Simon Bowkett's Podcast

Case Studies for an era of Anxiety – 1. Mary - John 20 vv 1 & 11-17

February 12, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Show Notes Transcript

Case Studies for an era of Anxiety – 1. Mary - John 20 vv 1 & 11-17

         •        Introduction

I recently had to answer an enquiry from a generous trust fund that has supported our faith-based charity.

They reminded me we had been beneficiaries of their support last year and asked for a report on the impact their gift had produced.

I think I understood the question and the motivation that inspired it, but I’d never been asked before for evidence of the impact of support we’d received, so I didn’t know quite what to say (always good for me to be in that position from time to time)!

Well, I chatted to my wife (again, a good thing to do from time to time) and she suggested that providing case studies is the best way to evidence impact.

And surprise, surprise … case studies seem also to be a good way to evidence the impact of resurrection faith’s provision for an Era of Anxiety.

I have in mind three examples … Mary Magdalene, John and Thomas … which all crop up in the resurrection account in John 20 that demonstrate an obviously totally life-changing impact on these folks.

The key for each of the traumatised and perplexed people in this chapter is meeting with the risen Lord - but not just meeting Him.

It’s all about meeting Him and being united to Him, by faith.

Let’s be clear … that’s not ‘religion’.

It’s an absolutely life-changing impact on the course of a human being, bringing faith and a fully new life.

Now the point of this is for us to be encouraged in our Era of Anxiety because, frankly, it leads to thoughts of ‘if them why not me?’

But we’ll also try to move from the ‘Wow! To the ‘How?’ of it all.

We’ll start with Mary, and here comes what John 20 tells us about Mary …

         •        Mary

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”


V. 11 “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.


13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”


“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.


15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”


Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”


16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”


She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).


17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”


18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.”

So the first question for us here then must be …


            •          Mary who?

There are quite a few Marys in the early adherents of Jesus.

There’s Mary the mother of James in Luke 24:10.

There’s Mary the wife of Clopas in John 19:25.

There was Mary the sister of Martha in Luke 10.

There’s Mary the mother of John in Acts 12.

Of course, there’s Mary the mother of Jesus … mother as to His human nature.

There’s a LOT of Marys!

But which Mary is this?

John 20:1 says it is Mary Magdalen or Mary of Magdala we’ve got here.

Magdala was a fishing village north of Tiberias on the Western shores of the Sea of Galilee, said to be the leading city of the place and yielding a significant amount in taxes from its trade, until Herod Antipas built Tiberias.

its name is Aramaic for ‘Tower’ and the place was referred to also as ‘The Tower of Fishes’.

I’m guessing the abundant harvest of fish from the lake got dried there in a drying tower … but I can’t be sure.

It had certainly been a thriving and a busy place due to the trade in fish, but because of Herod Antipas’s building project at Tiberias it was a place heading into decline in Mary’s life-time. 

Now, to grasp what is happening here we need to notice that Mary Magdalen or Mary of Magdala  is a lady with a history, and a Biblical history.

Luke 7 talks about Jesus being anointed by a person everyone thought of as a sinful woman, and then immediately Luke 8 follows on like this:

“After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

Get this hopeful fact for our era of self-doubt, anguish and anxiety!

The close-up devotees and supporters of Jesus, Who He held close, includes a gang of ladies that He’d freed from evil spirits!

This Mary is one of them.

But at the tomb that day in John 20, this Mary stands peering in through the tomb door, a person BROKEN.

He’s GONE, and she LONGS for the closeness and the intimacy of having Jesus back.

The tragedy’s this, that He’s actually standing there next to her, but in her heart-broken state she doesn’t recognise Jesus.

That really is something very, very common in our Era of Anxiety too.

He IS THERE … but her heart is so broken that she is totally taken up with her pain and doesn’t recognise Jesus.

            •          Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus

John 20:11  says “Mary stood outside the tomb crying. 

As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and

saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.


13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”


“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 

14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.”

Now, this is really weird.

She’s a woman who’d lived a hard and broken life.

When Luke 8:2 describes this dear lady as a person from whom Jesus had driven out seven demons … seven is the symbolic number of completeness in a culture that was into its symbols, and it is telling us that Mary from Magdala had lived a life thoroughly dominated by very malicious and destructive spiritual beings from the inside out.

She’d had a TOUGH life and Jesus had liberated her from that awful experience.

She’d have recognised the Saviour at 100 yards!

But on THAT day she doesn’t.

So … why?

The answer is pretty instructive for our experience in this era of Anxiety.

Now, if you look at Carson’s commentary on this incident, he gives a set of plausible-sounding approaches to that question that have been offered over time.

But the explanations of what’s happening tend to be things like the suggestion she couldn’t see Him because she was crying … which seems a weird one to me because she’d just been standing there examining the tomb’s interior and chatting with a couple of angels that she seemed to recognise readily enough.

Mercifully there are clues in the text to help us understand WHY this failure to recognise Jesus happened, and these clues point us to the purpose of this passage.  

·       The way John describes events, 

·       the question of the angels and 

·       the question Jesus puts to her in the attempt to get her to recognise Him … all these seem to give us some answers.

            •           The angels’ question

“As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.


13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

It is physical separation from Jesus that she is breaking her heart over.

They had all been in the city … many of them eye-witnesses of the baying crowd and the cruel crucifixion … but Mary’s debt of gratitude for her deliverance drove her passionate allegiance to Jesus and her inability to face life without Him physically THERE for her felt like too much.

But why is she crying?

If you’ve had any sort of human experience, you will be familiar with the sensation of loss and its accompanying grief.

And the thing so many people don’t seem to have laid hold of in OUR secular world, is that the God of the Bible IS touched with the feeling of our infirmities … as the old translation of Hebrews 4:15 puts it.

The newer NIV translation has: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

The trouble is, when you don’t realise that, you don’t turn to Him … not at all … neither in trouble nor in joy!

Mary is overwrought with grief, and God sends His special messengers, two angels, to meet her at the tomb and to start to gently turn her thoughts into a more productive path.

I suppose the fright of suddenly seeing Jesus standing there would be … substantial.

So, angels first then Jesus appears and raises the same initial question that meets her at the point of her prepossessing thoughts … ‘why are you crying?’


Then Jesus gently develops it: ‘Who are you looking for?’

You see, the Divine approach to her is gentle and caring ... even therapeutic.

But it isn’t either of these questions, merely laying bare the extent and the nature of the source of her grief and failed understanding that gets through to her.


            •           John’s explanation

Still, after the gently revealing encounter first with angels (that should have raised questions about what was going on, in and of itself … angels?!) in comes the gently enquiring question …

V. 14 “… she did not realise that it was Jesus.”

Clearly, it’s not a problem of vision, then, as in ‘should have gone to Specsavers’ (other opticians are available).

It’s a problem of perception.

So often the roots of or human anxieties lie in what boils down to a problem of perception … the way we’re viewing things.

Now, we shouldn’t be blaming Mary for this.

The early disciples of Jesus do seem to have a bit of a track record for not recognising the newly-Risen Lord when He’s right there with them in their perplexity.

We know that Christ’s resurrection body was the body He’d had before … you remember He invited Thomas to touch the wound sites on His body made by the nails and the spear?

But still the disciples on the road to Emmaus seem to have walked quite a way with Jesus without recognising Him, and then even had dinner with Him, recognising Who he was only AFTER and He had left their physical presence.

Mary’s in the same boat.

It really does look as if Mary had a reality-obscuring narrative going on pretty strongly in her head in that garden.

She had SEEN the empty tomb.

She was trying to fathom it out, and the answer she was going with was a deeply upsetting one:

 that having broken and sapped the life from her dear Lord’s body, ‘they’ had now subjected Him to the ultimate indignity of robbing His grave of His corpse. 

Of COURSE she is in a chaotic state of grief:

“They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”


“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

John 20:13

Now what Mary’s got going on here is a very human problem.

We see something or experience something that is (to say the least) perplexing, then we land on some plausible explanation of painful phenomenon and we CLING to it like a drowning man to a passing log … even when the clear evidence before our eyes suggests a much more plausible alternative.

Yes, the Lord had been anticipating something like this and had been teaching His disciples in their last days with Him of His earthly life to expect that He’d be raised from the dead.

But that event He had taught them about STILL didn’t match up with their expectations.

Their life-long, deeply ingrained expectations of life, death and some dim and distant future expectation of the General Resurrection of all the dead together in one place at one time didn’t match with what was happening and that old expectation meant that they saw the Resurrected Lord standing there in front of them … but they saw Him as if through very thick net curtains.

Mary was looking right at Him but couldn’t see HIM there … and whatever Mary’s concept of Jesus was at that moment (presumably it was pretty corpse-like) the guy standing in front of her didn’t match that so her brain couldn’t acknowledge what her eyes were actually seeing and she rapidly concluded that this person must be the Gardener.

How delightful to see what it was that finally got through to Mary’s heart here, though.

What was it?

            •          He calls her name

Jesus called her name.

This is revealing in itself.

John 10:2-4 has this:

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Mary knows the Shepherd’s voice; the Shepherd who found her lost, broken and thoroughly demonised and called her out to be a follower of Him.

That’s how it works. 

He calls His sheep by name, individually and personally … relationally … and they know and hear His voice.

And so did Mary.

Tim Keller (whom, I KNOW, I have quoted a lot already in this series but who has SUCH a good little book coming out on the Christian hope as it impacts our anxieties) says:

“Christian salvation is never our attainment, a prize after a long struggle while God waits for us. No, He comes to us and wakes us out of sleep. It is always a gift of grace.”

But look how Jesus does this.

He calls Mary personally, by name … His call to Christian faith always entails a call to intimate, personal two-way interaction.

To what the Bible calls fellowship … the closeness and the intimacy of fellowship.

Humans CRAVE intimacy.

We were created with intimacy in the basic package, it’s not an add-on or an optional extra in our pattern of construction!

Sadly, we often find ourselves seeking that intimacy in places it is not, and in ways that will not actually fulfil us.

Interestingly Mary responds to His call in two immediate and spontaneous ways, and the Lord makes an equally instantaneous response …

‘Don’t touch me’, He says.

Or does He?

            •           Master

“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’


She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).”

John 20:16

Mary spontaneously uses a familiar mode of address for Jesus … 


It’s an Aramaic word … a language that functioned (certainly for Galileans) as the language of recognition, of closeness, of association … of the heart, much as Welsh is often switched into as a language of association and to build a closer conversation.

The disciple has found her Teacher!

Carson comments: “Anguish and despair are instantly swallowed up by astonishment and delight … It may not be the highest Christological confession (cf. v. 28), but at this point Mary is enthralled by the restored relationship, not contemplating its theological implications.”

And the joy in her words are mirrored in her equally instantaneous accompanying action …

            •           She CLINGS to Him

Surprised with joy her soul leaps and her body CLINGS to the precious One Whom she was sure she had lost.

Of COURSE she does.

Jesus had delivered her from spiritual and emotional torment and He was really very dear to her indeed!

And so, SEEING and HEARING Him and relating to Him again after all that had taken place that week was all her soul desired and she expressed that very tangibly in grasping hold of Him.

It’s a classic illustration of the way that human beings are constituted … we are made with a close association … a fusion … of soul and body.

First century Greek thought was certainly quite happy to separate the spirit of a person (their soul) from their body, but in Jewish thought the idea of a bodiless soul or a soul-less body was totally alien.

Here there seems to be an immediate soul and body response going on from Mary.

And it appears on the surface as if Jesus isn’t too keen on it … we need to take a look.

She clings to Him and He appears to say:

‘Hands off!’

            •          He tells her ‘Hands off!’

“‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

John 20:17

When He died Mary thought she’d lost Jesus for ever.

And now here she stands overjoyed to see that He was once more alive and dealing closely and personally with her.

Hug Him?

Powerfully, she did, with all her might!

But He comes equally firmly, if not physically back to her:

‘Do not hold onto me

I haven’t yet ascended back to my Father.

Instead of grabbing me go and tell the guys I’m, on track with my itinerary … I am not here for that physical, close, walking, teaching, miracle doing ministry you had me here for until now … now I am Heaven-bound to bring you something far greater … as I have said previously.

Go and tell the guys the game isn’t up … my ‘Divine Parabola’ is still on course.

We know very well that Jesus is going to be inviting Thomas to touch Him in the near future, and He is going to allow other women shortly (in Matthew 28:9) to lay hold of His feet.

He DOES allow this touching after His resurrection … that is BEFORE the Ascension that Jesus is speaking about here.

So, we rule out the idea He’s telling Mary not to touch Him because His body mustn’t be touched yet because it is still in some sort of transition.

The issue here is neither that, nor that He is saying (as when God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush in Exodus 3:5) that He was too holy to be touched by human hands.

That term used here for the holding onto Him is a word that means fierce clinging to someone physically.

She didn’t want His physical presence to go away again.

Andreas Köstenberger explains:

“Her reaction is entirely natural; yet once again, it reveals misunderstanding. Apparently Mary is determined not to lose a second time what it cost her such effort to find again; yet she must not cling to the unscented Jesus, for ‘His permanent abiding wit her is to be not in the flesh as she supposes … but in the Spirit.” (He is apparently quoting Lee (1995) on this.)

Jesus is not to be clung to physically and externally like this.

When Jesus ascends again to the Father to sit at His right hand, Jesus will send the Spirit and then everyone Who is born again and therefore turns and trusts in Christ will be able to have personal intimacy with Christ at a MUCH higher level than Mary is putting everything into right there!

Through the Incarnation human beings had Christ with them … and we often feel we are at a lesser advantage living now as Christians than that of the early believers who walked and talked with Christ in Galilee.

But that’s a mistake.

Through the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ human beings can be given fellowship with Christ not just with them but WITHIN them.

As Keller puts it: “Jesus is saying to Mary: ‘Let me go to the Father, and you - and all who seek it - will have a fellowship with me beyond anything you can imagine.”

Keller drives home the point like this:

“Intimacy with the Risen Lord is one of the gifts given to believers in the resurrection. There is an infinite distance between knowing about God and knowing God.”

To know God (Jesus said in John 17:3) is eternal life.

Knowing about God is nothing at all like it.

Jesus is not a dead teacher but a living Lord.

More than that He sends His Spirit to indwell believers so He’s always with us … from the inside out.

One of the great sources of the anxiety that lays siege to the human heart is the terrifying experience of being alone.

Jesus, Mary will find, has at this point to go away from her … in order to come closer to her and more permanently so than He has ever been before.

He’s spelled that out already in chapters 14-16.

The upshot is that Jesus is saying that we in our Era of Anxiety can have a view of Jesus and His Glory and an intimacy with Him that far exceeds the experience any of His followers had with Him when He was living on earth.

Jesus seeks to reconcile Mary to letting go of His material, physical presence in order to re-orientate her passion for her Saviour away from seeking His tangible presence to receiving Him as the life of God taking up residency and permanently dwelling in the front room of the souls of human beings.

         •        Conclusion

So what’s been going on in this passage of Scripture and WHAT has it got to teach us and help us with for living life in this Era of Anxiety?

Well, we meet Mary in this passage in John 20 in a state of deep distress, loss and anxiety as to what’s happened with Jesus’s body.

The person she … from her very damaged background … really felt she owed her life to had GONE.

The events of the last week of her life had left Mary feeling abandoned, derelict and ALONE.

But why?

Possibly NOT for a reason she had yet identified.

Here’s the problem: Mary had a set of strongly-held preconceived ideas through which she viewed the situation.

I think the expression is: ‘Strong and wrong’!

That perspective prevented Mary from seeing, or rather recognising, Jesus in her situation … and with that failure to recognise HIM in the situation, she had missed the route out of anxiety and despair into joy and lifelong fulfilment.

Failing to see, or rather to recognise, Jesus right there with her was the source of her anxiety and grief.

Yes, she longed for a return to the personal intimacy she thought she had now lost with her Saviour … even though He had spent some time teaching and warning His disciples about how that intimacy and that fellowship with Him would be intensified through His death and resurrection.

He’d gone to some lengths spelling out (although they didn't grasp it at the time) just HOW this was going to be achieved.

That lack of closeness, that sense of loneliness is often the bed-fellow of anxiety and Mary’s clinging to the physical, visible supports to faith (in this case grabbing Jesus TIGHTLY as soon as she finally recognised the voice that called her name) … that WASN’T going to achieve the closeness and the never-be-alone-again changes that Christ had died, risen and would soon ascend to achieve.

The key for Mary and for everyone, the pathway out for our Era of Anxiety, would be the presence of the personally in-dwelling Holy Spirit (as prophesied in Jeremiah and Ezekiel and about to be realise after Christ’s Ascension on the Day of Pentecost).

The indwelling Holy Spirit … bringing the presence of Christ NOT just when He turned up physically in one place and at one time for one person or one reasonably small group of people, but in all His people at all times in all places with a closeness in the heart that far exceeded every physical hug that Mary’d ever known.

That heart-presence of the Lord by the Spirit would banish the loneliness and emptiness at anxiety’s roots.

And it is the Christian hope of resurrection and the deposit of the Era of the Spirit in the human heart that banishes even for us the pangs of our Era of Anxiety.

As the Apostle Paul puts it in Colossians 1:25, this is: “Christ in you, the hope of Glory’”

And what broke through her blindness to Christ which was the root of her heart-breaking anxiety?

Her shepherd had been seen, heard and not recognised.

Until that moment when He called HER name … and at THAT point His sheep heard His voice.

For her from THAT moment, things would never be the same … and Mary was life-changingly impacted for good.

And if for her, then why not for you and me?