"Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my father" (John 20.17, KJV)
Jesus issued this instruction to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. But what does he mean by this? Was Jesus a germophobe, unwilling to "contaminate" his body through basic human contact? And what does he mean by the latter expression: "for I am not yet ascended to my Father"? How do these statements relate to one another?
Consider the following observations.
Touch Me Not
Mary loved the Lord dearly. Her devotion to him is often noted in the gospel records (cf. Mt. 27.55-56, 60-61; 28.1; Mk. 15.40, 47; 16.1; etc.).
But when Jesus was crucified, she, like all of his disciples (cf. Mt. 26.56b; Jn. 16.32), believed him gone for good, and she mourned his passing as she would any other victim of death's cruel and lasting sting.
However, Jesus was not gone for good. And now Mary has realized this! Upon seeing her resurrected Lord, her first instinct — like the instinct of a mother who has found her lost child — is to fasten herself to him, with no intention of letting go. When Jesus tells her not to "touch" him, he uses a word that means "to fasten to…to cling to, lay hold of."
The New King James conveys this sense well: "Do not cling to me" — as does the NIV: "Do not hold on to me." The present tense suggests: "Stop clinging to me" (NASB). She had lost him once before; now, however, she has determined never to lose him again!
But the savior has other plans. And he must prepare his devoted disciple for those plans. Hence, he tells her: let me go, for I must leave you once more. Mary's fellowship with the Lord would soon have to be performed by faith, not in person, for Jesus must soon ascend back to his heavenly father.
Not Yet Ascended
Does Jesus mean to say that when he died, he did not then go to the father — that he had not previously ascended to the father — or does he mean something else entirely?
First, there are numerous passages that affirm that when Jesus died, his body was buried in the tomb while his spirit went back to the father. Examine a few of these:
(1) John 13.1: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father.”
The “hour” for his departure “from this world” refers to his crucifixion (cf. Jn. 12.23-24, 27; Mt. 26.18, 45). The destination of this departure is “the Father.”
(2) John 13.3: "Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God..."
The context pertains to his impending betrayal and death (cf. 13.1-2). At his death Jesus left the world and went to God.
(3) John 14.28: "You have heard me say to you, 'I am going away (by death) and coming back to you (by resurrection). If you loved me, you would rejoice because I said, 'I am going to the father,' for my father is greater than I."
Mourning his death was unnecessary since, in returning to the father through death, he was going to a far better environment, with far "greater" company.
(4) John 17.11: "Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to you. Holy father…"
(5) John 14.12: "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to my father."
Jesus had been explaining to his disciples that he was leaving them in death. For the moment, they were unable to "follow him" down that path (cf. John 13.33, 36). Hence, he was going to the father by dying; and though they would eventually join him, his disciples were destined not to go with him to the father until many years later.
(6) John 16.5: "But now I go away to him who sent me."
The father had sent Jesus (cf. Jn. 6.57). Hence, Jesus, speaking of his imminent death, explains that he is going back to the father.
(7) John 16.28: "I came forth from the father and have come into the world. Again, I leave the world and go to the father."
(8) The day of the crucifixion Jesus promised the penitent thief on the cross: "Today, you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23.43). But according to both Paul and John, paradise and heaven are descriptions of the same place (2 Cor. 12.2, 4; Rev. 2.7) — the abode of God, his immortal garden of Eden, where resides the tree of life (cf. Ps. 2.4; 1 Kngs. 8.30)! That very day, then, the spirit of Jesus was taken to the heavenly paradise of God.
(9) One of the final declarations Jesus made on the cross was this: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23.46). The savior had every intention of returning to the father upon his death, and this too is the common lot of all righteous souls who pass from this life (cf. Ecc. 12.5, 7; Acts 7.59; Phil. 1.23; 2 Cor. 5.8; Rev. 7.9).
John 20.17, then, cannot be used to suggest that Jesus had not gone back to the Father at any time prior to that moment.
Second, the Lord refers to a future ascension, which he had "not yet" undertaken, not to any past journeys. He does not deny ascending to the Father at any prior time. In fact, Jesus told Nicodemus that there was a sense in which he had already ascended to the Father (cf. Jn. 3.13) — not bodily but pedagogically (for a fuller explanation, see my book, What Happens When We Die?).
Besides, why would a past ascension matter in the present context (with Mary clinging to his body)? It is absurd to think that Jesus meant: Stop clinging to me, for I have not previously ascended to my father.
On the contrary, he denies having accomplished an ascension still future; one “not yet” done. This ascension would occur approximately forty days later, from Mount Olivet in Bethany (cf. Lk. 24.50-53; Acts 1.9-12).
Finally, Jesus speaks here of a bodily ascension, not a spiritual ascension. Remember, it was to Jesus' resurrected body that Mary was clinging. She needed to let go of the Lord's physical presence, and come to terms with the fact that he was leaving her again.
Thus, while Jesus had ascended to the father in spirit (in the hadean/body-less state, Acts 2.31), he had "not yet" ascended to the father bodily. Accordingly, either Mary is going to have to go with the Lord when he ascends bodily (because she won't let go of him) — which will not be permitted — or, she is going to have to stop clinging to him, and brace herself for the inevitable goodbye.
Admittedly, there are passages in the Bible that are "hard to understand" (2 Pt. 3.16), especially when we read them without thorough investigation or sufficient context — or with theological bias.
Nonetheless, they can be understood (Eph. 3.4) and must be understood if we are to be pleasing to the Lord (Eph. 5.17; Col. 1.9-10). Indeed, how we handle the word of God is just as important as how we handle each other (2 Tim. 2.15). Putting John 20.17 in its proper contextual light surely will help us with that task.