What does John chapter 20 mean?The last time Jesus was seen in public, He was a mangled corpse being hastily buried in a sealed cave (John 19:1–4, 30, 38–42; Matthew 27:59–66). Despite His predictions (John 2:19–22; Mark 9:31; Luke 18:33) and prior miracles (John 11:43–44), His followers will be hesitant to understand, let alone accept, that He is now alive.
John's account of Jesus' resurrection follows the same pattern as the rest of his gospel. He includes certain details, without repeating every nuance covered in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These can be challenging to intermingle, but don't present irreconcilable contradictions to each other. John focuses on the experience of Mary Magdalene. She approaches Jesus' tomb on a Sunday morning with the intent of further anointing His body. She sees that the grave is open and empty, suggesting the posted Roman guard (Matthew 28:4, 11) has already left (John 20:1).
The three closest members of Jesus' disciples are Peter, John, and James. Here, John continues to refer to himself anonymously (John 13:23; 19:26). John and Peter race to the tomb. It's likely they are worried that the body has been stolen or is being defiled further by Jesus' enemies. John was most likely much younger than Peter, so he arrives first, but hesitates. Peter proceeds with his usual aggressiveness and enters the crypt. John saw the grave clothes from the outside but doesn't notice the face covering until he follows Peter inside. This cloth is carefully folded, which triggers a realization for John. They leave, however, apparently without sharing their thoughts with Mary (John 20:2–10).
After the men leave, Mary looks deeper into the tomb and sees two men—angels—who ask why she is crying. She is not expecting to see Jesus at all, let alone someone vibrant and healthy. When she turns with blurred eyes and speaks with someone in the dim light, His identity escapes her. When Jesus says her name, she suddenly realizes what has happened. That Jesus chooses to appear to women first is significant. This speaks to Jesus' elevation of women as spiritual equals of men, and to the honesty of the gospel accounts. Jesus asks Mary to tell the others what has happened, and she obeys (John 20:11–18).
Despite Jesus' predictions and the eyewitness accounts of people like Mary, it seems the disciples are still resisting the truth. When Jesus miraculously appears inside a secured room, that changes. Jesus echoes God's act of creation (Genesis 2:7) by breathing a partial indwelling of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. As He has done before, Jesus notes their spiritual perspective: it includes the ability to perceive mattes of sin and salvation. The men are not given the power to directly forgive, only the ability to recognize that which has already been forgiven (John 20:19–23).
One of the disciples is especially resistant. Thomas makes an outrageous demand for proof, far beyond what should be necessary. This parallels the modern "skeptic" who insists on unreasonable levels of evidence, only to ask for even more if those requirements are met. Jesus appears and challenges Thomas with his own words, and Thomas responds in faith. Thomas even refers to Jesus as "my God," which Jesus does not dispute. Rather, Jesus notes the blessing of being given extra proof, and the greater measure of faith required by those who will come after (John 20:24–29).
John closes this segment with an aside, pointing out the motive behind his choices as a writer. Not every single detail has been recorded. Some of this is for reasons of space (John 21:25). It's also a matter of focus. John's intent is for those who read to be assured that Jesus is the Messiah, and to accept Him in salvation (John 20:30–31).