Q: #597. In (Jn 20:8), when John stepped into the empty tomb of Jesus, it says John "saw and believed." What did John "believe?"
A: (Jn 20:8)(NKJV) “Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed.”
To understand what John “saw and believed” when he entered the empty tomb of Jesus, we must look at two things. First, we must look at this verse in context. Second, we must look at parallel verses in the other Gospels.
Without listing every verse leading up to verse 8, in short, we see in (Jn 20:1-2) that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus on the “first day of the week,” and saw that it was empty. She then “ran” to tell Peter and John (the “disciple whom Jesus loved”), and said, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
In response to this (Jn 20:3-7), Peter and John “ran” to the tomb, and Peter went in. He “saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.” In verse 8, John joins Peter into the tomb, and “he saw and believed.”
What John “believed” when he “saw” is debated quite a bit, but it really comes down to one of two things:
#1. “Seeing” the empty tomb, John “believed” what Mary Magdalene had said (verse 2); that someone had “taken away the Lord out of the tomb” (likely believing his body was stolen).
#2. “Seeing” the empty tomb, John understood and “believed” what Jesus had said to him, and the other disciples earlier; that after He died, He would arise from the dead.
***Note: At least 15 verses show Jesus prophesying His resurrection before He died: (Mt 16:21)(Mt 17:9, 22-23)(Mt 20:18-19)(Mt 26:32)(Mk 8:31)(Mk 9:9, 31)(Mk 10:34)(Mk 14:28)(Lk 9:22)(Lk 18:33)(Jn 2:18-22)(Jn 10:17-18)(Jn 16:16-22).
While there is proof for both of these views, a majority of scholars hold to the #2. view. However, I believe the stronger evidence is for the #1. view.
Looking first at the #2. view, the only good evidence I see for it is that John may have realized that the body had “not” been stolen because: (A) Why would grave robbers bother to take the “linen cloths” off of the body of Jesus before stealing it? Wouldn’t they just grab the body and go? (B) Related to this, why would they bother to “fold” the “handkerchief that had been around His head?” “Seeing” this might make John conclude Jesus had risen.
However, as mentioned above, when we look at this verse in context, and in parallel verses in the other Gospels, the evidence for the #1. view seems much stronger. The first evidence starts with the verse that follows verse 8: (Jn 20:9)(NKJV) “For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” This seems pretty clear doesn’t it? In other words, John “saw and believed” what Mary had said (verse 2), because he “did not know the Scripture, that He (Jesus) must rise again from the dead.”
***Note: Old Testament Scriptures prophesying Jesus’ resurrection can be found in (Isa 26:19)(Dan 12:2)(Ps 16:10).
In addition to this, we have very strong proof in the other Gospels that “none” of the disciples (including John) believed that Jesus had arisen from the dead until He actually appeared to them during His resurrection.
Let’s look at (Mk 16:9-14) “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons. (10) She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. (11) And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe. (12) After that, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country. (13) And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either. (14) Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.”
Notice several things in these verses: First, the disciples “did not believe” Mary Magdalene” when she said Jesus had arisen. Second, they “did not believe” the two men who said Jesus had appeared to them (recounted in more detail in Lk 24:13-35). Finally, Jesus appeared to the disciples personally (the 11, including John), and “rebuked” them for not believing those who said “He had risen.” By including John in this statement in verse 14, it seems clear that John had not “previously” come to the conclusion that Jesus had arisen when he went to the empty tomb.
***Note: In many versions of the Bible, you will find a note similar to this: “The earliest manuscripts and some ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20).”
Similarly, when the resurrection of Jesus is recounted in Luke Ch. 24, we see the disciples (“the eleven” including John) rejecting the testimony of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, when they said Jesus was arisen, believing “their words seemed like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). Later, immediately after the two men on the Road to Emmaus reported to “the eleven” (including John) that Jesus had appeared to them (Lk 24:33-35), Jesus appeared again. At His appearance, the disciples were “terrified and frightened.” (Lk 24:41) follows, saying, “… they still did not believe.”
Then, in (Lk 24:44-45)(NKJV) we have this, “Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” (45) And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.”
It seems clear that up until verse 45, when Jesus “opened their understanding,” and they “comprehended the Scriptures,” that the 11 disciples, including John, did not believe Jesus had arisen from the dead.