Commentary on John 20:19-31
Year in and year out, the gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Easter is always the same.
Year in and year out, this is the Sunday we hear the story of doubting Thomas. Or do we?
Actually, the Greek word meaning doubt (distazō) never appears in this story (despite the mistranslations of NRSV and NIV in John 20:27). Distazō is found in Matthew’s post-resurrection reunion story (Matthew 28:17), but it is completely absent in John 20.
Likewise, if doubt is an attitude of uncertainty or a wavering of belief, then Thomas is anything but doubting. Consequently, perhaps the tried and true sermons on doubting Thomas are not true to the text, and other approaches should be tried.
From the start, it is important to realize the story is not about Thomas. Rather, the story is about varied responses to the reality of the resurrection.1 Thomas’ response (though quite vivid) is but one in an assortment of responses presented in John 20. Various initial responses to the resurrection in 20:1-18 include:
- Mary Magdalene’s first response is one of consternation, because she concluded that Jesus’ corpse was moved to some unknown location (20:2, 13, 15).
- Peter’s response is quite ambiguous. He sees the immediate evidence (the position of the linen clothes and the face cloth, 20:6-7) but comes to no definitive conclusions.
- The response of the Beloved Disciple is to see and believe even without knowing the scriptural prophecy regarding Jesus’ resurrection (20:9).
- Subsequently, Jesus moves Mary Magdalene to a response of obedient faith in which she carries out Jesus’ commission and testifies to the fact that she has seen the Lord (20:17-18).
As our text opens, the disciples display an initial response of fear because of the Judeans. They are letting the world, rather than the risen Jesus, control their actions and attitudes. Jesus, however, breaks into their locked up, fearful lives and bids them peace as fulfillment of his promises in 14:23, 27-28. This triggers their new resurrection response of joy (20:20b fulfilling 16:22).
The so-called Johannine Pentecost scene immediately follows as Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit onto them, and commissions them to participate in the ongoing mission for which the Father had originally sent Jesus. Jesus’ act of breathing the Spirit echoes Genesis 2:7 and Ezekiel 37:9 while also fulfilling his promise regarding the Spirit (14:17, 26; 15:26). As Mary Magdalene responded obediently to the commission the risen Lord gave her (20:17-18), so it is anticipated that the disciples will respond obediently to the commission the risen Lord has given them regarding the forgiveness and retention of sins (20:23).
In John 20:24-25, Thomas presents a very different response to the reality of the resurrection. For their part, the disciples continue to reflect the proper Easter faith response in their report that they have seen the Lord (20:25a virtually repeating Mary’s Easter faith response in 20:18). Thomas responds, not with doubt, but with definite and emphatic conditions for believing.
The Greek construction of 20:25b is a clear “if…then…” condition stated negatively. Essentially, Thomas is saying that if the conditions he establishes are not met, then he will definitely not believe.
Rather than “doubting Thomas,” the text presents “conditional Thomas.”
This, in turn, opens up new sermonic possibilities for our seemingly tried and true text. How often do we approach our faith relationship as a legal contract in which we seek to establish the terms by which we will respond with faith? “If I have historical proof…If I have a sign…If near-death experiences can verify…If God would do…If Jesus would cure…Then I will believe in Christ…Then I will know that God exists…Then I will know that there is life after death…Then I will make a commitment of faith.”
We replicate the folly of conditional Thomas each time we establish for Christ how Christ needs to operate in our lives and each time we ground our faith in what we demand from God, rather than in what God does in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
An initial reading of 20:27-29 might lead one to conclude that Thomas comes to believe because Jesus meets his conditions. John’s text, however, is more subtle than that.
On the one hand, in 20:27 Jesus gives several commands to Thomas, echoing the conditions Thomas had established in 20:25. On the other hand, Thomas never physically examines or inspects Jesus’ wounds as he claimed he needed to do before he would believe.
Instead, the key is the closing command Jesus gives in 20:27, “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus’ command functions as performative speech. He speaks the proper response into Thomas so that Thomas responds with the ultimate relational confession of faith, “My Lord and my God.” (20:28)
Through the series of responses to the reality of Easter presented in John 20, we discover that believing is neither a matter of physical proofs nor having our conditions met. Likewise, believing is not simply a matter of seeing but transcends seeing, as Jesus’ congratulatory 20:29 makes clear.
Ultimately, the appropriate response to the reality of Easter involves being transformed by the Word, the Word which in John is Jesus incarnate (1:14), Jesus crucified (20:20, 27), and Jesus, one with the Father (20:28).
1In John, Jesus’ resurrection is to be assumed by the readers. Thus, it is never directly reported by characters within the narrative beyond two reports of characters having seen the Lord (20:18, 25). This assumption is based on Jesus’ prophesy of his resurrection (2:18-21) and that the resurrection was noted in a narrative aside (2:22). Additionally, Jesus had declared that he is the resurrection and the life (11:25). Finally, in his extended after dinner discourse Jesus used various figures of speech to describe the fact that he would depart from the disciples and subsequently they would see him again (14:2-6,18-19,28-29; 16:5-7,10,16-22).