“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” GNB (Good News Bible)
This is the 12th memory verses that I will use as a guide/focal point to writing these articles. The “Table of Contents” is available in the series introductory article.
Immediate Literary Context
The passage that provides the immediate literary context is John 20:24-29. Our memory verse is the concluding statement from Jesus which summarises the topic of faith when the disciple Thomas encountered Jesus after th resurrection.
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peacebe with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Now it is also important to contextualise this passage in terms of the whole chapter. John 20 begins with the empty tomb – verses 1 to 10. The next eight verses are dedicated to Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. Verses 19 to 23 cover Jesus appearance to the disciples as a group. Five whole verses for the majority of his group of believers. The passage above is another six verses dedicated to documenting the interaction between Thomas and Jesus. So, as a chapter, two individuals get a lot of attention whereas the group appearance is relatively glossed over. Now, from a simplistic analysis, Mary Magdalene’s story is even more significant than Thomas’ by virtue of the number of verses. Ignoring the verses and instead focusing a level deeper on the number of words within each passage, Mary Magdalene’s story is told in 217 English-translated words, using the NIV translation as the basis for measurement. The appearance to all disciples bar Thomas occupies 111 words and the Thomas appearance is 158 words. Now, the only worthwhile observation from this kind of basic analysis is simply to highlight that Thomas’ experience was important to John for him to call out. Further, John’s Gospel is the only record of the event; all other Gospel writers did not see fit to mention it.
The temptation is to separate out the appearances from each other. However, when we dig deeper at Verse 24, John explains that Thomas was not with the other disciples, for some unexplained reason, when Jesus first came and appeared to them en mass. Now, Jesus could have waited for Thomas, but He also chose not to. So, it is important to compare and consider the detail provided in verses 19 through 23 to get a baseline understanding of the disciples’ general experience. Verse 20 is super important because it shows that Jesus showed “them his hands and side“. Now, immediately preceding, Jesus had appeared, stood amongst them and proclaimed peace. As part of giving the disciples a peace of mind, he supported what he said with action and tangible proof. The very fact that the first part of verse 20 exists reflects a sequence of events which go undocumented at the level of detail given to Thomas’ experience – why else did Jesus have to show the disciples his hands and side if they did not ask to see it? The conclusion I draw here is that Thomas’ request for evidence and proof was NO different to this peers.
When Thomas did finally catch up and join the disciples, he would have been bombarded by all the others carrying the good news that Jesus had appeared amongst them, and that they had seen Him. Not just one disciple told Thomas, but several of them. The focus here becomes a case of how we react under similar conditions. We have to remember that the initial head space for the disciples was a state of grief and confusion; they had just gone through the trauma of having seen Jesus crucified during Passover. The notion of Jesus being alive and having appeared to the disciples had only been cryptically referenced during Jesus’ teachings; usually in indirect self-reference terms like “the Son of Man”. John had documented earlier at the end of chapter 12, that even through the documented signs recorded in his book served as testimony, still many did not believe. Thomas’ attitude and request aligned him to this audience behaviour of yet still demanding more proof. Verse 37 states:
Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him…
The condition imposed by Thomas is clear and absolute: personal verification by sight, direct access by eye contact and nothing less. This stance for Thomas is possible because he was the only disciple placed in the situation where he had been told of Jesus’ return separate to being an actual witness. Until Jesus’ actual appearance, Thomas was called to exercise faith and believe his peers. For the other disciples, this opportunity to exercise faith was not given; there was no precursor event calling them to believe first. Instead, most of the disciples were simply present at the source event of Jesus’ appearance. Thomas even intensified his conditions of faith by adding the need not only to see but also to touch Jesus at the very marks of his crucifixion:
“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe”
In this way, Thomas developed his own self-driven basis for determining truth: not just his personal direct ability to see the visible scars of crucifixion but also to the extent of touching those marks. This was an absolute condition; non-negotiable for believing. Any other evidence became inadmissible. Thomas treated the disciples’ affirmation that they have seen the Lord with a certain measure of scepticism that bordered on rejection (unless… I will not..). An unyielding attitude is described here, a situation where believing seems to be unthinkable without seeing, without direct physical evidence and verification.
Jesus later appeared to the entire group of disciples when Thomas was present. After the greeting protocol (Peace be upon you) Jesus immediately addressed the challenge and attitude of Jesus by
Contrast Thomas and the disciples’ reaction with Mary Magdalene. The context for her is slightly different since she initially was grieving. Jesus’ appearance was cast in a very different nature such that he was present but not yet recognised. The way Jesus got her attention and recognition was simply by calling out her name, and by this personal recognition, it allowed her to similarly recognise the familiarity in Jesus as her teacher. Now, we again do not have the full record of first reactions of each disciple in the group setting other than the simple statement that they “were overjoyed when they saw the Lord”. Thomas’ reaction is the clearest though:
“My Lord and my God!”
One observation which is key to the passage is the intentional use of the word(s) saw and seen. This language is used to describe Jesus being seen by the disciples. Jesus showed the disciples through his unveiling, and they saw and recognised Him. The Greek root word for “see”, taken from verses 20-24, is an expression of the experience of the disciples’ encounter with Christ and of their faith in Him. The depth behind the ability to “see” and “be seen” here adds a multifaceted dimension to Jesus and these encounters with the disciples. Jesus was not just seen in the physical sense, but the disciples finally understood what He had been teaching over the last three years. All the cryptic hints and parables about Jesus as the Son of Man, and the Kingdom of God/Heaven were finally revealed in this first encounter post crucifixion/resurrection.
Wider Literary Context
Since this memory verse is also from the Gospel of Mark, the same commentary and article content from Memory Verse #10: John 13:34 applies.
The core message from this passage and memory verse goes to the heart of matters of faith. ALL the disciples were witness to Jesus’ physical scars, not just Thomas. Thomas has been singled out for this instruction by John because of the stance he had taken when the disciples attempted to convince him that they had encountered the risen Lord.
So the first application opportunity and lesson to glean here is a bit of a double-edged sword. It is easy for us as the reader of the New Testament, and as a believer to simply discredit Thomas because we know he is wrong in holding on to doubt.
The following points are all aspects gleaned from the passage within chapter 20, not just the immediate appearance by Jesus to Thomas:
- The truths we believe need to be solid truths, built on firm foundations. (The disciples witnessed Jesus in the flesh and knew 100% He was risen)
- As the disciples did, we too need to encounter and seek Jesus first. When we seek Jesus, He will meet us half way.
- Even if circumstances are unfavourable, Jesus can still break through the barriers and overcome them. (He appeared in the midst of the disciples even though the door was closed)
- We need to be able to identify and recognise Jesus as our Lord, God. (Reaction of Thomas when he finally saw Jesus)
- Being filled with the Holy Spirit (Jesus breathed on the disciples) will help us discern truth and develop faith.
- God will help us through our struggles of unbelief. He knows those matters that lay on our hearts and minds.
- We, like the disciples, need to help and support those (like Thomas) who struggle in their lack of faith – to help restore their faith.
- When we lack faith and struggle, cry out to God as our Lord and Saviour – in Him our hope and assurance has been found.