The Lord of Life Returns (John 20:1-29)

"Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." (John 20:27)

“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27)

This is a Bible study on the passage in the gospel of John where Jesus is resurrected. To understand this post, you should stop and read John 20:1-29 before moving on.

What evidence, if any, does John offer in chapter 20 that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead? What indications, if any, do you see that John means for us to understand this as a metaphorical rather than physical resurrection?  John chapter 20 is the account of Jesus’ resurrection. The author records several incidents that demonstrate the resurrection was physical and literal, not metaphorical as some scholars argue. First, the tomb where Jesus was laid was empty. This doesn’t prove a physical resurrection, but if the tomb was not empty—if Jesus’ body was still there—then a physical resurrection had not (yet) occurred. The only way to say Jesus was resurrected in the presence of his corpse is to talk metaphorically. Secondly, there is the curious detail that the headcloth was not lying with the rest of the burial garments, but set aside and rolled up. Admittedly this detail is incidental, but it is difficult to explain why this was the case if Jesus’ body was stolen. This amounts to “hmm” evidence. But from here the evidence only gets (much) stronger. Third, Mary Magdalene saw the risen Lord at the garden tomb. Here we have eyewitness testimony that Jesus was dead and then alive again three days later. Fourth, Jesus appeared to the disciples twice (once minus Thomas present) and allowed them to touch his body to verify his physicality. He showed them his wounds to prove there is continuity between the resurrected body and his body before death. Fifth, John tells us that he is being selective in giving us resurrection evidence since there are many other signs that Jesus did in the presence of his disciples that are not recorded. The implication is that if asked, John could tell story after reliable story to overwhelm any skeptic with evidence. There truly is no reason to disbelieve the physical and literal resurrection of Jesus except willful unbelief.

Some scholars have emphasized the passages about Jesus “appearing” in rooms that were shut to intruders, and the dialog between Jesus and Mary Magdalene when he commands her not to touch him. They reason (while ignoring the strong evidence John gives) that physical bodies cannot pass through doors, and that Jesus was preventing Mary from reaching out to touch him because there was nothing material to touch (he was a visible phantom). But this is to speculate about unclear events and to contradict clear events that demonstrate that Jesus was really, truly, physically, literally alive again on the third day.

What do you think John believed (Jn 20:8-9) when he saw how things looked inside the empty tomb?  It is possible that John merely “believed” that Jesus’ body was missing (stolen?). But considering how the gospel of John as a whole treats the theme of belief, I think it is more likely that John believed for the first time that Jesus rose from the dead. Although verse 9 is a difficult verse to interpret, I take it that up until John saw that Jesus’ body was gone, he did not understand that he must rise from the dead. But thereupon seeing the grave clothes, he believed in Christ’s resurrection. If John didn’t believe in the resurrection at this point in the narrative, then it is difficult to explain what he “believed”, and it would be a very anticlimactic use of the word.

Neither Roman nor Jewish law recognized women as legal witnesses in a trial. In fact, when listing the official witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, even Paul omitted women’s names (1 Cor 15:5-8). Yet John has treated his whole gospel as a trial in which he has presented evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. What do you make of the fact that he holds up Mary as the first witness of this critical event and as Jesus’ messenger to his male followers (Jn 20:17-18)?  It has been pointed out many times that a woman’s testimony in the ancient world was considered unreliable or inadmissible in court, so the fact that John’s account makes Mary the first eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrection lends truthfulness to the story. In other words, John is telling the truth even though the details are a bit embarrassing (at first). Later it becomes clear that the weight of resurrection evidence does not rest on Mary’s testimony. But naming her first honors Jesus’ choice to appear to her first. Jesus loved the marginalized, the outcast, and the unloved. John remains true to Christ’s kingdom values by not shying away from Mary as his first witness.

How is having Jesus present in the Holy Spirit different from what Mary was used to?  Obviously, Jesus’ presence in the Spirit is not the same as the human Jesus being around. We cannot see the Holy Spirit, which is like the wind in that we can see its effects but cannot tells where it is going. The incarnated Jesus cannot be in two places at once—he is bound (by choice) to time and space as a material human being. But the Spirit of Jesus (the Holy Spirit) is not bound in this way. The Holy Spirit can be with all believers at all times (and he is!). Perhaps most importantly, the Spirit of the risen Jesus is not empowered to give spiritual gifts and power to his church in a way that he was not empowered to before his resurrection. The work of redemption and reconciliation was accomplished in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. He is risen as conquering king, Lord of Lords, first born from the dead, and Son of God. So in an eschatological, redemptive-historical sense, the presence of Jesus is more complete and powerful post-resurrection. Mary thinks that Jesus is back and things will be the same. But things will never be the same again—hallelujah!

In John 16:7, Jesus says it’s better for us to have the Holy Spirit than to have Jesus physically present. How do you respond to that?  Because of the reasons stated above, it is better for the church to be empowered by the Holy Spirit than to have Jesus physically present. In heaven, we will be in the presence of Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit—the one Triune God—which will be idyllic. But until then Christ rules the kingdoms of the earth and administers his kingdom from heaven by his Spirit. The kingdom of God is able to fill the whole earth in this age (the last days) precisely because Jesus is not present but the Spirit of Jesus is in his place. So until the kingdom of Christ is consummated and delivered by him over to the Father, we should rejoice that we live in a better situation (spiritually speaking in terms of spiritual-historical progress) than those who lived as Jesus’ contemporaries.

What do you think Jesus means his words of peace to signify? (See also John 14:27; 16:33).  It is noteworthy that Jesus speaks to his frightened disciples. They are cloistered away behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders. It is as if the authorities have captured Osama bin Laden and now they are hunting down his followers to finish the terrorist rebellion. The disciples think they are the hunted. So Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you” are meant to say more than the standard Middle East greeting; he is effectively saying, “Do not fear, have peace instead.”

The Father sent Jesus as his agent in the world (Jn 4:3; 5:23; 6:38). What is Jesus sending his followers to do?  His words of peace are followed with instruction. “As the Father has sent me, so now I send you.” Jesus tells his fearful disciples that they have no need to hide. They are to leave the relative safety of the locked room and venture into the world in the same way that Jesus came from heaven to earth—to share the good news that Jesus is Lord, and that forgiveness of sins is found in him alone. They are to preach the gospel boldly because Jesus is sending them for this very reason.

What do you think happens in John 20:22? For example, (1) Is this just symbolic of what will later happen for real at Pentecost? (2) Is this a partial anointing with the Spirit that prepares the disciples to receive the Spirit fully at Pentecost? (3) Is this a gift that ordains the apostles for ministry, while Pentecost is for all believers? (4) Is this the moment when the disciples are converted, born again, and receive eternal life? (5) Is this the moment when the disciples are first fully anointed with the Holy Spirit, but they will be filled and empowered again, in a different way, at Pentecost?  This is certainly a vexing question. The answer one arrives at depends greatly on whether one reads John isolated from the rest of Scripture (or at least as self-contained literature meant to be able to stand on its own) or from a canonical perspective. Even evangelicals can answer this question differently from biblical theology and systematic theology perspectives. I think the best answer that mediates the differing perspectives is that Jesus really does anoint them with the Holy Spirit in John 20:22, but not in the same way as recorded in Acts 2 at Pentecost. Any other answer seems to me to either leave earlier promises in John’s gospel dangling as unfulfilled, or strains the text to mean something different that the plain meaning of the words so that the “real” Holy Spirit anointing is reserved for the more dramatic account in Acts 2.

Should we blame Thomas for wanting solid evidence? What makes you say that?  Part of me wants to say, “Yes,” and another part of me, “No.” The early church established the qualifications of apostleship—one of them being that a person must be a witness of the resurrected Lord (Acts 1:21-22). If Thomas did not get to see the risen Christ, he technically would be disqualified from being an official apostle. So he really needed to see Jesus again. But that is not exactly what the text says Thomas was thinking. Thomas was not concerned with being a fully qualified witness—Thomas was refusing to believe! John ran to the tomb and when he saw it was empty, he believed. That was an act of great faith. But Thomas is doubting (hence his famous moniker “Doubting Thomas”). Later when Jesus appears also to Thomas, Jesus rebukes Thomas for needing to see in order to believe, and offers a blessing to those of us who believe even though we have not seen. So in the final analysis, we must side with Jesus’ assessment of Thomas. He is to blame for wanting solid evidence before believing. But that does not mean Thomas and others like him ought to be judged. On the contrary, Jesus loved Thomas and stooped to Thomas’s need to see in order to believe. Honest skeptics are not to be ridiculed or blamed. They are to be encouraged to believe. This is the example of Jesus.

Mary, John, Peter, the other disciples, and Thomas—they all saw solid evidence and believed. Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who believe without seeing, who believe because of the testimony of those who did see (Jn 20:29). Why should or shouldn’t this testimony be enough for a person today?  It must be enough for a person today because Jesus is not around in the flesh anymore—and he won’t be until the second coming. What we have now is the reliable testimony of many solid witnesses that Jesus was in fact born again from the grave. If faith were impossible in our predicament, then God would provide us with something more. And he has given us more. Jesus is not merely risen from the dead, but he has given the Holy Spirit who indwells the Church both corporately and individually. God has given us enough to believe, and he even grants repentance and faith to his children to enable us to believe.

Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest sign that Jesus is who he claimed he was—the Christ. But he gave us many signs, some of which John records for us in his gospel account. The first half of his gospel (John 1-12 is called The Book of Signs by biblical scholars). These also testify (as fulfillments of the OT promises) to Jesus as the risen Lord. If they are not enough evidence for us to believe, then we will not believe even if someone where to return from the dead (Lk 16:31).

Should it matter to a Christian’s faith whether Jesus rose physically? Why or why not?  To some it doesn’t matter. But this is a very great mistake. Paul explained to the Corinthian believers who wondered whether it was necessary to believe in the “irrational” doctrine of resurrection that Christ’s resurrection is the capstone of the gospel (1 Cor 15). Not the cornerstone, but the capstone. He did not use those exact descriptors, but his meaning is clear. In a stone arch, the capstone keeps the arch from collapsing in on itself. Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no general resurrection of the dead for believers, which means there is no forgiveness of sins because death continues to reign. Jesus’ resurrection won for himself and all believers for all time the right to new life. He has it now in full as the first fruits of the resurrection. Because the harvest has already begun in Jesus, the resurrection age has dawned. We are living in the Last Days according to the New Testament’s accounting of time (and we have been since the birth of the NT Church)! But without the resurrection, Paul says our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. For Paul, the proof is in the pudding. No resurrection, then death still reigns. If death still reigns, then we are still under law and not under grace. If we still die, then we are still sinners. And if we are still in our sins, then we remain estranged from God and under his wrath and curse. That is a heavy judgment indeed. Without a physical resurrection of Christ, then the question becomes: “Should it matter whether one believes in Christ or not if Jesus did not rise physically?” The answer, according to Paul, is an emphatic NO.

As you look back over this study of John’s gospel, what are the two or three main things that you’ve gained from it, or the response you feel you should make to it?  Jesus is the Lord of all of life. He is the light of the whole world, and that means that Christians, as his light bearers, must take the light of Jesus to the whole world. We cannot afford to remain in our Christian ghettos and still claim to be faithful to Christ. What does this mean for me? I think that God is calling me and my family to lead God’s people to embrace and live the gospel of the kingdom—beginning with a message of forgiveness of sins in the cross of Christ, and ever expanding to include the redemption and renewal of all of live—one person, one family, one neighborhood, one culture at a time. Everyone has a small plot of ground that God has assigned him to cultivate. I call this our “kingdom assignment”. It is time to get busy helping the Church to tend to our ground and help others tend to theirs. For it all belongs to Jesus, and he is coming again someday to claim it again for the Father, so that God will be all in all, forever and ever, Amen.

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One Response to The Lord of Life Returns (John 20:1-29)

  1. Pingback: The Lord of Life Returns (John 20:1-29) | ChristianBookBarn.com

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