John 20:19-end (NRSV)
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
The Purpose of This Book
To begin with, and with the aid of Barclay and Ryle I reflect on verses 19-23; Jesus appears to his disciples:
To the modern reader, these opening verses present some difficulty. John takes care to include the detail that the doors were closed and securely locked and Jesus was still able to enter. Ryle comments:
“Like all the events which followed our Lord’s resurrection, there is much in the facts before us which is mysterious, and requires reverent handling.”
To try to explain them – according to Ryle – and this leads to ‘… unprofitable speculation. … We shall find it safer and wiser to confine our attention to points which are plain and instructive …’
The disciples returned to the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus. Now, however, they were terrified because they knew that the Jewish authorities were on the warpath to eliminate even the memory of Jesus. Would it be the rest of them next? Barclay writes:
“So, they were meeting in terror, listening fearfully for every step on the stair and for every knock at the door, lest the emissaries of the Sanhedrin should come to arrest them too.”
Into their midst Jesus suddenly appeared and greeted them with the words: “Peace be with you …”
These would have been loaded with meaning for the disciples gathered here. Ryle comments:
“He spoke, we may be sure, with special reference to the events of the last few days, and with special reference to their future ministry. ‘Peace’ and not blame, - ‘peace’ and not fault-finding, - ‘peace’ and not rebuke, - was the first word which this little company heard from their Master’s lips, after He left the tomb.’
This is entirely in keeping with our Lord’s ministry. ‘Peace on earth’ was the song sung at Jesus’ birth, and peace and rest for the human soul was the essence of what Jesus had taught over the past three years of the disciples’ experience. Ryle suggests that it is ‘peace’ that Jesus intended to be the key-note to the Christian ministry and Jesus wanted this to be central to the Christian message of the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that what Jesus came to earth to give is peace between humankind and God as he wrote in the opening verses of chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
This is indeed the essence of the Gospel. We, like the disciples who met in the Upper Room on this occasion, so often get things terribly wrong and we find ourselves fearful and full of guilt as a result. Just as Jesus entered into their presence in a miraculous way on this occasion, so he miraculously comes to meet us where we are and gives us the same message. “It’s okay, I forgive you, peace be with you…”
It is interesting to note how Jesus provided this gathering with excellent evidence that it was in fact he who had risen from the dead: he showed them his hands and his side. He invited them to see with their own eyes that he had a real, material body and that he was no ghost or spirit. Ryle comments:
“… great … was the principle which He established for the use of His Church in every age until He returns. That principle is; that our Master requires us to believe nothing that is contrary to our senses. Things above our reason we must expect to find in a religion that comes from God, but not things contrary to reason.”
And then Jesus commissioned them: “As the father sent me, so I send you …” And he equipped them for the task as he breathes on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit …”
The Church is now the presence of Jesus in the world – as Paul explains in Ephesians 1:23 and 1 Corinthians 12:12) - we are ‘… the Body of Christ …’ It is our task to take the message of peace to all people. The Church is the mouth of God to speak and reveal God’s message to the peoples of the world. But we need to remain united with Christ for without this we have no power, no support, no strength. We need to nurture our relationship with God through the study of the Word and the faithful offering of the Sacraments. It is this relationship that matters and here it requires obedience and perfect love. Barclay writes:
“The Church must never be out to propagate her message; she must be out to propagate the message of Christ. She must never be out to follow man-made policies; she must be out to follow the will of Christ.”
To fulfil our commission we must always rely on the witness and testimony of the Holy Spirit which is that which makes us – transforms us – into the image of Christ, both as individuals and as a gathering of the Church.
John reminds us that at creation what gave humankind the image of God was God breathing into them (Genesis 2:7) Ezekiel (37:9) saw the same thing in the valley of the dead, dry bones until God breathes life into them. The coming of the Holy Spirit is like the wakening of life from the dead and when it fills the Church she is recreated and equipped for her task. Without it, the Church simply does her own work and dies.
We have the lovely message of peace and with it comes the essential message of forgiveness. Only God can forgive sins, but we are given the power and authority to act as God’s agents and thus able to say to those who are truly penitent: “Your sins are forgiven!” Barclay concludes: “This sentence lays down the duty of the Church to convey forgiveness to the penitent in heart and to warn the impenitent that they are forfeiting the mercy of God.”
For Thomas, the Cross was what he expected. When Jesus had mentioned that they were going to Bethany after the raising of Lazarus, remember what Thomas had said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). He was not lacking in courage; he probably just considered himself to be a realist (and a pessimist). There was no doubt that he loved Jesus because he was willing to go with him to Jerusalem and die, even when the other disciples expressed their reluctance. What happened was just as he expected and he was broken-hearted, to such an extent that he felt the need to be alone with his grief. So, when Jesus appeared in the Upper Room, Thomas was not there. When he was given the news, he refused to believe it because it seemed to be too good to be true and he needed more, because he probably could not cope with having false hopes dashed yet again.
A week passed and Jesus appeared again – this time – Thomas was there. Jesus knew just what Thomas needed and repeated the words that Thomas had used himself, inviting him to do as he wanted: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’(verse 27)Thomas was thrilled and exclaimed: ‘My Lord, and my God.’(Verse 28)
Barclay suggests that we can learn the following from the experience of Thomas:
(i) He made the mistake of withdrawing from the Christian fellowship and as a result missed meeting with Jesus. There are certain things that we can only experience when we are an integral part of the Christian fellowship. The modern notion of not needing to go to church to be a Christian is a folly. We can only know God’s blessing when we are part of his body here on earth. Barclay comments: “… we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people for it is there that we are likeliest of all to meet him face to face.”
(ii) Thomas was a man of virtue: He refused to claim to understand when he did not and this sort of honesty is good. Lord Tennyson wrote: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” And when he was sure, he went the whole way exclaiming “My Lord and my God.” Thomas doubted in order to be sure. Barclay comments: “… When a man fights his way through his doubts to the conviction that Jesus is Lord, he has attained to a certainty that the man who unthinkingly accepts can never reach.”
I believe the Lord inspired John to include this because Thomas reflects the experiences of so many. Thomas thought he needed physical evidence, but it is plain from John’s account that he did not accept the offer to touch the wounds of Jesus. As Marsh explains: “He had learnt in the mere ‘seeing’ of the glorified Lord that sense and sight were not the sufficient things he supposed. In a strangely paradoxical way he had found through seeing that seeing was not believing.” So often people today think that if Jesus were to become physically present to them, it would be easier for them to believe. This is not so, because the only way that belief is possible is through the work of the Holy Spirit. There were no real advantages for the disciples in seeing Jesus because (as Marsh adds) “… physical seeing can be as seriously questioned as any other experience of sense …” This is why Jesus concludes with the words: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (verse 29b)
Verses 30 and 31 are crucial in our understanding of the Gospel, because they give us insight into the paradigm of the Gospel writers – their philosophy – as it were. It seems very clear that John (and the others) did not set out to provide a detailed account of the life and ministry of Jesus. They are selective, choosing what for them are some of the things that will give us a deep and significant insight into who Jesus was, what he was like and the sort of things Jesus said and did. The Gospels are not meant to be biographies of Jesus, but documents designed to encourage people to faith – or Barclay puts it – ‘… Their aim was, not to give information, but to give life …’ Their bias is clear and honest. Barclay continues:
It was to paint such a picture of Jesus that the reader would be bound to see that the person who could speak and teach and act and heal like this could be none other than the Son of God; and that in that belief he might find the secret of real life.
This means that, if we approach the Gospels, expecting to find biography or history, we ‘… approach them in the wrong spirit …’ Rather we must come to them seeking God. This does not mean that they are worthless as historical or biographical works, because they are filled with important information and increasingly, people are finding them to be works of massive literary importance as well. All this remains true – but they are also much, much more.
There were many other signs which Jesus did, but John had made a selection to help the reader and informs his readers of the basis of his choice. Marsh suggests that it is highly probable that John knew of the existence of the Synoptic Gospels or at least a source used by the synoptic writers – probably a source of his own as well. He wanted to help people – all people – even those who find belief difficult (the Thomas’ of this world) – to be able to come to faith in Jesus. He wants this to happen because it has been his experience (and the experience of others) that to believe means to have life in Jesus name. John has spoken of praying in Jesus’ name. This means much more than just ending a prayer “In Jesus’ name we pray…” it means ‘… offering prayer in Jesus Christ, as if the believer were his Lord, and his prayer the prayer of his Lord.’ So, to have life in Jesus’ name is to share his life, to become identified with him to the extent that Jesus’ eternal life becomes the life of the believer as well. Life becomes sharing the life of God – as Marsh puts it – ‘… in his eternal felicity and bliss …’
The events as recorded in John’s Gospel all happened. I do not believe that the Gospel writers simply made them up. But they are not meant to be taken exclusively literally. John Suggit writes:
“The signs – words and narratives – used in the scriptures are what constitute poetry, in the widest sense of the term, not of course in the sense that they are untrue, but because they enable believers to receive the word not simply as an opportunity to participate in it, to become creative (poiesis – creation) in giving it meaning for themselves and for others so as to be changed and transformed by it.”