Commentary on John 20:19-31
The season of Easter is above all a season of life: resurrection life, eternal life, or, as the end of this passage says, just plain “life” — “that through believing you may have life in his name” (verse 31).1
Of course, the “life” spoken of here is not actually “just plain” life, but is a distinctive kind of life, a distinction that is obscured in English but apparent in Greek. In John, and throughout the New Testament, the English word “life” translates three different Greek words: psyche, bios, and zoe. When John (and the rest of the New Testament) speaks, on the one hand, of psyche or bios, these words refer to what one possesses simply by virtue of being a living creature. This is the life possessed from birth to death by animals and by humans, whether they be good or bad, righteous or wicked, founders of charities or perpetrators of genocide.
On the other hand, “life” as used at the end of this passage, is spoken of with the word zoe. This is eternal life (literally “life of the age”), life given to those who believe; life given to those who are born of God; life that, in John, transforms us from merely existing to living in the abundance and eternity of God. This life was present from the beginning and lies at the core of creation (“in him was life (zoe), and the life (zoe) was the light of all people” (1:4)). This life connects the deepest purposes of God with the ultimate purpose of John’s gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah … and that believing you may have life (zoe) in his name.” This zoe does not replace psyche; we are still the same creatures we were before. It does, however, bring us into the fullness of grace; so that we are, also, not still, the same creatures we were before–at least potentially not the same.
In this passage, we find the disciples demonstrating more psyche than zoe, hunkered down behind locked doors, fearful of what might happen to them at the hands of those who killed Jesus (verse 19). The risen Christ steps into the room, into the midst of their fears with the first of a three-fold “Peace be with you.” This is the peace that comes when our worst fears are not realized; the relief that against all odds, death has not won; the profound realization that out of the blood, the nails, the thorns, the beating, and the cross has come this life, this zoe of God, right into their midst.
When Christ shows them his hands and side, they rejoice with the euphoria, the adrenaline rush that follows the miraculous — the crucified one is the risen one (verse 20). Jesus then speaks a second “Peace be with you” (verse 21), maybe this time a “not so fast” kind of peace, a kind of peace that lasts beyond the initial rush, that abides even when one remembers the cost and the challenges that still lie ahead. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Sobering words, even when they see the living Christ, since they have also just been shown his wounds. Christ’s victory will be theirs as well, but in order to get there, they will need the kind of peace that abides even when — in the midst of their own blood, thorns, and cross — victory seems a dim and distant possibility.
The third “Peace be with you” follows a famous interlude with the disciples and Thomas, who was absent during the previous appearance (verses 24-25). As many have noted, although he is famous as “Doubting” Thomas, he asks for no more than what the rest of them, including Mary Magdalene, have already received. As we will see, Thomas’ words do not seem particularly troubling to Jesus, but one might imagine the existence of significant tension between Thomas and the other disciples in the room. After all, Thomas has in so many words called them liars to their face. “I won’t believe you until I see for myself.” However, despite what might have transpired during the rather awkward week that followed the first appearance (verse 26a), they are still together.
Jesus again appears among them, and before anyone says anything, says again, “Peace be with you,” perhaps this time the peace of reconciliation–“peace be among you,” the peace that follows when one forgives (a task given to the disciples at Jesus’ previous appearance, verses. 22-23). This is the gospel that most emphasizes oneness and unity among the disciples (17:11-23), a oneness that shows the world that this message of life is true (17:21,23). So, this third peace, within the community, might be the most significant of all.
At any rate, Jesus does not admonish Thomas and, in fact, invites him to satisfy his doubt by seeing for himself (verses 27). Even if he were to be considered a doubter (as the traditional interpretation understands him), he is welcomed into the peace of Christ before he can either apologize or defend himself. Congregations and communities of faith often do not do well with dissidents and direct challenges in their midst. Christ calls them and us to live into his peace as a way of reaching our own peace with each other. (See also Matthew. 28:16-17, where even those who doubted when Jesus appeared to them on the Galilean mountain were sent to fulfill the great commission.) Christ seems less concerned than we often are about adherence to one interpretation of his life and resurrection. He sends Thomas, doubters, and all of us to continue his work.
Thomas’ response stands as the highest affirmation of Christ by any person in the gospel, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28). What the narrator proclaimed in the prologue (“and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1)), this non-doubting Thomas speaks from his own lips. His words exceed even the stated purpose of the gospel, which the narrator provides immediately following, that these things are written to lead us to believe “merely” that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Whether we have the faith of Thomas or the faith described at the end of this passage, the goal is that we find our life, our zoe, within the life of the crucified and risen Christ, who sends us out as his Father also sent him.
1. Commentary first published on this site on April 11, 2010.