The Gospel of John was written many years after the resurrection of Jesus. It remains a powerful witness to all that transpired, and recounts the effect on those who remained faithful. It clarifies and addresses many of the author’s concerns for the early struggling Christian church.
A key to understanding this week’s passage is its connection to previous sections of John’s Gospel. “That day” in the opening verse (John 20:19) links it with Mary’s Easter witness just prior (John 20:1–18). We find parallels between the two stories, for example, there are disciples (two) in the first passage and disciples (10) in the second; Mary Magdalene in the first, and Thomas in today’s text. Each character experiences some facet of the resurrection, and each story describes faith, as well as belief transcending doubt.
The disciples, filled with grief and despair, are in a locked room. Their best friend has just been killed and their world turned upside down. Huddled together, they fear for their own safety as their hearts dangle somewhere between faithful hope and not daring a single hopeful thought.
Then, despite the locked door, he is there. Jesus is with them, breathing words of peace; fulfilling all the promises he made before he left. (See the farewell discourse in John 14—17.) The words Christ speaks to the disciples empower and encourage them, and later the fledgling first-century church. His words remind every generation since that we belong to Christ regardless of circumstance, anxiety, fear, or doubt—in life as well as death. In Pentecostal significance he speaks peace, commissions the disciples to go out, and then confers on them the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promised Comforter is now with them and with the church; they are not alone. God empowers the ministry and witness of all disciples from that day forward.
Jesus is gone when Thomas joins them, and though the disciples provide a detailed account of Christ’s presence, Thomas will not believe unless he sees for himself. A week later Jesus appears again, urging Thomas to believe. Thomas’ proclamation, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28) becomes the witness of generations to come, “who have not seen” but still “come to believe” (v. 29).
Twenty-first century disciples can relate to many parts of today’s scripture story. When things get difficult we tend to prepare for the worst by clinging to one another apart from the world. If we aren’t careful we can become a closed-in church, where we go the meeting place, hurry inside, do our Sunday program, walk back out and hustle away.
Though we sing of faith and proclaim Jesus Christ, we can also doubt, just like Thomas. We keep long lists of questions about Christianity, scripture, commitment, how we fit in, the hardships of life, finding God, and what the church is doing to make a difference in the world.
John speaks to us about going from belief to action. For John, belief is not something we have, it is something we do. To believe in the promises of God through Christ is to trust the healing saving action of God in the world and live as if it were true. Finally, faith occurs amid life and all its uncertainties. Trust breaks through and we come to the place of seeing, which brings us to a point of action as we move out in faith to follow the Christ one step at a time. That is when we become the people Jesus described as he spoke to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).