John 20:19-31, The Beginning of Our Corporate Life

[May 1, 2011] Last Sunday, we saw how the Gospel according to John depicts Christ’s bodily resurrection as the birth, from the womb of the earth, of the new creation. His body (His human nature) had become transformed. The veil (of Adam’s sweat-cloth) has been removed and He has become bodily transparent to His divine glory.

In the Gospel according to John the women represent the longing of the Holy Spirit within us for union with the Son. In John’s account of the morning of the resurrection, before Christ’s ascension into heaven, the story of all the women in the gospel is taken up by Mary of Magdala who, awakening to the new creation by the Firstborn’s naming of her, was first to embrace His risen body.

Though John is the first to believe without seeing (or by seeing only the empty tomb), Mary becomes the first witness to Christ’s bodily resurrection—and of our union with Him (“my brothers,” “My Father and your Father, and My God and your God”).

Beginning in 20:19 the account of the resurrection continues, after Christ’s ascension to the Father, with the creation of the collective—or better, corporate—life of the believers. We move from the inner and subjective experience of Mary of Magdala to the experience of the gathered disciples. As Jesus said to Mary, using this expression for the first time, “Go to My brothers,” so in Hebrews 2:9-12, quoting Psalm 22:22, the resurrected Jesus, no longer “ashamed to call them brothers,” says, “I will declare Your name to My brothers; in the midst of the church I will sing hymns of praise to You.”

Jesus in the Midst of the Gathered Disciples (John 20:19-20)

John reminds us again that it is the first day of the week (evoking the beginning of the seven-day creation in Genesis). It was evening (dark), and the disciples were alone with their fears of the storm of persecution raging around them. We think of that nighttime sea journey in chapter 6, when “Jesus had not yet come to them,” and “a strong wind was blowing, [and] the sea was churning.” Like on the first day of creation, when “darkness was on the surface of the deep,” and God spoke light into being, so Jesus appeared to them in the boat. He was walking on the waters, and He pronounced, “I AM; do not be afraid.” Here we are reminded of God’s promise in Isaiah 52:6, “Therefore My people will know My name; therefore in that day they will know that I AM who speaks; here I am.”

In John 20:19 Jesus, having walked a Victor through the mighty waters and floods of death (Song of Solomon 8:7), now appears in the midst of the disciples—in the midst of their gathering—and says to them, “Peace to you.” In the other gospels He appears while they are at table eating, evoking images of the church’s communal life and common supper on the first day of the week.

That He appears again “after eight days” in verse 26, which would also be the “first day of the week” we are given a pattern and brought into the ecclesial significance of this day of the week and its connection to the days of His resurrection appearance.

The closed doors make us think of the Israelites behind their closed doors on the night of the Passover (when the firstborn were being slain), and Noah’s ark, the door of which was sealed against the waters of the flood, which also brings us back to the closed door of Jesus’ own tomb, and the enclosure of a child in the womb before its birth (Exodus 12; Genesis 7—8; John 20:1; 16:20-22). The body of Jesus was also an enclosure, opened by His death (shown by the spear that went into His side as He hung on the cross: John 19:34), and heaven too was closed to the disciples, with Jesus’ promise to Nathanael and the other disciples, “You (plural) shall see heaven opened” (John 1:51). The “fear of the Judeans” speak of the world and our fear of death, through which the devil holds us in slavery to the world (Hebrews 2:15). All these doors were opened when Jesus stood in their midst and spoke to them.

The closed doors and Jesus’ appearance “in the midst” (in the middle) also speak (as in our dreams) of the interior of the person. Jesus’ appearance, which is bodily and external (which is what Thomas demands), also is internal, and must be so. He breathes Himself (according to John 14) into His disciples when He breathes the Holy Spirit into them. It is not just external, practical, moral, or social. The revelation of Christ is necessarily internal—in the spirit of the person—even as it is communal, corporate, and collective or social.

“He showed them His hands and His side.” The wounds of course reveal Him to be the same One who was crucified. It is, however, interesting, since the resurrection, we would think, would have healed the wounds that death inflicted on Him. On the one hand, they identify that He is in resurrection who He was. By resurrection who He was, His entire history, became eternal, it was not left in the past. So somehow, His crucifixion is part of His risen life; it is still present as the curative medicine that we need (see Galatians 2:19-20; 6:14; Colossians 3:3; Romans 6:3-8). John’s mention of our Lord’s side reminds us of how His body—where His heart is—was opened, as a womb is opened, to give birth, to give life. We will say more on this when we speak of 20:27.

Peace (20:19, 21, 26)

Jesus appears and says, “Peace to you” (20:19, just two words in Greek, eirēnē hymin) and repeats this in verse 21 and again in 26. His resurrected presence is peace; He is not merely wishing it on them. In His kingly role of going forth to the cross to conquer death He was like King David, but now in resurrection He comes before us as King Solomon, the “King of Peace.”

Peace speaks of rest, of Sabbath, and the seventh day of creation when God rested from His works because they were finished and satisfied Him. The Sabbath rest also speaks of the Promised Land (Psalm 95 and Hebrews 3—4), which Israel never entered except provisionally, as a type of what was to come. Christ is the Promised Land (that which it signifies) and those who enter Him enter and enjoy the wealth of the Promised Land (by this I do not mean that the Promised Land is not also an actual land, but the fulfillment of this, for Israel, waits for our Lord’s second coming). “Rest” also speaks of the Temple, where God’s Shekinah, His feminine Presence, came to rest or dwell. This happened in the days of Solomon. The Holy Spirit rested on Mary when our Lord was conceived, and the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus at His baptism. John uses the word “abide” in this connection. Jesus comes now, in resurrection, to abide in His disciples in the Holy Spirit.

In Isaiah, shalom (peace) describes the affect of the coming of the Messiah (9:6-7; 11:1-9; 57:19; 60:17; 66:12). It speaks of health, well-being, and wholeness, but also the absence of conflict and danger. In John 14:27 and 16:33 peace is given in the midst of the world, in the presence of trouble, fear, and affliction. But the peace that Jesus promises to His disciples at the last supper is His peace. He has overcome the world—by the cross—and now we have peace in Him. In resurrection He comes to be in us, but we also are in Him. It is a mutual indwelling, or union, though it is a hierarchical one (He is the Conqueror, we are the beneficiaries).

The Presence of Jesus within us in our gathering is our peace. Jesus pronounces peace within the gathering; He did not pronounce it until He was with the disciples when they were gathered. Even though His peace is a fact of His resurrection, some things are not disclosed except within the corporate life of the believers. It is not the fact of peace but the disclosure of it that takes place in the assembly. God reveals Himself within His Temple (see, for example, Psalm 27:4). This speaks of both the interiority of revelation and its province in midst of the gathering. Revelation is interior but it is not a private affair. The one Temple was the place of His revelation; but the corollary is also true, that wherever He reveals Himself becomes His Sanctuary (for the revelation is one).

The Holy Spirit (20:21-23)

“As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Obviously this speaks of mission (sending), but this word today has connotations that the Gospel according to John might not share. Today people seem to only know of social justice (they cite Micah 6:8), which is not the “mission” in the Gospel according to John. Jesus speaks of being “sent” by the Father, and of the Holy Spirit being sent by the Father and the Son (14:26; 15:26). Jesus came to present Himself as life and to give life to those whom the Father has given Him, and the Holy Spirit is sent as the reality of Jesus in us, and to testify of Him. We are sent to bear witness to Jesus as eternal life and be those who bear the fruit of new believers (15:16).

Jesus then breathed into His disciples (John does not say “apostles”) and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” We are to think of Adam on the day of creation when YHWH God “breathed into his face (prosōpon) the breath (pnoē) of life (zōē), and the human being became a living soul.” We are also to think of the scene in the valley of the dry bones, when God tells Ezekiel to say to the bones, “Thus says the Lord YHWH to these bones: I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:3-6). Nothing, in fact, lives unless God breathes into it the breath of life (see Psalm 104:29-30; etc.).

This verse in the Gospel according to John is where the Gospel according to John has been heading from the beginning. In the first twelve chapters of the gospel Jesus revealed Himself as the divine (eternal) life and in the remainder of the gospel He makes Himself as the divine life communicable to others. The long talk from John 14—16 has His indwelling as its single topic. There, when He speaks of leaving and coming back He is speaking strictly of His death and resurrection. “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may be with you forever, even the Spirit of reality … He abides with you and shall be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to You … In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you … We [My Father and I] will come to [the one who loves Me] and make an abode with him” (14:16-18, 20, 23).

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit dwell (abide) in each other. Before Jesus’ death the Holy Spirit could not dwell in the believer. His death has the necessary “ingredients” that makes that indwelling possible, so until His death these ingredients did not dwell in the Holy Spirit. After our Lord passed through His death and His work was finished, all that He did—just as all that He is—is in the Holy Spirit. Now the Holy Spirit can dwell in us. When the Holy Spirit dwells in us, both the Father and the Son dwell in us as well, for they Each dwell in the Other. So when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples, giving them eternal life, He Himself comes to dwell in them, as He said He would. When the Holy Spirit dwells in us, all that Christ is, His divinity and His humanity, His divinized (resurrected) human body, soul and spirit, His whole history and all that He went through, attained and obtained—all this—now dwells in our spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in our spirit, mingled with it, and there we now find Christ Himself (not a disembodied “cosmic” Christ but the Christ of the gospels, the Christ testified of in the Scriptures, Jesus of Nazareth).

What is it in the “ingredients” of His death that made His indwelling possible? The atonement: His offering up of Himself as a burnt offering, a holocaust, on the altar of the cross was the vicarious “repentance” acceptable to the Father. By His blood He has removed our sins, not by “paying” for them in the currency of suffering but by answering for them—by submitting to the rightness of God’s judgment—with obedience and love. This is the “package” that contains the gift of eternal life. Without this package, which takes away our sin and makes us fit, we cannot receive what is inside. It is thus His death that delivers His life.

“As the Father has sent Me, I also send you … Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; and whosoever sins you retain, they are retained.” By testifying to Christ and bearing the fruit of new believers, we are releasing people from their sins. These words make no sense whatsoever apart from the words sandwiched between them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” By the Holy Spirit we can bring life to others (2 Corinthians 4:10-12). The Holy Spirit in our spirit is communicable to the spirits of others through the Word. “The words that I have spoken are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). The Word that we share is the word that testifies concerning Jesus (16:26; 14:26). This is the word of the Gospel. Through the Holy Spirit it is capable of giving life to others, and thus releasing them from their sins.

The further implication of verse 23 is that it is the gathered disciples with the Holy Spirit who can discern who is one of them. We see this in Acts in relation to the uncircumcised Gentiles. It is also a function of every local church to recognize who is a believer and who is not. This is the concept of the “believers’ church,” that the church has a boundary, a “wall” that separates the believer from the non-believer. We have gotten this notion of a “mixed” church in which we are not permitted to recognize a wall—the visible church is mixed, the actual church is invisible—but this doctrine is the result of “civil religion,” Constantine’s appropriation of the church for the empire, the marriage of church and civil society, the routine baptism of society’s infants; it is not a Biblical idea. In the Bible, the church is distinguished from the world around it. The field of Matthew 13:24 is the world, not the church (13:38).

The difficulty is when we apply this too strictly and legally. The church is to discern, but it does not pass final judgment. It is given for the fellowship of the believers, in that the Holy Spirit dwells among them, to recognize if someone has that same Spirit. But its judgment cannot be entirely subjective. Its judgment is not infallible. Most people convert rather gradually. There is a huge margin—a neutral zone—where people are transitioning from unbelief to belief, and neither they nor the fellowship of believers can exactly locate them. The church needs to discern the sincerity of their intentions and hear their confession of faith. Providing a structure for this (such as the catechumenate) makes sense.

Thomas the Twin (20:24-29)

The Gospel according to John does not speak of the apostles. It speaks instead of the disciples, and it mentions seven of them in particular. The Twelve, who are different than apostles such as Paul and Barnabas, have a special role as chosen eyewitnesses of the Gospel and with respect to the people of Israel. They are only mentioned here (Thomas is one of the Twelve) and in 6:67-71 (without explanation), where they are put to the test. Thomas is being such an eyewitness when he demands to see the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.

Thomas also represents one who passes over from death to new life with Jesus. In John 11:16 he says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him,” referring to Jesus’ desire to go to Judea. So now he insists on seeing evidence of Jesus’ death before he will believe. He does.

There is an important parallel to Jesus’ words to him, “Bring your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving but believing,” and John’s words a few verses later, “these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in His name.” In Genesis 3:22-24 God placed the cherubim and a flaming sword which tuned in every direction to guard the way to the tree of life “lest [the man] put forth his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and life forever.” The pierced body of Jesus on the tree of the cross becomes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden; only, then we were forbidden to stretch forth our hand and take of its fruit, but now we are invited to. The blood and water that flowed from His pierced side speaks of the release of His life, and Thomas is told to put forth his hand into the Lord’s open side. The way to the Tree of Life is now open to all and its fruit of eternal life is available to those would believe. It is significant that it was Thomas who asked at the last supper, “Lord, we do not know where You are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said, “I am the way and the reality and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” Thomas now is shown the way.

Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” It corresponds to Nathanael’s words at the beginning of the gospel, “You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (1:49), and also to Jacob’s in Genesis 28:17, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven,” which Jesus’ words in 1:51 allude to. Thomas recognizes the Presence of God in Jesus, reminding us again of the words of Jesus when He came to the disciples in the storm at sea: “I AM.” This is the Presence of God, not in a general sense, but, specifically in the sense of Jesus’ personal identity with God in His uniqueness and exclusivity of identity. It is the crucified and resurrected body of Jesus that becomes the Father’s house, in which are many abodes (John 14:2); His resurrected body (the entirety of His being presented in His body) is the gate of heaven, where heaven is indeed open to His believers.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Blessedness in the Old Testament is the condition of when God’s promises are fulfilled. Thomas believes on account of having seen with His eyes. But the one who believes on the basis of the Word, whether the oral testimony of the eyewitness or the word of the written testimony, is seeing only the inward reality of the matter. Mary, earlier in the chapter, took hold of Jesus’ body; she embraced Him—in this regard equivalent to Thomas’ visual reception of Jesus. Jesus told her not to keep holding on to Him, to let Him go, for He had not yet ascended to His Father. It was not as if she was not supposed to be that close to or intimate with Him, or could not continue to be. It is that a transformation was about to take place that would bring Him even closer. When He returned from the Father and was able to breathe the Holy Spirit into the disciples, the reality of His indwelling was more intimate and more real than that of His tactually and visually accessible presence.

It must have been truly blessed to see the body of the risen Jesus. However, unless one also knew His inner presence one did not really know who one was beholding; one did not “see” the radiance of His divinity in His physical human body, and therefore one missed the point of His resurrection appearance. It is what happens when the Holy Spirit reveals Christ through the Word that is the secret of the blessedness. Those who do not see (with their eyes), therefore, are the ones who are truly blessed—and in whom the promises of God are fulfilled.

This verse is inversely connected to 9:39-41. There those who are physically blind see spiritually but those who can physically see but are blind spiritually. Jesus has come to give sight to the spiritually blind. But there are also those who think they can see spiritually; Jesus says He has come “that those who see may become blind,” perhaps in order that they may truly see. Thomas needed to see with His own eyes in order to be an eyewitness, but not in order to believe. The kind of faith that only comes from seeing the physical evidence is of the soul, not the spirit, and therefore is still blind.

Fortunately for Thomas that was not all that he received. On seeing Jesus—His physical body with his physical eyes—and hearing our Lord’s words, “Peace to you,” Thomas immediately recognized his inner blindness. John says nothing of Thomas actually touching Jesus. Instead he exclaims out of his inner vision, “My Lord and my God!” Indeed, it is not just witnessing with the eye of flesh that makes the twelve apostles the chosen Twelve, but the coupling of this outer seeing (with the eye of flesh) with inner seeing (with the eye of spirit). Knowing the historical Jesus alone would not qualify a writer to be one of the eyewitnesses whom the Word has chosen. It was Thomas’ inner vision and perception that made him a member of the Twelve, not merely his experience as eyewitness per se. For the same reason Judas, though an eyewitness of the Word (though not of the resurrection) became disqualified as a witness.

These Things have been Written that You may Believe (20:30-31)

The Elder John, though not one of the Twelve, nor an apostle, possessed both. He was an eyewitness of the events of which he testifies and he was one who perceived through inner revelation of the Holy Spirit who Jesus was both in terms of His mission (as Messiah) and in terms of who He was (His divine Person).

John tells us that Jesus performed many signs, none of which we have seen or shall see. But, John tells us, these are written that through their written testimony you may believe—through the inner enlightening work of the Holy Spirit in our spirit—that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. To believe that Jesus—He of whom this gospel tells us—is the Messiah, the Son of God, requires divine revelation. It cannot happen merely by being at His event and witnessing them ourselves.

When through hearing the testimony, the Gospel, we see inwardly by divine revelation in our spirit, we believe. When we believe, we “have life in His name.” That is, our believing is the result of the inner work of the Holy Spirit within our spirit, enabling us to see, and seeing, to desire the One whom we behold. Our believing comes about as a result of our regeneration, but it is also our taking hold of the new life that is within us. To believe is to take hold of eternal life, the divine life which is Jesus Himself (1 John 5:20). It is this divine life, who is Jesus Himself as the Son of God, who has become flesh in Him. All that He is we appropriate when we believe, and by believing, because He now dwells within our us, in our spirit.

“These have been written that you may believe … and that believing you may have life in His name.” Jesus told Thomas, “Bring your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” If this is an allusion to the Tree of Life in Genesis 3, then these words also allude to the Gospel according to John itself. If Thomas stretched forth his hand with faith, he would have laid hold of the “fruit” that would bring eternal life. In the same way, if we reach our hands into the Gospel according to John and believe, we too can lay hold of the fruit that is there and have eternal life. The text of the gospel itself becomes the body of the resurrected Jesus (the Tree of Life) for “those who have not seen.” Blessed are they who read it and believe for they can gather its fruits unto eternal life.

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