Pulpit and Pew

John 20:1-23

by Robert W. Christman

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their home.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, [KJV: touch me not] for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Every Christian funeral is a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, and for that reason, a celebration of the forgiveness of sins in his name. The deceased brother or sister died in the only way one can successfully die, with all his iniquities forgiven. We bid him goodbye knowing that his final judgment will rest on the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement.

St. John’s record of Jesus’ resurrection day makes this clear. He begins with Mary Magdalene running to Peter and John early in the morning, and telling them that Jesus’ tomb was standing empty. Naturally, she added a little to what she knew; she said they had taken him away. She also said that “we do not know where they have laid him,” indicating that others had gone to the tomb with her and had made the same discovery. But the essence of her report was simply that the tomb
was empty.

Peter and John ran to the tomb to see how much of what she said was true, and to decide what, if anything, had to be done. At the tomb they discovered that it was as she said; the body was gone. But there was more to it than that. Very quickly their eyes fell on the Lord’s grave clothes. This was surprising; they had not expected it. Instantly they sensed that the idea of someone making off with the corpse was not being supported by the evidence. Especially the folded face cloth seemed to tell a different story—so neatly folded and set apart. John recognized in these details a suggestion of a resurrection.  He tells us that he believed, even though the standard understanding of the Scriptures with which he and Peter were acquainted did not require the Messiah to rise from the dead.

So here already the forgiveness of sins that lay hidden in the divine master plan was beginning to assert itself. Peter and John knew that Jesus, entirely innocent, had been put to death because he was judged unfit to live. This was not true of the wily and dishonest high priest Caiaphas, or of unscrupulous, self-serving Pontius Pilate. They had not heard the death sentence read over them. The fool Herod had also survived the day. Only Jesus had been charged with crimes against both humanity and the godhead, sentenced to die, and shamefully executed—un-rescued by Elijah or anyone else.

But if he is now raised from the dead—if God has raised him—then his exoneration was complete. If he came alive, felt no need of a garment, left no evidence of aches and pains or of fearful haste, but only a scene of simplicity and serenity, then, well, what had happened? Where had this godly man, “this Son of the living God,” gotten so much guilt to be utterly abandoned by God? And this being what happened three days back, why had God abandoned his fierce wrath now? If their Master’s sufferings were grossly unfair, where was the resultant rage, for the tomb seemed to be saying,  “Peace be with you.” With plenty to think about, Peter and John walked home.

. . .

While they were on their way, Mary Magdalene was instinctively making her way back to the tomb. It was the place to weep. (Think of the reason Martha’s sister Mary was thought by her guests to have gotten up and set out for her brother’s tomb a few weeks earlier.) Truly, she was not inclined to think that her Lord was risen. That changed, however, when she recognized the man standing behind her expressing his concern for her tears, when she heard him speak her name. For the Lord spoke her name in love, and the love she heard in his voice, as always, meant forgiveness. When she first met Jesus, she was possessed by seven devils, and they had not made her a good person! But he exorcised them and at the same time forgave her. No wonder she now reached out to him!

Yet, the Lord has a way of turning every evil to a good and every good into a higher good.  Once again his words meant forgiveness, for they spoke of a brotherhood that does not include sins un-forgiven.

Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (v. 17)

The disciples were Jesus’ brothers, for his Father was their Father and his God their God. Along with him, they had peace with God so profound and pure as to include, for them too, a certain sonship. This has always been the message of his resurrection. Beyond question, the disciples were forgiven by God for abandoning his only begotten Son (as he said they would) and for the sorry tepidness of their faith all along.

Mary carried all this to the disciples without delay. That gave them the whole afternoon to think about what had happened and about the person called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. They, more than anyone else, must come  to know and understand the Savior’s resurrection.

. . .

At last, “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week,” the Lord came and stood among the disciples, as heedless of the lock on the door as he had been of the iron grip of death. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he showed them the marks of his crucifixion. They were wounds to be sure, but no longer were they repulsive, for they had become tokens of saving grace. After dying for the sins of the world, he was drawing sinners into God’s peace, which was his own peace, unlike anything the world can offer. (John 14:27) As the disciples identified him by his crucifixion wounds, they at the same time began to sense the victory they stood for.

But the Lord was intent on carrying things further. More than once the disciples had shown themselves more interested in earthly things than in heavenly. So he started over, pronouncing his blessing again in the very same words: “Peace be with you.” Then he went on to unfold his peace before the eyes of their hearts: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

In the upper room a few days before, (John 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17) he had explained how he was returning to the Father, but with an eye on coming back some day to receive them to himself. He had also washed their feet, and had let it be known that this gesture of kindness went beyond earthly comfort and cleanliness to embrace the things of the kingdom of God.

To be sure, such a participation in the eternal plan had permeated their three-year association with him. The feeding of the five thousand, they learned, had not been an invitation to the crowds to line up for free lunches, for the Messiah’s people were to eat his flesh and drink his blood in the knowledge that the flesh profits nothing and the Spirit profits everything! They had learned that he alone had the words of eternal life.

Now they were being sent by him, as the Father had sent him. In what capacity was he sending them? They were not to distribute box lunches or wash between people’s toes. Their commission was far greater. The fundamentals of his mission became the basis of theirs. With his work established and secure in highest heaven, more remained to be done on earth, and they had been chosen and schooled to get those things going. It was time to gather up the message of Jesus Christ and sow it in human hearts, in the apostles’ own hearts, and then in hungry hearts to be found in every nation.

But the good news was too holy, too true, too wonderful, and too blissful for carnal, contrary minds to absorb. If its life-giving force was to be theirs, people were going to have to be born again. (John 3:5) So the Lord breathed on his ten brothers, and so fitted them to serve as the foundation stones of the holy Christian church. His breath conveyed the Spirit, as fifty days later the sound of the wind would announce the Holy Spirit’s outpouring on all flesh. In both instances, “the promise of the Father” was granted in a foundational way, not in an exclusive way. In conjunction with the efforts of the apostles, the Spirit would reach into souls being touched by the divine message and into the souls of their children. So, with the wafting of his gentle breath on each of them and in connection with the signs in his body, the Lord Jesus spoke these words:

Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld. (v. 23)

“If you forgive the sins of any,” he said. He knew they would not be able to resist forgiving people who were every bit as much a part of the fellowship of Jesus Christ as they were. These too would be tracing their hope for forgiveness back to the empty tomb with the folded napkin. Finding grace there, should they be denied its peace? The grace and peace of the Lord’s resurrection must not be left unapplied. The battle in the souls of the saints against the assertions of the carnal mind would need the strong support of other saints, be they but one or two more.

The disciples would understand these things and would use the goodness of the Spirit responsibly. Their penitent brothers and sisters in Christ would stand before them like children, like the child Jesus once placed in their midst to illustrate greatness in the Kingdom of God. Faith knows faith, and they would know faith when they saw it. At the same time, there would be no thought of them drawing forgiveness out of a treasury of their own holiness. Salvation would be salvation by Jesus Christ, sent by the Father and testified to by the Holy Spirit; so the forgiving would always be in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Sometimes they would want to say this explicitly; other times they would leave it mutually understood. At times it might be conveyed by the tone of their voice or the look on their face.  At other times it would benefit from a formal announcement. And since their tools, like their new hearts and their commission, all rested on their being sent by Jesus the Savior of the world as he had been sent by the Father, they would expect their saving pronouncements to be accepted as valid in the Heights of Heaven, and would not be disappointed.

In some cases, surely, they would have to withhold forgiveness. Like the extending of it, this too would be a spiritual matter, not carnal, earthly, or dubious. They themselves would house flesh, and would be engaged with it every day in contrition and repentance. So they would know what was going on when someone presented himself proudly, relying on his native goodness to validate his claim on that little bit of forgiveness he might possibly still need. They would notice when a quest for forgiveness was a formality and nothing more. They would be aware, when it did not hark back to the resurrection of the Son of Man. When they saw dishonesty and hypocrisy, they would by their own volition treat it as something outside the bounds of grace and truth and divorced from God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Therefore God would stand behind them also when they were withholding forgiveness.

Apostolic forgiveness, like the Gospel in all its forms, is passed along, not hoarded.  Therefore it is found throughout the “one holy, Christian, and apostolic church.” It is the foundation of the Church’s great commission, which we commonly think of in terms of St. Matthew’s gospel.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18-20)

St. Mark chose these words of Jesus.

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)

Though neither of these speaks explicitly about “the Holy Ghost forgiving all sins to me and all believers every day” (Catechism) within the Christian Church, forgiveness is in fact the central factor in both of these “great commissions.” St. Luke’s version takes it a step further, and mentions it.

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:46-49)

All of these commissions came relatively late in the Lord’s post-resurrection stay on earth. The one we have been looking at in the Fourth Gospel, St. John’s, was added  somewhat later, but is in fact the earliest of them all, having been articulated only hours after Christ rose from the dead. It is the great commission in its simplest terms. Again from the Catechism:

The ministry of the keys is a service performed within the Holy Christian Church, by which forgiveness is granted to the penitent sinner and withheld from the impenitent, as long as he remains impenitent. It rests on the authority Christ gave His Church to apply the Gospel pointedly to everyone. (Luther’s Small Catechism in New Clothes, p. 25)

(Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.)


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