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23. Exegetical Commentary on John 20


      4 B The Resurrection: Jesus conquers death (20:1-29)

        1 C The discovery of the resurrection of Jesus by the disciples (20:1-18)

          1 D Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb and summons Peter and John (20:1-2)

          2 D Peter and John visit the empty tomb and find Jesus’ graveclothes (20:3-10)

          3 D Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18)

            1 E Mary looks into the tomb and sees two angels (20:11-13)

            2 E Mary turns and sees Jesus but does not at first recognize him (20:14-17)

            3 E Mary goes and informs the disciples (20:18)

        2 C The appearances of Jesus to the disciples (20:19-29)

          1 D Jesus appears to his disciples, shows his wounds, and commissions them (20:19-23)

          2 D Jesus appears to the disciples, including Thomas, and Thomas declares Jesus to be Lord and God (20:24-29)

      5 B Conclusion to the Book of Glory: the purpose of the Signs (20:30-31)


Beare, F. W., “The Risen Jesus Bestows the Spirit: A Study of John 20:19-23,” Canadian Journal of Theology 4 (1958): 95-100.

Bligh, J., The Sign of the Cross: The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus according to St. John (Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1975).

Bode, E. L., The First Easter Morning: The Gospel Accounts of the Womens Visit to the Tomb of Jesus, Analecta Biblica 45 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1970).

Cadbury, H. J., “The Meaning of John 20:23, Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18,” Journal of Biblical Literature 58 (1939): 251-54.

Curtis, K. P. G., “Luke xxiv, 12 and John xx, 3-10,” Journal of Theological Studies 22 (1971): 512-15.

Curtis, K. P. G., “Three Points of Contact Between Matthew and John in the Burial and Resurrection Narratives,” Journal of Theological Studies 23 (1972): 440-44.

Dodd, C. H., “Some Johannine ‘Herrnworte’ with Parallels in the Synoptic Gospels,” New Testament Studies 2 (1955/56): 85-86.

Fowler, D. C., “The Meaning of ‘Touch Me Not’ in John 20:17,” Evangelical Quarterly 47 (1975): 16-25.

Fuller, R. H., “John 20:19-23,” Interpretation 32 (1978): 180-84.

Groenewald, E. P., “The Christological Meaning of John 20:31,” Neotestamentica 2 (1968): 131-40.

Lindars, B., “The Composition of John xx,” New Testament Studies 7 (1960/61): 142-47.

de Kruijf, T. C., “‘Hold the Faith’ or, ‘Come to Believe’? A Note on John 20, 31,” Bijdragen: Tijdschrift voor philosophie en theologie 36 (1975): 439-49.

Mahoney, R., Two Disciples at the Tomb: The Background and Message of John 20, 1-10, Theologie und Wirklichkeit 6 (Bern: H. Lang; Frankfurt: P. Lang, 1974).

Mantey, J. R., “The Mistranslation of the Perfect Tense in John 20:23, Mt 16:19 and Mt 18:18,” Journal of Biblical Liturature 58 (1939): 243-49.

McNamara, M., “The Ascension and the Exaltation of Christ in the Fourth Gospel,” Scripture 19 (1967): 65-73.

Minear, P. S., “‘We don’t know where…’ John 20, 2,” Interpretation 30 (1976): 125-39.

Osborne, B., “A Folded Napkin in an Empty Tomb: John 11:44 and 20:7 Again,” Heythrop Journal 14 (1973): 437-40.

Salvoni, F., “The So-Called Jesus Resurrection Proof (John 20:7),” Restoration Quarterly 22 (1979): 72-76.

Scholte, F. E., “An Investigation and an Interpretation of John 20:22,” unpublished Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1953.

Suggit, J., “The Eucharistic Significance of John 20.19-29,” Journal of Theology of South Africa 16 (1976): 52-59.

Suriano, T., “Doubting Thomas: An Invitation to Belief,” Bible Today 53 (1971): 309-15.

Turner, M. M. B., “The Concept of Receiving the Spirit in John’s Gospel,” Vox Evangelica 10 (1977): 24-42.


      4 B The Resurrection: Jesus conquers death (20:1-29)

        1 C The discovery of the resurrection of Jesus by the disciples (20:1-18)

          1 D Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb and summons Peter and John (20:1-2)

20:1 Mariva hJ MagdalhnhV e[rcetai prwi? We are told that on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early, while it was still dark, to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus on the previous Friday evening, just before the beginning of the passover and the Sabbath at 6:00 p.m.

Th'/ deV mia'/ tw'n sabbavtwn This would be early Sunday morning. The Sabbath (and in this year the passover) would have lasted from 6:00 p.m. Friday until 6:00 p.m. Saturday. Sunday would thus mark the first day of the following week.

Mariva hJ MagdalhnhV John does not mention that Mary was accompanied by any of the other women who had been among Jesus’ followers. The synoptic accounts all mention other women who accompanied her (although Mary Magdalene is always mentioned first). Why John does not mention the other women is not clear, but it seems probable that Mary becomes the focus of the Evangelist’s attention because it was she who came and found Peter and the Beloved Disciple (whom we have identified with John son of Zebedee) and informed them of the empty tomb (20:2). Mary’s use of the plural in v. 2 (oujk oi[damen, “we do not know”) indicates there were others present, in indirect agreement with the synoptic accounts.

prwi? skotiva" e[ti ou[sh" This statement appears to conflict with Mark 16:1-2, which states that when the women came to the tomb, the sun had already risen. There are several possible explanations for this which would not be contradictory, however. It is possible that the tomb and the pathway to it were still in darkness for a short while after the sun had actually risen. Some have thought that John’s note refers to the time Mary departed from her house, while Mark’s refers to the time the women actually arrived at the tomb. Perhaps more likely is the suggestion that the women came in groups or individually, not in a single group, all arriving around sunrise.

kaiV blevpei toVn livqon hjrmevnon ejk tou' mnhmeivou Mary Magdalene, when she saw the stone moved away from the tomb, did not wait to investigate further. The obvious conclusion was that the body had been stolen, and she immediately ran off to find Peter and the Beloved Disciple to tell them of this ultimate indignity. It appears that she did not actually look into the tomb at this time, but did so later (20:11).

20:2 proV" Sivmwna Pevtron Peter and the Beloved Disciple were both present during at least part of Jesus’ trials (cf. 18:15-18; 25-27) and the actual crucifixion (19:26-27). While some have thought that Mary sought Peter out because he was the leader of the apostolic band, it may be simply that she knew where to find him, along with the Beloved Disciple, whereas the other disciples had scattered.

kaiV proV" toVn a[llon maqhthVn o}n ejfivlei oJ =Ihsou'" Here for the first time the “other disciple” of 18:15 is identified as the Beloved Disciple (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) of 13:23-26 and 19:26-27.

han toVn kuvrion Mary does not specify whom she thinks had taken Jesus’ body. han is impersonal (“they”) and may be the equivalent of a passive (“the Lord has been taken”) or it may be a reference to the authorities who had brought about the crucifixion in the first place.

Mary’s use of the plural oujk oi[damen (“we do not know”) indicates that she was not in fact alone when she had gone to the tomb. The Evangelist has not mentioned the other women who accompanied her, but this is probably because she is the focus of the account as she comes to inform Peter and the Beloved Disciple. If we are correct in our identification of the Beloved Disciple with John son of Zebedee as the author of the Fourth Gospel, it is easy to see why Mary Magdalene became the focus of the account, since she is the one who came and told the author for the first time of the empty tomb.

          2 D Peter and John visit the empty tomb and find Jesus’ graveclothes (20:3-10)

20:3 =Exh'lqen ou oJ Pevtro" kaiV oJ a[llo" maqhthV" Peter and the Beloved Disciple went out and were coming (h[rconto, imperfect tense) to the tomb. It is not explicitly mentioned here that Mary Magdalene accompanied them back to the tomb (probably because the following verse states that they set out running), but Mary apparently followed along after them. She is back at the tomb in verse 11.

20:4 e[trecondeV oiJ duvo oJmou' Peter and the Beloved Disciple started out running together (oJmou', “at the same time as,” “in company with”). The Beloved Disciple ran on ahead more quickly than Peter, so he arrived at the tomb first. This verse has been a chief factor in depictions of John as a young man (especially combined with traditions that he wrote last of all the evangelists and lived into the reign of Domitian). But the verse does not actually say anything about John’s age, nor is age always directly correlated with running speed.

20:5 parakuvya" The verb parakuvptw means “to bend over (in order to see something better)” and this is what would have been necessary to see into the low opening of the tomb carved into the hillside. In most instances the entrance to such tombs was less than 3 feet (90 cm) high, so that an adult had to bend over and practically crawl inside.

blevpei keivmena taV ojqovnia When the Beloved Disciple bent over and looked into this narrow opening, he saw the linen wrappings (ojqovnia, a general term which might describe several types of wrappings, see 19:40) lying [there]. Presumably by the time the Beloved Disciple reached the tomb there was enough light to penetrate the low opening and illuminate the interior of the tomb sufficiently for him to see the graveclothes. We are not told exactly where the linen wrappings were lying. Sometimes the phrase has been translated “lying on the ground,” but the implication is that the wrappings were lying where the body had been. The most probable configuration for a tomb of this sort would be to have a niche carved in the wall where the body would be laid lengthwise, or a low shelf like a bench running along one side of the tomb, across the back or around all three sides in a U-shape facing the entrance. Thus the graveclothes would have been lying on this shelf or in the niche where the body had been (see below, verse 7).

ouj mevntoi eijsh'lqen The Beloved Disciple, although he reached the tomb ahead of Peter, bent over and looked in and saw the graveclothes lying inside, did not enter the tomb at first. The Evangelist gives no specific reason as to why the Beloved Disciple did not enter the tomb immediately.

20:6-7 kaiV eijsh'lqen eij" toV mnhmei'on When Peter reached the tomb, he (in typical fashion) did not hesitate to enter. When he did so, Peter too saw the linen wrappings that the Beloved Disciple had seen from outside the tomb, but he also saw the soudavrion, the piece of cloth that had covered Jesus’ head, not lying with the other wrappings, but rolled up in one place by itself.

toV soudavrion This is a Latin loanword (sudarium). It was a small towel used to wipe off perspiration (the way we would use a handkerchief today). This particular item was not mentioned in connection with Jesus’ burial in 19:40, probably because this was only a brief summary account. A soudavrion was mentioned in connection with Lazarus’ burial (11:44) and was probably customary. R. Brown speculates that it was wrapped under the chin and tied on top of the head to prevent the mouth of the corpse from falling open.166

ouj metaV tw'n ojqonivwn keivmenon ajllaV cwriV" ejntetuligmevnon eij" e{na tovpon Much dispute and difficulty surrounds the translation of these words. Basically the issue concerns the positioning of the graveclothes as seen by Peter and the other disciple when they entered the tomb. Some have sought to prove that when the disciples saw the graveclothes they were arranged just as they were when around the body, so that when the resurrection took place the resurrected body of Jesus passed through them without rearranging or disturbing them. In this case the reference to the soudavrion being rolled up does not refer to its being folded, but collapsed in the shape it had when wrapped around the head. Sometimes in defense of this view metav (which normally means “with”) is said to mean “like” so that the comparison with the other graveclothes does not involve the location of the soudavrion but rather its condition (rolled up rather than flattened).

In spite of the intriguing nature of such speculations, it seems more probable that the phrase describing the soudavrion should be understood to mean it was separated from the other graveclothes in a different place inside the tomb. This seems consistent with the different conclusions reached by Peter and the Beloved Disciple (verses 8-10). All that the condition of the graveclothes indicated was that the body of Jesus had not been stolen by thieves. Anyone who had come to remove the body (whether the authorities or anyone else) would not have bothered to unwrap it before carrying it off. And even if one could imagine that they had (perhaps in search of valuables such as rings or jewelry still worn by the corpse) they would certainly not have bothered to take time to roll up the facecloth and leave the other wrappings in an orderly fashion!

20:8 kaiV eiden kaiV ejpivsteusen After Peter went ahead and entered the tomb, the Beloved Disciple, who had arrived there first, also entered. When he saw the graveclothes in the condition described in the previous verse, he saw and believed. What was it that the Beloved Disciple believed (since v. 7 describes what he saw)? Sometimes it is suggested that what he believed was Mary Magdalene’s report that the body had been stolen. But this could hardly be the case; the way the entire scene is narrated such a trivial conclusion would amount to an anti-climax.

It is true that the use of the plural “they” (h[/deisan) in the following verse applied to both Peter and the Beloved Disciple, and this appears to be a difficulty if we understand that the Beloved Disciple believed at this point in Jesus’ resurrection. But it is not an insuperable difficulty, since all it affirms is that at this time neither Peter nor the Beloved Disciple had understood the scripture concerning the resurrection.

Thus it appears the Evangelist intends us to understand that when the Beloved Disciple entered the tomb after Peter and saw the state of the graveclothes, he believed in the resurrection, i.e., that Jesus had risen from the dead.

A Note on the Significance for the Evangelist of the Tidy Tomb:

What was it about the scene which led the Beloved Disciple to believe in the resurrection? Was it simply the presence of the graveclothes combined with the absence of the body, or was it the shape and position of the graveclothes as well, which suggested to the Beloved Disciple that a resurrection had taken place? (See the discussion of the shape and position of the graveclothes in verse 7 above.) We have already concluded in verse 7 that the description of the location and position of the soudavrion indicates that it was in a different place in the tomb, not just rolled up where Jesus’ head would have been. It would seem that if the graveclothes were still arranged in the form of the body (perhaps even preserving that form, something like an empty shell, due to the spices and oils which impregnated them) then Peter could hardly have missed the significance himself. Yet no mention is made in the Fourth Gospel of Peter believing at this point, and Luke 24:12 states that Peter “went away to his own home wondering [qaumavzwn] at what had happened.” In light of all this it seems most likely that it was the presence of the graveclothes, not scattered at random about the tomb but arranged in an orderly manner, which led the Beloved Disciple to realize that a resurrection had taken place.

There may well be an additional theological significance to the presence of the graveclothes in the empty tomb as far as the Evangelist is concerned. When Lazarus came forth from the tomb, he was still wrapped in his graveclothes (11:44). He would need them again, for he would die a second time. When Jesus came forth from the tomb, he left his graveclothes behind, because he would never need them again. Death no longer held any power over him.

20:9 oujdevpw gaVr h[/deisan th'n grafhVn Again we have a parenthetical comment by the Evangelist, explaining that at this time neither Peter nor the Beloved Disciple who accompanied him into the tomb understood the OT scriptures pertaining to Jesus resurrection. This agrees with Luke 24:25-27 that only after the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples did they come to understand the full significance of Christological prophecies in the OT.

The Evangelist does not explicitly mention what OT scriptures are involved (neither does Paul in 1 Cor 15:4, for that matter). The resurrection of the Messiah in general terms may have been seen in Is. 53:10-12 and Ps 16:10. Specific references may have been understood in Jonah 1:17 and Hos 6:2 because of the mention of “the third day”. Beyond this it is not possible to be more specific.

20:10 ajph'lqon ou pavlin After entering the tomb and seeing the graveclothes, both Peter and the Beloved Disciple left and went back to their homes. John makes no comment on their state of mind at this point, but Luke mentions in the parallel account (24:12) that Peter was “wondering [qaumavzwn] at what had happened”. Whether he had any discussion with the Beloved Disciple, who is said to have “believed” in verse 8, is not recorded.

          3 D Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18)

            1 E Mary looks into the tomb and sees two angels (20:11-13)

20:11 Mariva deV eiJsthvkei By this time, Mary had returned to the tomb herself (cf. the Note on 20:3). Now she was weeping (klaivousa) with the loud lamentations and expressions of grief typical of mourners in the Near East (cf. 11:31, where the same verb is used). Her grief was undoubtedly heightened further by her belief that Jesus’ body had been stolen from the tomb.

parevkuyen Thus Mary bent over and looked into the tomb (the same verb is used to describe the action of the Beloved Disciple in 20:5, see the Note on this verse above).

20:12 kaiV qewrei' duvo ajggevlou" ejn leukoi'" What Mary Magdalene saw when she looked into the tomb was not the graveclothes, but two angels in white, seated one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.

20:13 kaiV levgousin aujth'/ The angels themselves do not play a major role in the Johannine account of the resurrection of Jesus. They do not explain the significance of the empty tomb, but simply ask Mary the reason why she was weeping.

levgei aujtoi'" Mary replied in words similar to verse 2 with appropriate adjustments: this time it is “my Lord” rather than just “the Lord,” and the plural “we do not know” has now become singular “I do not know”. This is understandable if the other women who were with Mary earlier when the empty tomb was first discovered had now departed. Again, as in verse 2, Mary does not specify whom she thinks has taken the Lord’s body.

            2 E Mary turns and sees Jesus but does not at first recognize him (20:14-17)

20:14 ejstravfh eij" taV ojpivsw kaiV qewrei' toVn =Ihsou'n eJstw'ta At this point Mary turned around and saw Jesus himself standing behind her, although she did not recognize him. The text gives no indication why she turned, but she may have heard something, or the angels with whom she had just spoken may have done something which caused Mary to turn and look behind her.

Neither are we told why Mary was unable to recognize Jesus. There appears to have been something different about the resurrected Jesus which resulted in him not being immediately recognized even by those who had known him well. Something similar happens in John 21:4, as well as Luke 24:13-35, Luke 24:36-38, and Matt 28:17.

20:15 levgei aujth'/ =Ihsou'" Jesus asked Mary the same question the angels had just asked her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” but he added another, as if he knew she were looking for someone: “Whom are you seeking?

oJ khpourov" Mary concluded that it was the gardener who was questioning her. Again we have no way of knowing (since the text gives no clue) what it was that led Mary to conclude that she was speaking with the gardener. Perhaps it was the only logical conclusion under the circumstances. We are not told what Jesus looked like or how he was dressed (some have seen this latter point as a difficulty since he left all the graveclothes in the tomb, but this is not necessarily a problem: the two angels who had appeared in the tomb were both clothed in white, and it is reasonable to suppose that the resurrected Jesus’ appearance was similar).

Mary now drew a second conclusion: if this person was the gardener, perhaps it was he who had carried Jesus’ body away to some other spot. So she asked, “Sir, if you have carried him off, tell me where you have placed him, and I will carry him away.” It is often pointed out that Mary would have had difficulty in doing this alone, but certainly under the circumstances she did not stop to think of the difficulty of carrying out such an action singlehanded. She was speaking under intense emotional pressure.

20:16 levgei aujth'/ =Ihsou'": Mariavm Jesus now spoke Mary’s name, and so she turned to him and answered in Aramaic, 'RJabbouniv, which the Evangelist translates for the benefit of the readers as Didavskale (“Teacher”). Mary had apparently turned away again from Jesus, perhaps after he questioned her, since she had turned toward him previously in verse 14. Now, hearing her name, she turned back, and recognized Jesus. We may assume from Jesus’ words to her in the following verse that her response was to attempt (at least) to embrace him.

20:17 levgei aujth'/ =Ihsou'" There are considerable difficulties raised by Jesus’ statement to Mary in this verse. Mhv mou a{ptou is a prohibition stated with the present imperative. The aorist tense would normally be expected in a specific command; when the present tense is used for a specific command it would have the nuance “Stop clinging to me” with the implication that Mary already was.

ou[pw gaVr ajnabevbhka proV" toVn patevra The reason given by Jesus why Mary should stop holding on to him is because he had not yet ascended to the Father. Many fanciful explanations have been contrived as to why Jesus should say this, especially in light of the fact that he seemingly invites Thomas to touch his wounds in 20:27. The point seems to be that while Thomas was indeed invited to touch the wounds of the resurrected Jesus, Mary here is bent on clinging to him (a completely different verb is used in 20:27). Jesus has, however, by virtue of his resurrection, entered into a new dimension of relationship with all of his followers, and it is now inappropriate that Mary should hold fast to him.

Instead, Jesus has a mission for Mary to perform: she is to go to the other disciples and inform them that she has seen the risen Lord, and he is ascending to the Father.

touV" ajdelfouv" mou probably refers here not just to the half-brothers of Jesus mentioned in 2:12, 7:3, 7:5, and 7:10, but to all the disciples. If Mary was supposed to go to Jesus’ literal brothers then we are not told in verse 18 that she did so.

A Note on 20:17 and the Ascension:

In what sense, however, can Jesus here speak of the ascension in the present tense, since Luke records in Acts 1:3 that after forty days of post-resurrection appearances Jesus was taken up out of the sight of his followers by a cloud? P. Benoit made a useful distinction between the ascension understood as the glorification of Jesus in the presence of the Father, and the ascension understood as a levitation symbolizing the end of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples.167 As we have pointed out many times before, in the Fourth Gospel the death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation of Jesus to the Father’s right hand are all portrayed as a unit, often under the term “glorification.” This suggests that the Evangelist is thinking of Jesus’ ascension here in 20:17 in the sense of glorification rather than levitation. It is a process begun on the cross and culminating in the presence of the Father. Such an emphasis neither precludes nor contradicts the ascension recorded by Luke in Acts 1.

            3 E Mary goes and informs the disciples (20:18)

20:18 e[rcetai MariaVm hJ MagdalhnhV So in obedience to Jesus Mary Magdalene went and found the disciples (we are not told where they were at this time, but presumably they were in the same place mentioned in verse 19). Mary announced to them, “I have seen the Lord,” and told them what he said to her. The first part of her statement, introduced by o{ti, is direct discourse (eJwvraka toVn kuvrion), while the second clause switches to indirect discourse (kaiV tau'ta eipen aujth'/). This has the effect of heightening the emphasis on the first part of the statement.

We are not told in the Fourth Gospel how the disciples responded to this announcement. Mark 16:9-11 (in the disputed longer ending of Mark) records that when Mary announced to the disciples that she had seen the Lord, they refused to believe it. We may well imagine that such a report would be greeted by extreme scepticism if not outright disbelief.

        2 C The appearances of Jesus to the disciples (20:19-29)

          1 D Jesus appears to his disciples, shows his wounds, and commissions them (20:19-23)

20:19 Ou[sh" ou ojyiva" th'/ hJmevra/ ejkeivnh/ This time reference makes it clear that the first appearance of Jesus to the disciples took place on the evening of the same day that he appeared to Mary Magdalene, the first day of the week (Sunday) following the Sabbath and passover.

tw'n qurw'n kekleismevnwn The Evangelist specifically states that the doors were shut where the disciples were, because of fear of the Jewish authorities. In light of the reason given, we should probably understand this phrase to mean “locked”. This is a perfectly understandable reaction to the events of the past few days. What is the significance of the inclusion of this statement by the Evangelist? It is often taken to mean that Jesus, when he entered the room, passed through the closed doors. This may well be the case, but it may be assuming too much about our knowledge of the mode in which the resurrected body of Jesus exists. The text does not explicitly state how Jesus got through the closed doors. It is possible to assume that the doors opened of their own accord before him, or that he simply appeared in the middle of the room without passing through the doors at all. The point the Evangelist appears to be making here is simply that the closed doors were no obstacle at all to the resurrected Jesus. See also verse 26 for a second similar occurrence.

hlqen oJ =Ihsou'" kaiV e[sth eij" toV mevson The phrases which actually describe Jesus’ arrival are ambiguous, as mentioned above. It cannot be determined with certainty whether he came through the doors, or the doors opened for him, or he simply appeared in the midst of the disciples.

kaiV levgei aujtoi'": eijrhvnh uJmi'n Jesus greeted his disciples with the statement “Peace to you”. In later rabbinic Hebrew this phrase became a standard greeting. It occurs in the OT a few times in such a sense (e.g., 1 Sam 25:6). Here, however, it can hardly be called routine; it bears more similarities to angelic appearances in the OT. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon in Judges 6:22-23 he greeted him with “Peace to you, do not be afraid, you shall not die!” Daniel is similarly reassured in Dan 10:19. The phrase spoken here by the resurrected Jesus to the disciples must surely have been intended to reassure and calm them.

20:20 e[deixen taV" cei'ra" kaiV thVn pleuraVn aujtoi'" After this initial reassurance Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side. Verse 25 makes it clear that this refers to the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the spear in his side. It is understandable why Jesus needed to do this; it was a positive form of identification which would convince the disciples that it was indeed Jesus who had appeared to them.

When the disciples recognized Jesus they were suddenly overcome with joy. This is a fulfillment of Jesus’ words to the disciples in the Last Discourse (16:20-22) that they would have sorrow while the world rejoiced, but that their sorrow would be turned to lasting joy when they saw him again.

From this point on the Evangelist himself begins to use the title kuvrio" to refer to the resurrected Jesus, as Mary herself did in 20:2, 13, and 18.

20:21 eijrhvnh uJmi'n Again Jesus repeated his reassurance to the disciples, “Peace to you,” but he now added a commission: “just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” This is similar to 17:18, where Jesus prayed to the Father, “just as you sent me into the world, I also send them [the disciples] into the world.”

Does this commission apply only to the Twelve (minus Judas, of course) or to all the disciples who were present? It is not clear in the context that only the Twelve were present in the room when Jesus appeared to them. We certainly cannot rule out the possibility that others were present, and there is nothing in the context to suggest that we should limit the words of the commission only to the Twelve. In light of the fact that in the Last Discourse the Twelve appear to be models for the experience of all believers, as we have mentioned previously (see the Notes on 15:14 and 15:16), it appears more likely that these words are for all of Jesus followers, just as the commission in Matt 28:19-20 is for all Christians.

20:22 ejnefuvshsen kaiV levgei aujtoi'": lavbete pheu'ma a{gion: What are we to make of Jesus’ action here, and how does it relate to the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost described in Acts 2?

In terms of the imagery involved this action on Jesus part appears to symbolize the new creation which he himself has inaugurated. The first part of the Prologue (1:1-5) introduced the idea that the preincarnate Word was involved in the original creative act. In the Notes introducing 1:19-51 we suggested the possibility that the opening narrative (1:19-51) of the Gospel itself, following the Prologue, was arranged so as to point to the beginning of a new creation, arranged according to a pattern of seven days. This pointed to the miracle at Cana as occurring on the seventh day and marking the inauguration of the new era. Now at the end of the Fourth Gospel the theme of the new creation emerges again. The use of the verb ejnefuvshsen to describe the action of Jesus here recalls Gen 2:7 in the LXX, where “the LORD God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” This time, however, it is Jesus who is breathing the breath/Spirit of eternal life, life from above, into his disciples. Furthermore there is the imagery of Ezek 37:1-14, the prophecy concerning the resurrection of the dry bones: there in verse 9 the Son of Man is told to prophesy to the “wind/breath/Spirit” to come and breathe on the corpses, so that they will live again. In verse 14 the LORD promises, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you in your own land…” In terms of ultimate fulfillment the passage in Ezek 37 looks at the regeneration of Israel immediately prior to the establishment of the millennial kingdom. We suggest, however, that the Evangelist saw in what Jesus did for the disciples at this point a partial and symbolic fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy, much as Peter made use of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2:17-21.

What then did Jesus do for the disciples in John 20:22? It appears that in light of the symbolism of the new creation present here, as well as the regeneration symbolism from the Ezekiel 37 passage, that Jesus at this point breathed into the disciples the breath of eternal life. This was in the form of the Holy Spirit, who was to indwell them. It is instructive to look again at 7:38-38, which states, “the one who believes in me, as the scripture says, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. Now he said this concerning the Spirit which those who believed in him were going to receive. For the Spirit was not yet (operative in the world), because Jesus was not yet glorified”. But now in 20:22 Jesus was glorified, so the Spirit could be given.

Had the disciples not believed in Jesus before? It seems clear that they had, since their belief is repeatedly affirmed, beginning with 2:11. But it also seems clear that even on the eve of the crucifixion, they did not understand the necessity of the cross (16:31-33). And even after the crucifixion, the disciples had not realized that there was going to be a resurrection (20:9). Ultimate recognition of who Jesus was appears to have come to them only after the post-resurrection appearances (note the response of Thomas, who was not present at this incident, in verse 28).

Finally, what is the relation of this incident in 20:22 to the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2? It appears best to view these as two separate events which have two somewhat different purposes. This was the giving of life itself, which flowed out from within (cf. 7:38-39). The giving of power would occur later, on the Day of Pentecost: power to witness and carry out the mission the disciples had been given. [It should be emphasized that in the historical unfolding of God’s program for the Church, these events occurred in a chronological sequence which (after the Church has been established) is non-repeatable today.] On the analogy of the solution we proposed above for the ascension (see 20:17), we would suggest that here in the Fourth Gospel we are looking at the giving of the Spirit that produces life, while in Acts 2 what we have is the giving of the Spirit that produces power. These are not incompatible, but focus on different aspects of the Holy Spirit’s role in relation to the Church.

20:23 a[n tinwn ajfh'te taV" aJmartiva" ajfevwntai aujtoi'"… Jesus’ statement to the disciples here, “If you forgive the sins of any, they have been forgiven them; if you retain [the sins] of any, they have been retained,” finds its closest parallel in Matt 16:19 and 18:18. It is best to understand this not as referring to apostolic power to forgive or retain the sins of individuals (as it is sometimes understood), but to the “power” of proclaiming this forgiveness which was entrusted to the disciples. This is consistent with the idea that the disciples are to carry on the ministry of Jesus after he has departed from the world and returned to the Father, a theme which occurred in the Last Discourse (cf. 15:27, 16:1-4, and 17:18).

          2 D Jesus appears to the disciples, including Thomas, and Thomas declares Jesus to be Lord and God (20:24-29)

20:24 Qwma'"oJ legovmeno" Divdumo", oujk h met= aujtw'n o{te hlqen =Ihsou'" We are now told that Thomas, also called Didymus (meaning “the Twin”) was not with the Twelve when Jesus appeared to them for the first time, in 20:19-23. No explanation for his absence is given by the Evangelist.

20:25 ejaVn mhV i[dw ejn tai'" cersiVn aujtou' toVn tuvpon tw'n h{lwn… The other disciples reported to Thomas what had happened, telling him that they had seen the resurrected Jesus. Thomas does not believe on account of their testimony, however. He flatly refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead unless he could see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’ side. If Thomas was portrayed as something of a pessimist in his attitude in 11:16, he is certainly portrayed as a sceptic here. In 20:20 Jesus had shown the other disciples his hands and his side, and undoubtedly they had related this to Thomas in their unsuccessful attempt to convince him that they had indeed seen the risen Lord. But Thomas, probably picking up on their words, wanted more: he did not just want to see the wounds, but to touch them as well. Visual proof was not good enough for such an astounding claim; Thomas had to have tactile proof as well.

20:26 KaiV meq= hJmevra" ojktwV pavlin Eight days later the disciples were again together behind closed doors. The setting is identical with the previous incident a week earlier (20:19), and the Evangelist makes a point of repeating the same statement about the doors being shut when Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace to you.” The only difference was that this time Thomas was present with the other disciples. His scepticism concerning the report of his fellow disciples was about to be put to the test.

20:27 ei a levgei tw'/ Qwma'/ Jesus (who is portrayed as knowing precisely what Thomas had said previously about what it would take to make him believe) now turned to Thomas and offered him the opportunity to touch the nail marks in his hands and the spear wound in his side. Jesus concluded his offer by exhorting Thomas to be “not unbelieving but believing.” There is a more than a little irony (almost sarcasm) here. Note that Jesus’ exhortation gives a clue to the final element which was still lacking in the faith of all the disciples until after the resurrection: it is the element Thomas lacked here, and which he affirms in the following verse.

20:28 oJ kuvriov" mou kaiV oJ qeov" mou Should Thomas’ exclamation be understood as two subjects with the rest of the sentence omitted (“My Lord and my God [has truly risen from the dead]”) as predicate nominatives (“You are my Lord and my God”) or as vocatives (“My Lord and my God”)? Probably the most likely is something between the second and third alternatives. It seems that the second is slightly more likely here, because the context appears confessional. Thomas’ statement, while it may have been an exclamation, does in fact confess the faith which he had previously lacked, and Jesus responds to Thomas’ statement in the following verse as if it were a confession.

A Note on the significance of Thomas confession:

With the proclamation by Thomas here, it is difficult to see how any more profound analysis of Jesus person could be given. It echoes 1:1 and 1:14 together: the Word was God, and the Word became flesh (Jesus of Nazareth). The Fourth Gospel opened with many other titles for Jesus: the Lamb of God (1:29, 36); the Son of God (1:34, 49); Rabbi (1:38); Messiah (1:41); the King of Israel (1:49); the Son of Man (1:51). Now the climax is reached with the proclamation by Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” and we have come full circle from 1:1, where the Evangelist had introduced the reader to who Jesus was, to 20:28, where the last of the disciples has come to the full realization of who Jesus was. What Jesus had predicted in 8:28 had come to pass: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM…”. By being lifted up in crucifixion (which led in turn to death, resurrection, and exaltation with the Father) Jesus has revealed his true identity as both LORD (kuvrio", used by the LXX to translate hwhy) and GOD (qeov", used by the LXX to translate <hla).

20:29 o{ti eJwvrakav" me pepivsteuka"… It is significant that Jesus does not reject or modify Thomas confession. Instead he accepts it approvingly, and goes on to approve as blessed those who believe without the benefit of seeing. With this reference the focus shifts from Thomas and the other disciples, who had both seen and believed, to those yet future disciples who would believe without the benefit of seeing. R. Brown offers a vivid illustration of the point made here:

Throughout the Gospel and more particularly in the Last Discourse, in what the evangelist has been describing on the stage of early 1st-century Palestine, he has had in mind an audience seated in the darkened theater of the future, silently viewing what Jesus was saying and doing. True to the limitations and logic of the stage drama imposed by the Gospel form, the Johannine Jesus could address that audience only indirectly through the disciples who shared the stage and gave voice to sentiments and reactions that were shared by the audience as well. But now, as the curtain is about to fall on the stage drama, the lights in the theater are suddenly turned on. Jesus shifts his attention from the disciples on the stage to the audience that has become visible and makes clear to that his ultimate concern is for them—those who have come to believe in him through the word of his disciples….168

Now that attention has been shifted to the readers of the Gospel, the Evangelist goes on to indicate in 20:30-31 his purpose for writing the Gospel; and this, too, ultimately has in view those who have not seen, and yet are going to believe.

      5 B Conclusion to the Book of Glory: the purpose of the Signs (20:30-31)

20:30 PollaV meVn ou kaiV a[lla shmei'a The Evangelist mentions many other sign-miracles performed by Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in the Gospel. What are these sign-miracles which the author of the Gospel has in mind? We can only speculate. The Evangelist says they were performed in the presence of the disciples, which emphasizes again their role as witnesses (cf. 15:27). The point here is that the Evangelist has been selective in his use of material. He has chosen to record those incidents from the life and ministry of Jesus which support his purpose in writing the Gospel. Much which might be of tremendous interest, but does not directly contribute to that purpose in writing, he has omitted. What the Evangelist’s purpose in writing is, he has explained in the following verse.

20:31 tau'ta deV gevgraptai i{na pisteuvshte… Now, at last, the Evangelist reveals to the readers the purpose of his book: in order that they may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and in order that by believing they may have life in his name.

The question which must still be addressed is whether the Evangelist is writing primarily for an audience of unbelievers, with purely evangelistic emphasis, or whether he envisions an audience of believers, whom he wants to strengthen in their faith. There are several observations that might be helpful here:

(1) in the immediate context (20:30), the other sign-miracles spoken of by the Evangelist were performed in the presence of disciples;

(2) in the case of the first of the sign-miracles, at Cana, the Evangelist makes a point of the effect the miracle had on the disciples (2:11);

(3) if the primary thrust of the Gospel is toward unbelievers, it is difficult to see why so much material in chapters 13-17 (the Last Meal and Last Discourse, concluding with Jesus’ prayer for the disciples), which deals almost exclusively with the disciples, is included;

(4) the disciples themselves were repeatedly said to have believed in Jesus throughout the Gospel, beginning with 2:11, yet they still needed to believe after the resurrection (if Thomas’ experience in 20:27-28 is any indication); and

(5) as we have mentioned before, the Gospel appears to be written with the assumption that the readers are familiar with the basic story (or perhaps with one or more of the synoptic gospel accounts, although this is not certain). Thus no account of the birth of Jesus is given at all, and although he is identified as being from Nazareth, the words of the Pharisees and chief priests to Nicodemus (7:52) are almost certainly to be taken as ironic, assuming the reader knows where Jesus was really from. Likewise, when Mary is identified in 11:2 as the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, it appears to be assumed that the readers are familiar with the story, since the incident involved is not mentioned in the Fourth Gospel until 12:3.

These observations must be set over against the clear statement of purpose in the present verse, 20:31, which seems to have significant evangelistic emphasis. In addition to this there is the repeated emphasis on witness throughout the Fourth Gospel (cf. the witness of John the Baptist in 1:7, 8, 15, 32, and 34, along with 5:33; the Samaritan woman in 4:39; Jesus’ own witness, along with that of the Father who sent him, in 8:14, 18, and 18:37; the disciples themselves in 15:27; and finally the eyewitness testimony of the Evangelist himself in 19:35 and 21:24).

In light of all this evidence it seems best to say that the Evangelist wrote with a dual purpose:

(1) to witness to unbelievers concerning Jesus, in order that they come to believe in him and have eternal life; and

(2) to strengthen the faith of believers, by deepening and expanding their understanding of who Jesus is.

166 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 986.

167 P. Benoit, “L’Ascension,” Revue Biblique 56 (1949): 161-203.

168 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 1048-49.

Related Topics: Resurrection

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