Exegesis of John 20:19-31 for Lectionary Homiletics

Mark D. Given
Missouri State University

This is Jesus’ second resurrection appearance in John and it is the grand finale of the work since chap. 21 is an appendix added by a later redactor (i.e., an author-editor). (“John” is only used as a gospel title in this article. The various redactors are unknown, as is the identity of “the beloved disciple.”) At the beginning of chap. 20, Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb and runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple that the body has been removed (vv. 1-2). These two run to see for themselves and then return to their homes (vv. 3-10). Apparently Mary also returned with them because, after they leave, Jesus appears first to her at the tomb (vv. 11-17). Thus she receives the double honor of being the first to discover the empty tomb and the first to see and proclaim (v. 18) the resurrected Lord. Form critical analyses tend to suggest that a number of independent traditions have been combined in vv. 1-18, indeed not always smoothly (e.g., who is the “we” of v. 2; cf. Mark 16:1 and parallels).

While the rough edges are not as obvious in vv. 19-29, in light of the probable composite nature of vv. 1–18, not to mention of the entire gospel, some interpreters suppose that either an independent tradition concerning Thomas has been combined with a better known tradition about an appearance of Jesus to his disciples as a group (cf. Luke 24:36-49, though vv. 44-49 are so laden with Lukan themes that the traditional material is almost buried), or, far more frequently, that a redactor has composed the story of Thomas as an elaboration on the doubt motif in the traditional story. Indeed, there is a broad parallelism between Luke 24:36-43 and John 20:19-29 that could justify speaking of both as increasingly more elaborate versions of one very old tradition that 1) Jesus suddenly stood before his disciples privately and frightened them (cf. the reaction in Luke 24:36-37 with the repeated “Peace to you” in John 20:19 and 21). 2) Faced with doubt he invited them to see and touch his wounds to prove he was real (cf. Luke 24:38-41 with John 20:20 and 27). 3) He empowered them in some way to continue his message of repentance and forgiveness (cf. Luke 24:45,47-49 with John 20:21-23). Although Luke—I cautiously accept the traditional authorial identification—speaks of their minds being opened on this occasion, he does not include, as John does, empowerment by the Holy Spirit (v. 22; literally “a holy spirit”) since he wants to reserve this event for Pentecost. (Also note that 20:23 is often compared with Matt 16:19 and 18:18.)

Some interpreters would explain the three main similarities above by either John’s knowledge of Luke or even, though less frequently suggested, vice-versa. Also to be taken account in any theory is the shorter readings of some manuscripts of Luke (examples of the so-called Western “non-interpolations”), that decrease the similarities between the two accounts by the absence of several words, most significantly the phrase “peace be with you” in v. 36 and “he showed them his hands and feet” in v. 40 (cf. John 20:19-20). One can readily see the differences by comparing the RSV with the NRSV. The former opts for the shorter readings and the latter for the longer.

What are some of the most obviously Johannine features of this version of the traditional story? 1) Verse 19 speaks of “fear of the Jews.” It is historically plausible that some priests and other leaders were to be feared at this juncture, but the expression in v. 19 reminds us that, unlike in the Synoptics, in this gospel Jesus is placed so far outside Judaism that his opponents and dialogue partners are described as “the Jews” far more often than as various subgroups within Judaism. This tendency reflects the history of the late first cent. Johannine community, not that of the historical Jesus, and is a reminder that the responsible interpreter has an ethical responsibility to face some of the historical inaccuracies of this gospel head on. At the very least one might simply point out that the disciples themselves are Jews and that Jesus the Jew said earlier in this same gospel that salvation is from “the Jews” (4:22). 2) In v. 21, the language of sending echoes many similar expressions earlier in John (e.g., 13:20; also note the similar expression in Q [Luke] 10:16). What will it be like to be sent “as the Father has sent me”?  Jesus earlier said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12). This will be possible because of the sending of “the Helper” (v. 14),  i.e., the Spirit (cf. 20:22). Here again the similarity to some of Luke’s perspectives, this time in Acts, is intriguing. 3) The numerous and playful uses of verbs of “seeing” in this gospel make Jesus' last words of his public ministry all the more striking. We observed Greeks desiring to “see Jesus” in the Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent (12:20-33). This marked a major turning point in the story and led to a warning that people should become “sons [and daughters] of light” while they still have the light. From this one could possibly draw the conclusion that after the light is gone it will be hard if not impossible to become a believer. It was hard enough for Thomas to whom Jesus says “You have believed because you have seen me” (v. 29a). But Jesus’ surprising and comforting last words are “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29b).

Verses 30-31 form the “original” conclusion of the gospel and tell us that Jesus performed many other “signs,” but that these were recorded so that the audience may have (or come to have) faith and life. Some conclude that these verses were originally part of a source, a “gospel of signs,” parts of which are preserved in chaps. 1-12. Even if so, the redactor who placed them at the end of the gospel probably intended to include the appearances in chap. 20 as signs, or what Luke would call “proofs” (Acts 1:3). The redactor may have considered the entire life of Jesus a “sign” (cf. Luke 2:34). Indeed, John itself is in a profound way The Gospel of Signs.

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