translation and commentary on John’s gospel
JOHN 20: 19
On the evening of that day, the first after the Sabbath Rest, although the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Judaeans, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace upon you.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace upon you. As the father has sent me, so I am sending you.”
And when he had said this he breathed upon them and said to them, “Receive holy breath. If you let go the sins of any people, they are let go from them; if you keep the sins of any, they are kept.”
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called The Twin, was not with them when Jesus came, so the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not put my trust in this.”
After eight days the disciples were again indoors and Thomas with them. Although the doors were locked Jesus came and stood in the midst and said, “Peace upon you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here and see my hands; reach your hand here and thrust it into my side and do not withhold your trust but place your trust in me.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you trusted me because you have seen me? How happy are those who have not seen and yet have put their trust in me!”
The locked room is a symbol a) of the disciples’ lack of trust b) of Thomas’s and c) of the unbelieving world. I have noted that I do not consider these stories of Jesus’ appearances to be historically factual. I imagine the process by which the disciples arrived at faith in the risen Jesus to be lengthier and more various than the gospel says. I think the writer of this gospel knew that and carefully told his stories to emphasise the key elements of the process:
- The appearances of Jesus take place at his initiative and not the disciples’: they are not the authors of resurrection faith; he is.
- The risen Jesus is recognisable as a bodily person but his body is no longer subject to the laws of nature.
- His identity is not immediately evident and is proven by his wounds. Thomas’s worship is a response to the sight of the wounds, as is the disciples’ gladness in seeing the Lord. The repetition of this motif is meant to emphasise that resurrection trust is not in some undifferentiated divine presence but in the aliveness of the crucified Jesus.
- The appearance of Jesus is also an empowerment and a commission. Jesus breathes upon them and asks them to receive “holy breath”. I translate in this strange way because the Greek has no definite article, which means the author is not referring to THE Holy Spirit, but to “holy spirit or breath”. The spirit of the risen Jesus is given to the disciples, so that he may send them out to set people free from their sins, as he had done. Those whose sins are “kept” that is, not forgiven, by the disciples will kept for God’s judgement. The power of “binding and loosing” as it is called in Matthew and Luke, is an important indication of the authority of the “apostles” derived as it seems to be from the authority of a Jewish Rabbi to judge whether certain behaviours are within Torah obedience or not. In the phraeology of this gospel, as I interpret it, it refers to the ministry of announcing God’s forgiveness and renewal, which is available to all but only received by those who turn away from sin towards God. The sins of those who do not turn are “kept”.
- The appearance of Jesus does not rule out the trust of the disciple. Even faced with an “appearance” a person can reject it as a projection of group or individual longing; and if told about an appearance to others, dismiss it as Thomas does. His objection is not a denial of his colleagues’ spiritual experience, but a denial of its identity. His trust is restored when he experiences the presence of the crucified Jesus, and acknowledges him as Lord and God, the only time apart from the prologue to the gospel where the word “God” without qualification is applied to Jesus. Jesus’ blessing of those who trust without seeing addresses all who have trusted in him beyond his “appearances” to disciples. They have to trust the evidence of their own transformed lives, of the aliveness of the crucified Jesus in themselves.
* All images are from Caravaggio’s great painting of this incident