John (Part 71): Disciples' Commission (ch 20)
When Jesus said her name, Mary’s eyes were opened. She saw that it was Jesus, and thrilled, she grabbed hold of him, locked in embrace, and would not let him go. And I’m sure Jesus was smiling and laughing at her exuberance as he hugged her back. But eventually he told her, “Okay, okay, you can let go now. I’m not going away yet; there is yet a final point that I must show to my disciples. So, go tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father—to my God and yours.”
The KJV, I think, did us a disservice by translating that scene in the way it did. Jesus is not commanding her not to touch him as if he needed to present himself before the throne before another human could make contact with him. The phrase in Greek is in the present imperative, and the word for touch can easily be understood as embrace or clinging. So the idea behind Jesus’s words is that he wants her to stop clinging to him. And it is not an order of spiritual or authoritative command. Although he had been crucified and he had risen from the grave, his work was not complete so that he could yet leave. He had to show himself to his disciples. Seeing the risen Christ completed the disciples’ preparation to be the foundation for the church.
Jesus told Mary to report to his disciples that he would be completing his mission—ascending to his Father and, Jesus adds, to yours, “to my God and your God.” In his ministry, Jesus had often referred to his Father. But he makes special emphasis here to underscore what he has accomplished in his death and resurrection: he has given life (relationship with God) to those who trust in him. It is no longer his Father that he will bring them to; it is both his Father and their Father. And Mary runs to tell the disciples with the wonder-filled words, “I have seen the Lord!”
John then skips to the evening of that same resurrection day. We know from the other Gospels that Jesus had met two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He had walked with them (a distance of about 6-7 miles) and sat with them at their evening meal. When those two realize that this was Jesus, they rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others. So the time period is definitely well into the evening already.
At this time, Jerusalem is still in the midst of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, and therefore, the city is still swollen with travelers. The two disciples did not spend the night going from house to house in Jerusalem, trying to find the other disciples. They didn’t wonder whether the others went to Bethany or some other surrounding village. They apparently knew where the disciples were congregating, just as Mary Magdalene and the other women apparently knew immediately where to find the disciples. This fact seems to indicate that the disciples had unofficially adopted some place as a home base. Since we are told of Peter leaving jail, in Acts 12, and heading straight for the house of John Mark’s mother, Mary, it is very likely that this is the place where they had been staying all along—as they wait for the Spirit in Acts 1-2, as people rush to and from them with news, and even where they probably had the last supper.
The disciples are in the house with the doors locked—not for lack of faith—but rather for the same reason we would lock our doors if we heard that a convict had escaped from the prison down the road from our house. There is a certain wary, healthy fear of danger that prudent people take steps to avoid. John’s point in mentioning this is not to make a comment about the disciples’ lack of faith, but rather to emphasize that Jesus appeared before them without coming through the door. Just as he rose from the tomb, so he moved unimpeded to them. However, he is not simply a spirit. He insisted that they examine his hands and feet to see the bodily imprint of the nails. In another Gospel he asked for something to eat, not because he was suddenly starving, but rather to show the disciples that he was, in fact, physically there and capable of bodily functions such as eating.
But by emphasizing both his spirit-like movements and his physical reality, John is making a point that will serve for his discussion through the rest of the chapter. Flesh and Spirit would work together in relationship with God accomplishing the purpose of God. Jesus immediately speaks to them of this mission—a mission that mimics his own to them. They are to take this same gospel news to others who have not seen. The Father had sent him; now he was sending them (20:21). Upon saying this, he breathes on them. Of course, the breath of God is remembered from Genesis 2 as Adam received life (relationship with God) through this breath. Just so does Jesus’s blowing on them give the Spirit for new life—new relationship with God—in moving together with him in purpose. And that purpose is the gospel—the founding of the church. Jesus signifies it through mentioning the forgiving and retaining of sins—an act of judgment and division, which is exactly what Jesus’s work through death and resurrection was to accomplish. As the disciples delivered that message, by the faith or rejection of the hearers, they would be given life or death—cleansing from sin or retained guilt.
Extremely important in this development, however, is how it is brought about. It is the word of the disciples preached to the world that offers life or death. But it is not through an authority residing in the disciples alone. It is by authority of the Spirit of God. Thus, service is given by the disciples, but they own no spiritual authority over anyone. No mere human—pastor or otherwise—holds spiritual authority over another person. We all stand before God. Thus, what John shows in this passage is that amazing and wonderful interaction of message deliverer with the Spirit’s authority, effectually bringing life to those who believe.
That point, in fact, is the purpose of the illustration of Thomas. Thomas was not with the disciples as Jesus met with them. He did not benefit from the sight of the nail and spear scars as they did (20:20). So when they told him about it, underscoring their words with description of those scars, Thomas answered that he would believe only when he too saw those scars and felt them. When Jesus appears again to the disciples—this time with Thomas present—he shows the scars to Thomas and urges him to believe.
This incident is not given to speak of the little faith of Thomas. All of the disciples benefitted from seeing Jesus and examining his scars. The scene is meant to emphasize the preaching of the message (verse 25) that necessarily must be coupled with the revelation of God (verse 27) to be effectual. Just so, would the message go out to the world with the enlightening power of the Spirit.