"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 14.2 Jesus and Thomas (Jn 20.19-31)


This section involving Jesus and Thomas is a pivotal one for the gospel. First, there can no longer be any question of calculating the reaction of readers familiar with Mark, no need to provide clues for aligning the BD's telling of the story to that of Mark, or to highlight the BD's corrections to Mark's version of the story. Mark's Gospel contains no stories of post-resurrection appearances by Jesus; indeed, it scarcely contains the resurrection at all, so bare-bones an account as it gives. But the BD provides us with three such appearances, of which these are the first two.

Second, with this account, the BD has completed the seven signs which are so important to his story and the way it is organised (see the Introduction, pp 000-00). The resurrection of Jesus is the last of those signs (see Jn 2.18-19). The others are the changing of water into wine at Cana (Jn 2.11); healing the royal official's son at Cana (Jn 4.54); the healing at Bethesda (Jn 6.2); the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Jn 6.14, 26); healing the man born blind (Jn 9.16); and raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 12.18). Hence the need for a conclusion in Jn 20.30-31, not to the gospel itself so much as to the book of signs that had begun in ch2. Those verses both conclude the signs section, and give more depth to Jesus' reply to Thomas in v29.

These two stories about Jesus's appearing to his disciples after the resurrection also contain three important points for us who come after. First, for what they tell us abour the risen Jesus. Second, for what we learn about how the disciples were sent out into the world and how they were inspired by "a holy spirit". Third and finally, for what we learn about our own circumstances, the circumstances of all future believers, from Jesus' reaction to Thomas' words.

First the Beloved Disciple tells us how Jesus accomplishes two things he had promised at the Last Supper. He sends the disciples out into the world as the Father had sent him into the world and he breathes into them a holy spirit. That spirit immediately manifests their presence by imparting to the disciples the power to forgive.

The BD goes on to say that Thomas, who was one of the Twelve, was not with the others when Jesus appeared. His reaction to their excitement is dampening. Clearly he does not believe anything they are telling him! His rejection of their claim is phrased extravagantly - they had seen Jesus' hands and side, but unless he could reach out and touch the marks of the nails and of the wound made by the spear, Thomas would not believe anything so fantastic as a crucified man walking and talking a few days after his death.

Nevertheless Thomas joins the group of disciples the following week when they gather together in their "safe house" with the doors shut. Again Jesus joined them, offering them a greeting of peace, of shalom. He spoke directly to Thomas and revealed that he knew exactly what Thomas had said a week earlier when he was told that Jesus had stood among the disciples there in the evening of the day of the Resurrection. He invited Thomas to touch his hands and side and concludes, "And do not be unbelieving, but faithful" (v27). Thomas' response is an affirmation of his deep trust in Jesus - he simply replied, "My Lord and My God". If the story stopped there, it would still have much to teach us, about human beings and our doubts and about God and God's response to thse doubts.

But it does not. It continues with words from Jesus that look beyond the specific encounter between him and Thomas. He contrasted Thomas, who trusted because what he saw impressed him as trustworthy, with the disciples of the future, who will not see at all but can still put their trust in him. In short, Jesus here contrasted Thomas, who had the luxury of sight, with us, who do not. We cannot see the risen Jesus - he has gone to his Father long ago. But yet we believe. The BD goes on in vv30-1 to underscore one reason that future disciples will find their belief possible. That is the existence of written witness, like the witness recounted in this gospel. Such witness continues to be accessible and available to potential future disciples long after the living witness of the BD is stilled.

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The first post-resurrection appearance that the BD recounts took place on the evening of the first day of the week, that is to say, on Sunday evening, the evening of the day on which Mary Magdalen found the body of Jesus missing from the tomb and subsequently encountered the risen Jesus in the garden in which that tomb stood. Some scholars (like Brown1) observe that the repetition of the phrase "the first day of the week" (20.1 and 20.19) may be to emphasise the importance of Sunday to the Johannine community. While reluctant (as discussed earlier) to give too much weight to assumptions about a single Johannine community as a separate entity, I think that there is no denying the importance of Sunday among many communities of disciples both as the day on which Jesus rose and as the day when Jesus's disciples continue to meet their risen Lord in the Lord's Supper.

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We are not told where the disciples have shut themselves up behind closed doors, or how many of them were there. Tradition has it that Jesus' disciples continued for a time at least to use the so-called Cenacle, the upper room in which they had celebrated Passover and eaten the Passover meal, as a meeting-place.2 Perhaps that was indeed the case and that room was where the disciples were hiding now.

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Closed doors are nothing to the risen Jesus - he can manifest himself there among the group of disciples. When he does so, he shows them his hands and his side, presumably as a means of identification. What have we learned so far about his risen body from the text of this gospel?

First of all, we know that Jesus left the tomb in which he had been laid and left behind the stone that had been moved from the opening and also the grave cloths in which his dead body had been wrapped. Those two things may suggest that his dead body was replaced or superseded by the new, resurrection body, and that he had the power, as one that had risen, to move the stone away from inside the tomb. Cetainly no-one whose body had been subjected to the tortures and stress Jesus underwent before his death could have done that, and so the opening of the tomb strongly suggests that his new, resurrection body was beyond the physical limits that a reanimated corpse would have been constrained by. And having opened his own tomb, he can certainly not be kept out of a room by a closed or locked door.

It is also of course possible that the angel whom Mary speaks with at the tomb is responsible for rolling away the stone, but although that is an attractive speculation (and was seen as such by at least one evangelist), we do not know for sure. Only Matthew claims that the tomb was still shut when the women came, and that angels rolled away the stone in the women's presence (Matt 28.2). But the BD only tells us that Mary Magdalen came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away - she doesn't even see the angels until she looks inside after Peter and the BD have left the garden.

Jesus had left the burial coverings behind in the open tomb, but we know from Mary's encounter with him in the garden that he was not nude. She could scarcely have mistaken a naked man for a gardener working there. It is not clear whether the apparent difficulties that individual disciples or groups of disciples have in recognising him are caused by some difference in his post-resurrection appearance or by the natural difficulty of someone who, having recently witnessed the death of another, is apparently confronted by them alive again. No-one would expect to encounter a risen person before the end times, nor does anyone expect to see a risen person suddenly "alive and kicking" - or at least demonstrating his identity with physical evidence. How he comes by new or restored clothing is not known nor is it really to the point - as Brown observes3 with repect to speculation about how Thomas can touch Jesus' side, "[t]he evangelist scarcely intended to supply information on the haberdashery appropriate for a risen body."

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In the course of Jesus' great prayer for his disciples, he says to the Father, "Just as you sent me into the world, I also sent them (meaning the disciples) into the world." (Jn 17.18). Yet it is not until after his resurrection that Jesus says to the disciples, "Just as the Father has sent me forth, so I am sending you." We should probably not put too much weight on the apparent contrast in tenses - from the eternal perspective of Jesus' prayer, the sending that occurred in Jn 20.21 was in the past and described that way in Jn 17.18. The prayer was part of a reality in which Jesus was focussed on the circumstances of those who would become disciples in the future, and whose discipleship would be conditioned by the sending in Jn 20.21 and the breathing (ie, inspiration) of Jn 20.22.

The risen Jesus, uses this verse (Jn 20.21) to centre the future believing community. In essence it defines what their "job" is as disciples - to do what Jesus did. So they should do the Father's will and reveal it to the world; they should bring the Father to the world and the world to the Father. Hence the community of believers is supposed to be an apostolic people, that is, a people who are sent - our quality of sent-ness is what provides us with a purpose in the world.

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In addition to being sent, the disciples are at this time given the authority to forgive sins - this authority is originally God's, that is, the Father's. But Jesus has argued earlier in this gospel that the Father has passed his power to judge sin and those who commit sin to the Son, that is, to Jesus (cp Jn 5.22 and 27). So in this moment, Jesus passes on to his disciples the authority over sin that he has from the Father, presumably to allow the disciples, to allow us, to continue and complete his work in the world into which we are being sent. This authority over wrong-doing and guilt is bestowed together with a holy spirit breathed into the disciples by Jesus.

I am reluctant to impose the terminology of a later time on the BD and insist that we translate this as "the Holy Spirit". I think such translations are in danger of obscuring for us the extent to which the BD is feeling his way toward language with which to talk about our new relationship with God and this gift of "a holy spirit", to be quite literal, that is part of it. But we mustn't let this translation stand in the way of our realising that what is happening here is the giving of the Paraclete, the Advocate promised by Jesus at the last supper, who will make everything clear to the disciples, that is to us.

Jesus knew that he would not have time to explain to the disciples everything they needed to know. He knew that many things would remain unclear to them. So he promised to send them the Advocate, whom he also called the Spirit of truth: 'I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you, but the Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything that I said to you" (Jn 14.25-6). It makes sense that this Advocate could be called "a holy spirit" and that Jesus would give this spirit to his disciples as part of imparting to them his authority to make judgements about sins. With the Advocate's guidance, they will become able to make right judgements about how to deal with the sins of others. The Advocate by their teaching mediates between the risen Lord and his disciples, giving us the gifts that accompany their presence and teaching us how and when to use them.

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As we have said above, these two verses about the function of Jesus' signs make a fit conclusion to the Book of Signs in the Gospel of John. We trust that Jesus is Messiah and Lord, and so have life in his name. How? Because we have this book full of signs that make it possible. Without a written Gospel - without this particular written gospel and its selection of signs - it would be quite a different story. Thus the BD succinctly linked his own purpose in writing with a vision of a future in which the need for the testimony and signs whose importance recurs often in his story is fulfilled by the written book that substitutes for a living witness after all such witnesses are no more.

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1 Brown 1970, pp 1019-20

2 The English word "cenacle" is derived from the Latin word for a dining room, cenaculum (from cena, dinner). Such rooms in a Roman house were usually on an upper floor, hence in the Vulgate translation cenaculum is used to translate the Greek word for an upper room, anagion, in Mark 14:15 and Luke 22:12. It may not be assigning too much importance to this room being an upper room to speculate about the degree to which the family of the disciple whose home was the site for this room were assimilated to Roman practices. Such speculation may also involve the theory that it was the home of the BD's family; there is reason to suppose that this family had a connection to the high-priestly clan, which was definitely a group with close ties to the Romans.

3 Brown 1970 p 1026