The Apostle John, from whose Gospel we have read this morning, was interested in how and why people come to believe in Jesus Christ and commit their lives to him. John was, as we say, an evangelist. As he tells his readers, in the last verse we read, he wrote this Gospel – his account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – precisely to persuade people to believe that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, because truly to believe that is to find eternal life. He had come to know this himself and he wanted others to know it too. He had discovered that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and he wanted others to discover the same. He had spent his life as an evangelist – that is, someone who tells others the good news about Jesus – and writing his book was simply another way to do what he had been doing for many years. He had over the years seen many people become Christians as he told them what he himself had seen and heard those few years he had been with the Lord. And now he was writing down for posterity how it was that the first group of Jesus’ followers became convinced themselves, so convinced that they were happily willing to spend the rest of their lives in the service of Jesus Christ.
And so in this chapter he gives us an account of a series of people who came to believe that Jesus in fact did rise from the dead. None of them was expecting his resurrection; all of them were dispirited, confused, and dejected by his death on the cross the previous Friday. All of them, however, saw something that made them believe. It starts in v. 8. “The other disciple” is John’s signature way of referring to himself. So he begins with himself. He went inside the empty tomb and, we read, “he saw and believed.” He didn’t see the Lord – not yet – but he already knew he had risen from the dead. He admits, to his shame, that he shouldn’t have been so dense. He should have expected this all along. Of course the Son of God would not be conquered by death. He should have known that. But once in that tomb, seeing the grave clothes lying there, he knew in an instant that Jesus had risen from the dead just as he had said he would.
Next there is Mary Magdalene who was completely confused until, as we read in v. 14, “she turned around and saw Jesus. Even then she didn’t realize at first who he was but when he spoke to her all became clear. So Mary saw and heard. That is what she herself said about it: we read in v. 18 that she said to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” The evidence of her own eyes carried the day.
Then we read, in v. 20 that the Lord appeared to his disciples that same Easter night. They all saw him and, as a result, all had their doubts removed. But one man was not there! Thomas, for some reason, was not present with the others. And when they, in their understandable excitement, told him “We have seen the Lord!” he was unimpressed. It is perhaps some measure of his state of mind that he was unconvinced even by the unanimous and obviously delighted testimony of men whom he knew well and with whom he had shared his life over the past three years. Christ’s death on the Friday before had knocked the stuffing out of him as it had out of the other men. The high hopes that he had invested in the Lord had been dashed. Perhaps he felt that he had been had, played for the fool, and was wary of it happening again. In any case, Thomas, who had been with the Lord for most of three years, had heard him preach his sermons, and had seen him perform his miracles, was prepared to believe that Jesus had failed and his program had come to nothing. And so, rather defiantly, he replied to his excited and irrepressible friends, talking on and on about having seen the risen Christ, that he would not believe “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were…” There is that language again: “unless I see…” John had seen the empty tomb; Mary had seen the Lord in the garden, the disciples had seen Jesus Easter night in the Upper Room. Well, Thomas wouldn’t believe unless he also could see the Lord.
Well the next Sunday night he saw! To his credit, Thomas stuck with the other men; he didn’t desert them; he joined them that next Sunday night. Perhaps he was already half-convinced and wanted very much to see the Lord. And, sure enough, the risen Lord appeared to them. He went up to Thomas and invited him to touch him. Thomas was wise enough to know not to do that, as if the Lord himself, standing in front of him, was not enough! Thomas saw and he believed. “My Lord and my God!”
Now Thomas usually takes a bashing for having demanded to see the Lord before he would be convinced that he had risen from the dead. He is often used as an example of people who struggle with doubts and who take a lot of convincing. We even use his name as an adjective, descriptive of the unsure, the hesitant, and the skeptical. We call someone who is hard to convince a “doubting Thomas.” But this isn’t entirely fair as the entire chapter makes clear. None of the other disciples believed either until they saw. Thomas, after all, didn’t ask for anything more than what had been given to the others: to see with his own eyes Jesus alive again. Perhaps we should say that he should have been more willing to credit the report of his friends whose astonishment was itself some evidence that they had witnessed something remarkable. But in the end, Thomas believed for the same reason John and Mary and the other disciples did: he saw the Lord.
But then Jesus said a remarkable thing to Thomas, and, in the context, to the rest of the disciples with him. He said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus, in other words, envisions a time when people will not be given the tangible, the visible, the audible evidence of his resurrection that was given to these disciples and yet people would believe nevertheless. After Jesus had left the world and ascended to heaven, no one would see him as these disciples had, but they would believe anyway. They would see by faith, not by the sight of the eye. They would hear by faith, not by the hearing of the ear. They would touch by faith, not with the hand.
Now earlier in this same Gospel of John the Lord had spoken of this. He spoke of the day when the Good Shepherd, after he had laid down his life for his sheep, would go in pursuit of other sheep, sheep that were not part of the original sheep fold, that is, the Jews. Jesus had conducted his entire ministry among the Jews. But the day would come, he said, when he would draw the nations to himself. “They too,” he said, “would listen to my voice.” In other words, they would hear the voice of the Lord, but obviously in a different way. They wouldn’t hear it the way the disciples heard the Lord speak to them Easter night. But they would hear his voice nonetheless. They would know that the Lord had spoken to them, they would recognize his voice, and they would follow him. They would hear, not by the ear of the body, but by the ear of the soul. They would hear by faith, just as Jesus says here there would be many who in the years to follow would believe without seeing as the disciples had seen. They would see, but in a different way.
Peter would speak of this years later when he wrote in his first letter:
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” [1 Pet. 1:8-9]
Now it is an unassailable fact of history that though only a comparatively few people actually saw the risen Christ with their eyes and heard him speak with their ears – somewhat more than five hundred people apparently – when, some days later and after Jesus had departed from the world, the message of Christ and his death for our sins and his resurrection for our eternal life began to be preached by these same men in Jerusalem, thousands were convinced. Jesus had said to them, “You will be my witnesses,” and that is what they became. Like any other witness, they told others what they had themselves seen and heard. And enormous numbers of people believed them.
It was a remarkable thing to believe to be sure: that a man who had been crucified, dead, and buried on Friday afternoon was alive again on Sunday morning. Nothing like this had ever happened before. But the disciples had seen him and when they said so to others many believed their report and not only believed that Jesus had risen from the dead but gathered from that fact that he was the Savior of the world and that they must commit their lives and their futures to him.
Now, it is fair to say that had the disciples on that first Easter and the following Sunday not seen the Lord, seen him just as you and I can see one another at this moment, if they had not heard him, just as you are hearing me speak at this moment, there would never have been a Christian faith and a Christian church. There would have been no message of eternal life through faith in Jesus. They all would have supposed, what Thomas at first supposed: that Jesus had failed, that remarkable as his movement had been it had at last come to nothing. Dispirited, they would have gone back to the lives that Jesus had interrupted, picked up where they left off: Peter and Andrew, James and John back to their fishing business and the rest back to what they had been doing before they met Jesus of Nazareth. Their hopes would have been dashed.
But they did see him and hear him alive again – as alive as they were alive, and even more alive – and that changed everything! And when they began to tell others what they had seen and heard, many could not help believing. The Lord met them, just as he had met his disciples, just as really, though in a different way.
And from Jerusalem outward the message continued to spread and the same thing happened. People who never saw the risenJesus as the disciples had nevertheless believed in him. They saw and they heard spiritually, by faith. Even people who had never heard of Jesus and knew nothing of the Jews or of the city of Jerusalem. Thomas himself, as you may know, went east as far as India and there proclaimed the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. He held great crowds of people spell-bound with his account of what he had himself seen. And people knew – Christ was at work in their hearts – they knew that they were hearing the truth and they too believed. Jesus made himself known to them just as really as he had to the disciples, though in a different way. And through all the ages between then and now it has been the same. No one has seen the risen Lord the way John and Mary and Thomas saw him, but countless multitudes have believed just as they did, just as Jesus promised they would. They too heard the Good Shepherd’s voice and followed him. In the last verse of the Gospel of Matthew we read of Jesus telling his disciples that he would be with them until the end of the age. They couldn’t see him as they once did, but he was no less with them. Such is the power and glory of the Son of God! And hosts of men and women since have walked and talked with Jesus Christ. Christ rose and so he is living now and what, then, is more natural than that his friends should know him?
Even in our irreligious day and culture the evidence of this is everywhere. Some years ago at Easter the most popular movie showing in American theaters was Pearl Harbor. That fact gave me the opportunity to tell the congregation that Easter Sunday that the lead pilot in the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, a man named Mitsuo Fuchida – mentioned by name in the movie, by the way – became a believer in Jesus Christ himself a few years after the end of the Second World War. Americans might well have thought that there wasn’t a man in the world less likely to become a Christian than the American-hating Fuchida, but he not only became a Christian, he became a Christian minister, an evangelist just like Thomas! He saw and heard when he read an account of the Gospel that was given to him on the platform of a Tokyo train station.
Today a popular film in American theaters is Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, an 18th and 19th century British politician who against all odds and in defiance of fierce opposition labored more than twenty years to bring an end to the slave trade in the British empire and, eventually, an end to slavery itself. Lest you take that accomplishment for granted, it is worth considering whether that achievement – the end of slavery – is not the greatest achievement, politically, morally, socially, and spiritually speaking in the history of the English speaking world. The distinguished historian G.M. Trevelyan calls this accomplishment “one of the turning events in the history of the world.” [K. Belmonte, Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce, 73] Can you think of some greater political accomplishment of some other man? Can you think of a greater victory won on behalf of human beings? We take it for granted in the English speaking world that no man can own another, but we do so only because William Wilberforce and the others whom he led in the fight convinced the whole world that the practice of slavery was evil and had to stop. Wilberforce is not simply an admirable man. He is a true hero and we need heroes. He is one of the greatest men who ever lived, if one’s accomplishments are the measure of one’s greatness. I have seen the new film about him and I think it is very fine, but it doesn’t make as clear as it might have the connection between Wilberforce’s faith in Jesus Christ and his labors to end the slave trade.
William Wilberforce was born into privilege. He was wealthy all his life. He was also a gifted man. He grew up, like many other privileged young men of his time, lazy and enjoyed having a good time more than applying himself to something important, but everyone noted his gifts. He had a fine singing voice. He was often asked to sing at parties. The Prince of Wales once said that he would attend any party where Wilberforce could be expected to sing. [Ibid, 65] He was an able speaker and a sought after conversationalist. One French woman, a thinker and author in her own right, who hosted the greatest minds of Europe in her Paris salon, said of Wilberforce that he was “the best converser I have met with” and the “wittiest man in England.” Young Wilberforce loved conversation at parties in part because he was so good at it.
When he entered Parliament as a young man – his wealth and his eloquence got him his seat (in those days, not to put too fine a point on it, one bribed voters to get elected) – he quickly became known for his oratory and his sharp and sometimes vicious wit.
He was a man on his way. He lived the comfortable life of the wealthy and he had many friends, including his lifelong friend, William Pitt the younger, who was now Prime Minister. He had influence as a Member of Parliament; his life was a round of parties. There was nothing about his situation likely to make him dissatisfied. He was everyone’s idea of a roaring success. He was interested in his own fame and fortune primarily and both were in excellent shape! He was certainly no Christian. He would have called himself a Christian, but he was the typical nominal Christian one found in the upper reaches of English society in those days. His idea of Christianity was that of a moral system, a body of ethics. Christians were, in his view, people who lived virtuous lives and only some virtues counted at that. That is all. People who made more of the Christian faith than that he regarded as fanatics.
But something happened. As the wealthy in England did in those years, Wilberforce set out, in October of 1784, with some members of his family and a friend – actually his former tutor, Isaac Milner, for a European tour. Milner was 34, Wilberforce 25 years of age. Wilberforce admired Milner’s intellect and his skill as a conversationalist and the plan was for the two men to enjoy talking their way through France and Italy in Wilberforce’s carriage, while the ladies traveled with their maids in a coach. [76-77] Remember, this was the day before I-pods; if one hadn’t someone to talk to there was silence. What Wilberforce did not realize when he invited Milner on the trip was that Milner was by this time a convinced Christian, a Christian of the John, Mary, and Thomas type! What Wilberforce would have thought the fanatical type. Wilberforce himself was a skeptic in regard to the supernatural message of Christianity. He didn’t believe that Jesus was God, that he died on the cross for our sins, or that he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.
But on the trip Wilberforce found that he would let loose with some dig at the Christian faith and, as we say now, get pushback from Milner, a man Wilberforce greatly respected for his intellect. At one point on the trip, in Nice on the Mediterranean, Wilberforce happened upon a copy of Philip Doddridge’s masterpiece of a book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, which is an elegant and thoughtful account of the birth and growth of spiritual life – that is Christian life – in a person, from the time he or she becomes a follower of Christ to his or her death. When Wilberforce asked Milner what he thought of the book, Milner replied that he thought it one of the best books ever written. So they agreed to read it together and discuss it on the journey back across France to England. [79-80]
Back in England Wilberforce continued to ponder the things he had read, raised his doubts and questions in continued discussions with Isaac Milner, began reading the Bible seriously for himself, and, found himself experiencing an unaccustomed restlessness of heart and a growing conviction that the Bible’s message of Christ was true. His past life, which had seemed before entirely acceptable to him, suddenly appeared in a very different light. He realized that he had lived for himself very selfishly and foolishly in many ways. In other words, he realized as countless multitudes have before and after him that he was a sinner before a holy God and desperately needed forgiveness. He hadn’t thought that about himself before, but he realized it now and felt that realization deeply in his heart.
Finally, hardly able to explain what had happened to him, Wilberforce found himself a believer and dealing directly with the Lord in prayer, in the fellowship of his heart, and in a dramatically changing life. He sought out John Newton, the well-known Christian pastor and author of the hymn Amazing Grace – after which the movie is named – and Newton helped settle him in his new found faith. There were problems to be faced. Wilberforce was naturally worried about what his friends would say and rightly so as it turned out. Upon hearing that he had become an out and out Christian some of them thought he had lost his mind. He was worried about his life and work as a Member of Parliament because, as now a Christian, he knew instinctively that he could no longer slander the opposition, no longer vote for bills he felt were unjust, no longer support the political interests of his friends simply because they were his friends. Indeed, a prominent leader of the opposition party, a bitter political enemy whom Wilberforce had several times mercilessly and unjustly savaged in debate, would become over time one of his closest friends.
A long conversation with William Pitt began with Pitt trying to talk Wilberforce out of his new convictions and failing but ended with the Prime Minister accepting that the change in Wilberforce was not only real and profound but had produced goodness, not madness.
It was out of this great change in this man’s heart, out of his encounter with Christ, out of Wilberforce seeing the Lord Jesus by faith, that came his determination to lead the effort to the end the slave trade and slavery itself. Someone has said that Christian conversion – coming to faith in Christ – is the total change of a man’s chief end, that is, a total change of his fundamental purpose, his reason for living. So it was here. Wilberforce himself admitted that without the one there would not have been the other. His becoming a follower of Jesus Christ altered not only his own life, but the life of the world. Literally millions of people would find freedom in some large part because William Wilberforce found Christ, or better, was found by him.
He was one of that great multitude of which Jesus was speaking when he said to Thomas:
“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are
those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
There are many different ways that people become Christians. It is not always the same experience. For some, like William Wilberforce, the process takes some time. He pondered the claims of Holy Scripture, he discussed them with others, he thought through his questions, and found himself a believer. For others, the change comes almost instantaneously. He or she encounters Christ of a sudden, unexpectedly, and life is turned upside down. Others grow up in Christian homes and embrace Christ for themselves from their earliest years. As one old writer put it, the Holy Spirit enters the hearts of some with a pin and others with a sword. For some there is an agony of conflict; others God awakens as a mother awakens a child with a kiss. It matters not. Nor does it matter whether one sees the Lord with the eyes of the body, as John and Mary Magdalene, and Thomas did, or sees him and hears his voice in the soul only as William Wilberforce and as all the Christians here this morning on this Easter Sunday. Very few ever saw him with the eyes of the body, vast multitudes since have seen him with the eye of the soul. The Lord obviously delights to prove himself and reveal himself and introduce himself to people in that way of faith.
Jesus is God. He can communicate his presence, his love, his power any way he chooses. When the Good Shepherd summons his sheep, they recognize his voice; they can’t help but do so. The Lord Jesus can change a man or woman’s mind concerning him at any time. And so comes the question, the obvious, the inevitable question raised by what the Lord Jesus said to Thomas:
Are you one of those who has or will believe even though you
have not seen him with your eye or heard him with your ear?
Are you to be one of that great company, that numbers among its vast millions, a John, a Mary Magdalene, a Thomas, but just as surely a Mitsuo Fuchida and a William Wilberforce?
When you read what Jesus say in the Bible:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will
give you rest…”
do you hear his voice saying the words? And when he says to you “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” do you recognize and feel the force of that truth? The forgiveness of your sins, peace with God, the sure promise of everlasting life, a new purpose for living…all of this he gives to those who believe in him. Do you believe? Will you believe?
The fact is, as Thomas would tell you if he were here, the Lord Jesus really did rise from the dead. He was alive again, as alive as Thomas himself, as alive as you or I, though he had been stone-cold dead that Friday afternoon. Thomas saw him! And that is a fact that reveals the meaning of life for every human being. But Jesus can be met and known just as well by those who have not seen him in the flesh as he was by those who had. Thomas has even told you what to say when you find yourself standing before this same Jesus:
“My Lord and my God!”
Say the words: “My Lord and my God!”