by Rev. Antony W. Ball
Trouble is, we don’t even know for sure who that ‘disciple who had reached the tomb first’ was, we’re just told that ‘he saw and believed’. We think it might have been the apostle John (the writer of the Gospel) who mysteriously refers a couple of times1 to ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ (hopefully He loved all of them!) and to a whispered conversation during the Last Supper between that disciple and Jesus, which the other Gospel-writers don’t even mention. We think John may have been referring to himself, without wanting to boast by putting himself centre-stage. Anyway, we’re told that this disciple ‘saw and believed’ – but believed what, exactly? He and Peter had been told by Mary Magdalene that Jesus’ tomb was empty – so either someone had stolen the body or else a miracle had occurred. The two disciples had run to the tomb together but he’d got there first and just peered inside, whereas Simon Peter (impulsive as always) ran straight into the tomb. They…
…saw the linen wrappings lying and the napkin which had been over His head,
not lying with the wrappings but rolled together in a place by itself.
It was almost as if the body had evaporated – anyone stealing the body would surely not have bothered to unwrap it first.
Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first went in too,
and he saw and believed;
until then they had not understood the scriptures, which showed that He must rise from the dead.
Suddenly, for John (if it was he), the penny dropped and he realized for the first time what Jesus had meant by saying, several times, that He would “rise from the dead”. Simon Peter and John went off to tell the other disciples, but Mary Magdalene stayed there at the tomb, had her vision of angels and then became the first person to see the risen Jesus face-to-face2 – the rest of the apostles would have to wait until later that evening when Jesus appeared to them in the Upper Room3.
We each become aware of the risen Jesus in a different way. John did not need to see Jesus for himself – he believed as soon as he saw the linen wrappings in the tomb. Peter may have taken longer to be convinced (perhaps when Mary Magdalene returned and told them “I have seen the Lord!”, or perhaps not until that evening in the Upper Room). What matters is that, sooner or later, we do come to believe in the resurrection, not as some sort of ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ but as a living, breathing human being re-inhabiting the same human body in which He had been crucified4. As far as St. Paul is concerned, belief in the resurrection is the one essential, decisive factor of our being Christian5, without which our whole faith is null and void. Speaking personally, I’ve never experienced that ‘penny dropped’ moment of belief that many Christians recount as part of their ‘conversion experience’ – for me, belief has come gradually, but no less convincingly.
1 e.g. Jn xiii 23-26, Jn xxi 7
2 Jn xx 14
3 Jn xx 19-25
4 proving He was not a ghost by eating a piece of fish and inviting the disciples to examine His body (Lk xxiv 36-43)
5 1 Cor xv 12-17