“So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.” (John 20:8 NAS95)
John–whom we believe is describing himself in this passage–has a moment of profound change when he witnesses the empty tomb. Indeed, this is the key part of John’s description of the resurrection.
Mary has informed the apostles of the empty tomb. Peter and John run out to check on her wild story. They find the tomb as empty as she had said it was, but eerily empty. The grave clothes–the linen in which Jesus’ body was wrapped–are still in the grave. If the body of Jesus had been stolen, the linen cloths wrapping his body would certainly have gone along with the corpse. John Calvin points out here:
“The linen clothes might be regarded as the spoils, intended to lead to the belief of Christ’s resurrection; for it was not probable that his body had been stripped naked, i[n] order that it might be removed to another place. This would not have been done by a friend, nor even by an enemy.”
No doubt that John is processing [and wants us to understand the process] all of this as he runs to the tomb and as he is forcefully struck by the sight of the empty tomb. The face cloth [of uncertain usage, perhaps used to tie around the head to keep the mouth closed, or simply to cover the face itself in the tomb] is folded up apart from the linen cloths.
All of these facts sink swiftly into John’s consciousness and, based upon the empty tomb and the evidence of the linen cloth and the face cloth, John sees and believes. What exactly John believed is made clear in the next sentence: For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. John did not understand the Scriptures that Jesus must rise again from the dead…yet. However, based on the empty tomb, he believed that Jesus had risen from the dead and was the person he had claimed to be all along: the Son of God sent to die for the sins of men. His understanding from Scripture would come later. [It is ironic, and certainly John came to understand the irony, that Christ’s opponents understood that Christ claimed that he would die and rise again (Matt 27.62-66), but Christ’s disciples did not understand this!]
Alfred Plummer comments: “The candour of the Evangelists is again shewn very strongly in the simple avowal that the love of Apostles failed to grasp and remember what the enmity of the priests understood and treasured up. Even with Christ to expound Scripture to them, the prophecies about His Passion and Resurrection had remained a sealed book to them (Luke 24:25–27).”
Henry Alford sums up what John means in the simple words: “he saw and believed.”
“He believed that Jesus was risen from the dead. He received into his mind, embraced with his assent, THE FACT OF THE RESURRECTION, for the first time. He did this, on the ocular testimony before him; for as yet neither of them knew the Scripture, so as to be previously convinced of the certainty that it would be so”