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John 20:19-31 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 20:1-21. THE CONTEXT
This Gospel is a richly woven tapestry that derives its richness from inter-related threads. For example:
• In the Prologue, the Evangelist declared, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made” (1:1-3). Now Thomas addresses Jesus as “My Lord and my God” (v. 28), reaffirming Jesus’ deity. Many scholars believe that chapter 21 was added later. If that is true, then this Gospel is framed by these beginning and ending statements about the deity of Jesus.
• Jesus promised the disciples, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (14:18). Now he returns after his resurrection to those who feel orphaned by the crucifixion.
• In that same discourse he said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, give I to you. Don’t let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful” (14:27). Now coming into the presence of the disciples, his first words to them are, “Peace be to you!” (v. 19). He repeats this giving of peace a week later when he meets again with the disciples and Thomas (v. 26).
• In his prayer shortly before his death, Jesus prayed, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, so that your Son may also glorify you” (17:1). Now Jesus has been glorified on the cross and appears as the risen Savior to the disciples.
• Earlier, the Evangelist said, “For the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus wasn’t yet glorified” (7:39). Now that Jesus has been glorified, he gives the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples (v. 22).
There are surely other examples, but these serve to illustrate how this week’s Gospel lesson relates to themes expressed throughout the Gospel.
JOHN 20:19-31. JESUS APPEARS TO THE DISCIPLES
The two appearances of Jesus take place a week apart, the first being on Easter evening and the second being after eight days (meth hemeras okto)—often translated “a week later”.
Jesus speaks to the disciples three times. “Each time his words give power to the disciples who hear them” (Althouse, 107):
• “Peace be to you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (vv. 19, 21).
• “Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive anyone’s sins, they have been forgiven them. If you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained” (vv. 22-23).
• “Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing” (v. 27).
This Gospel tells us that disciples are gathered, but not which disciples. In Luke’s parallel telling of this story (Luke 24:36-49), it is the Eleven “and those who were with them” (24:33). In this Gospel, given Thomas’ absence, it is really the Ten and their companions.
This Gospel shows us that there are different kinds of faith, and that faith comes in different ways and with differing intensities to different people. The beloved disciple believes upon seeing the empty tomb (v. 8). Mary believes when the Lord calls her name (v. 16). The disciples must see the risen Lord (v. 20). Thomas says that he must touch Jesus’ wounds (v. 25)—although that need seems to evaporate once he sees the risen Christ (v. 28). People have differing needs and find various routes to faith.
It is instructive to note that Thomas believed, lost faith, and then returned to even greater faith.
JOHN 20:19-23. THE FIRST APPEARANCE
19When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were locked (Greek: kekleismenon—from kleio—closed or locked) where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be to you.”
20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus therefore said to them again, “Peace (eirene) be to you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit! 23If you forgive anyone’s sins, they have been forgiven them. If you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained.”
“When therefore it was evening, on that day” (v. 19a). This is Easter evening, the same day that the disciples saw the empty tomb and Mary saw Jesus. This is consistent with Luke’s account, where Jesus encountered two disciples on the Emmaus road “that same day” (Luke 24:13), which was “the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1). Once the disciples recognized Jesus, “he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:31). “They rose up that very hour, returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and those who were with them…. As they said these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace be to you'” (Luke 24:33, 36).
The disciples meet in a room in Jerusalem “locked…for fear of the Jews” (v. 19b). The locked doors reflect the fear of the disciples, but will also demonstrate the power of the risen Christ, who can be contained neither by a rock tomb nor a locked door.
It is surprising that the disciples are afraid, because Peter and “the other disciple” have seen the empty tomb (vv. 6-8) and “the other disciple” has seen and believed (v. 8). Mary Magdalene has spoken with the risen Christ and has told the disciples of her experience (v. 14-18). However, even after “the other disciple” has seen and believed, it is not clear what he believes, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (v. 9). Furthermore, the disciples are still traumatized by the crucifixion, and are frightened concerning what might happen next.
Their fear disappoints us, because they are acting like disciples whose leader is dead. However, after they see the risen Christ and receive the Holy Spirit, they will be transformed and emboldened.
“Peace (eirene) be to you” (v. 19c). To these frightened disciples, Jesus gives his peace, even as he has promised (14:27). The disciples will have peace in spite of persecution by a world that will hate them even as it hates Jesus (15:18-25). While this text uses the Greek word for peace, eirene, the concept is the Jewish shalom—more than the absence of conflict—a wholeness that is the gift of God.
Eirene (peace) is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It has its roots in the peace that we have with God, who has granted us the gift of grace through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-2a).
“When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side” (v. 20a). On one hand, Jesus enters through a closed door, suggesting that his body has assumed a different quality. On the other hand, his wounds confirm his bodily resurrection, and his body is clearly recognizable by the disciples. Luke tells of Jesus eating a meal with the disciples (Luke 24:43).
There is mystery here—Jesus’ resurrected body is, at the same time, like ours and not like ours. Paul speaks of the resurrection body as imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). However, we must not press the word “spiritual” too far, because Jesus’ body is also clearly physical. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that the person who stands before them, alive and well, is the same person who was so recently crucified.
In the day in which this Gospel was written, the church was having a serious problem with Docetists and Gnostics, both of whom believed that physical matter was evil and that therefore Jesus could not have been truly human. The mention of Jesus’ wounded hands and side refutes that kind of dualism.
“The disciples therefore were glad when they saw the Lord” (v. 20b). Earlier, Jesus warned the disciples that they would weep and mourn and experience pain, but then he promised, “your sorrow will be turned into joy” (16:20)—a joy so profound that they would forget their former pain, even as a woman forgets the anguish of labor pains “for the joy that a human being is born into the world” (16:21). This visit of Jesus to the disciples, then, is the fulfillment (or at least the beginning of the fulfillment) of that promise. The disciples did, indeed, weep and mourn and experience pain when Jesus was arrested and crucified. But now their pain has turned into joy at seeing Jesus alive once again.
This is also a turning point for the disciples. Never again will they be fearful and unbelieving.
Jesus gives the disciples his peace a second time and then says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (v. 21). Earlier, in his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed, “As you sent me into the world, even so I have sent them into the world” (17:18). Now he makes explicit to the disciples what he had spoken of in that prayer.
This is the Johannine equivalent of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). It reflects the principle that the authority of the one who is sent is the same as the authority of the one who sent him—the king’s emissary speaks with the authority of the king. God is present in the work of Jesus; Jesus will be present in the work of the disciples. It is a passing of the baton—the designation of succession.
“When he had said this, he breathed on them” (v. 22a). However, to send these disciples into the world alone would be futile, so Jesus prepares them by breathing on them—or breathing into them (Greek: enephusesen). Just as God breathed into man the breath of life (Genesis 2:7—LXX), Jesus breathes into the disciples the Spirit of life. This gift of the Spirit renews the life of these disciples just as Godly breath gave new life to the bones of the dead (Ezekiel 37:9). They have been afraid and confused—hidden in a locked room to escape danger. Now they find strength to stand up, unlock the door, go outside, and begin their proclamation.
“Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22b). As far back as the first chapter of this Gospel, John the Baptist spoke of Jesus as “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33)—and Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of the necessity of being “born of the Spirit” (3:8).
How can we reconcile this giving of the Spirit with the account of Pentecost in Acts 2?
• Some scholars say that the two accounts are irreconcilable and that verse 22 is the Johannine Pentecost.
• Others, noting the lack of a definite article—Jesus says, “Receive Holy Spirit!” rather than “Receive the Holy Spirit!”—believe that the disciples received something less than the full gift of the Spirit on this occasion.
• Others say that John knows of Pentecost, but writes the story this way “because of his peculiar theological vision that tightly ties the descent of the Spirit to Jesus’ death/ exaltation” (Carson, 651).
• Still others say, “It is false alike to the New Testament and to Christian experience to maintain that there is but one gift of the Spirit…. John tells of one gift of the Spirit and Luke of another” (Morris, 748).
“If you forgive anyone’s sins, they have been forgiven them. If you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained” (v. 23), This is reminiscent of Matthew 16:19 in which Jesus tells Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” Matthew 18:18 gives the same authority to the disciples in a context having to do with the resolution of church conflict.
Rabbis have the authority to “forgive” and “retain” sins in the sense that they interpret the law to determine what is and is not allowed, but they do not forgive sins. Jesus breaks new ground here by giving the disciples authority to forgive sins or to withhold forgiveness.
In this Gospel, sin is a failure to see the truth—a refusal to accept the risen Christ. Jesus is sending the disciples into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to proclaim the risen Christ. Some people will accept their testimony, and others will reject it. Their response will determine whether they will find themselves among those whose sins are forgiven or among those whose sins are retained.
Verse 23 raises two questions: First, does Jesus give power to forgive or to retain sins—or only power to discern the will of God in particular cases and to make God’s judgment known? Second, does Jesus give this power to individual Christians or to the church? While there may be some room for debate, one thing is clear—only as we act under the leadership of the Spirit do we have any God-given power at all.
JOHN 20:24-25. UNLESS I SEE, I WILL NOT BELIEVE
24But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, wasn’t with them when Jesus came. 25The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
“But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus (the twin), wasn’t with them when Jesus came” (v. 24). Didymos is the Greek word for twin. We don’t know why Thomas was absent, but we do know that he earlier thought that going to Bethany with Jesus would mean death for the disciples as well as Jesus (11:16).
“The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord'” (v. 25a). The first person to whom the disciples witness is one of their own, Thomas, who was not present when Jesus first appeared to them. Their words to Thomas (“We have seen the Lord”) are essentially the same words (“she had seen the Lord”) that were used to describe Mary’s encounter with Jesus.
“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (v. 25b). Thomas does not believe the disciples, but neither did the disciples believe Mary. They were a despondent, defeated people until they saw Jesus with their own eyes.
Thomas was not the sole doubter and will not remain a doubter. He doubts the witness of the other disciples and so cannot believe the resurrection. Once he sees what they have seen, he will manifest great faith.
A Preaching Point: Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus made his first appearance, and therefore didn’t believe. The point for us is that we need the faith-strengthening fellowship of fellow Christians (Gossip, 798).
We should probably think of Thomas’ demand to see the mark of the nails and to put his hand in Jesus’ side as hyperbole (exaggeration for effect)—but his conduct is nevertheless troubling. Earlier, Jesus condemned those who demanded signs and wonders before they would believe (4:48). Thomas goes even further by stating his unbelief and the conditions that the Lord must meet before he will believe.
But we might understand Thomas’ reluctance if we remember his words as Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem—”Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). Thomas has been zealous for Jesus, but has seen his worst fears realized. The crucifixion has broken his heart. The phrase, “Once burned, twice shy!” comes to mind. Thomas believed, but his belief was betrayed. We can understand why he would be slow to believe again. Perhaps this is the reason for the great compassion and sensitivity with which Jesus reaches out to Thomas in the verses below.
JOHN 20:26-29. THE SECOND APPEARANCE
26After eight days again his disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors being locked, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace be to you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.”
28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed (Greek: makarios) are those who have not seen, and have believed.”
“After eight days his disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them” (v. 26a). The eight days are to be counted inclusively—Sunday through Sunday—it is once again the first day of the week. Jesus appears to them once again.
“Jesus came, the doors being locked, and stood in the midst” (v. 26b). Once again the doors are shut, but no longer is there any mention of fear. All is the same as it was the previous Sunday except for this lack of fear. Jesus’ appearance to the disciples the week before has transformed their fear to faith.
“Peace be to you” (v. 26c). Once again Jesus gives them his peace. The scene is very much parallel to that of a week earlier.
“Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side” (v. 27a). Jesus does not condemn Thomas for his failure to believe, but gives him that which enables him to believe (v. 27). Thomas has demanded to see and touch the risen Lord, and Jesus allows him to do that. There is no indication that Thomas actually touches Jesus’ wounds. Seeing the wounded, resurrected Christ is enough.
“Don’t be unbelieving (apistos), but believing” (pistos) (v. 27b). Jesus says, “kai me ginou (and don’t be) apistos (unbelieving) alla pistos” (but believing). We think of this as the Doubting Thomas story, but apistos literally means unbelieving. In this context, doubting isn’t as strong a word as unbelieving.
“My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). In response, Thomas makes this great confession of faith, which goes far beyond any titles or confessions found elsewhere in this Gospel. The greatest doubter has become the greatest believer.
“Blessed (makarios) are those who have not seen, and have believed” (v. 29). Jesus doesn’t deny Thomas a blessing. Thomas has been blessed by seeing the risen Lord and learning that his deepest fears were unfounded. But Jesus implies that those who believe in spite of not having seen will receive even greater blessings. Those blessings can take many forms: Material wealth, children, health, redemption, forgiveness, etc.
This Greek word makarios (blessed) is the same word that Jesus used in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). The blessings that he pronounced there were the kingdom of Heaven (v. 3), comfort (v. 4), inheritance (v. 5), being filled (v. 6), mercy (v. 7), seeing God (v. 8), being called the children of God (v. 9), and heavenly rewards (vv. 10-12).
This is Jesus’ final beatitude or blessing. These words will encourage early Christians who will feel cheated, having missed seeing Jesus by only a few months or years. They also encourage us, who are among those who have not seen but who have believed. The few first-generation Christians who saw Jesus in person have no advantage over the many later-generations of Christians who have not. Note that Jesus does not say that these later Christians will be more blessed than the “seeing” disciples, but only that they will be blessed.
JOHN 20:30-31. THESE ARE WRITTEN, THAT YOU MAY BELIEVE
30Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
In verse 29, Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who will believe. Now the author says, “But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (v. 31). The purpose of this Gospel is that we, the readers of this Gospel, may enjoy the promised blessing.
In this Gospel, Jesus’ miracles are called signs. These signs give people reason to believe, but many who witness them do not believe (6:36). The choice is ours.
“and that believing, you may have life in his name” (v. 31b). Faith rather than works determines salvation (Romans 1:6; 4:1-3; 9:31-32; 10:9; 1 Corinthians 1:21; Galatians 3:1-12; Ephesians 2:8).
Most scholars agree that these verses conclude this Gospel in its original form. The Evangelist states the purpose of his writing—that we might believe. He achieved this goal. Millions of Christians have been strengthened in their faith by reading this Gospel, and millions of others have been brought to faith, at least in part, by its witness to Christ.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Althouse, LaVonne, “Words of Power,” Clergy Journal (May-June, 1996)
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Beasley-Murray, George R., Word Biblical Commentary: John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953)
Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Hultgren, Arland J. in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Krenz, Edgar and Vogel, Arthur A., Proclamation 2, Easter, Series C
Lindberg, Paul H., Lectionary Bible Studies: The Year of Luke: Lent/Easter, Study Book (Minneapolis/Philadelphia: Augsburg Publishing House/Fortress Press, 1976)
Madsen, George H. O., Lectionary Bible Studies, The Year of Matthew, Lent-Easter, Study Book (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1977)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Palmer, Earl F., The Book That John Wrote (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1975)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
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