Seeing and Believing, the Faith of "Doubting" Thomas

Second Sunday of Easter, Year A,B,C

Acts 5:27-32
Revelation 5:11-14
John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31[1]

Exegetical and Translation Notes (plus a little bit of commentary)
When it was evening on that day,[2] the first day of the week,[3] and the doors of the house where the disciples[4] had met were locked for fear of the Jews,[5] Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”[6] 20 After he said this, he showed[7] them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced[8] when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”[9] 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them[10] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.[11] 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;[12] if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus and Thomas[13]
 24 But Thomas[14] (who was called the Twin[15]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him,[16] “We have seen the Lord.”[17] But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark[18] of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas,[19] “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”[20] 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”[21] 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?[22] Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The Purpose of This Book[23]
 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his[24] disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[25] that Jesus is the Messiah,[26] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Notes and thoughts on Preaching this Text
his passage represents the second and third of the four resurrection appearances in John. The first was in the garden and the fourth is on the beach in chapter 21. (John calls that one the third appearance. Either he can’t count or he can’t count women.)
There are dozens of interesting directions that this story could take you in this week. I’ll try to keep my comments down to just three.

Saving or strengthening?
The first one has to do with a very interesting textual problem in verse 31, that might give you a two (or three) point sermon and an opportunity for a teachable moment with your congregations about the methods and history of translations.

Verse 20:31 reads “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (NRSV). However, “come to believe” in most of our translations has a footnote. The NRSV’s says, “Other ancient authorities read may continue to believe.
What is behind that qualifier is that the phrase in Greek has a slight, slight variant that can dramatically alter the meaning of the whole, so the translation committees decided to offer them both. A thin majority of ancient texts have hina pisteuēste, which is in the aorist tense and means “come to believe.” However, a slight but significant minority, have hina pisteuēte, which is present tense and means “continue to believe.” The difference is one letter. The USB critical edition of the Greek New Testament (1972, 2nd ed.) has the word with a bracket around that one letter, like this hina pisteuē[s]te.

Now, the significance of this is that the slight-majority reading says the gospel was written so that you will change and become a believer in Jesus as the Messiah. In that case it is meant as an evangelical statement. But the slight-minority texts say it was written so that you (who are already believers) will continue to believe, in which case it is meant as a support or strengthening statement. One wants you to become a believer, the other wants you to put that belief into practice. Translators are not settled on this, and the difference is not minor.
It seems to me that as a preacher/interpreter one could either throw ones hands up and choose according to theology (Leon Morris’s conservative commentary claims John clearly means it as an evangelical statement, and Bultmann’s “liberal” commentary [which avoids the notion of Christ’s expiation] says it clearly is an existential statement), or one can use it as an opportunity to teach average church goers about the difficulties of translation and then preach a mini sermon based on both.

I could envision a Fred Craddock-style “Not this, not this, but this” sermon in which you tell of the conflict, wax a few minutes about what it could mean for you and me if translated one way and then a few minutes on what it would mean if it was translated the other way, and then have an inclusive conclusion based on both.

Suffered like me?
The second has to do with Jesus identifying with our wounds. Usually when we read that Thomas wants to see Jesus’ wounds we are saying that he wants tangible evidence of the existence of the risen lord. But maybe what Thomas is saying is that he refuses to follow a savior who does not have wounds. “Unless I see the wounds in his side I will not believe in him. I will not follow a savior who has not suffered like the rest of us.
Does this hearken back to the image in Isaiah of the suffering servant? Is Thomas saying that he can’t follow someone who has not borne the wounds of humanity? Or not suffered like other humans? Is he saying, “What good is a savior who has not suffered like I have?” This sounds similar to what Jesus was saying when he said that before he would be the Christ he would have to be arrested, tried, and executed. And similar to what the letter to the Hebrews meant when saying that to be our savior he must be tempted in every way, just like we were.
Hebrews 2:18: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
Imagine going to see a doctor and you said, “I have a pain here and there and I’m worried about it,” and the doctor said nothing but gave you a prescription? Compare that with a doctor who might say, “yeah, I’ve had that and I know exactly what you mean,” and then gave you a prescription. Which one would you be most likely to bond with?

In my own preaching I have on occasion told a story here and there about women who were battered or abused in their relationships. Usually people sympathize and then yawn. But I once had a female guest pastor preach for me and she told her own story of abuse, and after the service five women came up and said they wanted to talk. Unless they saw that she had been wounded like they had, they wouldn’t trust the speaker.

On Seeing and Believing
Finally, quick word on seeing, but not really seeing. Thomas was a follower of Jesus and certainly would have wanted to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But for whatever reason (redaction critics have had a field day trying to guess why John portrayed him this way) he seems to not want to believe based on the testimony of others, but only on the trustworthiness of his own eyes. In the end Jesus allows that to happen, but adds, “Have you believed because you have seen me?[27] Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Believing through seeing is fine, but sometimes conviction empowers understanding in a way that facts cannot.

Do you remember the old Ted Dansen and Joley Richardson movie, “Loch Ness” of the mid-nineties? It’s about a lonely, discredited, anthropologist, who goes to Scotland to see if he can prove the story of the Loch Ness Monster.  He rents a room from a widow and her daughter, and, of course, by the end of the movie they spark a relationship. At one point in the movie he has a talk with the daughter, played by Kirsty Graham, about the reality of the animal that no one has yet successfully proven the existence of. He tells her that he just can’t believe in something until he sees it (sound like Thomas?) and she responds that he’s got it all wrong. You really can’t see it until you believe in it (sound like Jesus?).

[1] 20:19-23  “Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples brings his bestowal of peace and of the Spirit, with assurance of his commissioning them to carry forward the work God gave to him, and the right to forgive or retain (hold them blameworthy for) the sins of members of the community” (Keck). “This appearance is astounding because Jesus apparently penetrated the closed room and manifested himself in their midst. He could do this because resurrection and the subsequent glorification had altered his form. In resurrection, he had become life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:42-45). At the same time, he still retained his humanity—but a glorified one. In resurrection, he was the same person in a different form (see Mark 16:12). In this new spiritual form, he was able to transcend all physical barriers. He was able to penetrate matter and even penetrate men.” New Commentary on the Whole Bible, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, General Editor: J. D. Douglas New Testament Editor: Philip W. Comfort (1995).
[2] That day, may have eschatological implications. In the OT, occasionally the term refers to the “day of the Lord.” Cf. Isaiah 52:6, “My people shall know my name; on that day they shall know it is I who speak.” John often uses this note of time (1:39; 5:9; 11:53; 14:20; 16:23, 26). John is using Roman time, not Jewish, for here evening follows day instead of preceding it. Note that NIB makes no reference to the eschatological possibilities, but instead says that its purpose here is to connect it with the previous story of the empty tomb where it is also used. Are these two theories mutually contradictory?
[3] First day of the week. John puts this event on the first day of the week, and the appearance to Thomas on the first day of the week, suggesting that the chronology may have been influenced by later Christian custom of celebrating the Lord's supper on the first day of the week. See Acts 22:7, 1 Cor. 16:2.
[4] “Disciples” (μαθητής/mathētḗs) masc. noun from manthánō, to learn, to understand. A learner, pupil. It certainly included his disciples, but not necessarily only them, and may have included the women followers as well. “Though in the NT μαθητής generally refers to men, it is neutral as to sex distinction, and thus in a few instances in the NT also includes women (as in Ac 6.1, πληθυνόντων τῶν μαθητῶν ‘the number of disciples kept growing’).” Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible societies, 1989), 1:470.
[5] For fear of the Jews, See John 7:13 for the phrase; cf. 12:42.
[6] Peace be with you (eirēnē humin). The usual salutation as in verses 21, 26; Luke 24:36. However, here it probably also is the fulfillment of with John 14:27, where Christ promised them his peace. Stoffregen says that it is usually used in John as a relational term, i.e. “may a peaceful relationship exist among you.” It doesn’t mean be calm, or have world peace. It means get along. “Whenever I see this word in the NT, I begin by defining it as a description of a type of relationship between people rather than a personal inner tranquility. The verbal form [ειρηνεύω - eirēneuō] always refers to relationships between people in the NT (Mk 9:50; Ro 12:18; 2C 13:11; 1Th 5:13). Given John’s emphasis on the disciples’ love for one another (13:35), I think it highly possible that it has a communal meaning. It is clear in 16:33 that peace does not mean “not having troubles in the world” -- which would tend to rule out the meanings eirene adopted from the Hebrew shalom.” 
[7]Showed” (edeixen, εδειξεν). First aorist active indicative of deiknumi, “This body, not yet glorified, retained the marks of the nails and of the soldier’s spear, ample proof of the bodily resurrection against the modern view that only Christ’s “spirit” arose and against the Docetic notion that Jesus had no actual human body. Luke (24:39f.) adds feet to hands and side.” (Word Pictures of the Greek New Testament)
[8] Rejoiced (echarēsan). Second aorist passive indicative of chairō.  Thayer’s has rejoice, be exceedingly glad, to be well, and thrive. Strong’s adds “be full of cheer.” 
[9] This is one of the three “commissions” given by the Risen Christ (another on the mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16-20; 1 Cor 15:6), another on the Mount of Olives (Luke 24:44-51; Acts 1:3-11).
[10] He breathed on them (enephusēsen, first aorist active indicative of emphusaō). “Here only in N.T., though eleven times in the LXX and in the papyri” (Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament). “In Greek, pneuma means both breath and spirit. In Genesis 2:7, God breathes into the nostrils of Adam, giving him earthly life; the Septuagint translation uses pneuma here” (Haslem). “It occurs also in Ezek 37:9. See Christ’s promise in John 16:23. Jesus gives the disciples a foretaste of the great Pentecost” (Word Pictures). “Jesus’ breathing into them recapitulates God’s breathing into Adam (see Gen. 2:7, LXX, where enephusÎsen is used) and thus denotes that Jesus’ infusion inspired a new genesis, in which he regenerated the disciples (see 1 Peter 1:3)” (New Commentary on the Whole Bible). Compare Ezekiel 37:5.
[11] There is an article that is missing here. The gift bestowed was not that of the personal Holy Spirit, but rather an earnest of that gift; an effusion of the Spirit.
[12] “They are forgiven them” (ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς). “Despite the present and the future tenses in many MSS, the variant apheōntai (perfect passive, ‘they are forgiven’) is probably original” (Barton, John and John Muddiman, The Oxford Bible Commentary, (London: Oxford University Press) 2001).
[13] 20:24-29  “Thomas, the absentee among the disciples, is first dubious about the resurrection claim, but then through a second appearance to the disciples he is shown the pierced hands and side of Jesus, and acclaims him as Lord and God” (Leander Keck).
[14] “Thomas.” (Thomás). “Twin.” Note that Didymus, below, means all but exactly the same thing. 
[15] “Twin” (Didymus). From äßò (twice); means double, that is, twin old Greek word. Note that the term “twelve” is still applied to the group, though Judas is dead. The same expression applied to Thomas in 11:16; 21:2, but nowhere else in N.T. (Robinson, Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament).
[16]The other disciples told him.” Note that it is the imperfect that is actually used here, “The other disciples kept telling him that ‘We have seen the Lord’.” The implication is clearly that they have repeatedly spoken to Thomas several time throughout the week.
[17]We have seen the Lord” (heōrakamen ton kurion). This is the very language in the plural that Mary Magdalene had used (20:18) when no one believed her.  
[18]The mark” (τὸν τύπον). The print or stamp made by the nails. The fact that he wants to see it implies the disciples had told him that they had seen the typon of the nails in his hands and the spear in his side.
[19]Then he said to Thomas” (eita legei tōi Thomāi ). Jesus turns directly to Thomas. The impression is given that the purpose for this visit is to speak to Thomas. He lists the very tests that Thomas had named (verse 25).
[20] “Do not doubt, but believe”( mē ginou apistos). “Although many translations include “doubt” in v. 27 -- and thus lead to the phrase “Doubting Thomas”, there is no Greek word for “doubt” in the verse. The contrast is between apistos and pistos—the only occurrence of both these words in John” (Brian Stoffregen). The word play is between apistos/ἄπιστος (disbelieving) and pistos/πιστός (believing), but not between doubting and believing. The KJV has Be not faithless” (KJV), which means something like, “stop disbelieving; start believing.”
[21] “My Lord and My God” C.K. Barrett sees in this phrase a portion of “the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.” A literal translation might be, “Lord of me (i.e. Jesus of history), God of me (i.e. Christ of faith).” “In 13:13–14 Jesus used ‘teacher’ and ‘lord’ as synonyms, but now ‘my Lord’ designates the risen Christ. ‘My God’ resumes the description of Jesus in the Prologue as ‘God’ (1:1, 18). In the OT Lord and God are associated terms (e.g. Ps 7:2–3; 30:3). This is more likely to be the background than the pagan acclamation of the emperor as Lord and God (but see Suetonius, Dom. 13: ‘dominus et deus noster’) (Oxford Bible Commentary).
[22] “Have you believed because you have seen me?” “Both verbs are perfect tense, which implies …a past action with continued effect in the present. This sentence also poses a punctuation problem: Is it a question as the nrsv translates it or a declaration as the niv translates it (“‘Because you have seen, you have believed’”)? We have the declaration: “Seeing is believing.” It’s not always true, but we say it” (Brian Stoffregen).
[23] 20:30-31  “The original conclusion of John's Gospel. The author indicates that he has chosen to report this group of Jesus' signs in order to persuade his readers that Jesus is the Messiah and to show them that through trust in him they may obtain life as God intended it to be” (Keck) .
[24] Although most MSS, including several important ones (𝔓66 א C D L W Θ Ψ f1, 13 33 𝔐 lat), read ατο (autou, “his”) after τν μαθητν (tōn mathētōn, “the disciples”), the pronoun is lacking in A B K Δ 0250 al. The weight of the witnesses for the inclusion is somewhat stronger than that for the exclusion. However, the addition of “his” to “disciples” is a frequent scribal emendation and as such is a predictable variant. It is thus most likely that the shorter reading is authentic. NA27 puts the pronoun in brackets, indicating doubts as to its authenticity.” NET Bible: First Edition (Biblical Studies Press, 2005).
[25] “Come to believe.” nrsv note: Other ancient authorities read may continue to believe. A thin majority of ancient texts have hina pisteuēste, which is in the aorist tense and means “come to believe.” However, a smaller but significant minority, have hina pisteuēte, which is present tense and means “continue to believe.” The difference is one letter. Most critical editions of the Greek New Testaments (mine is UBS 1972, 2nd ed.) have the word with a bracket around that one letter, like this hina pisteuē[s]te. The significance is that the slight-majority reading says the Gospel was written so that you will change and become a believer in Jesus as the Messiah. In that case it is meant as an evangelical statement. The slight-minority texts say it was written so that you (who are already believers) will continue to believe, in which case it is meant as a support or strengthening statement. One wants you to become a believer, the other wants you to put that belief into practice. One is written to bring you into the community, and the other is written be the community, that is, live up to what the community was meant to be.
[26] nrsv Note: Or the Christ
[27] It doesn’t change the overall meaning much, but the phrase “Have you believed because you have seen me?” (NRSV) could also be punctuated as a declarative statement, not as a question which would give, “Because you have seen, you have believed” (NIV).