Believing the Apostle's Testimony When Not Seeing Jesus
Passage: John 20:24–20:31
Sermon from John 20:24-31 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on May 10, 2015
Today, we look at a third occasion when Jesus appeared to his disciples following his resurrection. In our journey through John’s Gospel, we’ve already seen Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene the morning of his resurrection (20:11-18). Then, on that same day, Jesus appears to ten of his eleven remaining disciples (20:19-23). One of the disciples was missing on that occasion, a disciple named Thomas. And Jesus wants him; so, in our passage today, Jesus appears to Thomas.
And as we shall see, Thomas is initially full of doubt and skepticism about whether Jesus is truly alive. And we can very well understand why. It’s not so much that Thomas doubted, because he was ignorant of God’s ability to raise the dead. He knew the God of Scripture could do miracles, and he had witnessed firsthand Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead (11:16, 40). It’s also not so much that Thomas doubted, because he morally opposed the idea of Jesus’ resurrection, so that he could just live life the way he wanted. No, again and again, we actually find Thomas loyal to Jesus. He’s even willing to die with him at one point (11:16). He certainly doesn’t understand everything, but he’s still loyal, willing to learn, willing to follow (14:5).
What’s more likely the case is that Thomas doubts, because he’s been thoroughly disappointed. The man he so loyally followed, the man he left everything for the last three years, the man who claimed to be his Messiah, was crucified and buried in a tomb (16:22). All his hopes are seemingly undone at this point, and so he becomes a skeptic to protect himself from being hurt more than he’s already hurting (cf. 14:1; 16:6, 20, 22). He wants reasonable grounds to believe his Savior actually lives, rather than suffering even greater disappointment.
Some of your doubt and skepticism, I imagine, rises from the same sort of disappointment with Jesus. I’m talking to disciples today, like Thomas. You pray and Jesus doesn’t seem to answer your prayers; and in your disappointment you begin to doubt whether he cares. You labor to preach the gospel to others, but they’re not converted; and in your disappointment you begin doubting Jesus’ power to save. You give yourself to others as Jesus teaches you to give, and get nothing back in return and sometimes you’re even rebuffed; and in your disappointment you want to quit, you want to build walls, you want to protect yourself. Friends, doubting Jesus isn’t far for us either when we’re disappointed.
What we’ll see today is that Jesus comes to Thomas, he comes to doubters like us, he meets us where we are, and reveals himself, so that we believe. He doesn’t come to us in the same way he came to Thomas. But he still comes, to transform doubters into disciples, skeptics into saints, worriers into worshipers. Verse 24…
24Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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, I will never believe.” 26Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
What I’d like to do is take four steps this morning in understanding the passage before us. And with each step, my hope is not only that you gain a better understanding of John’s message, but that you also encounter the person of Jesus through this unique encounter with Thomas.
1. The Purpose of John’s Gospel
Step number one: our passage reveals the purpose of John’s Gospel. When I was in high school, I wasn’t much on reading novels—well, I actually wasn’t much on reading at all…to my great regret. But something I had to know up front was what the point of the story was. What is the author trying to say? What is his goal? Why’s it important that I even read this book? And a lot of times that meant I skimmed through the final chapters to figure it out before reading anything else, maybe even purchase the Cliff’s notes—which is probably sacrilegious to some of you…
But anyway, we’ve arrived at that place in John’s Gospel where he lays all his cards on the table. Yes, John is telling a story about Jesus—that’s been fairly easy to assess. But notice that he’s not interested in mere information transfer. That is to say, he’s not interested in merely passing along information and facts about Jesus that leave you unchanged, that leave you the same as when you entered his story.
No, John writes to compel faith in Jesus Christ and to give life to his readers in Jesus Christ. Verse 31, “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may life in his name.” A proper reading of John’s Gospel will be one in which we seek to deepen our faith in Jesus; it will be one in which we drink from these pages to experience life with God’s Son.
We won’t be coming to them first with our own purposes and agendas—you know, to fix our marriage, to fix our children, to fix our church, to defend our doctrines, to prove our political viewpoints, to understand ancient Judaism. Those purposes can certainly provide worthwhile questions to ask the Gospel of John. But those purposes must never cloud that of the author, John—and even better, God through John. John’s primary purpose is that we gain life by believing his story about Jesus.
In fact, his purpose is even more serious than that, isn’t it? His purpose isn’t to provide more life to the life we already have. His purpose is to provide life, period, by giving us Jesus. You see part of John’s story is that by nature, we don’t have life. We have sinned against God; we have done wrong. We sit in death separated from God, because of our sins (3:36; 5:24; 8:52). But the story he tells is meant to give you faith in Jesus; and when your faith is in Jesus, you’re delivered from death and you find true life with God. In that sense, believing John’s story is remarkably different from believing any other story you might find at Barnes & Noble. Believing John’s story about Jesus is a matter of life and death.
2. John’s Testimony Is True
But how could John’s story carry such weight, such utter seriousness? John’s story can do so, because John knows that his story is true. That leads us to step two: our passage reveals that John’s testimony is true. We see this in the way the account with Thomas plays out alongside Jesus’ earlier appearance to the other ten disciples. The account with Thomas confirms the trustworthiness of the other disciples, who tell Thomas that Jesus is alive; and John is one of the ten.
Here’s how it goes. Eight days before we get to Thomas, Jesus rises from the dead and appears to ten of the eleven disciples—Thomas is the only one missing. At some point, according to verse 25, those ten disciples—John included—go and tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” So we get one of the first times the disciples bear witness to Christ’s resurrection, and immediately it’s met with doubt and skepticism within the Eleven. Thomas doubts their testimony, and sets the conditions for his belief: “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, I will never believe.”
Cut two, Jesus shows up, addresses Thomas’ doubt, and Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.” He sees what the other ten also saw, and he believes. In other words, it’s not like the other ten put Thomas in a mercy-hold until he finally caved in—“Go along with us, or else!” No, Thomas sees what they saw, and he believes.
How does that serve John’s testimony? It serves John’s testimony by confirming that his earlier testimony to Thomas—alongside the other disciples—wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t a hallucination; it was real and true and verifiable, so verifiable that even a skeptic can’t help but worship when Jesus comes to him—and Jesus’ real presence will be just as compelling when he returns to this earth in the same body, and every knee bows and every tongue confesses that he is Lord to the glory of God the Father. By putting these accounts side-by-side, John helps us see that he’s telling the truth about Jesus; and if he’s telling the truth about Jesus’ resurrection, then everything else he’s mentioned about Jesus is true as well.
Something very important for Christians to remember is that the resurrection isn’t a religious claim; it’s a historical claim. Jesus didn’t just rise in our hearts; his resurrection isn’t just a mythological story from which we glean timeless truths to live by. God almighty entered history in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus died for our sins and then he really walked out of the grave alive, having been three days dead. This makes Christianity vastly different from the majority of other religions. All that matters to most religions is whether the experience holds true regardless of historical verification. Christianity is dependent on its historical claims.
As the Bible says elsewhere, if Jesus Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we’re still in our sins (1 Cor 15:17). But as we see here, Jesus is in fact alive. Jesus is not just an idea; he’s a real person with flesh and bones (cf. Luke 24:39). The way John pieces these accounts together helps confirm the trustworthiness of John’s testimony: “We have seen the Lord,” and then Thomas’ experience comes in and basically says, “You were right; you really did see the Lord. I now believe, too.”
3. Who Jesus Really Is
If John’s testimony is true, then just like Thomas, we’re all faced with whether to believe who Jesus really is and give ourselves to him. That takes us to step three: our passage also reveals more about who Jesus is.
Jesus is risen
The first is very obvious at this point. Jesus is risen. He’s alive. That’s the whole point of his physical appearances to the disciples. He’s not risen as a ghost of some sort; he appears to the disciples in a physical body. It’s a new body. It’s a body suited for glory. It’s a body characterized by immortality. But it’s still a physical body that has some degree of continuity with his old body. Jesus had to tell Mary, “Stop clinging to me,” verse 17 had told us before (cf. Matt 28:9). And here, Jesus still carries the marks from his cross on his hands and side, to show that it’s the same person the Romans had crucified just days before (20:20, 27). He even tells Thomas to reach out his hand and touch his hands and side. Later on, he’ll fix the disciples some fish and eat with them. The point couldn’t be clearer. Jesus is risen bodily from the dead.
Jesus is faithful
Well, that also means Jesus is faithful. We see this by branching out to the larger storyline of John’s Gospel. Jesus has been making all sorts of claims, not just about himself but also about what he would do to overcome sin and death. He’s been telling the disciples that he would be lifted up on the cross and die, but then he would rise and see the disciples again (16:20-22). The Jews would destroy the temple of his body, but then he would raise it up three days later (2:20-22). As the Good Shepherd, he would lay down his life for the sheep and then take up his life again (10:17-18). And sure enough, here he is, three days later alive. He’s a man of his word.
But intertwined in this storyline of Jesus’ faithfulness comes the repeated refrain that he would lose none of his disciples. Judas, of course, went out to fulfill the Scriptures, but the remaining Eleven, Jesus would not lose. He would lose nothing of all that the Father had given him (6:39). No one will snatch his sheep out of his hand (10:28). He guards his disciples, keeps them in the Father’s name, gives them eternal life, and will lose not one (17:2-3, 12; 18:9).
That faithfulness is illustrated once again in a very personal way. Thomas is doubting his Lord’s word. Thomas is skeptical of the other disciples’ testimony. The question rises, “Will Jesus lose Thomas?” The answer is No. In the midst of Thomas’ doubt and skepticism, Jesus comes to Thomas. Jesus proves his faithfulness to all his disciples. He will not lose one of them.
Jesus is unstoppable
Their own doubts won’t stop Jesus from coming to them; even their own fears behind locked doors can’t stop Jesus (20:19). He will meet you where you are with unstoppable power. Write that one down, too, Jesus is unstoppable. Note verse 26: “Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”
Note the miraculous entry: “although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them.” Now, the New Testament never tells us how Jesus actually came and stood among them with a physical body, even though the doors were locked. Some have speculated that he passed through the wall—he was able to dematerialize and materialize at will—but the Bible never says that. It could also be that Jesus simply kept the disciples from recognizing him like he did on the Emmaus road in Luke 24:17, 31. Maybe the door miraculously opened for Jesus like it did for Peter when he escaped from prison in Acts 12:7, 10. The fact is that we’re simply not told how this happened, but only that it did happen and it was nothing short of miraculous.
And what it reveals about Jesus is that he’s unstoppable. Nothing will stop him from coming to his disciples. Nothing will get in the way of his purposes. Nothing can keep him from revealing himself to them and winning them.
Jesus is all-knowing
When Jesus does come to Thomas, notice that Jesus is also all-knowing—another word Christians will sometimes use for all-knowing is omniscient. Jesus is omniscient. Look at verse 25. Thomas tells only the other disciples, “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, I will never believe.”
Then eight days later, Jesus comes, says “Peace be with you,” turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Who told Jesus Thomas’s doubts? The point is nobody. Jesus doesn’t need our help in telling him what’s going on inside us; he simply knows us. His knowledge of us is perfect and exhaustive and immediate.
There’s nothing about us he doesn’t know. As David says elsewhere, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.” Earlier in his Gospel, even the apostle John tells us: “Jesus knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (2:24-25).
Jesus knew Thomas, and Jesus knows you. Jesus knows how you may doubt him. Jesus knows your skepticism. Jesus knows the depths of your unbelief and the complexities of your sins against him. He knows what you think about. He knows how the disappointments of this broken world sit on you in the night. He knows your tears and the knots in your throat when you want to give up. Jesus knows you even better than you know yourself. And this is a perfect portrait of how he meets us, even knowing us, even knowing our doubts and unbelief and pride and sin, he meets us, he comes to his own (cf. also 1:47-49; 4:16-18)…
Jesus is merciful to doubters
Which reveals something further about Jesus: Jesus is merciful to doubters and disappointed skeptics. He meets us where we are and addresses our unbelief head-on, to change us and give us life in himself. Think about all that Thomas knew and yet still doubted Jesus’ resurrection. As a Jew, Thomas knew the Old Testament Scriptures. And, according to Jesus, those Old Testament Scriptures promised that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. Thomas ought to have believed God’s word all along, had he been understanding them rightly. That’s basically what John related back in 20:9, “for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead."
Thomas also had all the teachings of Jesus, and Jesus told Thomas what was going to happen to him before it even happened. Jesus even illustrated his power over death with Lazarus. And now Thomas had heard from his closest friends, “We have seen the Lord.” He had the Scriptures, he had Jesus, and he had his closest friends telling him what’s going on. And he still doubted.
Very easily, Jesus could have written Thomas off. Jesus had every right to punish Thomas for his unbelief and cut him off from the disciples. But what does he do? He comes to Thomas, speaks to Thomas’s doubts, and says, “Look at my wounds. Look at my wounds and touch them.” These are the wounds that paid the penalty for Thomas’s sins. These are the wounds that forgive all Thomas’s unbelief. These are the wounds that Jesus bore to make Thomas his own. And it’s in seeing the crucified and risen Lord that Thomas is changed from an unbeliever to a believer, from a doubter to a disciple, from a skeptic to a saint, from a worrier to a worshiper.
Jesus is God
What is Thomas’ response? “My Lord and my God!” You can write that down, too, as something more our passage reveals about Jesus: Jesus is God. As has been the case throughout John’s Gospel, it’s in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus that God reveals himself. When Thomas sees Jesus, he sees God almighty in the flesh. He got glimpses of Jesus’ glory beforehand; he heard Jesus say things just days before like, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father;” but now he sees completely: “My Lord and my God!”
And Jesus doesn’t reject him; he affirms Thomas’s confession. He accepts his belief as right: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” In other words, “Good!” What changed Thomas? The presence of the merciful God whose wounds and whose life speak redemption over his soul. It was happening just as Jesus said it would: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I AM you will die in your sins…When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM [that is, then you will know that I am God]” (8:24, 28).
And here, Jesus has been lifted up, not only on the cross to die for our sins but from the grave, and Thomas sees that Jesus is the great I AM—“my Lord and my God.” One of the greatest confessions in the Bible comes from the mouth of one of the greatest doubters.
And notice something more of the nature of Thomas’s confession. He says, “My Lord and my God,” not “Our Lord and our God.” D. A. Carson writes this:
[Thomas’s] confession is intensely personal…It is never enough merely to confess the truth of something that is out there in the public arena. Even the devil himself could affirm, however begrudgingly, that Jesus is both Lord and God. But a true child of God is making more than a public statement about a public truth. The Christian is not simply affirming that Jesus Christ is the Lord and God of the universe but that in the most intimate sense he is the Christian’s Lord and God. The confession is intensely personal. If you cannot utter the words of this confession with similar deeply personal commitment, you have no part of Jesus and the salvation that flows from his death and resurrection. Your heart and mind must confess with wonder, “My Lord and my God!”
4. Written for Our Faith & Life in Christ
And here is where I want us to take our last step, step number four: our passage reveals that the blessing of life in Christ isn’t limited to those like Thomas and the disciples, who saw Jesus’ resurrection body firsthand. The blessing of life in Christ is actually extended to you and me, to everybody who picks up John’s Gospel, reads it, and believes what he says. Look at verse 29: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus is talking about the time when he’s taken up to heaven. When he ascends to the Father, he won’t be around to appear to people bodily anymore. For a long season, the only access people will have to Jesus is through the testimony of the disciples. He’s talking about you and me believing even without seeing with our physical eyes. That doesn’t mean our faith is blind or irrational. Our faith is perfectly rational—our faith is based on the reasonable evidence accessed through true, eyewitness testimony.
When we believe their testimony, we are blessed. How is it that we can still receive this blessing if we cannot see Jesus? We can still receive the blessing of life in Christ, because the apostles’ word—or better, God’s word—is sufficient to bring us into a relationship with Christ.
This is why John links Jesus’ blessing in verse 29 with the purpose of his Gospel in verses 30-31. Verse 31 should begin with “therefore”—the ESV doesn’t have it, but the NASB does: “Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” So, hear the connection: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Therefore…these are written, so that you may believe.”
As my brother Jonathan recently put it, “Jesus’ purpose in coming is also John’s purpose in writing, namely, that we might believe Jesus is the Son of God and our Savior and by believing that we might have eternal life in him.” John wrote that we might believe and have eternal life. His words are trustworthy access to Jesus Christ, the almighty God—to know him, to love him, to enjoy life in him.
Do you believe John’s testimony? And if you believe John’s testimony, is the Bible precious to you, indispensable for you? It’s how we see Jesus until he comes again, friends. It’s how our faith is borne and how it keeps growing, as we see more of Jesus through the word. And when we see more of Jesus through the word, we have life in his name. That’s another way of saying we have fellowship with God.
The true blessing here isn’t merely that we’ll be happy in some way that’s disconnected from God’s revelation in Christ. The true blessing is that we’ll know God in Jesus Christ. God will not be an idea we affirm, but a person we enjoy, Jesus Christ.
Esteem the Scriptures to see Christ
Based on John’s testimony and Jesus’ blessing, I think we can all see how important the Bible is. It is our only access to Jesus, and it is only these words that have power to create faith. This is why the primacy of the word of God must be upheld in our homes and in our churches. Where the word is absent, Jesus will be absent. Where the word is not esteemed, Jesus will not be seen. Where the word is diminished, Jesus will not look glorious.
This is why the apostles put elders in all the local churches they planted to teach the word; and deacons to serve alongside them, so that the word of God might be upheld; and instructed older women to disciple the younger women, so that the word of God might go undefiled; and why husbands wash their wives with the word and parents raise their children according to the word; and why the word of Christ must dwell richly in our hearts as a congregation. The word is how we know Jesus Christ.
And so I am calling all of us to evaluate whether the word is taking primary place in your life. Are you being mastered by the word of God? Is it often found upon your lips? Is it your meditation day and night? If not, then Jesus will seem far away and unclear. Until he comes again, he has left us his word. Read it, study it, so that you might believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name. Moreover, encourage one another with the same words, that we might together see him and value him above all.
Bring your doubts to the risen Jesus
And one more thing: let me encourage you who doubt from some level of disappointment. You don’t need to fear bringing your doubts to the Lord, and confessing them to him. You don’t need to fear bringing your skepticism to the Lord, and confessing it to him. He already knows it, and made provision for it. We can draw near to him for deeper and stronger faith, because he has already drawn near to us.
Moreover, he is truly risen from the dead. His resurrection is an unchangeable, objective fact. Alongside the cross, Jesus’ resurrection becomes God’s decisive answer to all our disappointments. We may not understand all God is up to at times, but his resurrection says our worst enemies—sin and death—are defeated. We may continue wondering why this or that prayer remains unanswered, but the resurrection means that all our prayers will eventually be answered on the Last Day. We may still wonder some days whether the gospel is truly powerful to save our neighbors, but the resurrection means that Jesus will gather his elect without fail. We may find ourselves perplexed many days, but the resurrection means we need not be driven to despair; God’s story has a very, very good ending.
It is true, Jesus doesn’t promise to come to you like he did to Thomas…but we have to say that’s only the case a little bit longer. He has promised to appear to us face-to-face one day, and that will be a glorious day when we see him as he is. But until then, he reveals himself in the words of the apostles and the prophets. Moreover, he does say elsewhere that the way he comes to you now is even better than what the disciples knew then. As he said, “It’s to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (16:7). So it’s not that Jesus is absent. He’s very much present as he comes to us by the Spirit. And until we see him again, the Spirit and the written word is our guarantee that he is alive.
If you wonder whether that faith—without sight—is really able to bless you through this life—a life with all kinds of hardships and suffering, then hear the words of Peter as he reflects on the early church in the midst of suffering and pain and hardship. Listen to the intimacy this church shares with Jesus even though they cannot see him. Peter writes…
In this [salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen [Jesus Christ], you love him. Though you do not now see [Jesus Christ] now, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Pet 1:6-9).
This is John 20 on the ground. The church is suffering. Grief is present. They still don’t see Jesus. But they believe in him, based on the trustworthy testimony of the apostles. And what is the result? Joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. The result is salvation. May God be pleased to keep us trusting these words as well. And may God make us merciful to doubters and skeptics as we see Christ himself being merciful to Thomas.