John 20:17 – “Do not Cling to Me”?

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

Noli me tangere

It may be the case that he has only just resurrected, and cannot be touched until he ascends. The old KJV 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 which “completed” the resurrection, this cannot be what Jesus means here.

A more likely explanation 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.

9 thoughts on “John 20:17 – “Do not Cling to 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.

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