Jesus’ Resurrection Appearances

Friday, 01 Nov 2019

Our world makes a radical separation between the realms of “truth” (for example, fact, science, reason) and “values” (opinion, religion, emotion).1 Yet the final two chapters of John’s Gospel make an intimate and unbreakable connection between true knowledge of Jesus and true belief in Jesus; there is no division between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” The early-twentieth-century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, drawing from a long pedigree of Christian theology, shows that faith is actually a kind of knowledge—indeed, a certain knowledge!—even if it is not the same kind of knowledge as that compelled through scientific observation and proof.2 John wrote his Gospel account to lead the reader into the true belief in Jesus that is also true knowledge of Jesus: “These things have been written in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, by believing, you might have life in his name” (20:31; all emphases added),3 with Jesus having already defined eternal life as the knowledge of the only true God and his Son (17:3).

As John narrates Jesus’ resurrection appearances, he repeatedly underscores this link between faith and knowledge. There is a loose pattern repeated throughout John 20–21: the disciples’ ignorance and unbelief, which are then confronted by Jesus’ own knowledge of them, which then leads to their true knowledge of and faith in him. In his final two chapters, John invites us to follow Jesus with the struggling disciples, moving out of our own ignorance and unbelief into true knowledge and certain belief, whatever this might cost us as we await his return. In other words, John is not merely recounting what Jesus did after his resurrection; he is also exhorting us to leave behind our own unbelief for the sake of better knowing and following our resurrected Lord.

JOHN’S THREE “ASIDES” TO HIS READERS

We can see this as John makes “asides” in chapters 20–21, explaining to us what he’s doing and how we should respond. He had already done this in the midst of narrating Jesus’ crucifixion, “pausing” the action in order to exhort the reader: “He who saw [Jesus’ side pierced] has testified—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is saying true things, in order that you also might believe” (19:35). The first post-resurrection “aside” is also a kind of “pause,” coming between two of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples: just after he confronted “doubting” Thomas, but just before his seaside appearance in Galilee (21:1):

On the one hand, Jesus also did many other signs in the presence of the disciples (which have not been written in this book), but on the other hand, these things have been written in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name. (20:30–31)

Hence with these first two asides—one interrupting the crucifixion and the other interrupting the post-resurrection appearances—John explicitly aims for the readers’ own belief, by means of his written testimony to the truth of Jesus’ identity and work.

The third and final aside comes at the very end of the Gospel, right after Jesus’ final appearance to the disciples, when the apostle identifies himself as the “beloved disciple”: “This is the disciple who is testifying about these things and who wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). Here John connects knowledge, testimony, and truth, just as he did in the first aside of 19:35, where (as in the second aside of 20:31) he linked them with belief. As we now look at the post-resurrection appearances in more detail, we will repeatedly see this link between faith and knowledge in the disciples themselves.

THE DISCIPLES’ POST-RESURRECTION GROWTH IN FAITH AND KNOWLEDGE

Peter and John at the Empty Tomb

John makes his first post-resurrection link between faith and knowledge in 20:1–10, in which he describes how he (the “beloved disciple”) and Peter respond to Mary Magdalene’s worried announcement that Jesus’ tomb is empty: “We do not know where they have laid him!” (20:2, 13). Peter and John enter the tomb, only to find Jesus’ grave-clothes. When John sees these clothes, he believes (20:8), since before this he and the other disciples “did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:9). The Greek word often translated here as “understand” is oida, which appears all through these chapters and is normally translated simply as “know,” such as Mary’s anxiety about not knowing what happened to Jesus’ body.4 The point here is that, after seeing the empty tomb, John moves from relative ignorance into a deeper faith.

This is a common tension in John’s Gospel: Jesus’ disciples must grow in their faith and knowledge (compare their relative ignorance/unbelief in 2:22 and 12:16 with their knowledge/belief in 6:68–69), even as John repeatedly shows us that the disciples’ developing—but genuine—faith is something entirely different from the false “faith” of those who are mainly interested in Jesus’ spectacular miracles (e.g., 2:23–24; 6:26; see also 8:30–38, where Jesus sharply rebukes a large group of people who “believe” in him, calling them children of the devil!).

Mary at the Empty Tomb

We see something similar in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Mary in 20:11–18. Even beyond her ignorance of what happened to Jesus’ body (v. 13), John also tells us that even when she saw him, she didn’t “know it was Jesus” (v. 14), thinking him to be a gardener instead. Jesus then simply and tenderly addresses her by name (v. 16), revealing his prior knowledge of her, even though she had failed to “know” him. But now that Jesus has clearly revealed himself by personally addressing her, she then finally knows him, excitedly exclaiming, “Rabboni!” which John translates for us as “Teacher!” In line with Jesus’ commission to her, she then tells the apostles that she has “seen the Lord” (v. 18). Jesus’ loving, knowing call to Mary has turned her ignorance into knowledge of (and belief in) him as the resurrected Teacher and Lord.

Two Appearances to the Apostles

John next recounts Jesus’ two visits with the apostles that occur a week apart (20:19–29). The first visit is on the evening of his resurrection, when Thomas is not there (v. 24). It isn’t clear whether they believed Mary’s announcement of the resurrection, though the fact that they’ve fearfully locked themselves in a room even after hearing from her (v. 19) doesn’t exactly commend them. In any case, Jesus clearly takes the initiative here: he enters the room, speaks God’s peace to them, and then shows them “his hands and his side.” At this point, we read that the disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (v. 20). Just as with Mary in the garden, Jesus now moves toward his struggling disciples, speaking God’s blessing specifically upon them, and thereby leading them into joyfully recognizing and embracing him. Jesus then equips them by the Holy Spirit to go out to announce God’s forgiveness of sinners like them (vv. 22–23).

Jesus’ next appearance to the apostles comes a week later, when Thomas is with them. They can now say with Mary that they “have seen the Lord”; but when Thomas first heard this from them, he vehemently refused to believe unless he too could see and even probe Jesus’ wounds. He is so adamant in his disbelief that John describes it with the Greek language’s strongest form of denial—something like “I will never ever ever believe!” (v. 25).5 Once again, Jesus somehow enters the locked room where they are gathered and then initiates with a pronouncement of God’s peace (v. 26). He then turns specifically to Thomas, inviting him to do exactly what he’d incredulously demanded a week before, saying, “Put your finger here.” But then Jesus commands him, “Do not disbelieve, but believe!” (v. 27). Thomas responds with faith and knowledge, acclaiming Jesus as “my Lord and my God!” (v. 28), in a way similar to how Mary called him “Teacher” and “the Lord” when she finally recognized him. Like before, Jesus took the initiative to reveal himself to a struggling disciple in order to turn his disbelief and ignorance into faith and knowledge. By making himself known to his disciples, Jesus evoked the faith he commanded.

While Jesus welcomes Thomas’s faith and worship, in verse 29 he praises those who, unlike Thomas (and the other disciples), believe without seeing: “Have you believed because you’ve seen me? How blessed are those who haven’t seen and yet have believed!” It’s here that John makes the “aside” described above, interrupting his narrative in order to remind us, his readers, that he has written in order to lead us to the kind of faith that Thomas had just voiced, even though we do not yet see Jesus’ resurrected body as Thomas did. If we imitate Thomas and the other disciples by responding in faith to Jesus’ self-revelation through John’s written, nonvisual account, then we will be the “blessed” ones praised by Jesus. The disciples saw many other “signs” that John did not record for us in writing (v. 30), but he recorded enough of Jesus’s self-revelation for us so that we can and even should respond with faith like Thomas and thereby enjoy Jesus’ blessing upon us (v. 31). Just as with Mary and the apostles, through John’s written Gospel, Jesus now moves toward us in our own unbelief, calling to us in his perfect knowledge of us and so leading us into faith. Through Christ’s own testimony by his Holy Spirit, we can know (and therefore trust) him just as confidently as the disciples did, even if we don’t yet see him. And so John’s “aside” in verses 30–31 comes as an invitation for self-examination: Are we readers of John’s Gospel responding with faith as we are confronted by the resurrected Jesus’ self-revelation to us?

Breakfast in Galilee with the Apostles

In chapter 21, John resumes his narrative description of how Jesus appeared to most of the apostles (including Peter, John, and Thomas) up in Galilee. The disciples are back to fishing, and once again we are reminded of their ignorance: “Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that he was Jesus” (v. 4). Yet again, Jesus initiates a conversation with them through a personal, knowing address: “Children, don’t you have any fish to eat?” (v. 5). They had caught nothing, but when they take Jesus’ advice, they haul in an enormous—even miraculous—catch. It’s at this point that John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) excitedly tells Peter, “It is the Lord!” (v. 7).

In light of his abundant provision for them, the disciples now know him, as John underscored in verse 12 when Jesus invited them to eat breakfast with him (v. 9): “Now none of the disciples dared to question him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” Of course, the breakfast menu—fish and bread—points us back to the feeding of the five thousand in chapter 6, a miracle intended to bring about faith in Jesus as the bread of life (6:27, 29, 35). So here again, Christ makes himself known to his struggling disciples in order to strengthen their faith, by showing himself to be both their provider and their provision.

A Conversation with Peter

In 21:15–19, having fed the disciples, Jesus now turns to Peter and exhorts him to feed his sheep. Each time Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” Peter affirms, “You know that I love you!” The third and final time Peter does this, he emphasizes the comprehensiveness of Jesus’ knowledge: “You know everything” (v. 17). Again, Jesus’ knowing embrace of his beleaguered, sometimes unfaithful disciples is the foundation for their own movement into greater faith in and knowledge of him, which inevitably produces love for him. In 16:27, Jesus already made a close connection between believing him and loving him: “The Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”

As with all disciples, Peter’s love for Jesus will manifest itself in obedience to Jesus (“If you love me you will keep my commands”; 14:15). Here in 21:15–19, Jesus commands Peter three times, focusing on Peter’s duty to nourish the Lord’s sheep. In verse 18, after his third exhortation to “feed my sheep,” Jesus ominously warns Peter that this pastoral obedience will lead him into suffering: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want.” In case we missed it, John immediately explains to us that Jesus here is telling Peter how Peter will die (v. 19). Not only does Jesus know the current posture of Peter’s heart (“You know that I love you!”), he even knows the future humiliation and misery of his death. In this verse, John again highlights for us how Jesus’ personal knowledge of his disciples is what secures and produces their growth in faith in, knowledge of, and love for him.

When this prediction leads Peter to ask Jesus whether John will suffer similarly, Jesus deflects the question, refocusing him on obeying his master wherever he leads: “What is that to you? You follow me!” (v. 22). Peter must trust Jesus, the one who has already shown his might by conquering death, his generosity by providing breakfast, and his mercy by embracing the one who had so cowardly denied him. Jesus gives his sinful disciples everything they need to trust and know him, as they follow him on his well-worn path of suffering and rejection.

JOHN NOW CALLS US TO GROW IN FAITH AND KNOWLEDGE

John ends his Gospel with a final aside, reminding us that we, too, have everything we need to trust and know Jesus as we heed his call to “follow me.” As in 20:30, John says in verse 25 that he didn’t write down everything he could have; indeed, the entire world couldn’t contain the books required for this! Instead, he wrote down what we need, and his testimony is trustworthy: “We know that his testimony is true.”

Just who, however, is John referring to here when he says “we”? It’s possible he is using the “editorial we” to speak for himself alone, which is fairly common in the New Testament.6 But why would he then immediately describe the testimony as his and not our testimony? Instead, in light of the exhortational nature of these chapters (as seen in the “asides”), it seems that John’s “we” is actually a kind of appeal for his readers to join him and the other disciples in knowing Christ through believing in Jesus, whose identity and work John has faithfully documented for us. As we’ve seen, John has been emphasizing how the disciples moved from ignorance/disbelief into knowledge/faith, not just for the sake of narrating events but also to present models for us—those who are blessed, because we believe even though we do not see like Thomas did (20:29–31). So when John says that “we know that his testimony is true,” he is probably including his believing readers alongside himself as those who have accepted the self-revelation of their resurrected Lord.

This would be similar to how John opened his Gospel. In 1:14, he described how he and the other disciples witnessed Jesus’ incarnation (“We have seen his glory”); but then in 1:16, he explicitly extends the “we” beyond the apostles to include all those who have believed in him (“From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace”).7 John wrote his Gospel so that we might find eternal, resurrection life through believing and knowing the resurrected Jesus, just as the original disciples repeatedly did before us in John 20–21.

As modeled in these post-resurrection appearances, through John’s inspired writing, we too are now confronted by the resurrected Jesus in the midst of our own ignorance and unbelief. He knowingly addresses us like a shepherd calling to his sheep, patiently providing everything we need in order to grow in faith and knowledge. The conqueror of death says to each of us, “You follow me!” We too must follow him out of our unbelief, even if we must suffer for his sake. Confident faith and true knowledge are not enemies after all; instead, to repurpose a phrase from the Westminster Confession, they “sweetly comply” for those who can truly call Jesus “my Lord and my God.”

We conclude with another quotation from Bavinck in which he ends his long discussion of faith by linking it again with knowledge. He notes how the world scoffs at our trust in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Son of God, accusing us of being unsophisticated and unscientific.

[Yet] believers do know those mysteries; they are no longer a folly and an offense to them; they do marvel at God’s wisdom and love manifest in them. . . . It does not even occur to them, therefore, that the mysteries surpass their reason, that they are above reason; they do not experience them as an oppressive burden but rather as intellectual liberation. Their faith turns into wonder; knowledge terminates in adoration; and their confession becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving. Of this kind, too, is the knowledge of God theology aims for. It is not just a knowing, much less a comprehending; it is better and more glorious than that: it is the knowledge which is life, “eternal life” (John 17:3).8

 

Timothy L. Fox (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is pastor of Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary.

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