Sermon: The Ascension: John 20:17-18

Old Testament Reading: Psalm 22:16-31

“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.” (Psalm 22:16–31, ESV)

New Testament Reading: John 20:17-18

“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.’’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her.” (John 20:17–18, ESV)


Imagine a soldier who has been deployed. He kisses his wife and children goodbye and leaves for a foreign land. He is a good soldier. He fights in many battles, and he wins many victories. The day comes for him to go out on his last patrol. He goes out and he fights in the biggest battle of all, and he returns to the base safe and sound – victorious.

Tell me, brothers and sisters, is his mission over? Is his mission complete in the moment that he returns to the base? In some respects we might say, ‘yes! He has done his duty. His service is complete!’ But I would imagine that the mission is not over in his mind, nor is it complete in the mind of his wife and children until he walks through the front door and embraces them.

The mission of Christ corresponds to this. We speak often of his obedient life, his sacrificial death, and his victorious resurrection. But Christ’s work was not truly complete until he was received home into the loving embrace of the Father. It was then that he would send the Spirit to continue his work in the world until his return.

We speak often of the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but we should not neglect the significance of the ascension of Christ to the Father. It was the ascension that completed the circuit. From the Father the eternal Son of God came, taking upon himself human nature, and to the Father Jesus, who is the Christ, would return.

Remember that Mary was the first to see the empty tomb. She ran to tell Peter and John. Evidently she followed them back to the empty tomb. They investigated and returned home, but Mary lingered at the tomb, and she wept. It was while she was weeping that the Lord appeared to her. This was the first time that the risen Lord was seen. Mary did not recognize him at first, but when he said her name she responded “in Aramaic, ‘’!’ (which means Teacher)” (John 20:16, ESV). Evidently Mary grabbed ahold of Jesus. Matthew’s gospel tells us that she “took hold of his feet and worshiped him.” (Matthew 28:9, ESV) It was in response to this kind of touch – this clinging – that Jesus said,“Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father…”(John 20:17, ESV).

Some English translations have Jesus telling Mary, “do not touch me” instead of “do not cling to me”. The NET and KJV are this way. “Do not touch me” is a valid translation, for that is what the greek word means – “to touch” – but it can be misleading. It might give the impression that there was something about Jesus’ resurrection body that was simply untouchable, as if he were no longer flesh and blood, but some kind of phantom or spirit.

But we should remember that when Thomas saw the risen Lord for the first time, Jesus did not say, ‘do not touch me, Thomas’, but rather, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27, ESV) Jesus did not forbid touch, but rather invited it.

The problem was not that Mary touched Jesus, but that she clung to him. She grabbed ahold of him and would not let go. She grabbed ahold of him as if to say, ‘certainly you are here to stay now.’ But Jesus did not raise from the dead in order to go on living in this fallen world. He rose to ascend. This is why he said to Mary, “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.’” (John 20:17, ESV)

Acts 1:3 tells us that “[Jesus] presented himself alive to [his disciples] after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3, ESV) For forty days Jesus appeared to his disciples in his resurrection before “being lifted up… a cloud [taking] him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9, ESV)

What an interesting forty days this must have been! For forty days the risen Lord presented himself to his disciples before ascending. Why did he do this? The obvious reason was to prove to them that he was alive. But I would argue that Jesus also sought to demonstrate what kind of life he was raised to.

Have you ever thought about this? Have you ever asked the question, what is the nature of Christ’s resurrection? What is the character or quality of it? Do you know what I mean by this? You and I are alive, but it is a certain kind of life that we enjoy. It is life in a fallen world. It is life that is perishable. It is life characterized by dishonor and weakness. You and I are alive, but it is life of a particular kind – life of a particular quality. But what kind of life was Christ raised to?

Let me illustrate what I’m getting at by drawing your attention to the fact that there are actually two resurrections reported in John’s Gospel. The first is the resurrection of Lazarus, and the second is the resurrection Christ.

What do these two resurrections share in common? Well, in both instances human beings experience physical death. They died and they were buried being raised to life on the third day. Both Lazarus and Christ experienced these things.

But I hope you would also agree that these two resurrections were different in some very significant ways. Pertinent to the topic at hand is the fact that Lazarus was raised – not to a higher order of being, not to an advancement of life, not to ascend – but to life as he knew it before. He was brought back to this world. He was brought back to life as a natural man – a fallen man – given again to sin, sickness, and death. That was the kind of resurrection that Lazarus’ experienced.

Tell me, brother and sisters, was this the kind of resurrection that Christ experienced? I hope that you would agree that it was not. Christ’s resurrection from the dead was far more glorious.

Let us consider for a moment the quality or character of Christ’s resurrection. What kind of resurrection was it?

Jesus Was Raised A Human Being

The first thing to notice is that Jesus Christ was raised as a human being. This has already been said, but it is worth repeating. He was born a man, he died a man, and he was raised a man. He was not raised as a phantom or an angel, but as the Son of Man.

Luke 24:37 makes this very clear. When Jesus appeared to his disciples,

“…they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.” (Luke 24:37–43, ESV)

I have already made reference to Jesus’ interaction with doubting Thomas. He said ,“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27, ESV)

Jesus was very much concerned to prove to his disciples that he was raised as a man.

Jesus Was Raised To A Higher State Of Being

Notice, secondly, that Jesus was raised to a higher state of being. He was raised in glory.

When Jesus was born into this world he was born with a natural body – a body like ours, yet without sin – a body given to sickness and death – a body which grew tired and hungry and thirsty.

His natural body was perishable. Jesus could die. And he did die! But he was raised with a spiritual body. And this spiritual body is imperishable. Unlike Lazarus, Jesus rose from the dead never to die again.

Jesus’ natural body – the one that he was born with – the one like yours and mine – was given to dishonor. Think of the way that Christ suffered in the flesh. Think of how he was mistreated. But he was not raised in dishonor. No he was raised by the Spirit in glory.

His natural body was given also to weakness. Christ grew weary according to the flesh. He was tempted. He aged. He was beat down to the point of not being able to carry his own cross. Eventually his body gave out and succumbed to death. But he was not raised in weakness. No, he was raised by the Spirit in power.

Jesus was born with a natural body like yours and mine. But he was raised with a spiritual body – a glorified body – a body fully empowered, upheld, and exalted by the Holy Spirit.

This may sound strange to you, but it is precisely the language that Paul uses to describe the nature of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Please turn there with me.

Notice that the resurrection is certainly the theme of 1 Corinthians 15.

In verses 1-11 he makes a case for the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. ‘He was seen by so many people’, Paul insists.

In verses 12-19 Paul teaches that if Christ is not raised then our faith is futile. He says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19, ESV)

And in verse 20 we read, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20, ESV) What does this mean that Christ is “the firstfruits”? It means that what Christ has experienced in his resurrection, we too shall experience. In other words, Christ was raised, not as an isolated individual, but as a forerunner – a prototype – a trailblazer of sorts. He was the first of many. “Firstfruits” is an agricultural term. It is used to refer to the first of the fruit ready for harvest. When a farmer plucks that first ripe fig from the tree he does no think, well, I guess this it’, but rather, ‘here is but a sample of more good things to come!’ So it was with the resurrection of Christ. It is not only Jesus Christ who will raise, but all who are united to him by faith. He is the firstfruits.

And what is the nature, or quality of that resurrection? What kind of resurrection will those who are united to Christ by faith experience?

Paul addresses this in verse 35. Listen carefully.

“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come’? You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:35–44, ESV)

There is so much about this passage that can be said. Let me summarize it for the sake of time. Paul is addressing the question, what will our resurrection bodies be like? He is in fact also addressing the question, what was Jesus’ resurrection body like? given that he has just referred to Christ as the firstfruits. As it was for him, so it will be for us – as it will be for us, so was it for him.

He uses the illustration of a seed as it corresponds to the plant that comes from it to describe the relationship between our natural bodies and our spiritual, resurrection, or glorified bodies that will one day be.

The seed represents our natural body, and the plant represent our spiritual body. He notes that, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”A seed, if it is to produce a plant, must go into the ground and die. So it is with our natural bodies. Our natural bodies will one day die and go into the ground. But just as God has designed that a kernel of wheat or some other grain have the capacity to spring forth and produce a plant which correspond to it in kind, so too he has designed man so that natural man has the capacity to become spiritual man, or glorified man. Adam was created this way. He was created good and upright, but with the potential of entering into a higher state of being – a glorified state – a perfected and confirmed state – would he have obeyed the command of God. This is what verses 45 through 49 says. We will not read it for the sake of time.

For now, notice how in this illustration the seed and the plant which come from it correspond. A grain of wheat will produce what kind of plant? It will produce wheat of course! The seed and the plant correspond. But notice also how different the seed and the plant are.The plant far exceeds the seed in regard to glory. And so it is with the with the natural body and the spiritual body. They correspond, don’t they. They are both bodies. Jesus was Jesus after the resurrection. You will be you. The natural body and the spiritual body correspond. They are not all together different. The one comes from the other. But the spiritual body – the glorified body – will far exceed the natural in regard to glory. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:35–44, ESV)

Christ was born with a body like yours and mine. He was born with a natural body like Adam’s. He lived with this natural body. He died with this natural body, and he was buried with this natural body. But when he rose from the grave on the third day, he was raised, not with a natural body, but with a spiritual, glorified, perfected body. Notice that it was still a body! But it was a body in the state of glory. To use Paul’s language, Christ died with a σῶμα ψυχικόν (a natural body) and he was raised with a σῶμα πνευματικόν (a spiritual body).

It’s no wonder that Jesus told Mary not to cling to him. He had been furnished with a body suitable, not for life in this fallen world, but for confirmed life in the presence of God almighty.  This was the higher state of being – the higher order of life – that was offered to Adam in the garden which he forfeited. Christ, the second Adam has laid ahold of it, not only for himself, but for all who are united to him by faith.

Jesus Was Raised Having Earned Access To The Father For Himself And All Who Trust In Him

This leads us to the third and final observation. Jesus was raised having earned access to the Father for himself and all who are united to him by faith.

Notice that Jesus said to Mary, “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.’” (John 20:17, ESV)

Jesus calls the disciples ‘his brothers’ for the first time in John’s Gospel. This is significant. It points to that fact that he has earned that status for them. We are his brothers. Jesus is the Son of God, and we who are united to him by faith are sons and daughters of God. We are not sons and daughters on our own, but we have been adopted as sons and daughters in Christ Jesus.

“For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29–30, ESV)

“In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” (Ephesians 1:4–5, ESV)

Notice the message that Mary is to take to ‘his brothers’. She is to tell them that he is risen, of course, and that “[he is] ascending to [his] Father and [their] Father, to [his] God and [their] God.”

Christ, through his death and resurrection, has earned access to the Father, not only for himself, but for all who belong to him by faith. He has reestablished the communion bond between God and his people. He has opened the way for us.

This has always been the goal. This eternal communion bond was offered to Adam but forfeited. But God, being rich in mercy, determined to make a way for those who being to him. The promise repeated throughout the scriptures is this, “I will be their God and they will be my people.” (Gen. 17:8; Jer. 24:7; 31:33; 32:38; Ez. 11:20; 37:23,27; Zech. 8:8). That is the goal of redemption. The goal of redemption is that we would be reconciled to God. That we would enjoy communion with him. That he would be our God and Father and that we would enjoy his presence forever. This is what Christ has accomplished for us.

“You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:1–9, ESV)

Brothers and sisters, Christ lived for you, he died for you, he rose for you, and he also ascended for you. He is our trailblazer. He has made a way for us.

He came from the Father, and to the Father he has returned. But he did not return alone. He has brought with him all those given to him by the Father. He has lost not one. He has recoiled us to God, making us brothers and sisters in Christ and sons and daughters of the living God.


If we are to comprehend all that Christ has accomplished for us in his life, death, and resurrection, we must also consider the character of his resurrection. As it was for him, so will it before for us. And we should remember that he ascended to the Father so that where he is now we might also be. The scriptures teach that we are already seated with him in the heavenly places. We already enjoy communion with the living God through Christ. But we await the consummation when all who have faith in Christ will enjoy the fullness of that communion none for all eternity.

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