“Do not attach yourself [or cling] to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father”

Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 17

AN EMINENTLY SUITABLE MEDITATION FOR TODAY would be Jesus’ profound words spoken to Mary Magdalene when He appeared to her after His resurrection. At first she did not recognize Him. But when she did, she addressed Him with astonishment as “Rabboni!”, which means in Hebrew (originally Aramaic) “Master” or “Teacher”. Perhaps she gestured as if to throw herself at His feet, for his response to her was this: “Do not attach yourself [or cling] to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 17). Whenever I have read or thought of those words, they give me a tingling down my spine. For they are just as relevant to us today as they were to Mary then. Before explaining this reaction of Jesus to Mary, let us first analyse the relation of the disciples to Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus found Himself in a strange situation with regards to His immediate disciples after His resurrection. First, Peter and John had arrived at the tomb and found His body had gone. They believed that He wasn’t there, but even at that late stage they still didn’t know why. As John writes, “They still did not understand from the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 9). It was not as if He hadn’t told them. Immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 16), it is written, “From that time on Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 21). But they were in denial. In fact, Peter immediately rebuked Him for saying such a thing, which Jesus attributed to the influence of Satan! Christ did not choose the brightest bulbs in the box to be His disciples. But then that was the deliberate idea, as Paul wrote to the disciples in Corinth:

“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly and despised things of the world, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast in His presence”.

First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 1, verses 26-29

So we can see why He would chose such folks even for His most hallowed disciples. In any case, after He had been with them for forty days after His resurrection, He taught them a huge amount and the disciples who we see in the Acts of the Apostles are on another level altogether by that stage.

On the same day as His resurrection, two of the disciples were walking along in the countryside and Jesus sidled up to them and asked them what was going on. Not recognising Him, they told Him what had happened and said, “we were hoping He was the One who would redeem Israel” (Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verse 21) — a common misconception among the Jews who wanted a glitzy Messiah who would overthrow the Roman occupiers and reign from Jerusalem like in the days of old. So Jesus said to them:

“’O foolish ones, how slow are your hearts to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then to enter His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was written in all the Scriptures about Himself”.

Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verses 25-27

Imagine that! It had a profound effect on them, as they later reported their hearts burned within them as this teaching was unfolded to them (Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verse 32). The penny had finally dropped! Interesting, too, that Christ does not major on the resurrection there but says, “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then to enter His glory?” This “entering into His glory” refers to His ascension to heaven. That is the crowning point of His entire work on earth. His ministry, His death and His resurrection were preparatory to His ascension.

When Mary Magdalene reported to the disciples that she had seen the risen Christ, “when they heard that Jesus was alive and she had seen Him, they did not believe it” (Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, verse 11). So Jesus had been surrounded on all sides by wholly ignorant but nevertheless faithful little people who had no idea whatsoever what was going on with His death and resurrection and the implications of all that — in fact, they were mostly completely in denial about it.

When Mary Magdalene stood outside His tomb weeping, Jesus appeared to her but she didn’t recognise Him at first and assumed He was the gardener (Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 15). Then Jesus said her name to her and she suddenly realised that it was Him. She had been highly dedicated to Him after He had cast seven demons out of her and revered Him with great devotion. (No, she wasn’t His wife, as some of the Gnostic gospels and false manuscripts ridiculously claim!). On seeing Him, she said “Rabboni!”, which means in Hebrew (originally Aramaic) “Master” or “Teacher”. Obviously, she was about to touch Him in some way — perhaps to throw herself at His feet or similar gesture of adoration. Then He immediately said, “Do not attach yourself [or cling] to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 17). Now it might seem a little harsh to say this, but you have to understand what will have lain behind Jesus’ words.

Up till that point, the only interaction which people had with Christ was primarily physical, with Him as a man who still had to die; and they still had not understood the depths of what His death entailed. Many imagined that the Messiah would come as a physical king and reign from Jerusalem. This was the very last thing that Jesus wanted to encourage. So it was important for Him to fade from the scene physically. That is why Peter later said that “Heaven must take Him in until the time comes for the restoration of all things” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 3, verse 21). It was crucial at the time those words were said, some ten days after the ascension of Christ, that He should not be perceived as being a king reigning on this earth. His kingdom was not of this world, yet the Jews — in their solely material understanding of things — believed that their Messiah would reign as some bigwig king in Jerusalem as kings had done before. But Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, as He Himself stated. So heaven had to “take Him in”, to receive Him. This was His ascension to glory, which completely vindicated His complete victory over Satan — that it all really was “finished” or “had been accomplished” (Gospel of John, chapter 19, verse 30). His post-death resurrection-state on earth was therefore a temporary phenomenon proving that He had overcome the cords of death. But it was still necessary for Him to ascend to heaven for the remainder of the age that it would take to bring in all the believing souls who would be born on earth, while at the same time allowing human and demonic evil to come to its head.

It is fair to say that without the ascension, the resurrection would not have had the same depth of meaning at all, and they inextricably linked. Lazarus had been raised from the dead, yet he still had to die. This was not the case with Christ, who had to show that He had been raised, never to die again! It was necessary to show that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to Him (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verse 18). This is precisely what the ascension did. In fact, It was Jesus’ specific mention of Himself ascending to heaven “at the right-hand of power” in front of the high-priest which would actually get Him crucified for blasphemy (Gospel of Mark, chapter 14, verses 61-64). The ascension was a marker which wound up the period of time during which the fullness of His glory and the exercise of all His power had been set aside (cf. Letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, verse 7). It was necessary for Satan to be cast out of having any access to heaven, which was the effect that His ascension had (Book of Revelation, chapter 12, verses 5-9). It was necessary for Christ to ascend to heaven in order to “prepare a place” for us (Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 2). So it is all very well going on about the risen Christ today. But let us not forget that He is the risen, ASCENDED Christ! It is the ascension which makes the resurrection complete. Really, He was resurrected so that He could ascend to heaven.

So Mary was being shown that it was no longer appropriate for her to be devoted to Christ on the physical plane. “Do not attach yourself [or cling] to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father”. The Greek word translated here as “attach” is ἅπτου, haptou, which means to touch in some meaningful manner. Our English word ‘haptic’ is derived from it. Haptic technology refers to the feedback experience of touch. At its most simple, haptic feedback can be set up on your mobile phone so that each time you press a key on the keyboard it gives a little vibration in your finger confirming the contact. Mary’s experience of Jesus revolved around His physical presence, to which she was very attached. She was attached to Christ haptically. But she was being confronted with the fact that a necessary change was taking place to which she must from now on adapt. In fact, she was being told the reason why she must not be attached in this manner. As Christ said in the context, it was precisely because He had not yet ascended to the Father. After He had ascended, then she could be attached, but in a very different manner. It would be through the Holy Spirit, who would be poured out on the Ekklesia some fifty days later in Jerusalem.

Mary was being encouraged to start to walk by faith and not by sight — that she had to discover an even more real form of faith than she knew up till that point. When Thomas had doubted the resurrected Christ but then came to believe only after touching Him, Jesus responded with these words: Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 28-29). Here is the essence of what Christ was saying to Mary Magdalene: It is far more blessed to walk by faith rather than by sight. So, it was as if Jesus was saying to Mary, “Clinging to my physical form has brought you great blessing up till now. But from now on, you will come to know a deeper kind of faith which will bring you an even greater blessing”.

Walking by faith rather than by sight is what enables us to grow, to develop in faith and to walk on our own two feet as individual disciples, rather than as clingy, insecure sojourners through this wilderness of a world. Certainly, we are fundamentally dependent on Christ for everything, without whom we are and can do nothing; but that is at a cosmic foundational level. Disciples are not children but full-grown warriors of faith. That faith is strengthened by not being ‘handheld’ every step of the way. We are given a large degree of autonomy so that we can be stretched on our journey of self-development and personal growth. Christ is right there, alongside us by His Spirit; but we are being encouraged to grow up in our faith and thus live in boldness and warriorlike strength. So Christ says to all of us:

“Do not attach yourself to me in a clingy, immature sort of manner, but go out into the world with courage, knowing that I am with you by My Spirit always, even to the end of the age, and I will never desert you”.






© 2021, Alan Morrison / The Diakrisis Project. All Rights Reserved. 
[The copyright on my works is merely to protect them from any wanton plagiarism which could result in undesirable changes (as has actually happened!). Readers are free to reproduce my work, so long as it is in the same format and with the exact same content and its origin is acknowledged]