Not Seeing Is Believing: The Nature of Faith in the Christian Church
Text: John 20:19-31
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.
One of the things that I find striking about the resurrection account is that Jesus does not simply return from the dead and go back to business as usual. He doesn’t just “live among the apostles.” Instead, Jesus comes and goes. He appears, and then He seems to disappear. Then He reappears again. Each time He appears, He surprises the apostles, teaches them something important, and equips them for ministry without Him.
This part of John 20 directly continues the story of the resurrection we heard last week. Verse 19 tells us that it begins on the very same Sunday. Jesus appears to His disciples, proves the reality of His resurrected body, and then breaths out the Holy Spirit on them. Since Thomas wasn’t there, Jesus comes back and does it again for Him. Then He says something basic to the meaning of faith, for all people of every era. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
What’s going on in this passage? There’s a lot that could be said, but I’d like for us to see the big picture. Jesus is now building His church. Having completed His own work, He is now moving to into the work of the church. This is still His work in a way, since He indwells the church, but in other way it’s the work of the Holy Spirit Who is coming in Jesus’ place. The Holy Spirit will be the Person which abides in the Church from day to day and which energizes the church to do the work it does. And so before Jesus leaves, He builds that Church, starting with the foundation of the apostles.
Secondly, we see that Jesus builds His church on a rather weak foundation. It is a foundation of mortal men who struggle to believe. Thomas is chief among these, but he’s hardly alone. As we will see, Thomas demands to see what the other apostles have already been allowed to see. He’s just a little late and a little more dogged about it all. He needs to see proof of the resurrection. Amazingly, Jesus agrees.
Then thirdly, we see that we are called to a faith that is actually stronger than what the apostles had, at least what they had when they were commissioned. It’s an amazing twist of providence that being an eye-witness to the resurrection is an essential requirement to being an apostle while, at the same time, believing in the resurrection without seeing is said to be the greater virtue. In this, we see that the ideal Christian is actually the simple one, the one with child-like faith. Today, we are called to believe, and as Jesus Himself tells us, not-seeing is believing.
Jesus Builds His Church
Our text for this morning picks up where last week’s left off. Jesus has been raised from the dead, but the apostles themselves have only seen the burial clothes and heard the women’s report. They have gathered at evening, probably for a worship service, behind locked doors, when Jesus miraculously appears to them. He speaks twice and there are two results. The first time He says, “Peace be with you,” and their fear turns to gladness (John 20:19-20). Their weak faith is strengthened.
This is actually the first time the apostles see the resurrected Christ. That’s very important, because being an eye-witness to the resurrection is actually one of the requirements of being an apostle. As Peter will say in Acts 2:32, “This Jesus God has rasied up, of which we are all witnesses.” Paul, in 1 Cor. 9, appeals to His having seen Jesus as a credentialing mark, “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” Thus, Christ’s appearance to the twelve on Easter night is a necessary event in their apostolic commissioning.
But that appearance is not enough on its own. Jesus speaks again and adds something:
“Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (vs. 21-23)
The apostles have been credentialed. Now they are energized. They are given the Holy Spirit, Who will be the power of their ministry. This parallels Matthew 16:19, where Jesus says, “Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” Now He’s doing it. And that’s why Jesus repeats the teaching of the keys of the kingdom, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
This does not mean that the apostles have some sort of mechanical ability to forgive or retain sins. They don’t get to do it “on their own,” nor could they possibly impede the gospel. Instead, it is shorthand for the gospel ministry itself. The apostles are the instruments God uses to spread His forgiveness, and they do this through preaching and teaching the Word itself. They “forgive” sins when they say things like, “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). How do they retain sins then? Certainly not by refusing to forgive people. Instead, this simply means that when people reject their message, they are rejecting forgiveness. It also applies to church discipline, when the apostles and then ministers after them judge that someone has already broken the bond of fellowship and love and so needs to be expelled from the church. They might err in this judgment, to be sure, but the ordinary and normal meaning of excommunication is that the person has been severed from Jesus and therefore is not forgiven of his sins. Here in John 20, Jesus is summarizing the pastoral ministry.
Now we have to talk a little about poor doubting Thomas. John 20:24 tells us that he was not with the rest of the twelve when Jesus appeared. Why not? Where had he gone? We don’t know, and it’s not a good idea to speculate. Some older commentators suppose that Thomas had temporarily deserted out of fear, but that’s pure speculation. Whatever the reason, Thomas is back now, but he’s skeptical. “He said to them, “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” (John 20:25).
This infamous statement is strongly worded. Thomas wants to see and put his finger in the wounds. He needs tangible empirical proof, and he says that unless he has this he will not believe. One translation renders it, “Unless I see… I will never believe!” This is his great doubt, his lack of childlike faith.
We shouldn’t beat up on Thomas too much. First of all, we would have all done the same thing. The message of the resurrection was surprising, it was hard to believe. And so asking for evidence is pretty natural. Secondly, the other apostles had all gotten to see this same evidence. Thomas was just asking to be included as they were. And yet Jesus says that Thomas is unbelieving. Thus, what is “normal” isn’t necessarily good.
Amazingly, Jesus condescends to Thomas’ weakness. He gives him the proof he asks for, because Jesus knows Thomas’ condition and wants to help him.
And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (John 20:26-27)
Christ’s appearance to Thomas, and His willingness to let Thomas touch His wounds is amazing grace. He loves him enough to help his unbelief. And Thomas responds with words that were truly incredible for a first-century Jew to say, “My Lord and My God!” This proof of the resurrection is also proof of the deity of Christ.
Thomas has now been restored to faith and fully-equipped to be an apostle. We should notice this. His lack of faith did not get him kicked out. Jesus condescended to his weakness and helped pick Him up. This shows what God does for each of us. And remember, Thomas is an apostle. Jesus is building His church, and He builds it on a weak foundation, at least insofar as we consider the men themselves. It’s something of a cliché, but God chooses to draw straight with crooked lines. He puts His glory in earthen vessels, and this was the case from the very beginning. Christ is building His church, and He builds it out of weak and sinful men. But He builds it out of weak and sinful men who are truly changed by their experience of meeting Jesus. They don’t remain as they are, and they are awakened to true faith because of the resurrection.
Believing Without Seeing
There’s one more truly astounding part of this text. Jesus say to Thomas, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Even though He has been kind enough to meet Thomas’ need for visible and tangible confirmation, Jesus tells us that it is better to not need these things. It’s a good thing, because He knows that, after Pentecost, no one except for the Apostle Paul would be able to see and touch Him. They would all have to believe without seeing. In fact, this is the very essence of faith.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). “Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 2:8).
Faith without sight is normal faith. It’s the kind of faith we are expected to have. It is better than faith that is based on sight. In fact, Jesus taught us that people who claim that they would believe if only they could see a miracle are lying—“If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Thomas had a weak faith, but He was a believer deep down. He needed to be helped up to mature faith, to faith which is like a little child’s, faith that eagerly believes without sight.
We are called to this kind of faith. We must believe the gospel, and we must believe it because of the testimony of those who have gone before us. We are to believe because of the power of the Spirit that is at work in the preaching of the gospel. And we are to believe because the Spirit which raised Christ from the dead also breaths new life into us when we hear the word of God proclaimed. This faith without sight is greater faith than the original apostles had, and it is what each of us is called to have today.
We’ve seen some important things about this resurrection appearance. Through it, Jesus has built His church. This appearance is what qualifies the apostles to be apostles, and the breathing out of the Spirit equips and empowers them to preach the gospel. Secondly, as amazing as this event is, it’s more amazing to see that God chose to use weak mean, even weak in faith, to build His church. This remains true today, and we should take comfort in the knowledge of God’s power and His grace. And yet, while God uses weak men, He calls us to greater maturity. He calls us to not remain as they are but to grow up in the faith, and this chiefly means simply trusting Him, believing without seeing. Mature faith is childlike faith, faith that neither doubts nor waivers, simple ordinary faith.
I’d like to leave us with a few implications of this blessing on simple faith. The church has now been built, after all. The foundation is laid, and we need not lay another. But the ongoing encouragement and instruction for us is to believe and to believe in a certain way. We must eagerly and simply believe the report of the gospel, especially when it comes from other Christians. What does this mean?
First, it means that we should not understand our spiritual health by looking deep within ourselves and seeing if we are strong. We don’t have to ask ourselves if we are “really sure” that we are “really sure.” We don’t take faith in our faith. Frankly speaking, that’s just another kind of doubt. Instead, we need to believe the Word of God. When authorized Christians preach the gospel to you, they are saying the same thing that the apostles were saying, “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). Your job is to believe it.
This means that when your pastor tells you that your sins are forgiven, you should say “Amen!” You should accept that message and believe it. When he says that Jesus offers His body and blood to you in the Lord’s Supper, you should believe it. Teach your children to believe it. Don’t question it or doubt it. Just say, “Ok.” Blessed are you when do not see but believe.
Secondly, this means that you shouldn’t judge your salvation by “how well you are doing” in your sanctification. Now, we have to be careful here. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t care about your sanctification. You very much should. But what I mean is that your sanctification can never make or break your justification. You can’t sin your way out of salvation. This is very simply because Christ died in order to forgive your sins, and your sins can never overpower the Cross. Therefore, when you are struggling with a sin, when you are backsliding as they used to call it or when you are in a dark place in your heart, you should not just say, “I must not be a Christian.” No, in these times—in these times most of all—you should say, “Christ died for me!” You should believe the gospel. And you can and should use the teaching and preaching of the church to strengthen your faith. Remember what Martin Luther said about times of doubt, “I am baptized!” This was not taking refuge in baptismal regeneration, in the modern sense, but rather a way for Luther to remind himself what Jesus had said about him. Jesus had proclaimed Luther’s salvation through the ordinary means of grace, and so Luther should believe that, even over his inner demons and doubts.
This is the only way that you will be able to “do better,” by the way. You will only be able to grow in your faith if you have that simple faith which simply trusts Jesus’ word. Then you can grow into maturity and sanctification. First believe what Jesus says about you through the ordinary ministry of the Church, and then step up into it.
Thirdly and finally, we should believe this simple faith about one another as well. We are, each of us, equally sinful, and we are, each of us, equally forgiven. We get our faith from the same place, from this same gospel. And so if we believe it about ourselves, we should believe it about one another. We don’t judge one another according to the flesh, (2 Cor. 5:16) but instead by their status “in Christ.” Look around this room today. What you’ll see are sinners, but no longer sinners defined as sinners. What you see are forgiven sons of God. You see members of the body of Christ. You see restored and empowered Christians. Believe this. Treat one another like Christians, and expect God to bless us each with the fruit of His Spirit, to grow us in grace and bring us to glory.
Believe this, not because of your own life experience, nor even because of empirical observation and confirmation. No, believe it because of the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Believe it because of the gospel. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Let us pray.