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 20:17
To be honest, this is one section of scripture that always confused me. Why did Jesus tell Mary not to touch Him? If we take a closer look at the text, we may be able to see more clearly what is conspiring in this verse in particular, as well as gaining a glorious understanding of the gospel!
Earlier in John 20, we are given the account of Mary Magdalene and several other women[i], early on Sunday morning, heading to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been placed. From the different parallel accounts[ii], we can begin to piece together that when Mary Magdalene sees the stone rolled away, she immediately runs to tell Peter and John that someone had taken the body. However, the other women that were with her, continue on to the tomb to find two angels who explain to them that Jesus had risen!
Consumed with joy, the three women (don’t forget Mary Magdalene is not with them) run to tell the disciples that Jesus has risen (Matt. 28:8), only to encounter Him on their way! The women fall and grab hold of the feet of Jesus in worship (Matt 28:9), and are told to go tell the brethren that He is coming to them.
So where does this leave Mary? It seems that after relaying this seemingly terrible news, Mary heads to go back to the tomb with Peter and John, overcome by grief and tears, where after conveying her fears to two angels, she comes in contact with her Savior!
Understand that Mary was in a different situation than the other women that had come to the tomb with her. Her grief had turned to fear and doubt at seeing the stone moved from the tomb, which was multiplied by Peter and John leaving her behind in their haste to the tomb. Mary was alone and crippled with grief and doubt. Warren Wiersbe points out that it is the account of Mary Magdalene in John 20 that emphasizes the love of Jesus for the doubting.[iii]
As Jesus reveals Himself to Mary, we are brought to the verse in question:
Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God” (John 20:17).
To us, this sounds almost rude, but to mary, this statement would have brought an overwhelming comfort. As Strong’s Greek dictionary sets forth, ἅπτω (haptou) means “to fasten to,” “to adhere to,” or “to cling to.”
Wiersbe continues to explain that Jesus was in essence saying to Mary, “you don’t have to continue holding on to, I’m here and I have a job for you”.[iv] Jesus uses the phrase that “I have not ascended to my Father” to let Mary know that He is alive, and this is not the last time that she will see Him.
Further, He instructed her to tell the brethren that He had ascended to the Father, which at first glance may seem like a contradiction, but is, in reality, was a proclamation of the gospel for Mary and all those who did and would believe. When can see this when we read the end of verse 17, as He says My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.
Jesus uses a phrase here that He had yet to use. He tells mary that she and the other believers now have the same standing with God that He has. Why? Because the work of redemption was complete! Paul would later tell the church at Corinth that Christ was made sin for us so that we could be made the righteousness of God, and Jesus sent Mary to tell the others that this is exactly what had happened.
Believer, if you are crippled with doubt, know that Jesus isn't waiting to scold you but He in love wants you to see Him and the work that He was accomplished in your place.
Look to Jesus, see the gospel for you, and go tell others what you have found!