Jesus Appears to the Disciples
20.19 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.’
These are powerful words, and there is a treasure trove of theology, grace, and wonder in these verses. There is so much that could be said, so many questions – questions that I would encourage you to seek answers to in your own prayer and study. Questions regarding whether or not this is in fact Pentecost? Questions about the resurrection body of Jesus. Questions about the declarations in Mark that Jesus will meet them in Galilee yet here it is in Jerusalem.
There are many questions, but I am not going to address those here. I want to take this Scripture, understood as part of John’s testimony to the Gospel message, and ask what it means now for us, not what it means to scholars sitting around a table in a dark and locked room brooding over some largely irrelevant word in Greek or Hebrew whilst missing the elephant – or rather Lord God and Saviour - in the room.
In these two stories John confronts us not only with the height and culmination of the Gospel’s teaching on the Holy Spirit and the Person of Jesus, but with what this means for us in our lives – what we are to go and do in light of this. It is a challenge as much as it is a glorious affirmation of the True Faith. So what are these teachings? What are these challenges?
Jesus first appears to the disciples in the locked room – a room locked for fear of the Jewish authorities who would be looking to round up the followers of the traitor to the Emperor who had just days before been crucified – this appearance contains many messages for us today. Firstly there is the joy the disciples display when they see that their Lord – the one they love and followed, the one they also rejected and fled from, is alive. Even though they had failed to grasp His promise of His resurrection He is there among them. One constant challenge for us is to take hold of this Gospel joy and keep it within our hearts and allow it to transform us, to let nothing persuade that anything can separate us from the love of God.
And then Jesus speaks these words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Recalling John 17.18 which says almost the exact same thing, we see here the great commission of John’s Gospel – we, the followers of Jesus, are sent into the world just as He was.
But what does this mean? Well the next verses clear the picture – it is to do with the work of the Paraclete, the Advocate who proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples – the Greek here uses the same rare word for breathe that is found only in Genesis 2.8 with the creation of humanity, and in Ezekiel 37.9 which speaks of the resurrection, of a new creation, a new order and a new time. It cannot be underestimated how much the giving of the Spirit changes everything for us – just as the Cross redeems us so the Spirit takes work of the Cross work within us and makes us righteous before God, it empowers us and purifies us, holds us and stands us up.
Having breathed new life, a new creation, a new reality, into their very being, Jesus declares those controversial words “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” I am not going to enter into the Catholic / Protestant debate over this – but suffice to say that the Greek of all of this passage implies that it is still God who is the forgiver and retainer of sin, and also that this is not just a commission for the disciples present but for all who witness to Christ.
In John 16.11-17 we find written this promise concerning the work of the Spirit and our mission to the world: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when He comes, He will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in Me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see Me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
Jesus sends us into the world just as He was sent into the world; we are to continue His mission. But we can’t do this impossible task alone – and that is one of the reasons why we are sent the Holy Spirit. In John 14.12 it is shown that part of this mission is that we are called to work wonders and signs just as Jesus did – something made possible because Jesus has been glorified and has gone to the Father. And in Acts we see this – people are healed, people are convicted of sin, people prophesy, people speak in tongues, people speak in other languages, people are empowered to boldly proclaim the Cross to a world that sees it as folly and ignorance – and people are saved. And I tell you that 2000 years has not changed that mission or that power we have through the Spirit one jot or one iota.
In John 15.27 we are called on to testify to who Jesus is because we have walked with Him and know Him – we are called to testify Christ crucified in every aspect of our lives – and through this testimony Jesus Himself will be revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit, a promise made in John 16.7-11. We are called by the Spirit to lay bare the true reality of the world, to lay bear sin, righteousness and judgement, and to manifest the glory of God, to be bearers of the fruits of Christ’s victory, to proclaim boldly that Salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone, and to manifest signs as a witness to this just as Jesus did.
And what of the story of Thomas – so often named ‘doubting Thomas’? Just as the previous story holds the climax of the work of the Spirit in John, so here we find Thomas making a statement that is the climax of the Christology of John. But before he does this there is the insidious doubt, a demand for what the disciples claim to have themselves seen to be proved on his own terms, by his own measure of evidence – not only seeing Jesus with His wounds but physically feeling them to be as empirically sure as possible.
And when he is faced with the resurrected Messiah Thomas declares those famous words – “My LORD and my GOD!” Enough cannot be said of these words. Thomas declares Jesus to be the LORD – a word that here is without doubt a reference to the Divine Name given to Moses on Sinai, a word the Jews and Greeks preferred to translate , or rather simply replace, with the words ‘the LORD.’ Thomas is saying ‘my YAHWEH my God.’ Nowhere else in the Gospels is Jesus directly proclaimed like this to be THEOS, to be GOD. We hear that the Word was with God and the Word was what God was, we hear that Jesus and the Father are one, we hear Jesus proclaim the great I AM sayings – before Abraham was I AM – and of course I AM is what YAHWEH means! But here a human recognises Jesus for all that He is – my YAHWEH and my GOD!
And what did this mean for Thomas and the disciples? Well just look at the growth of the Church once they held this firm conviction over all areas of their lives. Perhaps one of the strongest Ancient Church Traditions, and by that I mean it is almost certainly true, is that Thomas went from here to proclaim Christ as Lord, God and Saviour, right through to India where he was martyred for his bold proclaiming of Christ crucified. Even today the church he founded – the Mar Thoma Church – remains, indeed when the Catholics came to India with the Portuguese in the 19th century they were so startled to find Christians – Christians who did not recognise the authority of the Pope that they eventually reasoned that it must have been the work of Satan and began to persecute, torture, and even simply murder these Christians!
The Power the life of Thomas testifies to is the power of the firm conviction that Jesus is Lord and God – the power given through the Spirit to go to the ends of the earth in the name of Christ and even stand firm to the point of death. Whatever Thomas was before this point – a doubter, a man requiring hard physical, academic, verifiable evidence, a loyal yet pessimistic and perhaps somewhat dull-witted disciple (as seen in John 11 and 14) - this truth, once he embraced it and truly believed it and allowed it to rule over his life, led to exactly the continuing of Jesus’ mission that we are called to.
But we do not have Jesus present to make us believe, we are blessed with believing without being able to see the wounds He bore in person. We have the Scriptures which testify to Him, we have fellow brothers and sisters, fellow disciples, who proclaim they know the Lord and experience His salvation, and we see how this changes their lives, the gifts God gives them, if we look we even see signs and wonders, prophesy, healing, divine gifting of wisdom and leadership, and even speaking in others languages – and are told we can have these ourselves!
The challenge for us, and the last point made there is one I often struggle with, is to simply believe without seeing the Lord Himself. To let Him be Lord over all our life, to be completely unashamed of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ even though we have not seen the One we proclaim. And in light of what Charlie was saying on Sunday, on Pentecost, the challenge is to believe that these gifts exist today, and they exist for us, God wants us to have them, not everyone will speak in tongues, not everyone will prophesy, not everyone will lead churches, but God loves to lavish His gifts on us – if only we believe in them and importantly in His promises to give them. We have to believe that Jesus breathes the Spirit upon us and this empowers us to testify to His Lordship to everyone we know, to proclaim Christ crucified in everything we do, be it work, rest, play, fellowship, or worship. We have to boldly ask, seek with perseverance, and knock with all our heart, and then we will be given. We have to believe that Christ died for us and He has been glorified, and the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, has indeed been sent that we might proclaim Christ to be the one and only Saviour to the World.
That is our challenge. That is the challenge of every single disciple of Jesus.