Journey Into Joy Series: The Discovery of the Empty Tomb

Number 1 in a devotional series using as a resource the book, Journey into Joy, by Andrew Walker.

Scripture: John 20:1-10

What key questions and unusual observations did you note as you read the passage? 


1.  I am struck by the simple reporter style of John. The visit of Mary to the tomb and the way he and Peter rushed to the tomb are reported exactly the way eyewitnesses would say it. It is without fanfare and direct. This is so appropriate for the apostle who wrote in his Gospel, “this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life. Life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard” (1 Jn. 1:1-3).

2.  One question that comes up again is the question of exactly who among the women was at the tomb and when.  We worked on that question in our Difficult Passages Series.  Each of the four gospels gives a slightly different list summarized in the table below.


Reference Who is listed as present Helps in understanding
Matt. 28:1 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary   27:56 refers to Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons
Mark 16:1 Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome  Mark 15:40,41 identify these as the women who followed from Galilee.
Luke 24:10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, the others with them Lu. 23:55 the women who followed Jesus from Galilee
John 20:1 Mary Magdalene  


How do we deal with this issue?

First of all, when you consider the other passages as to the identity of the group of women involved, it becomes obvious that there is actually complete agreement that the women involved are all from the group of women who had followed Jesus from Galilee (Lu. 53:55).  Since this is the case, it easy to observe that Mary Magdalene is presumably the leader as she is mentioned first in every case.  Others were mentioned or not depending on the purposes/audience of the author.   For most readers, this concept is sufficient to remove the difficulty.


Another approach to the problem of the varying accounts, a more purist approach, is to seek a sequence of events that fits all passages, that allows for exactly the women mentioned to be at the tomb at some point.  NICNT author of the Commentary on Luke, Norval Geldenhuys, suggests a plausible scenario that reconciles all accounts in his note on the resurrection (p. 626).    It seems a little complex at first read, but all that is necessary for our minds to be at rest is to know that such a scenario exists.  Additional harmonizing occurs when we understand that Salome is likely the mother of James and John, based on the limited info that we have. 

A third help in reconciling the accounts in my mind is to realize the reluctance of both the women and the disciples to believe what was happening, and in particular the hesitancy of the disciples to believe what the women said.     Look just at the difference in what the various gospels say that the women told or failed to tell the apostles when they returned from the grave.

Reference Women Report
Jn. 20:2 Mary Magdalene They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!
Mark 16:8 Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Luke 24:10 Mary Magdalene Joanna Mary the mother of James When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others…. But they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like an nonsense.


Putting these accounts together is very clear that the disciples at first did not believe the women. One cannot help but wonder if what John records as Mary Magdalene report is the part that the disciples actually believed of what she and perhaps the others said. For Luke clearly records that the rest of what they said; the part about the angels etc., seemed like nonsense to them. Or perhaps we can reconcile the accounts this way.  Mark’s account records the women as saying nothing at first because they were afraid.  Then as they fled from the tomb, they met the angels and Jesus.  John records Jesus is specifically encouraging Mary to go to the disciples and tell them (John 20:17). 

3.  Another key fact is that when Peter and John reached the two, after they finally both go in, they notice the linen cloths. The cloth that had been around Jesus body was lying separately from the class that had been around his head the second cloth was pulled up in a place by itself. These eyewitnesses take special planes to note the placement of these clots for is very significant. Someone had to have carefully placed the cloth that had been around the head in that spot. This was part of the evidence that John saw and that caused him to believe.

4. Also important to note is the fact that the disciples at this point, John says, did not understand that the Scripture predicted that Jesus would rise from the dead.  That was something they had yet to learn. This is important because it is part of the eyewitness testimony that the disciples in no way anticipated this event. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was a total shock to them, a complete surprise.

What are their implications for understanding the passage?


It is completely clear from John’s account that this is indeed an eyewitness account. It maintains the shock value of the incident to the disciples.  It records the little things that impressed John.  Even though the gospel of John was written, we believe, after the other synoptic Gospels, there is no attempt to reconcile John’s writing with the other Gospels. It is unpolished memory of an eyewitness.  This is a strong support for our own faith.

The main point of the account is that the tomb is empty! At the most fundamental level this passage records three witnesses to the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John. It also gives special circumstances that corroborate the fact of the empty tomb; the stone rolled away, the placing of the linen cloths, and the total surprise of the disciples.   These also encourage our faith. As John wrote, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”(John 20:31).

What is the role/significance of this event/passage in the Gospel story?

 This beginning of chapter 20 sets up the rest of the chapter where John tells us how the disciples came to believe. First is a story of Mary meeting Jesus himself and being specifically instructed to return to disciples and encourage them by telling about her encounter. This she did (John 20:10-18).

Next there’s the story of the first gathering on Easter evening when the disciples were together but the doors were locked.   Jesus came and stood among them.  Thomas, however, was not there.   This is the time that Jesus greeted them and said, “Peace be with you.”  (Jn 20:19-23)

 However, when Thomas found out about the meeting he exclaimed, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and put my fingers were the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (Jn 20:25).  Then finally a week later Jesus met with the disciples again and Jesus showed Thomas his hands and side and pronounced a blessing upon all who have never seen and yet believe.



Leave a Reply