When Jesus Became God John 20:24-31


John 20:24-31

I draw your attention to the fourth book of the New Testament, the fourth of the four Gospels, the Gospel of John, and to the 20th chapter, the last chapter but one in that great book. We are reading just vv. 24-31, the final verses of the chapter.

I confess that I shamelessly stole my sermon title. It is the title of a new book by a prominent adversary of the Christian faith, Barnes & Noble’s favorite Bible despiser, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The title of his book suggests, and is meant to suggest, that the confession of Jesus Christ as God was the culmination of ideas that percolated through several centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. It is another version of the standard unbelieving narrative. What we know as the Christian faith came to be so only gradually.  Only after some time, several centuries in fact, did the conviction settle in the church’s mind that Jesus was God himself. And, of course, the sub-text of such a theory of Christian origins is both 1) that there is a great difference between what actually happened in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth and the story that Christians eventually came to tell about him  and 2) that the deity of Jesus Christ is more a religious idea than a historical fact.

We are well used to this counter-narrative. It has been around a long time. It has been subjected to punishing criticism through the ages. It fails to account for the early date of the books of the New Testament, the Gospels especially (they were all written at a time when eye-witnesses in large number were still living and claim to base their narrative directly on the testimony of eye-witnesses); it fails to account for the character of the biblical narrative itself, so utterly unlike all other mythical and legendary accounts; for the history and character of early Christianity; for the ministry of the Apostle Paul, and so much more. But, all of that notwithstanding, it remains virtually the only alternative for someone who does not wish to believe that events transpired as they are reported in the New Testament. You must believe instead that somehow, in some way the story of Jesus Christ that we read in the Bible — his life, his death, and his resurrection — came to be manufactured over time.

What I want to do this morning is to introduce you to Jesus Christ as God the Son, the eternal second person of the Triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth, but also the man who came into the world to save his people from their sins, who lived in this world for more than thirty years, died on a cross outside Jerusalem, and rose from the dead on the third day. The answer to the question “When did Jesus become God?” is: he never became God; he was always God; he is the eternal God, the only eternal thing that is or ever was. But he very definitely did become a man. He became a man in the midst of ordinary human history, when Augustus was the Roman emperor, when Herod was on his last legs as the King of Judea, and when Quirinius was the Roman governor of Palestine. He was born a baby in Bethlehem to a teenaged virgin mother named Mary who was betrothed to a man named Joseph. More than thirty years later, his life and his work of salvation culminated when he died on a cross outside of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon and, then to everyone’s surprise, he rose from the dead the following Sunday.

It is, to be sure, an extraordinary story. It takes some getting used to. It always has. It is utterly unlike anything else we know or have ever known. And it requires some background to explain. We begin with the account of one man whose personal experience will help us to grasp just who Jesus of Nazareth actually was and is.

Text Comment

v.24

That is to say he was absent when the Lord appeared to his disciples on that first Easter Sunday.

v.26

That is, it was Sunday again. The Lord had risen on a Sunday, the first day of the week, and, so far as we know, did not appear to his disciples until the following Sunday. Why ever else he may not have appeared to them for an entire week after Easter Sunday, by this means, appearing first on a Sunday and not again until another Sunday, he certainly fixed in their minds the importance of Sunday for the ongoing life of his church! 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, reports were beginning to spread, and there was a stir among the people! The authorities were determined to contain that stir as much as they possibly could!

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.

v.29

He means people like Lisa DeMass who, as she told us this morning, also encountered the Lord and believed in him while never seeing him with the eye of the body.

Now the story told in the Gospels is fascinating for any number of reasons, but certainly for the way in which it discloses the plodding progress of the disciples’ understanding of the identity of Jesus. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Long before the first century the Jews were monotheists through and through. The reading of the Old Testament, the first 39 books of the Bible, will convince any disinterested reader that monotheism was its teaching from beginning to end. It begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and for the rest of the OT there is and there has ever been but one God. The famous shema, which had become something like the Apostles’ Creed of the Jewish church by the first century, is taken from Deuteronomy 6:4.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

It was the central article of the faith of every Jew that there is only one God. Everywhere one looks in those first 39 books of the Bible he or she will find the mockery of the so-called gods of the ancient near eastern world, the idols that Israel was often tempted to worship primarily because everyone else did. Indeed, to be without idols, without a pantheon of gods, left Israel a nation completely apart, an outlier among the peoples of the world. But long before Jesus was born, the Jews had come to terms with the fact that they were virtually the only monotheists in the world. In the first century that remained the case. The Greco-Roman world was littered with gods of every kind. There was a god for this and a god for that. They even had statutes to unknown gods. In Babylon there was a god who was referred to as “the god to whom it may concern.” That’s how many gods they had. But it was the deepest conviction of the Jews that there was but one living and true God.

What is more, Christians willingly admit that the triune nature of God is not clearly revealed in the first 39 books of the Bible, what we call the Old Testament. We do not blame the ancient Israelites for not believing in the Trinity, for not confessing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For, while, looking back, we now find some hints of the triune nature of God in the Old Testament, we willingly admit that it is not taught in the Old Testament that the one living and true God exists in three persons. That was a mystery whose revelation awaited the appearance of Jesus.

And, before we go further, let me remind you that the Trinity is the deepest conceivable mystery. It is the greatest of all mysteries with which a human being is ever confronted in life. Three persons — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — together the one living and true God. Not each person a third of God; each one by himself fully God; but each one distinct from the other while at the same time the three a single divine being or divine life. No one understands this; the church has never claimed to understand this; she only claims that this is what she is taught to believe in the Word of God. We don’t know how God is so; only that he is so. God is far, far above us, and beyond our finding out. One thing you can be sure of. No one invented the Trinity, the triune nature of the living God. When religious ideas are manufactured they conform to stereotype and to conventional thinking. When men make up religions for themselves, the outcomes are always predictable, given the philosophy and the culture of that particular time and place. But the Trinity is a religious conviction utterly unprecedented; it defies all conventional thinking, Jewish and Gentile alike; it is a truth no one even understands! It is a reality imposed upon us by the facts of the case: there is but one God, but somehow the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and the Father is neither the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is neither the Father or the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father or the Son.

But mysterious as it is the triune nature of God is vital to an understanding of life, of your life and mine. It explains so much of what human beings have to explain! We are created, the Bible teaches us, in the image of God. That is, human beings are in some respects godlike. They are not God to be sure — far from it — but he has made them to a degree and in certain respects like himself. Think of it. Human beings are utterly extraordinary creatures! Not simply the physical abilities they share with other animals, but their extraordinary intelligence, their power of speech, of music and the arts, of invention, and, supremely, the inescapably moral nature of their lives. Everything is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, and nothing matters more deeply to us. What can possibly explain this except that the living God made human beings in some respects like himself?

But there is more, God is love. The Bible tells us as much and those of us who have come to know God learn this thing about him first: that he is love. That is why human life is so profoundly bound up with love: the experience of it, the desire and need of it, the longing for it; the flourishing of life when there is love, the withering of life in the absence of love. We have been made in God’s image and that is why love figures so largely in human life and why relationships of love are so fundamental to human life and experience. We have been made for others. Made in God’s image, we were made for the love of others: to give love to others, to receive love from others. But how could that be unless God is in himself a person who loves. God is eternal. How could God be love for eternity past when there was no one for him to love? How can there be love without someone to love? It is the triune nature of God that explains how God can be eternally love. He is love within himself. His very nature is the giving and receiving of love among the three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, God is not a “solitary” or a “lonely” God, but in his very self he is a God in relationship. And that explains why we who have been made in his image and his likeness are and must be beings in relationship and why love is so essential to human life and why love is what makes any human life truly good even when it is bereft of virtually everything else.

But as I said, this part of God’s being and nature — his triunity — was not clearly revealed in the ancient Scriptures. The first thing the people of God had to know was that there was but one God. In a world that worshipped multitudes of Gods, to establish in the Jewish mind and heart this radical departure from the way everybody else thought, this departure from conventional wisdom, this public contradiction of the philosophy of life embraced by virtually every human being on the face of the planet, required a lot of time and a lot of effort. But Israel who struggled throughout her history to escape the polytheism of her surroundings, finally grasped monotheism and it became the deepest conviction of her soul. When the Lord’s ministry began his disciples were all monotheists to the max, including Thomas; but not a one of them was a Trinitarian! The fact that the triune nature of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — had not been revealed meant that the Lord’s disciples, including Thomas, did not have a theology all prepared with which to accommodate the incarnation.

Let me define this important term. “Incarnation” is a manufactured word, manufactured by Christians to describe what we are taught in the New Testament. It is like the term “Trinity” in that respect. Neither word is found in the Bible, but both terms beautifully compress a great deal of teaching found in the Bible. “Incarnation” derives from a Latin original which means “infleshment.” The preposition “in” plus the Latin term for “flesh,” caro. The “infleshment” of God.But in this usage “flesh” refers not to human flesh — to the human body as it were — but to human nature as a whole — body and soul together in their entirety. There is in the term, to be sure, a special stress on the physical nature of Jesus. A special point is being made with the use of the term “flesh” that his was a real human body. That is because in the Greco-Roman world in which the term originated the idea of God taking on a body was a preposterous idea. The spiritual and the physical worlds were separate in the philosophy of the day and the physical dimension of life was intellectually despised; it was regarded as the tainted, the corrupt part of life, the source of all the weaknesses and all the problems in human life and experience. Salvation was thought to be escape from the physical dimension; the soul escaping the body. Therefore, God, who is pure spirit or soul, would never have sullied himself with the impurity of a human body. In other words, neither Jew nor Gentile had any place for the idea of God becoming a man!

But in the Bible we are taught in a hundred different ways that God the Son, the Second Person of the Triune God, entered the world as a true and authentic human being. He was born as a human baby, grew up into human manhood, died as a human being on the cross, and rose to new and eternal life as a human being, indeed as the same human being now transformed. He did not cease to be the true and living God at any time. God cannot cease to be himself! But he began to be and continues to be also a human being. That is what is meant by the incarnation. This too is the deepest conceivable mystery, the second great mystery known to human beings. No one understands how God can also be a human being. No one understands how in the single person of Jesus Christ could be found true and eternal God and an authentic human being at one and the same time. This is a truth that is taught in the Bible but it is never explained. It remains and must remain an utter mystery to creatures as finite and limited in our understanding as we are.

This is the real stumbling block people face in considering the Christian faith. It is here that Jews and Muslims and modern secularists of the western world all find their problem. If Jesus were simply a remarkable man, that would be easy enough to believe; there have been a number of remarkable men in the course of human history. But then none of us could believe the things said about him in the New Testament or believe that he can, these 2,000 years later, grant us eternal life. The incarnation may be incomprehensible, but it makes sense of everything else. If Jesus is the living and true God, the creator of all that is, the ruler of heaven and earth, then the fact that he performed miracles is hardly a problem. It is no wonder that fresh acts of creative power should mark his coming into the world. If he is the giver of life, it is no wonder that he should rise from the dead. It is, in fact, much more startling that he should die than that he should rise again. [J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 54]

And that, by the way, is who the New Testament says Jesus is: not only the man who lived in Palestine in the first third of the 1st century, but, at the same time, the living God. Repeatedly throughout the New Testament Jesus, this man in Galilee and in Jerusalem, is identified with Yahweh or Jehovah, with the God of whom we read in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Now, what all of this means is this: when Jesus began his ministry as a man of about 30 years of age his disciples had no idea that such an incarnation was even possible. They did not know that God was three persons and they didn’t imagine that God could add to his eternal person an authentic human nature. When they overheard Jesus praying to his Father in heaven, that surprised them not at all. He was another man praying to God as they prayed to God. It never occurred to them that God might speak to God! They thought of Jesus in entirely conventional ways, as we might expect. They heard his teaching — so utterly new and wonderful — and identified him as a prophet, like Elijah or Isaiah or Jeremiah. They witnessed his miracles, were astonished and overwhelmed by them as was everyone else, and came to understand that he was the Messiah, the long-promised descendant of King David who would lead Israel in triumph once again. The Jews, oppressed for centuries as they had been, were longing for the appearance of the Messiah. But it would never have occurred to them that Jesus of Nazareth, this man standing before him, the Messiah notwithstanding, was also the living God. His teaching was electrifying; his miracles breath-taking; he impressed them as no one ever had before; but that made him the Messiah; it didn’t make him God! That didn’t occur to them. He was obviously a man and, if the Jews knew anything, they knew the difference between God and man!

There is the background. Now with all of that in mind, read again Thomas’ confession as Jesus stood before him, one week or at least some days after Thomas had first heard his fellows tell him that Jesus had risen from the dead. As the Gospels make clear and as the knowledge of Jewish culture in the first century confirms, no one was expecting a resurrection in the middle of human history. No one was expecting that the Messiah would die and rise again. Perhaps it should have been but it wasn’t anyone’s understanding of the ancient prophesies. The death of Jesus shattered his disciples; something we can easily appreciate. They had such hopes for him and now those hopes were dashed. They had bet on the wrong horse; that was the only possible conclusion. They were not expecting to see him again, still less a few days later brimming with new and eternal life! Thomas a week later was as the others had been as that first Easter dawned. Only the appearance of the Lord himself was sufficient to persuade them and so it was with Thomas a week later.

We don’t know why Thomas had not been with the others that first Easter night. He was perhaps so shattered by the events of Thursday and Friday that he didn’t want to be with anyone else. He went off by himself to lick his wounds. Nor do we know when the other disciples found Thomas and breathlessly told him that they had seen Jesus alive again. Indeed, the tense of the Greek verb indicates that they had pressed the point. They told him again and again what they had seen and heard. One man after another gave his account. He had no reason to doubt that his friends were telling him the truth. They had no reason to deceive him. He must have seen how elated they were, over the moon really. They were certainly the last men in the world who would mock his faith or tell tales about something as sacred and as sad as the cruel death of the man they had come so much to love and respect. I suspect that when they saw that Thomas was unconvinced, they pressed him harder. We saw him; We talked to him. What’s your theory; that we all had the same dream at exactly the same time?

But he was stubborn and the news, as I have said, did not fit into any narrative that made sense to him. “He had a kind of glum independence” that made him speak to his friends so brusquely.” [Marcus Loane, Jesus Himself: the Story of the Resurrection, 57]

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side [where the spear had been thrust], I will never believe.”

His was a defiant skepticism. He was speaking out of his shattered hopes. He wasn’t going to be taken in by some tall tale. He felt like he had already been taken in. It wasn’t going to happen twice.

But, then, as before with the others, the Lord Jesus appeared to him and his world was turned upside down. There Jesus stood, the scars left by the nails that fixed him to the cross still visible. It was the voice that had riveted his attention so often in the past. “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” And Thomas’ reply: “My Lord and my God!”

No such statement had ever been made to or about Jesus of Nazareth by any of his disciples before the resurrection. They called him Lord, but that title didn’t suggest deity. It suggested authority; certainly it suggested respect, but not that Jesus was God. They called him the Son of God, but that wasn’t the same thing as saying that Jesus was God himself. They were the sons or the children of God. But when Thomas addressed Jesus as “My Lord and my God” he crossed that bright, red line, the line that separates God and man. He was looking at a man and addressing him as God!

It was an utterly remarkable thing for a monotheistic Jew to say. Thomas wasn’t giving up his monotheism — Thomas knew very well that there was but one God, the Creator and the Ruler of heaven and earth — but he now realized that somehow, in some way, God had entered the world as a man. This was now the realization of them all and Jesus confirmed it for them. It was Jesus, as we read earlier in the service at the end of Matthew 28, who told his disciples before he ascended to heaven that they were to go throughout the world making disciples, followers of Jesus, and baptizing them in the name, the single name, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Nothing like that had ever been said before. God had never been described or identifiedin that way before, as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He had always been the three-person God, of course, but only now, with the risen Christ standing before them, could the divine nature be grasped as three in one and only now was it possible to say that God himself had become a man.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead had utterly transformed their view of Jesus Christ and of God himself. Before the resurrection, they couldn’t have fathomed how Jesus, very definitely a man, could also be God, the eternal spirit. After the resurrection it was possible for them to retain their firm belief in one God while still confessing that Jesus is God. It was the incarnation — and no one really fully grasped that God had become man in Jesus of Nazareth until after his resurrection — I say, it was the incarnation that gave human beings, finite, limited, earthbound as they are, a glimpse into the inner life of God himself. [Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 90-93]

We know very well that there are many who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead as the Bible tells us he did; as the Bible so convincingly tells us he did. We understand why they do not believe. It is a lot to believe! Thomas is everyman in that way. His reasons for refusing to believe even the excited reports of men he knew and trusted were the very reasons people do not believe today. Put yourself in his place. The Gospels, after all, show us a number of people whose first response to the report of Jesus’ resurrection was pure skepticism if not cynicism. No wonder. To believe that Jesus rose again was not only to believe that something utterly unprecedented had happened, not only in the history of their lives but in the history of human life. But it also amounted to the contradiction of everything they thought they knew.

But now put yourself in his situation as he finds himself standing before the same Jesus Christ of whose entourage he had been a part for several years. Obviously he had been mistaken. His skepticism melted away in a sudden moment of tremendous, intuitive realization. In that moment he realized that, through the years of their acquaintance, he had hardly begun to grasp the true identity of the one who stood before him. “My Lord and my God!” You will see now that this is the nub of the challenge of the Christian message of Christ’s resurrection. Accept the reality of the incarnation, that in Jesus of Nazareth God himself, your maker and the maker of heaven and earth became man, that Jesus Christ is both God and man, and all the rest becomes true by rigorous necessity.

  1. The way of salvation is found in Jesus Christ and can’t be found anywhere else.
  2. To follow Christ is the only way finally to reach ultimate reality because as God and man he is ultimate reality.
  3. That to know Jesus Christ is life itself because to know Jesus Christ is to know God himself.

That God should have come into this world as a man to suffer and die as a man is the key that unlocks the treasures for which the heart of every man and woman longs. That such a self-sacrifice on God’s part should be the hope of the world: surely this is the culmination, the climax of love. And morally defective as our lives are, your life and my life, all our lives, could anything else so perfectly meet our need, but God paying in our place the penalty of our sins and rising in triumph to everlasting human life.

But as you consider these things, remember this: nothing but the resurrection itself can explain these convictions, these certainties that lie at the foundation of the Christian faith: the triunity of God and the incarnation of God the Son. It was the mighty effect of the resurrection that brought dyed in the wool monotheists to believe that Jesus was God even as he was a man.

Henry Chadwick, the Cambridge University historian of early Christianity, once remarked that in his day Augustine was the most intelligent man in the Roman Empire. [Wilken, 164] No one thought more deeply or carefully about the trinity or the incarnation of God the Son than did the great African bishop. In a sermon he once beautifully explained the reason for God becoming man in this way: the incarnation this way:

“Man’s maker was made man that he, ruler of the stars, might nurse at his mother’s breast; that the bread might hunger, the fountain thirst, the light sleep, the way be tired on its journey; that truth might be accused by false witnesses, the teacher be beaten with whips, the foundation be suspended on wood; that strength might grow weak; that the healer might be wounded; that life might die.” [Sermons No.191]

Love motivated God to endure all of that humiliation and suffering and cruel death to bear the punishment of our sins in our place: to become that which was the very reverse of what he is in himself. Many had witnessed his suffering and death, though without understanding. But when he rose from the dead it was made clear for the first time what had really been happening all along: God himself had come into the world to do for us what we could not do ourselves; to become a man for men and for man’s salvation.

“Do not disbelieve, but believe.”