A Heavenly Conference
Eric Lui highlights Richard Sibbes' book on the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb on the first Easter Sunday.
When Jesus was raised from the dead, who was the first person he spoke to? Richard Sibbes, a Puritan in the 16th century, gives us an exposition of the intimate tenderness, love and comfort in the interaction between Christ and Mary Magdalene in the garden tomb in his book, A Heavenly Conference. Here, I attempt to summarise some of the key points from the book.
Jesus’ first appearance after his resurrection was to the woman whom He had cast out seven demons (Lk 8:2). She was also the ‘sinful’ woman who came with an alabaster jar of ointment to anoint Jesus’ feet with tears in a Pharisee’s house (Lk 7:38). Jesus said of her, “her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.” (Lk 7:47) In John 20:15-17, we read what Jesus said to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection:
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.’”
Jesus’ first words were, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” These questions were not for his own satisfaction, for He knew it well enough, but to draw out what God had hidden in her heart. But she had mistaken him to be the gardener, which the author said is common among sinners who are in the throes of desolation and disconsolation. In such moments, we tend to imagine Christ to be a judge, rather than a comforter to our sorrows. The same question can also apply to us when we are weeping in sorrow—what is the cause of weeping when Christ has risen and our sins are forgiven? If we have an interest in his death and resurrection, we have no cause for grief.
Physically, Mary was too weak to be able to carry the body of Christ away, but love thinks nothing is impossible, “for love is strong as death” (Song of Sol 8:6). She was full of love when she loved, and full of grief when she grieved, and full of joy when she had joy. She had large affections. But affections should be grounded in truth. The truth is Christ had promised her and his disciples that He would rise again.
Not bearing any longer to see her sorrow, He called her name, “Mary” to reveal himself to her. The two angels in the tomb had spoken the same words to her before, but till Christ spoke, nothing could comfort her. Christ spoke just one word and it was enough to comfort her, because there was such fullness of spirit and comfort in that one word. She replied also in one word, “Rabboni!” She was too full of affection to express herself in more words. Christ knows the names of the stars; He knows everything by name, but the word He spoke to Mary was with so much compassion for her, a word spoken out of pity, out of his love and out of his former familiarity and acquaintance with her. It was a word that provided so much comfort and satisfaction to her soul.
What can we learn from Mary’s case? All of us are like Mary in a spiritual sense. Sometimes we miss Christ; we miss the sweet communion with Christ in our devotions and prayers. When we are in this situation, we must do as Mary did: we must turn over every stone to find him, and leave not one till we find him. if we still cannot find him, we must persevere in waiting, and Christ in his time will come. Just like Joseph in Egypt, he could not suppress his pity for his brothers any longer and revealed himself, “I am Joseph.” So, Christ will reveal himself to us in due time. Let us use all means to seek Christ and the sweet sense of his love, which is better than life itself.
Another lesson we can learn from this encounter between Christ and Mary is Christ spoke directly to Mary by calling her name. She responded with a direct answer. So it is for us. When I read or hear of a general mercy for all sinners to repent and believe, and that Christ came to save a world of sinners, what advantage would that be to me, unless Christ, by his Holy Spirit, speaks to my soul, and says in particular, “I am your salvation”? Therefore, in our prayers, let us desire the Lord to reveal himself directly to us. This was the prayer of Paul for the Ephesians, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph 1:17).
Yet, it was not satisfaction enough for her affection. She ventured to cling to him and to hold him in her arms. It aroused so much affection in her that she desired more and more to have communion with him. He had to withdraw himself from her and told her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father…”
Why did Jesus say this to Mary? In a few verses from there, Jesus asked one of his disciples, Thomas, to put his finger into his side, which is more than touching him (Jn 20:27). A probable reason is that Mary’s carnal passion in running to him and clinging to him, is inconsistent with the stature of the risen Christ who is now glorified, for his resurrection was the first degree of his glorification. It would be not fitting for a woman with carnal motive to cling to him. The days of his humiliation has passed, when Mary could be allowed to be close to him to anoint him.
In view of the stature of a risen Christ, we must also take heed of not regarding Christ with a mean and base understanding. Paul said in 2 Cor 5:16-17,
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
Paul is saying that when Christ was on earth, He was of such a tribe, of such a stature and had such gifts and qualities. But now Christ is Lord of lords, and King of kings. He is now glorious in heaven, and so Paul should regard him as such.
As Jesus continued, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father” – this seems to imply that it is another manner of touching that He looked forward to from Mary, which is better for her and for him. It is to touch him by the hands of faith when He has ascended to the Father. At this present time, as He has not ascended to the Father, He has more work to do: He has to manifest himself to his disciples in full. When He is ascended, all is done, and then there is a place for touch. He expects to be touched in a gracious, spiritual manner, which is by faith. As Augustine had said, “Send up thy faith to heaven, and then thou touchest Christ.”
Christ's Commission to Mary
“but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
It is great irony that a woman was sent to be the apostle of the apostles. Mary Magdalene was sent to instruct the apostles of the great news of Christ’s resurrection and ascension to heaven. The author said, “By a woman death came into the world, and by a woman life is preached to the apostles.” This is because she was more affectionate, and affection is all that counts in religion, although judgment must shine before it. Religion is specially of the heart and affections. She showed great affection for Christ, as she stood out when the rest went away from the cross (Jn 19:25). Her affection was consistent and broke through all difficulties. So God honoured her to be the first preacher of his resurrection.
Although his disciples had abandon him and denied him when He was arrested by the Jewish leaders, Christ still had such strong love and bonding to them to call them his brothers. As for us, how are we Christ’s brothers and sisters? He is the Son of God by nature; and all of us now are by grace and adoption (Rom 8:17). Christ is the first-born of many brethren (Rom 8:29). In Christ we have one Father with Christ. We have one honour, as we shall be all kings and heirs of heaven, as He is. Apostle Paul makes the connection in Gal 4:7, “but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Now we are all in Christ, sons of God, heirs with him. He is a man like us, as He became a man with human nature. But a greater comfort in calling him our brother is that He is our brother in a spiritual sense. He is the first Son of God, and we in him are also God’s sons. And therefore, “go to my brothers” to tell the message of ascension and glorification of Christ by Mary is also applicable to us.
Consider the sweetness of message that He sent by Mary Magdalene to his unworthy ‘brothers’. It was full of love for them, because he had died for them and had given his blood to make them his brothers. Then think of his free love to us. It is not for our worthiness or unworthiness, but of his own free love that He came from heaven to take our nature. It is his own free love that He came to die; and therefore, think not of our worthiness nor unworthiness, but consider the command of God to believe. Cast ourselves on our brother, He will own us in our worst condition. This is the grand comfort of being called a brother by Christ.
The author went on to explain the significance of Jesus’ saying of returning “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”—on the relationship between God and Christ and the comfort we have in God being our God. I strongly encourage everyone to read the book and be encouraged!
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