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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

John 20

Verse 1

THE VISIT OF MARY MAGDALENE

‘The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre.’

John 20:1

Dark without as yet, and dark within. She is in no mood of exalted expectancy, but in the deepest grief. She is pondering a new trouble that has come into her mind since she left the house. ‘Who shall roll us away the stone?’ She has come to embalm, but she cannot enter the tomb. As she passes from beneath the trees she sees with wondering relief that the stone is rolled away. But the difficulty is removed only to reveal to her that which casts her into the lowest depths of despair and disappointment. The body is not there. ‘But sudden the worst turns to the best.’ She hears a voice; she is conscious of a Presence. She has gone out to find Death; she finds instead Life.

I. What is the meaning of the revelation?—I pass over the more personal joys which must have come to those who had been in immediate and human contact with Christ. These we can only indirectly share. But beneath and beyond these there lay the great treasury of spiritual truth which is shared by them, by us, and all the world. ‘Whatever may have happened at the grave and in the matter of appearances, one thing is certain: from this grave has sprung the indestructible faith in the overthrow of death, and in an eternal life’ (Harnack). Easter brings us the assurance that that life, and all other lives lived in God, are not so crushed; that He Who was dead is alive, and alive for evermore, and holds the keys of death and sin and sorrow.

II. Again, we find that this life of ours is crowned with an infinite dignity.—It is no longer the uncertain existence of a moment, it is the real life springing up into eternity. It is no longer the flickering existence of a perishable body, it is the eternal growth of an immortal soul. To fight with beasts at Ephesus on behalf of that soul’s life is no mere chivalrous folly. To ‘eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,’ is a morality that stands doubly condemned. There is but one conclusion, and that of invincible courage, to be drawn from the Easter story. ‘Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as your labour is not in vain in the Lord.’

III. The great Companion is not dead.—‘I am with you through all the days.’ In that fellowship, the fellowship of Christ’s continual Presence, those first disciples went forth conquerors and to conquer the world without and within. Not suddenly transformed into the Divine Image, but loyally yielding their will to the Spirit within, they knew themselves growing from grace to grace.

Rev. F. Ealand.

Illustration

‘We can hardly visit a cemetery without being filled with solemn and impressive thoughts. As you stand there with multitudes at your feet, all wrapped in slumber, your thoughts carry you back to the past, and on to the future. You look at the cold marble or the green grass which waves over that precious dust, but there is no one able to bid the slumberers arise. There are many such spots where different groups of mourners meet, but there is one tomb above all the rest in which every Christian heart has a common interest, around which all may meet. It contains more sorrows and more hopes than all the graves on earth. It contains no ashes, for it is empty. It is the place where the risen Redeemer once lay. We are met at a strange place, it is true—the one place on earth where we know quite well that Jesus is not. Why, then, you ask, should we spend our time around a spot so cheerless and so Christless? Simply because He once was there, and every spot that Christ has touched is sacred and instructive.’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

THE EMPTY TOMB

Mary to her surprise found the stone rolled away and the keepers fled. Fast and far the news travelled. The glorious fact of a conqueror more mighty than death was that morning proclaimed to the world, and no sophistry has as yet been able to explain it away. It was the greatest transaction in history; it was accomplished in silence. It was the mightiest conquest the world had ever known; it was achieved in the dead of night, while the world slept. The Redeemer overcame the world’s most dreaded foe, and broke the bonds of death. He came forth from the tomb a living man. Yes, it is a fact. The grave of Jesus Christ is empty; I suppose it is the only empty tomb on earth; and history records no mightier fact for the instruction and comfort of mankind. What is the significance of this great fact?

I. The Atonement completed.—It means that the Atonement is complete; it means that God the Father has accepted Christ’s work as a satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It means that the problem of a future life has been solved, and a veritable hereafter revealed. Ours is not the Gospel of a dead Saviour, but of a living, reigning, life-giving one Who lives for evermore. Though a grave, it is the place of life. Since Jesus rose the power of the grave has been broken. It is no longer a dark prison-house, but the gate of life. Now we die to live again. But there is not only life for the body beyond the grave; there is spiritual life in the risen Saviour. As the Lord Jesus lay dead, not in appearance only, but in reality, so do all men by nature lie spiritually dead. Are there not men and women known to you in this world who are dead to every noble aim in life, buried in the world’s follies and sins? So they will remain until they permit the risen and life-giving One to roll all their burden of sin back into the empty grave.

II. A place of comfort.—It is a place of comfort. We do not usually associate the grave with ideas of a comforting nature. We think of it rather as a place of parting and bitter grief. But the first note in the Gospel of the Resurrection was a note of comfort. ‘Fear not ye,’ said the angel to the weeping women. ‘Fear not,’ said the angels to the lowly shepherds when the Christ was born. The Gospel of Christ throughout is a Gospel of comfort. What but it has power to cheer the shrinking soul standing on the brink of the grave? ‘Fear not.’ The past need not trouble you, for Christ has made atonement for sin. The present you need not dread, for you are supported by the everlasting arms. The future is all safe in the power and love of Jesus Christ.

III. A place of hope.—The empty grave is a place of hope. How often our hopes are blighted here, our expectations dashed down! The resurrection of Jesus Christ proclaims the reviving of lost hopes. The brightest hopes were blighted when Jesus died, but when He rose they all revived. How many hopes have been buried in graves! But graves are not dug in the ground alone, or hewn from rocks. Human hearts are sepulchres, and how many hopes are buried there! I do not suppose there is a single heart beating in this church to-day in which there does not lie some unrealised hope, some unfulfilled expectation; but if your hearts are true to Christ, then be sure there is a resurrection day coming. The hope you thought you lost has only gone on before. It awaits you in the glorious hereafter. With Him it rose, with Him it ascended, and with Him it is kept as a sacred trust till you go home to claim it. There is nothing you really value that Christ will not give you back again. There is not a joy, not a hope, that has gone down here in the night of disappointment but will rise in a fairer world where the sun will never set. Every lost affection will return to every loving heart, every hope to the despairing soul, and joy unspeakable to every mourner. All that on earth you have loved and lost will be given back to you in heaven.

—Rev. J. H. Coward.

Illustration

‘Of all our Lord’s followers on earth, none seem to have loved Him so much as Mary Magdalene. None felt that they owed so much to Christ. None felt so strongly that there was nothing too great to do for Christ. Hence, as Bishop Andrews beautifully puts it,—“She was last at His Cross, and first at His grave. She staid longest there, and was soonest here. She could not rest till she was up to seek Him. She sought Him while it was yet dark, even before she had light to seek Him by.” In a word, having received much, she loved much; and loving much, she did much, in order to prove the reality of her love.’

Verses 6-7

THE TESTIMONY OF THE GRAVE-CLOTHES

‘He beholdeth the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, that was upon His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself.

John 20:6-Judges : (R.V.)

The two Apostles went in great haste to the tomb, on the startling report of Mary Magdalene that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, and, as her fears at once suggested to her, that the holy body had been borne away, whither she knew not. The Apostles run with anxious speed to the tomb. The younger man arrives there first, finds the stone removed, and, as the carefully-chosen Greek word seems to imply, merely looks in, and sees that the linen cloths were plainly lying unremoved. St. Peter soon comes up, and with characteristic impetuosity enters the tomb, and—as we are reminded by the change in the Greek verb and in the order of the words—beholds, or gazes on, the linen cloths as they were lying before him.

I. St. Peter arrives at the conviction that the holy body had not been borne away, but, in some inexplicable manner, had left the linen cloths, and also left the napkin that had been placed on the sacred head still folded, but lying apart—it may be on the ledge whereon the head may have rested during the hours of interment. John now enters the tomb, and not only arrived at the same conviction as St. Peter, but believed, namely, that what they beheld (the linen cloths and the enfolded napkin) bore silent testimony to that of which their Lord had spoken to them, but which they had never rightly understood or realised, the rising again from the dead.

II. What was the exact appearance of the grave-clothes on which the gaze of the Apostles had anxiously rested?—Two opinions there are, one of which may perhaps be regarded as the general opinion entertained by those who have dwelt reverently upon the details which John has been moved to record of the tomb, and of what it contained. And the opinion is this, that the two holy angels whom Mary Magdalene had been permitted to behold, sitting one at the head and one at the feet where the holy body of the Lord had lain, that these two holy watchers had the blessed privilege of ministering to their Lord when His spirit re-entered His crucified body, and that it is to their ministry that we must attribute the carefully ordered position of the things within the tomb, as they were seen and noted by the two Apostles. Such, very distinctly, was the opinion of the thoughtful and spiritual expositor Bengel, one of the very few interpreters who have noticed the matter at all. Such also was my own opinion till quite recently. But the publication a year or two ago of a singularly persuasive and carefully thought-out volume, entitled The Risen Master, written by Dr. Latham, then Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, has led me to reconsider the whole profoundly interesting question. This reconsideration has led me to give up my former opinion, always felt by me to involve difficulty in its prosaic homeliness, and to accept the more lofty and in many respects more suggestive view entertained by Dr. Latham, viz., that all things remained in the tomb just as they had been placed in it by the pious hands of Joseph of Arimathæa and Nicodemus until the mysterious moment of the return of the Lord’s spirit to the body from which it had been parted on the Cross. When that return took place it seemed clear to me that the holy body would at once be endued with new powers and properties, and that the opinion that the holy body passed of itself out of its surroundings could be fully justified. Under such a conception the linen cloths and swathing bands would remain unremoved and unchanged, save that their form would indicate that a body had been within them, which now had been withdrawn, and had left only the trace of its former presence, the napkin, which before had been with them, being now separated from them and put apart in a place by itself. It was on this strange but self-revealing appearance that the gaze of St. Peter rested so earnestly. It was seen (another verb here is used) by the other Apostle, and at a glance all became clear; memories of what their dear Lord had said to them on the Mount of the Transfiguration came back to his mind, and he realised that what he was looking on was the silent outward witness to the Lord’s Resurrection from the dead.

III. But this suggestive mystery was not designed simply to reassure the Apostles or those to whom the declarations of the holy women had seemed to be but idle tales; it was designed for all who, when the strange tidings had spread through Jerusalem and its Passover multitudes, doubtless went up to see with their own eyes the spot of which such wonders were told. And that the story had spread we have the testimony of the two that were journeying to Emmaus, who marvelled that one apparently coming from Jerusalem should not have heard of these things.

Joseph of Arimathæa’s tomb I cannot doubt was visited by many, and I cannot also doubt that this silent witness of the Resurrection created in many and many a heart a kind of persuasion, which, when the great address of St. Peter at Pentecost was heard by them, deepened into belief and conviction.

We may here close our meditations on what we may rightly term the testimony of the opened tomb to the reality of the Lord’s Resurrection.

—Bishop Ellicott.

Verse 8

EASTER THOUGHTS

‘Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.’

John 20:8

We have sung in faith and with joy our Easter hymn, ‘Jesus Christ is risen to-day; our triumphant holy day, Alleluia.’

What, then, are our lessons?

I. The Risen Christ is the giver of pardon.—‘He died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification,’ and we cannot receive His grace of life and joy till we have received His grace of forgiveness. This is the true order in the teaching of the Scriptures, and therefore in the teaching of the Church.

II. The Risen Christ is the giver of joy.—This should follow on pardon, and this Christ would bring to us on Easter Day. Does a gloomy Christian commend the religion of Him Who brought Easter gladness to His people?

III. The Risen Christ is the giver of life through His Spirit.—What do we understand by the life Christ brought? ‘This is life eternal’—the Divine life—the spiritual life—begun here, perfected hereafter—‘to know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent.’

IV. The Risen Christ has a message for mourners and for those who draw near the dark valley.

—Bishop R. F. L. Blunt.

Verse 9

THE POWER OF HIS RESURRECTION

‘They knew not the scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.’

John 20:9

There are two plain reasons why Christ ‘ must rise again from the dead.’ The first was that He might overcome Satan in every part of his dominion over men. The second is that we might know for certain that Christ had done so.

Every day that we say our Creed we profess our belief that ‘He rose again the third day from the dead.’ Why do we do this?

It is just this great fact that is our stay in the battle of life and in the hour of death.

I. It is our stay in the battle of life.—Suppose that you are in a great temptation, that your perseverance is growing slack, that you feel you cannot keep your heart pure, that you are going back to worldly and selfish living, or uncharitable feelings towards your neighbours—what are you to do? I answer, look to the risen Christ. The Devil thought he had gained the victory over our Lord once and for all when he compassed His death. But it was not so. It only ended in Christ overcoming him, and taking His body back out of the grave, and making it more glorious than before, and carrying it back into heaven. So the Devil may think he is overcoming you now that you feel failing, but if you will call upon Christ to help you, He will snatch you back out of the Devil’s grasp, and give you even more strength than before, and carry you on in goodness until you, too, are led up to heaven. Whoever you are that now art all but lying in the grave of despair, remember that Satan cannot keep you in the death of sin, but that out of this very trouble you may rise through the power of Christ to a more thorough strength in goodness than if you had never known what trial was.

II. It is our hope and comfort in the hour of death.—The best and holiest of us must have a certain fearful shrinking from the unknown trials which hover round the hour of our decease. To the purest and the most faithful there is an awe about that great going forth of the soul, when it must leave everything it has ever known to go out into a world where all is new and strange and unfamiliar. And then comes the thought of Satan and his evil ones. They will be about our bed. They know it is their last chance. Let the soul escape them and it is safe for ever. Satan has tempted you all your life long. Death is his last arrow, and he hopes to overcome you now. No wonder that earnest Christians feel a dread of that last conflict. No wonder that at every burial of friend and fellow-Christian we pray our Lord to take care lest ‘at our last hour for any pains of death we fall from Him.’ And what is our hope? Is it not in the power of His Resurrection? We have to die—but He died and rose again. Whatever we shall have to go through, He went through. Whatever lions are about our dying path He has encountered and has subdued. And He has come back again to tell us that He did subdue them. After all, they are but beaten enemies; and He Who subdued them eighteen hundred years ago will walk with us through the dark valley, and make them keep their distance from our departing soul if we place ourselves in His hands.

So for life and for death it is the power of His Resurrection that is our stay.

Illustration

‘Yea, Thou God didst make an end,

Thou such help and strength didst send,

That I nevermore can praise

As I ought Thy matchless grace;

When I sought with anxious fear,

And could see no refuge here,

Lo! I found Thy help was near.

Now as long as here I roam,

On this earth have house and home,

Shall this wondrous gleam from Thee

Shine through all my memory?

To my God I yet will cling,

All my life the praises sing

That from thankful hearts outspring.’

Verse 11

WHAT MARY SAW THROUGH HER TEARS

‘But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping.’

John 20:11

Here is the lone figure of Mary Magdalene weeping before the tomb in the early dawn of the first Easter Day. Let us think of what Mary saw through her tears.

I. She saw the stone rolled away.—Matthew says ‘the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.’ A grave-stone a seat for an angel. What a triumph!

II. She saw the empty grave.—The grave-clothes were there, the sweet scent of the spices clings around the rock-hewn tomb, but Jesus was not there. The Resurrection was entirely unexpected. Mary expected to find the Body, for she brought spices to complete the embalmment. St. Peter and John are equally surprised ( John 20:9). Yes, the grave was empty, except that the sins of all believers were buried in that grave.

III. She saw the ministering angels.

IV. She saw the Living Lord.—‘The Lord is risen indeed.’ ‘ “Risen”—that one word, if we hold it fast, changes all things, conquers death, dries tears, calms grief, widens our outlook, and makes earth the nursery and heaven home.’ The Risen Christ is our Hope and Salvation, and is the one Divine answer to all our sorrows and questionings. Wonderful things are seen through tears, and seen no other way. The way to the Cross is wet with tears. The way to the grave is wet with tears. The most blessed things of our lives come through tears. May we learn to pray those lovely lines of Hartley Coleridge—

‘It is scarcely too much to say of this narrative that it needs no other evidence of its truth than its own beauty and suggestiveness. If this and the other accounts in these two last chapters of the Fourth Gospel are not descriptive of historical events, where in the imaginative literature of the world are their parallels to be found? As we master them in detail we feel that they could never have sprung from invention or misunderstanding. “If”—says a modern preacher—“it is not history, I would match the story of Mary Magdalene and the Lord on the Resurrection morning, for subtlety of characterisation, for exquisite beauty, for reticence, for simplicity that goes straight to the heart, against anything that a Shakespeare or a Dante ever wrote.” ’

Verse 17

‘TOUCH ME NOT’

Jesus saith unto her, Touch Me not; for I am not yet ascended to My Father.

John 20:17

This is the second word spoken by our Lord after His Resurrection; and it was spoken to the simple womanly penitent. His first word touched her heart, His second informed her spirit.

I. The action of the Magdalen.—The action of the Magdalen in stretching out her hand to touch our Lord proved that she never supposed that He would be further removed from her than He was in His natural body. There was the Christian woman’s faithful, loving, pious act. Is it your first impulse to get the precious possession of your risen Lord? While you know more distinctly than ever Mary knew that Christ your Lord was dead and is alive, do you honestly think that you find it in your heart to long to touch Him? Do you care as she did to be near Him? True, He may be fixed in your creed, but that dogma may be only a dry abstraction, not a living person, perfect Man and perfect God, as He was to her?

II. The rebuke.—Let us go a step further. The word was instant—‘Touch Me not.’ Now, do you think that by that word He meant in any way that He was separate from her? Was it a warning, do you think, to His redeemed, that He was no more to be approached as near, that He was retiring into the nature which He had from all eternity, pure Godhead, and had left behind Him in the grave His manhood, emptied Himself of His human fellowship and kinship with us? Not at all. When He bade Mary touch Him not, He only negatived her impulsive love, and corrected it by a higher knowledge of a more perfect blessing which should after a brief interval of patience be hers. He needed that body as an instrument for our atonement and sacrifice in death upon the Cross; He needs that body now to be an instrument of uniting man with God. Mary should touch Him, Mary should receive, embrace, possess Him, but not in the only way in which she had kissed His feet and washed them with her tears and wiped them with the natural drapery of her hair, but she should touch Him and possess Him in a better way. So, to turn again to ourselves, it is better far to be all impulsive and eager in our desire to touch our Lord with loving haste than to be cold and indifferent whether we touch Him one way or the other. We cannot all be theologians, but we can all be seekers after Christ and lovers of Christ, and He, the Divine Master, Who wills that our knowledge be perfected, will meanwhile, till that perfection come, never break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax. He will accept our devotion, be we women or men, even if it be for a time uneducated; He will justify that devotion by the plea that He used Himself, ‘She hath done what she could.’

III. ‘Not yet ascended.’—It is clear from these words that the union of any individual man with Christ is the result of the Ascension. The period of forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension was a transitional state, not intended to last, an intermediate condition of life, an interval that is too subtle to be defined. The natural body of Christ—that is, the body that was so liable to suffering and death—was extinct when He said these words. It had no place, and has no place on earth, or in hades, or in heaven. The natural body was and is extinct. The glorified body was not perfect when He spoke with Mary. He waited till the Ascension for the endowment of power, sent forth by the Holy Spirit, charged with all the virtues of His manhood, the life, sacrifice, and atoning death of the Redeemer. And this authority given to the ascended and glorified Lord to send forth the Holy Ghost seemed to have been ordered in the eternal counsels of God to be the Son’s reward, to be the glory to ensue after Christ had perfectly fulfilled His mission. It is the Holy Ghost Who is entrusted with the inward spiritual power of uniting man, in whom He indwells, with Christ. He conveys to the whole man, body, soul, and spirit, every gift and grace which Jesus has authority to give.

So this is the sum of Christ’s teaching on the effect of His Resurrection upon us. Christ died for all the world, but the fruits of that death and the vital power of His Resurrection are to be communicated singly to every one of us by a personal union, to every one of us who will accept Him. And this union with Christ is effected by the Holy Ghost.

—Archdeacon Furse.

Illustration

‘It is right we should show forth the beauty of worship, that we should give to God the best we have, that our singing, our adornment should be of the costliest and best; but we must beware lest we mistake the two things, lest we permit a fondness for music, a love of art, a devotion to culture to take the place of the true spiritual communion with our Lord—a caution lest we lose, as it were, in a beautiful many-tinted wreath, the close communion with our risen Lord, lest our natural likings should draw down the actings of our enfranchised spirits.’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

REVERENCE FOR THE SUPERNATURAL

Once again Mary hears His voice calling her by name, and sees Him at her side, and she reaches forth her hand with the cry, ‘Rabboni! Master!’ But she is met by words which sound hard and strange, and almost like a reproof: ‘Touch Me not.’

I. What did our Blessed Lord mean?—Three main interpretations have been given, coming respectively from St. Chrysostom, St. Gregory, and St. Augustine; either, or all, of which may be true.

( a) The words were spoken to check any mistaken view of the Risen Saviour.

( b) The words indicated that she was to lose not a moment in executing an unique and glorious errand.

( c) The words were spoken to lift her from earthly things and ideas to something higher and more real.

II. Does He repel our advances?—No! He is stirring impulse into resolution. ‘God is very greatly to be feared in the council of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are round about Him.’ He is not the Lord and Master, as He was before—‘Rabboni’ must give place to ‘Jesus, my God.’ Easter-time is just one of those festivals when we are brought face to face with the supernatural. It is the limit of the world of sense, from which we stand and look over the interminable vista of the supernatural—the resurrection of the body, life from the dead, victory over the grave. Sometimes we may think we could match Christ’s self-denial; that we could rival His teaching in some system of morality; that we could equal His philanthropy; that we could surpass His Plan. But on Easter Day He stands back from us. None of our greatest heroes or philanthropists have been crucified, and risen again on the third day; no human spell can give life to a dead body, no imagination picture more than the immortality of the soul.

III. On Easter Day Christ is clothed with a supernatural light.—His words, ‘Touch Me not,’ claim a new homage beyond His other words of power: ‘Be still, then, and know that I am God.’ A gathering spirit of reverence should stretch out from the Easter Festival and flood our religious life with light. This should be so with—

( a) The Holy Word of God.

( b) The Holy Mysteries.

( c) The Church, Her Creeds and Teaching.

The Faith is not of men, it comes from God Himself. Thus, on this Festival, Reverence before the Supernatural stands out the one great lesson for us to lay to heart.

—Rev. Canon Newbolt.

Illustration

‘Whatever it was that Mary did—whatever that action was meant to express and to convey—that may we now do and express, seeing that His own appointed time for it is already come; and that He has “ascended to the Father.” For, remember, that to Christ’s own feeling the circumstance of the invisibility of His Presence would make no difference. I often think that it may be so with the spirits of the departed. To them, death may make no separation at all. To us, indeed—even if we believe that they are still about us—still the fact that we cannot see them, must make a great change. But, to them, if they are still about our path, and about our bed, there will be no change, in this respect, at all,—not a shadow of separation in any sense. Certainly, our Lord feels just as much present with His people now as when His bodily eye saw them, and His natural voice spoke to them. Therefore to Him it is just the same, now, as if anybody really “touched” Him. But to us, it is an exercise of faith to realise that. But to Him there is no alteration at all, since He was upon the earth.’

Verse 19

THE MESSAGE OF PEACE

‘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, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.’

John 20:19

The disciples’ sad and gloomy meeting was suddenly interrupted. A new and strange Presence is felt among them, and looking up they see Jesus standing in the midst.

I. Think first of Christ’s action.—He shows the disciples His hands and His side. What a proof of love was this! He shows the marks of His Passion. It was like calling up the Passion before them and reminding them of what He had done for them. But the great thing was that it showed Him to be the same as He had ever been. The Saviour loves to keep the marks of His Passion—those marks by which we may know Him. He keeps them still in heaven, for He Whom John saw in heaven—the Deliverer Who alone was strong enough to open the sealed book—was ‘a Lamb as it had been slain’; and it is to the Lamb that the worship of heaven is paid: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.’ So He joins His Death and Resurrection together for our comfort.

II. And now listen to the Saviour’s words.—‘Peace be unto you.’ What wonderful—what blessed words to bring back from the grave—the very words they needed most! Their hearts were sad and heavy, dragged hither and thither with doubt and perplexity, and so He says, ‘Peace.’ ‘Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?’ ‘Peace be unto you.’ They were tormented with reproaches and regrets. They had served Him so badly—had acted so differently from what they had intended. Would He—even if it were true that He had risen—would He ever look upon them with favour again? Would He not be altogether estranged from them? And, lo! He comes, and, without a word of reproach or complaint, says, ‘Peace be unto you.’

III. That is His message to us.—That is the message of Easter—peace. Christ is here amongst us (though we cannot see Him) with words and thoughts of peace. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them,’ and wherever He is, He brings peace with Him, for ‘He is our peace, Who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us … so making peace.’ If you have been trying to kill your sins and bury them with Christ, then Easter Day brings the message of peace. It is not that the war is over—that there is nothing more to do. But we know that Christ has died for our sins and risen again—that He has conquered, and that we in Him may conquer too. The struggle is not over—never will be this side of the grave; but in the midst of the struggle—in doubt, and fear, and temptation—we shall still have peace and joy and hope.

—Rev. F. J. Middlemist.

Illustration

‘ “Peace be unto you.” In the Greek it is only two words, “Peace to you.” Peace was the legacy of love He left with His people. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you.” And He closed His farewell discourses to His people with this word “peace.” “These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace” ( John 16:33). And what is peace? It is “joy reposing”; it is that true contentment, that quietness of mind, which flows from simple faith in Christ. It is the sweet calm in the soul of the forgiven sinner. And ever since the first Easter evening, from age to age, especially when His people have been persecuted, tempted, desolate, has Christ come to them and whispered, “Peace.” He has given them a peace which passeth all understanding of man by nature, a peace which the world cannot give, and a peace which passeth not away.’

Verse 19

THE MESSAGE OF PEACE

‘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, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.’

John 20:19

The disciples’ sad and gloomy meeting was suddenly interrupted. A new and strange Presence is felt among them, and looking up they see Jesus standing in the midst.

I. Think first of Christ’s action.—He shows the disciples His hands and His side. What a proof of love was this! He shows the marks of His Passion. It was like calling up the Passion before them and reminding them of what He had done for them. But the great thing was that it showed Him to be the same as He had ever been. The Saviour loves to keep the marks of His Passion—those marks by which we may know Him. He keeps them still in heaven, for He Whom John saw in heaven—the Deliverer Who alone was strong enough to open the sealed book—was ‘a Lamb as it had been slain’; and it is to the Lamb that the worship of heaven is paid: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.’ So He joins His Death and Resurrection together for our comfort.

II. And now listen to the Saviour’s words.—‘Peace be unto you.’ What wonderful—what blessed words to bring back from the grave—the very words they needed most! Their hearts were sad and heavy, dragged hither and thither with doubt and perplexity, and so He says, ‘Peace.’ ‘Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?’ ‘Peace be unto you.’ They were tormented with reproaches and regrets. They had served Him so badly—had acted so differently from what they had intended. Would He—even if it were true that He had risen—would He ever look upon them with favour again? Would He not be altogether estranged from them? And, lo! He comes, and, without a word of reproach or complaint, says, ‘Peace be unto you.’

III. That is His message to us.—That is the message of Easter—peace. Christ is here amongst us (though we cannot see Him) with words and thoughts of peace. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them,’ and wherever He is, He brings peace with Him, for ‘He is our peace, Who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us … so making peace.’ If you have been trying to kill your sins and bury them with Christ, then Easter Day brings the message of peace. It is not that the war is over—that there is nothing more to do. But we know that Christ has died for our sins and risen again—that He has conquered, and that we in Him may conquer too. The struggle is not over—never will be this side of the grave; but in the midst of the struggle—in doubt, and fear, and temptation—we shall still have peace and joy and hope.

—Rev. F. J. Middlemist.

Illustration

‘ “Peace be unto you.” In the Greek it is only two words, “Peace to you.” Peace was the legacy of love He left with His people. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you.” And He closed His farewell discourses to His people with this word “peace.” “These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace” ( John 16:33). And what is peace? It is “joy reposing”; it is that true contentment, that quietness of mind, which flows from simple faith in Christ. It is the sweet calm in the soul of the forgiven sinner. And ever since the first Easter evening, from age to age, especially when His people have been persecuted, tempted, desolate, has Christ come to them and whispered, “Peace.” He has given them a peace which passeth all understanding of man by nature, a peace which the world cannot give, and a peace which passeth not away.’

Verse 23

THE REMISSION OF SINS

‘Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.’

John 20:23

Twice in the old life before the Passion was this promise made, if not word for word, yet in the exact sense of the words; and if our idea is right, that the Risen Life amplified and solemnised the teaching of the days before, we shall find that these three pronouncements of one and the same promise involved a certain progression; that each added something to the privilege already promised, or added more to those who were to enjoy the privilege.

I. On the first occasion the Saviour of the world is on the confines of the great world beyond the gates of Judaism, which He came to save, but to which, as it seems, He could not pass over. Save that He knew no sin, He was, at Cæsarea, like Moses upon the mountains of Nebo. He draws from St. Peter the great confession, and St. Peter receives in return that promise which is the perpetual gage of battle between the limbs of the body of Christ. ‘I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Whatever it implies, it is here a personal promise to one man. Nothing, surely, is gained by denying that. The one man has for a moment secured this inestimable benefit by a hearty confession of the Godhead of His Lord. Nay, not only is nothing gained, but much is lost by forgetting that, in religion, as in all else that concerns the life of men, there must be a leader and there must be those who follow his lead. We must expect to have our Peters in the Church of today; we shall fail miserably to make headway against wickedness unless we acknowledge them. If you ask how they are to be recognised, I answer that you need only the old test. They will be men ever to the front to make the great confession, men also with a spiritual magnetism that draws the weak and wayward to them, and imparts to them some of its mysterious influences, so that the poor souls go away enriched with a bounteous sense that in Christ Jesus there is plenteous redemption, for He hath redeemed Israel from all their sins. That is the first occasion of this promise, and if it had never been repeated, we might have to confess that there is something to be said for the claims of those who call themselves the successors of Peter, and despise others.

II. Almost immediately after the three had seen His glory in the mount, the same gift of the power to bind and loose is bestowed again.—They had come to Capernaum, and, as Mark tells us, ‘He sat down and called the twelve.’ Two questions occupied their minds, and He wanted to set them right. One was, ‘Who of us is the greatest?’ Another, ‘How often must we forgive?’ The first, you remember, He settled for ever. He is greatest who is willing to be less than the least. The second was more difficult; it was a question not so much of fact as of judgment. The limits of forgiveness would have in the end to be fixed by the conscience of the injured brother. Do all you can, He seems to say; and when your all fails, let him be to you as the Gentile and the publican. ‘Verily I say unto you, what things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Now this clearly is a promise, not to an individual, but to a class. There is no reason, from any account we have of the incident, to believe that any but the Twelve were present. Can you doubt that, as the first was a promise to a person, so this is a promise to an Order; and that, while it is true that in this Order some will indeed exhibit a greater power to aid their fellow-sinners than others, it is true also that the gift of the Holy Ghost confers a measure of that power upon them all; that the promise to Peter is here amplified into a promise that many shall have His ability to strengthen the brethren?

III. And so we pass to the third and final member of this arithmetical progression.—What a change in the circumstances! If it was much that the Transfiguration should have come between the first and the second, how much more is it that the Resurrection should intervene between the second and this! No wonder that the words seem now to be spoken to an ampler ether, in the hearing of a larger company. For now the promise is not to an Order only, much less to an individual, but to the whole Church. The Twelve, indeed, are no longer all there. One is in the outer darkness fighting hard with his doubts, and one is not, having gone to his own place. But everything we know about the followers of the Risen Lord during the forty days shows that they kept all together; that they were mostly with one accord in one place. Luke, for instance, makes it perfectly clear that the two from Emmaus, neither of them certainly a member of the Twelve, were in the little company that heard these words, nor is there any reason from John’s account to suppose that Mary Magdalene, who had come to the disciples with the greatest of all the news of the world—‘I have seen the Lord’—left them the moment the words had passed her lips; while the only mention of the eleven as being the sole audience occurs in the more than doubtful verses at the close of Mark’s Gospel. And so I believe that, if the number of the names together that evening did not come to Luke’s one hundred and twenty, there was no reason why any who loved the Lord should have been absent. To these He came and stood in the midst, and said unto them, ‘Peace be unto you.’ On all those, men and women alike, He breathed and said unto them, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.’

IV. You are in the direct apostolical succession of that promise.—Do not spurn this as some ‘new thing.’ We shall still have, please God, our Peters in the ministry whose superlative power to reprove, rebuke, exhort, their brethren will covet with a righteous jealousy. We shall still have our company of the priests whose office is morning and evening and at the Holy Communion and at the bedside of the dying to pronounce that the Heavenly Father pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe His Holy Gospel. But you, too, have your power to bind and to loose, to forgive and to retain. I assume that, being risen with Christ, you are seeking the things that are above; that from above you are receiving, in answer to your daily prayer, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and ghostly strength, of knowledge and Godly fear, promised you in your Confirmation. If you stir up that gift which is in you men will take knowledge of you; they will bring their burdened conscience to you, to see if you can lighten it. How dare you say to such, ‘Go to the nearest clergyman; it is his business to bind and loose, not mine’? No, you have received the gift by virtue of Christ’s promise. Use it to the full.

—Rev. E. H. Pearce.

Verse 24

THE ABSENCE OF THOMAS

‘But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.’

John 20:24

There is a very pathetic ring about this verse; Thomas lost an opportunity and missed a blessing. The world seems to be full of lost opportunities, and people never seem to learn by the experience of others. The reason that so many people do not improve is because they lose opportunity.

I. Temperament and religion.—Temperament plays a very important part in religion, and so does our physical being. Have you not sometimes found yourself very despondent, and after a long day, when things seem to have gone wrong, you are weary and troubles are very heavy and very hard to bear? They are not any harder to bear than they were in the morning, the difference is in the individual; fatigue affects very materially our spiritual life. Thomas was a man who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and had expected great things of Him, but his hopes were dashed to the ground; and when somebody told him that Jesus is risen he would not believe it. It was too good to be true, and therefore he asked for very special evidence.

II. The evidence of the senses.—He wanted to see, or he would not believe; then he asked to feel—if he could feel he would not doubt. What he asked for was evidence to satisfy his senses. That is just the sort of evidence required by ordinary people—evidence to satisfy their senses; yet they live every day believing in things they cannot understand. There are things you never see, and yet you believe in them! There are many things we have never seen and never shall see, yet we believe in them. There are lots of things we do not understand, and yet we believe!

III. The evidence of experience.—There is another question of evidence—the evidence of experience. So many people say, ‘If I do not experience how can I know?’ But how is it possible for any one to make known his experience to others who have not had it? We older people teaching the younger generation were once children ourselves. We tell them that they have to act with judgment, and must be wary and watchful, and we say we have been through it all ourselves; but they do not heed our warning. The child as he grows up says, ‘I will see for myself’; and that is the only way in which a man can really know the Lord Jesus Christ—by his own personal experience. There are thousands of people who accept the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and yet they get no satisfaction from the past because they have never experienced what the Apostle calls the ‘power’ of His resurrection. Love can only be experienced by the heart that loves, and therefore it is necessary for us all to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to accept the fact of His resurrection. And then starts a new life, the old life is left behind, and we walk henceforth with Jesus. There are a number of people who do not require the evidence of the senses, because they have found by experience the power of the risen Lord in their hearts. They walk by His power and in His strength.

—Rev. G. Robinson Lees.

Illustration

‘St. Thomas was certainly wrong in separating himself from the other disciples, and see what he missed ( John 20:24). “The angels are present when we assemble for worship,” said the venerable Bede. “What will they say if they find me not there? Will they not ask, ‘Where is Bede? Why comes he not to prayers with his brethren?’ ” Yes, but some One infinitely greater than the greatest of the angels is present where two or three gather together in His Name.’

Verse 27

THE APPEARANCE TO THOMAS

‘Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold My bands; and reach hither thy band, and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing.’

John 20:27

What was the nature of Thomas’s doubt? It was, I think, partly constitutional. Thomas was a thorough pessimist. Some people are too certain and sanguine about everything in the world; Thomas was too negative. But Thomas’s doubt was also partly preventible. He made a very great mistake. When Jesus showed Himself to His disciples, Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. One of the Twelve and not with them! We can imagine him in his lodging crouching over the wooden table, his head buried in his hands, his whole attitude bespeaking utter dejection. No cry, no sob, to relieve that stony, blank misery. Poor, lonely, doubting Thomas! Did he but know, over the road in the upper room His Master was showing His hands and his feet. Thomas’s doubt was a little bit wilful, too. ‘We have seen the Lord,’ was the message that came to him, but with hard, dry, sceptical eyes he shook his head in his surly way. Is not that true to human nature?

I. The solution of doubt.—For all doubting ones, and for all life’s doubting moments, I have a message. Take care that your doubts are honest ones. Many people’s doubts are not. Nothing is so fatal as indifferent doubt. But in Thomas there was not a trace of dishonest doubt. Gloomy he was, lonely he was, wilful he might have been, but he was in earnest, he was in deadly earnest. So he found the light; and in your dark hours be of good cheer. God will reveal Himself to you, and Christ will enter again into your hearts and lives, only this time with a power and strength which you never felt before, the strength of His risen life. Only let me give you this word of advice. Look for Christ where His people are and where His followers meet together. Thomas found Christ where His followers were gathered together; so may you and I and any poor lonely doubter in the whole wide world.

II. Contact with Christ.—Doubts will come, even to Christian people. But doubt is not in itself sinful. Never think because you are perplexed and uncertain about Christian things that such thoughts are sinful, and never treat others as if they were. Be quite sure that your doubt is honest doubt and, if you truly long and are seeking for the truth, you need have no fears. What Thomas asked for was contact with Christ, that he might be allowed to touch Him. Then he would believe; and it is what people need in the present day—contact with Christ. It is true that Thomas was thinking of a material contact; but when he came face to face with Christ and heard His voice he forgot all about proofs. As has been beautifully said, Christianity shrinks from no proof, but it transcends all. Christ will meet you here, and you will ask for nothing else, only Christ, and like Thomas you will cry, ‘My Lord and my God.’

—Rev. F. W. Dankes.

Illustration

‘When Dr. Arnold of Rugby lay a-dying, he was seen, we are told, lying still with his hands clasped, his lips moving, and his eyes raised to heaven. And they thought he was praying, but suddenly they heard him say, clearly and distinctly, “Jesus said, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” ’

Verse 29

THE BEATITUDE OF FAITH

‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’

John 20:29

Let us ask wherein lies the blessedness of faith, and what are the claims that it makes upon us, if we are to share in the promised benediction.

I. There is one marked difference between this blessing and those others which form the preface to the Sermon on the Mount.—There in each case reasons are given; a specific reward is spoken of as bestowed upon each grace. But no special reward of faith is spoken of in the text. It is not said that the faithful and trusting soul is blessed, for it shall receive the consolations of hope and of assurance. We might, indeed, have expected that our Lord would have given us some such promise. Faith is its own reward; and the law of faith is this: ‘ Whosoever hath, to him shall be given.’ Now here is for us a consolation not unneeded at times. Faith may be very true and loyal, and yet may not always be attended by the confident joy and hopefulness of which the Psalmists speak, of which St. Paul speaks, with such assurance. That, indeed, must come in the end; but we dare not permit ourselves to be distressed or despairing because we have it not in such full measure as they.

II. What, then, after all, is this belief?—It seems to be a different thing from open vision, from full assurance. How are we to be sure that we have it? how are we to gain it and make it our own? A mere speculative conviction as to the truth of this or that principle affects conduct but little. There is such a thing as faith without works; but it is dead. Faith in God, in our Blessed Lord Himself, means more than belief such as this; it means trust in a Person.

III. There are two tests by which we may try our faith—the readiness of our obedience, the intensity of our prayers.

( a) Obedience. It is not only a test; it is a source of faith. It is in trying to do God’s will that we learn to hear His voice.

( b) A second test is the reality of our prayers. Prayer is the most rational of all habits; but no man will ever satisfy himself that it is so, unless he prays in his own person and for his own needs. Belief in the efficacy of prayer is best gained in prayer. And for him who believes in that there is nothing that can trouble him, though much that he may not fully understand in the teaching of Jesus Christ his Lord.

—Dean J. H. Bernard.

Illustration

‘On the wall of York Minster there is fixed an ancient sundial: and underneath, a legend is written which is a parable of life: Lucem demonstrat umbra, “Shadows point to the sun.” Were it not for the sun, there would be no shadow; and the direction of the shadow indicates where the source of light may be seen in the heavens. And so with faith in God. Let us observe where it seems faintest, and why; and we shall learn from the shadow of doubt the direction from which the light comes.’

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on John 20". Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cpc/john-20.html. 1876.