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Previously we read about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, his appearing to Mary, and his instruction to bring news of his resurrection to the apostles. Where are the apostles when this happens? They are huddled together behind a locked door.
But scripture is not a revelation of the character of the apostles. It is not a revelation about the character of Mary, either. And it is not a revelation of our own character. From first to last, scripture is a revelation of the character of God. So as we read John 20:19-31—or any passage of scripture—the question we should ask is, “What does this scripture reveal to us about the character of God?”
In John 20:19-31, this question is especially vital, because in this scripture it is easy to lose focus on Christ as we are drawn into considering the drama of Thomas.
He is often called “doubting Thomas” because of this very story. Sometimes we read the story as a rebuke of Thomas’ character: He should not have doubted the news of Christ’s resurrection. Then, we apply this truth to ourselves: We should not doubt Christ, either. However, when we read John 20:19-31 in this way, we miss the grand revealing of several stunning elements of God’s character.
So let us leave Thomas be and instead read John 20:19-31 together with our focus unshakably centered on God.
To focus on God, we have to understand where he is in this passage. The Nicene Creed tells us that God exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Son is not separate from God, but is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”
Furthermore, context tells us that the Son’s purpose is to reveal the Father. For example, in John 14:9 Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Then, in John 5:19, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” From this, we can learn that an essential part of focusing on God is focusing on Christ.
At the outset of this passage, however, Jesus is nowhere to be seen. We read that the apostles have shut themselves into a room. Why? Because they are afraid of the very same religious leaders that crucified Christ. If you asked the disciples at this time, they would say that they are afraid of losing their lives. But it wasn’t actually their lives they were afraid of losing.
As we learned before, life as defined by Christ can only be given by the Holy Spirit. The disciples are actually afraid of losing their breath. If the disciples were afraid of losing their lives they would have fearlessly followed Christ to the cross. They would realize that they could only gain their life by losing it.
However, by seeking to save their breath, the disciples have lost their lives.
When Jesus sees human beings with breath but no life, he refers to them as dead. They lack the life that only comes from the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, we can refer to the apostles in this passage as dead men. The room that they have shut themselves in has become their tomb. Jesus left the tomb on Easter; the disciples entered theirs. Fear and self-preservation confine them to this tomb, making it impossible for them to leave the tomb on their own.
In Luke 17:33, Jesus tells the disciples, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” Here, we see an example of this. Jesus was crucified, but God “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” Jesus was raised from the dead and, through his own death, defeats Death. On the other hand, the disciples attempt to flee from death, but they lock themselves inside a room from which they cannot emerge. They remain dead.
This is our context. Now, our question: “What does Christ do?”
Although the apostles betrayed Christ (in exchange for their own lives), Christ chooses to appear in their midst. He reveals to the apostles the wounds on his hands and side. This is important. Christ does not shed his body and become raised as a spirit. He is raised bodily from the dead, and he remains embodied to this day. Sometimes, we mistakenly identify Thomas’ error as a fixation on the physical. “We must focus on the spiritual,” we conclude. However, when Jesus appears, he is not a bodiless spirit.
He bears wounds that he encourages the apostles to touch. Thomas is not the only one who cares about physical things: Christ does, too.
Scripture tells us that Christ’s body is much like ours in many ways—except it is not limited by death, time, or space. Unlike our current bodies, Christ’s body is perfect. The only “blemishes” are the marks on his hands and side, marks that Revelation tell us will remain for all of time. Even when John sees Jesus in heaven, Jesus still bears these marks. But these marks are Christ’s glory—not his shame.
Jesus’ first words to the apostles are not accusations or complaints. “Peace be with you,” he says. Why is this important? When we speak, our words express our desire, but their effect is limited. If we say, “Peace be with you,” very little happens. People may return our greeting, but our words do not in and of themselves instill peace within those to whom we speak.
But God’s words are power: Whatever God says, happens. His words always accomplish their purpose. In Genesis, for example, we see that God creates the heavens and the earth through speech. Because Jesus is God the Son, it should not surprise us that his speech is also efficacious. For example, in Mark 4:35-41 Jesus’ words quiet a storm. So when Christ says here, “Peace be with you,” it quiets a storm as well.
After bestowing peace and joy upon the apostles, Jesus breathes on them. Why would he breathe on them? In Genesis, God creates human beings by breathing breath into them. Once again, Jesus is creating. But this time he gives them more than breath. He gives them life, telling them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” And in bestowing this life on them, they receive the forgiveness of sins that he won on the cross. Through Christ’s breath and forgiveness, the disciples are born from above.
However, not all of the apostles had the Spirit breathed into them. The scripture tells us, “Thomas … was not with the disciples when Jesus came.” What will God the Son do?
It is interesting to note that Christ does not immediately appear to Thomas. Instead, he waits. He allows the apostles to speak with him. After the apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit, they follow the same commands as Mary and Mary: they pass on the word they have heard. The disciples approach Thomas and witness to him about Jesus’ resurrection.
Thomas rejects their witness.
Jesus has 10 apostles willing to witness of his life, death and resurrection. These disciples have witnessed to Thomas. Thomas has rejected the witness. What does Jesus do?
Jesus reveals himself to Thomas.
“Peace be with you,” he tells Thomas. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. When any of his sheep wander, he follows them.
“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away,” Jesus says in John 6:37. Then, again, in John 6:39: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me.”
Thomas betrayed Jesus and then rejected his witness, but Jesus still revealed himself to Thomas. This is the character of God.
This does not mean that we should test Jesus. We should not offer him our service in exchange for some favor we request. We should not say, “Lord, if you heal me, I will believe in you” or “Jesus, if you exist, reveal yourself to me!” Why not? After all, that is what Thomas did and Jesus appeared to him. Why can’t we do the same?
Jesus did not call us to be physical witnesses of his life, death, and resurrection. He designated this purpose to the twelve apostles. Their witness is recorded in the scriptures, so that we may believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God, and, believing, that we may have life. When we have doubts, we should turn to the scriptures, to be instructed by the Holy Spirit. There we receive the testimony of Thomas and Mary and the apostles.
Christ says that when the Holy Spirit reveals the character of God to us through the scriptures, we are even more blessed than Thomas, who saw him face to face.