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I imagine that for centuries this has been the text assigned for the Sunday after Easter. It is the assigned Gospel for all three years in the Revised Common Lectionary. This is fitting because it reports an event that happened a week after the resurrection.
Our text contains the second and third appearances of the risen Jesus. The first was to Mary Magdalene in the garden, which is part of the Easter Gospel from John. These three appearances take place in Jerusalem.
The fourth and final appearance of Jesus occurs in the Epilogue. This event happens by the "Sea of Tiberias" -- that is, in Galilee (John 21:25, most of this will be the reading for next week). The writer of the Epilogue (which may or may not have been the same writer as John) tells us: "This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead" (21:14). Either Mary was not considered a disciple or the writer couldn't count well.
In each of these accounts words and sight are important -- although neither Greek words: λόγος (logos) nor ρημα (rhēma) are used. The first appearance ends with Mary announcing [αγγέλλω - aggellō -- only occurrence in NT] to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" and then telling them what Jesus had told to her (20:18). The fact that the disciples are in a locked room afraid of the Jews suggests that Mary’s testimony had little affect on them. They certainly aren’t reacting like the people in Samaria at another woman’s wild claims about Jesus (Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship).
The second appearance results in the disciples telling Thomas, "We have seen the Lord" (20:25) -- (the same phrase that Mary had used). Thomas doesn’t believe their words – probably the same reaction that the disciples had at Mary’s words.
The same word is used by Jesus to Thomas in v. 29: "Have you believed because you have seen me?" This suggests that believing involves more than just seeing the risen Lord. Each of these verbs is in the perfect tense, which implies a past action with continuing effect in the present. They saw something in the past and that seeing continues to affect their lives in the present.
The writer concludes the third appearance with his statement about the purpose of the declaration of his words in writing. The story does not end with "seeing the Lord," but by believing and sharing the message.
Why are the two appearances in our text a week apart? The first appearance (vv. 19-23) occurs on the evening of the resurrection day (v. 19). The second appearance (vv. 24-29) occurs "after eight days" (v. 26). Assuming that the writer and first readers of John didn't have the other resurrection accounts to read, what was Jesus doing during that week? Did the disciples only get together once a week? I think that unlikely considering that they were apparently still "tourists" in Jerusalem (where they were afraid of the Jews) rather than back in Galilee where the Jews weren't so hostile. My guess -- which is supported by some commentaries -- is that these two appearances on the first day of the week were influenced by the Christian tradition of celebrating the Eucharist on this day of the week (see Ac 20:7; 1C 16:2). Although one critique of this view maintains that the earliest Jewish Christians met in the synagogue on the Sabbath (seventh day) and then that evening (by Jewish reckoning the day changed at 6:00 pm) they met in homes to break bread.
Given the polemic between John's community and the Jews, I would still maintain that at least part of his purpose in the two "Sunday" appearances is to suggest a reason why the Christians worship on that day. It is the day that Christ rose from the dead and the day the risen Jesus appears to his disciples.
Jesus' words in v. 29 begin with: "Because you have seen, you have believed." Both verbs are perfect tense, which, as I mentioned earlier, implies a past action with continued effect in the present. This sentence also poses a punctuation problem: Is it a question as the NRSV translates it or a declaration as the NIV and TNIV translates it? We have the declaration: "Seeing is believing." It's not always true, but we say it.
V. 29b contains the blessing: "Blessed [are] those not having seen and having believed." These verbs are aorist participles, which refer to something in the past. It is likely that this blessing is pronounced on most if not all of the readers of this gospel. Their "not seeing" and their "believing" (or "started believing") happened in the past. (This assumes that John is writing to believers, rather than to people he is trying to convert -- more about this later.)
It is possible that if there were still eye-witnesses of the resurrected Jesus in the community. They may have thought themselves better than the "not seeing" believers. For John there is no such distinction between believers. Whatever the historical situation, we, and the people we are addressing on Sunday morning, have not seen the resurrected Jesus as those first disciples did.
Anyway, my main point in this discussion is to ask, "If the blessed faith is not based on seeing, then what is it based on?"
I think the answer given in the text (and throughout John) is that faith is to be based on the word. Thomas should have believed the word from the other disciples: "We have seen the Lord" (v. 25). Similarly the other disciples should have believed the word from Mary: "I have seen the Lord" (v. 18). The fact that they were still behind locked doors because they feared the Jews indicates that if they had believed the word, it didn't make any difference in their lives. As I’ve stated in other notes, faith is not really about what we believe, but what difference it makes in our lives that we believe.
A side note: In The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, the author, Pinchas Lapide, is a Jewish(!) NT scholar. He is not a Christian; yet he believes that God raised Jesus from the dead. For him, the proof of the physical resurrection lies in the changed lives of the disciples. I quote from the book:
When this scared, frightened band of the apostles which was just about to throw away everything in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when these peasants, shepherds, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter than before Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation. [p. 125]
Back to believing the Word: From John 1:1 to at least 20:31, John is about being confronted with the Word. First of all, Jesus as the incarnate Word, whose presence is salvation for those who believe that he is making God known to the world and judgment for those who are blind to that revelation. Secondly, I believe that this writing -- the Gospel of John -- is a similar kind of Word. The "these" in v. 31 may refer to the "signs" that are written; it may be limited to the sign of the resurrection appearances -- (the thesis by Gail R. O'Day, John, New Interpreter's Bible) -- and thus a conclusion only to that section; or it may refer to the entire writing -- all that Jesus said and did. I am inclined to opt for the third suggestion -- at least in preaching. The entire Gospel of John is a Word that presents Jesus as the revealer of God and as the savior for those who believe and as judge to those who are blind to that revelation. Salvation is determined by the way one responds to the Word; not by what one may or may not see. Salvation comes through our ears more than through our eyes.
Three times in our text, Jesus uses the greeting, "Peace to you" (vv. 19, 21, 26). On one hand, it is a normal Hebrew greeting: "Shalom" -- which can mean nothing more than our "Hello". However, its other uses in John (14:27; 16:33) indicate something more substantial than just a greeting.
Generally when a verb is absent, the indicative form of "to be" is used, i.e., "Peace is with you" rather than subjunctive, "[May] Peace be with you" -- although the NRSV and NIV use the latter. However, the indicative "is" with the dative can indicate a possessive: "Peace is to you" = "Peace is yours". The promise of peace given in the other references is bestowed at this time.
What is this "peace"? Whenever I see this word in the NT, I begin by defining it as a description of a type of relationship between people rather than a personal inner tranquility. The verbal form [ειρηνεύω - eirēneuō] always refers to relationships between people in the NT (Mk 9:50; Ro 12:18; 2C 13:11; 1Th 5:13). Given John's emphasis on the disciples' love for one another (13:35), I think it highly possible that it has a communal meaning. It is clear in 16:33 that peace does not mean "not having troubles in the world" -- which would tend to rule out the meanings eirene adopted from the Hebrew shalom. A third meaning of eirene which may apply here is that it becomes synonymous with messianic salvation, since "peace" is an essential quality of the messianic kingdom -- but I would suggest that the "peace" of the kingdom is not primarily a personal, inner tranquility, but the way people and all creation and God will relate to each another -- a harmonious existence.
As an example: What if each time the disciples came together -- which I think would have been at least daily during the intervening week, they try to convince Thomas about what they have seen. NOTE: the imperfect = continued action in the past, is used in v. 25 -- "The other disciples kept telling him, 'We have seen the Lord'." Thomas refused to believe them. "We have seen the Lord!" "I don't believe you." "We are telling you the truth, we have seen the Lord!" "I still don't believe you." It wasn't just God's word he wasn't believing, but the word and experience of his friends. How do they keep a harmonious, peaceful relationship with a non-trusting friend? It would be nice if they had told us how they did that so that we could apply it in our congregations! Whatever they did, they didn't kick Thomas out of the fellowship. In spite of the failures of the disciples, they continued to come together as a group. Eventually he had his own experience with the risen Jesus. In the meantime, how did the disciples remain at peace with one another with such a major difference in experiences and beliefs -- and being at odds with most of the world outside their doors? I wish I knew.
Although many translations include "doubt" in v. 27 -- and thus lead to the phrase "Doubting Thomas", there is no Greek word for "doubt" in the verse! The contrast is between απιστος and πίστος (apistos and pistos) -- the only occurrence of both these words in John. In checking six different Greek Lexicons (yes, I have six of them), none of them list "doubt" or "doubting" as meanings for απιστος (apistos). (Words with the meaning of "doubt" are διακρίνομαι (diakrinomai); διαλογισμός (dialogismos); διστάζω (distazō); δίψυχος (dipsychos); απορέω (aporeō); απορία (aporia).) The prefix "a" as in apistos, means "not" or "without". For instances, in English, "amoral" means "without morals". "Apistos" means "without pistos."
Lowe and Nida (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains) give three definitions for the adjective πίστος - pistos. (The numbers are from their numbering system.)
pertaining to trusting -- one who trusts in, trusting (31.86)
pertaining to being trusted -- faithful, trustworthy, dependable, reliable (31.87)
pertaining to being sure, with the implication of being fully trustworthy -- sure (71.17)
απιστος (apistos) would be "not having trust or faith or certainty."
The biblical laments indicate that questioning God is an aspect of faith. If one is asking God questions or seeking answers from God, there has to be some kind of faith that God exists and can respond. It implies some trust that the answer will be correct. Thomas' questioning, his desire to be sure (a meaning of πίστος - pistos), can be commended as an aspect of faith in God.
Besides the possible meanings of πίστος/απιστος (pistos/apistos), we need to also look at the verb in this line: γίνου - ginou (with the negative μη me). It is the 2nd person, singular, present, imperative of γίνομαι - ginomai. Ginomai has two basic meanings: (1) "to become" and (2) a substitute for ειμί - eimi = "to be".
Rather than using meaning 2 in the sentence: "Do not be unbelieving, but [be] believing; I might suggest using meaning 1:
Do not become unbelieving, but believing
Do not become unfaithful, but faithful.
Do not become uncertain, but certain.
Do not become distrusting, but trusting.
Thomas seems to be at a crossroads in his life. What will he become? What adjective will describe him: trusting or not, faithful or not, certain or not?
One of the most difficult parts of an alcoholic’s recovery is trying to regain the trust of the spouse. Usually, over the time of drinking, so much distrust has been created, e.g., "I can't believe anything s/he says," that it will take a lot of time, and many successes in the trusting business to restore faith in the other. How many times in our Christian lives are we faced with forks on the faith road -- will we continue to trust Jesus or not? In some of our denominations, pastors and members are wondering if they can trust their leadership. If trust has been lost, what can be done to regain it?
I have often used this text as an example of the simple stages of faith presented by John Westerhoff III in Will Our Children Have Faith -- (much simpler and easier to understand than Fowler's Stages of Faith). The following is my simplified outline.
(1) EXPERIENCED FAITH (preschool & early childhood) -- imitating actions, e.g., a child praying the Lord's Prayer without understanding the meaning of all the words -- "This is what we do. This is how we act."
(2) AFFILIATIVE FAITH (childhood & early adolescent years) -- belonging to a group, which still centers on imitating what the group does -- "This is what we believe and do. This is our group/church."
(3) SEARCHING FAITH (late adolescence) -- asking questions, "Is this what I believe?" Thomas is our example of this. He will not blindly accept what others have said, but needs to find certainty for himself. This stage of faith is adding the "head" to the "heart" of the earlier stages. Westerhoff comments:
It appears, regretfully, that many adults in the church have never had the benefit of an environment which encouraged searching faith. And so they are often frightened or disturbed by adolescents who are struggling to enlarge their affiliative faith to include searching faith. Some persons are forced out of the church during this state and, sadly, some never return; others remain in searching faith the rest of their lives. In any case, we must remember that persons with searching faith still need to have all the needs of experienced and dependent faith met, even though they may appear to have cast them aside. And surely they need to be encouraged to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment. [p. 97]
In spite of his questions, Thomas remained with the disciples. There he discovered the answers to his questions. However, the questioning stage can lead into the two directions of v. 27 -- Will the questioner become unbelieving or move onto the next stage of faith? This age-level of "questioning faith" is also the age-level when most cult groups recruit their members and when many "drop-out" of church.
(4) OWNED FAITH (early adulthood) -- this stage comes only through the searching stage. After exploring the question, "Is this what I believe?" one, hopefully, discovers a Christian answer that declares: "This is what I believe." The Thomas scene ends with such a personal confession: "My Lord and my God" -- a confession we don't hear from any of the other disciples who did not go through the same questioning as Thomas. However, this is the strong, personal faith that one witnesses to and one is willing to die for -- the other disciples certainly ended up in this stage.
I read a number of comments about the origin of the confession "My Lord and my God." Nearly the same words (Dominus et Deus noster = "our lord and god") were used by Emperor Domitian for himself. It’s likely that his reign (81-95 CE) was during the time the gospel of John was written. John may be making a political statement by that confession about who truly is "Lord and God" -- and it ain't Domitian, or anyone or anything else to whom/what we might give our allegiance. How important is it for us to repeat this message as American patriotism is at its highest level in a generation or more?
This confession is probably also connected with ch. 1 where "the Word was God." If the purpose of John's written word is to confront the reader/hearer with Jesus as the revelation of God; then Thomas makes this connection.
In his Daily Study Bible devotion, William Barcley says this about this passage:
There is more ultimate faith in the man who insists on being sure than the man who glibly repeats things which he has never thought out, and which he does not really believe. It is doubt like that which in the end arrives at certainty.... Thomas doubted in order to become sure; and when he did become sure, his surrender to certainty was complete. If a man fights his way through his doubts to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, he has attained to a certainty that the man who unthinkingly accepts can never reach.
I also have this quote written from Paul Tillich (source unknown): "The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born."
Let me add that the distinctions between Westerhoff’s types of faith are not so clear as the above paragraphs might suggest. All are present all the time. Young children will ask questions and so should mature believers. Believers of all ages have times of certainty and questioning, of "going along with the crowd" and "standing against them." However, as general descriptions of the maturing process of faith, I have found these true in my life -- and many with whom I have shared these stages have resonated with them in their own lives.
Rather than call him "Doubting Thomas" -- a person whose behaviors we should avoid; what if we call him "Confessing Thomas"? He was the only disciple in that room who uttered a confession of personal faith. Shouldn't we all come to that point in our faith journeys?
In John, the Spirit is not given until Jesus is glorified (7:39). The Spirit's job is to point to Jesus (14:26; 15:26), not to itself.
To symbolize the giving of the Holy Spirit/Breath, Jesus "breathes on" (εμφυσάω - emphysaō -- only occurrence in NT) the disciples (without Thomas!). The same word is used in Gn 2:7 (LXX) where God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of the man and he becomes a living being. It is used in Ez 37:9 where the breath breaths on the slain [the dry bones], so that they may live. It is also used in Wisdom 15:11c where God "breathed a living spirit into them."
Perhaps in contrast to the Lapide quote above, what changed the disciples from fearful to fearless witnesses may not have been seeing the resurrected Jesus (which only a few experienced), but the infilling of the Holy Spirit -- which was and is available to all believers.
The giving of the Spirit comes after the disciples (and I take these disciples to represent all disciples -- not just a select few) have been commissioned to continue the work that Jesus has done (v. 21). Although two different words for "send" are used – αποστέλλω - apostellō and πέμπω - pempō -- they are used interchangeably in John. The purpose of this resurrection appearance is not so much to prove the resurrection as it is to send the disciples as Jesus had been sent. Easter is not just coming to a wonderful, inspiring worship service, it is being sent back into the (hostile) world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus – and, given the experience of Mary and her witness; and the disciples and their witness to Thomas, we could expect that people will not believe us.
Beyond that, if we take 3:17 seriously: "Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him," then our job and the church's job is not to condemn the world but to offer salvation to it. I'm not sure that we have always understood this too well.
I found O'Day's (John, New Interpreters Bible) comments on vv. 21-23 intriguing:
It is critical in the interpretation of v. 23, therefore, that this verse be heard in its Johannine context and not be read anachronistically through the lens of the Reformation. First, Jesus' words in v. 23 are addressed to the entire faith community, not to its apostolic leaders. Any discussion of this verse, therefore, must be grounded in an understanding of forgiveness of sins as the work of the entire community. Second, the community's enactment of Jesus' words in v. 23 depends on both Jesus' words of sending in v. 21 and the gift of the Holy Spirit in v. 22. The forgiveness of sins must be understood as the Spirit-empowered mission of continuing Jesus' work in the world. Third, although vocabulary of forgiveness and retaining is foreign to John, "sin" (αμαρτία - hamartia) is not. Because the community's work is an extension of Jesus' work, v. 23 must be interpreted in terms of Jesus' teaching and actions about sin. The crucial texts in this regard are 3:19-21; 8:21-24; 9:39-41; and 15:22-24. In John, sin is a theological failing, not a moral or behavioral transgression (in contrast to Matt 18:18). To have sin is to be blind to the revelation of God in Jesus. Jesus brings people to judgment by his revealing work and presence in the world.
In v. 23, then, Jesus commissions the community to continue the work of making God in Jesus known in the world and thereby to bring the world to the moment of decision and judgment with regard to sin (cf. 15:22-24). The description of the Paraclete's activity in 16:8-9 supports this reading of 20:23, because the Paraclete is to "prove the world wrong about sin ... because they do not believe in me." ... [p. 847]
She expands on this in her "reflections":
Perhaps the most difficult part of this Easter/Pentecost story concerns precisely what Jesus commissions the faith community to do. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father, so also he sends the community (v. 21), but the content of the church's work is only alluded to. The combination of vv. 22-23 suggests that the faith community is to be a people shaped by Jesus' gift of the Spirit and that the mark of that gift will be the power to forgive or retain sins. As the Commentary discussed, however, forgiving sins does not involve forgiving moral transgressions (nor does retaining sins involve retaining moral transgressions), but it involves bearing witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus. If the interpreter combines vv. 22-23 with Jesus' commandment to love one another in 13:34-35, a possible picture of the church's mission emerges. By loving one another as Jesus loves, the faith community reveals God to the world; by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love. It is in choosing or rejecting this relationship with God that sins are forgiven or retained. The faith community's mission, therefore, is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong, but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus. [p. 848]
Along this same line, a quote from Robert Capon (Hunting the Divine Fox: An Introduction to the Language of Theology, [pp. 132-3] republished in The Romance of the Word: One Man's Love Affair with Theology [p. 345])
... The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days' worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness.
What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business – and that, of course, is the church's real job. She is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can't turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense.
The church becomes, not Ms. Forgiven Sinner, but Ms. Right. Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure tripe. The church is nothing but the world under the sign of baptism. ...
We Easter people have been sent to forgive sins.
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