Commentary on John 20:19-31
The purpose of John’s Gospel: belief or trust?
According to the preponderance of English translations, the purpose of John’s gospel is that hearers will either come to “believe” or continue to “believe” that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This “believing” is important because, through it, the hearers will have life in Jesus’ name (20:31). And, the immediately preceding verses (20:24-29) are all about Thomas “believing”—or are they?
The Greek root behind the English “believe” is pist. While overwhelmingly rendered as faith (for the noun) or believe (for the verb) in English NT translations, its lexical range fully includes the concept of “trust”. John employs the verb rather than the noun and, according to Jouette Bassler, the nuances of the Greek verb “range from trusting in something (or someone), relying on something (or someone), to believing something is true.”1 The English verb “believe” has a predominantly cognitive emphasis—our “brain” either assents or not. Trust, on the other hand, is more relational and exists on a spectrum—often encompassing the feelings that influence our thoughts and actions. Hence, we often associate believing with our “heads” and trusting with our “hearts”.
Re-reading John 20:27-31 embracing the nuance of trust inherent in pist we find:
Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Do not be distrusting but trusting” and “Are you trusting because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to trust.”
The purpose of the gospel: “ … written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting you may have life in his name.”
Trust opens doors: even in risky situations
How does the concept of trust help illuminate the gospel? Ask those that are profiting (and benefiting) from “designing for trust” in the midst of our current “trust economy”. Have you stayed in an Airbnb lately, or taken an Uber or Lyft? Or maybe you’ve taken the even greater risk of opening your car or home as a host or a driver? These services are evidence of the power of trust to build relationships even amid very real risk, and our passage today highlights how Jesus’ ministry “designed for trust”.
It’s all about opening doors: car doors, house doors, the locked doors protecting the disciples (20:19, 26). In his 2016 TED talk, Airbnb founder, Joe Gebbia describes how “designing for trust” is the critical factor in getting people to open doors, whether to enter or to let people in.2 In the case of the disciples, it is a matter of getting them out the door, despite the risks, to fulfill their commission from Jesus (20:21-23).
Aren’t we also, as churches, in the business of opening doors, whether encouraging “new” folks to enter our churches, or “sending out” into ministry those that have entered? How might “designing for trust” influence our church, church websites, or even our liturgy?3
Risk: essential to eliciting trust and trusting actions
Our passage depicts a community immobilized by fear after Jesus’ crucifixion, and Jesus’ task is to re-mobilize them. The inherent risk to the disciples is precisely why trust is needed. Risk and trust go hand-in-hand; the amount of risk one is willing to take is dependent upon the amount of trust one has. “One does not need to risk anything in order to trust; however, one must take a risk in order to engage in trusting action” risk is the indispensable ingredient that transforms trust into trusting action.4 This highlights the pivotal nature of the resurrection appearances for the formation of the disciples—the very risky post-crucifixion situation is the fertile ground upon which their trust in Jesus can grow.
Is vulnerability something to be consistently avoided, or an opportunity for growth? How can trust grow (trust in God, each other, or the church) if we avoid all risk?
Trust: an essential precursor for cooperation with Jesus
The resurrected Jesus is seeking the cooperation of his disciples to continue his ministry (the Holy Spirit is not thrust upon them; neither are they pushed out the door). Cooperation does not require trust in every situation. For example, cooperation often occurs in the presence of coercive power and/or in the absence of risk.5 Neither of these exist in the situation of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has eschewed traditional power structures throughout his ministry and warns the disciples about the risk of persecution and even death (15:18-19; 16:33; 21:18-19). Thus, trust is an indispensable precursor for what Jesus is asking the disciples to do—continue his ministry on earth, commissioned with the Holy Spirit.
If we neglect to grow our trust in Jesus by avoiding risk, how can we possibly cooperate with Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry?
Jesus and Thomas: building trust via cooperation
In a risky situation, trust is needed for cooperation to even begin. Once established, a trust relationship can be nurtured through further cooperation.6 We see this in the interaction between Jesus and Thomas (20:24-29): Jesus makes his body available to Thomas, and Thomas cooperates with Jesus’ instructions to examine his hands and side. Jesus’ exhortation to trust is a follow-up to these cooperative actions. This is a demonstration of the evolution of trust through relationship. Trust is not a one-time, absolute assent, but a relational virtue that can be nurtured and grown.
Rescuing the Greek root pist from the narrow confines of “belief” reveals a gospel that tutors us on “designing for trust”. One consequence is hearing Jesus’ words to Thomas as nurturing rather than admonishing. What other NT passages might benefit from embracing the nuance of trust inherent in pist?
- Jouette M. Bassler, Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 24, italics added.
- https://www.ted.com/talks/joe_gebbia_how_airbnb_designs_for_trust?language=en Accessed 20 January 2022.
- Amy Valdez Barker’s Trust by Design: The Beautiful Behaviors of an Effective Church Culture (Abingdon, 2017), engages the concept of trust in church contexts.
- Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis, and F. David Schoorman, “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” The Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995): 724-725. Online: https://doi.org/10.2307/258792.
- Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman, “Organizational Trust,” 712.
- Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman, “Organizational Trust,” 728.
April 24, 2022