Commentary on John 20:19-31
Jesus’ death on the cross was traumatic.
Mary Magdalene’s announcement of her witness to the risen Lord could not convince them. The empty tomb is not the sign of his resurrection for the disciples but a source of disappointment and fear, which leads them to gather in a locked house. We are now intimately familiar with words such as lockdown and fear. What messages does John’s story of the second Sunday after Easter give us as we have experienced wounds and traumas that the global pandemic of the virus and injustices caused?
Easter message of peace and forgiveness
On the evening of Easter Sunday, Jesus appears, standing among the disciples in the house and says, “Peace be with you” (20:19). He shows them the marks of nails in his hands and a hole in his side. What they see must be terrifying, especially for Peter as a flashback of his denial painfully flits on the wounds. But Jesus is going to take care of his heart (see 18:15-18, 25-27; 21:15-19). As Jesus foretold, their pain and sorrow turn into joy because “they saw the Lord” (20:20; see also 16:20-24; regarding the term see [idein], refer to last week’s lectionary). Their teacher, who was crucified, is alive! Jesus says again, “Peace be with you” (20:21).
Amidst fear, the peace Jesus gives will enable them to go out. As God sent Jesus, he sends them into the world. Promising the Holy Spirit, paraklētos, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you (aphiēmi)” (14:26-27). Though the word is used with a different meaning, if they forgive (aphēte) sins of any, they are forgiven for them (20:23; compare to the grand scale of the missions given to the disciples such as “making disciples of all nations” in Matthew 28:16-20). If Jesus came to take away the sin of the world (1:29), they would continue the work of forgiving and peace-making through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The way Jesus empowers them is, like last week’s story, intimate again. Jesus breathes the Spirit on them. The Synoptic Gospels illustrate Jesus breathing out his last (spirit) only at the moment of his death (see also John 19:30). In Acts, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples publicly only after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:8; 2:33). In contrast, the disciples in John personally receive the Holy Spirit in a private space when the risen Jesus is still on earth.
Unless I see, I will not believe
Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples. He could not believe that the other disciples saw the risen Jesus showing his wounds in his hands and side. For people like Thomas, seeing is a prerequisite for believing. He needs strong evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put his fingers in the mark and put his hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25).
Strangely enough, the disciples who saw the risen Lord and rejoiced are still in the house a week after Easter. Yet, Jesus can pass through the locked doors (the same words used as in verse 19) and greets them once again with “Peace be with you” (verse 26). This time Jesus allows Thomas to see and touch (“put inside”) him. It is Jesus’ invitation for him to believe. Finally, his belief is expressed in the supreme form of confession: “My Lord and my God.”
See the sign and believe
John 20:30-31 seems to be a proper conclusion of both these post-resurrection stories and the entire book, even though another chapter is added to the Gospel as an appendix or postscript. “Many other signs” in verse 30 implies that what Jesus has just shown is a sign. In John’s narrative, seeing signs is closely related to believing. Jesus said earlier, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (4:48; see also 6:30). This represents the position of Thomas. Then are the physical wounds and scars on the body of the risen Jesus a sign? Resurrection belief challenges us to see life in the marks of an excruciating death.
One may ask if anyone who sees the sign believes. Thomas was fortunate to see the sign and believe. Still, others see signs but do not believe (12:37). Finally, Jesus speaks about another group of people—the blessed who believe even without seeing (20:29).
Readers of the Gospel in John’s time and our time cannot see the signs Jesus performed, but they are “written” in the book so that the readers “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (20:29-31).
Believe without seeing; it is written
People write to preserve memories or communicate messages. Some writings and inscriptions, such as laws, history, scripture, etc., have authority. Regarding what to write on an inscription on the cross, Pilate has the authority: “What I have written I have written” (in three languages!). However, neither the inscription of the so-called King of the Jews nor the self-proclaimed King of the Jews represents who Jesus is (John 19:19–21). A hero’s name and his achievements can be engraved in the monument of his tomb. One could read John’s writing in the way she reads such an inscription, as a way of immortalizing his life—a way to write Easter in a Western consumerist culture.
On the second Sunday of Easter, what is written in John’s Gospel calls our attention to the wounds and traumas inscribed in his body. John invites us to see the life Jesus has given to the world in the midst of wounds, pains, and traumas. John’s story goes on to recount that the disciples return home to Galilee again. They once again fail to see him (21:4, 12), but most significantly, the risen Christ appears to them again. Then, the preacher “writes” the resurrection message of comfort and peace in and for the troubled and wounded hearts of her or his people (14:27; 16:6, 22). Today—and tomorrow—our pain and sorrow may turn into joy.