Relevant Passages John 20:1-21:25
The Power of the Resurrection. None of the Gospels leave Jesus in the tomb. On the first day of the week the tomb is empty. That points to a precious hope for the Christian and an object of great puzzlement and scorn for the non-believer. Three quotes are worth noting as a backdrop to the study of last two chapters in John’s Gospel. One is from the New Testament (Paul), one from a modern rationalist (Ute Ranke-Heinemann), and one from a modern believer (C. S. Lewis):
Paul: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19, NRSV).
Ranke-Heinemann, the title and subtitle of her book, published in Germany in 1992 as Nein und Amen, and by Harper in English in 1994 as: Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith.
Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 108: “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had – and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a ‘great man,’ but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The ‘Gospels’ come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made.”
- Evidence, testing, doubting. The official Sabbath School study guide notes that the New Testament records eleven separate post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, four of which are recorded in John 20-21, three in chapter 20. How did these appearances affect those who saw him? Were they stronger believers as a result? What about those who can never see Jesus in the flesh? How are they to believe? Note this quote from the Study Guide: “A true Christian experience comes not by seeing and touching but by believing on the words of Jesus, whether spoken in the flesh or in the written testimonies of His disciples.”A crucial question may be put this way: How does one “believe all things” (1 Cor. 13:7) at the same time that one is attempting to “test everything” in order to “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Where does doubt fit in – and evaluating the evidence? Is it possible that doubt can lead to a more settled faith in the end?
- Personal presence and emotion. In the last two chapters of John, Jesus’ appearances trigger powerful emotions, but also a certain awkwardness. When Mary understands that she is actually in the presence of Jesus, she doesn’t stay long, but runs to tell the disciples (20:16-18). When Peter recognizes Jesus on the shore, he quickly splashes ashore. But the account in John suggests that during the breakfast which Jesus helped prepare, there wasn’t much conversation at all (cf. 21:9-13). Two questions come to mind: First, how important was Jesus’ personal presence after the resurrection? His appearances were few and brief and he did almost no “teaching.” The second question is a related one: What is the proper role for “emotion” in religion? Will “emotion” play a different role for different people? Do we sometimes give the impression that there is a standard “Christian” emotional response which we are all to share?
- Fishing again. It seems that the disciples were discouraged and that’s why they went fishing – but caught nothing until Jesus came to their rescue. But one intriguing feature of the narrative is the conversation between Jesus and Peter after breakfast. In particular, it contains some interesting shifts in the use of the word “love.” As recorded in John, when Jesus asked Peter if Peter loved him, Jesus used the word for the highest form of love, agape, the love which is a high principle more than an emotion. But Peter responded by using the word which points to emotional love, philia. And this happened twice. Jesus: “Do you have agape love for me?” Peter: “You know I have philia love for you.” But with the third question, Jesus came to Peter’s word: “Alright, Peter, you have said that you have philia love for me. Do you?” And that’s when Scripture records that Peter was “hurt” because of Jesus’ third question (21:17). Typically, commentators in recent years have been shy about calling attention to this feature of John 21, probably because Jesus and his disciples were most likely speaking in Aramaic, while the Gospel of John has come down to us in Greek.
Now the interesting question is: To what extent is it helpful for a Gospel writer to move beyond the raw historical facts and add additional meaning? Does the biblical material need to be “historical” to be true and helpful? The official Sabbath School study guide has suggested several times that the purpose of John’s Gospel was to speak to the needs of people who could no longer see Jesus or who had never seen him, in other words, second generation Christians. But that would mean that John’s Gospel is no longer simply history, but rather applied history, suggesting that we don’t really know exactly what Jesus said and did. To what extent can such a perspective be helpful and to what extent is it potentially troubling?
- Signs to encourage belief, but blessings for those who believe without signs. Jesus’ comments to Thomas are followed in John’s Gospel by the author’s own statement of purpose. Simply hearing these two comments together helps us understand the paradoxical nature of evidence and belief. And that is a crucial issue which will continue to challenge Christians until Jesus comes again:
- John 20:29-31 (NRSV): “Jesus said to him [Thomas]: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.”