Question: "Why did Jesus tell Mary, "Do not cling to me" (John 20:17)?"
Answer: After Jesus rose from the dead, Mary Magdalene met Him at the tomb, and after recognizing Him, she clung to Him. “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to My Father and Your Father, and My God and your God”’” (John 20:17, ESV).
Early on that Sunday morning, the third day after Jesus had been crucified, Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb. She was surprised to see that the massive stone sealing the entrance had been rolled away (John 20:1). When she told Peter and John, they ran to the tomb (John 20:2–4). After investigating, they saw and believed and returned to their homes (John 20:5–10). Mary remained at the tomb, weeping because she didn’t yet understand that Jesus had risen from the dead. She saw two angels and explained that she was weeping because she didn’t know where Jesus’ body had been taken (John 20:11–13). She then saw Jesus but didn’t recognize Him. Thinking He was the gardener, she asked Him where the body had been taken (John 20:14–15). When Jesus called her by name, she recognized Jesus and clung to Him (John 20:16).
Jesus tells Mary, “Do not cling to me.” He explains to her that He had not yet ascended to the Father. He was still there, and He wasn’t leaving yet. She didn’t need to hang on to Him as if to keep Him from leaving. He had come back from the dead, and He wasn’t yet going to ascend to the Father. He instructed Mary to go to His “brethren,” the other disciples, and tell them that He was going to ascend to the Father (John 20:17). Mary did exactly as instructed (John 20:18).
Jesus remained with His disciples for a while before ascending to the Father. He appeared to them on several occasions, strengthening their faith (e.g., John 20:19–29). They certainly rejoiced to see Him again. Mary was overjoyed that Jesus had risen from the dead. She had been grief-stricken at His death and wept at His tomb. This was the Man who had rid her of seven demons and whom she had followed since early in His ministry (Luke 8:2). It is no surprise that, when she recognized Him and realized that He had indeed risen from the dead, her reaction was to cling to Him.
In telling Mary, “Do not cling to me,” Jesus gently reminded her that He had things that needed to be done, and so did she. He gave her the joyous task of announcing to the disciples that He was no longer dead. He had conquered death and returned just as He said He would. It is likely that Mary was one of the women mentioned in Acts 1:14 who were devoting themselves to prayer and looking forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said He and the Father would send (John 14:26; 15:26). While the Bible doesn’t tell us much about Mary Magdalene, it is clear that she loved Jesus. She received a precious blessing in being the first person recorded to have seen Jesus after His resurrection. She loved Him so much that her first reaction was to grab hold of Him and not let go.
Jesus’ words to Mary, “Do not cling to me,” were not a rebuke; rather, they were a comfort that He would be around for a little while longer. Mary’s response to Jesus offers us an opportunity to consider whether we really love Jesus. Are His death and resurrection just historical facts to us? Or, like Mary, do we love Him enough to cling to Him and then fulfill the tasks He has given us?