"On Seeing and Believing"

  John 20:19-31

We have all heard the saying, “Seeing is believing.” We generally take that to mean seeing with physical sight, but there are different ways of seeing. In our passage for this morning, Jesus suggests to Thomas that faith is also a way to see.

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29)

Throughout the Gospel of John great emphasis is placed upon seeing. In 20:9 when the two disciples ran to the tomb after Mary had reported to them that Jesus’ body was missing it says:

5[The other disciple] bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus' head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.

We’re not sure exactly what the “other disciple” (probably John) believed, because the very next verse says:

They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead (John 20:9).

Peter and John go back to their homes, but Mary remains behind. She is standing outside the tomb weeping. She bends down to look into the tomb and sees two angels sitting on the slab where Jesus’ body had been—but she does not recognize them as angels. They ask her why she is crying, and she explains to them that she is crying because someone has stolen the body of Jesus (as she assumes).

Then she turns around and sees Jesus, himself. But, again, she does not recognize him. She thinks he is the gardener. Until he speaks her name, “Mary”. Then she recognizes him. For Mary, at least, seeing was not enough—for Mary hearing was believing.

Mary goes to the disciples and tells them, “I have seen the Lord.” And John mercifully does not tell us what the other gospel writers do—that the disciples do not believe her.

In this morning’s passage, the disciples are locked away in their room, “for fear of the Jews.” And, suddenly, Jesus is standing among them. They must have responded with some degree of shock because Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you!” not once but twice (vss. 19, 21). And to prove to them that is really is him, he shows them the marks of his crucifixion. And the text tells us, “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (vs. 20).  Well, they’d already seen him, but like Mary who needed to hear his voice to recognize him, they needed to see his wounds to understand that he was the same Lord they had known, loved and followed.

There’s a lot of stuff in verses 21-23 that I don’t want to get into today, but suffice it to say that Jesus passes on to them the mission that God the Father had given to him. And to accomplish the mission, he symbolically endows them with the Holy Spirit. Then, apparently, he leaves—disappears or whatever.

The text notes:

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came (vs. 24).

We don’t know where Thomas was. Maybe he just stepped out for some air. He had left his brothers depressed and fearful. He returns to find them rejoicing.

“We have seen the Lord!” (vs. 25) they tell him. But Thomas is having none of it:

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (vs. 25).

Thomas has gotten a lot of bad press for this, I think unfairly. Peter denied his Lord, but we don’t call him “Denying Peter”. And, after all, Thomas was just asking for the same thing that the others had already received—to see and touch the risen Christ. He needs this. Indeed, if he was to fulfill his calling as a witness to the resurrection, it was vital.

A week later, we are told, Jesus repeats the performance—appearing among them without warning, saying the same greeting, “Peace be with you.” And then he turns to Thomas:

“Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (vs. 27).

We don’t know if Thomas took up the Lord invitation to touch his wounds, but we do know that Thomas made a tremendous confession of faith which, in many ways, is the climax of the Gospel:

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (vs. 28).

This is a tremendous confession because Thomas is acknowledging the full deity of Jesus. “My Lord” is the Greek word kyrios, the same word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to render Yahweh, the divine name. And to top it he calls Jesus “my God.” This understanding is the very reason the Gospel of John was written, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (vs. 31).

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (vs. 29).

What is this about? Is it a subtle rebuke of Thomas for not believing before?

I don’t think so. I believe that Jesus is speaking, not so much to Thomas, but to later generations of Christians who will not have access to the physical presence of the risen Christ. This gospel was originally written near the end of the First Century. Most of the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus were gone. These are the people to whom John wrote his Gospel.

And to us. We don’t see Jesus in the same way that the apostolic generation saw him. But Jesus says there is a special blessing for us who see him not with physical eyes, but with eyes of faith. It people like us about whom Peter would later write:

Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy unutterable and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8).

How can we see the Risen Christ today?

We see him through the witness of the apostles. As John writes:

31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).

We see him in the fellowship of believers:

20For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:20)

And we see him in the working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had told his disciples in the Upper Room:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:16-18)

So we, Christ’s disciples today, should look for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we serve the risen Christ. When we read the Bible, we can ask God to send the wisdom of Holy Spirit to guide us. When we meet in together, we can do so looking for Holy Spirit moving in our midst.

As we live our lives outside these walls, seeking to see Christ where at first we would not expect, we can pray that the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see anew, and in seeing, believe.