God is a missionary God; we are to be a missionary people
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 20:19-31
This week, at the end of John's narrative, John uses Thomas the disciple to illustrate the purpose of his Gospel. John's Gospel is not simply an interesting story to be read, but an invitation to a relationship with the living God. And then we are to use it today to continue the mission Jesus gave the first disciples 2,000 years ago.
As the Father has sent me, I also send you. (20:21)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Your Most Important Responsibility
This is one of those topics that can get really interesting the further you take it. You have responsibilities as an employee, a student, a family member, a community member, a Christian, etc. Within those compartments, which of those responsibilities are the most important? And then rank those responsibilities across compartments -- give yourself one list that works for your entire life.
And then the kicker: based on how you spend your time and energy, which responsibilities are treated as the most important to you?
In this week's passage, Jesus is going to give His disciples a mission. I'm hoping it leads to some fruitful discussion for us!
Your Biggest Doubts
This week's passage is the famous "Doubting Thomas" event. We're going to talk about how Thomas's characterization in popular culture kinda misses the point, but it makes for an easy topic. We all have our doubts, as the saying goes. What are yours?
Here are a few article titles that cut to the chase:
That last article, which is from March, is obviously where I'm headed with this topic, but let's not gloss over the other kinds of doubts people have.
Here's a fascinating chart -- look at how many people doubt the words of professors and journalists and elected officials (and that was back in to good ol' days of 2018!)
What scenario is most likely to end with you saying "I doubt it"?
Doubts in Your Faith
You might want to save this for later in your group time. There are two common definitions of faith when it comes to Christianity --
Faith as a noun = "the total content of what Christians believe"
Faith as a verb = "trusting in God in spite of our doubts"
Certainly, those two are related. Any time we cover a difficult doctrine in our Bible studies, something we don't understand or "like", I try to address it head-on. Those kinds of difficult teachings can give people doubt. And that Barna survey I mentioned above reveals that lots of Christians have doubts:
The article doesn't go into much detail about what people specifically doubt. So, I'll leave that as a question for your group: what are the parts of your Christian faith where you have doubts? What are those doubts?
Some doubts are relatively easy to counter (like "does God really love me?") -- the Bible is clear, and we need to believe the Bible more than our own fears. But some doubts are very difficult to counter (including a lot of questions that begin with "why?"). How would you help a group member if he/she expresses a doubt along those lines?
Where We Are in John
We made it! We're through the darkness and stepping into the light. The disciples aren't quite there yet, but they're getting there, led (of all people) by "Doubting Thomas".
For all intents and purposes, we are covering the "end" of John's Gospel. John wrote an Epilogue (to bookend his Prologue), but the summary conclusion of the Gospel proper is 20:31 (which the official lesson plan didn't include for reasons I don't understand).
Here's a quick outline of the book:
The Beginning of Jesus' Public Ministry (2:1-4:54)
Who Jesus Is (5:1-8:11)
The Conflict Builds (8:12-10:42)
The End of Jesus' Public Ministry (11:1-12:50)
Jesus' "Farewell Discourse" (13:1-17:26)
The Crucifixion (18:1-19:42)
The Resurrection (20:1-31)
And here's how it looks when we focus on this week's passage:
The Resurrection (20:1-31)
The Empty Tomb (20:1-10)
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18)
Jesus Appears to the Disciples (20:19-23)
Jesus Appears to Thomas (20:24-29)
How It All Ties Together -- the Purpose of the Gospel (20:30-31)
As we study this week's passage, realize that John the author is using this as the culmination of his entire Gospel. Everything comes down to this!
This Week's Big Idea: John's Pentecost "vs." Luke's Pentecost
Before we get into that, let me take one detour. My guess is that this will come up at some point during your discussion:
John 19:22 After saying this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit."
Acts 2:4 Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them.
But Acts 2 takes place almost two months after John 19. So, which is it?
Hopefully, your radar just went off -- this sounds like an argument as to which Bible author is right and which is wrong. But we believe that the whole Bible is "right" -- that it was all superintended by the Holy Spirit that these two authors have mentioned. So, if they're both "right", then what do they both mean?
If you do enough reading, you'll find a few common explanations:
John has changed Luke's event to make it match his narrative.
John reports a partial gift of the Spirit, fully realized at Pentecost.
In John, Jesus is symbolizing what will happen at Pentecost.
In John, Jesus is giving the apostles the spiritual gift of apostleship.
John reports when the disciples are saved.
There are challenges (some big ones) with those "solutions". The easiest way I can illustrate those challenges is to point to Thomas (who is going to be a big deal in our study). So, because Thomas was out running errands, like buying food for the scaredy-cat disciples, he just missed out on this whole thing? He missed out on being saved, or being spiritually gifted? And so did Jesus have to walk around Jerusalem and find all of the people who weren't in the upper room and breathe on them, too? It gets silly quickly.
Instead, we can remember one very simple truth (that John the author has hammered again and again) -- the Holy Spirit isn't a "thing" to be given (or a "power" to be used). That's why the idea of a "partial gift" makes no sense.
Instead, and we will get much more into this below, we realize that this is the culmination of an intense theological/Trinitarian truth that John the author has been trying to explain to us all along -- Jesus has invited His disciples (and us) into a relationship with the Triune God, a relationship that is initiated and established by God the Spirit. The event recorded in John's Gospel is the beginning, and it fully breaks out in Luke's Acts.
In other words, the giving of the Spirit is one event that takes place from the Resurrection to Pentecost, and it continues to this day. We are still experiencing the same pouring out of the Spirit. But more on this below.
Part 1: The Mission of the Church (John 20:19-23)
19 When it was evening on that first day of the week, the disciples were gathered together with the doors locked because they feared the Jews. Jesus came, stood among them, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 Having said this, he showed them his hands and his side. So the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” 22 After saying this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I'm going to cite Luke's Gospel at length here because it helps me understand the environment in the room. This follows the "Walk to Emmaus" event:
Luke 24:33 That very hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and those with them gathered together, 34 who said, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they began to describe what had happened on the road and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
36 As they were saying these things, he himself stood in their midst. He said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. 38 “Why are you troubled?” he asked them. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself! Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” 40 Having said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 But while they still were amazed and in disbelief because of their joy, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 So they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 He told them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 46 He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47 and repentance for forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. As for you, stay in the city until you are empowered from on high.”
John the author took a much sparser view of this incredible evening. Why? Well, it must be because he wanted to make things as clear as possible for his readers.
First, note the reference to "the first day of the week" -- Sunday. "The eighth day", as it were -- the day of a "new creation". John the author has been repeatedly making allusions to the book of Genesis (and those allusions will help us understand some of the more difficult things happening here).
When the early Christians moved their day of worship from the Sabbath (Saturday) to the Resurrection (Sunday), that was a huge culture shift. And I think we can safely say that John the author, after many decades of watching the church grow, saw this event as "the first church meeting". We know from Luke that the disciples had gathered together to talk about Jesus -- several of them had seen Him alive! (The leader guide says "eleven" disciples, but both Judas and Thomas were gone, and there were at least two others presents -- so, this could have been a group of followers of almost any size.)
But second, note the references to locked doors and fear. This was not yet the kind of church meeting we would hope to see in the future. (Or was it? Isn't Jesus about to "show up" and overcome their fear and doubt? Perhaps we could say that this was as authentic a church meeting as there could be? But I digress.)
But then the high point -- Jesus shows up. Locked doors and fear cannot keep Him from His people. Please don't get sidetracked by how Jesus got into the room. It doesn't have to be anything miraculous! If Jesus had arranged for this upper room to be made available to His disciples, wouldn't it be just as likely that He had a key? (I know, anticlimactic, but I'm just saying.) The miracle that matters is that Jesus was back from the dead.
Jesus immediately offers them peace (Luke matches this exactly). This was a common Jewish greeting (shalom), but we know from the rest of the New Testament that Jesus meant a lot more than that. I would go so far as to say that everything we studied in Romans 5 is captured in Jesus' "simple" greeting:
Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (5:1-5)
Jesus is not just greeting the disciples; He is blessing them.
Then Jesus shows them His wounds/scars. Unfortunately, this brief statement has led to some incredibly bizarre (and ridiculous) episodes of "Christian spirituality". Surely you have heard of "stigmata"? This is a thing in Roman Catholicism in which people who become "so close to Jesus" that they develop "crucifixion wounds" on their hands and feet. Note that these wounds (like in this picture of Padre Pio) were always on the hands (which is not where the Romans drove spikes), so you can color me skeptical of these reports.
That aside, why would Jesus show them the wounds? People often read this as if Jesus were proving to the disciples who He was. But why would He need to do that? And don't we believe that our own resurrection bodies will be "perfect"? I think we can say that the difference between Jesus' resurrection body and our future resurrection body explains why Jesus showed them His wounds. What did those wounds represent? The price that was paid for our salvation. This is Jesus saying to His disciples, "It is finished, and here is the proof that I have overcome."
The disciples are not just reuniting with their friend, they are encountering the Risen Lord.
To make that clear, Jesus immediately commissions them. But we almost immediately lose the oomph of this commission:
As the Father has sent me, I also send you.
Those are two different words in the Greek! John the author does this regularly, and always with careful intent. The words are synonyms, and they roughly mean the same thing, so Jesus' point is most likely that His mission was slightly different than ours.
Realize that "sending" is always related to a "mission". People are sent to accomplish a mission (purpose). But let's not bury the lead -- Jesus is saying that He is a missionary. His relationship with His Father is based on a mission. In this, we can say from this simple statement that God is a missionary God.
Just think about that for a moment.
God the Father sent Jesus into our world as a missionary. What was Jesus' mission?
And now Jesus is sending His followers into the world as missionaries. What is our mission?
Here's the discussion I would love for your group to have: how is our mission similar to Jesus' mission? How is it different?
As Baptists, we are very aware of the clarity Jesus gave this mission in Matthew 28 ("The Great Commission"), which we have studied before. Use that passage if you need help with identifying the "mission" of our church.
But John the author goes a different direction with this than Matthew did, and this is where things get fascinating. (Wait, we're still in the first part of the lesson? Oh dear.)
The first thing Jesus did after commissioning the disciples was to "breathe" on them. But Jesus didn't use the common form of the word "breathe" (the word that is associated with "spirit"/pneuma). In fact, this is the only time this particular word appears in the New Testament! That must mean something very important. Well, guess what the very few appearances of this word in the Septuagint are?
Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being. (Gen 2:7)
He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man. Say to it: This is what the Lord God says: Breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these slain so that they may live!” (Ezek 37:9)
And then it is used a couple of times to describe a hot wind. That's it. This is a very specific word used to describe when God gave life to people. Hence, the clear parallel with Genesis and Creation.
If we can say that God's creation of humanity is the "highpoint" of Creation, we can by deduction realize that to John the author, God's re-creation of humanity in the "highpoint" of his Gospel.
This is why I believe we can see John 20 and Acts 2 as part of the same event/process. Creation itself was a six-day process, and it continued long after that first Sabbath. Likewise, the re-creation that began in Luke 20 and really broke out in Acts 2 continues to this day.
In that moment, those disciples became the seed of the "new humanity" -- the church. And they were being sent into the world to complete the mission that was first given to Adam, then to the descendants of Abraham, and then finally realized in Jesus.
I know that people in your group will ask, "But what does that mean??" Take it back to the context -- Jesus has just commissioned His disciples and then tells them to "receive the Holy Spirit". Most importantly and most clearly, the giving of the Spirit is directly related to our mission. And the passive tense is a reminder that we cannot do this for ourselves.
But then things take a weird turn (from our perspective) --
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
This immediately makes me think of something Jesus said in Matthew 16:
“Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.” (16:17-19)
We studied that several years ago, so I won't repeat myself here. It seems that the primary thing at stake here is the importance of the disciples' mission. Their success/failure directly connects to the eternal destination of human souls and their relationship with God Almighty.
[Aside: yes, misunderstanding this authority this led to the worst abuses in Christian history (not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. And yes, those abuses have created more than a few of the doubts we mentioned at the very beginning. That's not on Jesus -- that's on Jesus' followers.]
Part 2: And Then There's Thomas (John 20:24-27)
24 But Thomas (called “Twin”), one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples were telling him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “If I don’t see the mark of the nails in his hands, put my finger into the mark of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were indoors again, and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and look at my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Don’t be faithless, but believe.”
I'm changing the grouping of these verses to make clearer sense of the verses' point.
Thomas gets raked over the coals for this passage. We've even given him a nickname that's so familiar, non-Christians know it!
The key phrase is that Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus appeared to them. And then look -- a week has passed! (Unanswerable question: what was Jesus doing that week?)
Readers today tend to make this about what Thomas requires in order to believe -- tangible proof. But to John the author, this episode is actually about what Thomas doesn't believe: the witness of the disciples.
Jesus is going to come in with a rebuke of Thomas. The phrase "don't be faithless, but believe" is actually a pair of nouns: "Don't be an unbeliever, but a believer." To Jesus, it's not about the what but the why. Remember, the other disciples didn't believe Jesus was raised until they saw Him with their own eyes!! In that way, Thomas is no different than them. What's different is that Thomas has directly rejected the clear testimony of the disciples. And what is the mission Jesus has sent the disciples on? To be His witnesses.
So what happens when one of the disciples doesn't believe his own mission?
That's what Jesus is rebuking.
But as we will see in just a moment, John the author is using Thomas to represent all of his future readers (us). We haven't seen Jesus with our eyes. What's it going to take for Thomas to believe? What will it take for us to believe?
This would be the place to talk about doubts if you didn't do it earlier. What doubts have you heard about Christianity? What doubts have you had about Christianity? What did it take for you to overcome those doubts? (Or, what will it take?)
Part 3: The Purpose of John's Gospel (John 20:28-31)
28 Thomas responded to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Note that Thomas didn't actually have to touch Jesus in order to believe, revealing his earlier words as bravado/hyperbole. (Incidentally, this should give us hope about our friends/family who may have said that they would never believe in Jesus.)
Thomas is the first one to identify Jesus as "Lord" and "God", but he says so much more than that by using the word "my". Thomas is the first one to "get it". And then John the author uses Thomas as the model for what he wants for all of his readers. John's Gospel is not simply an interesting story to be read, but an invitation to a relationship with the living God.
Jesus identifies two kinds of "witnesses"/"proofs" of His identity. In John's Gospel, they are called "signs". And John the author built his entire Gospel around these "signs" (which we have studied these past six months). So Jesus is not rebuking Thomas for his desire for a sign -- Thomas has already seen these signs.
No, the rebuke relates to the second kind of "witness": the people who are spreading the stories of Jesus to those who have not heard or seen. Thomas rejected their testimony. Blessed are the people who accept their testimony -- and that includes us.
In this, Thomas represents us. But he does so in the most hopeful way possible -- someone who knew and saw and still doubted but then believed.
That's why I think you should extend the lesson to go through the end of the chapter. John the author explains that this is the whole reason he wrote his Gospel. Thomas walked with Jesus and still rejected the testimony of the disciples (for a time). And those disciples could only go to so many places and talk to so many people before they would die (which John the author would sadly be able to observe from afar). What about the people who would come after? What about the people who were living on the other side of the world?
This is John the author saying to us, "This is all I can give you: my testimony. But my testimony is based on what I saw with my own eyes and what I heard with my own ears. Please believe me! Your very soul depends on it."
What an amazing, powerful, and desperate charge. I can only imagine what John must have been feeling as he approached the end of his life, knowing that He was the last of the eyewitnesses. What would become of the church and her mission?
Well, that's a question for us, now, isn't it?
Closing Thoughts: Worship and Mission
I wanted to end my post with this incredible statement from that Klink commentary I have been raving about:
The lack of missions in so many of our churches is not to be explained by poor strategies or programs but by poor worship. By "worship" we do not mean music and singing but the alignment of the church to the nature of God and the linking of our ecclesial life to the eternal life of the Trinitarian God. The more we participate in God and according to God, the more missional our churches will become. Quite simply, the more we look like God in the person of Jesus Christ -- cruciform and self-sacrificing -- the more we will act like him and live "sent".
Wow. Drop the mic.