The First Witness

“He appeared first to Mary  Magdalene,” Mark 16.9–11, John 20.11–18. Mary Magdalene was a devoted follower of Jesus from whom He had exorcised seven demons (Lk. 8.2) and who financially supported His ministry (Lk. 8.3; it was Gregory the Great who wrongly identified Mary as the sinful woman in Luke 7). One of the last to leave the tomb on  Friday (Mk. 15.47), Mary was one of the first to return on Sunday (Mk. 16.1). To her was given the honor of being the first one to see the risen Lord.

According to John 20, when Mary saw the entrance to Christ’s tomb was open, she ran to Jerusalem, found Peter and John, told them what she had seen and surmised (that Christ’s body had been surreptitiously moved, v 2), and then returned to the tomb without, apparently, meeting Peter and John on their way back to town. When she again arrived at the tomb and looked inside, she “saw two angels in white.” When they ask why she was crying, she repeats her supposition; that she showed no alarm or amazement at seeing the angels suggests a depth of anguish beyond the reach of literary description. When she then turns around, the risen Christ stands before her and speaks to her; it’s only when He calls her by name that she realizes it’s the Lord (v 16).

Discussions of this incident often focus on Christ’s words, “Touch Me not” (v 17; “Stop clinging to me,” NASB; cf. Matt. 28.9, Lk. 24.39, Jn. 20.27). While this sounds abrupt and harsh, I’m sure it wasn’t (cf. Jn. 2.4). My guess is that in a very gentle and loving way, Jesus was telling Mary that things wouldn’t be as they had been—they would be better. His ascension to the Father would make possible the truest relationship with Himself. He couldn’t stay but had to go, “that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn. 14.3).

In reading the resurrection narratives, I’m struck by the unbelief of the believers. Not the unbelief of the unbelievers (e.g., the chief priests), but the unbelief of those who had the most reason to believe—they who had seen Christ’s miracles and heard His predictions of what would occur the third day. Yet, despite all He did to prepare them, not a single    believer awoke the morning of the first day believing Christ would rise that day. The  women who went out to the tomb didn’t; they went out to finish embalming one who was dead among the dead (Mk. 16.1). Peter and John didn’t; they ran out to see an empty grave, not the risen Lord. Mary didn’t; her  theory resembled the Jews’ lie (Matt. 28.13). The Eleven didn’t; to them the women’s report of the resurrection “sounded like sheer nonsense” (Lk. 24.11, BARCLAY). Cleopas and his friend didn’t despite what they’d heard (Lk. 24.22–24). And, famously, Thomas didn’t despite the testimony of the Ten (Jn. 20.24–25).

The sin of unbelief can be measured by the character of the one mistrusted. Despite His flawless character (let it sink in that the most damaging thing Judas could tell the Jews about Jesus was where He went to pray) and unfailing promises, they who knew Jesus best insulted Him most by their unbelief. “Afterward He appeared to the eleven . . . and rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen” (Mk. 16.14).  The disciples were not monomaniacal dupes eager to believe the unbelievable; they were hopeless, incredulous, and resistant to anything contrary to their presumptions. It took sledgehammer blows of resurrection reality to make true believers of them.   And doesn’t that say something about the power by which Jesus was declared to be the Son of God (Rom 1.4)?!