John 20:24-31

John 20:24-29     Jesus Appears to Thomas

24 Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin,
was not with them when Jesus came. 
25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord."  
But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails
and put my finger into the nail marks,
and put my hand into his side,
there is no way I shall believe."

This is the second of only two references made in the Gospel to one of the twelve. The other reference occurred in relation to Judas [6:71]. Both instances involved failures in faith. Conferred roles are no guarantee of personal response.

Thomas’s unwillingness to believe was little different, in fact, from that of Peter and the rest of the disciples: they had not believed the word of Mary Magdalene; and it was only the encounter with Jesus that led them to faith. Thomas was simply more emphatic. As well, guilt can play havoc with the human psyche, and lead to responses that do not always reflect people’s true depths. Thomas had heard what the other disciples had claimed, but he could not accept that what they had seen was the Jesus he had known. He wanted to encounter a real Jesus, not a ghost (or a projection of the human psyche). He was open to faith, but only on his conditions. 

Questions of Faith 

Does true faith ever come easily? Perhaps Thomas could have accepted the word of the others. He could have believed them. But is that the faith that saves and gives life? The issue was not faith in the disciples’ word, but faith in Jesus. 

In the case of Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, was it simply the appearance of Jesus that led to their faith? That would seem to be little different from believing because of signs and wonders. The author had already commented on such responses, “Many trusted in what he said in light of the signs that he gave.  But Jesus did not entrust himself to them because he knew them all” [2:23-4].

True faith is “faith in”; it is an entrusting of self to another, a relationship, a personal commitment to an on-going journey into what is essentially unexplored and unfamiliar. It was the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ total acceptance of them in obvious love and forgiveness that led to their engaging with him, and to their birth to faith.

26 A week later the disciples were indoors again,
and Thomas was with them.

It was the first day of the next week, again, the day of the Christian assembly, the day for Eucharist.

The doors were closed,
but Jesus came and stood up in their midst and said,
"Peace be with you."

Once more, Jesus came and stood [up]. It was he who initiated the encounter. His greeting confirmed the message of the previous encounter. The Risen Jesus was consistently the bearer of peace.

27 Then he said to Thomas, "Bring your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side.  
Be unbelieving no longer, but a believer.

From Doubt to Faith

The gesture of Jesus was concerned and tender; it was not a challenge or an exercise of “one-up-manship”. There is no indication in the text whether Thomas accepted the invitation, or whether Jesus’ gracious approach and offer of acceptance and forgiveness were enough for him to come to faith.

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 

Thomas did not simply accept the undeniable, but entrusted himself totally to the Lord who so obviously loved and forgave him. His response articulated beautifully the essence of Easter faith. Thomas saw in the human and risen Jesus the face of God. His rocky journey to faith climaxed with the most formal and complete act of faith recorded in the Gospel. The Beloved Disciple’s purpose in writing his Gospel was to lead his readers to precisely this profound insight of faith. This was the climax of his narrative. 

Signs of Love 

What was it about the approach of Jesus that brought Thomas to such profound insight and trusting commitment to Jesus?

According to the early Scriptural tradition, God’s covenant with humanity was inscribed and carved into tablets of stone. At the time, there was no other suitable medium for inscriptions. Over time, the idea of covenant relationship became extended in popular conversation to any deep human friendship; and was often expressed by saying that the person’s name was inscribed (or carved) on the hand of the other. Eventually, the expression was deepened by claiming that the person’s name was inscribed on the other’s heart. 

Isaiah spoke of a God who claimed:

I have carved you on the palm of my hand [49:51].

And Jeremiah, when proclaiming the new covenant that God would make with Israel, wrote of God saying:

I will put my law within them, 
and I will write (inscribe or carve) it on their hearts [31:33].

The wounds carved into Jesus’ hands and heart may have served to show Thomas his undying covenantal love for Thomas personally, and for people in general. It was not the simple fact of the resurrection, but Jesus’ unshakable and utterly inclusive love, that set Thomas free from all that had so far held him back. That love empowered him to entrust himself totally to Jesus and to his enterprise of showing to the world the heart of God.

Conversion always begins with a fresh insight into the fascinating mystery of God – a change of image. Against the background of Thomas’ earlier awful desertion of his friend and of his guilt, his encounter with the non-recriminating, caring Jesus was electric. He saw, as it were for the first time, the Jesus whom he had known without really knowing. And the experience was one of radical liberation and empowerment.

29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who believe without seeing."

The comment was included for the sake of the readers. Jesus’ question is addressed as much to the readers as to Thomas. And their answer, as far as the Beloved Disciple was concerned, would have to be “No!” to his question, and a resounding “Yes!” to his observation. Ultimately, their faith would come from the same source as had Thomas’s – the experience of the love and care of the Risen One, no longer visible but wonderfully alive and active in the Church through his Spirit.

Conclusion to the First Edition

John 20:30-31     The Purpose of This Book

30 Jesus worked many other signs in the presence of the disciples
that are not written in this book.
31 These however are written so that you may believe
that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God,
and so that, as you believe this, you may have life in his name.

Scholars generally agree that a first version of the Gospel finished at this point.

In some ways, it would have been better if the comment had been placed at the beginning of the narrative, rather than precisely at its end. And yet, perhaps, it was appropriate to include it here. The author has presented to his readers his own insight into the mystery of Jesus. His concern has not been detail, but meaning. He has brought together his initial experience of the historical Jesus and his on-going experience as disciple of the Risen Jesus still present, through the Spirit, within the community of disciples. However, from his point of view, what mattered were not so much his own insights, as the personal response that all disciples are called to make to their experience of the Risen Jesus. His own sharing would help to guide their exploration, but no one could do that exploration for them. All disciples have to encounter the Risen Jesus against the background of their ever-changing life experience. As they grow across life, their encounter with that Risen One, and their understanding and faith in him would need to be renewed again and again.

Faith as Disciples 

For the Beloved Disciple, his purpose in writing was not to give information about historical detail, but to call to faith. The kind of faith he was interested in was not faith in facts, though it was based on the human reality of Jesus, but faith in the person Jesus. To accept that Jesus had in fact been raised was basic; but mere acceptance of that fact was not enough. The Beloved Disciple wanted disciples to move to a personal encounter with that Risen Jesus and to enter into personal relationship with him.

It is not enough for disciples in today’s world to believe the facts. It is too easy to be Christian simply because of having been born into a Christian family, and growing up to accept the mindset and lifestyle required by the Church. That is little different from seeing the signs, but not engaging with the person Jesus.

Conversion is more than the willing and devout acceptance of a belief-system and lifestyle. It begins with a personal encounter. It is not enough that disciples know and accept that Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to the first disciples, stood among them and greeted them with “Peace”. All present-day disciples need to hear Jesus, through his Spirit, personally say “Peace be with you”, against the background of their own life’s experience with its betrayals and mess. Their personal response to that word of “Peace” is the faith that was the concern of the Beloved Disciple. Only then will they know “life in his name”. 

That Jesus is Messiah has its practical consequences. While his kingdom is not from this world, it is a kingdom within this world. Jesus was firmly rooted in the long history of Israel, with its varied experiences and its profound longings. Faith in Jesus as Messiah is a commitment to Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. It is a commitment to the way of love – of vulnerable love and forgiveness. It is eminently practical, not just to individuals, but to people in society. The blinding power of sin is still operative in the world; consistent and unconditioned love is not the guiding principle of human and social interactions. Until people adopt the way clearly indicated by Jesus, the world will continue along its unredeemed trajectory of self-interest, national interest, and violence.

Redefining God

Believing into Jesus as Son of God means accepting that he is the human revelation of the mystery of God. God really is like what Jesus was. Normally, the first sense of God is as the Almighty One, perhaps, even, the filler of the gaps. It may then progress to a sense of God as the impartial Judge, the foundation of reason and justice. But Jesus shows a recklessly loving and forgiving God; a God whose power is the only life-giving and truly creative power of love; a God who has already judged the world and pronounced it guilty, and, precisely because of this, and the mess into which it has got itself, sent his Son on a mission to save it. Jesus’ method of salvation, learnt from his Father, was to accept the vulnerability (and, in some senses, the powerlessness) of all true love, to absorb in his own flesh the sin of the world, and to prove it wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment [16:8]. To know God, it is necessary to look at Jesus, the Son of God.

Such faith is, once more, not simply the notional acceptance of facts, but commitment to reality. It means personal trust in Jesus, and engagement with him as the revealer of the mystery of God; it involves equal trust in God revealed in Jesus, and personal engagement with God.

Next >> John Chapter 21