John 20:17 – “Do Not Touch Me”?

One of the more difficult lines in the Gospel of John is Jesus’ reaction to Mary. He tells her “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (verse 17). The phrase is Noli me tangere in Latin. What does Jesus mean?

Do not touch me

It may be the case that he has only just resurrected, and cannot be touched until he ascends. The King James translation makes the problem more difficult by translating the verb as “touch,” rather than “cling.” But the ascension takes place forty days later, and later in this chapter, Jesus tells Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and side. Unless we assume that there is an ascension sometime during that day that “completed” the resurrection, this cannot be what Jesus means here.

A more likely explanation of “Do not touch me” is that Mary is not just touching Jesus, but “clinging” to him. The verb ἅπτω is not uncommon in the New Testament, but is used by John only here (and 1 John 5:18, the evil one cannot touch the believer). It is likely that Mary fell at Jesus’ feet and was clinging to him in a way we might expect since she thought he was dead! Mary is holding on to Jesus so tightly that she does not want to let him go ever again!

Coupled with the allusion to the ascension, this line probably means something like, “Mary, you do not have to cling to me, I have not yet ascended to heaven! I’ll be here for a little while longer.”

It is possible that Mary’s emotional response to seeing Jesus is a hint that she has not fully understood the resurrection, perhaps thinking that Jesus had not actually died. Mary returns to the disciples, who are likely discussing where the body of Jesus might have gone. When she arrives, she announces that she has seen the Lord and that he is alive. At this point, she does not say “he has risen from the dead.” It is only after he appeared to his disciples that they begin to understand what has happened.

John’s gospel is a well-constructed piece of theology and it is hard for me to believe that John did not intend a little more here than simply warning Mary that he was not immediately leaving her again.  What might be the theological point John is making in this unusual story?  It is also possible that John is making a pastoral point as well by describing Mary’s emotional response to the resurrection.

18 thoughts on “John 20:17 – “Do Not Touch Me”?

  1. I might be missing a deeper theological implication of Jesus statement “Do not cling to me” (John 20:17), but it seems to me he himself explains what he means by this. He says “Do not cling to me, … but go to my brothers and” tell them I am going to ascend (John 20:17). It seems to me that he does not want her simply to stay and tarry, but to “go” and tell all the believers that he is alive and is going to ascend to God soon. We see this clearly in the next verse, as Mary’s immediate reaction to Jesus’s command is to go back to the disciples and “announce,” “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).

    I suppose, if you are specifically looking for some sort of theological significance to this statement of Christ, then you could relate it to John’s overarching theme, trying to convince his readers to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and … have life in his name” (John 20:31). Jesus does not want anyone just to see him and keep him to themselves, but instead to tell others and call for a decision of faith or disbelief, just as “John’s Gospel is fundamentally a call to decision” (Strauss 337).

    • I think Kyle is right on for why Jesus said what he did to the woman. He wanted her to not cling to him so she could go tell the others Jesus is alive. This seems to be the answer that is most coherent with the immediate context.

      As far as the theological or pastoral point of it, I would also agree with Kyle. It seems to be a call to not just hold on to him, but to go and tell others. It fits well with the overall theme of John’s gospel. However, I am not sure that every piece of the John’s gospel needs a deeper theological meaning. If this passage was intended to have one, I am inclined to agree with Kyle. We as believers are not to cling to Jesus, but to go and tell others. We are not to just sit and worship, but go and spread the good news. Today this could be seen in people who are in to worshiping and admiring Jesus, but do not tell others. This would be the pastoral meaning I would derive from the passage. We are not called to cling to Jesus, but to be proclaimers of the good news.

  2. I think if I was in Mary’s shoes I would have done the same thing! I would have clung to Jesus and never wanted to let go again, because I do not understand fully what He went through and why, and it is over a thousand years and translations later! Mary was reacting as if anyone would I believe in that situation. I think that Jesus handled this situation well where He informed Mary he would not be leaving anytime soon, and that she was not to fear because that also set up the scene for his ministry that was taking place after his resurrection. I think the theological point is that Jesus was showing Mary that if she believed he died and rose again he would not then leave her again. I think this is a point being made by John toward salvation through faith in Jesus life death and resurrection.
    I think that we should not focus on the portion that says “Do not cling to me” because that was just a response that Jesus said because Mary was literally clinging to him. I think it is important to understand that John was making a deeper point than just ‘don’t cling to me’ and it was that Jesus was talking about having faith in Him and he would remain in them forever. I believe that is what happens when we are saved and when we believe as Christians, I do not believe I am ever without Jesus, he is always and will always be with me because I have faith and I believe what happened on the cross.

  3. I agree with Kyle that Jesus did explain His reasoning behind the statement, “Do not cling to me…” He wanted Mary to leave Him and spread the news of His resurrection to the others. Though, I also believe that Jesus very well could have been making a “pastoral” point. Now discussing the author’s intent; John was possibly eluding to the coming of the Holy Spirit. We know that the one who was coming was “greater than me” according to Jesus. Maybe He was trying to get Mary to see there was more that was coming, bigger and better things! This is obviously speculation but it is an interesting though. Regardless of the true meaning, I don’t find it plausible that Jesus was not yet “fully” resurrected. That seems fairly unfounded and a little confusing. There are definitely some interesting subject matters to bring up when discussing this passage of Scripture.

  4. In the NIV, Jesus tells Mary in verses 17 “Do not hold on to me…” I do not know if John might be making a bigger theological point because it is hard to say when there is little detail that is given in this story. I never thought about what Mary was thinking in this moment. If I was Mary I would probably be overwhelmed and being filled with joy just by seeing Jesus. I would cling to him if I thought he was dead. It would be easier to answer the question if I knew what Mary was thinking about. I do not know if she though that Jesus had risen from the dead. It could be assumed for all I know. What I do know is that Jesus told her to go to the disciples and tell them that Jesus would be returning to his Father soon. Maybe Jesus is hinting that because of his death and resurrection that we are able to have a relationship with him and the Father so there is no need to “cling “on to him because he will always be with us from that point on. Once again, I do not have proof if that is what Jesus meant but I know that because of his death and resurrection I can know Christ and he lives within me.

  5. I think a big part of the issue here is that Jesus does not want anybody to cling to him as though he might be leaving again. He raised from the dead. But, he is alive and here,and although he will ascend, there is a sense where he never leaves. Jesus’ resurrected body is one that, upon ascension, fully and completely demonstrates what it is to have a spiritually reformed physical body. Unless Jesus gave up his physical, material qualities, there is a sense where he has never left the realm of human space; earth. And the fact that he is in heaven has nothing to do with leaving and going somewhere. It is, instead, a matter of existence equally with the father in the place where he dwells the most. This is the notion that heaven interlocks with earth. We saw that in the tabernacle and the temple. And now we see that in every person indwelt with the Holy Spirit. Those people are now where heaven and earth interlock. And Christ somehow occupies both realms, perfectly. As we one day will. So, do not cling to the resurrected Jesus who was still restricted. But cling to the hope of Jesus the resurrected and fully realized final hope.

  6. This scene is easy to imagine. Mary just experienced the traumatic burden of watching Jesus, whom she knows is the Messiah, be murdered. I can’t even begin to understand how painful that would be. When she finds that Jesus is not dead, I can imagine that she would be very confused. I often forget that the friends and followers of Jesus in that time did not know the crucifixion and resurrection story the way that current day followers of Jesus do. I can see why Mary would have dropped at the feet of Jesus (Long, 2012), and may have misunderstood how Jesus could be standing in front of her. We know that she is confused because she even confuses Jesus for a gardener and tries to ask where the body of Jesus is (Köstenberger, 2009). I believe that while there could be a deeper theological meaning behind this piece of the resurrection story, this could also be Jesus consoling His friend. Jesus may have not only been telling Mary that He isn’t yet but also giving her some time to process that while He is back, He will not be staying. I am sure that would have been sad for all of the people who were close to Jesus to lose Him, get Him back, and then lose Him again. Jesus may be giving His friend some time to process that.

  7. This story in Scripture is a beautiful one to me, just because of the simplicity of the actual meaning as I interpreted it to be. When Jesus tells Mary to not “cling” to him he is meaning that she should rest in the comfort that he is going to be here for a while so he can touch and hug him but it’s okay to let go. She was so scared that she would never see him, or have the satisfaction of being able to have that feeling of him physically; which is understandable because she lots him once and didn’t want to lose him again. Personally, I don’t think we need to cling to Christ in any type of way, if we believe in him and love him he won’t go anywhere and will always be with us. Now clinging onto Christ isn’t bad if this is what some do but, I don’t think it’s necessary in our relationship with him. We will all see Christ when he comes back and there will be time to hold on to him and give him so much affection. For now we need to realize that he isn’t here physically for us to cling onto or touch, so we much rely on a spiritual touch from him. I do think this is what he was trying to get across is that he may not always be here physically so Mary needed to learn how to love on him spiritually.

  8. As I read John 20, I saw this verse and knew immediately that the simple meaning behind it was very meaningful. This beautiful message of “do not cling to me” (v. 17) would simply mean “let me go” or “it’s okay”. This phrase used by Jesus was meant to comfort Mary Magdalene. Mary had witnessed the death and burial of Jesus, and now that she has witnessed the resurrection, she reacts excitedly! She is ecstatic to see her Savior and probably wants to stay with Him. However, Jesus tells her to go to His brothers to communicate this miracle (v. 17). Excitedly, Mary Magdalene returns to the upper room and tells the disciples of this thing she has witnessed (v. 18) – their Savior is indeed alive! This is something that Christians today would definitely benefit from remembering. We understand that Jesus died, was buried, resurrected from the dead, and ascended into Heaven. It is our responsibility, like that of Mary’s, to communicate that to others. Not just our close friends or family members, but also other nonbelievers. It is important that Christians do not get comfortable, and “cling” to Jesus, resting in our own knowledge of His gift of salvation. A question asked within the blog post was, “what might be the theological point John is making in this unusual story?” It seems to me that this could allude to the Christians’ possession of the knowledge of the crucifixion of Christ and the fact that we must excitedly communicate this to any and all nonbelievers.

  9. I guess I have never thought about the line about Mary clinging to Jesus. I guess you could maybe predict that Mary thought he did not really die since she does say he has been raised from the dead but instead says he is alive. I could see that point of view, but I could also see that she is just excited to see Jesus. She had to witness the crucifixion and she might just be in awe of what has happened and is comprehending what has just happened. So I believe there is a very large chance that she knew he was raised from the dead, but it might be that she is just using different wording. We all have different reactions to certain situations and in Mary’s case she is seeing Jesus who she just saw get crucified three days earlier. She also might be in complete shock of what just happened and not understanding how exactly he is alive, because she had to know that he died because when they cut open Jesus’ side water and blood flowed out which was the sign that he was truly dead, and she was there to see it happen. I also agree that Mary’s reaction could predict that she doesn’t understand the full meaning of the resurrection, but to be honest if someone we loved had risen from the dead I do not think we would be trying to figure out the meaning of how it happened the first split second especially if our loved one just rose again which to say in the least is a very rare occasion.

  10. Within this part of John, I feel like I think a little more simply about Mary Magdalene’s actions and Jesus’ response. In John 20:14-17, Mary eventually recognizes Jesus, who was thought to be dead, falls to his feet, weeps, and clings to him. Jesus seemingly rejects her response, I do not believe in a harsh way, but in a way that was almost comforting. Let me explain. In this passage, Mary clings to Jesus in response to seeing him alive again. I know that if someone so close to me, like Mary was close to Jesus, died, and I believed they were dead for days, walked up to me and started speaking to me, and they were alive again, I would definitely be weeping like Mary Magdalene was, and I would also be clinging to this person like never before, because I believed them to be dead for a period of time already. Mary’s response was completely “human” and realistic in the way that a person she loved and was close to came back from the dead, and she was clinging to Jesus, not wanting him to go away again. However, Jesus tells Mary “Do not cling to me” and continues on to explain that has not left yet, and has time remaining on earth to settle his ministry before he leaves. I also think that he wants Mary to use her time wisely, and instead of clinging to him, he wants her to continue speaking of him and spreading the message of Salvation. Jesus is using this time to further the Gospel, and while Mary’s response is normal for what she has gone through, he prefers to use the time wisely in spreading Salvation to others.

  11. This situation is interesting. In class we talked about the significance of a woman being the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. We all know the story. Mary sees the empty tomb, then she sees the angels. After this, Jesus appears, and she mistakes Him for a gardener at first. Then after Jesus responds “Mary” she recognizes Him as Lord. After all of this then you get the phrase “do not cling to me”. This is very interesting. I liked to read the different perspectives that P Long wrote both in class and in this blog. It was very interesting to me that Jesus would say do not cling to me. I had not really heard of this before now. It makes perfect sense to me that Jesus would say that Mary would not need to cling to Him because He was not yet leaving. In my opinion, Jesus was telling He to use her time for good, instead of holding on to him. Jesus was working for His mission, and He wanted Mary and the disciples to do the same. Also, side note… I think it was cool that Jesus used a woman to be the first witness. This was to prove that His resurrection was true, because it would look bad for the disciples to have a woman be the first witness. If the disciples wanted a strong argument, they would have used a man as a witness. Just a side note.

  12. Jesus tells Mary to not cling on to Him after she sees Him after His resurrection. We know that people touch Jesus before He goes to Heaven later on because Thomas puts his hand on Jesus’ side to see if it is really Him. Mary clinging to Jesus may have to do with the fact that Jesus is her Lord and she thought He just died and wasn’t going to come back or didn’t know when His resurrection was going to happen. She may be clinging to Him because she doesn’t want Him to leave again and wants Him to stay with her and the disciples and continue teaching.

  13. It is interesting as I read this passage. Initially I did not put much thought into what was being said. But as I learn more and grow in my faith, I think Jesus always has a purpose and plan through his actions. I also think that Jesus can be very clear with his words. Telling us and his followers what to do. And I think in this case this is what Jesus did to Mary. Jesus said to Mary “do not cling to me.” John 20:17 There could be an endless suggestion as to why Jesus said these words to Mary. I’m sure Mary cared for Jesus and would be thankful for Jesus healing her previously. Mary also witnessed Jesus being crucified and buried. So possibly Mary was clinging to Jesus because she couldn’t fathom seeing Jesus. As she just witnessed the horrific events.

  14. When you see someone for the first time in a long time or thought you are lost, what is the first thing you do? You run to them and hug them! Imagine what Mary would have felt in this situation. She thought Jesus had died she watched Him be crucified; thinking she would never see him again! However, here He is right in front of her; of course, she is going to cling to Him. Isn’t that what mothers do anyway?

    Mary did what anyone of us would have done in her situation. However, it says that Jesus tells Mary “Do not cling to me”, saying to her that He has not left her yet. His time on earth is not done; He still has work to do to settle his ministry before he leaves. Jesus is telling Mary that there is a bigger purpose; I think He wants her to go out and spread the message of Salvation. Further the Gospel and tell others that Jesus has risen from the dead and He can do the same for you if you believe. If they do believe you will not have to cling to Jesus on Earth; rather they would be with Him for eternity. The new age of salvation has come! Strauss describes this as “free forgiveness of sins to all who respond in faith” (p. 573). There is a bigger purpose that Mary was missing and I think that is what Jesus wants her to see when He tells her not to “cling to me”.

  15. This command from Jesus indicates that there has been a change. He is not just healed and given new life, but this is proof of him as Lord and Messiah. Mary naturally wants to touch him, to hold him, to embrace him. He was dead, but now he is alive! However, Jesus says this to her to show her that he is not the recipient of a miracle, but he is the miracle worker. She has to believe in him, adore him, but in a way that is different than before. She cannot cling to him in his physical, bodily presence. He wants her not to cling to this life, to this physical body, but to look forward to the spiritual presence and communion that is to be had in heaven. She is now able to be a part of that heavenly fellowship because of what Christ has done. She does not need to cling to him now to make sure he does not leave her again, because he sends his Spirit later on to be with her, to dwell within her. This is his gift. It is not just a don’t touch because I am the risen Son of God, since he does indeed allow Thomas to touch his wounds later on. It is for Mary to know that he is God, that there is more than the physical here and now, and that he will be with her, not only in body, but with her soul. It is a way of comforting her. She does not want to lose her son again, but she needs to realize she has gained him back, along with something far better than she could have even imagined.

  16. I thought that this blog post was very unique and interesting because of the different interpretations that were said in regard to what it meant to cling on to someone. Moreover, the thing that really stood out to me from the blog post was near the beginning of when P.Long states that “the evil one cannot touch the believer” (P.Long). This is wild to me, and I do not think this was the correct interpretation whatsoever because Mary was the first to see Jesus rise from the dead, which in my mind it makes sense to call Mary a believer rather than evil. The only logical interpretation that I can make sense of would be that Mary does not have to cling on to Jesus for He has not started to ascend to Heaven yet. “Mary, you do not have to cling to me, I have not yet ascended to heaven! I’ll be here for a little while longer” (P.Long). I honestly feel for Mary after reading this blog post because when one has not seen someone for a long time or in Mary’s case when one thinks someone is dead; I too would hold on and never let go. However, I bet Mary was seriously clinging to Jesus as if it were a dream and she was not trying to let go so Jesus had no choice but to tell her to let go of Him, with all respect as well because Jesus said He was not going anywhere for a while anyway.

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