Having described what Peter and John observed at the tomb of Jesus after Mary Magdalene reported the empty grave (John 20:1–10), John in today’s passage returns to Mary and what she experienced on that first-century Sunday morning. John tells us that Mary not only saw the empty tomb that day, but she also had an encounter with the angels and with the risen Jesus.
From John’s narrative, we know that after Mary saw the empty tomb, she left the grave site to inform the disciples (vv. 1–2). This means that John 20:11–18 records her second visit to the tomb, though John does not tell us specifically why she returned. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that she was investigating the mystery of where the body of Jesus had been placed, for that would explain the question she asks in verse 15.
In any case, at this second visit, Mary saw two angels sitting in the empty tomb, one where the head of Jesus had lain and the other where His feet had been (vv. 11–12). Luke 24:4 also reports the presence of two angels at the tomb, while Matthew 28:1–2 and Mark 16:5 tell us that one angel was there. Some skeptics have made much of this difference, but there is no warrant for believing that the Gospels contradict one another. If there were two angels there, then there was certainly one angel there. Matthew and Mark simply choose not to tell us about more than one of the messengers God sent to the tomb of our Lord.
The presence of the angels should have told Mary right away that something supernatural had occurred; however, she did not draw that conclusion. She continued to weep, prompting the angels to ask her why she was crying (John 20:13). In fact, the angels’ question was a gentle rebuke to her. She should not have been crying but rejoicing, for the reason the body of Jesus was gone and the angels were present was that God had raised His Son from the dead. But Mary was not yet able to grasp that fact.
At that point, Mary turned and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not recognize Him at first (v. 14). He repeated the angels’ inquiry regarding the reason for her crying, but He also asked her whom she was seeking. Mary thought He was the gardener and was still thinking that someone had stolen the body of Jesus (v. 15). She would only realize that it was Jesus once He called her name (v. 16).