Christ’s Manifestation to Mary Magdalene
“Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” — John xx. 17.
*“This date is an approximation of when this sermon was deliver.”
THIS was the first appearance of our Lord. Jesus Christ after his resurrection. In sundry places and at divers times, during the ensuing forty days, he appeared to different disciples, showing himself openly to them when they were assembled for worship, and at other seasons; but this was the first occasion of his being seen by any of his followers after he had risen from the dead. The whole incident is full of consolation; and we, who are poor weary pilgrims through this earthly wilderness, need some words of comfort every now and then to cheer us on the road. May the Holy Spirit sweetly assist us in meditating now upon the things of Christ, and may our hearts burn within us as he speaks to us by the way!
I. First, IT IS PECULIARLY ENCOURAGING TO REMEMBER THAT THE FIRST PERSON TO WHOM OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST APPEARED AFTER HIS RESURRECTION WAS MARY MAGDALENE.
Mark expressly says, “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.” Romanists will have it that Jesus Christ first of all appeared to the Virgin Mary, his mother, and they have invented some curious stories in order to give her this peculiar honour. This shows that, in their opinion, there was a special favour conferred upon the person who first beheld the risen Saviour; and I need not say that their assertion that it was the Virgin Mary is only just another instance of their common practice of perverting the truth. Undoubtedly, Mary Magdalene was the first person who saw the Saviour after his resurrection; at least, if the Roman guards saw him when they shook, and became as dead men through fear of the angel who rolled away the stone from the sepulchre, they were not Christ’s disciples; so I mean that Mary Magdalene was the first of his faithful followers who had the honour of seeing him after he rose from the dead.
It was a woman, then, who first beheld the risen Saviour. It was a woman who was first in the transgression; it had, therefore, to be a woman who should first behold Jesus Christ when he rose from the grave. If there be — and there certainly is — some degree of opprobrium connected with womanhood, because Eve first of all touched the forbidden fruit, there is a far greater degree of glory now connected with it, because Mary Magdalene first of all beheld the Saviour after his rising from the tomb.
Not only was it a woman to whom Christ first manifested himself after his resurrection, but it was a woman out of whom he had cast seven devils. I am inclined to think that there were other devils in Mary Magdalene beside those that made her a demoniac. Luther used to say of her, “So many devils, so many sins.” She had been first a sinner, then she became a demoniac, and afterwards Christ changed her into a saint. How strange it was that Jesus should appear first to her! What, give the highest honour to her who had the most of sin! Sweet thought! Then, if —
“I the chief of sinners am,” —
if I have an interest in the blood of Christ, there is no reason why I should not climb to the greatest heights of fellowship, and enjoy the best of the good things which the Lord hath prepared for them that love him. When Jesus takes a sinner to himself , his pardon is so complete, — so totally does God, for Christ’s sake, overlook all previous sin, — that, although he may not be as great a saint as the very chief of the apostles, who did most grievously rebel, so that he only obtained mercy because he did it ignorantly in unbelief, he may be the most highly-favoured of the servants of the Lord, and may have very special revelations made to him. The experience of Mary Magdalene should be a great source of comfort to you who, after years of sin, have lately found the Saviour. Think not that those years that you spent in folly, though they must ever make you weep, will be the means of robbing you of fellowship with him. Oh, no! he will restore to you the years that the locusts have eaten, and he will not take away from you the pleasure of enjoying the bliss of God on earth, and certainly he will not diminish your glorious happiness when you shall stand before his throne above.
In thinking over this subject, I have come to the conclusion that Mary Magdalene was selected to see Christ first because she loved him most. John loved Jesus much, but Mary loved him more. John looked into the empty sepulchre, and then went away home; but Mary stood there, and wept, until her risen Lord appeared to her. Love, you know, is a keen-eyed grace. People usually say that love is blind. In one sense, the saying is true; but, in another sense, there never were such good eyes anywhere else as those which love carries in her head. Love will look for Jesus, and discover him where none else can. If I set the unloving to read a chapter in the Bible, they will bind no Saviour there; but if I ask the gracious Robert Hawker to read that same portion of Scripture, he finds in it the name of Jesus from beginning to end. If I beg one, who is simply a critical scholar, to study a Psalm, he sees no Messiah there; but if I set an enthusiastic lover of the Saviour to read it, he sees him, if not in every verse, still here and there he has glimpses of his glory.
If you want to see Jesus, and to have sweet revelations of his glory, you must love him. I must add to that remark, that you must weep for him much, you must seek him diligently, seek him in the darkness and the twilight, seek him when the sun has risen, seek him at the sepulchre before the stone is rolled away; you must seek him when you behold that the stone is gone; you must seek him in the hollow tomb; you must seek him in the garden; you must seek him in life; you must seek him in death ; and then, the more diligent you are in seeking, the greater is the probability that Christ will manifest himself to you, and that you shall rejoice in finding him. Mary Magdalene was one of those who went forth bearing precious seed; she went forth weeping, but she returned to the disciples rejoicing, bringing her sheaves with her, for she had a joyous message for them. She had sown in tears when she went to seek her Lord, but she wept with joy when she found him in the garden. Happy was that woman who found Jesus, and who believed; truly she might rejoice in him, for she was highly favoured among women.
You see, then, that there is much sweetness, far more than I can tell you, in the thought that Mary Magdalene was the first person who was chosen to see the Lord Jesus Christ after his resurrection.
II. Secondly, we will notice SOME REASONS FOR THE PROHIBITION GIVEN IN THE TEXT. Why was it that Jesus said to Mary, “Touch me not”? And why was it that he gave this very strange reason for the prohibition, “for I not yet ascended to my Father”?
There seems to me to be great comfort in this message; I know it has comforted me, so I think I understand it alright. When Mary Magdalene had recognized her risen Redeemer, and had called him “Rabboni, that is to say, Master,” her next impulse was to cast herself upon him, and embrace him. But Jesus said to her, “No; embrace me not;” — for that is the real meaning of the word, — “I have something for you to do for me, so I cannot allow you to stop to manifest your affection; there will be plenty of time to do that another day. I want to send you to my disciples at once with a message; therefore, cling not to me. The strengthening of my disciples is preferable even to the embracing of your Lord. Cling not to me, for I am not yet ascended.” It strikes me that Mary was half afraid that her Master would go away directly; and she thought, “That is my Master, for I know his voice; but I fear that he will vanish; the Spirit of God will take him away.” She thought concerning Christ just as Obadiah. did concerning Elijah. When Obadiah found the prophet, Elijah said to him, “Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here.” “And he said, What have I sinned, that thou wouldest deliver thy servant into the hand of Ahab, to slay me? As the Lord thy God liveth, there is no nation or kingdom, whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee: and when they said, He is not there; he took an oath of the kingdom and nation, that they found thee not. And now thou sayest, Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here. And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the Spirit of the Lord shall carry thee whither I know not; and so when I come and tell Ahab, and he cannot find thee, he shall slay me.” Obadiah expected that Elijah would be spirited away, and Mary thought the same concerning Christ; so she said to herself, “I will hold him fast. This may be my only opportunity; so I will not let him go.” But Jesus said, “I am not going away; I shall be here a little while longer; there will be time enough for embraces yet. The first thing I want you to do is to go to my disciples, and tell them that I have risen from the grave, and that I am about to ascend to heaven.”
If you ask, “Why did Jesus speak thus to Mary Magdalene?” I think it is not difficult to explain the reason. Let me suppose that one of you has said, “I will have an hour for quiet meditation; I will cast myself upon my knees; I will open the Word of God; I will seek the Spirit to rest upon me; and I will hope that I shall be able to see Jesus, and to clasp him in my arms.” Just as you have formed this resolve, a friend calls, and says that he has an important engagement for you to fulfil. Perhaps he wants you to attend a prayer-meeting, or to visit the sick, or to see some enquirer, or to do something for the Lord’s cause; and you say, “There now; I expected to have had this evening for contemplation. Oh, I wish I had not so much to do with the church, for it robs me of my quiet hours! I love those sweet seasons of retirement when I can embrace the Saviour, and clasp him to my heart. Why is it that I am to go out and feed the flock, and not find time for fellowship and communion so long and frequent as I desire?” Whenever you feel inclined to talk like that, think that you hear your Master saying to you, “Embrace me not; there will be time in heaven for that. Go thou to my brethren, and carry to them some words of consolation; for while it is sweet for thee to embrace me, it is sweeter to me for thee to go and embrace my poor brother, and show him the way into my kingdom.”
God forbid that we should say one word against the high joys of contemplation! It is a blessed employment; but, sometimes, work is better than worship; or rather, work is worship in its best form. Sometimes, it is a higher service to go to see the sick than to be at home on your knees. Sometimes, it is a more devout way of serving God to be busy for the church, even in what seem to be temporal matters, than to be seated at home, like Mary of old, at the feet of the Saviour, listening to his words, but doing nothing for his cause. I believe Martha is at times a great deal more useful than Mary. If Mary had always sat at the Saviour’s feet, she would have deserved no commendation. It was well that she sat there then, for it was a proper occasion; but if she had sat there always, and left Martha to attend to the serving alone, then it would have been an abuse of her privileges. There are times when the Master must say, “Embrace me not; but go to my brethren, and tell them that I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”
III. Now, having noticed these two portions of our text, which I think are full of comfort, — if not to you, they certainly have been to me, — I will now endeavour to dilate upon THE MESSAGE OF OUR LORD TO MARY MAGDALENE.
Jesus said to her, “Go to my brethren.” that, the higher Jesus Christ gets in glory, the more sweet are his expressions of love. You know that, before his death, he said to his disciples, “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” Yet now that he had risen from the dead, he called them by a still higher name. Possibly, some of them thought, “If he should rise from the dead, he will be ashamed of us poor fishermen. He called us ‘friends’ when he was in his poverty; will he not return to that word ‘servants’ when he rises in majesty from the tomb?” No; when he had risen in dignity, it was just the reverse. The higher his dignity, the lower his condescension. “Go to my brethren.”
There is another thing to be noted about that sweet word “brethren” as Christ then used it, for his disciples were never in a more sinful condition than they were at that time; or, rather, they had never so grossly sinned as they had done a little before the Saviour’s resurrection. They were with him every day; they were, all of them, in a measure faithful, and never forsook their Master, and never denied him, till he came to die. Yet, all the time they were true and faithful, he called them friends. You would have thought that, when three of them slept in the garden during his awful agony, when all forsook him and fled, and when Peter especially denied him, the Saviour would have said, “I called you friends when you were faithful, I will now see whether I can stretch a point, even to call you servants.” But we see that, the blacker was their sin, the stronger was his love; the more defiled they were, the more sweetly did he talk to them. He said to them, in deeds though not in words, “Henceforth, I call you not friends, for a mere friend is no relation; but I call you brethren, for my Father is your Father, and my God is your God.”
Carry those two sweet thoughts away with you, for sweet indeed they will be to you if the Holy Spirit shall teach you the full meaning of them, — that the higher the Saviour gets, the more free is He in the expression of his love; and that other thought, that the farther the disciples ran away from their Master, the more lovingly did he call them back again. This is marvellous and strange, but it is nevertheless true; who cannot derive comfort from such thoughts as these? I know, ye feeble followers of Jesus, ye have sometimes thought that he loved his people when he was on earth, but that now he reigns exalted on high, he has forgotten such of them as you are; but, be ye assured that, inasmuch as he has reached the summit of his glory, he doth now manifest the summit of his love. The more he is exalted, the more doth he manifest himself.
Possibly, some of you are thinking that you have so greatly sinned that you cannot expect him to love you. If so, you can appropriate this thought that the sweetest promises in the Bible are for the very people who deserve them the least. There are promises for those who follow close to their Saviour, and very sweet ones, too; but some of the tenderest promises in the Word of God are for those who have wandered furthest away from him. Take, for instance, this gracious message, “Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger for ever. Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the Lord thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith the Lord. Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” Blessed Jesus, when we should have thought that our sins would cause thee to speak most harshly against us, we find that thou hast the softest words for those who have most erred; and that our sins, which must make thee angry, seem also to make thee invite us back again with sweeter words than thou dost use to those who have not grieved thee as much as we have done.
Note again, every time our Lord Jesus Christ says anything to his brethren, it is something that requires faith on their part. Why did he not say, “Go and tell my brethren that I have risen from the grave”? Because they did not need any faith for that. He had risen; that was a fact that they could discover by their eyesight, and some of them by their touch. “No,” says he, “I will make large drafts upon my people’s faith. Go and tell them that I am about to ascend to my Father; that is something great for them to believe.” Do you know, Christian friends, that the more you have of the manifest presence of Christ, the more faith you require? Have you not often asked to have a promise brought home to your heart by the special influences of the Spirit? Now, recollect, the more promises you have, the more faith you will require. The words of Christ demand faith on our part. A manifestation from Christ is as truly a demand upon our faith as when he hides his face from us When he hides his face, he requires us still to believe in him even when he says nothing; but when he speaks, he requires us to believe something that he says. The more manifestations Christ grants to you, the more is your need of faith.
“I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” Luther was right when he said that all the pith of divinity lay in the pronouns. “My Father and your Father.” “He is' my Father’ by eternal generation. I was begotten of my Father before any of the worlds were made. He is ‘your Father’ by regeneration. He hath begotten you again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He is ‘my Father,’ as I am the Head of the Church, Christhood, as God and man; and as I am — your I call Representative him Father in, and my you are all gathered up in me, he is your Father, too: my Father, and your Father.” How sweet is the word Father in such a connection! He is our Father because he has the deepest love to protect us; and if we doubt whether his power is equal to his love, let us notice what Jesus next says, “I ascend to my - God, and your God.” And inasmuch as God is omnipotent, and the Father is love, you have all the love you need, and all the power equal to that love. It seems sweet to hear Christ calling his Father his God. As he was a man, the Father was his God; as he was Christ, the God-man, the Father was God over him; and speaking as a man, he could say, “My Father is greater than. I,” God the Father being greater than the Mediator, who said, in effect, “As man, I worship him even as you worship him; as man, I look up to him as my Father the same as you do. He is my Father as he is your Father.”
I have only to make one other remark, how beautifully the Saviour refers to the believer’s union with himself! The whole Bible, when it is rightly understood, points to the believer’s union with Christ, and this sweet verse is full of that blessed truth, Christ and his people have united interests. When Christ calls God his Father, we may call God “our Father,” too. In his inheritance we have a joint interest; he is Heir of all things, and we are joint-heirs with him. In relationship, Christ and his people are closely united. His brethren are our brethren; his Father is our Father. Even in service, as Christ was man, as he was the Servant of God for our sakes, so the Master whom he served is the Master whom we serve, and we together take the same service upon ourselves, believing that we together shall have the same kingdom conferred upon us, and shall reign with Christ for ever and ever.
An old divine calls Mary Magdalene apostola apostolorum, that is, the apostle to the apostles. An apostle is one who is sent, and Mary Magdalene was sent to those whom Christ afterwards sent to the ends of the earth, In like manner, a poor humble woman may be an apostle to one who shall afterwards be a great divine. Let us hear, then, what this great apostle to the apostles has to say to us. She does not now tell us that Jesus Christ is about to ascend, she tells us that he has ascended; and whenever we draw around the table of our Lord, let us derive sweet influence from the fact that Jesus Christ has ascended. He ascended as a Conqueror, leading captivity captive. He ascended as a Forerunner for us, entering within the veil. He has ascended to make preparation for his people, according to his promise, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” He has ascended as our Intercessor; there he stands for ever interceding before the throne of God for us, his children, his friends, his brethren. Oh, that we may now put our unfeigned and constant trust in him who died, putting equal trust in him who rose again, making this our glory, both in his dying and in his rising, that he hath ascended up on high, and taken his lawful place at the right hand of God, where he also maketh intercession for us!
Oh, that those who are dead in sin were quickened by God’s Spirit that they might know something of the preciousness of having a Father in heaven, the same Father that Jesus Christ had! Sinner, I pray the Lord to teach thee to believe in Jesus Christ; and if thou hast sinned with Mary Magdalene, may he help thee to believe with her, that thou mayest share in her sweet manifestations, and have a gracious message like hers to tell some day to the rest of thy brethren!