Harmony of the Gospels


(3) Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

John 20:11-18

Tom Lowe



Date: Sunday—A.D. 30
Location: Jerusalem





Apparently Mary is the first one to whom the Lord appeared.  There are 11 appearances before his ascension and three after his ascension.

A proverb can be found for all situations.  For those who ask why Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, proverbs 8:17 says: “I love them that love me; those that seek me early shall find me.” She sought him she sought him early.”

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulcher[1]  weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,

Apparently Mary followed Peter and John as they ran to the tomb.  However, she still did not enter the cave. Here again we have the love and devotion of a woman. She had been forgiven much; therefore, she loved much. She kept a lonely vigil outside the tomb, weeping because she thought; the body had been stolen; probably by the Lord’s enemies.

Mary has no knowledge of the Lord’s resurrection. Peter and John had gone home and she was left alone, weeping over the disappearance of her Lord’s body. Her grief compelled her forward to the mouth of the cave (the doorway was about 3’ 6” high), where she finally stooped down to peer into its dark interior. She was left with the same perplexing dilemma: the body of Jesus was gone. Peter and John had left and they had not helped to solve the mystery.

12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

As Mary peered into the cave, she saw two angels, one sitting at each end of the burial bench on which the body had been placed. Peter and John had not been given a similar experience to help them understand what they saw in that grave.

Mary knew they were angels by their white and glistening robes; but apparently she was not disturbed by seeing them.  Matthew and Mark mention just one angel—probably the one that spoke, and Luke simply says that there were “angels.” Here John says there was two “angels.” While angels certainly exist; they are generally confined to the courts of heaven, serving the eternal God at His throne. In this case the angels appear, at God’s bidding, to bring a message from God. The term “angellos” used here should better be understood as “messenger.” Angels occasionally appear in a normal human form (angels do not have halos and wings) to carry a message from God. No explanation is given for the appearance of the angels to Mary and not to the two disciples.

13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.

The angel asked, “Why weepest thou?” This is a time of joy and triumph; therefore, the angels want to know why Mary is weeping. She responded simply that someone had removed the body of her Lord and she had no idea where He had been taken. Mary did not seem to be frightened by these two angels.

It can be assumed, from John 19:42[2] , that the body of our Lord was to remain in the burial tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea only for the time being, and that, after the Sabbath, they planned to carry it to a more proper place. She probably attributed the removal of Christ’s body to some of our Lord's disciples or friends who had laid him there. Mary supposed they had arrived before her and had taken him away. It is obvious from her answer that she still did not realize that Jesus had risen and was alive again. Why was Mary weeping? She is weeping because she loves Him but also because she doesn’t believe.  Mary’s weeping was the loud lamentation so characteristic of Jewish people when they express their sorrow (John 11:31, 33[3]).  The sorrow of the Christian, however, must be different from the hopeless sorrow of the world (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18[4]), because we have been born again “unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3[5]).

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. (Mark 16:9 says about the same thing; “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.”)

She turned to go with the other women to Jerusalem. They had already departed; but she was still in the garden. At this point, she may have caught some movement out of the corner of her eye that caused her to look in back of her. Her attention was drawn away from the two men in the cave to another person who approached her. It was Jesus Himself, but she did not recognize Him. It was still early in the morning, and perhaps light had not yet dawned. She was so overcome with sorrow and grief that she had been weeping continually and no doubt her vision was clouded. It is possibly that God prevented her from recognizing the Lord until the proper time had come and it could be that the vivid memories of Jesus’ bruised and broken body were still in her mind and that’s what she was expecting to see. She could not imagine such an appearance possible, since she had no conception of his resurrection from the dead. She was therefore unprepared to recognize the person of our Lord.

Why is it that Mary Magdalene was given the privilege of being first to witness the resurrected Christ; it was because of her unreserved dedication. Having been delivered from her former condition, out of which He had cast seven devils she committed herself to Christ with inexpressible gratefulness.

It should be noted that no Jewish author would have invented a story with a woman as the first witness to this most important event.

15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener[6] , saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

He asks the same question that the angels asked, “why weepest thou?” and He receives the same answer. The Lord knew the answers to these questions; but He wanted to hear them from her own lips. She thought He was the gardener. The Savior of the world may be very near to men, and still not be recognized. He usually appears in a lowly condition, however, and not as one of the great ones of the earth. In her answer, Mary did not name the Lord. Three times she referred to Jesus as Him. There was only one Person with whom she was concerned, and she felt it quite unnecessary to identify Him further.

Jesus, in another clear display of His deity, knew that Mary was weeping not only because of the death of her Lord, but because she believed that someone had removed His body. Consequently, Jesus asked one further question, “Who are you looking for?”

Mary tells the supposed gardener, “And I will take him away.” How true is the proverb, “Love feels no load!” Jesus was in the prime of life when he was crucified, and had a hundred pounds weight of spices added to his body; and yet Mary thinks of nothing less than carrying him away with her, if she can just find where he is laid! 

16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni[7] ; which is to say, Master.

When He called her by name, she recognized the voice as only he could speak.  During the conversation, Mary apparently turned away from the “gardener.” She was not facing Jesus, because when He called her by name she turned to Him and exclaimed in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”

I am of the opinion that if the Lord should terry and all of us go through the doorway of death; our bodies will be raised when He calls us by name someday, just as He called by name those whom He raised from the dead over 2000 years ago.

“Mary”—this word was no doubt spoken with uncommon emphasis; and the usual sound of Christ's voice accompanied it, so that immediately it was proof that it must be Jesus.  As the good shepherd, he calls his sheep by name (John 10:3[8] ) and “they know his voice” (John 10:4[9]). What ecstasy of joy must have filled this woman's heart! It could be that Mary Magdalene sought Jesus more fervently, and continued more affectionately attached to him than any of the rest: therefore, Jesus is pleased to show himself to her first, and she becomes the first herald of the Gospel of a risen Savior.

There was no mistaking the fact—it was Jesus! She called Him Rabboni, which means “my Great Teacher.” Actually, she was still thinking of Him as the Great Teacher she had known. She did not realize that He was now more than her Teacher—He was her Lord and Savior. So the Lord prepared to explain to her the newer and fuller way in which she would hereafter know Him.

Questions arise from the use of “rabboni” instead of the more familiar “rabbi.” In older Jewish literature it was seldom used with reference to men, and as a mode of address it was mostly used for addressing God in prayer. Whether or not Mary intended this particular emphasis in addressing Jesus we cannot know. But what we do know is this: as Mary was searching for a corpse, the living Jesus found her. The very fact that Jesus was alive flooded her mind with a new perspective of the person of the Christ.

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

Mary had known Jesus personally as a Man. She had seen miracles happen when He was bodily present. So she concluded that if He was not with her in a visible way, then she could have no hope of blessing. The Lord must correct her thinking. He said, “Touch me not (do not cling to Me or take hold of Me) simply as a Man in the flesh. I have not yet ascended to My Father. When I do return to heaven, the Holy Spirit will be sent down to the earth. When He comes, He will reveal Me to your heart in a way you have never known Me before. I will be nearer and dearer to you than was possible during My life here.”

Mary, feeling empty and deprived just a moment ago, now could not contain her exuberance. She apparently embraced Jesus tightly. Now that she saw Him, she would never let Him go. This was unbelievable! Here she was, clinging to her risen Lord in absolute joy. Moments before, she thought her heart would break with grief that wracked her soul. Now, she thought her heart would fairly burst with joy.

Then He told her to go to His brethren and tell them of the new order that had been ushered in. For the first time, the Lord referred to the disciples as “My brethren.” They were to know that His Father was their Father, and His God was their God. Not until now were believers made “sons” and “heirs of God.” Earlier in the Passover discourse, Jesus had said to them, “I don’t call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. But I’ve called you friends because I’ve made known to you everything that I’ve heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Now, risen from the grave, Jesus called them “My brothers.” But it is worthy of most reverential notice, that we nowhere read of anyone who presumed to call Him Brother. 

The Lord Jesus did not say, “Our Father,” but “My Father and your Father.” My Father and your Father means his God was theirs, and that, though he had been slain, they were still indivisibly united in attachment to the same Father and God. The reason is that God is His Father in a different sense than He is ours. God is the Father of the Lord Jesus from all eternity. Christ is the Son by eternal generation. The Son is equal with the Father. We are sons of God by adoption. It is a relationship that begins when we are saved and will never end. As sons of God, we are not equal with God and never shall be.

Now that the penalty for sin had been fully paid, Jesus could tell them, “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus could refer to them as brothers, for the eternal God was now fully accessible to them. They could call God their Father, just as Jesus had throughout His entire ministry with them. Although Jesus had told Mary that He had not yet returned to His Father, it was very important that the disciples knew this would happen soon.

The question maybe asked; “Why did Jesus forbid Mary to touch Him, yet later-on He would direct Thomas to do this very thing?” The reason why he directed Thomas to do this was that he doubted whether he had been restored to life. Mary did not doubt that. The reason why he forbade her to touch him now is found in the circumstances of the case. Mary, filled with joy and gratitude, was about to prostrate herself at his feet, willing to remain with him, and offer him her homage as her risen Lord. Jesus response can be stated like this: "Do not approach me now for this purpose. Do not delay here. Other opportunities will yet be afforded to see me. I have not yet ascended—that is, I am not about to ascend immediately, but shall remain yet on earth another 40 days to afford opportunity to my disciples to enjoy my presence." From Matthew 28:9[10] , it appears that the women, when they met Jesus, held him by the feet and worshipped him. Mary probably intended to offer her Lord the same type of adoration, but Jesus forbade it, and directed her to go at once and give his disciples notice that he had risen.

18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

The command given to Mary is the same command given to all Christians: go and tell that Jesus is risen. Mary Magdalene obeyed her assignment, and became what someone has called “the apostle to the apostles.” How can we doubt that this great privilege was given to her as a reward for her devotion to Christ? Her devotion to her Lord was unquestionable. While the disciples remained hidden from view, fearful of the political forces that were at play, Mary boldly ventured to the graveside to make a carefully prepared anointing of her Lord’s body. Unafraid of the political chicanery that had brought Jesus to His death; she boldly declared her loyalty by demanding to know the final location of Jesus’ body. Her grief was real, her devotion genuine. The risen Lord rewarded that unselfish devotion by approaching her first. She saw her Lord, and nothing in all the world would ever take that away from her. Jesus’ disciples may have doubted her, but she knew what she had seen.  Mary’s new responsibility was to testify to his risen presence.  She was the recipient of four special graces: to see angels; to see Jesus risen; to be the first to see him alive; and to be the proclaimer of the good news.

Mary Magdalene, bubbling with excitement and joy, returned to the disciples to share the great news. She had seen and spoken with Jesus! She also gave them Jesus’ message that He would soon be returning to His Father in heaven. It is plain to see that Mary interpreted Jesus’ term “My brothers” to mean His disciples. She had access to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and could have taken this message directly to Jesus’ earthly family. But that was not the way in which she understood her Lord’s instructions. St. Mark says, (Mark 16:11[11] ) that the apostles could not believe what she had said. They seem to have considered it as an effect of her troubled imagination.

We will never know why Jesus first appeared to Mary of Magdala. It might seem more appropriate to us if He would have first appeared to His disciples. These were the men who had shared three years of intense ministry with their Lord and were more closely related to Him. Also, there were cultural considerations associated with Jesus’ appearance to Mary. Among the Jews, a woman was not permitted to bear witness. Whatever God’s purpose is, we would do well to love the Lord as Mary did—to search for Him and to embrace Him with grateful hearts when He comes and calls us by our name.

Mary completed her assignment; she told the disciples, Jesus had risen.  And now, the message that we are to give to sinners everywhere is this, “that if thou shall confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shall be saved.  For with the heart man believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”


  [1]Grave or tomb.
  [2]There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand. 
  [3]The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there. When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled,
  [4]But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. 
  [5]Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

  [6]Supposing him to be the gardener—the inspector or overseer of the garden—the person who had the charge of the workmen, and the care of the produce of the garden; and who rendered account to the owner.
  [7]Rabboni. This is a Hebrew word denoting, literally, my great master. It was one of the titles given to Jewish teachers. This title was given under three forms:
(*) Rab, or master-the lowest degree of honor.
(*) Rabbi, my master-a title of higher dignity.
(*) Rabboni, my great master—the most honourable of all. This title, among the Jews, was only given to seven persons, all persons of great eminence. As given by Mary to the Savior, it was at once an expression of her joy, and an acknowledgment of him as her Lord and Master. It is not improbable that she, filled with joy, was about to cast herself at his feet.
  [8]To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.
  [9]And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.

  [10]And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.
  [11]And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.


Please send your questions, comments, and prayer requests.

 Wellington Boone gained a new perspective on worship after traveling to Africa. He learned about the unique prelude that takes place before a group of Ugandans begin their worship. These people walk long distances to hear the Word of God and often do so with great personal discomfort. As they sit in anticipation of worship, these believers chant, “Boga, boga.” That translates to, “Serious, serious.” They believe worship and the study of God’s Word is serious business. Does “boga, boga” describe your approach to worship?

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