time to separate, after our Lord’s appearance to them, Thomas came in. Then they told him immediately, that they had just seen the Lord. And then came the remarkable declaration which the doubting Apostle made.
[But he said unto them, Except, etc.] The unbelief of Thomas, expressed in this famous sentence, was a sad fault in a good man, which cannot be explained away. He refused to believe the testimony of ten competent witnesses, who had seen Christ in the body with their own eyes. He refused to believe the testimony of ten true friends and brethren, who could have no object in deceiving him. He passionately declares that he will not believe, unless he himself sees and touches our Lord’s body. He presumes to prescribe certain conditions, which must be fulfilled before he can credit the report of his brethren. He uses singularly emphatic language to express his scepticism:—"Others may believe if they like; but I shall not and will not believe until I see and touch for myself."—All this was very sad and very sinful. Thomas might have remembered that at this rate nothing could ever be proved by witnesses; and that he himself, as a teacher, could never expect men to believe him. His case shows us how foolishly and weakly a believer may speak sometimes, and how, under the influence of depression and doubt, he may say things of which afterwards he is heartily ashamed.
After all, the case of Thomas is not an uncommon one. Some people are so strangely constituted that they distrust everybody, regard all men as liars, and will believe nothing except they can see it all, and work it all out for themselves. They have a rooted dislike to receive anything on trust, or from the testimony of others, and must always go over the ground for themselves. In people of this kind, though they know it not, there is often a vast amount of latent pride and self-conceit; and it is almost ludicrous to observe how entirely they forget that the business of daily life could never go on, if we were always doubting everything which we could not see for ourselves. Nevertheless they exist in the Church, and always will exist; and the case of Thomas shows what trouble they bring on themselves.
Two things must, in fairness, be remembered, which form some slight extenuation of Thomas’s unbelief. For one thing it does not appear that any one of our Lord’s Apostles ever understood, up to the time of our Lord’s crucifixion, that He was really going to be crucified, buried, and rise again. Simple as these great facts appear to us now, it is perfectly certain that they formed no part of the creed of the Apostles, so long as our Lord was with them. This may seem astonishing, but it is true. They believed that Christ was the Messiah, but they did not realize a crucified Messiah. Of these Apostles, I would remind the reader, Thomas was one. Does not all this throw a little light on his extraordinary scepticism about the reality of the resurrection? For another thing we must remember, that Thomas, like all Jews, had a firm belief in the reality of spirits and ghosts, and the possibility of their appearing. Even after this, when Peter was delivered from prison, and came to the house of John surnamed Mark, the disciples said, "It is his angel." (Acts 12:15.) May we not therefore conceive it possible that Thomas, overwhelmed and confounded at the astounding news that Christ had been seen, would cling, with his characteristic incredulity, to the notion that the Apostles had only seen Christ’s spirit or ghost? That they had seen something he did not dispute, but that what they had seen was the real material body of his Lord, he could not bring himself to believe. These things are worth considering. I do not for a moment excuse or defend Thomas. I only remind those who condemn him wholesale, and can find no words strong enough to use about his unbelief, that it was not quite so easy for a pious Jew, brought up and trained as Thomas had been, to receive at once the resurrection of our Lord as a proved thing, as it may appear at first sight to an English mind.
Musculus remarks, how extraordinary the unbelief of Thomas seems, when we consider that he not only had heard our Lord frequently foretell His resurrection, but had actually within a few weeks seen Lazarus raised from the dead at Bethany!
Bengel remarks, "No doubt Thomas seemed to himself to be entertaining and expressing sentiments altogether judicious. But unbelief, while it attributes defects in judgment to others, often itself discovers and betrays hardness of heart, and in that hardness slowness of belief."
v20.—[And after eight days again, etc.] This verse describes how Jesus was graciously pleased to appear again to the company of the Apostles, for the express purpose of convincing and satisfying the mind of Thomas.
He came "after eight days." That means a week, according to the Jewish manner of expressing a space of time, by which the first and last days were always reckoned in, if any part of them was employed. Thus our Lord was buried on Friday afternoon and rose again on Sunday morning, and was actually only thirty-six hours in the grave. But a Jew would say that He was "three days" buried. It thus appears that, both on the first and second times when our Lord appeared to the Apostles, it was a Sunday. Poole remarks that we have here the beginning of keeping holy the first day of the week.
He came when the disciples were "within." That means that they were assembled in a room, and probably in the same house where they had assembled before. The conviction and reproof of a weak disciple was a thing which was mercifully transacted in private, and among friends. We cannot doubt, moreover, that at this period the disciples would hardly dare to assemble in the open air anywhere about Jerusalem. The rumour that they stole the body of our Lord would still be rife in the city, and they might well feel the necessity of caution.
He came when "Thomas was with them." That means that He timed His visit, so that not one of the Apostles were missing. He knew exactly who were assembled, and where they were assembled, and He ordered His appearance accordingly. It should be a great comfort to believers to remember that their Lord’s eye is always upon them, and that He knows exactly in what place and in what company they are.
He came "when the doors were shut." That means that He appeared exactly under the same circumstances under which He appeared a week before, in an evening, when the doors were carefully closed for fear of the Jews. Thus, as on the previous Sunday, He suddenly, without a moment’s notice, stood in the midst of the assembled disciples.
He came with the same gracious salutation with which He had appeared before. Once more, the first word that fell from His lips is "Peace be unto you." Thomas was there. The disciple who made his emphatic declaration of unbelief, might well expect to hear some word of rebuke. But our Lord makes no exception. He saw Thomas, and well knew all that Thomas had said; and yet to him, as well as to the other ten, He once more says "Peace."
We should note carefully the amazing kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ to a weak disciple, and the trouble He was pleased to take, if I may use such a phrase with due reverence, about one single soul. The unbelief of Thomas was most provoking and inexcusable, and if he had been cast out of the company of disciples we could not have said his excommunication was undeserved. But our Lord cares tenderly for this weak member of His mystical body, and specially appears in order to heal and restore him. What a wonderful example He gives to all His people! How kind we ought to be to weak brethren, and how ready to take any pains and trouble if we can only do them good! The Christian of modern times, who is ready to excommunicate every one who cannot speak his shibboleth, and see every point of doctrine and ceremonial with his eyes,—the Christian who is ready to turn away from every brother who is overtaken in a fault, as graceless, godless, and unconverted,—such a Christian may flatter himself that he is very zealous and faithful. But he is a Christian who has not got the mind of Christ. What Christ did for Thomas, we ought to be ready to do for others.
Let us not forget that Thomas continued a whole week in unbelief and doubt, while his brethren around him were rejoicing. We may well believe that it was not a very happy week with him. He that sows a short period of scepticism often reaps a long period of trouble.
Rupertus, almost alone, maintains that the second appearance of our Lord, for the special benefit of Thomas, was in Galilee, in Nazareth, at the house of Mary. But the vast majority of commentators think that it was at Jerusalem.
Musculus observes how kind and brotherly was the dealing of the ten Apostles with Thomas. They did not excommunicate him, and cast him out of their society for his unbelief, but allowed him to assemble with them as before.
Rollock observes, "The loving dealing of the Lord with Thomas teaches us this comfortable lesson. The Lord marks not narrowly the infirmities and wants that are in His own. He looks not narrowly to the weakness of their faith, to the imperfections and wants of their prayers and requests, for their prayers are full of imperfections. But He passes by their imperfections, He oversees their infirmities, He misknows the corruption wherein their faith and prayers and desires are involved, and hath a regard to their faith, albeit they have it in small measure."
v27.—[Then saith He to Thomas, etc.] The verse before us is a wonderful instance of Christ’s pitifulness and condescension. To come into the world at all, and take a body on Him,—to allow that body to be scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross, and laid in the grave,—all this, beyond doubt, was astonishing condescension. But when the victory over sin and death was won, and He had taken on Him His resurrection body, to come to a doubting, sceptical disciple, and bid him touch Him, put his finger into the nail-prints on His hands, and put his hand into the great wound in His side,—all this was a condescension which we can never sufficiently admire and adore.
The last sentence of the verse is a rebuke and an exhortation at the same time. It would have been more literally rendered, "Be not an unbeliever, but a believer." It is not merely a reproof to Thomas for his scepticism on this particular occasion, but an urgent counsel to be of a more believing turn of mind for time to come.—"Shake off this habit of doubting, questioning, and discrediting every one. Give up thine unbelieving disposition. Become more willing to believe and trust, and give credit to testimony for time to come."—No doubt the primary object of the sentence was to correct and chastise Thomas for his sceptical declaration on the preceding Sunday. But I believe our Lord had in view the further object of correcting Thomas’s whole character, and directing his attention to his besetting sin. How many there are among us who ought to take to themselves our Lord’s words! How faithless we often are, and how slow to believe!
Let us note here, as already remarked, that the wounds on our Lord’s body must have been still open, from the language He addresses to Thomas, and that the wound in His side must have been a very large wound, from His telling Thomas to thrust in his hand.
Let us not fail to observe our Lord’s perfect knowledge of all that passed on the previous Sunday, of all that the Apostles had said, and of the sceptical declaration which Thomas had made. Such knowledge showed clearly that He was God and not man. He hears every idle word we say, and notes all our conversation.
Let us observe our Lord’s thorough acquaintance with the special faults and besetting sins of every one of His people. He saw that Thomas’s defect was his unbelief, and so He says, "Be not faithless, but believing."
v28.—[And Thomas...my Lord...my God.] The famous answer of Thomas, contained in this verse, is precisely the short interjectional exclamation of a man taken by surprise, convinced at once of his own grievous mistake, and so overwhelmed by a variety of feelings that he is unable for the moment to use many words. It is the language of amazement, delight, repentance, faith and adoration, all combined in one sentence.
Whether it is to be taken in the third person, as an exclamation, "It is my Lord and my God!" or in the second person, as an adoring, loving, believing address, "Thou art my Lord and my God," is an open question which the original Greek does not settle. If I must give an opinion, I prefer the second person. But in either case the sense is good.
The text before us is one of those which are justly quoted, as an unanswerable proof of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is called "God" in the presence of ten witnesses, and He accepts the language, and does not say one word to reprove the person who uses it. Unless a person is prepared to deny the inspiration of John’s Gospel generally, or the genuineness and correctness of this text in particular, it is hard to see how the force of the sentence in favour of Christ’s divinity can be evaded.—The suggestion of Theodoras of Mopsuestia, and some modern Socinians, that Thomas only used a kind of oath or exclamation, which he did not mean to apply to Christ Himself, is utterly untenable, and almost profane. It is unreasonable to suppose that a pious Jew, like Thomas, would take God’s name in vain and break the third commandment, however much he might be surprised. Moreover, there is no proof whatever, although a careless Greek, Roman, or Englishman, might say "My God," when suddenly taken by surprise, that any such expression was in use among the Jews. In short there is, in my judgment, but one way of regarding the text, if we treat it honestly. It is an incontrovertible proof that Thomas looked on Christ as God, and addressed Him to His face as God, and that our Lord made no objection, and did not reprove him.
Bullinger remarks how emphatically Thomas says, "MY Lord and MY God," showing the reality of his faith.
Rollock says, "If we compare Thomas with the other Apostles, we shall see that as he surpassed them all in unbelief, so he surpassed them far in believing and confessing the Lord." But he adds, "Jesus praises not Thomas for his faith, because he tied his faith to his senses. He calls him not blessed for it, but pronounces them blessed who believe without seeing."
Whether, after all, Thomas did actually touch our Lord’s wounds, as he was told to do, is an open question, which we have no means of deciding. There is certainly, as Augustine observes, no proof that he did, and his exclamation reads as if it was sudden and immediate, and not the result of examination and deliberation. May we not well believe that the discovery of our Lord’s perfect acquaintance with every word that he had said on the previous Sunday, combined with the evidence of his own eyes that he saw before him a material body, and not a spirit, would be enough to convince him? The question is an open one, and every reader must form his own opinion about it. We are neither told that Thomas did touch our Lord, nor yet that he did not. Certainly our Lord says in the next verse, "Because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed."
v29.—[Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, etc.] This verse contains a grave and solemn rebuke to Thomas, and a warning to all who are disposed to demand an excessive amount of evidence before they believe. The first part of our Lord’s words would be translated more literally, "Because thou hast seen Me, Thomas, thou hast believed." The whole sentence may be thus paraphrased and expounded. "Thomas, thou hast at last believed my resurrection, because thou hast seen Me with thine own eyes, and touched Me with thine own hands. It is well. But it would have been far better if thou hadst believed a week ago, on the testimony of thy ten brethren, and not waited to see Me. Remember from henceforth, that in my kingdom they are more blessed and honourable who believe on good testimony, without seeing, than those who insist first on seeing, before they believe."
The sentence "Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed," would be rendered literally, "Blessed are those persons not having seen and having believed,"—consisting, as it does, of two participles connected with "blessed." The idea that our Lord had in view any particular person, such as Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and, generally, the Old Testament saints, appears to me utterly untenable. I believe our Lord had in view no individual case, but only laid down a great general principle which Thomas had forgotten, as a lesson to him and the whole Church in every age. The construction of the Greek language allows us to regard the past tense as a present, in such a sentence as this. (See Jelf’s Greek Grammar, 401, 403; and Farrar’s Greek Syntax, 130.)
Gregory well says, "The incredulity of Thomas has done us more good than the faith of Mary." He means that if Thomas had never doubted, we should not have had such full proof that Christ rose from the dead.
The principle contained in the sentence before us, is one of vast importance in every age, and specially in our own. In a day of scepticism, free inquiry and rationalism, so-called, when hundreds are continually railing against creeds, and dogmatism, and priestcraft, the sentence deserves close attention and consideration. Nothing is more common now a days than to hear people say, that they "decline to believe things above their reason, that they cannot believe what they cannot entirely understand in religion, that they must see everything clearly before they can believe." Such talk as this sounds very fine, and is very taking with young persons and superficially educated people, because it supplies a convenient reason for neglecting vital religion altogether. But it is a style of talking which shows a mind either proud, or foolish, or inconsistent.
In matters of science, what sensible man does not know that we must begin by believing much which we do not understand, taking many positions on trust, and accepting many things on the testimony of others? Even in the most exact science the scholar must begin with axioms and postulates. Faith and trust in our teachers is the very first condition of acquiring knowledge. He that begins his studies by saying "I shall not believe anything which I do not see clearly demonstrated from the very first," will make very little progress.
In the daily business of life, what sensible man does not know that we take many important steps on no other ground than the testimony of others? Parents send sons to Australia, New Zealand, China, and India, without ever having seen these countries, in faith that the report about them is dependable and true. Probability, in fact, is the only guide of most parts of our life.
In the face of such facts as these, where is the common sense of saying, as many rationalists and sceptics now do, that in such a mysterious matter as the concern of our souls, we ought to believe nothing that we do not see, and ought to receive nothing as true which will not admit of mathematical demonstration?—Christianity does not at all refuse to appeal to our intellects, and does not require of us a blind, unreasoning faith. But Christianity does ask us to begin by believing many things that are above our reason, and promises that, so beginning, we shall have more light and see all things clearly.—The would-be wise man of modern times says, "I dislike a religion which contains any mystery, I must first see, and then I will believe." Christianity replies, "You cannot avoid mystery, unless you go out of the world. You are only asked to do with religion what you are always doing with science. You must first believe and then you will see."—The cry of the modern sceptic is, "If I could see I would believe." The answer of the Christian ought to be, "If you would only believe, and humbly ask for Divine teaching, you would soon see."
The plain truth is that modern freethinkers are like the Jews, who were always demanding some visible sign that our Lord was the Messiah, and pretended that they would believe if they only saw it. Just in the same way there are hundreds of people in this latter age of the world, who tell us they can believe nothing which is above their reason, and that they want stronger evidences of the truth of the doctrine and fact of Christianity than probability. Like Thomas they must first see before they believe.—But what an extraordinary fact it is that the very men who say all this, are continually acting all their lives on no better evidence than probability! They are continually doing things on no other ground than the report of others, and their own belief that this report is probably true. The very principle on which they are incessantly acting, in the affairs of their bodies, their families, and their money, is the principle on which they refuse to act in the affairs of their souls! In the things of this world they believe all sorts of things which they have not seen, and only know to be probable, and act on their belief. In the things of the eternal world they say they can believe nothing which they do not see, and refuse the argument of probability altogether. Never, in fact, was there anything so unreasonable and inconsistent as rationalism, so called! No wonder that our Lord laid down, for the benefit of Thomas and the whole Church, that mighty principle, "Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed."
The remarks of Richard Cecil, on the subject before us, are so apposite that I make no apology for quoting them. They will be found in his "Original Thoughts." (Vol. i., p. 440—442.)
"When a man doubts, after proper evidence, God calls it folly. When we complain and want more evidence, the fault is in us and not in God’s dispensations. A humble spirit will accept a glimmering light, and not refuse to walk because it has not the noon-day sun. Incredulity, as to divine truth, has its root in pride and self-sufficiency, and is accompanied by much rashness and ignorance. It presumes to understand and comprehend everything that is proposed to it. The incredulous man calls for demonstration. The feeble creature, who cannot explain the nature of his own formation, would have things made out as plain as that ’two and two make four.’ The true believer receives the truths of the Bible as he receives the kingdom of heaven,—with the simplicity of a little child."—
—"Let us beware of the danger of following our own imaginations. A man may make one demand after another, till, at last, nothing will satisfy him; and the next step is, that, when he will not be content with what God shows him, he shall be left in darkness and perplexity.—Consider the nature of believing: it is not like believing that two and two make four. Do not men believe on probability in other things? God has given all the evidence that man requires or needs; and if in a right mind, we shall thank God for the dispensation of light we have, willing to walk by faith and not by sight. If we do not get on in this way, we shall not get on at all. Divine justice punishes incredulity by credulity: by giving up the unbelieving to the dominion and bondage of strong delusions. When men get into a high mind and an unbelieving spirit, and reject the truth, God punishes them by letting them ’believe a lie.’ Let us take heed how we say, like Thomas, we will not walk at all without such light as we think proper."
The opinion expressed by Dean Stanley, following Dr. Arnold (in Smith’s "Bible Dictionary," Article "Thomas"), that Thomas is a remarkable example of "free inquiry combined with fervent belief," is one which I only mention in order to express my dissent from it.—I see nothing like "free inquiry" in this Apostle. I read of no question he asked of his brethren. I see no trace of any willingness to investigate, sift, weigh, and consider the testimony which they bore. I discover no readiness to go to the grave, to examine the linen clothes, to talk with Mary Magdalene, to question the two disciples who journeyed to Emmaus. All this would have been "free inquiry." But I see nothing of the kind. I only see a dull, obstinate, desponding declaration that, whatever his ten friends may say, he will not believe till he sees. This cannot surely deserve the name of "free inquiry"!—As to the "fervent belief" of Thomas, no doubt, at last, when his most compassionate Saviour almost forced conviction on him, in pity for his dulness, and made unbelief quite impossible, he made a most beautiful confession of faith. But it was a confession, we must remember, that came out only at the last moment, and was extracted, as it were, by a miracle of kindness. Above all, beautiful as it was, it did not prevent his gracious Master speaking words of grave and solemn rebuke. Beyond doubt, Thomas lay down that night a pardoned and forgiven man,—a man raised from desperate faithlessness to strong faith. But we must not forget that he was not praised and commended, though raised, convinced, and pardoned. If words mean anything, he had received a reproof, and one that I doubt not he felt deeply. To me therefore it appears that, to represent him as an example of "free inquiry combined with fervent belief," is an entire mistake, and a misapprehension both of his character and of the whole drift of the remarkable narrative of this passage.
If, as I believe, Mark’s remarkable words apply to this appearance of our Lord for the special benefit of Thomas, it is impossible to regard our Lord’s language to Thomas in any other sense than that of rebuke. Mark says, "He appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen Him after He was risen." (Mark 16:14.) Most commentators certainly take this view. Chrysostom says that Thomas received "a sharp rebuke."
v30, v31.—[And many other signs, etc.] The two last verses in this chapter contain one of those parenthetical comments, or glosses, which are so peculiar to the Gospel of John. It must be admitted that they seem to break the thread of the narrative, and come in with a rather startling effect. We need not, therefore, wonder that the right meaning of the two verses has long been a subject of dispute.
(a) Some think, as Calvin, Ecolampadius, Brentius, Poole, Rollock, Lampe, Hengstenberg, Pearce, and Alford, that John refers to the whole history of Christ’s ministry, and is comparing his own Gospel with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They would paraphrase the two verses in the following way:—"Jesus did many other miracles during His ministry, under the eyes of His disciples, which are not recorded in this Gospel of mine, though they are recorded in the other three. But those few which are recorded in this my Gospel, are recorded in order that you who read it may be convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of God, and that believing on Him you may have eternal life through His name."—It is a heavy objection to this interpretation, that the two verses, on this view, appear to come in rather abruptly, and without much connection with what goes either before or after. In short, it is not very easy to explain why they come in here at all.—Moreover, it is not very easy to see the drift of the expression, "signs in presence of His disciples," considering that many of our Lord’s greatest miracles were worked before people who were not disciples at all.—Furthermore, it is not very clear what John can mean by saying "other" signs. That word "other" seems to point to miracles just performed, yet there was no special miracle performed at this particular, beyond, of course, our Lord’s miraculous appearances.
(b) Others, as Chrysostom, Theophylact, Rupertus, Beza, Bullinger, Calovius, Musculus, Gerhard, Ferus, Toletus, Maldonatus, Henry, Tholuck, Scott, Bloomfield, and Olshausen, think that John writes these two verses with a special reference to the wondrous signs and evidences which the Lord had just given to the disciples of His own resurrection from the dead. They would paraphrase the two verses in this way:—"Many other wondrous proofs did the Lord give to the Apostles of His own resurrection, which are not written down in this Gospel, though they are written in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But the three appearances which I have narrated, are written down in order to convince you that Jesus is the true Messiah, the Christ of God, and that, believing this firmly, you may have eternal life through faith in His name."—According to this view the two verses refer to nothing but this twentieth chapter, and are a parenthetical comment on it. It is as though John would say, "Do not suppose that these three appearances of Christ are the only wondrous signs and proofs of His resurrection. There are others which you will find recorded in the other three Gospels. But I have related these three in order to confirm your faith, and to show you that in believing on a risen Saviour you are resting on solid ground."
Of the two views I prefer the second one, as involving the fewest difficulties. It is more probable, considering John’s peculiar style of writing, to suppose that he makes a short parenthetical remark about a single chapter, than to suppose that he makes it about the whole of his Gospel. Above all this second view gets over the heavy objection that, after bringing his whole Gospel to a conclusion by a general remark on the whole of it as compared to the other three Gospels, John seems to begin again in the twenty-first chapter, and to write a postscript or appendix.—In short the common theory, that these two verses apply to the whole Gospel, makes John finish his history, lay down his pen, complete his work, and then suddenly take up his pen again, and add the twenty-first chapter as a kind of after-thought. To say the least, this is an undignified, not to say rather irreverent, view of the composition of an inspired writer!—The other theory, or the theory which strictly confines the application of the two concluding verses of the twentieth chapter to the matter contained in that chapter, viz., the signs which our Lord gave of His resurrection, is entirely in keeping with John’s style of writing his Gospel. He simply remarks parenthetically that there are other proofs of Christ’s resurrection, which are to be found in the other Gospels, and that he has only written down such accounts as he was guided by the Spirit to consider most calculated to stablish the faith of his readers.
I frankly confess that the passage appears to come in abruptly under any view, and I cannot expect that all will adopt the explanation which I have advocated. If the Gospel of John had ended with this twentieth chapter, I might perhaps have acquiesced in the theory that the two verses were meant to form a brief concluding remark about the whole of the Evangelist’s work; and a brief admission of the fact that he passed over many miracles recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But I cannot acquiesce in the theory, when I see that John goes on to write the twenty-first chapter. The existence of that chapter alone satisfies me that, in the two verses before us, John is only speaking of the signs of Christ’s resurrection, which he has supplied, and is admitting that there are others in the other Gospels. As a rule, moreover, when I find a parenthetical comment or gloss in John’s Gospel, I prefer to apply it to the immediate subject of which he is speaking. It is the habit of this Evangelist to turn aside for a moment, and make a short explanatory remark; and then to take up the thread again, and go on with his history. Of this habit, I think the two verses before us are an example. When the Holy Ghost plenarily inspired the writer of any Book of Scripture, both as to His faith and His words, He did not prevent Him writing in his own peculiar style.
Whatever view we may take of the matter in dispute about these two verses, there are things in them which are abundantly clear and ought never to be forgotten. For one thing, John generously recognizes the existence of other books beside his own, and disclaims the idea of his own Gospel being the only one which Christians ought to read. Happy is that author who can humbly say, "My book does not contain everything about the subject it handles. There are other books about it. Read them."—For another thing, we should note the grand end and object for which this and all the books of the New Testament were written. They were written to glorify Christ, to make us believe on Him as the only Saviour of sinners, and to lead us to eternal life through faith in His name.
It is interesting to remember that ecclesiastical historians assign to Thomas the honour of being the Apostle who first preached the Gospel in India; and they also say that he there suffered martyrdom. A society of Christians in Malabar is said to be still known by his name. Unhappily the truth of all this is very doubtful, and rests on a very sandy foundation.
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Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on John 20". "J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17