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Lesson 101: From Sorrow to Hope (John 20:11-18)

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August 23, 2015

The current “Voice of the Martyrs” magazine tells about a 13-year-old Nigerian boy who was critically wounded during a January 28th attack on his village by the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram. They slashed his head with a machete, hacked at his left arm, cut out his right eye, and cut off his genitals. Thankfully, he only remembers the first slash of the machete to his head. But although he is permanently disfigured and has to carry around a catheter bag that collects his urine, the boy is full of joy in the Lord. He wants others to know that Christ can get them through any trial if they will embrace God and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

That remarkable boy has the joy and hope in the midst of overwhelming trials that we all need, although few of us experience it. I confess that often I’m prone to complaining even about minor trials. So I need—we all need—joyous hope in the Lord to sustain us through our trials. We need hope that faces reality, not hope in wishful thinking or positive thinking. We need hope that sustains us in the most difficult times.

The news of Jesus’ resurrection brought hope to people who were overwhelmed by despair and grief. You can hear the deep disappointment in the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Concerning the crucified Jesus, they said (Luke 24:21), “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” “We were hoping ….” But their hopes had been dashed.

The disciples were engulfed by gloom. They had left everything to follow Jesus, pinning all of their hopes on Him as the Messiah. But now, He was dead. On top of the shock of watching Jesus’ grisly death on the cross, Peter was wrestling with his own failure in denying the Lord. All of the disciples were guilty of abandoning Him and fleeing in fear.

We also see grief and despair in the tears of Mary Magdalene. The Greek word used to describe her weeping means loud, uncontrollable wailing. She was despondent that not only had Jesus died, but now she thought they had taken away His body so that she could not give Him a proper burial.

It was to people overwhelmed by such a dark cloud of grief that the fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection broke in with life-changing hope. The fact that Jesus is risen and ascended into heaven, soon to return for His own, can break into your life with genuine hope in the midst of your worst trials, if you will learn the lessons from this true story.

It’s significant that Mary Magdalene was the first person to whom Jesus revealed Himself after His resurrection (Mark 16:9). She was not an especially important person, and she was a woman. In that culture, women were not considered reliable witnesses in court. You would think that the Lord would have picked maybe Peter, James, or John as the first witnesses of His resurrection. Or if it was a woman, I would have thought that He would have picked His mother, Mary, or perhaps Mary of Bethany, who anointed Him just before His death. But Mary Magdalene was first.

That fact is even more arresting when you recall that Mary had a rather seamy past. Jesus had cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2). Seven is the biblical number of perfection, so perhaps we are to understand that Mary was under the total domination of satanic power. While there is no biblical evidence for the commonly held notion that she had been a prostitute, we can surmise that a woman under demonic power did not have a squeaky clean past. Jesus had rescued her from a horrible life of sin.

The fact that the Lord revealed Himself first to Mary Magdalene shines a ray of hope for every person struggling with sin and guilt. If the Savior rescued this insignificant, demon-possessed woman from her life of sin and chose her to be the first witness of His resurrection, then He can save you from your sin and use you to serve Him! This story teaches us that…

Sorrows are turned to hope when we seek the risen Savior.

The background of the story is in verses 1-10. Mary had been to the tomb and discovered that the stone was taken away. She ran to Peter and John and excitedly reported (John 20:2), “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Peter and John immediately ran to the tomb. John got there first, but just looked in. In his usual blustery fashion, Peter entered the tomb and discovered the grave clothes without Jesus’ body. Then John went in, saw, and believed that Jesus was risen (John 20:8). But Peter went away still pondering what had happened (Luke 24:12). But neither man understood yet from the Scriptures that Jesus must rise from the dead (John 20:9). After viewing the empty tomb, both men returned home.

Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene had come back and she remained by the tomb, weeping. She wanted to find Jesus, although at this point she was just trying to find His corpse. In her thinking, someone had added insult to injury by robbing the grave.

In this state of confusion, she stooped and looked into the tomb, where she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet of where Jesus’ body had been lying. They asked Mary (John 20:13), “Woman, why are you weeping?” (Dr. S. Lewis Johnson observed that even angels are puzzled by women’s tears!) Jesus repeats the same question and adds another (John 20:15), “Whom do you seek?” Neither Jesus nor the angels asked those questions to gain information! Rather, they wanted Mary (and us) to think about the implications of those questions, because in doing so we will learn how seeking the risen Savior will turn our sorrows into hope. So let’s explore these questions:

“Why are you weeping?”

1. We weep because of sorrow, but we need to process these sorrows in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

The point of this repeated question was to get Mary to process her sorrow in light of the fact that Jesus was now risen. Yes, watching the crucifixion had been horrific. You have to work through the emotional shock of such an event. But, Mary was now weeping from sorrow because the tomb was empty, whereas that fact should have caused her to weep for joy! Mary’s experience reveals three reasons why we often go through sorrow, which we need to process in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

A. Disappointments and misunderstanding cause sorrow, but we must process them in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Mary was deeply disappointed, first by the shock of the crucifixion, but now by the fact that she wanted to finish embalming Jesus’ body. She was thinking, “If only I knew where they laid Him, I could finish embalming His body!” But she didn’t understand the big picture, which included Jesus’ resurrection.

So often, we’re just like Mary. We’re disappointed because we don’t understand the big picture of what God is doing. We’re disappointed because God isn’t working as we think He needs to work. It seems that His promises aren’t true! But from God’s perspective, we’re asking the wrong questions and trying to accomplish the wrong tasks! We need to process our disappointments in light of the risen Savior’s love and care for us. We often don’t understand His sovereign perspective.

B. The evil deeds of evil men cause sorrow, but we must process these deeds in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Mary thought that evil men had triumphed over God’s sovereign purposes. They had killed Jesus and now they had stolen His body. Twice she laments (John 20:2, 13), “they have taken away my Lord….” It’s an ironic complaint. If He is the Lord, no one could take Him anywhere without His consent! If God gives His angels charge to guard His Messiah in all His ways (Ps. 91:11-12; Luke 4:10-11), then surely God would not permit the crucifixion and then allow the body to be stolen against His sovereign will.

We often suffer needless sorrow because we forget that God is sovereign and that evil men can’t do anything to thwart His eternal purpose. I realize that some horrible atrocities take place. I’m not denying the emotional struggle of working through the aftermath of those atrocities if you or your loved ones are the victims. Often, we will not understand in this lifetime why God allowed such suffering to take place. But there is no comfort apart from the facts of God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ resurrection. If those facts are true, then someday God will work it all together for good (Rom. 8:28). Although evil men crucified Jesus, they were only inadvertently fulfilling God’s sovereign purposes (Acts 4:27-28).

C. The death of a loved one causes sorrow, but we must process it in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Of course we grieve when we lose a loved one. In many cases, we will feel the loss every day for the rest of our lives. It’s not wrong to weep over such losses (John 16:20). But the Bible says that although we grieve, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). The hope that Jesus is risen and that He is coming again to take us to be with Him and with our loved ones who have died in Him, comforts us through our tears (1 Thess. 4:14-18). While we may never understand why God allowed a loved one to die, we can know that the risen Savior has a greater purpose and He sympathizes with us (John 11:1-15, 35). Whatever our loss, we must process our sorrow in light of the sure fact that Jesus is risen and thus His promises are true! Those promises give us hope in our sorrow.

Perhaps the risen Lord is asking you the same question that He asked Mary: “Why are you weeping?” Maybe, like Mary, you’re inclined to think, “That’s a dumb question! Lord, don’t You see what they have done? I’m weeping because they….” The Lord gently says, “Wait a minute! The tomb is empty because I have risen. Now, why are you weeping?”

But, there’s a second important question that the risen Lord asks Mary (John 20:15): “Whom are you seeking?”  He asks it even before she has a chance to answer the first question, because the answer to why she is weeping is found in the answer of whom she is seeking.

2. If we will seek the crucified, risen, and ascended Savior, He turns our sorrows into hope.

Clearly, Mary was seeking a dead Lord (John 20:13, 15). Her love for Jesus is commendable, but really, what good would it have done for Mary to haul off Jesus’ dead body and add a few more embalming spices? A dead religion that dresses up the corpse of a dead prophet is worthless! Only a living Savior who has triumphed over the grave offers hope for our sorrows.

A. We seek the crucified Savior.

Mary knew that, of course. But she had forgotten that Messiah’s death was prophesied in the Scripture hundreds of years before He came. Isaiah 53 predicted in miraculous detail Jesus’ death as a lamb led to the slaughter. It says (Isa. 53:5-6), “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”

David is equally explicit in Psalm 22, which begins with the haunting words that Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” It goes on to describe in detail death by crucifixion, hundreds of years before that was a known means of execution.

Jesus Himself said that He came to this world to lay down His life for His sheep (John 10:11-18). If you do not know Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins, you do not know Him at all. You must come to God as a guilty sinner and trust in Jesus as the only perfect sacrifice. If you trust in His shed blood, God will forgive your sins because of what Jesus did on the cross.

B. We seek the risen Savior.

Just as the Scriptures predicted that Jesus would die, so they predicted His resurrection. In Isaiah 53, the prophet goes on to tell of how the One who was pierced through for our transgressions would also divide the booty with the strong. A dead Messiah who stayed in the grave could not do that! Only a risen Savior could.

In Psalm 22:22, after describing death by crucifixion and talking of God’s deliverance, Messiah proclaims, “I will tell of Your name to my brethren.” Only a risen Savior could do that! Note Jesus’ words (John 20:17), “go to My brethren ….” It is significant that this is the first time Jesus refers to the disciples as His brethren. Why did He do that? Clearly, He said this to fulfill Psalm 22! He is telling Mary to proclaim to His brethren that God has not left Him in the tomb. He is risen and He will ascend to His Father!

C. We seek the ascended Savior.

Jesus told Mary (John 20:17), “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’” This verse raises difficult questions that I can only touch on here: Why does Jesus ask Mary to stop clinging to Him, when He accepted the touch of the other women on resurrection morning (Matt. 28:9) and He invited Thomas to touch Him a week later (John 20:27)? Why does He mention His ascension? Merrill Tenney explains (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 9:191),

He was not refusing to be touched but was making clear that she did not need to detain him, for he had not yet ascended to the Father. He planned to remain with the disciples for a little while; she need not fear that he would vanish immediately. Ultimately he would return to God, and he urged her to tell the disciples that he would do so.

So He was signaling a new relationship with Mary and with His disciples: “After I ascend, you will have My presence spiritually, but not physically.” He didn’t leave the grave to stay with them on earth, but so that He could ascend to the Father where He would intercede for them and ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit. But the fact that Mary was clinging to Jesus shows that He was not a phantom. He was raised bodily from the dead and He ascended bodily into heaven, and He will return bodily in power and glory.

Note also that Jesus both links and yet distinguishes His relationship with the Father and theirs. Jesus by nature is eternally the Son of God, whereas we are only sons of God by adoption. By His incarnation as the Son of Man, Jesus could call the Father, “My God.” We can only do so by grace through faith in Christ as our Mediator. But, in our deepest sorrows, it is a great comfort that we have access to the Father through our risen Lord Jesus Christ!

These two questions, “Why are you weeping?” and “Whom are you seeking?” raise two further questions. First, “What results from seeking the risen Savior?” The answer to this question is stated in my second main heading, and so I include it here:

D. When we seek the risen Savior, He turns our sorrows into hope.

At first, Mary didn’t recognize Jesus, but mistook Him for the gardener. We aren’t told why she didn’t recognize Him. Perhaps, like the two on the Emmaus Road, God prevented her. Or, perhaps it was because she wasn’t expecting to see the risen Lord. But Mary’s gloom was turned to joy when the Lord spoke one word: “Mary!” Her eyes may not yet have recognized Jesus, but her ears knew that voice speaking her name! Jesus said that He is the good Shepherd, who calls His sheep by name. He knows each one and they know Him (John 10:3-5, 14, 27). He still seeks individuals. He still calls His sheep by name. You can take your sorrows to Him and have a private audience with the good Shepherd who knows your name. He can sympathize with all of your sorrow and pain!

And, He calls us His brethren! As I said, this is the first time Jesus has called the disciples His brethren (fulfilling Ps. 22:22). But it’s helpful to note that when He sent this word to them, they were still reeling from their failure and guilt. Peter had failed most prominently, but all the disciples had abandoned Jesus and fled in fear. Although Thomas is the most well-known for his doubting, all the disciples ridiculed the early reports from the women about the resurrection (Luke 24:11). Yet it was these men that had failed and sinned that Jesus calls brethren. When they heard that word from Mary, I can imagine them asking, “What did He call us?” When she affirmed it, their sorrow would have been turned to hope.

Perhaps in your sorrow, you have doubted or even denied the Lord. If you will seek Him as Mary did, you will hear Him call your name and your sorrow will turn to hope.

Finally, “How shall we seek the risen Savior?”

3. Seek the risen Savior honestly, diligently, personally, and obediently.

A. Seek the risen Savior honestly.

Don’t try to cover your tears or get yourself together first. Mary didn’t. Jesus knows your every struggle. Come to Him just as you are: misunderstanding, tears and all.

B. Seek the risen Savior diligently.

Mary was the first at the tomb and she stayed after everyone else had gone home. She diligently sought Jesus because she loved Him. The Savior rewarded her desire to find Him. Later, Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared, so he had to wait a week. Probably, he was too depressed to be around others, but he missed seeing the Savior. Maybe you’re depressed, but don’t let that keep you from showing up where you might find the Savior. Seek Him diligently and you will find Him.

C. Seek the risen Savior personally.

Note verse 13, “my Lord.” The closeness of Mary’s fellowship with Jesus comes through in the way she recognized Him the instant He spoke her name. The only way you will ever find hope in your sorrows is to seek Jesus personally. There is no group plan. Your mate’s seeking Him won’t do for you. You must seek Him yourself. You don’t have to be anyone special—maybe just a demon-possessed girl from an insignificant town—for Him to save you and turn your sorrow into hope.

D. Seek the risen Savior obediently.

He isn’t an Aladdin’s genie, to meet your every wish. He won’t necessarily solve all your problems the way that you think He should. He is the Lord. He commands and His servants must obey. When Jesus told Mary to stop clinging to Him and go to His brethren, I’m sure that she would rather have stayed right there with Jesus. We don’t know whether He vanished before she left, but if He didn’t, it would have been difficult to obey His command. Leave this encounter with the risen Savior to go to a bunch of depressed men who wouldn’t believe her anyway? But, Mary obeyed.

Often, when you seek the Lord, He will not grant your request directly. Instead, He will command you to do something you may not want to do at first. But as you obey Him, He will turn your sorrow into hope.


During World War II, a secret message got through to some American prisoners in a German concentration camp that the war was over. But it would be three more days before that word got to their German captors. During those three days, nothing changed in terms of their hardships in the prison. But their attitude changed from despair to hope. They knew that soon they would be released because the Allies had won the war.

Whatever your sorrows or trials today, you can have hope because Jesus won the victory over death. He has risen and He asks you the same questions that He asked Mary: “Why are you weeping?” “Whom are you seeking?” If through your tears, you will seek the risen Savior honestly, diligently, personally, and obediently, He will turn your sorrows into hope.

Application Questions

  1. How can we know whether our grieving is proper or excessive? Where are the limits (biblically)?
  2. Some attempt to comfort the grieving by saying that God was not sovereign over the tragedy. Why does this false teaching rob us of comfort, rather than give us comfort?
  3. Why does everything in the Christian faith rest on the bodily resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:12-19)?
  4. When we have failed the Lord badly, how can we be assured of His forgiveness and restoration?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Resurrection, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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