|Resurrection: The Hallmark of Faith (John 20:1-31)
Having studied the Gospel of John around the theme "The Path to Faith," we arrive now at the crescendo of the beloved disciple's composition. The path marked from eternity past has had an epochal hour in view. All the events we have been reading marched toward God's glorification in the Son in his death and resurrection. In John 20, all the plot lines converge and the promises are fulfilled. This is the moment when the world's darkness is not merely penetrated but overwhelmed by the light of Divine Presence.
It is the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Jesus that validates all his otherwise-outrageous claims to be the one and only way to God. To paraphrase Paul, if Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead, then everything about the Christian religion is bogus and anyone who embraces Christianity deserves nothing better than pity (1 Cor. 15:12-19). The bodily resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is the hallmark doctrine of Christian faith.
John's Take on the Resurrection
John's account of the resurrection presumes – just as his crucifixion narrative does – that we know the basic account from the Synoptics. We know about the posting of a guard. We know about the earthquake. We know about the women running back from the empty tomb only to be thought crazy by most of the disciples who heard their report. We know of several post-resurrection appearances that John does not relate.
Consistent with the victory theme he sounded with the crucifixion story, John tells of Jesus' resurrection in terms of immediate anointing, blessing, and anticipation. John 20 is almost Genesis 1! Out of the "formless void and darkness" of Jewish unbelief, Roman injustice, and devotee confusion – a veritable chaos, if you will – the Spirit of God acted to craft an ordered cosmos of faith, righteousness, and optimism about the future.
I see John's account of the resurrection as an invitation – an invitation for those who believe in Jesus to live in the power of the Holy Spirit who raised him from the dead. But the invitation is rooted in the event itself. Theology is grounded in history. What men and women are called to experience in Christ grows directly from the fact that God has raised and glorified him as the Son. But since the Son has indeed been crucified, raised, and glorified, there is no reason his disciples should live in fear, whimper about our circumstances, or yield to Satan’s temptations to do evil. We share in Christ’s triumph and are meant “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” in our life experiences (Phil. 3:10a).
Does It Really Matter?
The resurrection is neither mythical nor "a timeless truth that does not depend on a space-time event" for John. Oh, I am fully aware that many contemporary theologians don't blush when they make statements like this one: "Whether the miracles recorded in the New Testament happened or not is irrelevant to me, for I accept the Jesus story by faith for its enduring message of hope." Here is a classic on the resurrection:
For me it is irrelevant whether or not the tomb was empty. Whether Easter involved something remarkable happening to the physical body of Jesus is irrelevant. My argument is not that we know the tomb was not empty or that nothing happened to his body, but simply that it doesn't matter. The truth of Easter, as I see it, is not at stake in this issue.Let me try this one on you: "Whether my sister's hair is really blond or not is beside the point. Whether her diploma from Yale is legitimate or not is simply irrelevant. What really matters is that she is my dearest and most trusted friend. I cannot imagine life without her!" You say you can make sense of that? But what if I tell you I have no female sibling – only two brothers? Any disclaimer about her hair color or education is harebrained for my invented, make-believe sister. And if I can't see any meaningful connection between loving her and remembering her in my will on the one hand and her fictional and illusory nature on the other, I need professional help with my mental health!
Similarly, I can "believe in" him as the Son of God or "love and be devoted to" Jesus only if he existed as the person described in the Gospels. From both a biblical and common-sense point of view, it would be both foolish and pitiable to live and die in hope erected on a fantasy!
If the resurrection didn't happen in space-time history, there is no place for preaching the gospel and no justification for hope in Christ. "And face it – if there's no resurrection for Christ, everything we've told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you've staked your life on is smoke and mirrors" (1 Cor. 15:14, The Message).
Evidence for the Senses
Precisely because the historicity of the resurrection does matter, John lets us know that he is relating events that he knows through the senses. The importance he attaches to the sensory nature of the event is clear from this comment he made in one of his epistles: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . .” (1 John 1:1). There is no Borg-ian meaning for events that never happened for this writer!
Pay attention to the physicality and first-person details in what John writes:
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 removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.These events are datable in memory – early Sunday morning, before the sun rose, Friday's crucifixion still clear in memory. They are very specific in nature – carrying spices to anoint the body, being startled that the stone has been rolled back, running, weeping, and confusion. John saw the linen wrappings. Peter crawled inside the tomb. Mary grabbed and was hanging on to Jesus once she had wiped her eyes, focused on the man she had assumed was the gardener at first, and recognized him as her Teacher.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' " Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her (20:1-18).
I think the encounter with Mary Magdalene presumes knowledge of the resurrection accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It makes no sense, for example, for Jesus to tell her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." How does her clinging to him – not telling her, as the KJV implies, that she could not touch him – depend at all on his ascension? It makes perfectly good sense, however, to translate – as the Greek text certainly allows – this way: "Do not hold on to me. Because I have not yet ascended to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God, go to my brothers and say to them . . ."
Jesus wanted to spend some time with the apostles before his ascension. So he told Mary he had something for her to do that would preclude her staying with him any longer at that moment. She would take two messages to the eleven: (1) I have seen the Lord, and (2) he will shortly be seeing you. Jesus was back. He was alive from the dead. But there were new things to know and new things to do. He and his followers were not simply going to pick up where they had left off.
On that very evening, Jesus sought out the eleven. In physical form and offering proof to them through their five senses, he appeared to them in a locked room where they had gathered – perhaps to discuss the meaning of Mary Magdalene’s alleged experience that morning.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (20:19-23).For reasons that are not explored in John's text, one of the remaining apostles – Judas has died by his own hand by this time – was absent from that meeting and missed the authenticating experience the others were provided. Thomas was adamant about wanting the same encounter with Jesus his ten comrades reported to him. So, since Jesus still had not ascended to the Father, he could and did accommodate him.
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."The Perpetuation of Proof
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (20:24-29).
Not everyone can have the evidence of her five senses that Jesus died under Pontius Pilate, was raised from the dead three days later, and appeared to many people under a variety of circumstances to establish that he had overcome death. For anyone to demand that proof today before she will believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to demand what cannot be provided. And it is just at this point that discussion ends for some people. "I'm not going to believe anything I can't see for myself!" says she.
Truth be told, nobody lives by the dictum that he will only believe what he can see – or otherwise validate by sensory experience – for himself. Was there ever a Pharaoh Raamses who ruled Egypt? Or an Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon? Do we know the beliefs and teachings of Plato? What about Immanuel Kant? Did Dolly Madison ever sew a stitch? Have human beings actually stood on the surface of the moon? Is it really true that the more precisely we calculate the position of a subatomic particle the less precisely its momentum is known in that instant, and vice versa?
There is precious little that any one of us knows except through the testimony of others. That human beings live by our faith in what we know from the testimony of others and reach conclusions from that data rather than by seeing things directly for ourselves is as true for history and science as for theology. "We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7) is less than obvious only to those who have never thought about it. Sometimes one has to believe in order to see.
Yes, Thomas was able to have the blessedness that comes through faith grounded in what he saw with his own eyes and touched with his own hands. But Jesus said there would be no less joy, no fewer wonderful experiences, and no scarcity of salvation for those who would later come to him by faith grounded in other types of evidence.
Indeed, John immediately declares that the reports and first-hand testimony he was giving in his Gospel – the very piece of literature we have been studying for several months now – were intended as evidence. They were being offered as a witness both to the life experiences, teachings, and true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31).The Bible is the single most important document that bears witness to Jesus of Nazareth. Oh, we would certainly know about Jesus and have a broad outline of his life story without our canonical Four Gospels. But those are our primary documents. They are the texts that identify and define him for Christians.
Holy Scripture has been subjected to a degree of scrutiny and skepticism that would be too harsh for any other document of antiquity. It has survived determined efforts of the enemies of Christianity to destroy it. It has been maligned, insulted, and written off by its harsh critics. But it not only survives but continues to anchor lives, give hope, and inspire devotion.
The Holy Spirit and Faith
Yet the Bible is able to function as the very Word of God only because it is made powerful by the Holy Spirit. It is not simply a book. It is not mere words on a page. And it is not the struggling of human minds to find and communicate with the Divine Mind. That reverses the process at work in Scripture! These are God-breathed words (2 Tim. 3:16) that penetrate to the depths of the human heart (Heb. 4:12) and which are powerful enough to bring people to salvation (Rom. 1:16). Scripture is God's initiative to the human race and is part of the "perpetuation of proof" to generations past his own about the saving work of Jesus Christ.
There is still another way by which the Holy Spirit creates and empowers faith in the world. He acts not only through the Empowered Word of God but through the Empowered Church of God as well. And this is simultaneously both a great advantage and liability for creating faith in the world today.
Did you pay attention to the part of today’s text that has to do with the Holy Spirit? I'm afraid we tend to read through the account of these marvelous post-resurrection appearances and miss that part. I certainly have in the past. So please read it again with me now:
Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (20:20b-23).Do you hear an echo of the language of Genesis 2:7 here? Just as God created the physical (i.e., corporeal, natural) race of humankind by breathing into us the breath of life, so the Risen Christ is now creating the spiritual (i.e., Spirit-empowered, supernatural) race of Christians by breathing into his disciples his Holy Spirit. Yahweh breathed into the first human, and both he and those born of his descent became breathing, inspirited, animated souls; Christ breathed into that first body of his spiritual creation, and both they and those born of their descent became his living, vigorous, and dynamic presence to the world. The first race was given authority for tending the material universe; the second race has been given responsibility for nurturing the world of the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; cf. Rom. 8:19-21).
Announcing the "gift of the Holy Spirit" is not an afterthought to the forgiveness of sins on Pentecost Day but the means to living as a forgiven, Christ-claimed person (Acts 2:38; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19). The Holy Spirit is not an ornament for the church but its beating heart that gives it spiritual life and power to function on behalf of Christ's redemptive work for all humankind (1 Cor. 3:16).
The forgiveness of sins linked to Holy Spirit presence among Christ's disciples is a bit unusual – and obscured in the vast majority of English translations. Literally, Jesus says this: "Of whomever you forgive the sins, they stand as having been forgiven to them; of whomever you hold [the sins], they stand has having been held."
There is a critical point to be gleaned from this. No priest, clergyman, or church either "triggers" or "holds back" forgiveness from anyone. The perfect-tense verbs that come second in the two clauses of Jesus' statement refer to an abiding situation that actually began before the action of the two aorist verbs that come first in both clauses. In other words, God does not forgive or retain sins to someone because we grant or withhold mercy. We are not the ones who pardon or hold liable. To preach the gospel is to proclaim forgiveness or judgment, life or death dependant on whether the hearer accepts or rejects Christ. We only announce salvation; we do not originate it.
When a Spirit-empowered church functions in his life and vitality to love the unlovable, minister to the rejected, and eat with prisoners, lepers, and the poor, that church perpetuates the proof of Christ's resurrection. He is alive and doing again what he did in the flesh! That is why a church's first question about every one of its projects and ministries must be "If we do this, does it make us look more like Jesus to the people who are watching?" That is the question of biblical authority before the church – and not some contrived search for book, chapter, and verse. A church that lives with Scripture in preaching, teaching, and personal study will be led in fact by the Spirit in making correct judgments about its attempts to look like Jesus.
When a church lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, faith arises easily and naturally around that body of people. As each believer surrenders more completely to God's Spirit and bears the Spirit's gentle fruit in his or her life, Christ's resurrection power is on display. Faith is being lived out in the saved person and legitimated for the lost soul. The written and lived Word of God are both works of the Holy Spirit, and they combine to evoke saving faith.
When a church fails and does not function in the power of the Spirit, faith can seldom arise from that place. And when the work of the Spirit gives way to or is counterfeited by the methods of flesh, faith will actually die. The problem of unbelief as I most often encounter it is not with someone's dissatisfaction with the teaching or historical authentication of the Bible. It is rooted in angry rejection of the failure of Christians and churches to live its message in the vitality and joy of the Holy Spirit.
Without Christ's bodily resurrection on the Sunday following his crucifixion, the church never would have gotten off the ground. Without Christ's observable presence in the church as a second incarnation, faith will not fly for this generation.
In New Testament theology, the power to overcome death resides in the person of the Holy Spirit. Nowhere is that illustrated better than in the Gospel of John. Made alive again from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave that same Spirit to his disciples so they could live in resurrection power. And that is why the story of the earliest church is one of vibrant life turning the world upside down. People were saved by scores, hundreds, and thousands. Local churches had thousands of members. And even the secular powers took note of and sometimes feared its potential clout.
Churches today seem for the most part to be pitifully lacking in resurrection power. Churches are more often bogged down in the sickly, death-dealing experiences of compromise with the world, division, and helplessness – and not a few are dead. Individual believers more often whine about any semblance of suffering and make facile excuses for being so tarnished by weakness. And that is why the modern church isn’t turning its world upside down. That is why people are not being saved by scores, hundreds, and thousands. That is why nobody bothers with the church, except to make fun of its foibles and weakness. Where is the power of the resurrection in today’s disciples? Where is the observable presence of the Holy Spirit? Where is the faith-perpetuating influence of the Spirit-empowered church?
In Jesus’ own words from the Gospel of John, he promised “living water” (i.e., the Holy Spirit) that would keep his disciples from thirst, from being captive to desires that can never be satisfied by the things of the world. More than that, he promised that the “water” he gave would become an artesian well of Spirit-given power “gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Indeed, he later returned to the same theme and said the Spirit would become “rivers of living water” flowing not only into but out of the lives of his people to a thirsty world (John 7:38).
Christian, you are not destined for weakness but for power. You are not doomed to serve your lusts but have been made alive from the dead to serve your Lord. Your suffering in this life is neither your curse nor your excuse for distrust toward God but your combat zone for drawing on the power of the Holy Spirit to triumph. Only a church that both teaches and models Christ’s resurrection power stands to have enough credibility to lead skeptics to faith, to become a stream of living water in this desert of sorrow and sin.
So take a strong stand on the bedrock certainty of Christ’s resurrection. Live your life not as a victim but in the tone of victory Jesus sounded at the cross and on the other side of the tomb. Know today – to use the words of Paul as commentary on this Johannine theme – that “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who indwells you” (Rom. 8:11). And live in Christ’s peace. Live eternal life here and now – as we wait for his glorious coming and the fullness of life, redemption, and the kingdom of God at his appearing.
 Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), p.131.
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