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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
John 20



Verses 1-31

IN OUR GOSPEL Mary Magdalene only appears in connection with the closing scenes. She was amongst the last standing by the cross and amongst the first at the sepulchre on the resurrection day. It is not easy to piece together the records of the four Evangelists so as to make out the historic sequence of events, but it would almost appear that, having come with other women very early in the morning, she ran off by herself to inform Peter and John that the sepulchre was open and empty and then returned to its vicinity.

The other women are not mentioned here at all. Our thoughts are concentrated on her, to lead us up to the spiritual instruction conveyed through her actions and by means of her lips.

That the Lord was the supreme and absorbing Object before her is quite evident from her words to the Apostles, as recorded in verse John 20:2. Her choice of the two to whom she went is remarkable for Peter had so grievously sinned just before. Still, he did love the Lord, as the next chapter records, and John was the disciple whom Jesus loved. On their side love may have been somewhat eclipsed for the moment, but it was there, and Mary, in whom it was burning brightly, knew it.

It was declared, moreover, by the way they responded to the announcement Mary brought. It set their hearts and feet in motion. They ran with eager haste and John outran Peter. The natural explanation doubtless was that he was the younger man; but there was also a spiritual explanation. John was more deeply impressed by the Lord’s love for him, as he showed by the way he spoke of himself, whilst Peter was under the cloud of having trusted in his own love for the Lord, which, when tested, broke down in such a scandalous and public way. He who is most drawn by the love of

Christ, runs the fastest. It was a case of, “Draw me, we will run after Thee” (Song of Solomon 1:4).

Still Peter, in spite of his disgraceful failure, did run and, arrived at the sepulchre, was the bolder of the two and went right inside. This led John to join him and thus there were two witnesses to the fact that the linen clothes in which the sacred body had been enfolded were not lying in disorder but rather in such fashion as to suggest that, far from the body having been removed by others, Jesus had risen from death in such a condition that the grave clothes were wholly undisturbed. Verse John 20:19 of our chapter shows that in His resurrection body closed doors were no impediment to our Lord, so doubtless the clothes similarly were left just as they were.

In verse John 20:8, John speaks for himself—he believed, though it was only accepting the evidence of his eyes. Peter is not mentioned, for faith, though it may be there, is not active when the soul is under the dark cloud of failure and sin, and is as yet unrestored. But though John believed his faith was of an unintelligent kind, for he, as much as the rest, was not yet illuminated by an understanding of the Scripture. Had he been he would have known the Christ must rise from the dead (see, Acts 17:3), which would have explained everything. So though there was faith there was also ignorance, and this accounts for what we read in verse John 20:10. The example set by Peter and John early in the morning of the resurrection day was followed in the afternoon by Cleopas and his companion as recorded in Luke 24:1-53.

The conduct of Mary stands out in bright contrast to all the rest. The two disciples had left for their home convinced that the body of Jesus was not there. Mary was equally convinced but she left her home to linger at the sepulchre, weeping in her sense of utter desolation. They knew the Lord as One who had called them from boats and nets. She knew Him as One who had delivered her from the grip of seven demons. It had been a mighty deliverance and she loved much. To her two angels appeared and there is no record of her having been afraid of their presence.

This is remarkable since in the other Gospels fear is mentioned in connection with each appearance. Her case evidently illustrates how an overpowering affection can drive out of the heart every other emotion. Her reply to the question of the angels showed how Jesus, whom she called “My Lord,” monopolized the whole range of her thoughts. She answered as though meeting with angels were an everyday occurrence. In seeking her Lord she had lost the trail, and she seems to have taken it for granted that they were as much preoccupied with the matter as she was herself. But evidently as yet no thought of His resurrection had crossed her mind. She only thought of others removing His body. She was seeking a dead Christ.

At that moment the risen Lord intervened and she turned herself back from the angels to find Him standing there, yet she did not recognize Him. The same feature characterized His meeting with the two disciples going to Emmaus that afternoon, and the rest of the disciples in the upper room that evening. It was the same Jesus but with a difference owing to His being clothed in a risen body—risen, though not yet glorified—hence they did not identify Him at once. She mistook Him for the gardener. He, the Great Shepherd risen from the dead, knew well that here was one of His sheep thoroughly devoted to Him, seeking only Himself and weeping because she knew not where to find Him.

In the simple utterance of her name He revealed Himself to her and she instantly responded to Him as her Master. All that is recorded, however, in verses John 20:11-15, shows that she was seeking His body as dead, and hence her first thought on finding Him alive was doubtless that of a resumption of associations on the old basis, which had prevailed in “the days of His flesh.” This it is which accounts for the Lord’s opening word to her, “Touch Me not.” In view of the new relationship which He was about to announce to her, and through her to the other disciples, He showed her in this decisive way that relations could not be resumed just as they were before. His death and resurrection had changed everything. He was no less a Man than He was before He died, yet having laid down His life, He had taken it again in a new state and condition suited to the heavens into which He was about to ascend. Hence relations with Him must be on a new basis.

The Lord added the words, “for I am not yet ascended to My Father,” to His prohibition. Thus He evidently implied that when He was ascended to His Father Mary was to be in “touch” with Him. His ascension to the Father involved the shedding forth of the Holy Ghost on the disciples, as has been made abundantly clear in this Gospel—see, John 7:39; John 14:16; John 15:26; John 16:13. When, at Pentecost, Mary, along with the others, was filled with the Holy Spirit, she found herself in her spirit brought into a far more intimate touch with her risen Lord than she had ever experienced in the days of His flesh.

Doubtless the Apostles were privileged far beyond ourselves in the way they “heard,” “saw,” “looked upon,” “handled of the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). Yet while they were walking with Him in Palestine the real significance of what they observed was obscure to them. As John 14:17, John 14:20, has shown us, it was only when they had the indwelling of the Spirit that they knew that they were in Him and He in them—His life theirs and a new relationship established. Now we too have the Spirit of God, so though the objective manifestation has reached us not directly as it did with the Apostles but only through their inspired writings, the subjective realization may be ours in full measure. We do well to ponder this matter very deeply.

A further thing lies in this great verse. Jesus calls the disciples, “My brethren.” They had previously been designated, “His own,” (John 13:1), and He had called them, “My friends” (John 15:14), but neither of these indicates relationship in the same way as “My brethren.” We should learn from this that He has established the relationship as the Risen One, who has passed through death and triumphed over it. It exists not by virtue of His incarnation but in the power of His resurrection. He truly took part in “flesh and blood,” and laid hold on “the seed of Abraham,” with a view to the suffering of death. Having tasted death for every man, and been made perfect through sufferings, He became the Captain of our salvation, and thus as the Sanctifier He acknowledges those whom He sanctifies as His brethren. This is brought before us in Hebrews 2:9-16. By incarnation He came to our side, that in His perfect and spotless Manhood He might take up our case. Having taken it up, and by His death and resurrection wrought deliverance for us, He lifts us to His side in identification with Him in risen life. Thus it is that the relationship lies not in incarnation but in resurrection. This, too, is a deeply important point to remember.

The message Mary was to convey to the other disciples announced to them their new relationship with God and not only in regard to Himself. His Father is our Father, His God is our God. He places us in His own relation to God but of course in a subsidiary way. Our relationship with God springs out of His, and out of our relations with Him. He did not say, “our” Father and God, as though He and we were on the same level. This we must carefully note, for His full pre-eminence must always be acknowledged with thankfulness. Though He speaks of us as, “My brethren,” we never find Him spoken of as “our Brother,” nor even as, “our

Elder Brother,” in the Scriptures. Such terms would tend to our thinking of Him as though He came down to our side rather than His lifting us to His side. They would also obscure His pre-eminent position.

In His wonderful earthly life the Lord Jesus had revealed the Father, for the Father had dwelt in Him, so that He could say, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.” This we saw when we considered chapter 14. He had also taught the disciples to look up to God as their “Heavenly Father,” in connection with all their needs and circumstances in this world, as the other Gospels show, but a fuller revelation comes to light here. We do not lose the blessing and benefit of the earlier revelation, any more than we do of the revelation of Him as the Almighty or as Jehovah; but we need to understand and rejoice in the knowledge of God as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:3 and 1 Peter 1:3). Our Lord’s words to Mary were the first intimation of this fuller and higher relationship, and once it had come to light the epistles of the New Testament present God to us in that way. He is indeed a “Heavenly Father” to us in all the vicissitudes of this life but let us not treat this as though it were everything. Our proper relationship with God as Christians is on this higher basis.

Mary Magdalene—the woman with the loving responsive heart—was the first to hear these wonderful things, and she became the messenger of them to all of us. She could testify that she had seen the Lord and that He had made these communications to her, and through her to the rest.

Later in the day the Lord appeared to Simon Peter and to Cleopas and his companion journeying to Emmaus, though John makes no mention of these manifestations. It is clear, however, from the other Gospels that as the resurrection day advanced the disciples had two witnesses to His resurrection—Mary and Peter—and that their testimony brought them together in Jerusalem as the eventide drew on. When assembled, Cleopas and his friend came amongst them, thus furnishing them with a third and fourth witness. Then, when the doors were shut, Jesus Himself stood in their midst, identifying Himself by His pierced hands and side, and filling their hearts with gladness.

The doors had been shut for fear of the Jews. His presence as risen caused joy to intervene on their fear. Even so an element was still lacking, which could only be supplied by the filling of the Spirit of God. On the day of

Pentecost fear was swallowed up entirely, and they were filled with boldness coupled with power.

The Lord Jesus Christ of necessity always takes the central place. He did so in death, as recorded in verse John 20:18 of the previous chapter. Here He does so in resurrection, and thus there was a fulfilment of His word recorded in Matthew 18:20. On the evening of the resurrection day the disciples were gathered together in His Name, though only half believing the witnesses to His resurrection. He came into their midst in visible form. The main difference for us today is that He takes His place in invisible form where disciples are gathered in His Name. When His presence is realized the effect is as here—peace and gladness. The word of peace came from His lips. The gladness followed as their eyes corroborated the evidence furnished by their ears.

Luke tells us, in Acts 1:1-26, that He showed Himself alive “by many infallible proofs,” and prominent among these was the display to His disciples of His pierced hands and side. These sacred marks identified Him beyond all dispute. Death and resurrection had both been accomplished, and they were like twin pillars on which the peace He announced was firmly established. Twice did the Lord salute them with peace on His lips for He knew full well that until that was realized in their hearts they would have little ability to receive the further things that He had to convey to them. It is just so with us today. Until we have the enjoyment of settled peace with God we can make no spiritual progress.

Having announced peace for the second time the risen Lord commissioned His disciples in words which, though very brief, are full of profound significance. Each Gospel records a commission, though with characteristic differences. Matthew records it in terms that would specially strike a Jewish reader. They were no longer to make disciples from the very limited sphere indicated earlier in that Gospel (Matthew 10:5-11), but from all nations, and they were to baptise in the Name that had come to light in Christ, and not with John’s baptism or one akin to that. The commission there is so worded as to have an application to those who may make disciples after the church is gone. In Mark also the universal aspect of the Apostolic preaching and service is emphasized. This is the case also in Luke, where the fulness of grace seems to be the point; grace which could begin at Jerusalem, the worst spot, and extend to all nations. The three synoptic Gospels have this in common however; the commission in each is concerned with the apostles’ preaching and service.

But in John, as befits that Gospel, a deeper note is struck. The Lord Jesus had been sent forth from the Father, that in Him the Father might be made known. As the fourteenth chapter made so plain, He was in the Father as to His being, His life, His nature, and consequently the Father was in Him, and so was fully made known. Now, having died and risen again He was going to the Father, but He was leaving in the world disciples, whom now He sent that they might be for Him after the pattern of the way He had been sent forth to be for the Father. If, therefore, we are to understand their mission, we must first understand the Lord’s own mission as sent of the Father.

It is remarkable how many times in this Gospel the Lord is referred to as the One who had been sent of the Father into the world. In slightly varying words this is referred to upwards of forty times, and we can see how relevant it is to the fact that He is presented to us as One who was God, and was with God. He was, therefore not indigenous to the world, as though He sprang out of it. He came from above, and all that He was He brought with Him. His words and His works were all the Father’s. Now a new thing is brought to pass, and in its institution the Lord was fulfilling His own statement in His prayer to the Father—see, John 17:18. He was departing, and they now were to be sent as from Him.

What lay behind this sending was the fact that they too were not of the world as He had not been. This is also stated in John 17:1-26—see, verse John 20:16. There was this difference, however; once they had been indigenous to the world, so in their case there was a link that had to be broken, and there were new links that had to be formed. This at once leads us to that which is set forth in verse John 20:22 of our chapter.

The words of commission were followed by words of impartation, coupled with a peculiar action. He breathed on—or, more correctly, into—them, and said, “Receive ye Holy Ghost,” for the definite article “the” is lacking in the original. We must observe the connection between this and what is recorded as to the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. As to his body, he was formed of the dust of the ground but the spiritual part of him came into being by the Lord God breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, and thus it was he became a living soul. Now our Lord, who is the last Adam, is a quickening or life-giving spirit, as we read in 1 Corinthians 15:45, and here we see Him breathing into His disciples His own risen life.

But this being so, why did He say, “Receive ye Holy Ghost”? Because His own life as the risen Man is in the energy of the Holy Ghost. He was, “put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). On the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2:1-47, the disciples did indeed receive the Holy Ghost, as a Divine Person indwelling their very bodies, but here we have something preliminary to that. On the very day that Jesus entered upon His risen life as quickened in and by the Spirit of God, He imparted it to His own.

We must connect this great act with both what precedes and what follows. How could they be sent into the world, to be for Him as He had been sent of the Father, except they possessed His risen life? The natural life which they had from Adam gave them no competency for such a mission. They did not have power till the Holy Ghost was shed forth abundantly at Pentecost, but they now had the life and nature that rendered the mission possible. We do not read of this action in the other Gospels but we do read in Luke 24:1-53, “then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (verse 45). This opening of their understandings was, we judge, the result of the inbreathing of His risen life.

In our Gospel, however, there are the two things connected with it: first it gave them capacity to be witnesses in the world as sent of Him; and second, to be entrusted with administrative powers as to remitting or retaining sins, not eternally of course, but governmentally. In Matthew’s Gospel we see that the Lord before His death and resurrection had indicated that such powers should be conferred upon Peter (Matthew 16:19), and upon the Apostles as a whole (Matthew 18:18), on each occasion looking forward to the future. Here the power is actually conferred. Primarily, no doubt, the power was apostolic, and we see Peter wielding the power in Acts 5:1-11, and the Holy Ghost ratifying it in no uncertain way. But in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, 1 Corinthians 5:12, 1 Corinthians 5:13, we have Paul wielding it and calling upon the church to act with him in retaining the evil-doer’s sin. In 2 Corinthians 2:4-8, we find him calling upon the church to reverse the action as the evil-doer had repented. They were to remit, or forgive; and verse John 20:10 of that chapter is very instructive in connection with it.

In the other Gospels the name of Thomas only appears in the list of the apostles: all that we know of him is contained in our Gospel. This is significant. He is mentioned in John 11:1-57 and John 14:1-31 and his words on those occasions prepare us for the light in which his character appears here. He was evidently a man of plain, unimaginative, matter-of-fact mind, too inclined to be materialistic, and, therefore, hard to convince of anything lying off the plane of ordinary human experience. We are now very close to the verse which avows the goal to which this Gospel is designed to conduct us, and we are considering the last and greatest of the signs that John has brought before us. Hence the case of Thomas is of particular value in this Gospel.

He was not present on the evening of the resurrection day, and hence when he heard the testimony of the other disciples, which they condensed into five words of deepest import, “We have seen the Lord,” he was not prepared to accept it. In a spirit of stubborn doubt he declared that except he had visible and tangible evidence of a most indubitable sort, evidence that most clearly identified the One who appeared with the One who died upon the cross, he would not believe. In thus challenging the disciple’s testimony, he was really flinging down a challenge to his risen Lord, which, if accepted, would place His resurrection beyond all question as far as he was concerned.

The Lord in condescending grace did accept it a week later. Again He appeared in their midst though the doors were shut. Again He saluted them with the words, “Peace unto you.” Then He bade Thomas do exactly as he had said, that he might have not only the visible, but also the tangible evidence he desired. And not only this, for He gave a spiritual sign also. His words to Thomas revealed that the challenge flung down when He was not visibly present was perfectly known to the risen Lord. At the end of chapter I, we had a similar incident. Jesus showed Nathanael that He had seen him when he thought himself unobserved under the fig tree, and Nathanael was convinced and confessed Him as the Son of God and the King of Israel.

That was in the days of His flesh yet He revealed Himself as the all-seeing One. Here the days of His flesh are over and He is risen, but He is revealed as the all-hearing One. The effect on Thomas of all this was overwhelming. The stubborn doubter, when he is convinced, is convinced indeed! A few minutes ago he was dragging far behind the other disciples, now in his rapturous confession he goes at one bound definitely beyond them. Nathanael had been explicit in his confession at the outset: Thomas at the close is even more explicit. Only five words again! But what words they were— “My Lord and My God.”!

Deniers of our Lord’s deity have sought to avoid the force of this by treating this as a mere exclamation, addressed to no one in particular, but the record distinctly states that the words were said to the Lord, the form of them in the original being very emphatic, since he used the definite article twice. The risen Jesus was the Lord and the God to him. And what is more significant still, the Lord replied, “Thomas... thou hast believed.” Beyond all question then He treated Thomas’ joyful exclamation as faith laying hold of FACT. In other words, He accepted the confession as being true. There is no greater sin than for a mere man to accept Divine honours or adulation, as witness the drastic smiting of Herod, recorded in Acts 12:1-25. When John fell down before a holy angel as about to worship him, the instant reply was, “See thou do it not” (Revelation 22:9). Instead of rebuking Thomas, Jesus approved of his confession and called it faith.

The full Deity of Jesus thus being acknowledged, we have reached the end to which this Gospel is designed to conduct us. Very appropriately, therefore, do verses John 20:30-31 close this chapter. We are reminded that all the miraculous signs put on record are but a tiny fraction of the whole. Those that are recorded are quite sufficient however, and in this Gospel they are specially selected to afford ample ground for faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, for it is the faith of this which brings life through His Name.

Note that the last and conclusive proof of Jesus being the Son of God is that He accepted the ascription of Deity to Himself. We may say that if He is God, He is the Son of God; and conversely, that if He is the Son of God, He is God. Note also that His Sonship is the great point in the Gospel which traces Him back into the unfathomable depths of past eternity, and gives no details of the Virgin Birth. If we really embrace this Gospel in faith we shall have no doubt that His Sonship is eternal, and not something assumed in time.

Before leaving this chapter we have only to remark the significance of the Lord’s words in verse 29. There is something better than accepting ocular and tangible evidence, and that is believing the word without any such demonstration. Thomas doubtless illustrates the way in which a godly remnant of Israel will discover the truth in a coming day. The word of the prophet shall be fulfilled, “They shall look upon Me whom they have pierced” (Zechariah 12:10), and then it is that they will cry, “My God, we know Thee” (Hosea 8:2). The greater blessedness, of those who believe without seeing, is the portion of all who receive in faith the Gospel today, whether Jew or Gentile.

We can render to God no tribute that is more grateful to Him than that of taking Him fully and simply at His word without asking any corroboration by sight or by feeling. As light may be resolved into the colours of the rainbow so the Divine Name comprises many features of equal value and importance, yet He specially emphasizes the verity and reliability of His word— “Thou hast magnified Thy Word above all Thy Name” (Psalms 138:2). Seeing that at the outset sin came in through disbelief of the Divine Word, how fitting this is! The present Gospel epoch is peculiarly the time when men believe without seeing— “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8, 1 Peter 1:9).

This scripture gives us a glimpse of the special blessedness of which the Lord spoke to Thomas. It may be ours, and the keener and more simple our faith the deeper the measure in which it will be ours. May the full blessedness of it be known by each reader of these lines.


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on John 20:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

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Thursday, December 3rd, 2020
the First Week of Advent
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