Question: After His resurrection, our Lord, when He appeared to Mary Magdalene, as recorded in John 20:17, said to her: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” Yet, in Matthew 28:9, when He met His disciples, we read that “they came and held Him by the feet.” Please explain.
Answer: The most obvious (though not necessarily correct) explanation for the apparent discrepancy between the two statements is that between these two appearances of the Lord —to Mary Magdalene and subsequently to the disciples — He did, in fact, ascend to His Father, and so the prohibition to Mary no longer applied when He met the disciples. The Scofield edition of the Bible has this note on John 20:17: “Jesus spoke to Mary, acting, as it were, as the High Priest fulfilling the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). Having accomplished the sacrifice, He was on His way to present the sacred blood in heaven; and between the meeting with Mary in the garden and the meeting of Matthew 28:9, He had so ascended and returned — a view in harmony with the types.” (Lest there should be some misunderstanding, the present writer does not hold the view that the Lord Jesus went into heaven with His own blood, but rather that He went “by” or “through” — that is, in virtue of or on the basis of the value of — His own blood - Hebrews 9:12).
However, this conclusion is only an inference from these two verses and is not confirmed by any Scriptural record of such an ascension occurring prior to the ascension recorded in Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:9. An alternative explanation, and perhaps a more accurate one, is based on the meaning of the word rendered “touch” in John 20:17. According to W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words the Greek word hapto means “to cling to, lay hold of.” The Lord’s prohibition would thus seem to have been intended to prevent Mary from clinging to His physical body. But why did He discourage her? Two possible reasons may be deduced from the Lord’s own statement to Mary.
1. “I am not yet ascended to my Father.” No longer was the Lord going to be with His disciples on earth, but would shortly ascend to be with His Father in heaven. Henceforth Mary Magdalene (and all His own) would no longer know Him “after the flesh,” but in a new and wonderful way as her ascended and glorified Lord. Instead of depending on His physical presence and nearness, indicated by Mary’s desire to cling to Him, she would now depend on Him by faith, though she could no longer see Him.
2. “But go to my brethren.” That is, instead of clinging to the Lord, and so keeping Him to herself, she was to go to His disciples and share with them the news of His triumph and glory. In the future He would be available not just to a few in single loyalty but to all His own wherever they might be. One does not have a monopoly on Him, but all are brought into the same relationship with Him and with His Father — “My Father and your Father, my God and your God.”
Finally, the Lord’s words to Mary may have been a request to her not to hold Him back, that is, to detain Him. He had to go to His Father, and she had to go to His brethren. “Instead of clinging to me,” He was saying, “go to my brethren and tell them about me.”
— James T. Naismith
(Please send all questions to Dr. James T. Naismith, 1121 Hilltop St., Peterborough, Ont. K9J 5S6.)