Man Alive!

John 20: 19-29

Background: Mary Magdalene (20:1) along with other women (Luke 23:55; 24:10) had found an empty tomb, been taught by an angel that they should have expected this (Luke 24-8), and reported to the apostles. Mary Magdalene, however, seemed to have lingered and actually saw the risen Lord, touched him, worshipped him, and heard words of gracious assurance. Now John records vitally important appearances to the apostles as they gather that Resurrection evening on the first day of the week and again a week later.

I. Jesus’ appearances give further evidence of resurrection and contain the new covenant granting of authority and power (19-23).

A. The disciples [without Thomas] meet together.

1. Jesus made a miraculous entrance – while the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood there. The resurrected body clearly had properties that were not manifested in the pre-resurrection body. 

2. He displayed the body that had been slain. He showed them his hands and side, obviously to demonstrate that this was continuous with the body that had been crucified, speared, and buried. He was no phantom, nor product of mass hallucination, but the person they had seen brutally treated and killed on a cross and pierced in the side after his death.

3. Jesus spoke with disarming and assuring authority. Two times he said, “Peace be with you.” 

      • Immediately he meant to calm their fears over the startling way in which he had come among them. By his repetition, however, he means to convey more. This was to reiterate what he had said prior to his crucifixion in 16:33-“In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world.”
      • He indeed had overcome the world so they could have peace in him. This peace was twofold: one, they now would grasp the reality of reconciliation with God and so find forgiveness and the dark clouds of divine wrath removed; two, they would be able to move with confidence in their labor in spite of the coming threats and opposition. 
      • They knew that they were sent by the sovereign Lord who Himself had experienced the same. Since he came to bring peace under commission of the Father, he gives them the message of that peace that has been established by his obedience to the Father (Luke 2:14; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19; Eph. 2:13-18). 

4. He then commissioned them as the Father sent him (21). The meaning here is rich. This is his last use of the verb “sent” in the gospel of John.

      • Jesus has told them throughout that the Father sent him for a specific purpose (4:34; 5:23, 24, 30, 36, 37, 38; 6:29, 38, 39, 40, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28, 29, 33 17:3; 8: 16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36;11:42; 12:44, 45, 49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; five times in John 17.) In 18:11 Jesus asked rhetorically, “Shall I not drink the cup which my Father has given me?” John the Baptist was a man sent from God (1:6, 8, 33), and when he was done, the Lord took him out through beheading (Matthew 14:9-12). It was for the particular purpose of death as a propitiation that Jesus was sent, and Jesus performed perfectly the task for which he was sent. Having completed it he went to the Father who was perfectly satisfied in the execution of just wrath on this propitiatory sacrifice that he himself had sent into the world. He knew that, in light of the Father’s eternal purpose, the success of his work, though infinitely difficult to bring to pass, never was in doubt. Eternal decrees find their accomplishment through means consistent with God’s attributes.
      • Now, he opens to them another necessary means by which God would fulfill his eternal purpose of saving the ones that the Father had given him. “As the Father has sent me,” to accomplish the necessary ransom, bearing just wrath, bringing reconciliation, so Jesus sends forth his disciples with a specific mission. They will bear the message of his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (John 17:20). They will preach that saving union with these historical works comes by faith generated in the spiritual context of repentance.
      • Now, in the divine stewardship of the covenant of redemption, the Holy Spirit could come and breathe effectual power into the message the apostles were sent to proclaim. Their message would thus be empowered by the Holy Spirit to call unto salvation his elect (1 Thessalonians 1:4, 5). As Jesus had been raised from the dead by the glory of the Father and the operation of the Holy Spirit (Romans 1:4; 6:4), so will the elect receive spiritual and eternal life according to the glory of God through the effectual work of the Spirit. His breathing on them to receive the Spirit involves a rich theology of the Holy Spirit in that we see manifest in time the reality that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Father sends the Spirit in the name of the Son (14:26), for the Son has “prayed the Father” for this sending (14:16, 17). The Son sends the Spirit from the Father, for the Spirit “Proceeds from the Father” (15:26). Upon his ascension, the Son promised that he would send the Spirit: “If I depart, I will send him to you” (16:7). In this post-resurrection appearance Jesus indicates that the Spirit is so perfectly identified with the Son in his mission of redemption as well as in his eternal mode of existence that the Spirit is his very breath.

5. Because he sent them with this implication of assurance, he pointed them to what he already has said about the work of the Spirit. They were already regenerated and indwelt by the Spirit—otherwise they could not have believed and sustained their belief—but now would receive a special empowerment to their labors during the apostolic age. “When He, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak. … He will take from what is mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are mine” (16:13-15). They would declare, infallibly through the revelation and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by their preaching of the gospel (1 Peter 1:25) the terms on which forgiveness would come to sinners. We see Peter do this in Acts 2:37-41; 3:17-21. John wrote a summary of his message in 1 John 1:5-10.

B. The disciples with Thomas (24-29)– After Jesus’ appearance, the disciples were able to locate Thomas and tell him what they had seen.

The intrinsic unlikelihood of what had happened still grips the soul of Thomas and he is unwilling to accept a mere report of this strange and startling event. Palpable evidence must be present. People are too prone to delusion, he must have been thinking, and too easily can fabricate something that would give them pleasure. A. T. Robertson remarked, “The doubt of Thomas in the face of the witness of the others was not a proof of his superior intelligence. Sceptics usually pose as persons of unusual mentality.”

1. Jesus condescended to give a specific challenge to the doubts of Thomas and his specific demand for proof (25, 27). One week later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples again, while Thomas was with them, Jesus presented precisely the evidence for which Thomas yearned. “Reach here… see … reach here.”

2. Jesus appeared by means of the same kind of miraculous entrance and the same evidence of the body scars. Also, for the third time he affirmed, “Peace be with you.” He had not come into the world to condemn the world. It was already under condemnation and raging in battle against God. He had come to save it, to bring the peace of reconciliation as well as the peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7). He has accomplished it and now, as he proclaimed it to them, so will his messengers preach “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17). The Spirit by pure revelation testifies to the meaning of Jesus conception, birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present mediation but in addition “you will testify also, because you have been with me from the beginning” (15:26, 27).

3. Thomas is invited to examine the evidence of his resurrection and the reality of his personal presence by precisely the kind of evidence he demanded. Perhaps this is one of the instances that John had in mind when he wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you” (1 John 1:1-3).

4. Thomas proclaimed the truth toward which John has been driving by the arrangement of his narrative, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus was indeed the sovereign over Thomas’s own life to do with him as he saw fit. Such an arrangement of absolute obedience would involve no inappropriate subjection of one life to another nor the slightest hint of an idolatrous adoration, for Jesus, the Lord of Thomas, is also God over all (Romans 9:5). 

5. Jesus then established the reality that this same kind of belief Thomas has shown upon the seeing of Jesus will be shown by those that do not see him. The power of the word (made effectual by the Spirit) will communicate such a sensible reality that the same strength of cognitive certainty, moral submission, and joyful hope will characterize the faith of future believers as was present to the disciples at that moment. Peter certainly recalled this when he wrote to those that had “obtained a faith of equal standing with ours” (2 Peter 1:1) and when he announced, “Though you have not seen him you love him. Though you do not now see him, 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 Peter 1:8, 9).

II. The nature of faith

A. The content of faith

1. That which is to be believed must have intrinsic credibility as well as a significance that lays claim to a person’s mental and emotional allegiance. Some things are credible and verified by evidence but are only of minor importance. Some things purport to be of major importance but have virtually no evidence for credibility. Upon the life and work of Jesus the claim is made for ultimate importance for heaven and hell, eternal life or eternal death, forgiveness or unending guilt, undiminished joy or eternally increasing wrenching of soul. Nothing transcends this in importance. Also, the accumulating power of signs makes unbelief a truly irrational and intellectually perverse response to the ”signs” John records. “Signs” are historically manifest, visible, palpable, contextually significant, coherently connected events consistent with an accompanying narrative of claims. In addition to those recorded in this gospel, John claims that Jesus did “many other signs in the presence of his disciples.” These that were written by John, however, he deemed sufficient to carry persuasion to an open, unbiased, honestly considerate, and unprejudiced mind. Note the elements of persuasiveness and ultimate importance set forth in the purpose statement, “These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (31).

2. It must affirm basic truth about the person of Christ. Christologically John includes all events from pre-existence through ascension in the content. Jesus is God, co-essential, co-eternal with the Father, forever dwelling alongside him with perfect glory and splendor, always generated by the delight and love of the Father. For our sake and to the Father’s glory he embraced into the singularity of his personhood our nature. The true Son of Man was the Son of God.

3. Theologically, John includes God’s triune existence in one nature or essence of deity. This triunity finds substantial manifestation of the singularity of purpose and power in that each incremental part of salvation has to do with divine grace and effectual action of the respective persons in this eternally blessed God. 

4. Soteriologically, we discover in John that the sin issue dwarfs any other perceived difficulty we have. The saving work of the triune God extends through every part of salvation due to the pervasive and dominant reality of condemnation and thorough corruption. The Father gave a people to the Son before the world was. The Son was sent by the Father for the only work that would save a fallen race. For that reason, the cross and resurrection must be embraced as the only possible remedy. Look at verse 17 in this light. Jesus finished his work and with perfect and necessary consequence ascends to the Father in his role as the Christ to intercede for us and, as it were, plead the merits of his blood for the forgiveness of our sins. “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2:1). He sends the Spirit to show sin, righteousness, and judgment and to be the Author of life—“It is the Spirit who gives life” (6:63). He gives spiritual life to the soul so that by believing those so given to the Son and vivified by the Spirit may enjoy the eternal life merited by the Son in his finished and meritorious obedience.

B. The grace of faith

1. The belief of the disciples developed incrementally in light of the historical unfolding of redemption in the life of Jesus; their belief of each aspect, however, depended on the purpose of God and the work of the Spirit – (John 3:3, 11-15; 6:44, 60-65; 10:25-30; 14:16, 17;16:7-11). Apart from the decree of the Father, (John 17:2), the obedience of the Son (17:4), and the effectual work of the Spirit in giving life to dead hearts, sight to blind eyes, hearing to deaf ears, and strength to lame limbs (16:14, 15), they would not believe even if one rose from the dead (5:36-47; Luke 16:31).

2. The evidence that brings about faith is not the historical alone, but that combined with its redemptive purpose. By the operation of the Spirit infusing his transforming power into the truth of the word, we know we are sinners who need just such a Savior (29, 31). As the disciples grew in their understanding even in the presence of Jesus Himself and hearing his teaching, so will the hearer of God’s word often be brought to saving faith through an extended contact with truth and the incremental construction of redemptive reality that finally reaches a critical mass and subdues such a seeker to Christ. Saving faith also is followed by an increase in the knowledge of God and of the Lord Jesus. The goal for the body of believers called the “assembly,’ “the called out ones,” the “house of the Lord,” “the church,” is a constant movement toward “unity in the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13).

IV. Observations

A. God intends that we believe on the basis of Scripture’s witness and the Spirit’s confirmation of the work Jesus came to do concerning sin, justice, and wrath (16:7-11; 19:28, 36 and 20:9; 1 Peter 1:12). 

B. The entire character and content of the biblical narrative defies any consideration of its being a fabrication; this historical certainty confirms the necessity and exclusivity of Christ’s redemptive work. 

C. Nothing remains to be done for the redemption of God’s people (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Hebrews 10:1-14); His ascension seals all.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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