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5. Jesus appears to the disciples – and Thomas

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 14: Episode 5
John 20:24-31

Thomas was absent when Jesus met the other apostles but Jesus appears here in exactly the same way. Thomas believes. The writer, John, declares his intention is to help people believe.

Thomas was absent when Jesus met the other apostles but Jesus appears here in exactly the same way. Thomas believes. The writer, John, declares his intention is to help people believe.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Series 14 and Episode 5, in which Jesus appears to his disciples including Thomas. This episode is particularly about the disciple Thomas, whose story has become famous in the church, and it's a fascinating story to discuss. The story is taken up in John chapter 20 verses 24 to 31, and that will be the main text that we'll be looking at in this episode.

Introduction and Recap

We've seen the tremendous events of Passion Week, as Jesus spent the last week of his life on earth in Jerusalem before his crucifixion, which took place on Good Friday, the Friday of that week, and we spent a lot of time looking very closely at the events that surrounded his arrest, his trial and his execution by crucifixion. Now in Series 14, we've been looking at all the amazing material that the gospels give us concerning the resurrection of Jesus, and up until this point in the first four episodes, we've been looking at the events that took place on Easter Sunday itself, the day of the resurrection. On that particular day, we've noticed that there were five different, separate resurrection appearances of Jesus. It's an amazing story. In this episode we'll be moving on from that day, and look at subsequent events.

But before we do that, let's go back for a moment to remind ourselves of what happened on that Easter Sunday. As we look at all the different gospels, we know that just around the time of dawn, the stone was miraculously taken away from the front of the tomb. There were angelic appearances, and the women disciples - who'd followed Jesus from Galilee, and who'd witnessed the crucifixion and identified the location of the burial on Good Friday - came to the tomb at the very earliest opportunity, bearing in mind on the Saturday - the Jewish Sabbath -, they were not allowed to move around freely, as it was a day of rest and they were subject to the laws of the Sabbath. So on the Sunday morning, at the very earliest opportunity, just as dawn was breaking, the women came to the tomb, and that triggered a whole series of events that happened through the day that we've looked at in the last four episodes.

The first two of those episodes featured the women themselves. First of all, in Episode 1, Mary Magdalene, one of the group who became separate from that group geographically for a brief time, during that period, according to John's gospel, Jesus appeared to Mary. She was the first witness of the resurrection. Then, the other women gathered, experienced the risen Jesus very shortly after that. That information spread to the other disciples, and particularly to the remaining apostles, who were staying in Jerusalem. Then, in Episode 3, following Luke's account, we saw two of the disciples - the wider group of disciples - one named Cleopas, travelling from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus, on the road, probably going back to their lodgings, talking together, and then Jesus appeared to them suddenly, supernaturally. They didn't realise what was happening. Somebody drew alongside them as they were walking along. They got talking about the events that had taken place in Jerusalem, and Jesus mysteriously was able to explain the significance of these events to the disciples, until they stopped and prepared to eat a meal. They suddenly realised they were talking to the risen Jesus. Then he disappeared from their sight, which provoked them to come back, having travelled all the way out towards Emmaus, they now walked all those kilometres back into the city. That was the scene of our last episode, when these two disciples met the remaining apostles, and some other disciples in a house in the city of Jerusalem, where they had a large room; they locked the door; they met together; and they shared stories. It turns out that Jesus had appeared to Simon Peter in the meantime, separately.

So we have Mary Magdalene, the women, Simon Peter, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, four different appearances. Then, in what we take to be the evening of Easter Sunday, as they were gathered together in this house, behind locked doors, Jesus appeared in the midst of them. That's what we discussed last time. He revealed himself to them physically, showing them in many ways the physicality of the resurrection: they were able to touch his hands; his feet; his side; they saw him eating fish; they could hear him talking, communicating, recalling the past; relating to them perfectly normally. This was a resurrection appearance. That event ended with Jesus commissioning them, and preparing them for the fact that these resurrection appearances were only just the beginning of a process by which they were going to be commissioned to go and preach about Jesus, not just Jesus who died, but Jesus who'd risen again from the dead, who they had experienced by their eyewitness account, personally. He began to commission them and told them that the Holy Spirit was going to be given to them.

In this last episode, we noticed that Luke gives a substantial account of it, and we followed the account of Luke, but I also mentioned, and referred to, the account given in John, John chapter 20 verse 19 to 23. John gives a brief account of that experience as a parallel account. We're going to follow John's story, because John points out to us something that the other gospel writers don't tell us. It's a very important point, and that concerns the apostles. We know that Jesus appointed twelve apostles, and we know now at this point in the story that one of them, Judas Iscariot, has not only betrayed Jesus but he's actually committed suicide, so there are only 11 apostles at this stage. They are called the 11 in some of the gospel accounts for that reason. But John points out that out of the eleven, only ten were present on that Easter Sunday evening experience, in the house in Jerusalem, when Jesus came to them from out of the other side of the locked door, and revealed himself to them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ One of them was missing, and his name was Thomas. He is the focus of this particular episode. We find out in this episode as we'll read in a moment, that it was a week later that the apostles were gathered together again, in this room, in this house in Jerusalem. Jesus appears to them a second time. What we don't know is what happened during that week. We have no direct information about that. They've had these resurrection appearances on Easter Sunday, but still they are behind closed doors as a group of disciples and apostles. They're in conversation; they're prayer; they're in reflection; and they're wondering what's going to happen next. They've been told there's going to be the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we saw in Luke's account towards the end of episode 4, that they were to wait in Jerusalem until the power of the Holy Spirit came on them, and then they could start preaching. In these last seven days, between Episode 4 and Episode 5, which we can look at now, there's been a quiet time of reflection, prayer, discussion and waiting. As far as we can tell, no other major event is recorded, until now.

Doubting Thomas

We're going to read John 20 verses 24 to 29, which is our main text, and then we're going to look at the conclusion in verses 30 - 31 just a little bit later.

24Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “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.” 26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

John 20:24-29, NIV

Poor old Thomas was in a very difficult position. The enthusiasm of all the other apostles was overwhelming. They'd been on the road together for these three years, and now finally they'd come to understand how the message held together, because they'd actually experienced the resurrection of Jesus on that Easter Sunday evening. But Thomas wasn't there. The others kept saying, ‘We've seen the Lord. It's true, he's been raised from the dead.’ But Thomas was not easily convinced. He said he needed his own resurrection experience. He wanted the physical evidence. Again, this is very interesting. Time and again, through these accounts, we understand the resurrection is a physical event. It's impossible for us to emphasise that point enough. Jesus' resurrection is with a physical body like yours and like mine, recognisable as the Jesus who ministered three years before he was executed, but with supernatural powers and dimensions added.

They gathered together a week later, Thomas had already said that he needed to see the nail marks in his hands, and he wanted to see Jesus's side, which had been cut by the sword of the Roman soldier. He wanted to see the physical imprints of crucifixion that the others had told him about. They said, ‘Well, we've seen these physical imprints: we've seen his hands; we've seen his side; we've seen his feet; we can see the nail marks; and we've considered the mark of the sword in his side’. Thomas says, ‘Actually I need that same experience. I can't share your confidence just on second-hand evidence.’ He was doubting and into the English language has come a common expression, ‘doubting Thomas.’ I think we should be sympathetic with Thomas, because he was in a very awkward position. Everyone else had experienced something which he hadn't experienced. Have you ever been in that position in life, where others are enthusing about something, but you were the only person not present? It's awkward; it's difficult; and Thomas felt the awkwardness.

Jesus appears to Thomas

Then incredibly, Jesus returned to the same place amongst the same people a week later and he entered in the same manner. The doors were locked, again indicating they were still in private discussion and quite fearful. Jesus miraculously appeared to them without having to come through the locked door. This is exactly what happened the previous week. Then he said exactly the same words, ‘Peace be with you.’ A parallel experience is taking place and the other ten of the apostles will immediately recognise what's going on, and be thrilled that Jesus is appearing to them again. But the focus is not on them; the focus is on Thomas. Jesus's focus is on Thomas. We don't know why Thomas failed to be in that room at that particular time. There are any number of possible legitimate reasons why he was not present a week earlier, maybe for family reasons or for practical reasons. The simple truth is, he hadn't been there; now he was there. When Jesus came, he focused his attention not on the rest, but on Thomas as an individual, who was going to be one of his apostles sent out into the world to preach the gospel. Interestingly, Thomas is associated with preaching the gospel to the east of Israel, into the Middle East, and into even the Indian subcontinent, where churches have been named after Thomas in honour of the early church story that Thomas reached as far as India to preach the gospel. We don't know whether that's strictly true or not, but the number of stories that indicate Thomas travelled far to the east of Israel to pioneer the gospel must have some fundamental element of truth in them. When we think of that, and we think of this moment of fundamental doubts, then we realise what a great miracle was taking place here, because this man was being changed forever by what happened in the moment in the locked room, as he was gathered together with the other disciples. Jesus said,

‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

John 20:27, NIV

As Thomas saw Jesus and heard him say these words, it doesn't even tell us here that he had to touch Jesus' body in those particular places where the wounds were, Thomas's response was immediate. He said to him, “My Lord and my God!” An indication of absolute conviction that his doubts were mistaken, that he should put his trust in Jesus, and that Jesus really has risen from the dead. It's an incredible turnaround. Thomas doesn't hesitate when he sees Jesus, and when he probably actually touches Jesus' hands and feet and side. “My Lord and my God!” Jesus says these wonderful words, and these are an encouragement to you and me,

‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

John 20:29, NIV

That same faith that Thomas had is possible for people who don't experience Jesus in his resurrection, of whom there are millions, because almost every single follower of Jesus from that time to this did not have this experience by definition. That includes you and me. Jesus said, blessed are those who never actually saw his resurrection and yet have believed. That's a blessing on you, if you are a believer.

John's Wider Purpose

John concludes this section with a wonderful final statement about his wider purpose. Verses 30 and 31,

‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But 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 20:30-31, NIV

What a wonderful statement. John generally calls miracles ‘signs’ and as we've stated earlier on in our studies, when looking at John's gospel, we've noticed that he has selected only seven major miracles to tell us about: when Jesus turned water into wine at Cana; the healing of the royal official's son; the feeding of the five thousand; walking on water; the healing of the blind man in Jerusalem; the healing of the cripple of the pool of Bethesda; and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. These are described by John as ‘signs’, and he has not recorded the many other miracles that Jesus performed. Some of those are recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and John deliberately doesn't repeat those records, but his purpose in recording miracles is to help us ‘believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’.

He does record for us, of course, the resurrection and these accounts of the resurrection help us on the journey. He wants to enable us to have faith in Jesus as ‘the Messiah and the Son of God’. Notice ‘the Messiah and the Son of God’ - not just a prophet, not just a good moral teacher, not just a healer. John, along with all the other gospel writers, presents Jesus as so much more than a teacher and a healer and a prophet. He is actually the Son of God, the Messiah.

Reflections

Let's now reflect on what we've learned in this passage. First of all, I want to just comment again on the resurrection appearances and how the story is building up as we are going along. We've identified the five appearances that took place on Easter Sunday, as I mentioned earlier: the appearance to Mary Magdalene; to the women, the other women near the tomb; to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; to Simon Peter on his own in circumstances we don't know; and to the disciples in the house with a locked room in Jerusalem. In this episode, we've added a sixth resurrection appearance. This is the sixth out of ten, and this is to the disciples and to Thomas in particular, who was not present on any of the resurrection appearances on Easter Sunday.

This passage, secondarily, also affirms the physicality of the resurrection yet again. It's a theme I've emphasised continually through Series 14. There are so many physical elements here which remind us we're not talking about a ghost or a hallucination, something in the religious imagination. We're talking about the appearance of a person with a human body like yours or mine. Touching parts of that body, seeing wounds, the remnants of wounds or something physical that happened before they died, or as they died is an indication of the continuity. This is the same person. This is the same Jesus in his resurrection body, communicating with them, but also demonstrating miraculous power.

Another reflection from this passage is the significance of doubt. Thomas doubted. Religious doubt is a reality that we should face up to and acknowledge, not be ashamed of when it takes place. We can identify with Thomas, because we sometimes are open to doubting the truth of the Christian faith. Maybe you've been through that experience yourself, in which case this story and this event is really for you. We identify with Thomas. But overcoming doubt is important, and it can be done, and Jesus said, ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ He was quite clear that there was plenty of evidence for those who didn't have a physical encounter with Jesus, or his resurrection. There's plenty of evidence, and the evidence we have, that we can put our trust in, is the evidence of the Bible in general; the evidence of the gospels in particular - the full story that's told in the gospels that we're going through; the testimony of other Christians about the power of Christ; and the life and work of the Holy Spirit within us. God's Holy Spirit within us, gives us a sense of confidence and certainty that we can put our trust in these evidences and Jesus is encouraging us here to do that, saying we will be blessed if we believe in him even though we never saw him physically.

Thomas's affirmation is important, verse 28, ‘“My Lord and my God!” He's acknowledging the authority of Jesus over his life. It's not just an intellectual proposition that, ‘oh, yes, the resurrection is true’. No, the fact that the resurrection took place means that Thomas will give his life to follow Jesus. That's the significance of what faith means to us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” I wonder if some of you feel that you have been in your life, or even at this moment, a ‘doubting Thomas’. Maybe you've identified yourself with that name; maybe other people have said that of you. What the story tells us is that that is a reality. Jesus does not criticise Thomas because of his doubt, but he reveals himself more fully to him, so that he can be confident to put his full trust in Jesus. That's what God wants to do for you and me. As you finish this episode today, you can pray a prayer, asking God to reveal himself more fully to you, if there are doubts in your mind about the fundamental truth of Christianity. Read this passage again at the end of the episode, and pray a prayer, asking God to send his Holy Spirit to reveal more truth to you, and to give you greater confidence of the faith. I hope you'll join us for the next episode as well, as we continue on to the final resurrection appearances of Jesus.

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