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Sermon preached on John 20:24-31 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/24/2011 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Do Not Be Unbelieving, But Believing”
Jesus Christ is risen! This is what the Christians church affirms on Easter. It is what we affirm all year round. And let me make this clear. The church affirms that this was a historical event. The resurrection really did happen in history. And the church affirms this was a physical, bodily, event. We affirm that Jesus really did die on the cross. We affirm that he physically was raised from the dead on the third day. That on that first Easter morning, Jesus went from being dead, to being alive!
In other words, Easter is not just a nice story with a moral message at the end. Easter is not just about some spiritual feel-good message or concept, without a historical basis in reality. It actually happened. Easter was a historical event that was verified by a number of eye-witness accounts. The Christian faith is especially about faith in this event. Faith in the resurrection. If you don’t have a real resurrection, then you don’t have a biblical faith. The faith we have is in a savior who died for our sins and overcame death in the resurrection. This gives us the hope that we who are sinners can be forgiven of our sins because of the cross. Because Christ paid the price in our place. And we can have then the hope of resurrection because Christ himself rose from the dead. This is our hope; that this world is not the end. That even though we die, we know we will rise again to eternal life. The historical fact of Easter is where we find our trust that we will actually rise again one day ourselves.
Every year at Easter I think about how so many people today don’t want to believe in this. They think it sounds foolishness to think of someone rising from the dead. Liberal Christianity has indeed spiritualized Easter. Even worse, the unbelieving world, doesn’t believe it at all. They come up with all sorts of theories to try to explain Easter away. But we still affirm it.
And yet in our passage for today, we are confronted with something very personal. This passage acknowledges a real subject in our lives as Christians. Doubt. This morning we’ll spend our time reflecting on doubting Thomas, and verses 24-31. Thomas at first doubted the resurrection. This unbelief wasn’t coming from the outside. This was Thomas, one of the twelve. This doubt wasn’t coming from a liberal wing of the church. No, it was Jesus’ inner circle; those who knew his teachings intimately. Thomas doubted. At first he couldn’t believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead. This is a real subject for us today. Many Christians experience doubt in their faith from time to time. Surely, Thomas had believed in Jesus. He had vowed to follow him to the death. He had confessed him as the Christ. But now his faith was faltering. He doubted the resurrection. Christians can experience doubt in their faith from time to time. Of course Thomas is real about it. He boldly admits it. He doesn’t pretend he doesn’t have any doubts. Most Christians today probably wouldn’t admit their doubt, even if they have it. But God gave us this passage for a reason. It addresses the issue of doubt head on. It’s my prayer that it can encourage you whenever you are finding doubts in your own hearts. And what a wonderful thing to consider in Easter, about growing our faith in the certainty of the resurrection.
So let’s think about Doubting Thomas. Let me set the context. On the first Easter, in the evening, the risen Jesus appeared to the twelve disciples. That was verses 19-23. Well, we pick up the action in verse 24. There we find that one of the twelve wasn’t present for this encounter with Jesus. Thomas wasn’t there. (By the way, notice how you can miss out on great things when you are not with the rest of the saints when they gather.) And so, what do the other disciples do? They tell Thomas. That’s verse 25. The other disciples are the eye witnesses. This included the other twelve, but probably included some of the other disciples Jesus had already appeared to at that time; such as the women at the tomb. So, here Thomas has some very good eye witness testimony that Jesus had risen. This was very credible testimony. The people who hung out with Jesus all the time; the people he hung out with all the time; they reported that he was alive. But Thomas didn’t believe it. Their eye-witness testimony was not enough to him. Verse 25 records his bold demand. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” The testimony of others would not be enough for him. He demanded personal, first hand, direct evidence.
Amazingly, Jesus intervenes and actually grants this request. In Jesus’ grace, he appears again to the twelve, one week later. By the way, that’s the Jewish convention being used in verse 26. It says after eight days, well that was an inclusive way to count time. Eight days means one week, counting the day that you were already on as well. So, a week later, it’s Sunday evening again. This time Thomas was present with the twelve on their gathering. Jesus again appears, almost in the exact same fashion already. Notice, by the way, how quickly a pattern of the Christians meeting together on Sundays formed, and how Jesus blessed that time with his physical appearances to them on the first two Sundays after the resurrection. And so Jesus again speaks his peace unto them. But then he turns to address Thomas. Clearly, that was one of the main reasons he came again to them that night. He had to address Thomas’ unbelief. Jesus had chosen him to be one of his holy apostles. Unbelief would not work.
So, Jesus goes through the list with him. Look at verse 27. Every single demand of Thomas was met by Jesus. He got to see and touch the scars himself. The invitation of Jesus to Thomas, parallels his earlier demands. And Jesus’ ends with a command to Thomas. “Do Not Be Unbelieving, But Believing.” It’s a call for faith. But it’s also a bit of rebuke. In verse 25, Thomas had made it clear unless all his demands were met, that he wouldn’t believe. The grammar is the strongest negation in Greek. He’s saying there was no way he’d believe otherwise. Jesus counters with a strong imperative here. Stop your unbelief; believe! Of course, Jesus didn’t need to cater to all Thomas’ demands. And yet in this case, Jesus lovingly does. It’s his love for Thomas that condescended to his level and granted Thomas’ desires for first hand evidence. But that didn’t keep Jesus from giving this rebuke and command. “Do Not Be Unbelieving, But Believing.”
And so, Doubting Thomas, became Believing Thomas. Through Christ’s intervention, doubt was turned to faith. Notice his grand confession in verse 28. He exclaims, “My Lord, and My God!” It would have been an act of faith just to call him his Lord. That would have expressed his continued allegiance to the risen Jesus. But Thomas sees so clearly who Jesus really is. Thomas finally gets it. Jesus is God. When before in John chapter 14, Thomas asked Jesus to show them the way to God, Jesus said that he was the way. Well, now Thomas finally gets it. Jesus is God come in the flesh. That’s how he was able to overcome even death. Thomas now believes. Jesus’ intervention overcame his doubt. Thomas now confesses: Jesus is his Lord and God.
And yet Jesus counters that confession with another sort of rebuke. Verse 29, Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” There’s a bit of rebuke in that. You see, there is something about Thomas’ faith here that is not as commendable as other people’s faith. He only believed when he saw things for himself. When he saw the risen Jesus with his own eyes. And yet when we learn about faith in Scripture, it’s usually connected with an inability to see something ourselves. Hebrews 11:1, for example, says that faith is having a conviction in something that you don’t see. In Matthew 8, Jesus heals a centurion’s servant. Jesus offered to come and heal the servant, but the centurion said that wasn’t necessary; just say the word. The centurion rightly believed Jesus could just say the word and the servant would be healed. When Jesus heard that, he was impressed with his faith, and said that he had not found such great faith in Israel. In other words, this faith was greater because it took Jesus’ word, even without our sight to verify things. Instead, Romans 10 says faith is about hearing. Hearing about the gospel and believing, even that which you can’t verify with your eyes. Another example, 1 Peter 1:8. It commends the readers for their love and faith in Christ, even it says when they have not seen Jesus. And so the testimony of Scripture confirms what Jesus says here in verse 29. There is something greater about faith that doesn’t require sight to believe. Thomas’ faith is true, but now only after he’s seen with his eyes. The greater faith is that which can believe without seeing with our own eyes. I like how William Hendriksen put it: “Faith which results from seeing is good; faith which results from hearing is more excellent.”
On the one hand, you can appreciate Thomas’ skepticism. Who would believe that someone was raised from the dead? Someone you knew with certainty had just died. And yet, on the other hand, think of everything Thomas had already seen. Think of all the miracles he personally witnessed Jesus perform. He even saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. And think about who had told him that they saw Jesus alive. His closest friends. The other disciples of the twelve. The people he had hung out with every day over the last couple of years. This wasn’t some vague report they gave. Even though Jesus’ resurrection would have been hard to believe – shouldn’t his experience with Jesus and the other disciples have confirmed their testimony? In other words, Thomas really should have believed their eye-witness testimony. He shouldn’t have had any reason to doubt their testimony.
So, I want us to notice that Thomas demanded here direct personal evidence to believe. He wouldn’t accept the eye-witness testimony of his many closest friends. And yet, stop and realize something. If Thomas had continued to reject their eye-witness testimony, would he have been right? If Jesus never came to him and answered his demands, would Thomas have been right? No, he would have been wrong. Jesus wasn’t under any obligation to answer Thomas’ demands. It was grace that did. Do you see the point? Thomas could have rejected all the eye-witness testimony as not good enough to him. But that wouldn’t have changed the facts. Jesus did rise again. He gets to see that later for himself. But even if he didn’t get to see Jesus in person, that wouldn’t have changed anything. Jesus did rise, whether Thomas got to see it or not. Whether Thomas accepted the eye-witness testimony or not. In other words, receiving personal direct evidence is not a prerequisite for something to be true. Whether or not you believe the wealth of eye-witness testimony or not is irrelevant of whether or not the testimony is actually true or not. Thomas had rejected that testimony at first, and frankly, he was wrong. His doubt was proven to be unjustified. It was simply incorrect.
Do you see the call of faith today, brothers and sisters? Jesus said here, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus’ is talking about us! This passage is for you and me! We are those who are blessed, even though we’ve not seen what Thomas got to see. Even though we weren’t the eye-witnesses to the resurrection. The final part of this chapter tells us what this blessing is. Verse 31. It’s eternal life. John says that by believing in Jesus, we have eternal life. We believe that he is the Christ and the Son God. We believe in the resurrection. We believe that his death and resurrection resulted in our salvation. That we are forgiven of ours sins and now have the hope of eternal life. Resurrection life, just like Jesus. That’s the blessing Jesus promises those who have faith in him. Eternal life. Jesus says this blessing is especially for those who believe when we haven’t seen. When we haven’t been able to touch his scars and see him alive in person.
Instead this passage calls us to believe in what Thomas wasn’t willing to believe in. To believe in the eye-witness testimony about the resurrection. This is of course how this chapter closes out. Verses 30-31 are really the conclusion to the book of John; next chapter is a sort of appendix. The whole book of John was summarized in verses 30-31. Note two important things John says in those two verses. He says that he’s a witness of countless signs Jesus’ performed; signs that affirm that Jesus is who he claims to be. Signs that affirm the resurrection. And secondly, John says he wrote this book then so that we would believe. Let me say it this way. The Gospel of John is his eye-witness testimony to the resurrection and to who Jesus is. He calls us to believe it. Thomas doubted the eye-witness testimony at first. John calls us to not follow suit. John calls us to see the wealth of evidence for the resurrection. John calls us to see all the signs that prove that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.
And of course, we don’t have just John. We have all four of the gospels that record eye witness testimony from Christ’s disciples. And we have the letters in the New Testament that record even more eye witnesses. Like Paul who saw the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. Or like the 500 people recorded as eye witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15:6; many it says who were still alive at the time of writing so they could verify this eye witness testimony. The law of God only required the testimony of two or three people to affirm the truth of something. And so, the Bible records the twelve apostles as eye-witnesses to the resurrection. The Bible records other disciples witnessing the risen Lord. The Bible records women seeing the resurrection – it was actually women who were first to see it. The Bible records these 500 others. That’s a lot of witnesses. I love how 1 John starts out. It talks about how he and the other disciples touched and handled Jesus. That’s what we see here. They physically saw the risen Lord. They had the direct evidence right before them. And this host of evidence has been given to us as formal testimony to the resurrection.
From a simply legal perspective, if you add up all the evidence, the case for the resurrection is overwhelming. So many eye-witnesses. That’s not to mention all the other details we find in the Scriptures. Like how the Romans proved Jesus was dead by stabbing him in the side and observing the fluids that came out. Like how The Romans posted a guard at the tomb, specifically to make sure none of the disciples tried to come and steal the body. So many other things can be said; there are lots of good books out there that systematically go through all the evidence. It is there. It is believable. The eye-witness reports of this nature are sufficient to put our faith in. That’s what verse 31 is telling us! This testimony is trustworthy. We ought to believe in this. This passage is calling us to believe in all this eye-witness testimony. That is even why the gospel of John was written. So that we would believe.
Saints of God, Let me ask you this. Why is a story like this in the Bible? Is it just to embarrass Thomas somehow? I don’t think so. It deals with the doubt in the lives of God’s people. This wasn’t doubting Nero or even a doubting Sadducee. This is a doubting disciple of Christ. Doubts sometimes rise up in believers. We need to think about how to deal with them. Why? Because of Jesus’ command right here: “Do Not Be Unbelieving, But Believing”. He’s saying, stop your unbelief. Instead, believe!
And so I think what Jesus is doing, and what this gospel is doing, is calling for us to have a certain kind of faith. Faith that believes in the eye witness account of God’s holy apostles. Faith that receives the testimony from God by his holy prophets and apostles. Faith in divine revelation. When we find ourselves believing in this testimony, it is indeed a sign of our blessing. Faith itself is a blessing that comes from God. We are blessed if we believe.
But the doubt that this passage raises is a certain kind of doubt. It’s a doubt that can creep up that says these eye-witness testimonies aren’t good enough. It’s a doubt that says you won’t believe unless you personally get to see the risen Lord himself. It’s a doubt where you challenge God; where you demand from him that he has to accommodate to your wishes. “Show yourself to me God, or else…” that kind of thing. But you see, that’s not the kind of faith God is calling us to have. You see, that’s where sometimes doubt comes for a Christian in that way. In the way Thomas is expressing today. We want some sort of rationalistic absolute certainty, and then we say we’ll believe. And yet that’s actually not faith. True faith is rational. It’s rational that we believe when you have all this eye witness testimony. Frankly it’s not rational in my opinion to reject all this clear evidence. Our faith is a rational faith. It’s a believable faith. But sometimes our doubts are wanting more than that. We don’t actually want faith; we want sight. That’s what Thomas wanted. Now, God in great grace granted it to him. But Jesus went on to say that’s not going to be the typical experience for believers. Believers are going to have real faith, that is not sight. The Bible says that right now, we walk by faith, and not by sight.
What we should recognize is that these kinds of doubts are actually about something other than faith. Faith at this point is not sight. When our doubts are demanding sight, we have to realize that it’s not time for sight yet. But there will come a time. When Christ returns. Then we will see him as he is. Then our faith will turn to sight. As long as we demand our faith to be sight, we will have doubts. When we simply trust in the testimony of Scripture, we can discard those kinds of doubts. I’m not saying that you won’t ever have your tests of faith still. But let us not make faith into sight. Rather let us look forward to the day when faith will become sight.
And yet I would add that we also have Mark 9:24. That is when the man told Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” That’s a very honest statement, and a very real prayer. When we find ourselves struggling in our faith, that is always a commendable response. Certainly if Jesus graciously met Thomas’ rather presumptuous demands, then he will be glad to answer this kind of prayer. Let us not hide our struggles of faith. Let us go to the one who is the author and perfecter of our faith. As an act of faith, let us even tell him our struggles of faith. Pour out your heart to him – it is his desire to grow his people in their faith.
Let me offer one final application for us today on this Easter. On that first Easter, Thomas wasn’t able to celebrate. While the rest of the disciples were celebrating the resurrection, he was sitting there in his unbelief. Remember how scattered and scared the disciples were when Jesus was arrested and put on the cross? Remember how full of grief they were? Well, that all changed on that first Easter evening when Jesus appeared to the twelve. But that didn’t change for Thomas that evening. It wouldn’t be until a week later when he could join the party. He did ultimately get to find that same joy as the rest of the disciples, but he missed out on it for a week.
My point then is that no one has to miss out on the party this Easter. Today, you can join the celebration. Cast off your unbelief. Believe in Jesus. Find the joy in the hope of resurrection life. Believe in the resurrection. Turn from your sins unto the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Let us not be unbelieving, but let us believe. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.