John chapter twenty records the resurrection and early appearances of the risen Lord. It was early on a Sunday morning (John 20:1), “while it was still dark,” that Mary Magdalene discovered the stone sealing Jesus’ tomb had been rolled away. Thinking that grave robbers (a common crime at that time), or possibly the enemies of Christ, had taken his body; she ran to tell the apostles, Peter and John (John 20:2). After an investigation of the tomb, finding the tomb empty, and not making the connection that this was the fulfillment of Scripture (John 20:9), the disciples departed to their homes (John 20:10). However, Mary Magdalene stayed behind, weeping at the tomb, where she encountered two angels (John 20:11-12). After explaining to the angels the reason for her tears, that she knew not what had been done with the body of her Lord, she encountered Jesus Himself (John 20:13-14).
It is not clear why Mary didn’t recognize Jesus, why she thought Him to be the gardener (John 20:15). Perhaps Jesus appeared to her in a manner that clouded His identity, like He had with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-27). Or, perhaps, it was due to her grief and tear filled eyes that she didn’t recognize to whom she spoke. Regardless of the reason, when Jesus called her by name, drawing her attention to Himself, she recognized Him to be her “Rabboni,” her great Teacher and Lord (John 20:16). Naturally, Mary was overjoyed to see her Lord alive after the cruel Crucifixion. She, no doubt, threw her arms around Him as her tears of sorrow were turned to tears of joy. Jesus responded to her with the words, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God’” (John 20:17), which she faithfully obeyed (John 20:18).
So, what did Jesus mean when He said, “Do not cling to Me” (NKJV)? The King James says, “Touch me not,” which may give the indication that Jesus did not want to be touched at all. However, the Greek word doesn’t mean not to touch at all, the way we might say “don’t touch me” today. It means “to fasten one’s self to, adhere to, cling to” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Jesus wasn’t telling Mary not to touch Him. He was telling her that she couldn’t cling to Him because He was going to ascend back to the Father. She would have to let Him go and complete His work of offering His own blood before the Throne of God for the sins of mankind (Hebrews 9:12; 10:11-14).
Neither was He telling Mary that He was ascending back to the Father at that moment. He would appear to many more disciples before His ascension. These appearances were a very important part of His work prior to returning to Heaven to take His seat at the Father’s right hand (Hebrews 1:3). The very work of the apostles was to be eyewitnesses to the fact that Jesus was alive and reigning in Heaven for us (Acts 1:8; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39-41; 13:31). When it came time to replace Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the Lord, one of the qualifications for the replacement was to have seen Jesus alive after the Crucifixion (Acts 1:21-22). Before Paul could be qualified to do the work of an apostle he had to see the risen Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5; 1 Corinthians 15:8).
There is no doubt that Jesus did ascend back to the Father, as Paul gives the irrefutable evidence of so many witnesses – “over five hundred brethren at once” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). The apostles watched Him ascend into the clouds and were told that He would come again in like manner (i.e. in the clouds) (Acts 1:9-11). The prophet Daniel was blessed with a vision of what happened on the other side of those clouds (Daniel 7:13-14), when Jesus appeared before The Ancient of Days and received His kingdom.
Just as assuredly as His ascension to the Father, Christ will come again to judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:30-31; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; 2 Corinthians 5:9-11; Hebrews 9:27). Are you ready for that day to come? (Romans 10:17; John 8:24; Luke 13:3-5; Romans 10:9-10; Acts 22:16).
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