The Resurrection, 1-9

20:1 Now very early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance. 20:2 So she went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

All four Gospels record the resurrection of Jesus, but in different ways. The differences ‘amount to no more than a demonstration that here we have the spontaneous evidence of witnesses, not the stereotyped repetition of an official story’ (Morris).

According to Kysar (cited by Carson), each of the resurrection narratives in ch 20 has the following characteristics:-

  1. The beneficiaries of the appearance are engulfed in a human emotion (Mary, grief; the disciples, fear; and Thomas, doubt).
  2. The risen Christ appears to them in the midst of their condition.
  3. As a result, their condition is transformed (Mary, mission; the disciples, gladness; Thomas, faith).
  4. Thereby John depicts the appearances as experiences of liberation.

What is now recounted is no myth. It is something that took place in space and time. ‘The space was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the time was “the first day of the week” following passover in the year AD 33.’ (Milne)

Alan Richardson affirms, ‘The bodily resurrection of the Lord is theologically very important in shewing that the whole of creation is to be redeemed, the physical no less than the spiritual.’ (cited by Morris)

Milne points to other historical markers: the fact that it was the women who were the first to discover the empty tomb (no-one would have fabricated that); the mention of the race to the scene (a detail that serves no ulterior purpose other than to record what happened); the fact that no other explanation can credibly be given for the empty tomb; the appearances to Mary and the others.

The first day of the week – Although Jesus habitually said that his resurrection would occur on ‘the third day’, all four Gospels make a point of specifying ‘the first day of the week’. (cf. Mt 28:1 Mk 16:2 Lk 24:1) Noting this, Carson suggests that this may reflect their desire to present the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of something new.

While it was still dark – The apparent discrepancy with Mk 16:2 (according to which they made their way to the tomb ‘just after sunrise’) is easily resolved.  It is reasonable to suppose that it was still dark when they started their journey, and that that sunrise (which in any case would be quite rapid in those latitudes) had taken place by the time they arrived.

For John, the symbolism of darkness/light is powerful, cf. Jn 3:2 13:30, and may be suggestive here of Mary’s darkness of mind. At a more practical level, we can suppose that the burial on the Friday was hurried, and that Mary and the others wished to complete it in a proper and timely manner.

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb – ‘It was the custom in Palestine to visit the tomb of a loved one for three days after the body had been laid to rest. It was believed that for three days the spirit of the dead person hovered round the tomb; but then it departed because the body had become unrecognizable through decay. Jesus’ friends could not come to the tomb on the Sabbath, because to make the journey then would have been to break the law. Sabbath is, of course, our Saturday, so it was on Sunday morning that Mary came to the tomb. She came very early. The word used for early is proi which was the technical word for the last of the four watches into which the night was divided, that which ran from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. It was still grey dark when Mary came, because she could no longer stay away.’ (DSB)

Mary was the last at the cross, and the first at the tomb. She had no official status that might explain why she was the first the see the risen Lord. She was a close follower of Jesus and was one of those who supported him, Lk 8:2-3. But why not appear first to one of the disciples, or, if to a woman, to Jesus’ mother? As Morris says, God’s priorities are not our own. See 1 Cor 1:26-29.

Bart Ehrman asks: ‘Who actually went to the tomb? Was it Mary alone (John 20:1)? Mary and another Mary (Matthew 28:1)? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1)? Or women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem – possibly Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “other women” (Luke 24:1; see 23:55)?’ (Jesus, Interrupted)

The answer is simple: Mary was not alone, as the “we” of v2 indicates. Mt 28:1 mentions Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’; Mk 16:1 speaks of these two and also Salome; Lk 24:10 names the two Marys and Joanna. The synoptists inform us that the women brought spices with which to anoint the body.

She saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance – The tomb would have been quarried out of rock, and sealed with a disc-shaped stone which would have been rolled down a sloping groove to seal the door. It was therefore quite easy to close, but would have taken several strong men to open it. The description of the stone as having been ‘removed’ suggests that it has been lifted clear of the doorway and laid flat on the ground. It is not clear how Mary expected to move the stone herself in order to gain access to the tomb, (cf. Mk 16:3) but we already know from comparing the various accounts that other women were with her, and it may also be that Peter, John and other men were intending to come to the tomb themselves.

John had not mentioned the stone being placed across the entrance. The passive tense suggests divine action.

‘When she arrived at the tomb she was amazed and shocked. Tombs in ancient times were not commonly closed by doors. In front of the opening was a groove in the ground; and in the groove ran a stone, circular like a cartwheel; and the stone was wheeled into position to close the opening. Further Matthew tells us that the authorities had actually sealed the stone to make sure that no one would move it. (Mt 27:66) Mary was astonished to find it removed. Two things may have entered her mind. She may have thought that the Jews had taken away Jesus’ body; that, not satisfied with killing him on a cross, they were inflicting further indignities on him. But there were ghoulish creatures who made it their business to rob tombs; and Mary may have thought that this had happened here.’ (DSB) Of course, it was not necessary for the stone to be removed in order for Jesus to vacate his tomb. (cf. Jn 20:26) But it was necessary in order that Peter and John might be able to enter the tomb and in order for everyone to see that the tomb was empty.

The Resurrection of Christ

  1. Mary found the stone rolled away and later met the risen Jesus, Jn 20:14-16.
  2. Peter and John found the tomb empty.
  3. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus met the risen Jesus, Lk 24:13-31.
  4. Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem.
  5. Jesus appeared to the disciples beside Lake Galilee.
  6. Jesus appeared to Peter, James, and to more than 500 people at once, 1 Cor 15:6.
  7. The tomb was empty.
  8. The authorities could not produce the body.
  9. The disciples were transformed.
  10. Many in Jerusalem believed and the church was born.

She came running to Simon Peter – Peter is still the acknowledged leader of the disciples. ‘We often talk of Peter’s weakness and instability, but there must have been something outstanding about a man who could face his fellow-men after that disastrous crash into cowardice; there must have been something about a man whom others were prepared to accept as leader even after that. His moment’s weakness must never blind us to the moral strength and stature of Peter, and to the fact that he was a born leader.’ (DSB)

More literally, the text says, ‘she came running to Simon Peter and to the other disciple.’ The implication is that she came to one and then afterwards to the other. The implication is that they lived in different homes, and this is supported by Jn 20:10, which refers to their ‘homes’ (plural).

The other disciple, the one Jesus loved – See Jn 13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26; 21:7,20. Traditionally, and very plausibly, identified with the apostle John.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb” – All she knew for the time being was that the stone had been removed, v1. She may have assumed that the body had been stolen. That grave-robbery (a capital offence) was not unknown is indicated by the practice of sealing graves. The thought of resurrection had not occurred to her.

“We don’t know where they have put him!” – The “we” suggests that others were with her. This is confirmed by the Synoptic accounts, Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Lk 24:1. However, it may be that Mary was alone when she first came to the tomb, and that the use of ‘we’ is merely a mode of speech (there are parallels in both Aramaic and Greek; cf. our “We don’t want that kind of behaviour around here,” where there may be only one speaker and one hearer).

Mary hoped to see a dead body. Her hopes were dashed, only to be replaced by something far more wonderful.

20:3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out to go to the tomb. 20:4 The two were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. 20:5 He bent down and saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, but he did not go in.

There is clear evidence of eyewitness detail in the two disciples ‘running’, in the record of one outrunning the other, and in the reference to the ‘strips of clothing’ in v5.

The other disciple outran Peter – he may have been the younger man, given that he lived on until the end of the century.  ‘This is agreed upon by the church fathers and perhaps suggested by Jesus referring to Peter’s youth in John  21:18. This fits with John dying nearly 40 years after Peter, and Peter’s martyrdom possibly not cutting his life very short (2 Pet 1:14).’ (See here)

He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there – The entrance was probably low, as with many Oriental tombs. The body had been wrapped in the strips of linen by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, Jn 19:40.

20:6 Then Simon Peter, who had been following him, arrived and went right into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, 20:7 and the face cloth, which had been around Jesus’ head, not lying with the strips of linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself.

Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb – This is typical of Peter’s impulsiveness.

The description of the ‘other disciple’ outrunning Peter, and then for the latter to have barged past him into the tomb, has a note of realism to it.  It is not the sort of detail we would expect in a highly symbolic tale, but is rather the sort of incidental material we would expect if it actually happened that way.

‘Had robbers stolen the body (a rare practice) they would have taken it in its wrappings; had they left the wrappings, they would have left them in disarray.’ (The IVP Bible background commentary)

He saw the strips of linen lying there – This made no sense, if the body had simply been taken, either by friends or grave-robbers. ‘The grave-clothes were not dishevelled and disarranged. They were lying there still in their folds-that is what the Greek means-the clothes for the body where the body had been; the napkin where the head had lain. The whole point of the description is that the grave-clothes did not look as if they had been put off or taken off; they were lying there in their regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them. The sight suddenly penetrated to John’s mind; he realized what had happened-and he believed.’ (DSB)

‘John is plainly describing an orderly scene, not one of wild confusion. This means that the body had not be taken by grave-robbers. They would never had left the cloths wrapped neatly. They would have taken the body, cloths and all, or would have torn the cloths off and scattered them’ (Morris)

There is a contrast with Lazarus’ restoration to life. In his case, he emerged from his tomb with the strips of linen still about his body, and the cloth around his face, and he had to be released by others, Jn 11:44. In Jesus case, these were just left behind when he rose from the dead.

‘The face cloth separate from the linen is not merely “folded up” (NIV) but “rolled up” (NASB, NRSV, TEV), which could be an indication of neatness, or that it was still rolled the way it had been when it was wrapped around Jesus’ head -that his body had risen straight out of the wrappings and cloth.’ (The IVP Bible background Commentary)

‘The skeptic’s proposal that Jesus had only swooned and then recovered would not explain how he could have loosed the strips tied around him or escaped a sealed tomb, but it also ignores the nature of crucifixion: Josephus had three of his friends taken down alive from a cross, but two of them died despite medical attention because their bodies had been so weakened from the crucifixion.’ (The IVP Bible Background Commentary)

20:8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, came in, and he saw and believed. 20:9 (For they did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.)

He saw and believed – Cf. v29. This may simply mean that he believed what Mary had said – that the body was missing. Or, it may mean that he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. ‘The statement that the other disciple saw and believed (8) must be interpreted against the background of the greater faith that followed the appearance of Jesus to his disciples. It was the dawning of a faith that was to grow.’ (NBC)

Peter, on the other hand, ‘went away, wondering to himself what had happened’. (Lk 24:12)

‘Each of the four episodes in chapter twenty exhibits a crisis of faith, as the participants struggle with the reality of the resurrection. In each the level of faith drops to a lower level, from the beloved disciple with his natural faith (Jn 20:8-9) to Mary’s sorrow (20:11) to the disciples’ fear (20:19) to Thomas’ cynical demand (20:25). Yet with each crisis Jesus meets the need, and the results become increasingly greater, culminating in Thomas’ faith-cry, “My Lord and my God” (20:28), which climaxes the christology of John. As in Luke, the four episodes occur on the same day, two in the morning (20:1-18) and two in the evening (20:19-29).’ (DJG)

The significance of the empty tomb

1. The preaching and the rapid growth of the early church are alike unexplainable apart from an empty tomb.

2. The Jewish authorities, though they had every incentive to do so, could not come up with the body of the man whose execution they had organised.

3. It was Christ’s body that rose from the grave (however transformed it was, 1 Cor 15:35ff). Much of what the Bible says about the Christian hope is incoherent if this point is not conceded. (see 1 Thess 4:13-18 1 Cor 15) (Carson)

It is not that the disciples’ experience of the resurrection led to a new interpretation of the OT scriptures, one which read back foreshadowings of the resurrection after the event. Jesus had been teaching them about this all through his ministry, but had not understood (and still did not). ‘See Lk 24:26,46. The sense or meaning of the various predictions that foretold his death, as, for example, Ps 2:7, compare Acts 13:33 Ps 16:9,10, compare Acts 2:25-32 Ps 110:1 compare Acts 2:34,35.’ (Barnes)

Other candidates for specific OT passages include Lev 23:11; Ps 16:10; and Hos 6:2.

They still did not understand – ‘There may be much ignorance even in true believers…For three long years these two leading Apostles had heard our Lord speak of his own resurrection as a fact, and yet they had not understood him. Again and again he had staked the truth of his Messiahship on his rising from the dead, and yet they had never taken in his meaning.’ (Ryle)

That Jesus had to rise from the dead – Note the emphatic ‘had to’ (‘must’). The resurrection was no chance happening. It had to happen. Cf. Peter’s ‘But God raised him from the dead…because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’, Acts 2:24.

Jesus’ Appearance to Mary Magdalene, 10-18

20:10 So the disciples went back to their homes. 20:11 But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she bent down and looked into the tomb. 20:12 And she saw two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying, one at the head and one at the feet. 20:13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary replied, “They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him!” 20:14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

Then the disciples went back to their homes – Why? Peter did not yet understand what had happened. But the other disciple did understand what had happened; did he not tell Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom he had taken into his own home, Jn 19:26-27?

They returned to their respective dwellings.  We may assume that Peter returned to the house where the Last Supper was held.  But where did John go?  It may well be that John had some lodging place in Jerusalem.  This is evidence by the fact that (a) John was well known to the high priest, Jn 18:15; (b) that he took Mary to his house ‘immediately’ (Jn 19:26f), suggesting that it was near to the place of crucifixion.  Acts 1:13f may also imply that Peter had a small dwelling in Jerusalem.

Mary stood outside the tomb crying – ‘Jewish people took the first seven days of mourning so seriously that mourners could not wash, work, have intercourse or even study the law. Jewish culture was serious about expressing rather than repressing grief. That the body is missing and thus people are prevented from bestowing final acts of love would be regarded as intolerably tragic; even tomb robbers usually left the body behind.’ (The IVP Bible background commentary)

According to v2, Mary returned to tell Peter and the other disciple that the tomb was empty. The narrative does not record what is now obvious, that she came back to the tomb.

Although for the beloved disciple, faith had begun to dawn, not so yet for Mary. Like Peter, Mary Magdalene did not yet understand. She returned to the tomb, grief-stricken.

‘The loss of the body is the final indignity, the last straw; even her mourning for Jesus is violated. It is not hard to imagine the enormous emotional strain which the last few days had placed on Mary, not least the anguish of having looked on at Calvary. Her tears were more than understandable.’ (Milne)

‘The angels offered her no words of comfort, only of gentle reproof. She should not have been weeping faced with the empty tomb, but she had not advanced beyond the grave-robber theory. In her mind she first thought of the gardener as the culprit (15).’ (NBC)

‘The witness of women was worth little in Judaism; that Jesus first appears to a woman would not have been fabricated and shows us how Jesus? values differ from those of his culture. Even the later church did not always maintain Jesus? countercultural stance, and they would hardly have chosen such initial witnesses in an environment where this account would reinforce pagan prejudices against Christians.’ (IVP Bible background commentary)

Two angels – Cf. Lk 24:4. Luke says that their clothes ‘gleamed like lightning’: this may explain why the visitors to the tomb could see inside it even though it was ‘still dark’, v1. The presence of angels confirms that the disappearance of Jesus’ body has a supernatural, rather than a natural, explanation: it is God, not a grave-robber, who is at work.

We are tempted to speculate about why the angels appeared to Mary but not to the two disciples. But we really cannot say.

“Woman, why are you crying?”– Not a question, so much as a gentle rebuke (Carson). ‘From the perspective of heaven, nothing is more incongruous than tears at the empty tomb of Jesus.’ (Milne)

“They have taken my Lord away” – ‘It is one thing to see the empty tomb and the empty graveclothes, but quite something else to meet the risen Christ.’ (Wiersbe)

The Synoptics tell us that Mary and others had come to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ body with spices, Mk 16:1; Lk 23:56; 24:1. This would allow them to honour him and express their grief. But even this small comfort had been denied her, since the body had been removed.

At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there – Had the angels made some response to the presence of Jesus behind Mary? We don’t know.

She did not realise that it was Jesus – Why? – She was not expecting to see him. She had tears in her eyes. Moreover, it was early in the morning, and may have still have been quite dark, v1 (but note that since first arriving at the tomb she had returned to Peter and the other disciple, and then come back to the tomb). Then again, there may have been something about Jesus’ resurrection body that prevented immediate recognition. It was often the case in the resurrection narratives that Jesus was not immediately recognised, cf. Lk 24:16 Mk 16:12 Jn 21:4.

Jesus’ resurrection body

‘The resurrection accounts provide a certain tension. On the one hand, Jesus’ resurrection body can be touched and handled, v27; Lk 24:39, bears the marks of the wounds inflicted on Jesus’ pre-death body, Jn 20:20,25,27, and not only cooks fish, 21:9, but eats it, Lk 24:41-43. On the other hand, Jesus resurrection body apparently rose through the grave-clothes, Jn 20:6-8, appears in a locked room, vv19, 26, and is sometimes not (at least initially) recognised. The closest we are likely to come to an explanation is 1 Cor 15:35 ff.’ (Carson)

20:15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Because she thought he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him.” 20:16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni” (which means Teacher).

“Woman…why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” – Once again, we notice the kinds of questions that Jesus asked. There is in the first question a gentle rebuke. In the second there is an invitation to reflect on the kind of Messiah Jesus was and is, and to ponder the thought that our devotion to him may be heartfelt, and yet our estimate of him still fall far short of the reality.

She was crying because her Master was dead. Note that Jesus says ‘Who’ (not ‘what’) ‘are you looking for?’ ‘This might have started Mary along the right track. She was looking for a corpse whereas she should have been seeking a person.’ (Morris)

Because she thought he was the gardener…

'Supposing him to be the gardener'

John 20:15 Jesus said to [Mary], “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Because she thought he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him.”

‘She thought he was the gardener’ – This supposition has provided rich pickings for preachers who like to domesticate the biblical text while allowing free reign to their own imaginations.  [For some examples, see here, and here]

In a sermon on this passage, the Very Reverend Sam G. Candler gravely suggests that Mary supposed him to be the gardener ‘because Jesus is a gardener!’  The preacher elaborates: ‘ It is Jesus who is the one tilling and turning soil in our lives…Jesus is the one who plants new seeds in our lives…And Jesus weeds, too…Jesus is the also the one who cuts back dead limbs.’  As delighted as we may be in the resurrection of Jesus, this ‘pales in comparison with the Master Gardener, Jesus the Gardener, who is even more delighted with the resurrection that occurs in each of the plants in his garden.’

I hope it goes without saying that such imaginings have nothing whatsoever to do with the text they purport to be based on.  They would be pretty harmless if they did not stand so completely in the way of the message of the text itself.

The clear meaning of the text, of course, is not that she was correct, but that she was mistaken in her supposition that he was the gardener.  [I have to add that even the esteemed C.H. Spurgeon, while recognising that Mary was mistaken in her supposition, nevertheless based an entire sermon on the premise that the Lord Jesus is a ‘gardener’.  And while he was no denier of the resurrection, he failed to speak of that most central of all gospel truths throughout the sermon].

Having got that little rant out of our hair, we can suggest some possible reasons why Mary (mistakenly) ‘thought he was the gardener:-

  • because seeing a living Jesus was the last thing that she was expecting (she has already convinced herself that Jesus’ body has been removed and reburied)
  • because a gardener would be a likely person to see there
  • because it was early in the morning, and the features of the person she saw were not yet fully visible
  • because she was been crying, and was blinded by her tears
  • because Jesus’ appearance had changed somewhat after his resurrection (obviously his body did not function in exactly the same way after his resurrection, and may not have looked exactly the same either)


“I will take him” – in order to give him a decent burial. In her grief, she does not seem to have worked out how she will ‘get him’, but she had plenty of others she could call on to help her.

“Mary” – Probably spoken in its Aramaic form – ‘Miriam’. ‘One word which remade her world and transformed her life for ever after, and the word was her own name!’ (Milne) Mary’s transformation was not due simply to a calm evaluation of the evidence, but to a personal encounter with her risen Lord.

‘The good shepherd (Jn 10:1-18) calls her by name (cf. “calls his sheep by name,” Jn 10:3), and she recognizes him (cf. “his sheep follow him because they know his voice,” Jn 10:4).’ (DJG)

She turned towards him – Evidently she had turned back to look towards the tomb.

“Rabboni!” – Almost identical with ‘Rabbi’, but less common and perhaps more personal.

‘Anguish and despair are instantly swallowed up by astonishment and delight.’ (Carson) Cf. Thomas’s response in a similar situation, Jn 20:28.

Mary, then, was the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. Carson points out that her witness was not as greatly utilized by the early church as that of, say, Peter, because a woman’s evidence was not treated so seriously as a man’s (it was not normally admissible in court). Nevertheless, ‘the Evangelists have nevertheless taken pains to honour her, and thoughtful Christians will remember that God delights to choose what the world deems foolish to shame the wise, so that no-one may boast before him, cf. 1 Cor 1:27-29).’

Even Dodd exclaims of this scene, ‘There is something indefinably first-hand about it…there is nothing quite like it in the gospels. Is there anything quite like it in all of ancient literature?’ (Quoted by Milne)

20:17 Jesus replied, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 20:18 Mary Magdalene came and informed the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them what Jesus had said to her.

“Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” – Rather, “Stop clinging to me” (RSV, Morris). Mary had probably fallen at Jesus’ feet. She was not to stay and cling to him, but to go and tell the others that the process of his returning to his Father was under way.

Although the ascension is not described by John, it is mentioned in Jn 3:13 and Jn 6:62.

It is as though her reaction was, “We thought you were dead, but you’re not! You’re alive, just like before!” Jesus’ response is not a put-down, but a loving re-education. He is indeed alive, but not as before. His rising is not simply a return to the former state of affairs, as it had been with Lazarus. Mary and all who love him must get used to practising fellowship with a Saviour they could not touch or see, for he was soon to withdraw from sight till his second coming.

‘Mary is told to stop clinging to him because her enthusiastic and relieved grasping of Jesus does not really comprehend what is transpiring. She now believes him to be alive, but has understood neither that he is not about to disappear, not that he soon will. Thomas is told to touch, because he has not yet believed that Jesus has risen from the dead.’ (Carson)

Jesus’ first conversation after rising from death was with Mary of Magdala, Jn 20:17; cf. Mt 28:9 “Stop clinging to me, for I am about to ascend,” he says – ‘not a cold-hearted brush-off but a compassionate re-education.’ Mary, and all those who loved him, must get used to practising fellowship with a Saviour they could not touch or see, for he was soon to withdraw from sight till his second coming. (See J.I Packer, ‘The Lamb upon his throne’, in Collected Shorter Writings, Vol I, pp61-64)

Are we, like Mary, too inclined to cling on the Jesus for ourselves, rather than go to others and share the good news with them?

“Go instead to my brothers” – Probably a reference to the disciples (cf v18). Cf. Jn 3:3. Far from clinging to the risen Saviour, Mary has a mission to undertake.

Flavel comments on the tenderness of Jesus, in calling the disciples his ‘brothers’, ‘without the least mention of their cowardice or unkindness.’

‘When we reflect on the fact that that just a few days previously all these men had left him behind and fled, is is all the more striking that Jesus, in tender mercy, is willing to call them his brothers.’ (Hendriksen)

He sent women

‘As witnesses of the resurrection, women were sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news. Jesus sends Mary Magdalene to “go” to “my brothers [and sisters] and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father’ ” (Jn 20:17). Similarly, in the Synoptic accounts the angel first tells the women (Mary Magdalene, the “other Mary”, Salome), “Go quickly and tell [Jesus’] disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him’ ” (Mt 28:7; cf. Mk 16:1, 7; Lk 24:1–10). Then Jesus himself appears to the two Marys and commissions them: “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers [and sisters] to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Mt 28:10).’

(Aída Besançon Spencer, in Discovering Biblical Equality)

The first witness – a woman

N.T. Wright asks, in an Easter sermon: ‘Who is it that carries this stupendous message, this primal announcement of new creation, this heraldic proclamation of the king of kings and his imminent enthronement? It is Mary from Magdala. Considering the reputation subsequent history has given her, it comes as a surprise to learn that, apart from one reference in Luke, the only times Mary Magdalene shows up in the gospel stories is at the cross and the burial, and here at the resurrection. And in the one solitary reference in Luke she is not a prostitute; she is not identified with the woman who wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair; she is someone who has been cured of terrible multiple demon-possession.

‘But the real shock is not Mary’s character. It is her gender. This is perhaps the most astonishing thing about the resurrection narratives, granted the universal beliefs of the time in the unreliability of women in a lawcourt or almost anywhere else. It is one of the things which absolutely guarantees that the early Christians did not invent these stories. They would never, ever, ever have invented the idea that it was a woman – a woman with a known background of emotional instability, but the main point is that it was a woman – to whom had been entrusted the earth-shattering message that Jesus was alive again, that he was on the way to being enthroned as Lord of the World, and that – this is the significance of the emphatic ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God’ – he was opening to his followers, as a result of his victory over death itself, that same intimacy with the Father of all that he had enjoyed throughout his earthly life.

‘It is Mary: not Peter, not John, not James the brother of the Lord, but Mary, who becomes the apostle to the apostles, the primary Christian witness, the first Christian evangelist. This is so striking, so unexpected, so embarrassing to some early Christians – Origen had to refute pagan sneers on this very point – that it cannot be accidental. It cannot be accidental for John and the other writers. And I dare to say it cannot be accidental in the purposes of God.’

What is implied by Wright had already been made explicit by Quaker Margaret Fell, who in 1667 declared that “women’s speaking” was “justified, proved and allowed of by the Scriptures” because “women were the first that preached the tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and were sent by Christ’s own command, before He ascended to the Father, John 20:17”

Bath Allison Barr (The Making of Biblical Womanhood) cites the 14th-century French writer Christin de Pizan:

‘If women’s language had been so blameworthy and of such small authority as some men argue, our Lord Jesus Christ would never have deigned to wish that so worthy a mystery as His most gracious resurrection be first announced by a woman, just as He commanded the blessed Magdalen, to whom He first appeared on Easter, to report and announce it to His apostles and to Peter. Blessed God, may you be praised, who, among the other infinite boons and favors which You have bestowed upon the feminine sex, desired that woman carry such lofty and worthy news.’

“I am ascending” – ‘I ascend’ (Hendriksen) – indicating that it is about to happen, and it is certain to happen. Jesus was in the process of ascending. Although after his resurrection he appeared many times to his disciples, he was not continually with them as before. This earth was no longer his abode; his body was no longer constrained as in the days of his flesh. Then would come the final farewell, after which he would continually reside at his Father’s right hand, and from there prepare a place for them, Jn 14:2, send the promised Paraclete, Jn 16:7, and ultimately return to take them to be with him, Jn 14:3. (Carson)

‘Where the Lord went after appearing to Mary has not been recorded…It must be borne in mind that the period of his day-by-day visible association with his disciples is over. He simply appears, now to this one, then to that one; and we must not ask, “Where was he in the time which intervened between any two appearances. We know very little about the character of the resurrection-body and about the coming and going.’ (Hendriksen)

Christ’s ascension ‘is sometimes called his going away, as John 16:7. Sometimes his being exalted, Acts 2:33. Sometimes his being made higher than the heavens, Heb. 7:26. And sometimes his entering within the veil, Heb. 6:19, 20. All which are but so many synonymous phrases, expressing his ascension, in a very pleasant variety.’ (Flavel)

“My Father and your Father…my God and your God” – ‘The distinction between my and your in this verse is significant because it sets the sonship of Jesus on a different level from the sonship of the disciples.’ (NBC)

‘The disciples must never forget that, whereas his Sonship to the Father is by nature and right, theirs is only by adoption and grace, in and through him.’ (R.H. Lightfoot)

Flavel: ‘Not our Father, or God in common; but mine and yours in a different manner. Yours by right of donation, mine in a different manner. Yours by right of dominion, mine (in reference to my human nature) not only by right of creation, though so too; but also by special covenant and confederation. By predestination of my manhood, to the grace of personal union, by designation of me, to the glorious office of Mediator. My Father, as I am God, by eternal generation. As man, by collation of the grace of union. And your Father by spiritual adoption and regeneration. Thus he is my God, and your God; my Father, and your Father.’  (The Fountain of Life)

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news – According to Mk 16:10-11; Lk 24:9-11, they did not believe her.

“I have seen the Lord” – ‘This is the first sermon. It is delivered by a woman. She saw and believed and announced. She did not require ordination or an accredited preaching course. She required only a word from Jesus. Then she went and told. Here is the message for us: Christ is risen—go tell someone.’ (Clayton J. Schmit, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2).

Jesus’ Appearance to the Disciples, 19-23

20:19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Michaels (UBCS) shows how this episode records the fulfilment of all that Jesus had promised in his farewell discourses:

This is probably the same incident as that recorded by Luke, (Lk 24:36ff) but is an independent account, with a number of differences.  Both accounts occur on the evening of the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Both have (at least) the disciples present.  Both have Jesus’ pronouncement of ‘peace’.  Both record Jesus’ commission of them.  Both mention the forgiveness of sins as a central part of that commission.  And in both Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit.

Luke’s and John’s account side by side

Luke 24:36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 24:37 But they were startled and terrified, thinking they saw a ghost. 24:38 Then he said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 24:39 Look at my hands and my feet; it’s me! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones like you see I have.” 24:40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 24:41 And while they still could not believe it (because of their joy) and were amazed, he said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 24:42 So they gave him a piece of broiled fish, 24:43 and he took it and ate it in front of them.
John 20:19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20:20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 20:21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” 20:22 And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 20:23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

Ryle notes that Jesus ‘had appeared to Mary Magdalene in the morning. Between that morning and that evening he had already appeared three times,—once to the company of women returning from the sepulchre, as described by St. Matthew,—once to Simon Peter, as we are told by St. Luke and St. Paul,—and once to the two disciples walking to Emmaus. (Matt. 28:9; Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5; Luke 24:13, etc.)’  This passage, then, records the fifth appearance of the risen Christ on that very resurrection day.  Each appearance had its own circumstances and characteristics.

Gifts of the risen Jesus

(a) his presence
(b) his peace
(c) his evidence (his wounds confirm his identity, his physicality, and his sacrifice)
(d) his mission
(e) his Holy Spirit

Bruner (adapted)

The evening of that day – The first day of the week.  Wiersbe reminds us that (what we call) Sunday is not to be regarded as ‘the Christian Sabbath’.  ‘The seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, commemorates God’s finished work of Creation (Gen. 2:1–3). The Lord’s Day commemorates Christ’s finished work of redemption, the “new creation.”’

Note the first resurrection appearances of our Lord.  On that first day, he appeared to Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:11–18), the other women (Mt 28:9–10), Peter (1 Cor 15:5; Lk 24:34), the two on the Emmaus road (Lk 24:13–32), and the disciples without Thomas (Jn 20:19–25).  One week later, he appeared to the disciples again, this time with Thomas (Jn 20:26-31).  Wiersbe says: ‘It would appear that the believers from the very first met together on Sunday evening, which came to be called “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). It appears that the early church met on the first day of the week to worship the Lord and commemorate His death and resurrection (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1–2).’

The disciples had gathered together – Possibly just the ten (Thomas not being present, although the term is broad enough to include other followers of Jesus.

If this is the same incident as that recorded by Luke, then we know that others – at least Cleopas and his companion – were present, Lk 24:33).

This was, as Klink remarks, an inauspicious first meeting of the post-resurrection church!  They met in fear, not joy; in order to feel safe, not in order to worship; to hide, not to witness.  ‘The irony is stark: on the greatest day in the history of the world, a day when God defeated death itself and inaugurated the restoration of his creation, his closest followers were not celebrating but cowering in fear.’

They had received Mary Magdalene’s report that she had seen the Lord (v18), but, with the exception of ‘the other disciple’, they did not yet realise that Jesus had risen from the grave.  Even if they believed that Mary had truly seen the Lord, they had no expectation that they would see him too.  Their mood, then, was one of confusion (because they could not make sense of what they had heard) and fear (afraid that the Jewish leaders would come after them just as they had come after, and killed, their Master).

Locked the doors – because of their fear, but incidentally revealing something about our Lord’s resurrection body, which no locked door can keep out.  The expression used could mean that the doors were merely shut, but the context implies that they were indeed locked.

They were afraid of the Jewish leadersCf. Jn 7:13; 9:22; 19:38.

‘It is remarkable that these men were actually afraid. The women had reported to them that Jesus was alive, and the two Emmaus disciples had added their personal witness (Luke 24:33–35). It is likely that Jesus had appeared personally to Peter sometime that afternoon (Mark 16:7; Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5), though Peter’s public restoration would not take place until later (John 21). No wonder Jesus reproached them at that time “with their unbelief and hardness of heart” (Mark 16:14).’ (Wiersbe)

We can imagine their feelings as they huddled together in this room, anxiously wondering if any noise they heard indicated the approaching footsteps of those who sought to harm them.

Not uniquely evil

Noting that there have been times in subsequent history when Jews have been in fear of (so-called) Christians, Bruner says: ‘Our present verse must not be allowed to perpetuate the canard of unique Jewish evil; it should, with every reading of comparable texts in Scripture, after a long and sorry history, be an occasion for the Christian confession of sins.’

Jesus came and stood among them – A miraculous appearance is implied, especially in view of the fact that the door was locked.  Whether he caused the doors to fly open, or whether he appeared to them despite the doors still be locked, we cannot say.  They might be able to keep their enemies out, but not their Friend!  Evidently, ‘in his resurrected state he was no longer bound by earthly limitations’ (Kruse).

Wright remarks that Jesus’ new body ‘seemed to be equally at home in the two interlocking dimensions of created reality, what the Bible calls “heaven” and “earth,” that is, God’s space and our space.’ (The Day the Revolution Began)

Dodd draws attention to the this-worldly aspects of this (and related) passages: ‘In order that the death-and-resurrection of Christ may constitute an “epoch-making” event for mankind, it is necessary that it should actually happen—that the entire event, death-and-resurrection together, should happen—in this world. That is what the quasi-physical features of the post-resurrection appearances [of Jesus] are intended to affirm. From this point of view, it is not the resurrection as Christ’s resumption of heavenly glory that needs to be emphasized, but the resurrection as the renewal of personal relations with the disciples. It is this side of the resurrection which is emphasized in the Farewell Discourses (Jn 14:18–19, 23, 28; 16:16–22), and it is this which is so movingly represented in Jn 20:11–23 [the prior and present text], as well as in the appendix [chap. 21].’ (Quoted by Bruner)

“Peace be with you!” – This is a usual mode of address, yet made unusual by the solemn circumstances. Think of the recent events – the trial, the crucifixion, and the burial. Think of the state of mind of the disciples – grief-stricken, confused, and afraid. Think of how they might have expected Jesus to rebuke and blame them for their lack of faith and courage. Think, in short, of the joy and the comfort which this greeting much have brought to their hearts. Prophets had called him ‘the Prince of Peace’. Angels had sung “Peace on earth” when they heralded his birth. Peace of soul had been a major theme of his teaching. And now, his first word to his disciples when he visits them after his resurrection is, “Peace.” And their mission will shortly be to take that peace to the four corners of the earth: peace between God and man through the atonement Jesus himself has wrought, and peace between one person and another through the infusion of divine grace and love. Any form of Christianity which does not tend towards peace in the soul, and peace on earth, is a pretence.

‘On the evening of Easter, Christ’s use of the term “peace” is less a greeting and more a pronouncement of blessing, a declaration that the peace of God—the eschatological peace promised in the OT—has now been made accessible through Jesus Christ.’ (Klink)

As Kruse puts it: ‘Prior to his death, Jesus told his disciples they would all be scattered and leave him alone (Jn 16:32). When he was arrested he told the soldiers to let his disciples go (Jn 18:8–9), and he was taken alone to the high priest and eventually to Pilate to be condemned to death. The disciples, and especially Peter who had denied him three times (Jn 18:17–18, 25–27), would have felt deeply ashamed that they had abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. When Jesus appeared to them behind locked doors, his greeting of ‘Peace be with you!’ showed he was not holding their failures against them; rather, he was offering a restored relationship’

Carson says that although the greeting is conventional, the repetition of it (v26) would have prompted recollection of Jesus’ recent promise to bequeath peace to his disciple (Jn 14:27; 16:33).  For, ‘though a common word, šâlōm was also the embracing term used to denote the unqualified well-being that would characterize the people of God once the eschatological kingdom had dawned’ (Carson).

‘In its Old Testament context, shalom basically means ‘well-being’ in its fullest sense. It gathers up all the blessings of the kingdom of God; shalom is life at its best under the gracious hand of God.’ (Milne)

‘‘“Shalom!” on Easter evening is the complement of “it is finished” on the cross, for the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted … Not surprisingly it is included, along with “grace,” in the greeting of every epistle of Paul in the NT’ (Beasley-Murray, quoted by Carson).

‘The reception of this gift of peace provides a sense of ultimate security that no locked doors can assure.’ (Lincoln)

Not with blame, but with a gift

Peace was the last legacy Jesus had left his disciples (Jn 14:27), and almost the last thing he had spoken to them before he prayed (Jn 16:33).  And now, after all that had happened, he still speaks peace.  ‘We cannot realize the fulness of comfort which the word would supply, unless we bear in mind the events of the last few days, and especially the conduct of the Apostles on the night before the crucifixion, when, after loudly professing their faithfulness, they all “forsook Him and fled.”’ (Ryle)

‘He spoke, we may be sure, with special reference to the state of mind of the eleven apostles, with special reference to the events of the last few days, and with special reference to their future ministry. “Peace” and not blame,—“peace” and not fault-finding,—“peace” and not rebuke,—was the first word which this little company heard from their Master’s lips, after He left the tomb.’ (Ryle)

‘The first words of the Risen Jesus and of his mission to his gathered disciples, significantly, are not a command, but a gift. There is no preliminary reminder of the disciples’ failure to support him in his crisis; no call for repentance or even for faith; there is sheer grace.’ (Bruner)

‘He could have rebuked them for their unfaithfulness and cowardice the previous weekend, but He did not. “He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). The work of the cross is peace (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:14–17), and the message they would carry would be the Gospel of peace (Rom. 10:15). Man had declared war on God (Ps. 2; Acts 4:23–30), but God would declare “Peace!” to those who would believe.’ (Wiersbe)

Personal experience and common participation

Milne observes that the last two chapters of this Gospel alternate between individual (to Mary, Jn 20:10–18; Thomas, Jn 20:24–29; and Jn Peter, 21:15–17) and corporate (Jn 20:19–23; 21:1–14, 18–25) responses to the risen Jesus.  ‘An encounter with the living Christ is where faith is born; the church of the living Christ is where faith grows and matures. A mature Christian experience will develop from loving Christ in and of himself in an immediate one-to-one relationship, to loving him (no less personally or deeply) in the fellowship of his own.’

20:20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

He showed them his hands and his side – Assuring them that it was really him, that he who had died was now alive, and that he had a real body.  He was neither a ghost nor an imposter.  (In Lk 24:39-42, he says, “Look at my hands and my feet; it’s me!”, he invites them to touch him, and he asks for and eats a piece of broiled fish).

They had scarcely been expecting a resurrection, his method of appearance was mysterious, and his body was no doubt very transformed from what it had been just a few days previously.  Transformed it may have been, but it was still recognisably his.  ‘We need to respect both the bodily and the risen Jesus simultaneously, in a way analogous to respecting simultaneously the human and the divine Jesus.’ (Bruner)

His pierced hands identify him as one who has been crucified.  His pierced side uniquely identifies him as Jesus (Jn 19:32-35), and provide the reason for the peace that he now gives to them.

Lincoln notes the grisly fact that in crucifixion nails were usually driven through the wrists, rather than the hands (unless ropes were also used).  But the Greek term used allows for this.

It is an example of great condescension on the part of our Lord, that he gave such a demonstration of his resurrection to his disciples. We do well to remember ourselves, that he asks us to believe nothing that is contrary to our sense and senses. ‘Things above our reason we must expect to find in a religion that comes from God, but not things contrary to reason’ (Ryle).

His scars speak of sacrifice

‘The wounds meant more than identification; they also were evidence that the price for salvation had been paid and man indeed could have “peace with God.” The basis for all our peace is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He died for us, He arose from the dead in victory, and now He lives for us.’ (Wiersbe)

Klink agrees: ‘The display of wounds is not simply an act of identification, a proof to the disciples that the man standing in their midst is Jesus. Rather, they explain the source of his peace. The peace of God was entirely dependent on these specific wounds—the scars from the crucifixion declare shalom for the world. Isaiah was speaking about this very encounter when he announced that “the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:5; emphasis added).’

‘Even in the glory of heaven, according to Revelation, John saw Him appear as a “Lamb that had been slain.” (Rev. 5:6.) I think we need not doubt that when He ascended up into heaven, those wounds went with Him, and are a perpetual witness to angels that He has actually suffered for man’s sins. When we see His real presence in the day of His appearing, we shall see “the man Christ Jesus,” and see the marks of His crucifixion.’ (Ryle)

Not contrary to sense or reason

‘We should not fail to observe how our Lord condescended to satisfy the senses of His disciples,—the sense of sight, and the sense of touch,—when He showed Himself to them after His resurrection. If their senses had contradicted the news that His body had risen again to life, He would not have required them to believe it. Things above reason and sense the Gospel calls on us to believe often, things contrary to reason and sense never.’ (Ryle)

The disciples rejoiced – Jesus had promised that they would see him, Jn 14:19; 16:16, and that they would then rejoice, Jn 16:20-22.

So send I you to labour unrewarded,
To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown,
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing –
So send I you to toil for me alone.

So send I you to bind the bruised and broken,
O’er wand’ring souls to work, to weep, to wake,
To bear the burdens of a world aweary –
So send I you to suffer for my sake.

So send I you to loneliness and longing,
With heart a-hung’ring for the loved and known,
Forsaking home and kindred, friend and dear one –
So send I you to know my love alone.

So send I you to hearts made hard by hatred,
To eyes made blind because they will not see,
To spend, though it be blood, to spend and spare not –
So send I you to taste of Calvary.

(E. Margaret Clarkson, Q by Carson)

‘Jesus had promised to turn their “grief” (like the “weeping” of Mary Magdalene; see Jn 20:11, 13, 15) into “rejoicing” (Jn 16:20–24; cf. Jn 15:11; 17:13). And that transformation occurred in the presence of his transformed person on the evening of the first Lord’s Day. The narrative’s details craft for the reader an image of heavenly worship, with believers standing around Jesus and worshipping the slain Lamb of God (Rev 5:11–12).’ (Klink)

‘A sight of Christ will gladden the heart of a disciple at any time; the more we see of Christ, the more we shall rejoice in him; and our joy will never be perfect till we come where we shall see him as he is.’ (MHC)

20:21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you” – The repetition make clear that this is no conventional greeting.  ‘The repetition of the pronouncement of peace underlines its significance for the commissioning that follows. This peace that comes from knowing the authority of the vindicated Jesus will free his followers to fulfil their commission, because it removes any need to fear others’ opinions, hostile attitudes or persecuting actions.’ (Lincoln)

It would appear from Lk 24:36 that the disciples were still full of fear when Jesus first said, “Peace be with you.”  So the repetition reinforces the blessing (“No, really, don’t be afraid: be at peace”).

‘Peace be with you’ could be used as a farewell (cf. our ‘God be with you’), as well as a greeting.  So it is possible that Jesus used it first as a greeting, with John indicating what happened thereafter, and then again as he was leaving.  If this is so, then his words recorded in vv21-23 are his parting words.

“Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you” – Turning the prayer of Jn 17:21 into a commission.

'Just as...'?

John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”

(See also Jn 17:18 – “Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.”)

In what sense are Jesus’ disciples sent ‘just as’ he himself was sent?

The two ‘sendings’ use different Greek words: the first, apostellō, and the second, pempō.  However, as Kruse explains, nothing theological should be made of this difference, because the two words are used interchangeably throughout John’s Gospel.  Carson agrees, saying, ‘this is an instance of John’s penchant for minor stylistic variations.’

To be sure, we cannot be either incarnated as the Son of God was, nor can we die, as he did, for the sins of the world.

Some seek to make Jesus’ mission a rather exact pattern and model (e.g. Keener) of our own.  Appealing to scriptures such as Lk 4:18f; 7:22, they urge that just as he healed the sick, helped the needy, and preached the gospel to the poor, so must we.  The church’s mission is not limited to evangelism, but extended to an imitation of all that he did.

Such also became the view of John Stott.  In his early days, he was wont to insist that the church’s mission was to proclaim the gospel and to win souls.  But then, in the early 1970s, he came to the view – based in part on the present text – that the church was called to holistic mission, which include socio-political action as well as evangelism.  As early as 1970 (in Christ the Controversialist) Stott was writing:

‘The church’s mission reflects the Son’s mission, and both express the character of the Father. What is this? He is not the Judge only, but the Saviour. He does not reward merit, but he does bestow mercy. He is the shepherd of lost sheep, the doctor of sick souls, a father of infinite patience. Now he sends us out into the world just like he sent Christ—not to run away and escape, but to enter the pain of distressed humanity, to think and feel our way into people’s doubts, difficulties and distresses, to be channels of the love of God as both servants and witnesses, to bring what relief we can and the good news of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. This is our responsibility. Nothing less than costly involvement is Christian; to withdraw is Pharisaic.’

And in 1979 Stott was explaining and defending his position (in the light of criticism of it) in John R. W. Stott, “Cornerstone: The Battle for World Evangelism,” Christianity Today 23, no. 7 (January 5, 1979): 34–35. (eprinted as ch. 15 of Christ the Cornerstone, Collected Essays of John Stott, Lexham Press, 2019.

Briefly, Stott’s understanding is that

‘We are sent into the world, like Jesus, to serve.’ (Christian Mission in the Modern World)

Stott’s mature teaching is summarised by Paul A. Beals.  Referring to the concept of ‘holistic mission’,

‘John R.W. Stott articulated this position in his book, Christian Mission in the Modern World. Stott holds that John 20:21 is the basic statement of the Great Commission: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
In addition to this position on the Great Commission, Stott also champions the Great Commandment, namely, Christ’s instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” According to this view, these two commands constitute the Christian mission in the world. Stott explains that “if we love our neighbor as God made him, we must inevitably be concerned for his total welfare, the good of his soul, his body, and his community” (Stott, 1975, 30). Also according to this view, the Christian mission should include a political dimension in an effort to bring about structural social change.
‘This concept of mission “describes … everything the church is sent into the world to do. ‘Mission’ embraces the church’s double vocation of service to be ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world.’ For Christ sends his people into the earth to be its salt, and sends his people into the world to be its light (Matt. 5:13–16)” (ibid., 30–31, emphasis his). In Stott’s expression of this view, evangelism and social action are considered equal partners in mission and mutually integral to each other.’
In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, art. ‘Controversies in Contemporary Evangelical Mission Theory’.

DeYoung and Gilbert (What is the Mission of the Church?) note that Stott’s understanding of John 20:21 has been very influential.  While by no means denying a place for social action either in Jesus’ ministry or our own, they note that it can be misleading to summarise Jesus’ mission as being devoted entirely to meeting temporal needs.  Sometimes he wished to be alone.  On other occasions he spent time with rich people.  Oftentimes he was with his disciples, who were not destitute.  He did indeed heal the sick and feed the hungry; but these did not constitute the main focus of his ministry:

‘He was sent into the world to save people from condemnation (John 3:17), that he might be lifted up so believers could have eternal life (Jn 3:14–15). He was sent by the Father so that whoever feeds on him might live forever (Jn 6:57– 58).’

Examining the Gospels more broadly, we note that we are never told that Jesus set out with the express purpose of healing or casting out demons.  The focus is elsewhere.  Note Jesus’ statements of prupose in Mark’s Gospel:

‘He came to preach (Mk 1:38). He came to call sinners (Mk 2:17). He came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45).’

The mission of Jesus, then,

‘is not service broadly conceived, but the proclamation of the gospel through teaching, the corroboration of the gospel through signs and wonders, and the accomplishment of the gospel in death and resurrection.’

We should be careful, then, about the terminology around ‘incarnational mission’:

‘We cannot re-embody Christ’s incarnational ministry any more than we can repeat his atonement. Our role is to bear witness to what Christ has already done. We are not new incarnations of Christ but his representatives offering life in his name, proclaiming his gospel, imploring others to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5: 20).’

H.H. Rowdon writes:

‘I confess that, when preaching from this text, I used to relate it exclusively to the preaching of forgiveness and reconciliation which is the subject of verse 23. I trust I am wiser now, having realized that the key to the meaning of verse 21 is Mark 10:45 where Jesus sums up the terms of his commission as not only redemption but also service.
‘The apostles certainly understood it that way. They went out ready to act as well as to speak. Peter and John brought physical healing to a crippled man (Acts 3:6-7). The apostles as a whole healed and exorcised (Acts 5:12-16). Beyond the apostles, Philip ministered to human need as well as preaching the gospel (Acts 8:6-7). This kind of ministry was not confined to the context of preaching and evangelism. For example, Peter healed Aeneas and raised Dorcas from death. (Acts 9:32-41), Paul, as well as Peter, brought healing to a lame man (Acts 14:8-10), and exorcised a slave girl at Philippi (Acts 16: 16-18). It has been alleged that the emphasis in Paul’s ministry was increasingly on verbal proclamation, but there is clear evidence that this was not so. It was during his third missionary journey and his longest stay in one place-the crucially important city of Ephesus–that we read of unusual healings and exorcisms taking place (Acts 19: 11-12).’

Rowdon goes on to argue that in the church’s mission – which ‘includes everything which God has sent the church into the world to do in his name’ – it is improper to attempt to distinguish between ‘more’ and ‘less’ important activities.  The church at large, as well as the local congregation, should strive to excell in all aspects of its mission.  For the individual, however, the situation is a little different:

‘If the biblical concept of the body, with its multiplicity of members, each with its distinctive-and partial-function to perform for the effective operation of the whole, means anything at all, then the individual may well have to decide between one and the other and know which is more important for him or her.’

Rowdon concludes:

‘Care of the sick, the afflicted, the hungry and the oppressed is more than an accompaniment to the preaching of the gospel as the real task of mission. It is more than a bridge, leading people to open their eyes to the message. It is more than authentication of the message (though it is all of these). It is part of the message. The distinction between word and deed is artificial. How do you know that someone really loves you? Not merely because they say so verbally, but also because their actions say so. ‘God so loved that he gave.’ Medical care, educational attention, the provision of food for the hungry and the imparting of technological skills-not to mention ‘supernatural’ acts-speak loud and clear, provided they are done clearly and unequivocally in the name of Jesus. In any case, they are inherently good things.’

J.I. Packer taught that the missional task of the church was twofold:

‘First and fundamentally, it is the work of worldwide witness, disciple-making, and church-planting (Matt. 24:14; 28:19–20; Mark 13:10; Luke 24:47–48). Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed everywhere as God incarnate, Lord, and Savior; and God’s authoritative invitation to find life through turning to Christ in repentance and faith (Matt. 22:1–10; Luke 14:16–24) is to be delivered to all mankind. The ministry of church-planter Paul, evangelist (so far as strength and circumstances allowed) to the whole world (Rom. 1:14; 15:17–29; 1 Cor. 9:19–23; Col. 1:28–29), models this primary commitment.
‘Second, all Christians, and therefore every congregation of the church on earth, are called to practice deeds of mercy and compassion, a thoroughgoing neighbor-love that responds unstintingly to all forms of human need as they present themselves (Luke 10:25–27; Rom. 12:20–21). Compassion was the inward aspect of the neighbor-love that led Jesus to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and teach the ignorant (Matt. 9:36; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13), and those who are new creatures in Christ must be similarly compassionate. Thereby they keep the second great commandment and also give credibility to their proclamation of a Savior who makes sinners into lovers of God and of their fellow human beings. If the exponents of this message do not display its power in their own lives, credibility is destroyed. If they do, credibility is enhanced. This was Jesus’ point when he envisaged the sight of the good works of his witnesses leading people to glorify the Father (Matt. 5:16; cf. 1 Pet. 2:11–12). Good works should be visible to back up good words.’
(Concise Theology, art. ‘Mission’)

Others object that this neglects the Johannine context (in which Jesus moves on immediately to the forgiveness of sins) and instead imports teaching from the Synoptic corpus.  Jesus’ unique role was to the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and as the incarnate word his mission cannot be precisely emulated.  To be sure, we are to do good to all – especially the household of faith – but the present verse will not support the weight the other ‘side’ place on it.

Graham A. Cole offers a critique of an ‘incarnational’ model of mission:

‘This passage is widely appealed to in order to justify an incarnational model of mission to embrace, and not just by John Stott. The argument runs in general along the following lines. Just as Christ identified with us in becoming human, we too need to identify with those whom we are trying to reach with the love of God. James Davison Hunter expresses the point in this way as he teases out the implications of the incarnation: ‘For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us.’ We are to be a faithful presence in a broken world as a kind of incarnatus prolongus (the incarnation prolonged) in concert with the quintessential faithful presence of the Word who became flesh. However, the accent in Jesus’ words is not on identification but on the reception of the Holy Spirit and the promise of forgiveness. As Andreas Köstenberger rightly comments, ‘The fact that Jesus shows to his disciples his pierced hands and his side (cf. 20:19), as well as his commission to forgive or retain sins, ties the disciples’ mission to Jesus’ death (cf. chaps 18–20; cf. also 17:4 and 19:30).’ J. Todd Billings adds to the point by drawing attention to the reference to the Holy Spirit in the Johannine passage. He explores the implication of Jesus’ saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ as follows: ‘It is not our own “incarnation,” then, but the Holy Spirit who makes Christ present in us and beyond us.’ In his view the New Testament model for mission is not an incarnational one but ‘the much richer theology of servant-witness and cross-cultural ministry … in union with Christ by the Spirit’. Furthermore he contends that the popular slogan in some circles of ‘live the Good News rather than preach the Good News’ fails in the light of the biblical witness. He is right.’
(The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation)

Carson agrees that the issue cannot be settled by an appeal to a few verses from another Gospel, while ignoring the context in John’s Gospel.  We must take note of the ‘sending’ motif in John:

‘Here it is the perfect obedience of the Son that is especially emphasized (e.g. Jn 5:19–30; 8:29), an obedience that has already been made a paradigm for the relation of the believers to Jesus (Jn 15:9–10). Jesus was sent by his Father into the world (Jn 3:17) by means of the incarnation (Jn 1:14) with the end of saving the world (Jn 1:29); now that Jesus’ disciples no longer belong to the world (Jn 15:19), they must also be sent back into the world (Jn 20:21) in order to bear witness, along with the Paraclete (Jn 15:26–27)—though obviously there is no mention of incarnation along the lines of Jn 1:14, and any parallel must be entirely derivative.’


‘In so far as Jesus was entirely obedient to and dependent upon his Father, who sealed and sanctified him and poured out the Spirit upon him without limit (Jn 1:32; 3:34; 4:34; 5:19; 6:27; 10:36; 17:4), so far also does he constitute the definitive model for his disciples: they have become children of God (Jn 1:12–13; 3:3, 5; 20:17), the Spirit has been promised to them (chs. 14–16) and will soon be imparted to them, they have been sanctified by Christ and will be sanctified by God’s word (Jn 17:17) as they grow in unqualified obedience to and dependence upon their Lord.’

For Barrett, it is the nature of the church and the authority of its mission (rather than the holistic nature of that mission) that is stressed here:

‘The sending of Jesus by God meant that in the words, works, and person of Jesus men were veritably confronted not merely by a Jewish Rabbi but by God himself (1:18; 14:9; and many passages). It follows that in the apostolic mission of the church … the world is veritably confronted not merely by a human institution but by Jesus the Son of God (13:20; 17:18). It follows further that as Jesus in his ministry was entirely dependent upon and obedient to God the Father, who sealed and sanctified him (4:34; 5:19; 10:37; 17:4, and other passages: 6:27; 10:36), and acted in the power of the Spirit who rested upon him (1:32), so the church is the apostolic church, commissioned by Christ, only in virtue of the fact that Jesus sanctified it (17:19) and breathed the Spirit into it (v. 22), and only so far as it maintains an attitude of perfect obedience to Jesus (it is here, of course, that the parallelism between the relation of Jesus to the Father and the relation of the church to Jesus breaks down). The life and mission of the church are meaningless if they are detached from this historical and theological context.’

So the two ‘sendings’, though continuous, are not identical, is indicated by the two ‘senders’ – the Father sends the Son, and the Son sends his disciples.  ‘The Son was participating in the work of the Father, and was doing what only the Son can do. In a similar way, then, the disciples are participating in what is ultimately the work of the Son, a work made possible through the Son alone. Although the church is sent “just as” (καθὼς) the Son was sent, the mission of the church is defined by the Son who sent them, from whom the nature and direction of its mission are derived.’ (Klink)

We are then in a position to take into account the commissions that are reported in the other Gospels, which are comprehensive enough (note the ‘all’ of Mt 28:20).  At the same time, what was central to the Son’s mission – ‘that he came as the Father’s gift so that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16), experiencing new life as the children of God (Jn 1:12–13) and freedom from the slavery of sin because they have been set free by the Son of God (Jn 8:34–36)’ must never be lost from our view.  Indeed, we are reminded of these emphases by the reference, in v23, to the forgiveness of sins, and, in v30f, to the purpose of the Gospel.

They are being sent (without consulting them!) back into the world from which they were currently hiding!

Consider how frequently (especially in John’s Gospel) Jesus describes himself as one who has been ‘sent’.  He has been sent by the Father ‘to do his will (Jn 6:38–39; 8:29), to speak his words (Jn 3:34; 8:28; 12:49; 14:24; 17:8), to perform his works (Jn 4:34; 5:36; 9:4) and win salvation for all who believe (Jn 3:16–17)’ (Kruse, see also Jn 18:37).  That his followers would continue in the same mission has already been taught in Jn 4:35-38; 14:12; 15:16, 26f; 17:18.  This last reference closely paralleling the present one, but with the added thought that the disciples are being sent with a mission to the world.  The other texts ‘reveal the essential content of their mission was to ‘harvest’ men and women for the kingdom by their witness to Jesus by word and deed, alongside the ongoing witness of the Spirit.’

To accept Jesus is to accept the One who sent Jesus (Jn 12:44; 13:20).  And, in the Synoptics, we are reminded that to receive Christ’s disciples is to receive Christ himself, Mt 10:40; 18:5; Lk 10:16.

The idea of the Father sending the Son is one of the leading themes of this Gospel. Now it is the Son who does the sending – he sends his disciples on a mission which will prove to be world-wide. Cf Jn 17:18.

‘The commission of Jn 20:21-23 is especially rich theologically. After the repeated “peace is yours,” Jesus in a sense graduates the disciples and gives them the degree of “sent ones” (fulfilling Jn 17:18). One of the pre-eminent concepts in Johannine christology is that of Jesus as “sent” by the Father. Based on the Jewish institution of a, a messenger or envoy authorized to carry out functions on behalf of another, Jesus as the sent one is presented as the living representative who reveals the Father to the world. In the Farewell Discourse the Spirit/Paraclete is “sent” by the Father (Jn 14:16, 26) and the Son (Jn 15:26; 16:7). Yet this chain of revelation is not complete, for now in a sense the entire godhead is involved in “sending” the disciples. the place of the Spirit is seen in the “Johannine Pentecost” of Jn 20:22.’ (DJG)

Jesus’ mission and our mission are not exactly the same

Wright comments that Jesus’ mission and our mission, although intimately connected, are not at all the same thing: ‘There is all the difference in the world between something being achieved and something being implemented. The composer achieves the writing of the music; the performers implement it. The clockmaker designs and builds the wonderful clock. The owner now has to set it to the right time and keep it wound up. Jesus has accomplished the defeat of death, and has begun the work of new creation…His followers don’t have to do that all over again.’

‘It must have given the men great joy to realize that, in spite of their many failures, their Lord was entrusting them with His Word and His work. They had forsaken Him and fled, but now He was sending them out to represent Him. Peter had denied Him three times; and yet in a few days, Peter would preach the Word (and accuse the Jews of denying Him—Acts 3:13–14!) and thousands would be saved.’ (Wiersbe)

We are not all called to be full-time evangelists or overseas missionaries.  But each of us is called to witness to some segment of ‘the world’, that place where Christ is not known or acknowledged.  For some, this may be the home.

The church’s mission

  1. Its importance.  If we are sent as Jesus has been sent, then mission must have the same important for us as it had for Jesus.  In John’s Gospel, the Father is ‘the Sender’, and Jesus is ‘the Sent’.  Thus the Godhead is defined in terms of mission.
  2. Its character.  The tenses of this saying convey the following meaning: ‘I have been sent; I am sending you.’  The one follows on from the other.  God has one mission, which is in two phases: first, that of the incarnate Son in his earthly life; second, that of the risen Son through his people.  ‘The apostles were commissioned to carry on Christ’s work, and not to begin a new one.’ (Westcott).  One implication of this is the authority which underpins our mission (cf. Mt 28:18-20).  Another, related, implication is our obedience to the commission.
  3. Its cost.  The One who sends is identified by the marks of his suffering and death, v20.  For Jesus, to be sent meant costly self-sacrifice.  We can expect no other.  See Jn 12:26.
  4. Its resources.  We go under the leadership of Jesus and with the inspiration of his presence.  More than that: we go in the power of the Holy Spirit (v22).  That power would be received on the Day of Pentecost, with the present saying providing necessary teaching to prepare the disciples for it.

(See Milne for a fuller discussion)

20:22 And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 20:23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

Jesus has commissioned them; now he empowers them for their mission.  That mission entails an offer (of forgiveness of sins) and a warning (of unforgiven sins).

He breathed on them – ‘On them’ is absent from most manuscripts, and probably should not be read. This is perhaps significant: the gift of the Holy Spirit is made not just to the the disciples, but to the church as a whole. ‘The gift was once for all, not to individuals but to the abiding body’ (Westcott).

The word emphysaō is used only here in the NT.  In the LXX it is used several times for an act of ‘breathing life into’ something, or someone (Gen 2:7; 1 King 17:21; Eze 37:9).  In this verse ‘the language deliberately echoes Gen 2:7; the Spirit is the breath of the life of the new creation’ (NBD).  Noting that several other, more common, words are available that would be translated ‘breathe’, Klink thinks that the sense is, ‘He blew’.

The echoes of Gen 2 and Eze 37 are particularly significant, for those texts speak of the blowing of life to create the first humans, and of the blowing of life to recreate the people of God.  ‘At this moment this quorum of ten fearful men were being established as a new creation, the church—a “new humanity” (Eph 2:15) and even a “new Israel” or priestly class in light of the connection to Ezekiel 37:9.’ (Klink)

For Michaels, this breathing emphasises the fact that he is alive, and now gives life to them.  ‘It is the triumphant sequel to the notice that on the cross, just after he received the sour wine, Jesus “handed over the Spirit” (Jn 19:30)…The “Spirit” he handed over was the Holy Spirit that came down on him and “remained” (Jn 1:32–33), and was his “without measure” (Jn 3:34). When the Spirit left him, he stopped breathing and died, but now he “breathed” again, and again we are reminded of a text from the farewell discourse, “you see me, because I live—and you too will live” (Jn 14:19). The Spirit, who once rested on Jesus alone, is back, not for him now but for the disciples.’

“Receive the Holy Spirit” – The promise of the Holy Spirit is foreshadowed in Jn 1:33; 4:10, 13–14; 7:37–39; 14:16–17, 26, 28; 15:26–27; 16:7–15.  Jn 7:39 is an especially clear promise.

‘Here the Spirit is both the evidence of resurrection—that is, that Jesus is alive—and the empowerment of the disciples to do what he has just sent them to do.’ (Michaels)

Klink argues that the Holy Spirit must not be viewed as a ‘commodity’, merely empowering God’s people for mission.  Jesus’ words have already indicated that mission belongs to the very nature of God, and thus, ‘if God is to be properly described as “missionary,” then appropriate Christian worship of God can only be done by a missionary church.’  This ‘symbol-laden’ gesture, given in the context of a sending forth for a mission that is like Jesus’ own, should be seen, not as a ‘transaction’, but rather as an invitation to share in the life and mission of the triune God (cf. Jn 17:23).  ‘In this first meeting of the church on the Lord’s Day, on the first day of the (new creation) week (see v. 19), Jesus declares in word and deed that the church is one with God and therefore is now to work according to his nature and for his purposes in full participation with him.’

Klink adds: ‘In this remarkable moment, the church becomes both a recipient and a minister of the renewing work of God.’

The Holy Spirit comes with Christ

‘This gift comes with Christ’s coming. The Holy Spirit is not a “second blessing.” Nor are the disciples given conditions for this gift (e.g., “repent; empty yourselves entirely; confess; yield utterly,” etc.).’ (Bruner)

The Holy Spirit and God’s new creation

As Harper’s Bible Commentary puts it: ‘This scene marks the beginning of the church as a body inspired by the Spirit of Jesus and dedicated to the spreading of the gospel (cf. Acts 2).’

More fully: ‘In this pericope, which abounds with the theological force of the entire Gospel, v. 22 speaks out of the context of the whole biblical story, with the “last Adam” as the “life-giving spirit” at the beginning of the new creation (1 Cor 15:45–49). And what is this new creation? It is the church, the descendants of the second Adam! Here Jesus Christ has established his disciples as the founding representatives of the newly created people of God, a new humanity and Israel, who by the Spirit become God’s temple, founded on the death of Christ (v. 20) and commissioned to declare the peace of God (vv. 19, 21) for the forgiveness of sins (v. 23). Like the first creation, in this moment Jesus spoke into creation the “holy temple in the Lord … a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:21–22).’ (Klink)

Apostolic succession

A classic statement of this (erroneous) doctrine was made by J.H. Newman at the commencement of the Tractarian Movement: ‘The Lord Jesus Christ gave his Spirit to his Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who should succeed them; and these again on others; and so the sacred gift had been handed down to our present Bishops…We must necessarily consider none to be really ordained who have not thus been ordained.’ (Newman, Tracts for the Times, I)

However, the apostolicity of the Christian ministry does not so much concern a channel of transmission, so much as a test of doctrinal orthodoxy. There is no indication in the NT of an apostolic succession in the sense that an apostle could appoint a person to succeed him and thus continue the line.

Only the Holy Spirit can equip for gospel ministry

‘The first thing that is necessary, in order to make a man a true minister of the Gospel, is the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. Bishops and presbyters can lay hands on men, and make them clergymen. The Holy Ghost alone can make a “man of God,” and a minister of God’s Word.’ (Ryle)

Where does Pentecost fit in?

John 20:22 And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The relationship between this gift of the Spirit and the Pentecostal outpouring is debated (Klink outlines seven different interpretations).

Some, such as Barrett, think that the two accounts cannot be harmonised.

Among those who do look for harmonisation, the following interpretations have been proposed.

1. Two versions of the same event?

Many modern commentators argue that there is one gift of the Holy Spirit, independently witnessed to by Luke and John.  So Bultmann, Dodd, Barrett, and others.  Brown speaks for many when he writes: ‘It is bad methodology to harmonize John and Acts by assuming that one treats of an earlier giving of the Spirit and the other of a later giving. There is no evidence that the author of either work was aware of or making allowance for the other’s approach to the question. And so we may hold that functionally each is describing the same event; the one gift of the Spirit to his followers by the risen and ascended Lord. The descriptions are different, reflecting the diverse theological interests of the respective authors.… Yet we do not discount the possibility that Luke preserves an authentic Christian memory of the first charismatic manifestation of the Spirit in the community on Pentecost.… For both of them [John and Luke] the Spirit’s task is to take the place of Jesus, to carry on his work, and to constitute his presence in the world.’

Michaels notes that in the other three Gospels, the promise of the Spirit (e.g. Lk 24:49; cf. Mk 1:8; Mt 3:10/Lk 3:16; Acts 1:5,8) remains unfulfilled.  The only difference between John’s ‘Pentecost’ and Luke’s is that the former is represented as the impartation of ‘life’, and the latter as the giving of ‘power’.  ‘Thus when Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive Holy Spirit,” it is not an anticipation of Pentecost, but “Pentecost” itself.’  Michaels adds: ‘It has to be that way because, unlike Luke, he has no second volume, and unlike Mark, he is not content to leave the story unfinished.’

However, the differences between the two accounts are two great for this to be plausible.  For for one thing, the present account leads to no immediate change in the disciples’ behaviour, whereas Luke’s leads immediately to great boldness and effectiveness on the part of Peter and the other apostles.  For another thing, in John’s account the gift is given in private, whereas in Acts it is public.

2. Two different events?

Many older commentators view them as two different bestowals of the Spirit.  Chrysostom: the power to forgive sins, and the power to perform miracles.  Calvin; sprinkling with the Spirit, and saturation with the Spirit.  Matthew Henry: the Spirit given in part, and then given in fullness.  Godet: the power of the resurrection and the power of the ascension.

Morris sees them as different manifestations of the Holy Spirit: ‘John tells us of one gift and Luke of another.’

Whiteacre agrees that two distinct events are probably meant.  In John’s account, the immediate effect on the disciples is muted, to say the least: ‘A week later they are not bearing witness but are back in the room with locked doors (v. 26). In the next chapter they are back fishing for fish, not for disciples.’  Whiteacre adds that ‘the conditions for the presence of the Spirit have not been completely met. The Spirit will be given after Jesus’ return to the Father (Jn 14:16, 26; 16:7, 13).’  The giving of the Spirit ‘is a complex process and not a simple, one-time event.’

Some see this as a partial impartation of the Spirit that anticipates the full outpouring of Pentecost.  According to this view, it may be best to see the present gift of the Spirit as more specific to the disciples’ present need (for peace and reassurance) at that time, and as an anticipation (first instalment?) of that larger gift that would be given later.  For Calvin, the present gift is a ‘sprinkling’, to be followed by a Pentecostal ‘saturating’.

Matthew Poole: ‘Our Lord therefore fortifies them with an earnest of that more plentiful effusion of the Spirit, which they afterward received in the days of Pentecost.’

Westcott thinks that the present is the power of a new life, and the future a power for ministry.

‘In fulfillment of Jn 7:39, 15:26 and Jn 16:7, Jesus now “breathes” the Spirit into the disciples, enabling them to bear witness to the sin-sick world. (cf. Jn 14:16-17; 15:26-27; 16:7-11) In comparison with Acts 2, this is a private in-filling of the disciples while the later event at Pentecost is a public empowering which launches the church’s mission.’ (DJG)

As noted above, Klink argues that Jesus’ words and gesture here should be understood in relational, rather than transactional, terms.  Therefore, any chronological markers are bound to be imprecise.  After all, God had been by no means inactive through his Spirit before and during the time of our Lord’s incarnation.  We may regard the present event as a real reception of the Holy Spirit, but not as the equivalent of what happened at Pentecost.

Klink reminds us of the repeated references in this Gospel to ‘the hour’ as marking the time, not only of Jesus’ crucifixion, but of his resurrection and exaltation.  As the ‘hour’ is multifaceted, so is the gift of the Spirit associated with that ‘hour’.  In fact, the two ‘givings’ are associated with two of the key ‘moments’ in that ‘hours’ – the resurrection (Jn 20) and the ascension (Acts 2): ‘John depicts the power of the resurrection and Acts depicts the power of the ascension’.

If we struggle to put these ideas together, then we might reflect that ‘if God is comfortable to leave the modern reader less than satisfied with the account of the original creation (Gen 1–2), certainly he can do the same with the account of new creation.’

3. A symbolic anticipation?

Blomberg (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels) thinks it unlikely that this is a symbolic gesture portraying the future Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit (why would John foreshadow an event he never describes?).

According to Whiteacre, this view was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in A.D. 553.

Carson, however, in his extended discussion of the question, finds much to support this interpretation.  He finds problems with many of the alternative interpretations, in that in some way they hold the present verse ‘hostage’ to Act 2.  He notes that the most popular view nowadays is that the present verse represents John’s ‘Pentecost’ (since he betrays no knowledge of any other).  The problem here, of course, is that the story is told in Acts 2 within a completely different scenario, and with many differences between the two accounts.  Of those who hold this view, some (such as Barrett) think that all attempts to reconcile John and Acts are futile, because a low view is taken of the latter’s historical value.  Others (such as Beasley-Murray and Burge) think that John knows of Acts, but places the story here for theological reasons.

Carson cites Theodore of Mopsuestia as suggesting that this verse should be regarded as ‘a symbolic promise of the gift of the Spirit later to be given’.  Among the reasons supporting this, Carson says, it should be noted that (a) the original simply says that Jesus ‘breathed’ (not that he ‘breathed upon them’; (b) the sense of immanence is communicated by present-tense verbs in Jn 12:23, 31; 13:31; 17:1, 5; (c) there is no sign in the remainder John’s Gospel that Jesus’ action here had anything like the results that were seen on the day of Pentecost.  Carson concludes that John preserves the theological unity of the Jesus’ cross-work – death, exaltation, gift of the Spirit – by drawing attention to this last item (the fulfilment of which at Pentecost would have been well know both to him and to his readers) in an anticipatory, parable-like way.

So also IVP Commentary on Acts 2:1-4: ‘Jesus’ giving of the Spirit during a postresurrection appearance (Jn 20:22) is best understood as an acted parable. It foreshadows Pentecost and reinforces the truth that the Spirit is Christ’s gift to his church.’

Kanagaraj: ‘John’s narrative of Jesus’ giving of the Spirit, being a symbolic act, anticipates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), when Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit (Jn 7:38–39; 14:16–17, 26; 15:26; 16:7) will fully be realized.’

In further support of this third option are the words recorded in Luke’s version of this event (Lk 24:49), which makes it clear that the disciples were to ‘stay in the city’ until they have been  ‘clothed with power from on high.’

If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained – Cf. Mt 18:18; Lk 24:47.

‘Here without doubt our Lord has briefly summed up all the Gospel’ (Calvin).

Michaels remarks that John has already reported much that Jesus said about the disciples’ mission.  Therefore, we do not need to take the present teaching as comprehensive.

Note the passive voices: the forgiveness (or unforgiveness) is God’s work; the role of the disciples is to declare it.

Michaels understands this expression as referring to the disciples proclaiming the results of the finished work of Christ, and thus to the ‘greater works’ which he promised they would do.  ‘The Gospel remains true to its apparent assumption that sin is not truly “taken away” (whether in forgiveness or in judgment) until Jesus dies on the cross. That work is now “finished” (Jn 19:30). He that was dead is alive again (Jn 20:22), and now the risen Jesus commissions his disciples to carry out the “greater” works of forgiving sin and preparing for judgment.’

Both Carson and Milne quote Marsh, who says, simply and straightforwardly: ‘There is no doubt from the context that the reference is to forgiving sins, or withholding forgiveness. But though this sounds stern and harsh, it is simply the result of the preaching of the gospel, which either brings men to repent as they hear of the ready and costly forgiveness of God, or leaves them unresponsive to the offer of forgiveness which is the gospel, and so they are left in their sins.’

Milne, similarly: ‘The ‘loosing’ and ‘binding’ are the effect of the preaching of the gospel in the world, when we go forth in the name and with the authority of the risen Lord. As when he was on earth, so now, the coming of the light of God’s Word draws some to the light for salvation and confirms some in the darkness for damnation (Jn 3:19–21; 9:39).’  Jesus words here, then, are closely equivalent to those in Lk 24:46).

Carson adds: ‘The Christian witnesses proclaim and declare, and, empowered by the Spirit, live by the message of their own proclamation; it is God who effectively forgives or retains the sin.’

Ryle notes: ‘When Peter proclaimed to the Jews, “Repent ye, and be converted,”—and when Paul declared at Antioch of Iconium,—“to you is the word of this salvation sent,”—“Through this man is preached the forgiveness of sins, and by Him all that believe are justified,”—they were doing what this passage commissioned the Apostles to do. They were opening with authority the door of salvation, and inviting with authority all sinners to enter in by it and be saved. (Acts 3:19; 13:26–38.)’

As we have seen, there were probably others present beside the ten disciples, and if so this weakens the claim that the authority in relation to the forgiveness of sins was given exclusively to the apostles and their successors in the Christian ministry.  Kluck says that ‘although he addresses the disciples standing around him, the generic nature of the subject matter about which he speaks serves to address the newly created church established upon these apostles (Eph 2:20)…This is Jesus’s authority, and it belongs to his person and work—and his Spirit—and therefore to all his people.’

Carson judges that it is unnecessary to regard Mt 16:19; 18:18, and the present saying as three versions of one saying.  To do so is to forget that an itinerant preacher will often repeat himself (with minor variations).

This is a statement, ‘which like its counterpart in Mt 16:19, has occasioned great debate. The power to bind/retain and loose/forgive sins is a legal authority and depicts the disciples as full-fledged ambassadors of the new age dispensing judgment or salvation, depending on people’s acceptance or rejection of their message (cf. Jesus’ authority as judge in Jn 5:22,27; 8:15-16; 9:39). In Matthew this saying deals with church discipline while here it centers on mission evangelism.’ (DJG)

The construction of the sentence suggests that it is classes of sinners, rather than individual sinners, which are in mind: ‘Whoever’s sins you forgive..’. ‘He is saying that the Spirit-filled church has the authority to declare which are the sins that are forgiven and which are the sins that are retained.’ (Morris).  This is rather similar to the Rabbinic teaching which spoke of some sins being ‘bound’ and others ‘loosed’.

Again, this verse, when taken with other Scriptures, should be understood as teaching that the disciples, and those who follow after them, have the power to state the terms of God’s forgiveness, and to declare who satisfies, and who does not satisfy, these terms. It was a true assertion of the Jews, that only God can forgive sin. But Christians, who have the mind of Christ and are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, can pronounce divine forgiveness and divine condemnation. Acts 5:1-11 is a remarkable example of the latter.

Michaels: ‘In short, the disciples are being given authority to act as Jesus’ agents in the course of their mission, and consequently as agents of God himself. Through them the Holy Spirit, or Advocate, will both “convict the world of sin” (16:8) and forgive sin. The sins they will forgive are not sins against them personally (as, for example, in Mt 6:14–15, 18:21–35, Mk 11:25; Lk 17:3–4), but the sins of the world generally (see Lk 24:47), unbelief in particular (see 16:9) but sins of every kind. Those whom they forgive (because their message is accepted), God will forgive; those whose sins they “retain,” as Jesus sometimes did (because the message was rejected), God will not forgive.’

Barclay: ‘This sentence does not mean that the power to forgive sins was ever entrusted to any man or to any men; it means that the power to proclaim that forgiveness was so entrusted; and it means that the power  to warn that that forgiveness is not open to the impenitent was also entrusted to them.  This sentence lays down the duty of the Church to convey forgiveness to the penitent in heart, and to warn the impentient that they are forfeiting the mercy of God.’

Morris insists that this responsibility was not given to (ten of the) Twelve disciples alone, nor to Christian ministers only, nor to any other individuals, but to the church as a whole.

Sin as unbelief

‘In this Gospel’s discourse sin is primarily failing to acknowledge the revelation of God in Jesus (cf. Jn 8:24; 9:39–41; 15:22, 24). Jesus’ words and works have been depicted as bringing about a judgement which the recipients make on themselves, as they either respond in belief or expose their sinful state of unbelief. The same holds for the future work of the Spirit, about whom Jesus has said that ‘when he comes, he will convict the world of sin … because they do not believe in me’ (Jn 16:8–9). Similarly, as the disciples, accompanied by the Spirit, witness to God’s verdict accomplished in Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (cf. Jn 1:29), and press home its implications, they will be pronouncing forgiveness for those who receive their witness but will be retaining the sins of those who reject it.’ (Lincoln)

Kruse notes that although the Fourth Gospel does not elsewhere deal with the forgiveness of sins, the implications of unforgiven sins are mentioned in Jn 8:24; 9:41; 15:22, 24; 16:8–9; 19:11, and always in relation to a refusal to believe in Jesus.  The present statement is closely connected with the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, which in turn is related to the disciples’ mission to the world as Jesus’ witnesses.  It follows that ‘the way in which the disciples forgive sins and retain sins is by preaching the good news and declaring the effects of believing it (forgiveness) and rejecting it (no forgiveness).’

The church not only declares forgiveness, but also models it

‘The total mission of the church could be summarized by the forgiving and retaining of sins. For “everything the church does is a prolongation in time and space of the victory of the Lamb over the world’s sin by making it a victory over our sins.” This explains why Jesus had to show his scars from the crucifixion (v. 20), and this explains how peace has been established and can now be declared. The message of the church is the forgiveness of sins through Christ, and the mission of the church is to liberate the world from the power of sin. And this commissioning cannot be narrowed to a single task but is prescriptive of the very life of the church.’ (Quoting Meier).  Klink adds that ‘the church is not only a herald of God’s forgiveness (a witness to the world) but also a recipient (an example of its work)… For this reason it is not merely the church’s words that declare the gospel but its very existence; the life of the church witnesses to the nature of forgiveness that has been embraced both within the church and extended outside the church.’

Ryle sounds a note of caution: ‘No higher honour can be imagined than that of being Christ’s ambassadors, and proclaiming in Christ’s name the forgiveness of sins to a lost world. But let us ever beware of investing the ministerial office with one jot more of power and authority than Christ conferred upon it. To treat ministers as being in any sense mediators between God and man, is to rob Christ of his prerogative, to hide saving truth from sinners, and to exalt ordained men to a position which they are totally unqualified to fill.’

A missionary God sends a missionary church

‘Ultimately…, if God is to be properly described as missionary, then appropriate Christian worship of God can only be done by a missionary church. The lack of missions in so many of our churches is not to be explained by poor strategies or programs but by poor worship. By “worship” we do not mean music and singing but the alignment of the church to the nature of God and the linking of our ecclesial life to the eternal life of the Trinitarian God. The more we participate in God and according to God, the more missional our churches will become. Quite simply, the more we look like God in the person of Jesus Christ—cruciform and self-sacrificing—the more we will act like him and live “sent.”’ (Klink)

Promises fulfilled

  1. The coming of Jesus fulfills 14:18 [‘I will not leave you orphans; I am coming to you’]
  2. The commission and consecration of the apostles fulfills 17:16–19 [v. 18: ‘Just as you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world’]
  3. Their joy fulfills 16:20–22 [v. 22: ‘Now you have deep sorrow, but I will see you again and your hearts will be thrilled with joy’]
  4. The gift of peace fulfills 14:27 [‘Peace I leave with you, my special peace I am giving to you …’]
  5. The gift of the Spirit fulfills 14:16, 16:7, 13 [16:7: ‘But I am telling you the sober truth: the best thing that could ever happen to you is for me to go away, because if I don’t go away, the Paraclete won’t come to you; but if I do go away, I will send him to you’].”

(Bruner, quoting Hoskyns [adapted])

Preaching from this passage

In his oral ministry, John Stott focuses on Jesus’ commission in v21 as central.  In order to achieve this, he gives his disciples:-

  1. an assurance of peace, v19, 21 – we must have experienced this before we can share it with others
  2. a model of mission, v21 – costly and sacrificial, just as his was
  3. a promise of power, v22 – for which they must wait until the day of Pentecost.
  4. a gospel of salvation, v23 – forgiveness authoritatively proclaimed

The Response of Thomas, 24-31

20:24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 20:25 The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!”

Michaels argues that this should be regarded as the second part of a single appearance.  We should not regard Thomas as the only one who doubted (cf. Mt 28:17; Mk 16:13f; Lk 24:41); nor should we think of him as not being ‘sent’, v21, receiving the Holy Spirit, v22, or being given the power to forgive or retain sins, v23.  And his confession, v28, is theirs too.

Why had Thomas not been present with the other disciples? Had he overslept? Had family responsibilities detained him? Had he been unwell? Had he become completely disillusioned? We don’t know, although the passage hints that his absence was linked with his attitude. What we do know is that he missed a blessing by not being there.

‘Was he so disappointed that he did not want to be with his friends? But when we are discouraged and defeated, we need our friends all the more! Solitude only feeds discouragement and helps it grow into self-pity, which is even worse.’ (Wiersbe)

Thomas appears also in Jn 11:16, where he expresses ‘a resigned but impressive loyalty’, and Jn 14:5, where he articulates the disciples’ slowness of understanding. This is thin evidence on which to base a character assessment, but in all three places Thomas comes across as rather fearful and gloomy. His cup is half-empty rather than half-full; he sees the clouds rather than the blue sky.’

‘The modern theory that Thomas was a man of free thought and wide range of intellect, who wisely required reasonable evidence of everything in religion, and properly dreaded taking anything on trust, is a theory which I believe to be utterly without foundation, and I cannot receive it for a moment. He was simply a good man with a very doubting and gloomy turn of mind; – a man that really loved Jesus and was willing to die with him, but a man who saw little but the dangers attending everything that a disciple had to believe. There are many like him. It is a very useful picture. John Bunyan’s “Fearing,” “Despondency,” and “Much afraid,” in Pilgrim’s Progress, are types of a large class of Christians, who are successors of the Apostle Thomas.’ (Ryle)

The other disciples told him – or, ‘kept on saying to him’.

“We have seen the Lord” – It is reasonable to suppose that they told Thomas that Jesus had shown them his hands and his side.  This would explain Thomas’ protest: “Unless I see (for myself)…”

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands…” – The other disciples had seen the risen Lord’s hands and side, so Thomas made this his test. How many are apt to lay down the conditions on which they will believe? Just think of what it would mean if we always insisted on seeing the evidence for ourselves, and refused the testimony of credible witnesses?

But was Thomas more unbelieving than the other disciples? Possibly not. They had refused to believe Mary Magdalene when she said that she had seen the Lord, and it was not until Jesus actually appeared to them that they believed. (Kruse) Mk 16:14 indicates that our Lord rebuked ‘the eleven’ (not just Thomas) for their lack of faith and refusal to believe the first witnesses of his resurrection.

Kruse comments that Thomas’ statement here indicates that the whole issue here for Thomas, John and the other disciples is about physical resurrection, not some kind of ‘spiritual’ survival beyond death.

‘Were the biblical miracles magic tricks which fooled the simple”], primitive people? It is often contended that people who lived during biblical times were more simple”] minded and superstitious than modern man, and could be tricked into believing the miraculous stories contained in the Bible.

Today it is claimed we live in a scientific age and have outgrown these superstitions, since we have developed the mental capacity to see these miracles as being superstitious myths rather than paranormal phenomena. A close study of the evidence will show that these accounts are not a superstitious reaction to some clever trickster. The response to the miraculous acts of God show the same surprise and anxiety that modern man would have if he were placed in the same situation.

The people living at the time of Jesus certainly knew that men born blind do not immediately receive their sight, (Jn 9:32) that five loaves and a few fish would not feed 5,000 people, (Jn 6:14) or that men do not walk on water. (Mt 14:26)

Doubting Thomas said, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (Jn 20:25, RSV) he refused to accept the testimony of the unbelievable event of the resurrection, but changed his mind when confronted face-to-face with the resurrected Christ. Thus we are not expected to believe the ridiculous, and neither were the people of biblical times.

‘He refused to believe the testimony of ten competent witnesses, who had seen Christ in the body with their own eyes. He refused to believe the testimony of ten true friends and brethren, who could have no object in deceiving him…He presumes to prescribe certain conditions, which must be fulfilled before he can credit the report of his brethren…Thomas might have remembered that at this rate nothing could ever be proved by witnesses; and that he himself, as a teacher, could never expect men to believe it.’ (Ryle, who adds that there are people like Thomas, ‘and it is almost ludicrous to observe how entirely they forget that the business of daily life could never go on, if we were always doubting everything which we could not see for ourselves.’)

The people living in those times were no less skeptical than we are today. It was the unavoidable, the inescapable, the irrefutable fact that caused them to believe.’ (Answers to Tough Quesitons)

It is strong evidence for the truthfulness of the Gospel writers that they are prepared to record the weaknesses of the apostles.

A Christian mind asks question, probes problems, confesses ignorance, feels perplexity, but does these things within the context of a profound and growing confidence of the reality of God and of his Christ. We should not acquiesce in a condition of basis and chronic doubt, as if it were characteristic of Christian normality. It is not. It is rather a symptom of spiritual sickness in our spiritually sick age. (John Stott)

Although we shouldn’t admire Thomas for his doubts, neither should we be too critical of him. One important fact is that he did not isolate himself from those who already believed, but met up with them again. ‘He was a doubter, but his doubts had a purpose-he wanted to know the truth. Thomas did not idolize his doubts; he gladly believed when given reasons to do so.’ (Life Application)

20:26 Eight days later the disciples were again together in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20:27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but believe.” 20:28 Thomas replied to him, “My Lord and my God!” 20:29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.”

A week later – literally, ‘eight days later’, but it was usual to use the inclusive approach to refer to a week.

The doors were locked – Presumably because they were stil afraid of ‘the Jews’.

Jesus came – when Thomas was with them.

Ryle comments on the timing of this visit:

‘That means that he times his visit, so that not one of the Apostles was missing. He knew exactly who were assembled, and where they were assembled, and he ordered his apperance accordingly. It should be a great comfort to believers to remember that their Lord’s eye is always upon them, and that he knows exactly in what place and in what company they are.’

“Put your finger here, and examine my hands” – Crucifixion usually involved putting a nail between the head of the radius and the head of the ulnar.  If a nail was driven into the hands then the weight of the body would cause the nail to pull through the flesh.  The resolution of this apparent discrepancy is that the word for ‘hand’ – χειρ – is translated ‘wrist’ in Gen 38:27 & 30; Jer 40:4; Eze 13:18 and Acts 12:7.  See this.

Ryle notes from this passage,

‘how kind and merciful Christ is to dull and slow believers…It is hard to imagine anything more tiresome and provoking than the conduct of Thomas, when even the testimony of ten faithful brethren had no effect on him, and he doggedly declared, “Except I see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands, I will not believe.” But it is impossible to imagine anything more patient and compassionate, than our Lord’s treatment of this weak disciple. He does not reject him, or dismiss him, or excommunicate him. He comes again at the end of a week, and apparently for the special benefit of Thomas. He deals with him according to his weakness, like a gentle nurse with a froward child…If nothing but the grossest, coarsest, most material evidence could satisfy him, even that evidence was supplied. Surely this was a love that passeth knowledge, and a patience that passeth understanding.’

And again, ‘Our Lord has many weak children in his family, many dull pupils in his school, many raw soldiers in his army, many lame sheep in his flock. Happy is that Christian who has learned to deal likewise with his brethren.’

‘The loving dealing of the Lord with Thomas teaches us this comfortable lesson. The Lord marks not narrowly the infirmities and wants that are in his own. He looks not narrowly to the weakness of their faith, to the imperfections and wants of their prayers and requests, for they prayers are full of imperfections. But he passes by their imperfections, he oversees their infirmities, he misknows the corruption wherein their faith and prayers and desires are involved, and hath a regard to their faith, albeit they have it in small measure.’ (Rollock, quoted by Ryle)

‘Here are two wonders for Thomas. The first is that Jesus is truly raised from the dead and now meets him. But secondly, Thomas’ stated conditions for faith are explicitly met in language which proved that Jesus had clearly “overheard” his earlier stipulations. The “other world” of the Spirit is not beyond earshot.’ (Milne)

In graciously condescending to deal with Thomas on his (Thomas’s) own terms, Jesus is here giving an example of ‘bearing with the weak’ that the apostle would later urge upon us all, Rom 15:1f.

Hendriksen notes how close the response of Jesus is to the demand of Thomas:-

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands” – “See my hands”
“and put my finger where the nails were” – “Put your finger here”
“and put my hand into his side” – “Reach out your hand and put it into my side”
“I will not believe it” – “Stop doubting and believe”

We don’t know whether Thomas accepted Jesus’ offer, but the assumption is that he didn’t, because he didn’t need to.

“Stop doubting and believe” – Although Jesus graciously condescends the meet Thomas’ stipulations, there is clearly a note of rebuke in Jesus’s words. Thomas could have, and should have, believed on the testimony of his friends, v29. (cf Jn 4:48)

Jesus’ words are literally, “Stop being an unbeliever; be a believer.” ‘It is not merely a reproof to Thomas for his scepticism on this particular occasion, but an urgent counsel to be of a more believing turn of mind for time to come…No doubt the primary object of the sentence was to correct and chastise Thomas for his sceptical declaration on the preceding Sunday. But I believe our Lord had in view the further object of correcting Thomas’ whole character, and directing his attention to his besetting sin. How many there are among us who ought to take to themselves our Lord’s words! How faithless we often are, and how slow to believe!’ (Ryle)

We are not told whether Thomas did as Jesus bade him. Hendriksen thinks that he was ‘obliged to do as instructed’. But others take the more plausible view that the sight of the risen Jesus and his wounds would have been quite sufficient to evoke the response that follows. Note too that Jesus in v29 refers to ‘sight’, not ‘touch’.

‘May we not well believe that he discovery of our Lord’s perfect acquaintance with every word that he had said on the previous Sunday, combined with the evidence of his own eyes that he say before him a material body, and not a spirit, would be enough to convince him?’ (Ryle)

Here is the language ‘of amazement, delight, repentance, faith and adoration, all combined in one sentence.’ (Ryle)

We can suppose that Thomas fell on his knees, or even on his face. Thomas’ attitude was not one of mere intellectual curiosity. As soon as his doubts were answered, he responded in the only appropriate way – worship of Jesus as Lord and God.

It is impossible to read Thomas’ words as an expletive of surprise (similar to “O my God” in much popular culture today). No devout Jew would ever have taken God’s name in vain, thus breaking the 3rd Commandment, in that way. In any case, the words are addressed to Jesus, and (as is hugely significant) Jesus accepts Thomas’ worship.

‘Thomas’ response is a confession of Jesus’ deity; cf. Rev 4:11. Pliny, a governor writing near the probable location of John’s readers two or three decades after John, reports that Christians sing hymns to Christ “as to a god.”‘ (NT Background Commentary)

‘If we compare Thomas with the other Apostles, we shall see that as he surpassed them all in unbelief, so he surpassed them far in believing and confessing the Lord.’ (Rollock, quoted by Ryle)

Seven great confessions

This is the last of the great confessions of Christ in John’s Gospel. The others are:-

  • John the Baptist, Jn 1:34
  • Nathanael, Jn 1:49
  • the Samaritans, Jn 4:42
  • the man born blind, Jn 9:33,35-38
  • Martha, Jn 11:27
  • the disciples, Jn 16:30

It is also significant that John records this great confession here, near the close of his Gospel. It, and the statement in Jn 1:1, bracket off everything in between as an inclusio, informing us that the purpose of the whole Gospel is to establish Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (as is made plain in v31). ‘Now that original confession of the Godhead of the pre-incarnate Lord is echoed by a mortal sinner’. (Milne)

‘It has been noted that the emperor Domitian required worship of himself as Lord and God (Domine et Deus). Readers of the Gospel may have recognised a polemic against such demands in Thomas’ confession of Jesus as his “Lord and God”.’ (Kruse)

‘Gregory well says, “The incredulity of Thomas has done us more good than the faith of Mary.” He means that if Thomas had never doubted, we should not have had such full proof that Christ rose from the dead.’ (Ryle)

‘Great mountains of unbelief, which seem insuperable unto saints, will easily flow down and evanish at Christ’s presence; for Thomas’s wilfulness is now cured without making use (as appeareth) of all that he required.’ (Hutcheson)

v29 Jesus accepts Thomas’s confession without rebuke. Contrast with the ways in which Peter, Acts 10:26, and Paul and Barnabas, Acts 14:14 refused such honour. Jesus’ acceptance of Thomas’s worship also contrast sharply with the angels who were mistakenly worshiped in Rev 19:10 22:9.

Stott: ‘John reports that on the Sunday following Easter Day, incredulous Thomas was with the other disciples in the upper room when Jesus appeared. He invited Thomas to feel His wounds, and Thomas, overwhelmed with wonder, cried out, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus accepted the designation. He rebuked Thomas for his unbelief, not for his worship.’ (Basic Christianity)

Note, the issue is not belief without evidence, but belief without sight.

In recording this, John has in mind on future hearers of the gospel, who will believe without seeing, cf 1 Pet 1:8.

On the excellence of faith which results from hearing, rather than seeing, see Mt 8:5-10; Jn 4:48; Rom 10:14; 1 Pet 1:8.

Jesus says to Thomas, in effect, “If you had not seen me alive, you would not have believed.” ‘But if no evidence must be admitted but that of our own senses, and we must believe nothing but what we ourselves are eye-witnesses of, farewell all commerce and conversation. If this must be the only method of proof, how must the world be converted to the faith of Christ?’ (MHC)

I don’t agree with Wiersbe when he says that Thomas represents the ‘scientific’ approach to life. It is not scientific to reject the testimony of credible witnesses, and it is not scientific to insist on observing all the phenomena for oneself.  Thomas’s attitude was not scientific, but sceptical.

John Lennox remarks that ‘some contemporary atheists like A. C. Grayling have used the story of Thomas to buttress their idiosyncratic contention that faith means believing without evidence. He takes Jesus to be saying: “Blessed are those who have had no evidence and yet have believed.” This is an astonishing conclusion for a philosopher, whose stock-in-trade is the analysis of the logic of argument. The point Jesus is making is that not everyone has the evidence of physical sight. But physical sight is not the only kind of admissible evidence. The very next statement in John’s Gospel (how did Grayling fail to see this?) points out what that other evidence is.’  Lennox, John C. Against the Flow: The inspiration of Daniel in an age of relativism (pp. 189-190). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

20:30 Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 20:31 But these are recorded 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.
Luke's and John's Statements of Purpose Compared
It is instructive to compare Luke 1:1-4 with Jn 20:30f

(Eugene E. Lemcio, in Dunn & McKnight, The Historical Jesus in Recent Research)

Jesus did many other miraculous signs – John makes it clear that his account has been selective. He has omitted much. We should therefore not be surprised to find many differences between what John and the Synoptists cover. Indeed, John may be assuming that his readers were already acquainted with the other Gospels.

In the presence of his disciples – they were witnesses – an idea which John strongly emphasises.

These – again, we have to ask whether this refers to the account of Jesus post-resurrection appearances or to the whole of the Gospel.

That you may believe that… – Some commentators think that the meaning here is, ‘…that you may continue to believe’, in which case John’s main purpose is a discipling one. However, some of the best manuscripts imply, “that you may come to believe…,” in which the main purpose is evangelistic. This option is probably to be favoured, although, as more than one commentator points out, it doesn’t exclude the other.

Christian belief is not some vague trust. It has content. It entails belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and that he is the Son of God.

The Christ – the Messiah who had been longed for by Simeon, Anna, and all who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. This is Jesus’ official title, indicating his divine authority for his work.

The Son of God – This is Jesus’ personal title and expresses his relationship with the Father. The Jews had sought to kill him precisely because he claimed this title for himself. See Jn 8:24 ff.

‘Son of God’ was not a common designation for the Messiah at that time. Its use here is the last of many in John’s Gospel.

It is because Jesus is ‘the Christ, the Son of God’ that faith in him leads to life in his name. This life is another favourite theme of John, and carries ideas of abundance, Jn 10:10, and relationship, Jn 17:3.

Note the order of things in this verse: from evidence to faith, and from faith to life.

‘From this statement we can draw certain conclusions which are amply attested by the substance of the Gospel. First, it is basically an evangelistic document. Second, its explicit method is to present the work and words of Jesus in such a way as to show the nature of his person. Third, the description of this person as Messiah indicates that a Jewish audience is probably in mind…This main purpose does not exclude other, subordinate aims. Thus, first, John consciously stresses points which would refute the false or antagonistic views about Jesus held by Jews in his time. There may also be an attempt to correct an over-zealous veneration for John the Baptist. Second, particularly in 13-17, John addresses Christians and gives teaching about life in the church. But the view that a principal aim of John was to correct the church’s eschatology (so C. K. Barrett) is not tenable, although this is not to deny that the Gospel contains eschatological teaching. Third, it is often alleged that John was written as a polemic against Gnosticism. This view gains some plausibility from the purpose of 1 John, but is not so self-evident as is sometimes supposed; nevertheless, John was no doubt aware of the danger of Gnosticism while he wrote, and his Gospel is in fact an excellent weapon against Gnosticism.’ (NBD)

‘Some write books for their diversion, and publish them for their profit or applause, others to oblige the Athenian humour, others to instruct the world in arts and sciences for their secular advantage; but the evangelists wrote without any view of temporal benefit to themselves or others, but to bring men to Christ and heaven, and, in order to this, to persuade men to believe; and for this they took the most fitting methods, they brought to the world a divine revelation, supported with its due evidences.’ (MHC)

Life in his name – ‘”Eternal life” means the very life of God experienced today. It is a quality of life, not a quantity of time. It is the spiritual experience of “heaven on earth” today. The Christian does not have to die to have this eternal life; he possesses it in Christ today.’ (Wiersbe)

This point would form an appropriate end to John’s Gospel. The Gospel may indeed have originally ended here, with ch. 21 being added later as an epilogue.

‘John could not end his book without bringing the Resurrection miracle to his own readers. We must not look at Thomas and the other disciples and envy them, as though the power of Christ’s resurrection could never be experienced in our lives today. That was why John wrote this Gospel-so that people in every age could know that Jesus is God and that faith in him brings everlasting life. It is not necessary to “see” Jesus Christ in order to believe. Yes, it was a blessing for the early Christians to see their Lord and know that he was alive; but that is not what saved them. They were saved, not by seeing, but by believing. The emphasis throughout the Gospel of John is on believing. There are nearly 100 references in this Gospel to believing on Jesus Christ. You and I today cannot see Christ, nor can we see him perform the miracles (signs) that John wrote about in this book. But the record is there, and that is all that we need. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17; and note 1 Jn 5:9-13). As you read John’s record, you come face to face with Jesus Christ, how he lived, what he said, and what he did. All of the evidence points to the conclusion that he is indeed God come in the flesh, the Saviour of the world.’ (Wiersbe)

‘The signs that John selected and described in this book are proof of the deity of Christ. They are important. But sinners are not saved by believing in miracles; they are saved by believing on Jesus Christ. Many of the Jews in Jerusalem believed on Jesus because of his miracles, but he did not believe in them! (Jn 2:23-25) Great crowds followed him because of his miracles; (Jn 6:2) but in the end, most of them left him for good. (Jn 6:66) Even the religious leaders who plotted his death believed that he did miracles, but this “faith” did not save them. (Jn 11:47ff) Faith in his miracles should lead to faith in his Word, and to personal faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Jesus himself pointed out that faith in his works (miracles) was but the first step toward faith in the Word of God.’ (Jn 5:36-40) (Wiersbe)

Michaels remarks that many commentators write as if this were the original end of the Gospel, with chapter 22 being added either by the same writer or be another hand.  This may be case, but the fact is that no known version of the Gospel exists without chapter 22.  These last verses of chapter 21, then, may not be quite so summative as is often imagined.  They may not determine that John wrote mainly for those yet to come to faith, rather than the strengthen those, like Thomas, whose faith was weak.  ‘The Gospel writer is not so much summarizing his overall purpose in writing the Gospel as simply turning to his readers to explain to them that Jesus’ beatitude on “those who did not see and believed” (v. 29) applies to them, for they have seen none of these things firsthand. They are asked instead to believe what is “written.”’