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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

John 20

Verse 1

"The first day of the week" was Sunday. It is interesting that all the Gospel writers referred to the day of Jesus’ resurrection this way rather than as the third day after His death. The latter description would have connected the Resurrection with Jesus’ predictions of it more directly. Perhaps they did this to associate Easter more clearly with a new beginning. [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., p. 635.] John may have mentioned the darkness of the night to associate darkness with Mary’s limited understanding then (cf. John 13:30). [Note: Ibid.] Alternatively this may simply have been a detail that adds credibility to the narrative.

The other evangelists noted that several women came to the tomb. [Note: See Zane C. Hodges, "The Women and the Empty Tomb," Bibliotheca Sacra 123:492 (October-December 1966):301-9.]

Women Who Visited the Tomb Easter Morning
Matthew 28:1Mark 16:1Luke 24:10John 20:1
Mary MagdaleneMary MagdaleneMary MagdaleneMary Magdalene
The other Mary =Mary the mother of JamesMary the mother of James

Mary Magdalene evidently came first with the other women (cf. John 20:2). Another possibility is that she came first and the other women followed shortly, but this seems less likely in view of the other evangelists’ descriptions. John wrote that she saw (Gr. blepei) the open tomb of Jesus. He implied that she did not enter it. Perhaps John mentioned Mary Magdalene and none of the other women because of the testimony that she gave after she had seen Jesus (John 20:18).

Verses 1-9

1. The discovery of Peter and John 20:1-9 (cf. Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-8)

John omitted the earthquake, the angel rolling away the stone that covered the tomb entrance, and his sitting on the stone (Matthew 28:2-3). He also did not include the appearance of two angels to the women who visited the tomb early Easter morning, before Peter and John did, and the women’s reactions (Matthew 28:5-8; Mark 16:5-8; Luke 24:4-8).

Verses 1-29

F. Jesus’ resurrection 20:1-29

"If the Gospel of John were an ordinary biography, there would be no chapter 20. I am an incurable reader of biographies, and I notice that almost all of them conclude with the death and burial of the subject. I have yet to read one that describes the subject’s resurrection from the dead! The fact that John continued his account and shared the excitement of the Resurrection miracle is proof that Jesus Christ is not like any other man. He is, indeed, the Son of God." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:387.]

John viewed Jesus’ resurrection as part of His exaltation. Jesus’ exaltation would have been incomplete without His resurrection. Because of John’s viewpoint I have outlined the Resurrection as part of the passion ministry of Jesus even though in another sense Jesus’ passion ended with His death.

"For John, as for all the early Christians, the resurrection of Jesus was the immutable fact upon which their faith was based; and their faith in large part depended on the testimony and transformed behaviour of those who had actually seen the resurrected Jesus. Their Master was not in God’s eyes a condemned criminal; the resurrection proved that he was vindicated by God, and therefore none less than the Messiah, the Son of God he claimed to be [cf. 1 Corinthians 15:14-17]." [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., pp. 631-32.]

"In each of the following [resurrection appearances] we will discover a pattern with the following features: (1) The beneficiaries of the appearance are engulfed in a human emotion (Mary, grief; the disciples, fear; and Thomas, doubt). (2) The risen Christ appears to them in the midst of their condition. (3) As a result, their condition is transformed (Mary, mission; the disciples, gladness; Thomas, faith)." [Note: R. Kysar, John, p. 299.]

"With Mary, the emphasis is on love; with the ten, the emphasis is on hope; and with Thomas, the emphasis is on faith." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:387.]

Verse 2

It would have been natural for Mary, and perhaps others of these women, to report the incident to the leading male disciples. The "other disciple" was probably John himself (cf. John 13:23; et al.). Mary first assumed that grave robbers had stolen Jesus’ body. Evidently robbing graves was not uncommon around Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 28:13-15). Obviously Mary meant that some of Jesus’ enemies had stolen His body, but exactly who she thought they may have been remains a mystery. A decree of Emperor Claudius, who reigned shortly after this event (A.D. 41-54), made it a capital offense to destroy tombs, remove bodies, or displace the sealing or other stones. [Note: See C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background, Selected Documents, p. 15.] Mary’s reference to "the Lord" could not have been as full of meaning as it was after His resurrection appearances. Here Mary perhaps used the title only in great respect.

Verses 3-4

The detail of John outrunning Peter to the tomb was probably just confirmation of an eyewitness report. It also shows that these disciples had not removed Jesus’ body. There is no basis in the text for allegorizing these men and making them stand for the Gentile church and the Jewish church, as some theologians have done. [Note: E.g., Bultmann, p. 685.]

Verse 5

John saw (Gr. blepei, cf. John 20:1) the linen strips (ta othonia, cf. John 19:40) that had formerly covered Jesus’ body lying in the tomb. If grave robbers had removed the body, they would have undoubtedly taken the expensive cloth with which Joseph and Nicodemus had prepared it for burial. John may have assumed that Jesus’ body was still there if the light was bad at that hour. Perhaps John did not enter the tomb because he did not want to violate its sanctity or incur ritual defilement.

Verses 6-7

When Peter arrived at the tomb, he barged right in, probably because he wanted to know exactly how things stood regardless of the consequences. He also beheld (Gr. theopei, beheld intently) the linen burial clothes (Gr. ta othonia) but also the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face (Gr. soudarion, cf. John 11:44). Evidently John could not see this from his vantage point. It’s distance from the other clothes and the care with which someone had positioned it were unusual. Jesus was obviously not there, but someone had been there. That person had apparently been the resurrected Jesus. A grave robber would not have taken the time to fold the head covering neatly but would have left it lying in a heap. It is not clear whether the head covering lay where Jesus’ head had lain. What is clear is that someone had folded it up carefully.

Verse 8

Encouraged by Peter’s boldness John also proceeded into the tomb. There he saw (Gr. eiden, perceived intelligently) this evidence and believed what it implied. He believed that Jesus was alive. In this chapter, John carefully recorded that disciples who saw the resurrected Jesus believed on Him (cf. John 20:16; John 20:20; John 20:25; John 20:29). The writer did not explain what John believed here, but in the context of this chapter it seems clear that he believed that Jesus was alive (cf. John 2:22; John 11:25; John 16:22). The evidence of Jesus’ resurrection convinced John even before he met the risen Jesus. Disciples since John can believe in Him because of this evidence too even though we have not yet seen the risen Jesus (cf. John 20:29; 1 John 1:1-4).

The writer did not say that Peter also believed. This omission does not necessarily mean that Peter failed to believe. The writer was simply confessing his own belief, not contrasting it with Peter’s reaction. Nevertheless John seems to have understood the significance of the empty tomb and the orderly grave clothes better than Peter did (cf. Luke 24:12). He evidently did not confess his belief to others then (cf. John 20:10-18).

Jesus had passed through the grave clothes and through the rocky tomb. The angel opened the tomb to admit the disciples, not to release Jesus (Matthew 28:2).

Verse 9

John’s faith rested on the evidence that he had seen. [Note: See Zane C. Hodges, "Form-Criticism and the Resurrection Accounts," Bibliotheca Sacra 124:496 (October-December 1967):339-48.] Later he and the other disciples would have additional reasons for believing that Jesus had risen, namely, the prophetic Scriptures that the Resurrection fulfilled (e.g., Leviticus 23:11; Psalms 16:10-11; Psalms 110:1; Psalms 110:4; Isaiah 53:11-12; Hosea 6:2; cf. Acts 2:24-31; 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). John’s faith took a step forward here, but it was not yet as strong as it would be (cf. Luke 24:25-27; Luke 24:32; Luke 24:44-47).

"The empty cross and the empty tomb are God’s ’receipts’ telling us that the debt has been paid." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:387.]

Verse 10

This is a transitional verse. The NASB joins it to John 20:1-9 whereas the NIV connects it with John 20:11-18. Since John 20:11 begins with "but," it seems natural to view John 20:10 as beginning a new paragraph.

The translation "to their homes" implies that Peter and John had permanent residences in Jerusalem. That seems unlikely. The Greek phrase eis ta idia literally means "to their own" (cf. John 1:11). Since the gender is neuter, John may have meant that these disciples returned to their own friends or temporary lodgings (cf. Acts 12:12).

Verses 10-18

2. The discovery of Mary Magdalene 20:10-18 (cf. Mark 16:9-11)

This is the first of four of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances that John included in his Gospel. It is very difficult to place these appearances in exact chronological order. The New Testament simply does not give enough detailed information to do so. Consequently the major value of the chart below is that it places the post-resurrection appearances that the New Testament writers mentioned in general chronological order.

Jesus’ Post-resurrection Appearances
Easter morning
to Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:10-18)
to other women (Matthew 28:9-10)
to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5)
Easter afternoon
to two disciples on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-32)
Jesus’ Post-resurrection Appearances (cont.)
Easter evening
to about 12 disciples excluding Thomas (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19 - 23)
The following Sunday
to 11 disciples including Thomas (John 20:26-28)
The following 32 days
to seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-23)
to 500 people including the Eleven at a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20; 1 Corinthians 15:6)
to His half-brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7)
to His disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:3-8; 1 Corinthians 15:7)
to His disciples on Mount Olivet (Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-12)

Verse 11

Apparently Mary Magdalene had returned to the empty tomb after she had informed Peter and John about it. Perhaps she returned with them. The other women had evidently left by then. John presented her as lingering there after Peter and John departed. She was still grieving over the death and now the missing body of Jesus. She had not yet realized what John did. She then peered into the tomb for the second time (cf. Mark 16:5).

"I recall Proverbs 8:17 -’I love them that love Me; and those that seek Me early shall find Me. . . . Another verse comes to mind-Psalms 30:5, ’Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’" [Note: Ibid., 1:389.]

Verse 12

The Gospel writers did not describe the structure of the interior of the tomb in detail. It is of little importance. It was obviously large enough to accommodate two man-size angels sitting at either end of the place where Jesus’ body had lain. The presence and positions of the two angels were of more consequence. It is interesting that cherubim stood at either end of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:17-19). Evidently Mary had seen the angels earlier (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-7; Luke 24:4-7). Their white apparel distinguished them as angels (cf. Acts 1:10), but Mary apparently did not recognize them as such. She responded to them as she would have responded to human beings, probably because she was in the shock of grief and was weeping (cf. John 20:15).

Verse 13

The angels asked Mary why she was weeping because weeping was inappropriate in view of Jesus’ resurrection. However, Mary did not yet comprehend that Jesus had risen. Her answer revealed that she still thought that someone had removed Jesus’ body from the tomb. She still doubted the Resurrection in spite of the angels’ earlier announcement that Jesus had risen from the dead. That earlier announcement had produced some initial enlightenment and joy (Matthew 28:6; Matthew 28:8; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6; Luke 24:8). Mary still wanted to mourn over Jesus’ body but did not know where it was. Perhaps her inconsistent behavior is more understandable if we remember that many people in that part of the world still express their grief almost uncontrollably.

Verse 14

Mary’s near hysteria could account for her failing to recognize Jesus at first too. She apparently withdrew from the tomb and saw (Gr. theorei, cf. John 20:6) Jesus standing outside it. She beheld Him attentively, but she did not recognize Him for who He was.

"The fact that He appeared to Mary rather than to Pilate or Caiaphas or to one of His disciples is significant. That a woman would be the first to see Him is an evidence of Jesus’ electing love as well as a mark of the narrative’s historicity. No Jewish author in the ancient world would have invented a story with a woman as the first witness to this most important event. Furthermore, Jesus may have introduced Himself to Mary first because she had so earnestly sought Him. She was at the cross while He was dying (John 19:25), and she went to His tomb early on Sunday morning (John 20:1)." [Note: Blum, p. 342.]

Verse 15

Jesus addressed this heartbroken disciple by respectfully calling her "woman" (Gr. gynai), as had the angels (John 20:13; cf. John 2:4; John 19:26). He also asked the same question they had asked (John 20:13). Jesus’ first recorded post-resurrection words were these in which He combined compassion and mild rebuke. He also asked whom she was seeking as preparation for His self-revelation to her. He meant, what type of Messiah did she think Jesus was?

Mary did not answer either of Jesus’ questions. Her grief had made her somewhat irrational (cf. John 11:21; John 11:32). However there seems to have been something about Jesus’ resurrection body that made immediate recognition of Him difficult for many people (Mark 16:12; Luke 24:16; John 21:4; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:35-49). Perhaps this was due partially to the terrible beatings that He had received. Instead she asked this apparent gardener for Jesus’ body and promised to assume care of it. Her request revealed her devotion to Jesus. She thought that the gardener had removed it for some reason. Her "sir" (Gr. kyrie) here obviously was a courteous address, not a confession of faith.

Verse 16

Mary recognized Jesus when He called her by name (cf. John 10:3-4).

"The Shepherd had called his sheep by name, and the sheep heard and joyfully responded (John 10:3)." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 375.]

She responded by calling Him by the name she had undoubtedly used to address Him numerous times before. John accommodated his readers by translating the Aramaic word. This title probably did not reflect insight into Jesus’ true identity. It simply expressed the joy of a restored relationship that she had concluded had ended. Mary swung from the depths of despair emotionally to the height of joy in one brief second. This is one of the greatest recognition scenes in literature.

"Never was there a one-word utterance more charged with emotion than this." [Note: Tasker, p. 221.]

Verse 17

Jesus’ next words help us understand that Mary also embraced Jesus. Mary probably prostrated herself before Jesus and embraced His lower legs (cf. Matthew 28:9).

Jesus’ words are very difficult to interpret. The translators rendered them, "Touch me not" (AV), "Stop clinging to me" (NASB), and "Do not hold on to me" (NIV). The meaning depends to some extent on what Jesus meant when He said, "For I have not yet ascended to the Father."

One view is that Jesus’ second statement connects with what follows it rather than with what precedes it. [Note: S. E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood, p. 356.] Since Jesus had not yet ascended to His Father (Gr. anabebeka, perfect tense) Mary should go to the disciples and tell them that He was not yet ascending (Gr. anabaino, present tense). According to this view the initial prohibition against touching Jesus stands alone. The weaknesses of this view are two. First, there is no other example of this anticipatory use of "for" (Gr. gar, translated "since") in the New Testament. Second, it fails to explain any reason for Jesus’ prohibition.

Advocates of a second view understand Jesus as telling Mary to release Him because she must go to the disciples with a message. [Note: M. Zerwick, Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples, pp. 159-60, §476.] However it is very unusual for the preposition "for" (Gr. gar) to link a prohibition and an imperative. [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., p. 642.] Furthermore this reading makes "for I have not yet ascended to the Father" a rather meaningless parenthetical remark.

A third view is that it was inappropriate for Mary to hold Jesus since He had not yet ascended to the Father, but it was appropriate for Thomas to touch Jesus (John 20:27). Therefore Jesus must have ascended to the Father and returned between His appearances to Mary and Thomas. [Note: Chafer, 4:118; 5:262-63; 7:20.] Yet there is no biblical evidence that Jesus ascended to the Father and returned from Him between these two appearances. Moreover it is unclear why ascending to the Father should make any difference in the disciples’ physical contact with Jesus’ body.

A fourth view regards Jesus’ statement as not expressing temporal sequence. Advocates regard it as a theological point instead. Jesus was contrasting His passing presence in His post-resurrection state with His permanent presence through the Spirit. [Note: Brown, 2:1014-15; Barrett, The Gospel . . ., p. 566.] What Jesus meant was that Mary should refrain from touching Him because even though He had not yet ascended to the Father He would do so shortly. The resurrection had introduced a new relationship between Jesus and His disciples in which physical contact was inappropriate. This view puts more emphasis on Jesus’ exaltation in His passion than the New Testament writers did, including John. Moreover it is impossible to dissociate Jesus’ statement from a sequence of events since His death, resurrection, and ascension did happen in sequence (cf. John 20:28-29). Finally this view fails to explain why Jesus permitted Thomas to touch Him (John 20:27) but did not allow Mary to do so.

The best explanation seems to be that Mary was holding onto Jesus as though she would never let Him go (cf. Matthew 28:9). Jesus told her to stop doing that or, if He knew she was about to do it, He told her not to do it. He was almost ready to disappear permanently. The reason she should release Him was that He had not yet ascended to the Father. He had other work to do first. Only in heaven would it be possible for loving believers such as Mary to maintain contact with Jesus forever. [Note: Cf. Carson, The Gospel . . ., pp. 644-45; Tenney, "John," p. 191; Blum, p. 342; Morris, pp. 742-43; Wiersbe, 1:390; Beasley-Murray, p. 376.] This view makes good sense of the text and harmonizes with Jesus’ invitation to Thomas (John 20:27). Thomas needed to touch Jesus to strengthen his faith. Mary needed to release Him because she did not have to fear losing Him.

The message that Mary was to carry to the disciples was that Jesus was going to return to the Father. She would obviously report that Jesus was alive, but Jesus wanted her to communicate more than that. Jesus had spoken of His ascension before (e.g., John 7:33; John 14:12; John 14:28; John 16:5; John 16:10; John 16:17; John 16:28). His disciples needed to understand that His death and resurrection had not wiped out these earlier predictions.

Jesus described the Father in a new way. He was Jesus’ Father, but He was also the disciples’ Father. Jesus did not say "our" Father. He and His disciples had a different relationship to the Father. Nevertheless they were all sons of the Father albeit in a different sense (cf. John 1:12-13; John 1:18; John 5:19-30). Therefore Jesus called the disciples His "brothers" here. The context clarifies that Jesus was referring to the disciples and not to His physical half-brothers (John 20:18). Likewise Jesus’ relationship to God was similar to, though not exactly the same as, the disciples’ relationship to God. The emphasis in Jesus’ statement was on the privileges that His disciples now shared with Him because of His death, resurrection, and ascension (cf. Romans 8:15-16; Hebrews 2:11-12).

Verse 18

As an obedient disciple, Mary went to the other disciples and told them that Jesus was alive plus the message that Jesus had given her. Again "the Lord" probably meant "Jesus" to her at this time, but she spoke better than she knew. Later she would understand more about the implications of that title. Mark mentioned that the disciples were weeping and mourning when Mary met them, and they failed to believe that Jesus was alive (Mark 16:10-11).

John did not mention Jesus’ appearance to the other women that followed His appearance to Mary Magdalene (Matthew 28:9-10). He also omitted Matthew’s account of how the guards at Jesus’ tomb reported to the Jewish rulers that it was empty (Matthew 28:11-15). Likewise he passed over Jesus’ appearances to the two disciples on the Emmaus road (Mark 16:12-13; Luke 24:13-32) and to Peter (Luke 24:33-35; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5).

Verse 19

John moved his readers directly from the events of Easter morning to those that happened that evening.

"The seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, commemorates God’s finished work of Creation (Genesis 2:1-3). The Lord’s Day commemorates Christ’s finished work of redemption, the ’new creation.’ . . .

"For centuries, the Jewish Sabbath had been associated with Law: six days of work, and then you rest. But the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, is associated with grace: first there is faith in the living Christ, then there will be works." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:391, 392.]

Apparently the Eleven except Thomas were present (cf. Mark 16:14; John 20:24). How much Thomas missed because he did not meet with the other disciples on the Lord’s Day (cf. Hebrews 10:22-25)! He had to endure a whole week of fear and unbelief unnecessarily. The disciples had gathered in a secure room because they feared the Jewish authorities. The Jewish authorities had crucified their rabbi, so it was reasonable to think that they might come after them as well. Contrast their boldness following Jesus’ ascension just a few weeks later.

John implied that Jesus appeared miraculously even though the disciples had shut up (Gr. kekleismenon, i.e., "locked" NIV) the doors (cf. John 20:26). Jesus’ resurrection body had passed through grave clothes and a rocky tomb. Now it passed through the walls of this structure.

Jesus’ greeting was common enough (i.e., Heb. shalom ’alekem). However, He had formerly promised His disciples His peace (John 14:27; John 16:33). Consequently He was imparting rather than just wishing peace on them. This seems clear because Jesus repeated the benediction two more times (John 20:21; John 20:26). "Shalom" summarized the fullness of God’s blessing, not just the cessation of hostility (cf. Romans 5:1; Philippians 4:7).

"Never had that ’common word’ [Shalom] been so filled with meaning as when Jesus uttered it on Easter evening. . . . His ’Shalom!’ on Easter evening is the complement of ’it is finished’ on the cross, for the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted. ’Shalom!’ accordingly is supremely the Easter greeting. Not surprisingly it is included, along with ’grace,’ in the greeting of every epistle of Paul in the NT." [Note: Beasley-Murray, pp. 378-79.]

Verses 19-23

3. The appearance to the Eleven minus Thomas on Easter evening 20:19-23 (cf. Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-43)

This pericope contains another post-resurrection appearance of Jesus that bolstered the disciples’ faith. It also contains John’s account of the Great Commission.

Verse 20

Evidently Jesus showed the disciples His hands and side with their wounds to convince them that it was really He and not just a phantom (cf. Luke 24:37-40). Luke added that He showed them His feet too (Luke 24:39). Then these disciples rejoiced because they saw (Gr. idontes, i.e., perceived intelligently, cf. John 20:8) who Jesus really was.

"Thus the disciples were forced to grasp what became a central confession of the church: the risen Lord is none other than the crucified sacrifice." [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., p. 647.]

The disciples’ initial reaction to Jesus’ unexpected appearance was terror (Luke 24:37). However upon examining His wounds their fear turned to faith. The disciples’ joy was the proof of their perception and the testimony to their faith.

"Christian joy has been born, the joy of the redeemed, which Jesus had promised would be theirs after the travail pangs had passed (see xvi. 20-22)." [Note: Tasker, p. 222.]

Clearly Jesus’ resurrection body resembled His former body, but perhaps His beatings and crucifixion had so scarred Him that even His closest friends could hardly recognize Him (cf. Isaiah 52:14). His resurrection body also possessed properties of immortality that enabled Him to pass through solid objects and to materialize and dematerialize at will, though it was not ethereal.

Verse 21

Jesus repeated His benediction (John 20:19). He then commissioned His disciples for their mission from then on. [Note: See John E. Johnson, "The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity," Bibliotheca Sacra 152:606 (April-June 1995):182-200.] He expressed this commission in terms of the relationships that John recorded Jesus teaching extensively in this Gospel. Jesus was sending His disciples on a mission just as His Father had sent Him on a mission (cf. John 17:18). The emphasis here is on the sending and the authoritative person doing the sending. Thus Jesus’ disciples became apostles (lit. sent ones) in a new sense. The New Testament writers used the term "apostle" in a technical and in a general sense. In the general sense, it refers to all Christians (cf. Acts 14:4; Acts 14:14; 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25). In the technical sense, it refers to the original 12 apostles-Matthias took Judas Iscariot’s place (Acts 1:26)-plus Paul.

Each Gospel plus Acts records a different version of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-48; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8). Jesus apparently gave this commission on at least four separate occasions. The first recorded commission chronologically was evidently the one in John 20:21-23. The second was the one recorded in Mark 16:15-16. Matthew 28:19-20 appears to be another account of a later event. Likewise Luke 24:46-48 and Acts 1:8 seem to be two versions of one incident, the last giving of the commission. The reader of the Gospels can scarcely escape its crucial importance. Each Gospel closes with a commission from the risen Lord. It expresses God’s will for every believer in the present age.

Some Christians believe that Jesus intended this commission only for His original disciples. They point to the fact that the writers of the New Testament epistles never referred to it. However even though they did not refer to it explicitly they clearly presupposed its validity for the whole church. They simply cast it in different terminology (e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:20). The universal scope of the commission also argues for its continuation. Third, the repetition of this commission five times suggests that Jesus intended all of His disciples to carry it out. Finally, this was the last charge that Jesus gave His disciples before He returned to His Father (Luke 24:46-48; Acts 1:8). This fact also suggests that He intended it for all succeeding generations of disciples.

Clearly on this occasion Jesus was presenting His mission as a model for His disciples’ mission. Many Christians have concluded, therefore, that what characterized Jesus’ ministry must characterize the church’s ministry. They see this mission including healing the sick, casting out demons, and feeding the hungry. They believe that the church’s mission is much broader than just preaching the gospel, baptizing, teaching, and planting churches. I believe this understanding is correct.

However the emphasis on Jesus’ mission in John’s Gospel has been primarily that Jesus always carried out God’s will in perfect obedience (cf. John 5:19-30; John 8:29). Even before His crucifixion Jesus stressed the importance of the believer’s obedience as the fulfillment of this paradigm (John 15:9-10). The purpose of Jesus’ incarnation was the spiritual salvation of the world (John 1:29). That is also the believer’s primary, though not our exclusive, purpose (cf. Galatians 6:10). As Jesus always operated in dependence on the Father with the Spirit’s enablement, so should His disciples (cf. John 1:32; John 3:34; John 4:34; John 5:19; John 6:27; John 10:36; John 17:4). As He was a Son of God, so are His disciples sons of God (cf. John 1:12-13; John 3:3; John 3:5; John 20:17).

Since believers no longer belong to the world (John 15:19), it was necessary for Jesus to send His disciples back into the world. Our mission does not replace Jesus’ mission, however. He carries out His present mission through us. [Note: Westcott, The Gospel . . . Greek Text . . ., 2:349-50.] We must consider all the versions of the Great Commission that Jesus gave to understand our mission correctly, not just this one.

". . . what is central to the Son’s mission-that he came as the Father’s gift so that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16), experiencing new life as the children of God (John 1:12-13) and freedom from the slavery of sin because they have been set free by the Son of God (John 8:34-36)-must never be lost to view as the church defines her mission." [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., p. 649.]

Jesus and John reminded all disciples of these central issues in the verses that follow (cf. John 20:23; John 20:30-31).

Verse 22

These disciples needed supernatural spiritual power to carry out such a task, but what did Jesus really do next? There are several views.

One view is that Jesus gave these disciples a temporary infusion of His Spirit. [Note: Blum, p. 343; cf. Calvin, 2:205; Morris, pp. 747-48.] The act of breathing on them recalls the Creation in which God breathed His life into Adam (Genesis 2:7). Thus Jesus may have been suggesting that He was doing a new creative work by filling these men with His Spirit. Later Jesus explained that the Spirit would come upon these disciples again (Acts 1:8). This present act of Jesus then may have represented a preliminary and temporary enabling that helped the disciples understand what they could expect more fully and permanently later. That baptizing came on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; Acts 2:4; Acts 11:15).

Some problems with this view are as follows. Two bestowals of the Spirit seem unusual in view of Jesus’ earlier promises to send the Spirit (chs. 14-16) and the importance in Acts of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost (Acts 1:5; Acts 2:4; Acts 11:15). Also there is no indication that this temporary infusion with the Spirit had any effect on the disciples. Furthermore there is no evidence that when Thomas returned to the scene Jesus gave him the Spirit as one would expect if the Spirit’s presence was essential for the disciples then (John 20:26-29).

Many readers of the Greek text have noted that "Holy Spirit" (Gr. pneuma hagion) does not have a definite article preceding it. This has led some of them to conclude that the Holy Spirit is not in view, but the breath (Gr. pneuma) of God is. They take this breath of God to be symbolic of God’s gift of spiritual power in an impersonal sense. [Note: G. Johnston, The Spirit-Paraclete in the Gospel of John, p. 11.] However, John earlier referred to the personal Holy Spirit without the article (John 7:39). That seems to be his meaning here as well. The absence of an article before a noun often has the effect of stressing the quality of the noun. In this case that would be the holiness of the Spirit.

Some modern scholars view this verse as John’s account of Pentecost. [Note: E.g., Barrett, The Gospel . . ., p. 570; and Beasley-Murray, pp. 380-82.] However this view does not take the chronological sequence of events that these books present seriously. Clearly the occasion that John described here and the events of the day of Pentecost were different.

Still others believe that Jesus was giving these disciples a symbolic and graphic reminder of the Spirit who would come upon them later. It was a demonstration of what Jesus would do when He returned to the Father and which He did do on Pentecost. He was not imparting the Spirit to them in any sense here. [Note: E.g., Harris, p. 201; Tenney, "John," p. 193; Carson, The Gospel . . ., pp. 651-55; idem, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 140-44.] This interpretation accounts for Thomas not receiving the Spirit before Pentecost. It also explains why this event had no changing effect on the disciples. Evidently there was only one coming of the Spirit on these disciples, and that happened on Pentecost. This view seems to me to be more defensible, and I prefer it.

Verse 23

The Great Commission not only requires supernatural power to carry it out (John 20:22), but it also involves the forgiveness of sins (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 26:28). In the similar passages in Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18, the context is church discipline. Here the context is evangelism.

The second part of each conditional clause in this verse is in the passive voice and the perfect tense in the Greek text. The passive voice indicates that someone has already done the forgiving or retaining. That person must be God since He alone has the authority to do that (Matthew 9:2-3; Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21). The perfect tense indicates that the action has continuing effects; the sins stand forgiven or retained at least temporarily if not permanently.

Jesus appears to have been saying that when His disciples went to others with the message of salvation, as He had done, some people would believe and others would not. Reaction to their ministry would be the same as reaction to His had been. He viewed their forgiving and retaining the sins of their hearers as the actions of God’s agents. If people ("any" or "anyone," plural Gr. tinon) believed the gospel, the disciples could tell the believers that God had forgiven their sins. If they disbelieved, they could tell them that God had not forgiven but retained their sins. Jesus had done this (cf. John 9:39-41), and now His disciples would continue to do it. Thus their ministry would be a continuation of His ministry relative to the forgiveness of sins, as it would be in relation to the Spirit’s enablement. This, too, applies to all succeeding generations of Jesus’ disciples since Jesus was still talking about the disciples’ mission.

". . . all who proclaim the gospel are in effect forgiving or not forgiving sins, depending on whether the hearer accepts or rejects the Lord Jesus as the Sin-Bearer." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 193.]

This resurrection appearance has threefold importance in John’s Gospel. It validated again Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and it provided the setting for the commissioning of Jesus’ disciples. It also provided the background for Jesus’ appearance when Thomas was present and Thomas’ climactic statement of faith that followed (John 20:24-29).

Verses 24-25

Thomas’ initial unbelief 20:24-25

John gave his readers the Aramaic and Greek names of this member of the Twelve, now the Eleven: "Thomas" and "Didymus" respectively (cf. John 11:16; John 14:5). John’s previous pictures of this disciple present him as a loyal and courageous, though somewhat pessimistic, follower of Jesus. His more common identification as a doubter comes only from the present event.

Thomas had no doubts that Jesus had died. This is another evidence that Jesus really did die. However, he refused to believe the other disciples’ report that Jesus was alive without personal physical proof. He insisted on touching Jesus, and specifically His crucifixion wounds, not just seeing Him. No one else in the New Testament made demands like these before believing. [Note: Morris, p. 752.] The Greek text clarifies that the other disciples kept saying (Gr. elegon, imperfect tense) that Jesus was alive. In spite of this repeated verbal testimony by those who knew Him best, Thomas refused to believe (cf. John 4:48). He had become so thoroughly convinced that Jesus was dead, as evidenced by his references to Jesus’ wounds, that he could not see how Jesus’ crucifixion could be overcome.

Verses 24-29

4. The transformed faith of Thomas 20:24-29

The last witness to Jesus’ resurrection in John’s Gospel is Thomas, and the record of it has two parts. The first part sets the scene for the second (cf. ch. 21). John is the only evangelist who recorded this post-resurrection appearance. Thomas’ confession is John’s climactic argument for belief in Jesus as the divine Messiah, the Christ.

Verse 26

John located this post-resurrection appearance eight days after Easter Sunday, namely, the following Sunday. His "eight days" (Gr. hemeras okto) evidently included both Sundays. Perhaps he identified the day because, by the time John wrote, Sunday had become the day of worship for Christians, when they commemorated Jesus’ resurrection. They worshipped Him on Easter Sunday, then again the following Sunday, and then on succeeding Sundays from then on (cf. Acts 20:7). However Sunday worship has its roots in tradition rather than commandment.

The disciples were still meeting behind closed doors because they feared the Jewish authorities (cf. John 20:19). Jesus again materialized in the presence of these disciples as He had a week earlier (John 20:19). He also repeated His benediction (John 20:21). Perhaps Jesus did these things because the disciples had told Thomas that He had appeared this way and had said these things. This would have bolstered Thomas’ faith.

Verses 26-29

Thomas’ final belief 20:26-29

Verse 27

Jesus then invited Thomas to satisfy himself that He really was the crucified Jesus, as Thomas had said he would have to do to believe that Jesus was alive. Jesus knew what Thomas had said even though He had not been physically present when he had said it. This is a further implication of Jesus’ deity. The purpose of this test was not just to satisfy Thomas’ curiosity, however. It was to bring him to faith that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah. We could render Jesus’ statement literally, "Do not be unbelieving but believing."

Verse 28

Evidently Thomas did not take up Jesus’ offer. The sight of his Savior seems to have been enough to convince him (cf. John 20:29). Thomas then uttered one of the most profound declarations of saving faith in Scripture. For a Jew to call another human being "my Lord and my God" was blasphemy under normal circumstances (cf. John 10:33). Yet that is precisely who Thomas believed Jesus was. It is also who John presented Jesus as being throughout this Gospel. Both titles were titles of deity in the Old Testament. Thomas had come to believe that Jesus was his lord in a fuller sense than before, and he now believed that Jesus was fully God.

"The repeated pronoun my does not diminish the universality of Jesus’ lordship and deity, but it ensures that Thomas’ words are a personal confession of faith. Thomas thereby not only displays his faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but points to its deepest meaning; it is nothing less than the revelation of who Jesus Christ is. The most unyielding sceptic [sic] has bequeathed to us the most profound confession." [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., p. 659.]

Now Thomas believed as his fellow disciples had come to believe (cf. John 20:25). His confession is a model that John presented for all future disciples. It is the high point of this Gospel (cf. John 1:1; John 1:14; John 1:18). John’s other witnesses to Jesus’ deity were John the Baptist (John 1:34), Nathanael (John 1:49), Jesus Himself (John 5:25; John 10:36), Peter (John 6:69), the healed blind man (John 9:35), Martha (John 11:27), and John the Apostle (John 20:30-31).

"Nobody has previously addressed Jesus like this. It marks a leap of faith. In the moment that he came to see that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead Thomas came to see something of what that implied. Mere men do not rise from the dead in this fashion. The One who was now so obviously alive, although he had died, could be addressed in the language of adoring worship." [Note: Morris, p. 753.]

Verse 29

We could translate Jesus’ first sentence as either a question or a statement. It confirmed the reality of Thomas’ belief in either case, and it prepared for the beatitude that followed (cf. John 13:17). "Blessed" (Gr. makarios) does more than just describe the person in view as happy. It also declares him or her acceptable to God (cf. Matthew 5:3-12).

Most believers have believed on Jesus because of sufficient evidence without the physical confirmation that Thomas required (cf. John 20:8; 1 Peter 1:8-9). Those were the people whom Jesus had in view when He made this statement. This beatitude does not make believers who live after Jesus’ ascension superior to those who saw Him in the flesh. Rather it guarantees their blessing by God.

"Thomas’s declaration is the last assertion of personal faith recorded in this Gospel. It marks the climax of the book because it presents Christ as the risen Lord, victorious over sin, sorrow, doubt, and death. It also presents the faith that accepts not only the truth of what Jesus said but also the actuality of what he was-the Son of God. In the experience of Thomas, the writer has shown how belief comes to maturity and how it changes the entire direction of an individual life." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 195.]

"The growth of belief depicted in the Gospel of John thus moves from an initial acceptance on the testimony of another to a personal knowledge marked by loyalty, service, and worship; from assumption of the historicity and integrity of Jesus to a personal trust in Him; from an outward profession to an inward reality; from attending to His teachings to acknowledging His lordship over life. Full belief may not be attained instantly; yet the incipient and tentative belief is not to be despised." [Note: Idem, "Topics from . . .," p. 357.]

Verse 30

"Therefore" ties this statement to what immediately precedes it. John wrote his Gospel because those who believe on Jesus without seeing Him in the flesh are acceptable to God. He wrote, therefore, that people may believe and so enjoy eternal life. There were many other evidences of Jesus’ deity that John could have presented. However, he chose those that he recorded here to lead his readers to the type of faith that Thomas just articulated and that Jesus just commended. That was John’s confessed strategy in composing this Gospel under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

What did John have in mind when he referred to other "signs?" Perhaps he meant the seven miracles that he featured, the significance of which Jesus usually explained in the context (chs. 2-12).

A Summary of the Seven Signs in John
Changing water to wineJesus’ power over qualityThe disciplesJohn 2:1-11
Healing the official’s sonJesus’ power over spaceThe official and his householdJohn 4:46-54
Healing the paralyticJesus’ power over timeThe paralytic?The JewsJohn 5:1-9
Feeding the 5,000Jesus’ power over quantitySome people in the crowdJohn 6:1-15
Walking on the waterJesus’ power over natureThe disciplesJohn 6:16-21
Healing a man born blindJesus’ power over misfortuneThe blind manThe PhariseesJohn 9:1-12
Raising LazarusJesus’ power over deathMartha, Mary, and many JewsThe Jewish authoritiesJohn 11:1-16

Verses 30-31

G. The purpose of this Gospel 20:30-31

John followed the climactic proof that Jesus is God’s Son with an explanation of his purpose for writing this narrative of Jesus’ ministry. This explanation constitutes a preliminary conclusion to the book.

Verse 31

This verse unites many of the most important themes in the fourth Gospel. John’s purpose was clearly evangelistic. His Gospel is an excellent portion of Scripture to give to an unbeliever. It is probably the most effective evangelistic tool available. Its impact on the reader is strongest when one reads it through at one sitting, which takes most people less than two hours. This document can also deepen and establish the faith of any believer, and John undoubtedly wrote what he did to accomplish that end as well.

The implication of this primary evangelistic purpose is that John meant unbelievers when he wrote "you." Did he have a particular group of unbelievers in mind, or was he addressing any unbelieving reader? Some commentators have tried to identify a particular audience from statements in the text. Yet it seems more probable that John wrote for a general audience since he did not identify his intended audience specifically. His presentation of Jesus as the divine Son of God certainly has universal application.

"There cannot be any doubt but that John conceived of Jesus as the very incarnation of God." [Note: Morris, p. 756.]

John’s purpose was not academic; it was not simply that people might believe intellectually that Jesus is the divine Messiah. It was rather that they might believe those foundational truths so they could possess and experience the life of God fully (cf. John 10:10). This divine life affects the whole person, not just the intellect. Moreover it affects him or her forever, not just during that person’s present lifetime.

John’s clear purpose statement concludes the body of this Gospel. I regard John 20:31 as the key verse in John’s Gospel.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on John 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.