Scripture: John 20:19-31
Have you ever seen a UFO? I have! And that’s because what I saw in the night sky from the left rear window of our family car fully aligns with the acronym, UFO–Unidentified Flying Object. I know exactly what I saw, and there’s no way to identify what it was. I’m not claiming to have seen an alien spaceship, because the truth is, I don’t know what I saw. Therefore, to me it remains unidentified. Do I believe it was something or someone from beyond our planet? No. But neither do I have a clue about what it could have been, because what I witnessed with my own eyes that night defies anything I’ve ever seen happen in the sky. And just so you know, at the moment I looked out the window and saw this, I was immediately and consciously aware of the fact that it was not a reflection in the window.
So, here’s what I saw. First of all, there was the full expanse of the night sky from left to right from the car window. In the right side of the night sky was a long triangle-shaped light with hard, straight edges. And in the left side of the sky was a white light that looked like a dot, which was visibly larger than a star, although I admit I didn’t actually see it until it was moving. Which it did, from left to right across the sky, in straight line towards the triangle-shaped light. It only took a 3-4 seconds to move across the sky – which was clearly a lot faster than any known aircraft. And as soon as the little light entered into the triangle—poof, the entire thing disappeared. The two things that stuck out to me was the speed at which that dot of light traveled across the span of the sky, and the sudden disappearance of the large triangle-shaped light when the dot-light reached it.
So, what do you think — do you believe me? Do you believe my witness as I described it to you? Do you take my word for truth, that what I said I saw is proof enough to believe that it was something real, albeit unexplainable?
Here’s what we know to be factual. We know that throughout human history, people have claimed to see unexplainable phenomenon, such as UFOs and other-worldly entities. People have claimed to see and interact with ghosts and spirits And for as long as these claims have been made, there have always been people who believe them.
But how about when it comes to the dead coming back to life? Yes, there are lots of testimonies of what we today call near-death experiences, where a person’s body ceases functioning for a brief period of time, only for them to “come back to life” and be able to talk about their experience of being “dead.” But I’m wonderful about something different.
What I’m asking about is, over the course of human history how many people have claimed they personally know someone who was dead and buried for 2-3 days, and then came back to life and was somehow freed from their grave? I spent a bit of time searching this question on the internet, and the closest I can find are situations where it was believed that someone had been dead for a while, and then suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, started moving about and “came to life.” But in every case I read about, the person died again—completely—within a very short period of time.
The point is, human history is NOT replete with claims of people rising from the dead after many days in the tomb. And whereas many people have no problem believing someone who claims to have seen a UFO, I bet almost all of us would scoff at the claim of someone being raised to life after three days in the grave.
That being the case, why would we be surprised at Thomas’ suspicion upon hearing that very same claim about Jesus? Put yourself in his sandals. It’s a known fact that Jesus was executed. It was witnessed by enough people to dispel any doubt. It’s known where he was buried. You have close personal friends who witnessed it all, and have openly talked about what they saw. On the morning of the third day of huddling behind locked doors with your friends, you have an important errand to run, and so you leave for a while. Upon your return, you discover that your friends have conspired to say that Jesus visited them while you were gone.
Yeah, right! you respond. I’ve heard some outlandish assertions before, but that one takes the cake. Come on, guys, do I look that gullible to you? What, do you take me for a fool? I’ll tell you what, if you can produce this supposedly “risen” Jesus, then maybe I’ll believe you. Maybe. But it can’t be smoke and mirrors. He’d better have hands and feet with real holes in them. I want to be able to put my finger all the way through them. And don’t forget about the hold his side. You’ll need to find someone who has that, too. One I can put my entire hand into. But until that happens, I won’t believe it. And nothing you say will convince me otherwise. It’s just too crazy a claim to make.
Personally, I’ve always thought Thomas responded as any thoughtful, knowledgeable person might. As you and I would if someone made the same claim today. And yet, he somehow acquired a negative nickname—’Doubting Thomas.’ To many a Believer who’s honestly struggled with some of the claims of the Gospel it’s been said, “Don’t be a Doubting Thomas.” Being a ‘Doubting Thomas’ has typically been seen as a bad thing. A ‘Doubting Thomas’ is someone who lacks faith. The above image would seem to suggest that the way of faith and the way of doubt are two different directions. The second image that indicates the same thing. The person on the left doubts; he’s got a big question mark over his head,… while the person on the right has faith as indicated by the halo above its head. The implication is that if you have faith, you don’t doubt.
But I don’t personally see it that way. I see Thomas as someone who looking at the situation very clearly. He’s coming at their outlandish claim with a level head. He knew then, just as we know now, that people just don’t come back to life after being dead for three days. So such a claim on the part of his friends, I think, would naturally warrant some doubt.
Clearly, the story doesn’t end with Thomas remaining in a state of doubt. John reports that eight days later Jesus showed up again in the house, and this time Thomas was there. And after getting the proof he was looking for, he made a significant profession of faith. He responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28) A week earlier, when Jesus showed up the first time, we don’t get a report of any of the disciples making that same profession of faith. It says they were filled with joy, but John doesn’t mention any of them worshiping the risen Jesus the same way Thomas did when he first witnessed the resurrected Jesus.
Now, it’s true that Jesus didn’t totally let Thomas off the hook for his clear-headed, logic-based doubt. After Thomas proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus responded, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” (v. 29) Personally, I don’t hear Jesus chastising Thomas for doubting what the others told him. But I do think he was letting Thomas know a few important truths.
First, on the surface he seems to be telling Thomas that believing in him and his resurrection apart from having empirical proof will ultimately result in a more gratifying faith. I would think that this was Jesus’ way of nudging Thomas forward in his own faith walk, and letting him know that if he could be a bit less needful of empirical truth, he’d actually be happier. Implied in this is the sense that that kind of faith results in greater and deeper joy.
There’s one other implication of Jesus’ response to Thomas. And this is getting to the heart of the matter. Even though he doesn’t actually come out and say it, I believe this is Jesus’ way of telling Thomas what he can expect in the not-so-distant future if he’s going to lead the church. He’s letting Thomas know that a day will come when he will be called upon to exercise a deep faith that will sustain him through immense challenges, including threats on his own life. And if he’s going to require empirical proof in order to believe in the face of even greater reasons to doubt, then his faith will eventually collapse under the weight of not having that proof.
So, the third implication is that it’s a “no-proof” faith which sustains us through times of immense challenge, especially those which could easily shipwreck one’s faith.
When the church first got started, it was full of people who knew Jesus personally, who’d experienced him first-hand. But eventually the church expanded beyond the towns in which Jesus had taught while he was still alive, and so fewer and fewer of the new Believers had that same first-hand experience. The Apostle Peter’s letters—1 Peter and 2 Peter—were literally written to every congregation throughout Asia Minor, and were intended to be passed around. Knowing that none of his readers knew Jesus personally, and many of them were Gentiles and knew next to nothing about Jesus, Peter acknowledged this fact. And he does so within the context of encouraging them to remain faithful in the midst of persecution. (remember the third implication of Jesus’ statement— “no-proof” faith sustains through times of immense challenge?)
Here’s what he tells them:
“You now rejoice in this hope, even if it’s necessary for you to be distressed for a short time by various trials.” [There’s the encouragement for the persecutions they’re facing] “This is necessary so that your faith may be found genuine. (Your faith is more valuable than gold, which will be destroyed even though it is itself tested by fire.) Your genuine faith will result in praise, glory, and honor for you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” [There he’s highlighting the importance of faith, which will sustain them through the persecutions as well as result in an eternal reward] “Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words. You are receiving the goal of your faith: your salvation” (1 Peter 1:6-9).
There it is: Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. And even though you don’t see him [in person], you trust him. And what does this ‘no-proof’ faith result in? A glorious joy that’s too much for words. A joy that’s beyond description. Sounds a lot like what Jesus said: “Happy (or blessed) are those who don’t see and yet believe” (John 20.29).
Here’s my question: What empowered those people to believe in Jesus and his resurrection? To love him and trust him? They never met the Lord. They ever witnessed his miracles. Most of them didn’t personally know the Apostles. And they were undergoing persecution. If they didn’t have the tangible proof which enabled Thomas to believe, what’s behind their belief and faith?
The answer: #1—the Holy Spirit. That’s first and foremost. #2—the testimony of those who did know Jesus. And I don’t necessarily mean those who knew him in person. But those who knew him by faith. It was by their testimony that those who didn’t know him came to faith. That testimony, or witness, has two parts: A verbal testimony – you and I actually telling others, Here’s how Christ has transformed my life; this is who Jesus is to me. And actions—actions and lifestyles which support and give credibility to the verbal. Both are vital.
And therein lies the necessary “proof” of Christ’s life and the power and truth of his resurrection for those who don’t know him. We are that proof for those who don’t know him! Our words, our actions, and our lifestyle bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ. And friends, where the things we DO fail to align with the things we SAY we believe, then our testimony falls flat. What’s the old saying—actions speak louder than words. When we say we know Jesus personally—and we do—and the visible, recordable, clearly noticeable things we do reflect that relationship with Christ, then our witness is a good one. And will speak to people. And they’ll believe us. If you say your life has been transformed by Christ, then by all means, you’d better make sure what you do and how you live your life reflects that transformation.
If it does, then praise God! You’re being a good witness, and someone’s bound to notice and come to faith as a result.
When Peter reminded his readers that they had faith despite having never seen Jesus, I would argue that that they had, in fact, seen Jesus. No, not the person Jesus. But the risen Jesus is who they’d seen. Not with the eyes of their bodies, but with the eyes of their hearts. They saw Jesus in Peter, and in all the other faithful Christians who bore witness to the risen Christ through their words and actions. And it’s continued to work that way ever since. Two millennia later, the risen Christ is still revealing himself to those who don’t know him. And he does it every single day through the likes of you and me. May it be that we are a believable testimony to the resurrected Jesus Christ, and to his power to transform us from the inside out.