Believing the Resurrection John 20:1-31


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John 20:1-31

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v.1       It is remarkable that all four of the Gospels begin their account of the resurrection by identifying the day as “the first day of the week,” and not, as might well have been supposed, “on the third day,” that is, the third day after the crucifixion, which is what the Lord had so often promised: that he would be crucified and then rise on the third day.  There is surely some significance to this and, certainly, it is most plausible to find here an emphasis on the new Lord’s Day, the Christian Sunday, that replaced the Jewish Saturday Sabbath.  The new day was precisely a memorial of Christ’s resurrection and witness is born to that fact in the striking way in which the resurrection narratives begin.

v.2       Mary Magdalene is featured by all four Gospels in their resurrection account.  Only here in John, however, does she appear alone.  This could be because the other women with her are simply not mentioned, what I think is the more likely explanation, or this could be a another visit to the tomb on her part, a visit she made alone.

Mary’s initial assumption was that grave robbers had been at work.  We know it was not an uncommon crime in those days.

v.3       The ancient explanation for John’s greater fleetness of foot was that John was younger than Peter.

v.6       Peter’s impetuousness is on display once more.  He does not hesitate to enter the tomb.

v.7       Clearly, then, this was not the work of grave robbers.  They would not have left behind the expensive linen, no doubt still holding the expensive spices. The impression that is left by this description is that the body had simply passed through the grave clothes – spices and all – (as Jesus would later pass through the walls of the Upper Room), but that the burial cloth that had covered Jesus head had been neatly folded by the one who had no use for it any longer.  It is the sort of vivid description that is characteristic of eye-witness testimony.  And there being two men who saw it means that their testimony would have been admissible in a Jewish court.  [Carson, 638]

v.9       John knew that Jesus had risen.  But, as yet, he did not understand the resurrection in its biblical meaning and significance.  That would come later.

v.11     It does not appear that the path of John and Peter crossed that of Mary when she came to the garden tomb.

v.14     John Chrysostom, the great early Christian preacher, supposed that the angels had made some motion with the hand or the eye to direct Mary’s attention to the man standing behind her.

v.16     There has long been discussion of the reasons why Mary did not immediately recognize the Lord.  Was she blinded by her tears and too distracted really to notice the face of the man she was talking to?  Or, is this part of the effect of the Lord’s resurrection on his appearance?  Later, when he was standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, his disciples failed to recognize him.  Yet, on the other hand, his was clearly the self-same body, as the scars in his hands and feet demonstrate.  The effect on his appearance of mortality putting on immortality is never mentioned in so many words and we can only guess that this may have had something to do with Mary’s failure to recognize the Lord.

Mary clearly had no difficulty recognizing the Lord’s voice when he spoke her name.  Her anguish is, in an instant, transformed into joy.

v.17     This verse is difficult, but the gist is clear.  Mary doesn’t have to hold on to the Lord for he has not yet ascended to heaven.  He is going to depart, but not quite yet.  Rather, she needs to share the good news and let the disciples know that the hour of his glorification, his return to the Father, of which he had spoken so often, is now upon them.  That glory, the hour that the Son of Man is to be glorified, as Jesus had often said, was the cross together with the resurrection and his ascension to the Right Hand.  With “my brothers” and “my Father and your Father” and “my God and your God” Jesus includes his disciples in his victory.

v.19     I’m going to return to this paragraph next week so withhold comment on it at this time.

v.26     “A week later” is an idiomatic translation of “after eight days.”  That is, it was Sunday again.  That the doors were locked seems to suggest the disciples were still afraid of the reaction of the Jewish authorities.  Remember, as we know from the other Gospels, the news of the Lord’s resurrection was out!

v.28     The impression seems to be that Thomas never did actually touch the Lord’s scars, but realized in an instant that it was Jesus.  You remember that the Gospel opened with a dramatic assertion of Christ’s deity (“the Word was God”) and now near its close we have another such assertion.  “My Lord and My God!”  An astonishing thing for a monotheistic Jew to say!  That Jesus is Lord and God is the great theme of this Gospel and what men and women must believe if they are to be saved.

Now what we have before us is first and foremost an account of the resurrection.  A statement, in the form of historical narrative, that Jesus, who was crucified on Friday, was alive again – as he had said he would be – on Sunday morning.  His oft-repeated prediction that he would rise again was fulfilled.  However, as we noticed in John’s account of the crucifixion, so in the account of the resurrection, each of the Gospel writers has a special interest, a special point to make.  No doubt this accounts for some of the variety that we notice in the four accounts of this same event.  Different emphases demanded that different parts of the story be told or be given special attention.  And we have been learning to notice how the Gospel writers draw attention to their themes, how to detect the special emphasis each wants to make.  John leaves us in little doubt as to what he is after in his account of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He gives us an account that lays all the stress, not on the fact of the resurrection in the first place, or the historical circumstances of that most marvelous and important event in all of human history.  No, he gives us an account of the resurrection in which all the emphasis falls on several individuals and how they came to know and to believe that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.

His account is designed to demonstrate the nature and the basis of faith in the risen Lord Jesus.  His special purpose in his narrative is to explain to us how men and women came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.  At the end of his account, the last 2 verses of the chapter, he makes his theme explicit.  He tells us that he is interested in his readers coming to believe as these disciples had come to believe.  He has offered four of them – Mary, Peter and John, and, finally, Thomas – as examples of men and women obtaining certainty about the risen Christ in order that others who read his gospel might know what it means to come to such faith, be encouraged to believe themselves, and understand how that faith is born in the heart and mind.

The account begins with Mary Magdalene in complete confusion and shows us how she was eventually brought to certainty.  Mary believed because she heard and then saw!  When she explains her experience to the other disciples in v. 18, she puts it this way:  “I have seen the Lord.”  See is the keyword in this chapter.  Everyone sees and believes.  We see Peter and John and learn that John had come to faith in the resurrection of the Lord without yet having seen him, yet John says, in v. 8, that he himself “saw and believed.” What he saw was the empty tomb. And John’s account concludes with Thomas who also believes because he saw.  And then the Lord makes the key point – what we might call the evaluative viewpoint in this narrative – saying to Thomas that many others would eventually believe that Jesus did rise from the dead and that he is the Christ without having seen his scars or, even for that matter, seen the empty tomb or seen or heard the angels.  Of course, that would be the case, would have to be the case, for all of those who were reading John’s Gospel, written, as it was, years after the Lord’s ascension to heaven. And then, as a conclusion to the entire account, John summons his readers to believe as Mary, Peter, John, and Thomas believed, that they also might obtain eternal life. John has written his account of the Lord’s resurrection, as he wrote his entire Gospel, as a summons to believe in Christ and be saved.   Clearly Mary and John and Thomas are examples for us!  In other words he is setting before us the possibility that we might have the same experience as John and Mary and Thomas, at least the same experience in its fundamental nature and in its effect.

I have been reading these past few days Charles Templeton’s book, Farewell to God.  Charles Templeton has been an important figure in Canadian culture over the past generation.  He was for some years executive managing editor of the Toronto Star, editor-in-chief of Macleans’s magazine, the author of a number of books and a television personality.  However, some of you may remember Charles Templeton before he was any of these things.  Back in the 1950s he was, with Billy Graham, the most influential evangelist on the North American scene.  He was an important figure in Toronto evangelical life, both with Youth for Christ and as the pastor of an influential church.  Like Billy Graham, Charles Templeton also spoke to huge audiences at evangelistic crusades.  But then he began to waver in his faith.  He resigned his pastorate to study at Princeton Theological Seminary and there, under the influence of the prevailing skepticism about the Bible and its authority, gave up Christianity altogether.  His appeal to his erstwhile friend and colleague at the time to do the same is an important chapter in the biography of Billy Graham.

Templeton’s book, Farewell to God, is subtitled My reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.  Facing as I was a chapter designed to commend faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Savior, a chapter that purports to show us several different people who, beginning in doubt, come to be assured that Jesus had  risen from the dead, I was interested to hear someone explain why he didn’t believe it.  I confess that I was disappointed, in a way, in Templeton’s book.  I expected that a man who had once preached the gospel and who knew the arguments for it, would mount a more impressive argument against it.  In his chapter on the resurrection, Templeton rests his case for unbelief on such things as the fact that the accounts in the four Gospels do not seem to agree with one another in the details and on his assumption that if Christ had risen from the dead everyone would have accepted that fact and the news of it would have been preserved in the historical records of the classical world.  Elsewhere in his book Templeton criticizes the Bible for what he takes to be its denigration of women, but he seems oblivious to the fact that, in that era, no concocted account – as he takes the account of the resurrection to be – would ever have made women such prominent witnesses, as all the Gospel writers make Mary and the other women – so little was the opinion of women regarded in the culture of that time.  Why, Celsus, an early pagan critic of Christianity, an early Charles Templeton if you will, dismisses the biblical account of the resurrection as simply the testimony of  “an hysterical female.”

Templeton never once engages the true historical challenge of the resurrection or its account in the Gospels and the rest of the NT.  He never gives his readers any idea that through the ages the Christian claim to the historicity of the resurrection has been a thorn in the side of even many historians who have no sympathy with Christianity or its message.  He certainly does not explain to his readers why it is that in 1984 a Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, should have written a book on the resurrection of Christ in which he concluded that the historical evidence for the resurrection was so overwhelming that Christ must have risen from the dead, even though Lapide was not and would not become a Christian believer.  Nor does he give his readers any hint as to why, in 1985, Antony Flew, one of the best known philosophers in the world, formerly an Oxford professor of philosophy, should have lost, hands down, a debate over the historicity of the resurrection.  Prof. Flew, of course, argued the negative and a little known professor at Liberty University, Gary Habermas, argued the positive.   The debate itself was judged by a selection of university philosophy and debate professors, most of them non-Christians.

You read Templeton’s chapter and would be led to believe that no educated, serious-minded, honest person would be tempted to take the biblical accounts of the resurrection seriously.  But Templeton does not trouble his readers by reminding them of the intellectual stature of so many who have argued and still argue for the historicity of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  Compared to, say, the chapter on the resurrection of Jesus in John Polkinghorne’s, The Faith of a Physicist, — Polkinghorne was, for years, the Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University and is a believer in the historicity of the resurrection – Templeton’s chapter on the resurrection is amateurish.

Templeton’s book is a book by an atheist for atheists.  It provides the comforting assurance to those who do not believe that there are good reasons for their unbelief.  No one seeking an honest reckoning with the arguments, however, would be much helped by the book.

But, then, for my purposes, for that very reason, the book presents an ideal picture of a man who does not believe.  After all, the Bible is candid about the fact that not everyone who heard that Jesus had risen from the dead believed in him.  Indeed, the situation is more remarkable than that.  Not everyone who knew that Jesus had risen from the dead believed in him.  The soldiers who were dumbstruck by the earthquake and the angels, as we read in Matthew, knew full well that no one had stolen the body of Jesus – as they were paid to say.  The religious authorities who had heard the soldiers’ report knew that the story they paid them to circulate was constructed of whole cloth.

We are at the end, or nearly so, of John’s account of the life and ministry of the Son of God who was made flesh and dwelt among us.  And at the very outset of this Gospel, remember, we were put on notice that though the Lord Jesus came to his own, his own received him not.  And we were told then and told repeatedly throughout the Gospel that those who believed in him were born not of natural descent, nor of human decision, nor of a husband’s will, but they were born of God.  True faith is the gift and the work of God.

As often in this Gospel as we were made to face the fact that, even in the teeth of the Lord’s great miracles, the “signs” as John calls them, the people did not believe in him and, when they found out his true claims and his true message, they turned away from him and against him; well, just that often John reminds us that “no one can come to him unless the Father in heaven draws him.”  The “sheep hear his voice and follow him,” but those who are not his sheep will remain stone-deaf to his voice and blind to the sight of his glory, no matter how loudly he speaks, no matter how brightly that glory shines before the face of men.

Here we have an account of good, simple people who do not imagine that Jesus had risen from the dead and yet come to know that he had. It is an account given to us by one who claims to have been an eyewitness himself of the events he describes.  And yet many read this account, as does Charles Templeton, and conclude that we have nothing here but a fable.  They suppose it is a tale concocted to persuade people of the existence of something that does not exist, a tale that for some inexplicable reason large numbers of people through the ages have believed to be true, historic, factual.  John knows that.  He has been preaching the Gospel long enough in the Gentile world to know that many who hear him think his claims ridiculous, that the entire Christian story is a fable that appeals only to the uneducated and the credulous.  There were plenty of Charles Templeton’s in John’s day!  John is facing this fact straightaway in his account of the resurrection.  He knows that everything rests on whether a person will believe this to be true, and, as he tells us, belief in the resurrection is no small, easy matter.  Even the Lord’s disciples were hard put to believe it.

What we have in his account of the disciples coming to believe that Jesus did rise from the dead is a summing up of John’s teaching about faith and unbelief as he has given it many times already.  There is a spiritual dimension to the knowledge and the convictions of human beings.  People believe what they are willing to believe, and if they are unwilling to believe, they will murder a host of innocent facts to justify their unbelief.  The world is full of this, of course.   We see it all the time.  Men and women who cannot be made to see the wrong that everyone else can see plain as day in their behavior.  A drunk who cannot be made to admit that he has a drinking problem; a father who belittles and terrifies and crushes his children but clothes himself in a mantle of parental virtue; a husband who neglects his wife but will not be made to admit it; a young woman whose behavior is foolish beyond words but cannot be made to see it; and on and on and on it goes.

And it is precisely the same in the sphere of belief in God and Christ.  Other factors are at work here besides evidence and argument and cold hard facts.  The preservation of one’s view of oneself, the love of sins that one does not wish to forsake, the fear of the judgment of God, the pride that will not stoop to receive a gift one must admit he does not and could never deserve – all of this comes into play when a person reads the account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ or, any other of his miracles that John related in the earlier part of his Gospel.

John has made a great point of this fact throughout his presentation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of the world.  He has made no bones about the fact that large numbers of people – the very people we might well have expected to receive him with open arms – rejected him and rejected him in defiance of the repeated demonstration of his divine authority.  In the face of the resurrection it will be no different.  Jesus made a point of saying this, remember.  If a man or woman will not believe Moses and the prophets, he said on one occasion, he or she will not believe, even if a man come back from the dead. Grace and grace alone, divine power at work in the heart alone is sufficient to overcome a rebellion against God as intractable as that which is found in the human heart and no one less than the Spirit of God is able to work faith in Jesus Christ in a human heart.

Christ must come to the soul and speak to it, as he did to Mary, and show himself to it, as he did to Mary and Thomas.  That is where true faith comes from.  And what John’s summons at the end of the chapter means is that Christ will still do this today, even if not orally and visibly as to Mary and Thomas.  The significance of the resurrection and the ascension of the Lord to heaven and his sending the Holy Spirit in his place – all subjects that have received great emphasis in the Gospel so far – is precisely that Christ encounters people in the world today in just as true and real a way as ever he did when he was among us in the flesh.

John gives us the account of faith in the resurrection dawning in the hearts of Mary and Thomas and others but then goes right on to urge upon us that same faith.  Clearly Christ will not speak to us as he did to Mary or show his scars to us as he did to Thomas.  But that is not the problem; that is no obstacle to true faith.  For, the fact of the matter is, the issue never was the audible sound of his voice or the visible sight of his scars.  It was always the working of the Holy Spirit in the heart, the new birth, and the sheep hearing the Lord’s voice in their hearts and following him, all the things John has made such a point of in the previous 20 chapters.  Remember, in chapter 10 he used that lovely image of sheep recognizing and following the shepherd’s voice in regard to the Gentiles who would come to faith in him – that is, would hear his voice – but only after he had departed from this world.  I must bring them also, he said, but, of course, he would not bring them in the same way he brought the 12 to follow him, for he would no longer be visibly present in the world.  It would not be his voice in their ears, in other words, but in their hearts.

The way John constructs his chapter – accounts of people seeing the risen Lord, followed by the Lord’s statement that many would believe who did not see him physically, followed by John’s summons to believe in the risen Lord as Mary and Thomas did – is designed to identify the experience of those early disciples with our own.  Sure they had the great privilege of seeing the risen Lord with their own eyes.  And no doubt, for the rest of their lives, they hardly ever laid down to go to sleep without those memories crowding back upon them.  But you can hear the Lord’s voice just as really as Mary did, even if in a different way; and you can see him just as really as Thomas did, though in a different way, and you can encounter the risen Christ just as really as the disciples did, even if in a different way.  The Sheep still hear the Lord’s voice, they still hear it today and follow him when they hear it.

You Christians envy Mary and Thomas their sight of the risen Lord.  But in all the ways that matter most, you have seen him too.  He has appeared to you and spoken to you.  He did so by the Holy Spirit as John, in previous chapters, has already explained in some detail that he would.

For those of you, who are unbelievers, let me say that this is why Christians are never troubled by the Charles Templeton’s of this world, sad as we may be that they do not believe.  We have always known that men would never believe in the risen Christ – wouldn’t believe in him if he stood in front of them and showed them his scars – would never love him or trust their lives and their futures to his care apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.  John has showed us multitudes of Charles Templeton’s in his Gospel.  There is nothing surprising about such people.

And, in the same way, there is nothing surprising when someone who never gave any credit to the biblical account of Jesus Christ, nor any inclination to believe that he rose from the dead, is suddenly found among the Christians saying that Christ is his Lord and his God.  What has happened is that the Lord has spoken to him or to her and shown himself.  He said he would by the Holy Spirit, and he does what he said he would do.  He said he would speak and show himself by the Holy Spirit through his disciples.  He says the same thing here in sum when he tells them that he is “sending them” in v. 21.  As he said earlier in the Gospel, once the Holy Spirit came, out of the bellies of his disciples would flow rivers of living water, bringing his salvation to the world.

John is here totally unconcerned that only a very few people would ever actually get to see the risen Christ with their eyes and hear him with their ears.  He is supremely confident that Christ will show himself to generations yet to come just as surely and speak just as clearly as ever he did to Mary and Thomas.

As I was reading Charles Templeton, the evangelist turned atheist who lost his faith in a theological graduate school, I couldn’t help but think of Eta Linnemann, the German NT professor – the first woman ever to reach that rank in the German University – who forsook her unbelief and repudiated her skeptical biblical scholarship – the very scholarship that was Templeton’s undoing and upon which she had built her reputation – because she became a Christian.  In the account of her conversion, at the critical moment, she says simply “Christ spoke to my heart through a Christian brother’s words.  By God’s grace and love I entrusted my heart to Jesus.”  [Historical Criticism of the Bible, 18]

There is John 20 and Mary and Thomas come to life again.  There is Christ speaking and showing himself.  And that is why all the Templeton’s in all the world will never slow the advance of the kingdom of our Lord and Savior.

Give glory to your Lord and God who has shown himself to you that you might have eternal life.  And, if you have never seen or heard the Lord, pray to him that he come by his Spirit and speak your name and show himself to you!