Jesus told his disciples on several different occasions that he would be killed and three days later rise again (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19), and yet, after he was crucified, it appears that no one expected to ever see Jesus again. John’s gospel tells us, “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” (John 20:1-2). We aren’t told who the “they” was that Mary thought had taken the Lord’s body away, but it’s possible that she thought Jesus’ declaration that “they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 17:23, emphasis mine) meant that whoever killed Jesus would also after three days take his body away. Mary’s mental perception of the situation made her believe something that was incorrect, that someone had moved Jesus’ body. John went on to say:
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. (John 20:3-9)
John tells us that he saw and believed. The Greek word that is translated saw in John 20:8 is different from the word that is translated saw in John 20:1 and also John 20:6. Mary perceived that the stone had been taken away from the tomb, but she didn’t know how it had happened. When 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” (John 20:6-7), Peter made a careful observation of the details and considered all the facts before coming to a conclusion. John, on the other hand, saw that Jesus’ body was no longer bound by the linen cloths and that the cloth that had been coving his face had been placed in a different location and even though he didn’t understand the Scripture; John believed that Jesus had risen from the dead (John 20:9).
The Greek word that is translated believed in John 20:8. pisteuo (pist-yooˊ-o) means “to have faith” (G4100). Hebrews 11:1 states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” John’s assessment of the situation when he entered the empty tomb wasn’t necessarily based on what he saw, but what he didn’t see. Jesus’ body was definitely gone. Whereas, Mary concluded that because his body was gone, someone must have taken Jesus away, John believed that Jesus was alive again. “Pisteuo means not just to believe, but also to be persuaded of; and hence, to place confidence in, to trust, and signifies, in this sense of the word, reliance upon, not mere credence, hence it is translated ‘commit unto’, ‘commit to one’s trust’, ‘be committed unto’, etc” (G4100). Pisteuo is derived from the word pistis (pisˊ-tis) which means “persuasion, i.e. credence; moral conviction (of religious truth, or the truthfulness of God or a religious teacher), especially reliance upon Christ for salvation…Pistis is conviction of the truth of anything, belief; of a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervor born of faith and joined in it. It is related to God with the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, the provider and bestower of eternal salvation through Christ; to Christ with a strong and welcome conviction or belief that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom we obtain eternal salvation in the kingdom of God” (G4102). Thus, it could be said that John not only saw and believed (John 20:8), but John saw and was saved.
The difference between what happened to the others and what happened to John when he entered the tomb and saw that Jesus’ body was gone had to do with the way each person perceived the situation. John’s knowledge of what happened was affected by his close relationship with Jesus. John referred to himself as, “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2), indicating that there was affection and a personal attachment between Jesus and John. Peter’s denial of Jesus may have caused him to be detached or skeptical that Jesus still loved him. It’s possible that John wanted to see Jesus again, so much that he was willing to accept even the slightest evidence that he had indeed risen from the dead. What seemed to be obvious to John that was not to Mary or Peter was that the linen cloths had been left behind. If someone had moved Jesus’ body, it wouldn’t make sense for whoever did it to unwrap the dead body before taking it away. Likewise, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with the linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth” (John 11:44). The fact that the linen cloths that had encased Jesus’ body were lying inside the tomb and the body wasn’t there made it seem as if Jesus’ body had disappeared into thin air.
Unbelievable things can and do happen. Whether you think of it as a miracle or just something that has never happened before, the fact that something appears to be impossible doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen. In a similar sense, something that has actually happened may not be believed because it seems impossible. The many miracles that Jesus performed were intended to build his disciples confidence in his ability to do things that had either never happened before or were considered to be impossible from a human standpoint. When God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he did it through many signs and wonders (Exodus 7:3). Moses’ first encounter with God involved a great sight, a bush that was burning, but was not consumed (Exodus 3:2). When the LORD saw that Moses turned aside to see, “God called to him out of the bush” (Exodus 3:4). During the conversation that followed, God told Moses that he was going to give him powerful signs so that the people would believe that he had appeared to him. Exodus 4:1-9 states:
Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand— “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” Again, the Lord said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. “If they will not believe you,” God said, “or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”
In spite of the many signs and wonders that God did, the Israelites didn’t believe that they could overcome the people that were dwelling in the land that God had promised to give them. The whole congregation grumbled against Moses and asked, “Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Numbers 14:3). After wandering in the wilderness for forty years, Moses encouraged the Israelites to believe they were finally ready to conquer the inhabitants of the land. Moses used the defeat of King Og as an example of their assured victory. Moses said:
“Then we turned and went up the way to Bashan. And Og the king of Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not fear him, for I have given him and all his people and his land into your hand. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.’So the Lord our God gave into our hand Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people, and we struck him down until he had no survivor left. And we took all his cities at that time—there was not a city that we did not take from them—sixty cities, the whole region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. All these were cities fortified with high walls, gates, and bars, besides very many unwalled villages. And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children. But all the livestock and the spoil of the cities we took as our plunder. So we took the land at that time out of the hand of the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, from the Valley of the Arnon to Mount Hermon (the Sidonians call Hermon Sirion, while the Amorites call it Senir), all the cities of the tableland and all Gilead and all Bashan, as far as Salecah and Edrei, cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan. (For only Og the king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. Behold, his bed was a bed of iron. Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonites? Nine cubits was its length, and four cubits its breadth, according to the common cubit) (Deuteronomy 3:1-11)
Moses’ comment about all the cities that were destroyed being fortified with high walls, gates, and bars and the huge size of Og the king of Bashan was directly related to the report that was given when the land was spied out 40 years earlier (Numbers 13:26-33). Moses concluded his account with a reminder that he was being punished for the Israelites unbelief. Moses had pleaded with the LORD, saying, “Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon” (Deuteronomy 3:25) But, Moses said, the LORD was angry with him because of the people’s lack of faith and would not listen to him (Deuteronomy 3:26).
The Hebrew word that is translated angry in Deuteronomy 3:26, ʿabar (aw-barˊ) means “to cross over” and is used very widely of any transition. The word ʿabar also “communicates the idea of transgression, or crossing over the boundary of right and entering the forbidden land of the wrong” (H5674). One way of looking at the LORD’s anger was that it was an indicator that Moses had gone too far. Moses was no longer capable of completing his assignment of leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Rather than blaming his failure on the Israelites, it might be fair to say that Moses himself lacked faith when it came time for him to put his trust in Christ. The incident that caused Moses to be excluded from the Promised Land involved the glory of the LORD appearing to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 20:6) and an instruction from the LORD to “tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water” (Numbers 20:8). According to 1 Corinthians 10:4, the Rock was Christ. The verse states regarding the Israelites, “All drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” After the incident, the LORD told Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).
The connection between crossing over and believing in the Lord may be a matter of transitioning from the physical to the spiritual realm. Mary, who saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb (John 20:1) and came to the conclusion that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2) later came to the realization that the man she thought was the gardener was actually Jesus (John 20:16). The shift in Mary’s perception seemed to take place as a result of her hearing the Lord speak her name. John 20:11-18 states:
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, 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.
Mary saw Jesus standing before her, but she didn’t know that it was him at first. The Greek word that is translated saw in John 20:14 is the same word that John used to describe Peter’s investigation of the empty tomb (John 20:6-7). When Mary said, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18), a different word was used. The Greek word horao (hor-ahˊ-o) does not emphasize the mere act of seeing, but the actual perception of some object…Particularly, to see God, meaning to know Him, be acquainted with Him, know His character…In a wider sense: to see God, i.e. to be admitted to his presence, to enjoy his fellowship and special favor” (G3708). Jesus emphasized in his conversation with the woman of Samaria that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Mary’s declaration, “I have seen the Lord (John 20:18) was an act of worship and evidence that she had transitioned from relying on her physical perception to the use of spiritual discernment.
The Apostle Thomas’ refusal to believe unless he saw the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and placed his hand into his side (John 20:25) makes it clear to us that we can choose to believe or not believe if we want to. Jesus came to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27). The Greek word that is translated disbelieve, apistos (apˊis-tos) is spoken of things “incredible, unbelievable” and is also spoken of persons who withhold belief or are “incredulous, distrustful” (G571). In Thomas’ case it meant that he had not yet been saved. Thomas’ response indicates that he did put his trust in the Lord (John 20:28). Jesus asked Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen (horao) me?” (John 20:29). I think what Jesus meant by that question was that faith is not a result of physical evidence and so Thomas didn’t need to put his finger in Jesus’ hands or place his hand into the hole in Jesus’ side in order to put his trust in him. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
John stated that the purpose of his gospel was “so that you may believe” (John 20:31). John said, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so 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 20:30-31). John identified the essential truth that you need to believe in order to receive salvation, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The reason why John zeroed in on this one critical point was because if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, nothing else matters. The Apostle Paul explains this further in Romans chapter eight where he says that salvation is dependent upon us being a member of God’s family and receiving our inheritance through Christ. Paul said, “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit…The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs—of God and fellow heirs with Christ…And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:3-29).