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Lesson 103: The Aim of the Gospel (John 20:24-31)

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September 6, 2015

Years ago the British agnostic Thomas Huxley had to leave early one morning to go from one speaking assignment to another, so he got into a horse-drawn taxi to go from his hotel to the train station. He assumed that the hotel doorman had told the driver of the carriage that they were to go to the train station. So when he got in, he simply said to the driver, “Drive fast.”

Off they went. After a short while, Huxley, who was familiar with the area, realized that they were actually going in the opposite direction from the train station. He yelled to the driver, “Do you know where you’re going?” Without looking back, the driver replied, “No, sir, but I’m driving very fast.”

Obviously, it doesn’t do much good to go fast if you’re going in the wrong direction! Yet, many people, even Christians, are like that. They’re going full speed, but they haven’t stopped to evaluate where they ought to be going. Before you know it, life has whizzed by, but you haven’t spent it aimed in the right direction. As Christians, we all would agree that to live properly, we must live in line with God’s purpose.

Our text brings us to John’s purpose statement for writing his gospel. First, he illustrates his purpose with the story of Thomas having his doubts cleared up as he sees the risen Lord Jesus Christ and exclaims (John 20:28), “My Lord and my God!” Then John states his purpose plainly (John 20:30-31): “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” To sum up:

The aim of the gospel is that we would believe in and worship the risen Savior.

Thomas moved from doubting Jesus’ resurrection to believing in and worshiping Him as his risen Lord and God. John wants all his readers to come to that same point of belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and God. Or, to put it another way, John wants us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that we may have life in His name. All who have life through believing in Jesus’ name worship Him as Lord and God. But to come to that place, we have to join Thomas in overcoming the enemy of faith called “doubt.”

1. To believe in and worship the risen Savior, analyze and overcome your doubts.

We all struggle at times with varying degrees of doubts, which cloud our faith in the risen Savior. Thomas, though, has the distinction of being “doubter-in-chief”—everyone knows him as, “Doubting Thomas.” That may not be entirely fair, in that Luke 24:11 tells us that when the women first brought reports of Jesus’ resurrection, none of the apostles believed them. But Thomas’ persistent doubts put him at the head of the pack.

There are different kinds of doubters. Some use their doubts as a cover so they can go on sinning. They smugly say that they’re being “intellectually honest” or they “can’t put their brains on the shelf.” But they aren’t interested in getting those doubts cleared up, because they don’t want to submit to Jesus as Lord. Doubting gives them an aura of intellectual honesty, but when you peel away the veneer, their doubts really serve only as a cover-up for their sins.

Others—and I would put Thomas in this category—hate their doubts. Their doubts make them miserable. They want to believe, but they’re plagued by honest questions. They can’t just close their minds, and take a leap of faith. They need credible answers to clear up their doubts.

In previous messages, I’ve gone into more detail than I can here about the reasons for Thomas’ doubts (see “Dealing With Doubt,” [04/04/1999]; “Overcoming Doubt,” [04/16/2006]; and, “Defeating Doubt,” [03/31/2013]). But to summarize, I think that Thomas’ doubts stemmed from at least four factors.

A. Personal failure coupled with Thomas’ personality triggered his doubts.

After promising their loyalty, all of the disciples had deserted Jesus on the night He was arrested (Mark 14:31). But Thomas had been outspoken in his loyalty. Shortly before, when Jesus wanted to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, the disciples objected that it was too dangerous. But Thomas said (John 11:16), “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” He was a pessimist, but at least he was loyal. But then he had joined the others in running away when Jesus was arrested. That failure, coupled with Thomas’ rather gloomy personality, plunged him into depression and doubt when he failed Jesus.

We’re all wired differently and so it’s important to know yourself so that you can be on guard against your weaknesses. Usually our areas of greatest strength are also our areas of greatest weakness. A man like Thomas, who is loyal and conscientious, who takes commitments seriously, is also more prone to depression and doubt when he fails. So if you’re struggling with doubts, think about whether your doubts may stem from a recent failure.

B. A lack of understanding fueled Thomas’ doubts.

None of the disciples understood Jesus’ repeated disclosures that He was going to be killed in Jerusalem and rise again the third day. They pictured a conquering and reigning Messiah, not a suffering and dying one. So when Jesus died, they didn’t understand what was going on. John (20:9) acknowledges that even after seeing the empty tomb, they still didn’t understand the Scripture that Jesus must rise again from the dead.

Some of my bouts with doubt have stemmed from not understanding the Scripture. Maybe it’s a difficult doctrinal matter. Sometimes it’s because I don’t understand the ways of God. In John 6:60, we saw that many of Jesus’ wider company of disciples turned away from Him when He taught some hard things about eating His flesh and drinking His blood and about the doctrine of election. On that occasion, Jesus asked the twelve if they would turn away also. Peter gave the great answer (John 6:68-69), “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” I’ve come back to that answer many times when I’ve struggled with doubt due to a lack of understanding. Jesus is the truth. Where else can I go?

C. Deep disappointment and shock over Jesus’ suffering nurtured Thomas’ doubts.

Thomas especially seems to have been shocked about the grisly details of Jesus’ suffering and death. His fixation on Jesus’ wounds (John 20:25) shows how deeply it affected him. He couldn’t get those gory details out of his mind. He probably was thinking, “I knew that this would happen!” And yet at the same time, he was disappointed and shocked when it did happen.

When God doesn’t work in the way that you had thought He should or answer your prayers as you had hoped, you’re susceptible to doubt. That’s especially true when you or a loved one goes through a time of suffering or a shocking experience. Your confusion and shock can plunge you into a sea of doubts.

D. Isolation from other believers deepened Thomas’ doubts.

We don’t know why Thomas was absent that first Sunday night when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. But a likely reason was his depression over the crucifixion. The last thing he wanted at a time like that was to be around other people. So he wandered off by himself to brood over the horrible events of the previous few days.

Thomas’ doubts probably grew even deeper when he heard the other disciples tell him that they had seen the risen Lord (John 20:25). Think how you would feel if you missed church because you were depressed and doubting and we all told you, “Hey, you missed a blessing last Sunday! We all felt that Jesus was right there in our midst!” Great! That really encourages you, doesn’t it!

Thomas may have thought, “Why would the Lord appear to them when I wasn’t there? Doesn’t He know that I’m wrestling with doubts? Why didn’t He appear to me?” That line of thinking could have led to thoughts like, “It just isn’t fair! He must not love me!” Those thoughts would have led to deeper doubts.

But even though you’re depressed and other believers may bug you, you still need to hang out with the saints. While our faith must be personal, it should never be isolationist. Your hand only functions when it’s connected with the rest of your body. It’s the same spiritually: you won’t overcome your doubts brooding by yourself. You need to gather with the church for worship and teaching. In that context, the Lord often manifests Himself in a way that will alleviate your doubts. Jesus didn’t appear to Thomas while he was off brooding by himself. He only revealed Himself when Thomas was gathered again with fellow believers. So the first step toward believing in and worshiping the risen Savior is to analyze and overcome your doubts.

2. To believe in and worship the risen Savior, experience His abundant grace.

As we saw (John 20:19, 21), Jesus’ first words to the fearful disciples was, “Peace be with you,” which He repeated so that they would get it. He could have reamed them out for their fear and slowness to believe, but He spoke graciously to them.

If Jesus rightly could have chewed out the ten, Thomas really deserved a scolding! He had adamantly rejected the testimony of the other disciples. Then he put the Lord to the test by demanding to touch Jesus and feel His wounds. And yet when Jesus appeared again to the disciples on the following Sunday evening, Jesus graciously said the same thing (John 20:26): “Peace be with you.” As I said last week, it was the usual Jewish greeting, but in these circumstances, it was far more than just a greeting. The risen Lord was extending His grace to these men who had failed.

Then He piled on more grace when He invited Thomas to touch His hands and His side. True, Jesus both rebuked and exhorted him by saying (John 20:27), “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” But the rebuke stemmed from love. It didn’t negate the abundant grace that Thomas experienced. We don’t know whether Thomas actually did it. At that point, he didn’t need to touch Jesus, because He knew that He really was alive. I’m inclined to think that Thomas didn’t touch Him, since Jesus replied (John 20:29), “Because you have seen Me [not touched Me], have you believed?” Although Jesus rightly could have disowned Thomas as a disciple, He lavished His grace on him.

Thomas’ spontaneous confession, “My Lord and my God,” takes us back to John 1:1, 14, & 16: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth…. For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” Thomas knew that Jesus was God and also that He was full of grace toward him in spite of his sinful doubts. And now he was awash in the riches of Christ’s grace.

Have you experienced God’s abundant grace in Jesus Christ? You taste it first when the Holy Spirit convicts you of your sin and you realize that you rightly deserve God’s judgment. But then He opens your eyes to the good news that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, including you (1 Tim. 1:15). And you hear the great news that He doesn’t save sinners after they’ve worked hard to clean up their lives and earn it. Rather, He saves sinners by His grace through faith in Him (Eph. 2:8-9).

I recently had a lengthy email exchange with a man who was reading my sermons online. He took issue with my teaching that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. He argued that we must add baptism and obedience to faith. He cited James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Although I have a sermon on that text explaining how James and Paul are not at odds, he kept insisting that we are not saved by faith alone. I asked, but he never answered, “How many good works do you need to pile up before you’re saved?” Does one get you in? Two? Two thousand? When does the scale tip so that you will get into heaven? I also told him, “There is no good news in your ‘gospel,’ which is no gospel at all.” But there is wonderfully good news if any sinner can believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and be counted righteous in God’s sight (Rom 4:5)!

But then after believing in Jesus, we’ve all failed miserably, as Thomas did when he doubted the resurrection. We’ve all sinned repeatedly when we knew better. What should we do then? Do we need to do penance? Do we need to crawl on our knees on broken glass to demonstrate our contrition? Do we need to join a monastery or convent and deny ourselves common comforts to merit forgiveness? No, because then grace would not be grace (Rom. 11:6). We should mourn over our sins, because they grieve our Savior. We should confess our sins to the Lord (Ps. 51:17; Matt. 5:4; 1 Cor. 5:2). But when we do, He promises to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). So as Paul told Timothy (2 Tim. 2:1), “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Experiencing His grace leads you to believe in Him and to worship Him!

3. To believe in and worship the risen Savior, go back to the foundational truth of His resurrection and stand there.

As Paul emphasizes (1 Cor. 15:17), Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the foundation of our faith: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” As we’ve seen (my message on John 20:1-10), there is solid historical evidence that Jesus is risen. In fact, we can be thankful for Thomas’ doubting the resurrection, because his entrenched doubt never would have changed to solid belief unless he had been convinced by the strongest proof. Tradition tells us that he later went to India and was martyred there. He never would have given his life in service to Christ if he had been unsure about Jesus’ resurrection.

Here’s how this applies: After you trust in Christ as your Savior and Lord, you will still face doubts over difficult problems in the Bible and in the world. Sometimes I struggle with how a loving God can allow all of the evil that goes on in this world. How can He allow little kids to be abused or sold into the sex trade or murdered? I struggle with the fact that millions live and die and then face judgment without ever hearing about the Savior. I struggle with the doctrine of eternal punishment. The list could go on.

But if Jesus is truly risen from the dead, then His claims are true and all of those issues become of secondary importance. I can work on them over time. Some problems I may not resolve until I meet Jesus in glory. But I can trust in Him because He was raised bodily from the dead and that fact is attested to by many faithful witnesses whose lives were dramatically changed when they saw Him. So I rest my faith on the sure foundation of His resurrection.

Maybe you’re thinking, “If I could have been there with Thomas and seen Jesus risen from the dead, it would be easier to overcome my doubts. But I’ve never seen Him.” For you, Jesus speaks to Thomas the words of verse 29: “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” That’s us! Jesus pronounces a blessing on us who believe the apostolic witness. If you’re struggling with doubt, go back to the foundational truth, substantiated by many eyewitnesses, that Jesus is risen. It gives you the footing to work on the problems that cause your doubts.

So, to believe in and worship the risen Savior, analyze and overcome your doubts; experience His abundant grace; go back to the foundational truth of His resurrection and stand there. Finally:

4. To believe in and worship the risen Savior, see Him for who He is and see yourself for who you are.

Throughout the Bible, worship happens when people get a glimpse of who God is and at that same moment, inevitably they see who they are in His holy presence. When Isaiah saw God on His throne surrounded by angels proclaiming (Isa. 6:3), “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory,” Isaiah instantly cried out (Isa. 6:5), “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” That was a moment of profound worship.

When Peter had fished all night and caught nothing and Jesus, who was in the boat, provided the miraculous catch of fish, Peter’s spontaneous response was (Luke 5:8), “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Peter saw who Jesus was and who he was and the result was worship. Later, when Jesus instantly stilled the raging waves that threatened to sink their boat, the disciples were fearful and amazed. They said to one another (Luke 8:25), “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?” They saw Jesus’ mighty power and their own weakness, and they worshiped Him.

Here Thomas has the same experience: He sees the risen Lord Jesus, who in His resurrection body could appear to them behind locked doors. He hears Jesus quote what Thomas had said to the other disciples when Jesus was absent. He instantly realized that not only was Jesus risen, He also was omniscient! At the same moment, Thomas recognized his own sinful unbelief in doubting the resurrection. He spontaneously cried out, “My Lord and My God!” He now was believing in and worshiping the risen Savior.

Some (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses) claim that Thomas was exclaiming in shock something like the common American expression, “O my God!” But that is to take the name of the Lord in vain and Jesus surely would have rebuked him. And, like Peter when Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him (Acts 10:25-26), Jesus would have said, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” But rather, Jesus commended Thomas’ worship as an example of the faith that all should have. We all should believe in and worship Jesus personally as “my Lord and my God.”

Conclusion

How can you get this understanding of who Jesus is and who you are, so that you worship Him? It doesn’t come from a mystical or miraculous vision, but rather from the Holy Spirit giving you understanding and insight into God’s Word. I once heard John MacArthur tell about a pastor friend of his who told John that he saw Jesus every morning while he was shaving. John incredulously asked, “And you keep shaving?” If the man really saw Jesus, like John (in Rev. 1:17) he would fall at His feet as a dead man!

God reveals Jesus to us through His Word. When the risen Savior spoke to the disciples on the Emmaus Road, we read (Luke 24:27), “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” Later, probably on this occasion when He revealed Himself to Thomas and the other disciples, we read (Luke 24:45), “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” As you read the Scriptures, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ to your soul. (I’m assuming that you do read the Scriptures frequently!)

Finally, note that faith is Christ is not vague: it has definite doctrinal content. John wants us to believe specifically that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He wants us to believe that the risen Jesus is “my Lord and my God.” If Jesus is anything less than the eternal Lord and God, it would be a horrible sin to worship Him. If He truly is Lord and God, it would be a horrible sin not to worship Him.

Application Questions

  1. What causes you most to struggle with doubt? How can you overcome these doubts?
  2. An unbeliever tells you, “I’d like to have your faith, but I have too many intellectual problems with Christianity.” Your reply?
  3. Some say that grace is the balance point between legalism and license. Why is this wrong? Will too much grace lead to sin?
  4. Discuss the implications of this profound statement: “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 1:1:2)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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