Sermon for April 23, 2017 (second Sunday of Easter)
Acts 2:14, 22-32; Psalm 16:1-11; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
THE POWER OF JESUS’ RESURRECTION (John 20:19-31)
By Ted Johnston
The news that Jesus had risen from the dead spread rapidly among his followers—at first with skepticism, then hesitation, but finally with enthusiasm and joy. At first, even his disciples did not believe the reports, and Thomas demanded proof. But wherever people were confronted with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, lives were transformed. In John’s Gospel we find the unfolding of this transformation in three steps: 1) from fear to courage, 2) from unbelief to confidence, and 3) from death to life. May we too travel this journey, by the Spirit, in the presence of our risen Lord.
1. From fear to courage (John 20:19–23)
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
It was on Easter Sunday that the risen Lord first appeared to his followers: to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11–18), the other women (Matt. 28:9–10), Peter (1 Cor. 15:5 and Luke 24:34), two disciples walking the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32), and the disciples minus Thomas (John 20:19–25). The following Sunday, Jesus appeared again to his disciples. This time Thomas was present (John 20:26–31). In these Sunday encounters, the Lord transformed his disciples’ fear into courage. What did he do to accomplish this? Four things:
a. He came to them
We do not know where these ten frightened men met behind locked doors, but Jesus came to them and reassured them. In his glorified human body he was able to enter the room without opening the doors. His resurrection body was solid—he asked them to touch him, and he ate fish (Luke 24:41–43). But it was a different kind of human body, one not limited by what we call “the laws of nature.”
It’s remarkable that Jesus’ disciples were afraid. The women had reported to them that Jesus was alive, and the disciples walking to Emmaus had given their personal witness (Luke 24:33–35). Moreover, it’s likely Jesus had appeared personally to Peter sometime that afternoon (Mark 16:7; Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5). No wonder Jesus reproached them at that time “for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe” (Mark 16:14).
Nevertheless, Jesus’ first word to them was the traditional Jewish greeting, “peace be with you.” He could have rebuked them for their unfaithfulness and cowardice the previous weekend, but he did not, for the work of the cross is peace (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:14–17) and the message these followers of Jesus would soon carry to the world is the gospel of peace (Rom. 10:15).
b. He reassured them
Jesus showed them his wounds and gave them opportunity to discover that it was indeed their Master, and that he was not a ghost. But his wounds meant more than identification; they also were evidence that salvation had been accomplished and God had reconciled himself to all humanity, thus accomplishing “peace with God.” The basis for our peace with God, with one another, and within ourselves, is found in the person and work of Jesus. He died for us, rose from the dead in victory for us, and now lives for us and, by the Spirit, within us. In our fears, we must not lock him out! He comes to us in grace and reassures us by his Word.
c. He commissioned them
In the upper room on Maundy Thursday, Jesus had said in prayer to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Now comes their actual sending: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Since he is returning to the Father, Jesus’ mission in the world is now entrusted to his disciples—what a tremendous privilege and great responsibility that is! It’s humbling to realize that Jesus loves us as the Father loves him (John 15:9; 17:26), and that we are in the Father just as he is (John 17:21–22). It’s equally humbling to realize that he has sent us into the world just as the Father sent him. As he was about to ascend to heaven, he again reminded them of their commission to take the gospel to the world, thus multiplying his disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). It must have given these disciples great joy to realize that, in spite of their many failures, their Lord was entrusting them with his Word and work. They had forsaken him and fled, but now he was sending them out as his representatives. Peter had denied him three times; and yet in a few days, Peter would preach the Word and thousands would become followers of Jesus.
d. He enabled them
“And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). Jesus’ action here reminds us of Genesis 2:7, when God breathed life into Adam. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “breath” also means “spirit.” The breath of God in the first creation meant physical life, and here the breath of Jesus Christ in the new creation meant spiritual life—spiritual re-birth. The believers would be baptized with the Spirit at Pentecost and be empowered for ministry (Acts 1:4–5; 2:1–4). This filling of the Spirit would enable them to go forth to witness effectively. The Spirit had dwelt with them in the person of Jesus, but now the Spirit would be in them (John 14:17).
By now, the fears of the disciples had vanished. They were now sure that the Lord was alive and caring for them. They had both “peace with God” and the “peace of God” (Phil. 4:6–7). They had a high and holy commission and the power provided to accomplish it. And they had been given the great privilege of bearing the good news of forgiveness in Jesus to the whole world. All they now needed to do was to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit would be poured out.
Some wonder if John 20:23 means Jesus has given his followers (or a select group of them) the right to forgive sins. But that is not what is happening here. A more accurate translation (and the similar text in Matthew 16:19) is “Whosoever sins you remit [meaning forgive] shall have already been forgiven them, and whosoever sins you retain [meaning not forgive] shall have already not been forgiven them.” In other words, the disciples did not provide forgiveness; their commission was to boldly proclaim forgiveness on the basis of the work of Christ. As the early believers went forth into the world, they announced the gospel—the good news that because of Christ and his saving work, they are forgiven and that this forgiveness may be received as they repent (turn to Jesus) and to accept that forgiveness in faith (trusting Jesus).
2. From unbelief to confidence (John 20:24–28)
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Why was Thomas not with the other disciples when they met on the evening of Easter Sunday? Was he so disappointed that he did not want to be with his friends? Perhaps Thomas was afraid. But John 11:16 seems to indicate that he was a courageous man, willing to go to Judea and die with the Lord. John 14:5 reveals that Thomas was a spiritually minded man who wanted to know the truth and was not ashamed to ask questions. There seems to have been a “pessimistic” outlook in Thomas. We call him “Doubting Thomas,” but Jesus did not rebuke him for his unwillingness to believe; rather he confronted his doubt and exhorted him to believe: “Stop doubting and believe!”
What was it that Thomas would not believe? The reports of the other Christians that Jesus was alive. The verb “told” in v. 25 means that the disciples “kept telling him” that they had seen the Lord Jesus alive. No doubt the women and the Emmaus pilgrims added their witness. On the one hand, we admire Thomas for wanting personal experience; but on the other, we must fault him for laying down conditions for the Lord to meet.
Thomas is a good warning to not miss meeting with God’s people (Heb. 10:22–25). Because Thomas was not with the others the previous Sunday, he missed seeing Jesus, hearing his words of peace, and receiving his commission and gift of spiritual life. He had to endure a week of fear and unbelief when he could have been experiencing joy and peace!
The other ten disciples had told Thomas that they had seen Jesus’ hands and side (John 20:20), so Thomas made that the test. Thomas had been there when Jesus raised Lazarus, so why should he question our Lord’s own resurrection? But he still wanted proof, for “seeing is believing.”
Thomas’ words help us understand the difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt says, “I cannot believe! There are too many problems!” Unbelief says, “I will not believe unless you give me the evidence I ask for!”
Jesus had heard Thomas’ words; nobody had to report them to him. So, the next Sunday, the Lord appeared in the room (again, the doors were locked) and dealt personally with Thomas and his unbelief. He still greeted them with “Shalom—peace!” Even Thomas’ unbelief could not rob the other disciples of their peace and joy in the Lord.
How gracious our Lord is to stoop to our level of experience in order to lift us where we ought to be. There is no record that Thomas ever accepted the Lord’s invitation. When the time came to prove his faith, Thomas needed no more proof!
Our Lord’s words at the end of v. 27 can be translated, “Stop becoming faithless but become a believer.” Jesus saw a dangerous process at work in Thomas’ heart, and wanted to put a stop to it. The best commentary on this is Hebrews 3, where God warns against “an evil heart of unbelief” (Heb. 3:12). It’s not easy to understand the psychology of doubt and unbelief. Perhaps it is linked to personality traits; some people are more trustful than others. Perhaps Thomas was so depressed that he was ready to quit, so he “threw out a challenge” and never really expected Jesus to accept it. At any rate, Thomas was faced with his own words, and he had to make a decision. Verse 29 indicates that Thomas’ testimony did not come from his touching Jesus, but from his seeing Jesus. “My Lord and my God!” is the climactic one of multiple testimonies that John records to the deity of Jesus Christ.
3. From death to life (John 20:29–31)
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
John could not end his Gospel without bringing the resurrection miracle to his own readers. We must not look at Thomas and the other disciples and envy them, as though the power of Christ’s resurrection could never be experienced in our lives today. That was why John wrote—so that people in every age could know that Jesus is God and that faith in him brings everlasting life.
It is not necessary to “see” Jesus in order to believe. Yes, it was a blessing for the early Christians to see their Lord and know that he was alive; but that is not what saved them. They were saved, not by seeing, but by believing. The emphasis throughout the Gospel of John is on believing. There are nearly 100 references in this Gospel to believing on Jesus Christ.
The “signs” John selected and described in this book are proof of the deity of Jesus. They are important. But sinners are not saved by believing in miracles; they are saved by believing in Jesus. Great crowds followed Jesus because of his miracles (John 6:2); but in the end, most of them left him (John 6:66). Faith in Jesus’ miracles should lead to faith in his Word, and to faith in him as Savior and Lord. Indeed this is John’s purpose in writing (John 20:31)—to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
“Life” is one of John’s key words; he uses it at least 36 times. Jesus offers eternal life to sinners through faith in him. Sinners need this life because they are spiritually dead: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” said Paul to the Ephesian Christians (Eph. 2:1).
Salvation is not mere resuscitation; it is resurrection (John 5:24). The lost sinner is not sick or weak, they are dead. Thankfully, the eternal life that comes by faith, in union with Jesus, is not merely “endless time” (though eternal length comes with it), it is “eternal life,” the very life of God—not experienced just “in the sweet by-and-by,” but right now. Eternal life is thus not merely about length of life, it’s about a quality of life—it’s the spiritual experience of heaven on earth today. Followers of Jesus do not have to die to have this life; they possesses it already, by the Spirit, in their union with Christ, and so shall they experience it forever.
The disciples were radically changed in the presence of their risen Lord. And now, John invites us to experience a similar transformation—it begins by receiving by faith the eternal life that is ours in Jesus. If you have already done so, give thanks to God for his precious gift! If you have never turned to Jesus in repentance, placing your trust in him as God’s Son and your Savior, you may do so right now. Jesus invites you to believe, and in believing to receive what is yours in him.
[Close with an invitation to come forward for prayer to receive Jesus, or pray that prayer while the whole audience is seated, with those who have received Christ invited to meet afterwards to discuss follow-up couseling.]