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John 20:1-18 Study Guide: The Empty Tomb

Community Group Study Guide — The Empty Tomb
John 20:1-18

Study Information:
Jesus told his disciples that there would come a time when they would not see him, but he’d return and that their sorrow would be turned to joy (John 16:16-22). We see this pathway of sorrow to joy in our text as they disciples start to grasp that Jesus really did rise from the dead. 

It is surprising how much Jesus talked about his suffering, death and resurrection but the disciples and his other followers did not understand or believe it. In our passage we read that Mary Magdalene, Peter and John did not expect the tomb to be empty, they did not believe the resurrection would happen, at least not in their lifetime with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 

John highlighted the resurrection of Jesus in a unique way by showing us different snapshots of Jesus meeting people and opening their eyes to the truth of the resurrection. Peter, John, Mary and Thomas all get different experiences with Jesus and he meets them where their spiritual needs are to help them believe and trust that he really did rise from the dead. John got a glimpse of it, and understood what Jesus taught, as he examined the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene was the first one to interact with Jesus and was transformed into the first witness to the resurrection. In future weeks we will study how Jesus interacted with Thomas’ doubt and Peter’s restoration from his denial.

What we learn from these various accounts is that it is an act of faith to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. There is great evidence for it, but each person has to overcome some sort of unbelief to put their trust in the reality that Jesus rose from the dead and in the process of doing that we learn how Jesus met each of them and help them to trust and how he will do that with his people today through his word.

They Did Not Expect the Tomb to Be Empty
John 20:1-10
Jesus had been in the tomb for over a day and Mary Magdalene came to visit the tomb while it was still dark. Mary stumbled upon a sight that caused her great concern, the tomb was opened. When they buried someone in a tomb like this they would roll a stone in front of it that to create security and to allow for the body to rest untouched. A body would have been wrapped in linen cloths with burial spices and allowed to decompose and usually within a year a family member would come and gather the bones to put in an ossuary (bone box). The Jews had this practice because they believed in a physical resurrection at the end of time, so they would memorialize the deceased relatives bones in anticipation of that future resurrection. Mary came to this tomb and was shocked to see the stone was rolled away and the body gone. Mary’s first assumption was that the body of Jesus was stolen or moved. 

Mary ran to get help and naturally went to Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved (John) and they went running to the tomb. Fun fact, we know that John was faster than Peter since he arrived at the tomb first. John waited outside the tomb but was able to see in and noticed the linen cloths lying there and the face cloth was folded up. This does not seem like the work of a thief or someone who moved the body. It would not be prudent to remove the linens and leave them behind if you were just transferring the body to a new tomb. Peter entered the tomb first, but we do not get any commentary on what he was thinking. John later went into the tomb to take it all in and we’re told that he saw and believed (John 20:8-10). Everything John had learned and heard about Jesus’s suffering and resurrection fell into place for him in this moment. 

What’s important to note is that none of them expected Jesus to have been raised from the dead, even though Jesus taught this to them multiple times. It was not until the disciple whom Jesus loved saw the linen cloths, the folded up face covering and the empty tomb that he understood the scripture that the messiah must rise from the dead.

Peter and John left the tomb and went home, but Mary either arrived late or stayed behind and became the first person to encounter the risen Jesus.

The First Witness to the Resurrection
John 20:11-18
Other gospel accounts tell us that more than one woman witnessed the resurrection but John’s gospel focused on Mary’s specific interaction with Jesus. As Mary wept at the tomb she saw two angels inside where Jesus’s body had been lain. This calls back imagery of the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy seat which was flanked by two cherubim angels. They asked her why she was weeping and Mary confessed that she thought someone had stolen away or moved the body of Jesus. At that moment she turned and saw someone whom she thought must have been the gardener and therefore the one to move Jesus’s body. It is interesting that Jesus was mistaken for a gardener and this likely calls to mind the Garden of Eden where God was described as a gardener creating a place for his people to dwell with him. Jesus resurrection makes dwelling in the presence of God possible again, which was one of the main themes of the Garden of Eden. However, Jesus was not the gardener of this tomb area, and when he called Mary by name her eyes were open to see him for who he was! Mary then became the first witness to the resurrected Jesus as she went and told all the disciples what had happened.

There are many things that would not make sense to write in these gospel accounts if the resurrection did not actually happen. One such thing is that the Jews did not believe the resurrection would happen in the middle of history with a single individual, let alone someone who claimed to be God in the flesh. They expected the resurrection to come at the end of time when God restored creation. Tim Keller wrote in his book “Encounters with Jesus” in the chapter titled “The First Christian” that the Jews were the last human beings on the face of the earth who would believe that a human being could be the son of God and should be worshipped. 

Also, the detail about the first witness to the resurrected Jesus being a woman would have been shocking in the ancient world. But the truth is stranger than fiction! Women were not viewed as being reliable sources of information and were not even allowed to testify in legal court proceedings. This does feel sexist and that was a common in the ancient world. So Jesus revealing himself first to Mary adds to the layer of this not being some myth of legend but actually testimony of Jesus appearing to her as a resurrected savior. 

Mary became the first witness to the resurrection, we’re not sure exactly why Jesus did not appear first to Peter or John, but what we do know is that he will show up to the disciples with his resurrected body and some of them are quick to believe and others hold onto doubt. 

Jesus was faithful to his promise to rise from the dead to defeat death and give us new life and he meets his followers, even in their doubt and questions to help them to trust.

At your community group:

Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.

How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week? 

Discussion Questions:
Read John 20:1-18

What are some things you learned about the resurrection in this passage?

What are some reasons that Peter, John and Mary did not expect that the tomb to be empty?

How does this resurrection account go against the norms of what an ancient reader would expect? What are some reasons it is significant that Jesus revealed himself to Mary Magdalene first?

How does the empty tomb encourage your faith in Jesus today?