Looking at the Light through John - Chapter 20
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the core distinguishing mark of Christianity. Even at His death, there were two others on crosses, so the crucifixion itself would not make Christianity unique. But the raising of Jesus from the dead, never to die again, sets the Christian religion apart as something very different from any other claimants to revelation sent from God.
One of the key ingredients in establishing the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the testimony of reliable witnesses. These witnesses would be limited to those who knew Him so well during the days of His flesh that they could not possibly be mistaken as to the identity of the One standing before them. They would have to identify positively the One resurrected as the same One they saw crucified. Thus the gospel accounts record the stories of some of those who saw Jesus after He was raised. The stories are interesting and show that, while Jesus’ earlier comments on His resurrection were heard by the Sadducees and Pharisees, they went over the heads of the disciples.
- The resurrection itself - No one actually saw the resurrection of Jesus. What was witnessed was the evidence of the resurrection, including post-resurrection appearances by the Lord Himself. Matthew’s account noted that an angel of the Lord descended from heaven in conjunction with an earthquake, and rolled away the stone - not to free Jesus, but to prove that tomb was already empty, that the Prince of Righteousness had already gone. But a lot of confusion would reign in the hearts of the first ones to approach the tomb, because their first conclusion was that the body was stolen.
- Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb - There were many things happening on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection; women were coming with spices to the tomb, presumably to see if further preparation of the body were possible; the apostles were still in hiding; and Jesus was popping up here and there. The writers then seem to occasionally lump some events together, or to single out the happenings of one person’s encounter with the Lord. Mary Magdalene, for example, is recorded as one of the women coming early in the morning to look at the grave in Matthew and Mark’s accounts, but is shown to be by herself and little bit earlier than the others in John’s records. "Now on the first day of the week," noted the aged apostle, "Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb" (John 20:1). The other women who came were spoken to by the angel and then understood that Jesus was risen; Mary was a little earlier than that, and only saw the empty tomb. "And so she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.’ " (John 20:2). Peter and John’s response was to run to the tomb to see if indeed the body had been taken away. They also would conclude that someone had taken the body.
The Lord God is the perfect communicator, and sets things up so that the message He wants to come through is as clear as can possibly be to befuddled man. The Lord was allowing the earliest reports of the empty tomb to come to the disciples with the sense that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the grave. That Mary Magdalene believed in that the corpse was missing, and that Peter and John joined her in that misapprehension, are necessary ingredients in establishing the truth of their later testimony that the Christ had indeed been resurrected. The scriptures record the confusion, and continue in all respects to have the solid ring of truth.
Peter, John, and the Empty Tomb
One of Jesus’ last acts while on the cross was to turn the care of His mother over to the apostle John. This fixed the Lord’s death as inevitable, and the disciples from that point on undoubtedly experienced great grief and great loss of purpose in knowing that the one they perceived to be the Messiah was dead. Their mentor, their friend, and their hopes were all gone in His death. In their minds, therefore, there was no concept that He would be back within three days, even though He had told them earlier that He would. Reports, then, of an empty tomb would not conjure up thoughts of a resurrection in their minds.
- Mary Magdalene’s report - Mary Magdalene breathlessly arrived with the report that "they" had taken away Jesus’ body from the tomb. She had come to the tomb before daybreak, probably with spices for further use on the corpse of Christ, and was very upset because she did not know to where the body of Christ had disappeared.
- Peter and John’s response - The working relationship between women such as Mary and the apostles is evident; the Magdalene knew where Peter and John were, and felt comfortable enough to run to them with her concerns about the missing body of Jesus. All three, then, headed back to the empty tomb, although the writer focused only on the two apostles. "Peter therefore went forth," John recalled, "and the other disciple, and they were going to the tomb. And the two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter, and came to the tomb first" (John 20:3,4). John - "the other disciple" - was probably younger than Peter, and thus able to outrun him to the tomb.
- Checking the gravesite - Mary’s message was that the body of the Lord had been taken away, and the men were going forth to verify the claim. John arrived first, "and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in" (John 20:5). The account here also has that "ring" of truth about it; John’s cautious and careful personality comes through. "Simon Peter therefore also came, following him, and entered the tomb" (John 20:6). Peter’s more brash personality also shows; the reader, based on what he already has read concerning this "first" of the disciples, is not surprised that the fisherman boldly steps into the empty tomb to take his look around.
- The grave-cloths - The matter-of-fact statements of the apostle John are powerful proof that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth did occur. He himself, as he recorded, saw the linen wrappings lying in the tomb when he first came to the gravesite. Peter, also, when he entered, "beheld the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linene wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself" (John 20:6,7). The apostle does not make a "big deal" of the grave-cloths; he just notes them naturally in passing. But here is their significance: If the body had been stolen, as was claimed by others, the thieves would have hurriedly taken the body, and - if they discarded the wrappings - they would have unwrapped the body elsewhere! Instead, they are neatly lying there, with the face-cloth rolled up.
- No understanding - The two apostles came with the understanding that the body had been taken, and, notwithstanding the body-cloths, they left with that same perspective. "So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb entered then also, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead" (John 20:8,9).
What John "believed" was not that Jesus had risen from the dead, but he "believed" Mary’s report that the body had been taken away. Further discouragement for these men with already broken dreams. "So the disciples went away to their own homes" (John 20:10).
Encounter with the Risen Christ
Mark recorded this about Mary Magdalene in his account: "Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons" (Mark 16:9). This is a key point in working out the chronology of the events connected with Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene went first to the tomb, then went and got Peter and John who ran to the tomb. They checked out the empty tomb and returned to their homes. Jesus then appeared to Mary at the tomb, but she was gone by the time the other women arrived with their spices.
- Mary at the tomb - Peter and John had run to the tomb. Mary might have run with them, although perhaps a little slower because her femininity. The apostle John’s next entry following the apostles’ return to their homes shows Mary at the tomb, where she may have been as Peter and John went inside to investigate. "But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping," was the apostle’s annotation, "and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked inside the tomb" (John 20:11). Emboldened, perhaps, by Peter and John’s investigation, she herself took a little more time actually to bend over and peer into the darkness (did she and the others have torches?).
- The angels - Looking into the gravesite, Mary encountered heavenly witnesses. "She beheld," affirmed the apostle, "two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been lying" (John 20:12). This was a delicate moment; Mary was sincerely weeping because of the loss of Jesus, and the angels gently began to steer her conversation and direction. "They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ " Her emotional state was such that she did not particularly notice that she was engaged in conversation with heavenly beings. "She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.’ " (John 20:13). Mary Magdalene was clearly devoted to Jesus, and was a sincere and dedicated follower.
- Jesus Himself - When the mind is predisposed to one belief, it is not easily turned to another. Mary believed the body had been taken away, and that she had been talking with angels did not cause her to consider that something else had happened to Jesus. "When she had said this [to the angels], she turned around, and beheld Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus" (John 20:14). Jesus delicately continued the conversation, picking up where the angels left off. "Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ " Grief-stricken, she was still unable to comprehend what was going on about her. "Supposing Him to be the gardener," the record continues, "she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.’ " (John 20:15). She still wants the body of Jesus to be in the hands of His friends, and is driven with concern for it. "Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ " At that moment she recognized Him, possibly by the way He said her name. "She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means, Teacher)" (John 20:16). Her instant response showed her great respect for the position of Jesus; she used the term Rabboni, meaning that He was her great Master and Teacher.
What an emotional roller-coaster this woman must have been on that day! Not only knowing that her Master has been crucified, she goes to the tomb, finding that the body is gone and assuming that it is stolen. Peter and John are no help; they return to their homes. Then, at the tomb while she searches, she actually encounters the risen Christ. He’s alive! And what a reversal of emotions for her!
A Teaching Moment
One of the names for Jesus in the scriptures is "the Teacher." As the great Teacher sent from heaven, the Lord used every situation as a "teaching moment," laying the foundation in His students’ minds for structures to be built in the future. One of His objectives, then, was to prepare His disciples for the next step. And because the next step would be something in the spiritual realm or of a spiritual nature, the disciples generally had a hard time grasping what was being communicated. But those lessons and the eventual execution of the spiritual event are written for our benefit, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Thus the character of our Teacher is revealed, and the principles of those lessons communicate to us that He is still teaching us in the same way, if we will only follow.
- Mary’s joy - Mary Magdalene obviously loved Jesus as her Lord, and was willing to be His disciple. She was understandably distraught at the death of Her Master, and disturbed over the fact that His body was missing. But when she recognized Him, and cried out, "Rabboni!" her joy was also understandably overflowing. In her mind, her initial communication to Jesus was, "Praise God, You are back with us!"
- Jesus’ restraint - That Mary was hugging Jesus for joy in His being back with the disciples is evident in the Lord’s remonstrance: "Jesus said to her," the apostle emphasized, " ‘Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’ " (John 20:17). Because some versions translate this section as "Do not touch Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father," some have drawn the conclusion that Jesus very soon ascended to the Father so the other disciples could touch Him and be witnesses of His bodily resurrection. But the thrust of the passage is that Mary Magdalene was clinging to Him, and that He was telling her that she was going to have to raise her sights; Jesus was not going to be long on this earth for physical fellowship, but the real fellowship would be when He ascended to the Father.
- Message to be delivered - Jesus then had a minor commission for the lady from Madgala. "Go to the brethren," He requested, "and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’ " Not only was Jesus then preparing Mary for His ascension, but the message is now going to the apostles that there is going to be an Ascension by Jesus to the Father. Coming from Mary Magdalene in this fashion, the message would have added interest and would have increased their curiosity.
- Return to the disciples - With a faithful servant’s heart, Mary Magdalene obeyed her instructions. John recorded, "Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ and that He had said these things to her" (John 20:18). Mark adds to our information on this in his account: "She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping. And when they heard that He was alive, and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it" (Mark 16:10,11).
It is understandable that the disciples were having a difficult time believing the first report by Mary Magdalene that Jesus was alive. They had already resigned themselves to His passing, and their minds were not going to allow them to engage in false hopes. But Jesus had already begun to prepare them for the stage following His appearances on earth: His ascension to glory. "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and He was buried, and He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (I I Corinthians 15:3-5). Then He appeared to more than five hundred, then to James, then to all the apostles. Then He ascended! Then He appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road.
When Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, He told her, "Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren, and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God,’ " (John 20:17). Because this passage is often translated using the word "touch" instead of "clinging," some have drawn the conclusion that as soon as Jesus finished speaking with Mary, He ascended to the Father. Then He could reappear and be "touched" by other witnesses. In Matthew’s account, for example, the other women who came to the tomb and who spoke to the angel, left the tomb "with fear and great joy and ran to report it to the disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him" (Matthew 28:8,9). Thus Jesus, from this perspective, would have ascended to glory, and then made multiple returns in a "flesh and bones" form before His final ascension as recorded in Acts chapter one.
- "Stop clinging to Me" - Jesus did not have to ascend to the Father before the other disciples could "touch" Him. The thrust of Jesus’ statement to Mary Magdalene was for her not to think that He was back in some sort of permanent way; He was going to ascend to heaven shortly (in forty days).
- One ascension - The word of God does not indicate multiple ascensions for Christ during the forty days. Luke’s opening in the book of Acts is interesting. "The first account I composed, Theophilus," he began, referencing the gospel according to Luke, "about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen" (Acts 1:1,2). The gospel account of Luke, then, which includes the time period when Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus at the empty tomb, is about the things Jesus did and taught before He was taken up to glory; Jesus did not ascend until that day. Luke continues: "To these [apostles] He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). The forty days during which He spoke to them and appeared to them was prior to any ascension to heaven. The angels are quoted by Luke, "This Jesus, who has been taken up from you to heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). One of the key things about His ascension was that the apostles had to be witnesses of His leaving earth, as the angels had noted.
- To the throne - "It was not David who ascended," the apostle Peter would affirm in his message on the Day of Pentecost. It was Jesus who ascended, and who, when He ascended, acceded to the throne. "Sit at My right hand," were the words of the Father at that point (Acts 2:34). "When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high," the writer of Hebrews concurs (Hebrews 1:3). No multiple ascensions here!
- One appearance in the presence of God - Jesus, "through His own blood, entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption" (Hebrews 9:12). The Father is in the holy place, and when Jesus ascended to the Father, He entered that holy place once!
Mark’s account is very succinct: "So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God" (Mark 16:19). After that He never appeared again on earth in "flesh and bones."
Appearing to the Apostles
While the apostles really did not hear Jesus’ statements that He would rise again on the third day, His enemies did. Referring to Himself in the third person, the Lord noted, "And after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again" (Luke 18:33). Although the statements are plain, Luke adds this insertion: "And they understood none of these things, and this saying was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said" (Luke 18:34). The chief priests and the Pharisees, however, had heard and understood those words, and persuaded Pilate to set a guard around the tomb so that no one could steal the body and claim that a resurrection had occurred. When the guarded tomb turned up empty, the chief priests were so intent on preventing any message of hope concerning Jesus from getting out that they bribed the soldiers to say that the body had been stolen while said soldiers were sleeping. For the apostles, then, the political climate was volatile!
- First day of the week - Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week —a little more literally, on the first day after the Sabbath. God had set that in motion at the Creation, creating the heavens and earth in six days and resting on the seventh. Thus, in the Israelite system, the Sabbath was instituted and corresponds to the modern Saturday, whereas the first day of the week corresponds to Sunday. It was on this same day, the day that Jesus rose from the dead, that the gospel writer focused on. "When therefore it was evening," the apostle John penned, "on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ " (John 20:19). It was natural for the apostles to have the doors locked for fear of the authorities. Implicit in the record, then, is that Jesus appeared suddenly in the middle of the room without coming through the door, just as when He exited the tomb without having the entrance stone rolled away first. Such a fearsome event! Thus Luke recorded: "But they were startled and frightened and thought they were seeing a spirit" (Luke 24:37). Thus the Lord first calmed their fears with His greeting of peace before He proceeded.
- He was no ghost - Earlier, when the Lord had walked on the water, the apostles thought they were seeing a ghost. How much more, then, knowing that Jesus was dead, when He suddenly appeared in the room! Following His quieting comment, He then proceeded to establish that He was not a mere spirit. "And when He had said this," was John’s record, He showed them both His hands and His side" (John 20:20). "Touch Me and see," said Jesus, "a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39).
- A close look - Not only was Jesus called upon to establish that He was no ghost, He also needed make sure the witnesses could positively identify Him not only as crucified but also now resurrected. "See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself," was His invitation (Luke 24:39). "The disciples," accounted John, the eyewitness, "therefore rejoiced when they saw the Lord" (John 20:20).
This was the first appearance by Jesus to the bulk of the apostles. In a stepwise fashion, He had orchestrated earlier appearances to others on a more individual basis before He demonstrated His resurrection to the group of the apostles. In this way, the witnesses were a little more prepared for His dramatic entrance to the locked room, and their later testimony would be more reliable.
Preparation for the coming Spirit
The Lord was not only Master, but He was also Teacher. Good teachers have a knack for sowing the seeds for and setting the stage for future lesson, and in this also Jesus was the superb example. As He had begun to prepare Mary Magdalene for His upcoming ascension, so He now was preparing the apostles for the coming Holy Spirit.
The gospel account of John is loaded with references to the Holy Spirit, both direct and indirect. It was advantageous for Jesus to return to glory, noted the Lord, adverting "If I go, I will send [the Spirit] to you" (John 16:7). "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" was another of His more direct presagements (John 3:6). Whether He was speaking of rivers of living water or of the bread of life, the Christ was looking to the coming of the Spirit in the age of the New Covenant. None of this was understandable at the time Jesus was speaking from earth, but those things were spoken and recorded so that those who have the rest of the new covenant writings have the ability to look back and understand the importance that Jesus was placing on the Spirit.
- Recommissioning the apostles - During the years of His earthly sojourn, the Lord had repeatedly told the apostles that they would be His representatives. At His first sending of the apostles, for example, He told them, "He who receives you receives Me, and He who receives Me receives Him who sent Me" (Matthew 10:40). In His first post-resurrection appearance to the bulk of the apostles, the Lord reiterates His sending them with His authority; this has the dual purpose of clearly establishing that the One resurrected was indeed the One crucified, and that the mission of Jesus had not changed. Standing in their midst, "Jesus therefore said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ " (John 20:21).
- Breathing on them - After recommissioning the chosen envoys, the Son of God took the next step. "And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ " (John 20:22). Some have the mistaken impression that the apostles were indwelt with the Holy Spirit at this point. Several issues militate against this point, among them that Thomas was not present, and that the Holy Spirit would not come until Jesus returned to glory. Jesus’ breathing on the apostles was a physical way of communicating what was to happen on the upcoming Day of Pentecost. In the minds and language of the ancients, breath and spirit were intimately intertwined, as in the English word "respiration"; the root word for breathing is spirit! Thus the action of the Lord here really was impressing upon the apostles’ minds something about the Spirit that they would not forget.
- The Holy Spirit - On the day in which Jesus ascended, He told the apostles that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). Ten days later, the Holy Spirit would fall: they were immersed in the Spirit with three powerful sectors of a great sign from heaven about the beginning of the kingdom of God, they were indwelt with the Spirit as the first of those born again, and they received the power to pass on gifts of the Spirit to confirm the spoken word.
Jesus was working on a definite plan. He, of course, had known all along that He would be crucified, raised from the dead, and returned to heaven. He had known that the plan was to send the Holy Spirit to reveal to the apostles the substance of Jesus’ coronation in glory. His challenge was to bring these disciples "up to speed," and His breathing on them was how He chose to begin the process.
Forgiveness and Retention of Sins
Because of His sacrifice on behalf of men, Jesus received "all authority." The combined voice of the myriads of the heavenly host proclaim, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power …" (Revelation 5:12). And because He is worthy, He has received the concomitant authority as the ultimate Judge. "For not even the Father judges anyone," were the words of the Son of God, "but He has given all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22). God, was the attestation of Paul, "has fixed a day in which He will judge the world through a Man whom He has appointed," that Man being Jesus (Acts 17:31). Exalted to God’s right hand, Jesus has authority to "grant repentance [first] to Israel [then later, to the Gentiles], and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:31). Knowing His exaltation was on its way, the Lord spoke to the apostles concerning the forgiveness of sins in conjunction with the coming Holy Spirit.
- The promised Spirit - "Receive the Holy Spirit," Jesus had said to the apostles gathered inside a locked house in Jerusalem. Earlier He had told them that the Spirit would bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had said, would guide them into all truth, would teach them all things, and would disclose the events in heaven connection with Jesus’ glorification. Once again, the Lord was setting the stage for the upcoming Day of Pentecost, during which the Holy Spirit would fall on the apostles, and they would receive the promised inspiration.
- Forgiveness of sins - After promising the Spirit, the Christ added, "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them" (John 20:23). Jesus was the One with that authority, and He could delegate that to whoever He wanted under whatever conditions He wanted. The Catholics jump on this statement, and under what is called "the doctrine of apostolic succession," the priests claim the right of forgiveness or retention of sins for the one who is in the booth confessing. This claim, of course, is bogus, with no basis for a separate priesthood in the New Testament, much less special sanctioning for pronouncing forgiveness of sins. The apostles, as envoys of the King, would deliver the terms of the King’s pardon beginning in Acts chapter two; those who would obey the words of the apostles’ doctrine would be forgiven.
- Retention of sins - The Lord also informed these chosen men, "if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained" (John 20:23). Once again, this would not be on an arbitrary basis; the terms of pardon would be announced for all through the apostles, and those who rejected the terms of pardon would retain their sins. As Peter would later write in his first epistle, those who disbelieve the message concerning the Christ "stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed" (I Peter 1:8). The apostles were not going to be able to pick and choose those whom they want to be forgiven and to reject those who do not meet their approval. When the gospel was thus preached, and the authoritative words of Jesus were pronounced through these men, "the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47).
The mercy of God is most evident in His willingness to tender forgiveness of sins to lost and dying man. To release man from his bondage first required the death of Jesus Christ, a graphic and horrible death which communicates the severity of man’s sin problem, and how much it took God to open the pathway out from such abject slavery. Then the terms of forgiveness were announced by the apostles, terms that have never changed: "Repent, and let each of you be immersed in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Hear, and obey!
Thomas the Truth-seeker
While men exercise their free will, God somehow manages to have the right people in the right place at the right time. Thus, by the apostle Thomas’ choice and by the hand of God, Thomas was not present with the rest of the apostles when Jesus appeared to them in the shut-up house. This absence is a key component in making it clear, for example, that the apostles did not receive the indwelling Spirit when Jesus breathed on them; the Lord would not have had ten apostles "born again" while leaving one out, because they were early on to operate as a unit. But Thomas’ absence also set the stage for how resistant he personally was to any apparently nonsensical talk about Jesus’ being raised from the dead.
- Fear of the Jews - The Jewish hierarchy clearly had an intense hatred toward Jesus Christ. Furthermore, they had an information network set up, as evidenced in their being able to contact Judas the betrayer. When the great bulk of the apostles gathered together on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, and had shut the doors for fear of the Jews, Thomas apparently was still in hiding. "But Thomas," stated John, "one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came" (John 20:24).
- Contact - These specially chosen disciples worked together as a team, and had gone through the ultimate fires of testing to show their commitment to Jesus and to one another. They would know, therefore, how to contact one another in times of duress such as they felt they were experiencing. The apostles, later in the week, were able to connect with Thomas and describe their experiences. "The other disciples therefore were saying to him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ " (John 20:25). This "seeing the Lord" was not a vision; this was where they touched Him to see that He was flesh and bones, and and who some bread and fish with them.
- Thomas’ doubts - The testimony of the other ten was not sufficient for Thomas the Truth-seeker. "But he said to them, ‘Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.’ " Thomas was not willing to believe that such a unique event as a resurrection could occur merely on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Having been a witness to the arrest and crucifixion of the Lord, he wanted to see for himself.
- Proof of the resurrection - The Almighty was setting up events for the benefit of those who would never be able to see the physical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas wanted more than the eyewitness account, and so would the truth-seekers who would follow. Thus the great God would inaugurate three things to establish beyond shadow of doubt that Jesus had raised from the dead:
- The eyewitness account – The basis for establishing truth of any kind in the realm of man is the consistent account of two or more reliable eyewitnesses.
- Attesting miracles – Because the resurrection of Jesus would be such an unbelievable event in the minds of most men, God would make sure the testimony of the witnesses was backed by accompanying signs and wonders, and that the testimony of the early church was also confirmed "by the signs that followed" (Mark 16:20).
- Old Testament prophecies – Ranging from the fairly clear to somewhat obscure, prophecies in the Old Testament laid the groundwork for establishing Jesus’ resurrection and ultimate ascension to glory.
Thomas had legitimate concerns about the veracity of the others’ account of Jesus’ resurrection. The Lord would honor those concerns by appearing to Thomas, The Lord would also honor the legitimate concerns of those in the following centuries by providing the accounts of the eyewitnesses, by recording the attesting miracles, and by supplying the Old Testament prophecies — enough to convince any honest skeptic!
My Lord and My God
The Lord’s plan from all eternity was for a small number of witnesses to be able to testify that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual event. Hence the appearances of the Lord to chosen disciples were orchestrated events, although the people involved were still operating under their own free will. In contemplating such a scope of events, apostle Paul exclaimed, quoting the Old Testament: "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor!" (Romans 11:34). Thus it was that the eleven minus Thomas assembled behind closed doors on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, and He then appeared to them. And thus it was, a week later, that Thomas was with the others, behind closed doors again.
- The setting - The language indicates that the location was the same as the previous week when the appeared to the disciples. "And after eight days again," affirmed the apostle John, "His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst, and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ " (John 20:26). The initial portion of the greeting was the same, but in the previous setting the Christ was emphasizing that their mission had not changed, as evidenced in the words: "As the Father has sent Me, I also send you" (John 20:21). But this trip, Jesus was focused on Thomas, and Thomas’ statement earlier that unless he could put his finger in the place of the nails and his hand into the place of the spear wound, he was not going to believe that Jesus was resurrected.
- The encounter - After His greeting of peace, the purpose of which was to settle the audience, the Lord turned his attention toward last week’s missing disciple. "Then He said to Thomas, ‘Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.’ " Jesus exhibited the divine character in His willingness to expose Himself to honest inquiry. He met Thomas’ challenge, and told him to inspect the evidence of His resurrection by a physical examination of that resurrected body! "Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and My God!’ " (John 20:28). What a conclusion! Thomas knew that Jesus’ being raised from the dead proved that He was the Almighty God! Having seen, he would be persecuted for this, and, as near as tradition will tell us, would die for this in the far-off land of India.
- The blessing - All of the apostles were now eyewitnesses of Christ in His resurrection body. Thomas thus joined the ranks of these early believers, as Jesus acknowledged, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed?" (John 20:29). These key eyewitnesses, "who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem," would be the means through which all other disciples would come. Anticipating this, the Lord added, "Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed." Most future disciples of Christ would never see the resurrected Christ; they would have to believe in the testimony of the apostles.
The reflective Thomas was going to have to be certain that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, because for him the implications of that resurrection were shattering. He had concluded that if Jesus were resurrected, He was not only his Lord, but was his God! It seems as if the Almighty held the appearance of the resurrected Christ to Thomas in abeyance; Thomas was going to draw a conclusion that the rest of them had not yet come to. When that worthy disciple exclaimed that Jesus was God, the rest of them — because a week had passed since they had seen Him — were now ready for this further revelation. Greatly and truly blessed are those who believe without seeing, but upon hearing the testimony of these events!
Many, such as Thomas Jefferson, couldn’t believe in Jesus, they said, because they couldn’t believe the Bible’s record of the miracles that Jesus performed. But those who think along those lines simply haven’t clearly thought the entire issue through. Put yourself in Jesus’ place. Imagine that you have drawn your inner circle near to yourself, and you say to them, "You have come to know me well. Now it is time for me to let you in on a little secret: I am God!" Do you think your close circle of friends are going to draw nearer in excited belief in you, or do you think they will be making a hasty retreat? Jesus was human; He put His sandals on one foot at a time. He looked human; anyone looking at Him could see that He was human; so how could He possibly be God? The Lord’s approach would have to be one in which He did some things so that the observers would draw the appropriate conclusion. Early on in Jesus’ ministry, when He participated in the Passover following His immersion, He cleansed the temple, and then went the next step. John recorded: "Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, beholding the signs which He was doing" (John 2:23). The signs and wonders were necessary and logical, not unbelievable as the skeptic and the deist would claim.
- Many other signs - The apostle John began his history of Jesus by noting the first miracle Jesus performed, when He turned the water into wine. He repeatedly noted the healings that the Lord accomplished, and tracked the responses of His respective audiences. Nicodemus, having observed the first sets of miracles at the aforementioned Passover, drew the correct conclusion, saying, "No one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him" (John 3:2). No one contemporaneous with the Christ could charge that the miracles were fake; too many people and their families had been touched with the healing and restoring power of the great Teacher. When Jesus’ enemies attack Him, they do not wage their campaign charging Him with fraud; they go after Him because He healed on the Sabbath! The point here is that He performed the miracles. Later Jesus would stick these truths back into the faces of His detractors, challenging them, "If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me" (John 10:37). That both hostile as well as favorable witnesses were present at the raising of Lazarus from the dead shows how incontrovertible the record of the miraculous was. Thus, as the aged apostle reached the near close of his account, he stated, "Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book" (John 20:30). More could have been written, but these, in John and the Holy Spirit’s opinion, these were enough.
- That you may believe - God has offered man "proof," proof that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. Preparatory to that greatest of miracles, Jesus performed all the others — walking on the water, giving sight to the blind, healing the sick, and raising the dead. "These have been written," said John, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (John 20:31).
The great God is the great Communicator. He has, through the written record, given sufficient evidence that, when collected and contemplated, constitutes proof that Jesus is who He said He is, and that the Bible is indeed God’s word. At the same time the presentation is so delicately balanced that if a person wants to disbelieve, he can, like Thomas Jefferson and others, discount the record of the signs as being patently unbelievable from the start. "He who comes to God," said the author of Hebrews, "must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6).
The Christ, the Son of God
"You are the Christ," said Peter, "the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). This was the first time "the good confession" was made in its fullness. Earlier, the Samaritan woman had been told by Jesus personally that He was the Christ, and she invited the Samaritans to come and see the Christ, but the full confession admits not only Jesus as the Christ but also His Lordship as the Son of God. Peter was the first to make the full connection and was therefore commended by the Lord as the one to receive the keys to the kingdom. The gospel according the John, then, is a carefully crafted account of the life of Jesus on earth, filling in the gaps of the synoptic gospels, and building the believable case that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of God!
- Prologue - The apostle began his missive with the sweeping statement about Jesus as the Word: "The Word was with God, and the Word was God." Commenting that the Word had become flesh, the writer then expounded, "We beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father," tying together the concepts that Jesus as God and Jesus as the Son of God were one and the same.
- Developing the case - Andrew and the apostle John were the first future apostles directed to Jesus by the Immerser. "We have found the Messiah," Andrew bluntly stated to Peter. Philip, another close associate, is noted as saying from the beginning to Nathaniel, "We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote." Then follow the accounts of the first miracles and the reaction of "the teacher of Israel," initial verification as to the truthfulness of John’s thesis.
- More miracles - Jesus healed the child of a royal official without being physically present, cured a man who had been crippled many years, fed the five thousand, and gave sight to a man blind from birth. All the way along the discussion increased among the people. Some of the multitude, noted the apostle, were saying, "This certainly is the Prophet," referencing Deuteronomy eighteen. Others were saying, "This is the Christ."
- Teaching and reaction - "My Father is working until now," Jesus had commented following healing the man at Bethesda’s pool. The Jews correctly concluded that He was saying that He was equal with God, and therefore wanted to kill Him. The Lord emphasized that He was the great I AM, and they sought to stone Him. He said that He and the Father were one, with the same "hand," and once again they drew the correct correlation, and again took up stones. The blind man healed from washing his eyes in the pool of Siloam fell down and worshiped, Jesus, and He accepted it. And the apostle John made it clear, quoting from Isaiah’s prophecies, that Jesus was the great Jehovah [or Yahweh].
- Culmination - The earlier statements of the apostles concerning the Lordship and Messiahship of Jesus were tested "to the max" when Jesus was crucified. But it was really the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead which established the truthfulness of the earlier conclusions, which were orchestrated to produce the climactic statement from Thomas: "My Lord and my God!"
"These have been written," was the affirmative thrust of John the aged apostle, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31). Fellowship with the Father — which is the same as "life," for the name of that loss of fellowship is "death" — is found only in the name of Jesus Christ. "This is eternal life," Jesus Himself had reiterated to the Father, "that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). Make the confession that Jesus is the Christ with the mouth, and follow that with a lifestyle that verifies your belief in that confession!