Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 45
by Reta Halteman Finger
It is Sunday evening, the same day Mary Magdalene reported to the rest of her companions, “I have seen the Lord!” In John 20:19-23, the group huddles together in a home of local supporters. What will happen next? Will they be arrested as fellow bandits, followers of their executed leader? Can they trust the testimony of a woman? Will they be charged with grave-robbing? Suddenly a familiar figure enters with a greeting of peace. He shows them the wounds of his crucifixion. He is the same Jesus!
Were we there?
As we recover from the shock, let’s think inclusively. Who are “the disciples” in that locked-up house? (v 19). We know about the ten male disciples (the familiar twelve minus Judas and Thomas). But male generic language in Greek can also include females. Surely the Galilean women disciples who stood at Jesus’s cross and came to his tomb (noted in the Synoptics but omitted in John for literary reasons) were there. Mary Magdalene had been there all day. And if they were staying in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, count them in too! It’s a full house!
The brief account of this first group appearance of the risen Jesus says nothing about the stunned amazement that must have ricocheted through the room. All he does is identify himself as the Crucified One, and then breathe on them to receive the Holy Spirit (vv 20-22). Acts 2, in Luke’s second volume, portrays a far more dramatic Spirit-descent fifty days later at Pentecost. The purpose of the Spirit’s coming is also different here—to authorize these first witnesses to forgive or retain the sins of those within the Johannine community of believers (Jn 20:23).
The next two sections (John 20:24-29 and 30-31) help us make sense of this spiritual authority over sins. One disciple, Thomas, had missed this first appearance of Jesus, and when the others told him about it, he simply could not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. He needed evidence, which he got in abundance a week later when they again met in the house. This dramatic account must have been included for two reasons: first, to clarify that Jesus was not a ghost, but was the same person who had been crucified and carried wounds that could be touched; and, second, for the forgiveness and restoration of Thomas within the community. Verses 29b-31 tie belief in this risen Jesus with being accepted within the Johannine Jesus-community.
Why include an epilogue?
Note that John 20:30-31 is the original ending to this Gospel. Chapter 21 is an addendum that was included later, perhaps by another author. More on this next time. The epilogue states the reason the book was written, but one word in the Greek text is unclear: does the author mean that this Gospel was written “so that you may come to believe,” or “so that you may continue to believe.” I prefer the latter reading, because this Gospel was written primarily for the already-believing Johannine community. Remaining loyal to Jesus and his teaching in a pagan Greco-Roman culture that was often hostile to Christians demands a deep and strong commitment. Even though the Spirit lingered, the physical Jesus was no longer present.
Coming and going
In our post-Enlightenment, scientific worldview today, “continuing to believe” may be harder than ever. Christians have different views on what is meant by Jesus’s resurrection. But first recall the plot of this entire narrative. The prologue states that “the Word” coming from God “became flesh” (Jn 1:1-18). The first half of the Gospel portrays this “descent of the Word” incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. But by John 12:27-36, the plot is redirected upward as the Word begins ascending back to God. Ironically, by being “lifted up” on the cross (12:32), Jesus’s execution enables his rising from death and ascending back to the Father (20:17).
But now, at least for a short time, Jesus’s resurrected body seems to ascend and descend more than once. Although Mary Magdalene should not hold on to him because he is still ascending (20:17), after that initial ascent a touchable Jesus seems to come and go at will for a while (see also John 21).
Within our current Western worldview, a dead body that becomes alive again cannot be explained by biology or physics. Thus, some Christians see Jesus’s resurrection as less a physical reality and more as a metaphor for new life and new spiritual insight. However, it is quite clear that Jesus’s disciples and the early church were totally convinced that Jesus had been bodily raised from death; some claimed to have seen and touched him! Otherwise, he would have been a failed messiah, and everyone would have gone back to their former lives and hoped for the real one to show up. Sightings of Jesus by one or two persons at a time might be dismissed as a vision, but these group experiences, especially if they included men (whose testimony counted for more than women’s in that culture), were the bedrock of belief for the early church (see also 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Questions for discussion and reflection:
1. Did Jesus bodily rise from death? What arguments pro or con make sense to you?
2. What are the political or spiritual implications if Jesus’s physical resurrection did or did not occur?
3. What kind of “believing” is implied in the epilogue? Do you consider yourself such a believer?