John 20:17 – Instruction to Perfection
Jesus said to her, 'Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’.John 20:17
The appearance of the Lord Jesus to Mary Magdalene is, as far as we can ascertain from the gospel accounts, the first appearance of the Lord Jesus to someone of the circle of the disciples after His resurrection. Mary is also the first messenger of the good tidings to the disciples, a messenger presumably not highly regarded, for, as Mark says,
when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. Mark 16:11
Any talk of a resurrection appeared to the disciples to be nothing but an "idle tale."
Yet Jesus is far ahead of His disciples. In His first appearance to one in the circle of His own, He announces His forthcoming ascension. Even while the disciples have not yet understood the first step on His road to glory, the Lord begins by announcing the second step. And Mary is not only called to announce His resurrection, but also – at the same time – the imminent ascension of the Lord Jesus to His Father and their Father. So she was instructed not to worship the Lord Jesus or seek to hold Him in His present state. He was on His way to higher glory, and also was ascending to take His Church towards perfection!
Remarkably, it is precisely Mary Magdalene to whom the Lord Jesus makes this first announcement concerning His imminent departure. She was the person from whom the Lord Jesus had cast out seven demons, Mark 16:9. In the words of Calvin, she had been delivered "from the lowest hell, that He might raise her above heaven." And her consciousness of this deliverance partly explains her desire to hold and keep the Lord Jesus in her presence in the state in which she found Him.
Yet precisely to her the Lord Jesus must say, "Do not hold me." Easter was only the first step in the great restitution of paradise! Had the Lord Jesus stopped here, Mary would have been like the person He once referred to in one of His parables. In Luke 11:24ff., He says,
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.
Mary was such a house swept and put in order. Seven evil spirits had been cast out of her, and she was cleansed of all iniquity. But the Lord was not finished with her yet! He could not stop here!
So the Lord Jesus announces His coming ascension to her. He instructs Mary concerning what He must do in order to bring the work of redemption to its completion.
She cannot be left as an empty room. She must be filled with the Spirit from on high! Christ must ascend to heaven in order to claim the right to heavenly gifts, which can then be poured out upon His Church. Mary is so prepared for Pentecost, the feast of fulfillment and completion.
This is also the feast of the Church, the feast where Christ's gifts are not directed to one or more individually, but distributed severally to all the brethren, Mary had to progress from the idea of having a Teacher for herself to participating in a Saviour and Messiah for the new mankind, the people of God the Father! At the same time, she had to see the Lord as the last Adam who would reopen the doors to paradise. In the work of Christ Eve's sin is undone, and paradise is regained for man.
Having received and experienced the blessings of Pentecost. Mary models the gift of heavenly strength given to the whole Church. The Lord Jesus did not leave her as a room cleansed and put in order. Easter was not the end but only the beginning of greater things for her and the Church! For He ascended and poured out His Spirit upon the Church. And every Sunday we may be greeted from,
Him who is and was and is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne.Revelation 1:4
The age of completion has come! And we share the first fruits of the completion of Christ's work today in the administration of Word and sacrament. That's how much richer we may be than Mary.
Yet Mary Magdalene illustrates all the gifts given to the Church of Christ. She was taken from the lowest hell (seven demons) and raised to the highest heaven (seven spirits). And heaven for her and us all is not a place of special esoteric gifts, but paradise restored. Eve's sin is fully atoned and overcome in Christ's work!
Looking back to Mary, we can see the rich blessings we have received in the ascension and exaltation of Christ Jesus our Lord. He reigns in order to give to us heavenly blessings through which we have overcome the world. We have been richly exalted! So we can also sing with Mary the mother of the Lord, and with Mary Magdalene:
For He did contemplate
His handmaid's low estate
Behold, all generations
Will call me ever blest,
For at the Lord's behest,
Great is my exaltation. Hymn 13:2