Why did Jesus rise from the dead? Each Gospel author answers this question differently. In this post, I’ll unpack John’s account. I’ll start wide before zooming in on the passage.
John leaves no doubt about why he wrote his Gospel:
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’s Gospel records numerous signs and their explanations. Many more signs could have been included, but John chose to report those that best fit his intentions: to show Jesus to be the Messiah (Hebrew for “Christ”), the Son of God, and to help people believe in Jesus and have life.
The Resurrection, Before Chapter 20
John narrates nine signs performed by Jesus that show his identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. He also recounts extended conversations surrounding the nine signs, where people consider whether they can trust what the sign means about Jesus’ identity. For a complete list of the nine signs and verse references to their role as “signs,” see my post on the feeding of the 5,000 according to John.
The point I’d like to make here is that the resurrection of Jesus is one of the most important signs in the book. John telegraphs it early, and he gives it much fanfare. Unfortunately, when commentators discuss the signs in John’s gospel, many don’t think to include his death or resurrection. Many speak only of the “seven” signs in John’s Gospel. For example, see Wikipedia and Bible.org.
But consider the following about the resurrection:
1. One of the first things John tells us about Jesus is that “in him was life” (John 1:4). And a quick look at a concordance shows that Jesus, as portrayed by John, cares deeply about life (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:21, etc.—47 times); he is not a bringer of death (John 3:16-17, 12:47, etc.).
2. Right after performing his first sign, Jesus reboots the temple system. Let’s not separate those two events in chapter 2! His rampage through the temple courts is nothing short of turning ceremonial water into the wine of the kingdom. The sign of John 2:1-12 (changing water to wine) pictures the fundamental truth of John 2:13-25 (the new covenant has come in Christ, replacing the temple system). And the Jews ask Jesus to justify his behavior with a “sign” (John 2:18). What sign does he give?
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” … But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19-22)
In other words, Jesus’ resurrection would be the sign, or proof, that he was the one to usher in the new covenant, the best wine, the glory of God.
3. Jesus proclaims the purpose of his resurrection again in chapter 10:
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18)
According to the logic of verse 17, Jesus’ voluntary death and authoritative resurrection are the reasons why the Father loves him. Take careful note: Jesus was not willing to die and rise because he knew his Father loved him. No, the Father loved him because Jesus was willing to die and rise. This mission was the Father’s charge. Jesus’ willingness to obey that charge secured the Father’s love and his unique place as God’s Son. (Of course, there was a fundamental love between Father and Son from eternity past—see John 17:26. But there is an even fuller love, a completed love, a requited love that takes place when the Son obeys his Father’s will by dying and rising again.)
Putting these three reflections together, we see that Jesus’ resurrection shows Jesus as:
- The source of all life.
- The Messiah of the new covenant.
- The beloved Son of God.
In short, Jesus’ resurrection climactically bundles up everything John wants us to know about Jesus (John 20:31). We see this before we even get to the narrative of the resurrection’s discovery.
The Resurrection, In Chapter 20
The main character in John 20:1-18 is a woman named Mary Magdalene, who shows up in the Gospels only to support Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:2) and to witness his death and resurrection. She comes to the tomb while it’s still dark (John 20:1), sees that the stone was taken away, and runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple (John 20:2). Having returned to the tomb with the disciples, she waits there, weeping, after they leave (John 20:11), sees two angels at either side of the sepulchral bench (John 20:12), converses with the angels and with Jesus (John 20:13-17), and returns to the disciples to announce what she saw and what he said (John 20:18).
Mary pictures for us the response of faith John desires for all his readers:
- Though she begins in the dark (John 20:1), she eventually sees the light (John 20:18).
- She must tell others what she has seen and heard (John 20:2, 18).
- She doggedly seeks her Lord (John 20:2, 11, 13, 14, 15, 17).
- She finds her Teacher (John 20:16).
- In finding the Son of God (“ascending to my Father”), she can proclaim good news to many sons of God (“and your Father”), making Jesus the firstborn among many brethren (“to my God and your God”)—John 20:17.
- Like the disciples in the upper room (John 13:36-37, 14:5, 16:17-18), she fears Jesus’ being taken away (John 20:2, 13, 15) but must content herself with his imminent departure (John 20:17).
Mary is neither perfectly cheery nor spiritually sentimental. But she trusts her Lord. She asks, seeks, knocks—and she receives the kingdom. Would that we could all declare with confidence, “I have seen the Lord!” and announce the things he’s said to us.
Time will fail me before I could ever delve the depths of these 18 glorious verses. I could write about Peter’s preeminence in entering the holy place, as a first step to his restoration. I could write about Mary’s entrance into the new Holy of Holies, with mirrored angels overlooking the seat of atonement. I could write about the new man in the new garden, naming his woman and ushering in a new creation.
The Main Point
But I’ll have to settle for the main idea, which is no less wonderful than the colorful easter eggs set throughout this text. Through narrating Jesus’ resurrection, John wants you to know that Jesus truly is the Son of God, the Messiah who makes all things new, the source and essence of life. You can trust him with your life.