New Creation in John 20

April 26, 2011

An ancient stone that covered a tomb (The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem.)


As I was preparing my Easter sermon last week, I was very tempted to pursue a theme that emerges from the text of John 20:1-18, but I couldn’t make it fit. If I were in one of those mega-churches whose pastors preach 40-minute sermons I might have included this, but then again… My congregation would be asleep. Sometimes I have to tell myself, “Save it for the blog.” That’s what this post is about.

The theme is this: Easter morning means, among other things, that New Creation—a new kind of life in light of Christ’s resurrection, which will be completed in our own resurrection—has already begun for those of us who believe in Jesus. Let me explain.

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.” John really wants us to know that it was the first day of the week. In fact, he repeats it later in v. 19, when the disciples are gathered in the upper room: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week.

(John is such a deeply symbolic and theological gospel, we can be confident that the emphasis on “the first day” isn’t incidental. This is why John’s three reminders that the beloved disciple reaches the tomb before Peter is so intriguing yet elusive. What on earth does that mean?)

The scene is set: Darkness on the morning of this first day. For a gospel whose first words are “In the beginning”—and speaks of the creation of the world through the Word, who is Christ—we should hear a faint but deliberate echo from those first words of creation in Genesis; when “darkness covered the face of the deep, and the spirit of God swept over the waters.” The Spirit of God is once again at work, but it’s no longer the first day of Creation—that’s where the gospel begins back in John 1:1. It’s now the eighth day.

Recall the order of creation in Genesis 1. Do you remember what happened on the sixth day? Humanity was created in God’s image. I have struggled in the past to understand what it means to be created in God’s image. But I read something last week that was very helpful. Maybe it will help you. Theologian N.T. Wright describes a museum in Oxford that collects various relics and artifacts from ancient civilizations and centuries long past. The museum includes statues of Roman emperors and their families. These statues aren’t terribly interesting to non-historians, except they allow us to say, “Oh, so that’s what Caesar Augustus or Caesar Tiberius looked like.” What’s interesting, Wright says, is where these statues were found.

They weren’t found in Rome, the capitol of the Empire, where the emperor and his family lived. They were found in the far-flung fringes of the Empire, far from Italy. These statues of Caesar were a way of telling the local population, “Here’s the person who rules you. Here’s the person to whom you owe your allegiance. Here’s the person who has brought you the ‘peace of Rome’—to which the local populations might add, ‘Here’s the person to whom we pay all these taxes!’” I suspect even today, if you go to countries whose tinpot dictators cling most tightly to power, you are likely to find many icons, images, and statues of the man in charge.

This idea of a ruler putting an image of himself in the country he rules gives us an important clue to understanding what it means for humanity to be created in God’s image.

When God created the world, he put images of himself in this world—no mere statues, of course: they are us, humanity. God gave us a beautiful garden to tend and care for. God made us his representatives in the world, reflecting his glory, ruling over his creation lovingly and wisely, and enabling his creation to give honor back to God. Obviously, we messed that up royally through sin. Now the image of God within us is badly damaged. We still reflect God’s glory to some extent, but we do so like a cracked and broken mirror. Who’s going to restore us? Who’s going to make us whole again? Who’s going to enable us to be everything we were created to be?

You can probably guess the answer. The sixth day of the week is Friday. The sixth day in John’s gospel was Good Friday. On that day, before handing Jesus over to be crucified, Pontius Pilate announces to the angry mob: “Behold the man!”—echoing God’s creation of the first man. Only this man, this new Adam, wasn’t like the first Adam. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 5, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

On behalf of the humanity that God loves and wants to save, God in Christ restores this broken, shattered, tarnished, cracked image of God within us. God won a victory for us on the cross. And just as God finished his work of creation on the sixth day of Creation, so God in Christ finished the work of new creation on the sixth day. As if to make it completely clear, what does Jesus say on the sixth day? “It is finished.”

A couple of more intriguing details, which echo the creation account in Genesis. Where does Mary encounter the risen Lord? In a garden. Think of the Garden of Eden and also of humanity’s original task, which was to care for this garden. For whom does Mary mistake Jesus? The gardener. This is another instance of John’s use of irony: in a sense, Jesus is the gardener, fulfilling humanity’s original purpose in a way that humanity couldn’t, and also harvesting the fruits of his resurrection.

So this first Easter Sunday, the eighth day, is actually the first day of the New Creation. Only—when Mary Magdalene and the other disciples go to the tomb on this Easter morning—no one knows it just yet. That’s what they’re going to find out.

These ideas come directly from N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part Two (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 117-118.

6 Responses to “New Creation in John 20”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I really like this post. Christ as the new “gardener” in the “new creation.” That’s great!

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Thanks, Tom!

  3. John Says:

    “This is why John’s three reminders that the beloved disciple reaches the tomb before Peter is so intriguing yet elusive. What on earth does that mean?)”

    Brent – I think I know what this means. to me, this is one of the more humorous parts of the Gospel. John, like all of us, was human. The Apostles were always, I’m sure, vying for Jesus’ attention and competing to be the favorite. John refers to himself in his Gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” so of course he is going to add, “by the way, did I mention I was the first one there?” which I find rather humorous. But he does also mention that he let Peter go in first, which demonstrates that even back then Peter was considered “the Rock” upon which Christ built his Church. John deferred to Peter in that situation.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      John, that is a very interesting thought about John (the Apostle). Never heard anyone suggest that before. Truly they did all argue about who was the greatest, and James and John asked if they could sit on the right and left hand.

      Tom Harkins

  4. Jane Rogers Says:

    Brent, just when I thought I knew it all about John’s Gospel, you bring to me this whole new thought! I loved it! Thanks!

  5. Grant Says:

    Brent, I never noticed this blog link before. Great message. I, like Jane, hadn’t seen or heard this correllation before. Just shows again that the total depth of the Scriptures can never be fully plumbed. Why anyone would ever find them boring is beyond me.


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