Bible Commentaries
John 20

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verse 1

John 20:1. But on the first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth that the stone had been taken away from the sepulchre. Few parts of the Fourth Gospel illustrate better than these words the principle of selection upon which it is composed. They mention Mary Magdalene alone; and yet we learn from her own words in John 20:2, ‘ we know,’ that she could not have been alone, that she formed (as indeed we are expressly told by the other Evangelists) one of a group of women who came on the morning of the first day of the week to finish the embalming of the body of Jesus. Again, we here read of ‘the stone taken away from the sepulchre,’ though no mention had been made of this stone in the previous narrative. It is obvious that here, as elsewhere, we have to deal not so much with events of full historical detail as with events selected on account of their bearing upon the idea which the Evangelist wishes to illustrate. In the present instance that idea is not the mere fact of the Resurrection of Jesus, but the nature of His post-resurrection state. With this His appearance to Mary Magdalene is closely associated; and hence the Evangelist, omitting all mention of the other women, concerns himself with her alone.

Of Mary, then, we are told that she came to the sepulcher on the first day of the week ‘early,’ and ‘when it was yet dark.’ Similar expressions are found in the other Gospels: thus Luke speaks of ‘early’ (literally ‘deep’ ) ‘dawn,’ and Mark (Mark 16:2) records that the women came to the sepulchre ‘very early.’ The only difficulty that presents itself here is occasioned by words which follow in the same verse of Mark’s Gospel, which state that the sun had risen. The discussion of this difficulty does not belong to this place, and we must content ourselves with mentioning three solutions which have been proposed. ( 1 ) That the words of Mark 16:2 are intended only as a general indication of time, at or about sunrise, the rays of dawn being in the sky, but the measure of light still small. ( 2 ) That, though the sun had risen, yet haze or cloud obscured its light. ( 3 ) That John’s reference to the darkness strictly belongs to the time when Mary set forth, not to the time of her arrival, as indeed the words might be rendered ‘Mary is coming to the sepulchre:’ compare John 20:3, where we read that Peter and John ‘were coming to,’ i.e. they came towards the tomb. It is easy to understand that the writer of the last words in chap. John 13:30 would in thought naturally dwell upon the outward darkness as symbolical of the mental state of Mary and her fellow-disciples.

The stone which had been fitted into the door of the sepulchre had been taken away; and, with-cut observing the particulars which are recorded below (John 20:6-7), Mary hastens to tell what she has seen.

Verses 1-10

The victory of Jesus over His enemies, in the midst of apparent defeat, is still the subject before us. The preceding chapter had closed with the statement that He was laid in the tomb: when the narrative of chap. 20 begins, the tomb is empty. The great event of the Resurrection had already taken place. The victory of Jesus over the world and death had been consummated, for at the very instant when their attack was fiercest He had escaped their hands. The question may indeed be asked, whether chap. 20 , as containing an account of the risen Saviour, ought not to constitute a separate section of the Gospel. But the reply is easy. The death and resurrection of Jesus always accompany one another. They are complementary parts of one whole, each impossible without the other. It must be distinctly kept in view that the leading thought of the Fourth Gospel is not that of defeat in suffering followed by victory, but of triumph through and over suffering.

The first paragraph of chap. 20 , extending to the close of John 20:10, may best be described as Preparation for the risen Saviour.

Verse 2

John 20:2. She runneth therefore and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. That the Lord is risen does not enter into her thoughts: she can but imagine that enemies have stolen away the body so precious alike in her eyes and in those of her fellow-disciples, and she hastens to tell the tale to those who would feel with her most deeply and would be most able to help in the sad extremity. The statement of Mary produces its immediate effect upon the disciples.

Verse 3

John 20:3. Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they came towards the sepulchre. The word rendered ‘went forth’ is so often used in this Gospel in regard to the most solemn events in the life of Jesus, as implying a Divine mission, the accomplishment of a Divine purpose, that we may well doubt whether the Evangelist does not here employ the word in the same pregnant sense. It is possible also that there is design in the manner in which the names of the two apostles are introduced: not ‘Peter and the other disciple went forth,’ but ‘Peter went forth, and the other disciple.’ The other examples of this construction in the Fourth Gospel tend to show that here John intends to set forth Peter as the main person in the narrative: thus the whole ground is cut away from those who hold that the design of this section is to bring ‘the other disciple’ into peculiar prominence.

Verse 4

John 20:4. And they ran both together, and the other disciple did outran Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. It is extremely probable that John was the younger and thus also the more active of the two. The same supposition throws light on the next verse.

Verse 5

John 20:5. And stooping down, and looking in, he seeth the linen cloths lying; yet went he not in. A feeling of awe and mystery in all probability possessed him. He was afraid to enter. It was not so with Peter.

Verses 6-7

John 20:6-7. Simon Peter therefore also cometh following him; and he went into the sepulchre, and beholdeth the linen cloths lying, and the napkin that was upon his head not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled together in a place by itself. Peter, ever bold and daring, is less overcome by awe than his companion. He goes into the sepulchre, and when within sees not only that the linen cloths are lying there, but also, what John had not observed (John 20:5), that the covering placed upon the head of Jesus had been carefully (for this idea is clearly implied in the word) rolled up, and laid in a place by itself, in all likelihood where the head had lain, try the mention of these circumstances, the Evangelist appears to indicate the calm and orderly manner in which Jesus had left the sepulchre. They were inconsistent with the idea, either of a hasty flight, or of a violent removal of the body: and it is probable that John would hint at the dawning consciousness of this in Peter’s mind by changing the verb ‘seeth,’ used in his own case, into ‘beholdeth’ in the case of his companion. The effect produced upon John by Peter’s entrance into the sepulchre was what might have been expected. He takes courage, and also enters.

Verse 8

John 20:8. Then went in therefore the other disciple also, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw and believed. It is certainly not a belief of the statement of Mary that is expressed in this last word. As John stood gazing on the signs which bore their silent witness that the body of Jesus had not been taken away by violent hands, the truth revealed itself to him, that Jesus had of Himself left the tomb. But even more than this is probably intended by the word ‘believed.’ To receive the truth of the Resurrection was to be led to a deeper and more real faith in Jesus Himself. The uncertainties, doubts, and difficulties occasioned by the events of the days just passed disappeared from John’s mind. He ‘believed’ in Jesus as being what He truly was, the Son of God, the Saviour of man. The words which follow are the reflection of the Evangelist upon the ignorance manifested by himself and by Peter as to the meaning of the prophetic word. Certainly the disciples’ belief in a risen Saviour was not the result of any assured conviction that the Resurrection was foretold in Scripture.

Verse 9

John 20:9. For not even yet knew they the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. The connection between this and the preceding verse is readily perceived: ‘He saw and believed,’ sight was needed to evoke this faith, for not even yet had they learnt that thus it was ‘written that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead’ (Luke 24:46). It may perhaps be doubted whether self-reproach is to be found in this statement, to the extent, at least, that is commonly supposed. The words seem rather to flow from the conviction which has so strong a hold of the Evangelist, that only in the presence of actual experience do the power and meaning of the Divine Word come forth. The fact was needed in order to illustrate and explain the scripture; and then that faith which has been resting on the inward perception of the glory of Jesus receives confirmation from the discovery that the truth received was long ago made known by God as a part of His own counsel. As in all other places (unless chap. John 19:28 be an exception, see note there) John uses ‘the scripture’ in the sense of a particular passage of Scripture (see chap. John 2:22), we are here led to think of Psalms 16:10 as probably being before his mind. It will be remembered that this was ‘the scripture’ to which Peter first made appeal as a prophecy of the Resurrection of our Lord (Acts 2:27).

Verse 10

John 20:10. The disciples therefore went away again unto their own home. We are not told why or in what frame of mind they thus returned to their own homes. One thing is clear: they believed that Jesus was risen, and that it was vain to search for Him in the tomb.

Verse 11

John 20:11. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping. Peter and John had returned to their homes. Mary had followed them when they first ran to the sepulchre; but (probably in consequence of their eager haste) she had not reached it before they departed. Nothing at least is said of her having met them and been addressed by them. She stands there with no thought of a resurrection in her mind, but believing only that the body has been taken away, and therefore weeping with loud lamentation (comp. on chap. John 11:34-35).

As she wept therefore she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre. Nothing could be more natural than that she should desire to view the spot associated with all that was so dear to her.

Verses 11-18

The paragraph now before us presents an advance upon that last considered. There we had only preparation for the risen Jesus; here we have Jesus risen. There all was negative: Jesus was not in the tomb, and the inference was that He was risen. Here all is positive. The risen One appears to Mary, proclaiming Himself, and sends a message to His disciples.

Verse 12

John 20:12. And beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. In each of the accounts of the Resurrection an angelic appearance is recorded, in every case an appearance to the women who came to the tomb: by Peter and John no angels had been seen (John 20:5-6). The ‘white’ garments are the symbol of purity and glory; see the references in the margin, and also Revelation 3:4-5; Revelation 6:11; Revelation 19:14, etc. That one of the angels was ‘at the head’ and the other ‘ at the feet’ where the body of Jesus had lain,’ is to be regarded as expressive of the fact that the body was wholly under the guardianship of Heaven. This is not the place to enter upon any discussion of the general credibility of the angelic appearances recorded in Scripture. They are too often and too circumstantially spoken of to permit us to resolve them into mere figures of speech: nor can we have any difficulty in believing that in the great universe of God there should be such an order of beings as that described by the term ‘angels.’ If, however, they may exist, their manifestation of themselves must be regarded as also possible; and the manner of the manifestation their appearing to some and not to others, their appearing suddenly and then as suddenly disappearing is to be looked at as dependent upon laws of which we can say nothing, because we have ourselves no practical experience of them.

Verse 13

John 20:13. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. Mary’s reply betrays neither consternation nor even surprise: as has been well said, her excitement is such that the wonderful ceases to be wonderful to her. Her words are exactly the same as those spoken by her in John 20:2, except that, as she is now expressing simply her own feelings and not those of companions, the utterance becomes more tender: thus for ‘the Lord’ and ‘we know’ we here read ‘my Lord,’ ‘I know.’ She thus comes before us as more fully prepared for receiving a manifestation of the risen Saviour; and that no answer of the angels is recorded may be regarded as a token on the part of the Evangelist that to such a faith Jesus will reveal Himself directly, and without the interposition of any other.

Verse 14

John 20:14. When she had thus said, she turned herself back; and she beholdeth Jesus standing, and perceived not that it was Jesus. Mary has answered the inquiry of the angels; and, satisfied that the Lord is not in the sepulchre, she turns round to see if information regarding Him can be obtained from any other source. Could we think that the morning was still dark, it might be possible to trace Mary’s non-recognition of Jesus to that cause: but, if light was already dawning when she came first to the sepulchre, day must by this time have fully broken. That she did not know Jesus must, therefore, have proceeded from some other cause. This could not be the outward glory of His appearance, or she would not have supposed Him to be the gardener (John 20:15). Nor does it seem desirable to resort to the explanation offered by many, that glorified corporeity has the power of making itself visible or invisible,. or of assuming different forms of manifestation at its pleasure. Much may be attributed to Mary’s total want of preparation for the fact. The idea that Jesus had risen from the grave had not yet dawned upon her: the form now in her presence could not be His: no supposition lay so near as that it was the gardener who had drawn near. More, however, must be said; and the key to the solution of the difficulty is to be found in Luke 24:16 (see also chap. John 21:4). Her ‘eyes were holden’ that she should not discern her Lord. She was not yet ready for any such recognition as might correspond to the new stage of existence upon which He had entered. She would have seen the human friend, Jesus as He had been, not as He now was. Some further training, therefore, is still needed, and then the glorious revelation shall be given.

Verse 15

John 20:15. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? The object of the questions seems to be, to recall Mary to herself and to awaken more deliberate thought. She is confounded by all that has happened, overwhelmed by her emotions, and hence unable to judge justly of what she is to see. The questioning and answering bring her back to calmness and self-possession.

She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou didst bear him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. So much is Mary absorbed in her own thoughts, and so completely is her mind filled with one great subject, that she imagines that every one must at once enter into her feelings. Accordingly she does not even mention the name of Jesus, but asks whether the gardener has borne ‘Him’ away. She seeks but to learn where He is, that (for no recollection of woman’s weakness presents itself to hinder the thought) she may take Him to another tomb. As she speaks, her faith and love are drawn forth in increasing measure, and the moment is at hand when they shall be satisfied.

Verse 16

John 20:16. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. That single word completes her present training. Nor is this wonderful. She is calmer now: the intervening conversation has produced this effect. Then again we cannot doubt that there would be more of the old tenderness of Jesus in the pronunciation of her name than in the words as yet spoken to her. The very mark, indeed, of the relation between Jesus and His people, when that relation is conceived of in its most tender form, is that ‘He calleth His own sheep by name’ (chap. John 10:3). We are not to imagine that it is only the sound of the voice that is now recognised by Mary, by the name, by the tone in which the name is uttered, a whole flood of recollections is brought up. All the deepest and most solemn impressions that had been produced upon her by her former intercourse with Jesus are re-awakened in power. She recalls not merely what was most human but what was most Divine in Him. Yet it would seem, from the epithet that she immediately applies to our Lord, that she thinks of Him as standing to her in some at least of the old relations. It is not strange that it should be so: any experience that she had had of resurrections through the power of Christ had been of resurrections to the former conditions of life. But now she is prepared for more, and therefore she shall be taught to know Jesus fully.

She turneth herself, and saith unto Him in Hebrew, Rabboni, which is to say, Teacher. The title thus used by Mary is probably the provincial form Rabban or Rabbi, and it is found in the New Testament only here, and in the Gospel of Mark (chap. Mark 10:51), noted, as is well known, for its use of expressions from the common tongue. It means properly ‘My Master,’ and is thus expressive of love and devotedness as well as of respect and reverence. As Mary uttered the word, she must have endeavoured to fall down at the feet of her Lord, embracing them (comp. Matthew 28:9).

Verse 17

John 20:17. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God. Many different interpretations have been given of these words, some coarse, others either requiring the introduction into the text of thoughts that are not there, or too far-fetched and mystical.

The meaning has been made more difficult by a want of sufficient attention to the force of the words ‘Touch me not;’ for these words do not express the touch of a moment only, but a touch that continues for a time. They are equivalent to ‘Keep not thy touch upon me,’ ‘Handle me not,’ ‘Cling not to me.’ Mary would have held her Lord fast with the grasp of earthly friendship and love. She needed to be taught that the season for such bodily touching of the Word of Life was past. But, as it passed, the disciples were not to be left desolate: the season for another touching deeper, because spiritual began. Jesus would return to His Father, and would send forth His Spirit to dwell with His disciples. Then they should see Him, hear Him, handle Him, touch Him, in the only way in which He can now be seen and heard and handled and touched. In a true and living faith they shall embrace Him with a touch never more to be withdrawn or interrupted. Hence the important word ‘brethren.’ Those to whom the message is sent are more than disciples; they are ‘brethren’ of their Lord. His Father is their Father, and His God their God. They are entering upon a state of spiritual fellowship with the Father similar to His own; and that fellowship is to be the distinguishing characteristic of their new condition. Thus the message sent by Mary to the ‘brethren’ of the Lord is not a mere message that He has risen from the grave. The thought of His resurrection is rather embraced only as a part of a new and permanent state of things which has come in. Even here, however, it is important to observe that the distinction between our Lord and His disciples is still carefully preserved. Jesus does not say ‘Our Father,’ but ‘My Father and your Father;’ so that the significance of ‘brethren’ lies in this, that the word is used in the very verse which proclaims so clearly the difference between Him and them. The words ‘the Father,’ in the first part of the Lord’s address to Mary, ought not to pass unnoticed. The reader may compare what has been said on chap. John 8:27. He will then see that the expression ‘the Father’ here combines in one thought all that is implied in the four designations that follow ‘My Father,’ ‘Your Father,’ ‘My God,’ ‘Your God.’ ‘I ascend’ is not to be understood (as some have maintained) of an immediate ascension, inconsistent alike with the forty days of Acts 1:3 and with the subsequent narratives of this very Gospel. Yet neither are we to understand it as if it meant ‘I will ascend’ at some future day. The use of the present is to be explained by the consideration that the Resurrection of our Lord was really the beginning of His Ascension. At that point earth ceased to be the Saviour’s home as it had been; and He Himself was no longer in it what He had been. Thus it might be said by Him, ‘I ascend.’ ‘My ascent is begun, and shall be soon completed: then shall I enter into My glory, and the Spirit shall be bestowed in all His fulness.’

The contrast between the relation in which Jesus places Himself to Mary in this verse, and to Thomas in John 20:27 (comp. Luke 24:39), has often been dwelt upon as if it afforded evidence of the untrustworthy nature of the whole narrative before us. Yet a moment’s consideration will satisfy any one that the difference in our Lord’s object on these two occasions necessarily involved a difference in His treatment of those whom He would lead to a full knowledge of Himself. Thomas has to be convinced that He who stands before him is indeed his Lord and Master risen from the grave. Mary believes that Jesus is risen, but needs further intimation as to His present state. To have treated the latter in the same manner as the former would have been to make Mary stop short of the very point to which Jesus would conduct her. To have treated the former as the latter would have been to unfold to Thomas the mystery of the resurrection state of Jesus, while he had not yet accepted the fact that the resurrection had taken place.

Verse 18

John 20:18. Mary Magdalene cometh, bringing word to the disciples, I have seen the Lord, and that he said these things unto her. Mary has now recognized her Lord. We have seen her longing, with weeping eyes and breaking heart, for the Friend whom she had loved on earth. She was prepared for more, and more was given. Her Master was revealed to her, not as the human Friend alone, but in all that awakened at the same time her reverence and awe, in all that reminded her of the Divine in Him. Thus she was ready for another step, and she was led that step forward. She saw before her the risen and glorified Lord; and she could look forward to the future, inviting at the same time the disciples to join her in the prospect, as a future in which He who is for ever with the Father should be for ever, by His Spirit, with her and them, weeping changed into joy, and defeat into victory). With a message of this kind she goes to the disciples, and they are prepared for what is now to follow.

The relation between the appearance of Jesus to Mary and that to the women spoken of in Matthew 28:9, can hardly be discussed here. The question belongs to the First Gospel, involving, as it does, considerations connected with the general structure of that Gospel upon which we are not able here to enter. It may be enough to say that we cannot regard the two appearances as identical: they differ in almost every circumstance.

Verse 19

John 20:19. When therefore it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors had been shut where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst; and he saith unto them, Peace be unto you. The message sent by the Lord to His disciples through Mary Magdalene was, ‘I ascend unto the Father.’ In other words, it was an intimation to them that that glorification had begun whose distinguishing feature would be the bestowal of the Spirit upon the members of Christ’s body. In this thought lies the connection between the last narrative and that now before us, as well as the special point of view from which the Evangelist desires us to look at the manifestation of the Risen One which he is about to relate. In this also we see the difference of aim between John and Luke, in what is universally allowed to be the record of the same scene (Luke 24:36-43). Luke would prove to us the reality of the Resurrection body, and would show that Jesus is substantially the same as He had been: John would show us that, while He is substantially the same, yet it is Jesus filled with the Spirit whom we behold. Hence the structure of John’s narrative, in which it will be observed that the second ‘Peace be unto you’ (John 20:21) takes up again the same expression in John 20:19 (comp. on chap. John 13:3), and that John 20:20 is in a certain sense parenthetical. This aim of our Evangelist also explains the stress which is laid upon the fact that this manifestation of Jesus took place ‘when the doors had been shut.’ That we are to see something miraculous in this is clear, alike from the repetition of the statement below (John 20:26), and from the whole tone and bearing of the narrative. Any idea, therefore, of the withdrawal of the bolts of the doors must be at once dismissed. It is impossible to do justice to the passage unless we admit that, at a moment when the doors were shut, and when no one could enter through them in the ordinary way, Jesus suddenly stood in the midst of the disciples. But this is all that we have any right to say. The travesty of the whole scene presented by those who have ridiculed the idea that a body with ‘flesh and bones’ (Luke 24:39) should penetrate through the substance of the wood, finds no countenance in the words with which we have to deal. Such a thought is not present to the mind of John. He dwells himself, and he would have us dwell, upon the simple circumstance that, at an instant when an ordinary human body could not have entered the apartment because the doors were shut, the glorified Jesus ‘came and stood in the midst.’ Thus looked at, the passage sets before us what is no doubt miraculous, what is at variance with our present knowledge of the properties of a material frame, but at the same time nothing unworthy of the solemnity of the hour. As at Emmaus Jesus suddenly disappeared from those whose eyes were opened and who knew Him, so here He appears with equal suddenness to those who are ready to recognise Him. How He thus appeared through the physical obstacles presented by a room closed on every side it is not possible for us to say. The properties of matter spiritualised and glorified are entirely unknown to us from any experience of our own, nor is light thrown upon them here further than this, that Jesus, in His glorified humanity, had the power of being present when He pleased, without reference to the ordinary laws which control the movements of men. In this absolute subjection of the body to the spirit, John sees proof and illustration of the fact that in the person of Jesus dualism has disappeared, and that the perfect unity of body and spirit has been reached. The old struggle between the material and the spiritual, between the limited and the unlimited, has been brought to an end: the spiritual and the unlimited have absolute control. As ‘the first Adam became a living soul,’ so ‘the second Adam became a life-giving Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 15:45), and such life of the Spirit the disciples shall immediately receive. The salutation of the Saviour when He manifested Himself was ‘Peace be unto you;’ and the meaning and force of the salutation are deepened by the contrast with the ‘fear of the Jews’ spoken of immediately before. As in chap. John 14:27 (see commentary), this is the salutation of a departing Master, not of a dying Father. Amidst the troubles of the world upon which the disciples are about to enter, and when there is no help from man, Jesus is at hand to speak peace: ‘In the world they have tribulation,’ but in Him ‘peace’ (chap. John 16:33). It will be observed that the Evangelist seems carefully to distinguish between ‘the disciples’ (John 20:18-19) and ‘the Twelve’ (John 20:24). Hence we should naturally conclude that this manifestation of the Risen Lord was not limited to the apostles; and Luke 24:33 shows that this conclusion is correct.

Verses 19-23

Mary Magdalene has carried to the disciples the tidings with which she was charged. We have now the first appearance to them of the Risen Lord.

Verse 20

John 20:20. And when he had said this, he showed unto them both his hands and his side. If the words of Luke 24:40 are genuine, the feet were also shown; but the genuineness of that passage is too doubtful to permit us to argue from it with confidence. In whatever respects the glorified body of Jesus differed from what it had been before His death, there was at least enough of resemblance to make identification not only possible but the necessary result of careful observation; and it is worthy of notice that the very Evangelist who has given us the most striking conception of the change which it had undergone, is the one by whom the identification is also most clearly established. We shall err, however, if we think that the only object which Jesus had in view in showing His hands and His side was identification. He would also connect His present glorification with His past sufferings. Even now, amidst His glory, His people must not forget that His path to it had been the Cross. He is the Lamb that was ‘slain’ (comp. Revelation 5:6; Revelation 5:12).

The disciples therefore rejoiced when they saw the Lord. These words describe the effect of the manifestation upon the disciples (comp. chap. John 16:22). They who thus rejoice when they see Him are prepared for further manifestations of His grace.

Verse 21

John 20:21. Jesus therefore said to them again, Peace be unto you. The words are exactly the same as before (John 20:19), but they must have gone home with a deeper power to the hearts of the disciples, who now understood more fully the Person from whom they came. They prepare the way for the great commission to be given, a commission which, amidst all the trials it would bring with it from the world, the disciples are to execute in peace.

Even as the Father hath sent me, I also send you. The words ‘even as’ bring out the close correspondence between the mission of Jesus Himself and that upon which He sends His disciples. In both cases it was a mission of self-denying love to men; in both one of labour, suffering, and death, followed by glory; in both we have the thought of willing service imposed by an authority that is supreme. We have already met with words expressing a very similar thought in our Lord’s intercessory prayer: ‘Even as Thou didst send Me into the world, I also sent them into the world’ (chap. John 17:18). But there is one important point of difference, which an English translation fails to exhibit. In chap. 17 the Greek word for ‘sent’ is the same in both members of the sentence; in the verse before us it is otherwise. Here the former clause (‘Even as the Father hath sent Me’) contains the word of chap. John 17:18 ( apostello), but in the latter clause (‘I also send you’) the verb is different ( pempo) . The distinction in meaning seems to be that the second word expresses mission, the first more properly commission. When the first is used, our thoughts turn to a special embassy, and special instructions which the ambassador receives; the second brings into view rather the authority of the sender and the obedience of the sent. Both words, therefore, may be used either of our Lord or of His disciples. Thus in more than twenty verses of this Gospel Jesus applies the second word to Himself (see especially chap. John 4:34, ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me’); whilst in such passages as chap. John 6:29, John 17:3 (John 17:8; John 17:18; John 17:21; John 17:23; John 17:25), we find instead the more expressive word. In chap. John 5:36-37, and again in chap. John 7:28-29, the two are brought together, as they are here; and the appropriateness of each word in its place may readily be seen. In chaps, John 5:37 and John 7:28 our thought must rest chiefly on the Sender; but in chaps, John 5:36 and John 7:29 on the commission which the Father has given to His Son. On the other hand, the word apostello is used by Jesus in regard to His disciples in chap. John 4:38 (‘I sent you to reap’) as well as in chap. John 17:18; and is indeed the word from which the distinctive name of the Twelve, ‘apostles,’ is derived. Various thoughts are suggested here by the marked and sudden transition from one word to the other. It may be said with truth that, as chap. John 17:18 has its primary application to apostles, the word which designates their special office was naturally chosen there; here, on the contrary (see note on John 20:19), the disciples in general are addressed, the disciples who are the representatives of the whole Church of Christ. Again, the word by which Jesus here expresses the mission of His disciples (pempo), is one which brings into relief their separation from His bodily presence: formerly they were continually at His side, but now they must be dismissed for their labour throughout the world (Matthew 28:19). One other thought it is impossible to overlook. There is peculiar dignity in the avoidance on the part of the Risen Lord of that form of speech which would seem to identify two relations which (however closely they may sometimes be associated) are essentially distinct. No human disciples can really bear the commission of Jesus as Jesus bears that which He has received from the Father (comp. note on John 20:17). By design, therefore, the Lord here, reserving for Himself the higher word, speaks of the disciples as His envoys to the world. The commission which they hold from Him receives separate mention in a later verse (John 20:23).

Verse 22

John 20:22. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive the Holy Spirit. Not only did the Risen Lord thus send His disciples on their mission to the world, He gave them also the preparation which should enable them to fulfill their trust. The literal and correct rendering of the original Greek is not ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ but ‘Receive Holy Spirit;’ the difference being, as was pointed out on chap. John 7:39, that by the latter expression we are to understand not the personal Holy Ghost, but His power or influence over the hearts of men. It was in the power of Holy Spirit that Jesus had entered upon His own ministry (Luke 4:1, where the same expression is used as here); with the like preparation shall His Church enter upon the work to which she is called. The gift now bestowed is, therefore, not simply symbolical but real: at that moment the Spirit was given. All this is in perfect harmony with the words of chap. John 7:39, because at this moment the glorification of Jesus has begun (see note on John 20:17). The gift, too, was imparted not to apostles only, but to all the disciples present; it is a gift not for the ministry alone, but for the whole Church of Christ. If so, the interesting question immediately arises, What is the relation of the gift spoken of here to that bestowed at Pentecost? The answer would seem to be that here the gift relates to the inner life of the disciples, there to the more outward equipment for their work; here to the enlightenment and quickening of their own souls, there to preparation for producing an effect on others. Perhaps we may seek an illustration (to be applied, as always, with reserve) from the life of the Saviour Himself. As His public ministry began when the Holy Spirit descended on Him at His baptism, so did His apostles receive their full commission and power on the day of Pentecost. But as before His baptism the Holy Spirit had rested on Him continually, so now, before Pentecost, the same holy influence is bestowed on His disciples, preparing them for the day of final consecration to their work. It has, indeed, often been maintained that we have before us a promise and not a present gift. But such cannot be the meaning of the language which is here used. Even were it granted that the word ‘Receive’ might be understood as an assurance of a future gift, the action which accompanies the word must imply much more than this. ‘He breathed on them:’ this surely was the outward symbol of an actual impartation of His breathing into them (see Genesis 2:7, where the same word is used) the power and influence of which He spoke. And yet it is true that this gift was both present (actual) and also future (a promise). As present, it brought with it the quickening of spiritual life; as future, it included in itself all that Pentecost gave. The former thought is important in relation to the development of the disciples: the latter in its connection with John 20:23, and especially in its presentation of the Redeemer as Himself the Giver of the Holy Spirit (chap. John 16:26).

Verse 23

John 20:23. If ye shall have remitted the sins of any, they have been remitted unto them; if ye retain the sins of any, they have been retained. We regard two points as established from what has been already said. 1 . The words of this verse are not addressed to apostles alone. 2 . Though conjoined with a present impartation of the Holy Spirit, they belong really to the days when the disciples shall have fully entered on their work as representatives of their Lord and His witnesses in the world. This verse and the last stand in the closest possible connection: only when the Holy Spirit has been received can such a commission as this be executed. Without unduly entering on controverted ground, let us seek to collect the meaning which the words (which we have thought it desirable to render with unusual closeness) must necessarily bear. It is clear that two remissions of sin are spoken of, two which agree in one. Where Christ’s servants ‘have remitted the sins of any,’ these sins ‘have been remitted unto them,’ remitted absolutely, i.e. remitted by God, for ‘who can forgive sins but God only?’ (Mark 2:7). But as we know that the Divine forgiveness is suspended on certain conditions, penitence and faith, it follows that the remission granted by Christ’s disciples must (since it agrees with the Divine remission) be suspended on the same conditions. Either, therefore, the disciples must possess unfailing insight into man’s heart (such as in certain cases was granted to an apostle, see Acts 5:3), or the remission which they proclaim must be conditionally proclaimed. No one can maintain the former alternative. It follows, then, that what our Lord here commits to His disciples, to His Church, is the right authoritatively to declare, in His name, that there is forgiveness for man’s sin, and on what conditions the sin will be forgiven. Nor does there seem to be ground for thinking that we have here a special application by one individual, whether minister or not, to another of the remission (or retention) of sin spoken of. The use of ‘any’ in the plural number appears to be inconsistent with such a view. It is not a direct address by one person to another that is thought of, ‘I declare that thy sins are thus authoritatively remitted or retained.’ It is a proclamation from one collective body to another, from the Church to the world. The mission of the Church is to announce to the world her own existence in her Lord, as a company of forgiven men, and to invite the world to join her. Let the world comply with the invitation, it shall enjoy forgiveness in the company of the forgiven: let it refuse the invitation, it can only have its sins retained in the company of those who have been ‘judged already’ (comp. chap. John 3:18). Here, as in all else, the Church only witnesses to what her Lord does. But as it is by her life, even more than by words, that she witnesses, so it is by accepting or rejecting her life that her witness is accepted or rejected; and thus it is that by communion with her the blessing is enjoyed, that by separation from her it is forfeited. It ought particularly to be noticed that of the two remissions or retentions of sin spoken of in the words before us, the Divine act, although the last to be mentioned, is the first in thought ‘have been remitted,’ ‘have been retained.’

Verse 24

John 20:24. But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. On the object of thus interpreting the name Thomas, see on chap. John 11:16. It is impossible to think that the Evangelist translates the word for the mere purpose of mentioning that Thomas had a Greek as well as an Aramaic name. The man appears in the name.

Verses 24-29

We have here a second appearance of Jesus to the disciples, distinguished from that coming immediately before, inasmuch as it seems especially intended to set forth the blessedness of those who believe without seeing. John 20:29 evidently forms the climax of the whole, and presents to us the point of view from which we are to look at this narrative in contrast with the preceding one. How fitting was it that thus, at the moment when the Gospel message was about to be carried into all lands, and when faith in an unseen Saviour was the only faith that could be preached, a special blessing should be pronounced on those who should not see but yet should believe! When we regard the paragraph now before us in this light, a remarkable correspondence presents itself between the three appearances of the Risen Saviour in this chapter and the three parts into which the intercessory prayer of chap. 17 divides itself. The first appearance corresponds to the first part of the prayer, for in each we see Jesus Himself. The second corresponds to the second part, for in each we see tests in relation to His immediate disciples. The third again corresponds to the third part, for in each we see Jesus in relation to all who should yet believe in Him.

Verse 25

John 20:25. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. Thomas received information from his fellow-apostles of the first manifestation of Himself by Jesus; but he is not satisfied.

But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe. In other words, he will not believe unless he sees. Yet it hardly seems as if the Resurrection of Jesus were the sole object of his incredulity. That is no doubt primarily in view; but we have already seen that the word ‘believe’ must be understood in a fuller and deeper sense at John 20:8, and the same remark applies to its use in John 20:29. It includes therefore belief in Jesus as the glorified Lord, as the Redeemer who has completely accomplished the purpose of His mission, and in whom the highest hopes of Israel are fulfilled. To Thomas the death upon the cross had appeared to crush these hopes for ever. Could he be convinced of the Resurrection they would revive; and he would believe not merely in that miracle as an isolated fact, but in the whole redeeming work of which it was the culmination and the seal. Thus also we are not to imagine that he is content to waver between conviction and doubt. His old love for his Lord that love which seems to have burned in the breast of no apostle more warmly than in his still continues. Iris mood has been one of disappointment and sorrow; and the sorrow is deepened in exact proportion to the height of his previous expectations, and to what he knows will be the joyful result if he be able to believe the tidings of the Resurrection. The harsh impression generally made by these words of Thomas is probably in no small measure due to the unfortunate translation ‘thrust,’ which suggests the thought of coarseness and recklessness of speech. But there is no such meaning in the original. The word is indeed the same as that in the previous clause which the translators of the Authorised Version themselves render by ‘put.’ What Thomas desires is certainly more than had been granted to the others. Jesus ‘showed unto them both His hands and His side’ (John 20:20); but Thomas would touch them. Had he been present at the first manifestation, he would probably have been satisfied with the evidence that was enough for his fellow-apostles. At all events he is now ready to believe, if only what seems to him sufficient evidence is given; and his desire is granted.

Verse 26

John 20:26. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them. The place of assembly was without doubt the same as before; and that the apostles were assembled on the Sunday appears to indicate that they already regarded the host day of the week as a day which the Risen Lord would peculiarly bless.

Jesus cometh when the doors had been shat, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace he unto you. All is the same as at John 20:19.

Verse 27

John 20:27. Then saith he to Thomas, Beach hither thy finger, and see my hands; and reach thy hand and put it into my side, and be not unbelieving but believing. Jesus at once speaks without needing to be told of the doubts of Thomas. At the same time he recognises the naturalness of that element of weakness which marked the faith of His disciple, and He will so meet it that it may give place to strength. As before, under the word ‘believing’ we must understand not belief in the Resurrection only, but a full faith in Jesus Himself as the Saviour who has triumphed over all His foes, and has completely accomplished the purposes of His love.

Verse 28

John 20:28. Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. He passes at once from the depths of his despondency and hesitation to the most exalted faith. The words are certainly addressed to Jesus; and it is unnecessary to combat the position that they are only an expression of the apostle’s thankfulness to God for what he has seen. They are a triumphant confession of his faith, not simply in the Resurrection, but in Him whom he sees before him in all the Divinity both of His Person and of His work. Yet we are not to imagine that only now for the first time did such thoughts enter his mind. They had been long vaguely entertained, long feebly cherished. Nor can we doubt that they had been gaining strength, when they were suddenly dashed by that death upon the cross with which it seemed impossible to reconcile them. Then came the tidings of the Resurrection, even in themselves most startling, but to Thomas (we may well suppose) more startling than to any of the other apostles. Were they true? He saw in an instant how incalculable would be the consequences. It was this very perception of the greatness of the tidings that led him to reject them. His state of mind had been the same as in chap. John 11:16, where, when Jesus hinted at giving life, he went rather to the opposite extreme, and thought of a death that would involve not only Lazarus but them all. Thus also now. He hears that Jesus is risen, and his first impulse is to say, ‘It cannot be: thick darkness cannot pass at once into such glorious light; the despair which is justified by what has happened cannot at once be transformed into inextinguishable confidence and hope.’ This depth of feeling prepared him for the completeness of the revulsion that now took place. For a week he had been able to meditate on all that he had both seen and heard. We cannot doubt that during that time the sayings of his Lord about His resurrection, as well as His death, would all return to his memory. He would see that what was said to have happened had been foretold; after all it was not to be rejected as impossible. He would think with himself what kind or amount of proof could convince him that the fact was true; and he would be unable to fall upon any harder proof than that which his incredulity had suggested in the moment of its first strength. But, if that proof can be given, then how powerfully would be feel the injustice which by his doubting he had done his Master! With what force would intimations, once dark but now bright in the light of the supposed Resurrection, come home to him! His very highest expectations would seem to him to have been warranted, and more than warranted, by the facts. We need not wonder that, having passed through a week so rich in training power, Thomas, when he did behold the Risen Lord, should have leaped at once from his former unbelief to faith in its highest stage, or that he should have exclaimed to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God.’ It may even be doubted if, before this confession was made, he found it necessary to put his finger into the print of the nails or his hand into the wounded side. It was enough to ‘see’ (John 20:29).

One other remark may be made. Those who study the structure of the Fourth Gospel will hardly fail to trace in the incident thus placed at the close of its narrative the tendency of the Evangelist to return upon his own early steps. He had begun with ‘the Word’ who ‘was God;’ he closes with this highest truth accepted and ratified by those to whom the revelation was given. The last witness borne by one of them in the body of the Gospel narrative is, ‘My Lord and my God!

Verse 29

John 20:29. Jesus saith unto him, Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; happy are they that have not seen and yet have believed. The words are intended for the Church now about to be called out of the world, for the Church of all ages, which by the very necessity of the case must believe without seeing. What then is the contrast which Jesus has in view? Can it be a contrast between faith which wishes to see the miraculous fact in order to accept it, and faith which accepts the fact on the ground of simple testimony? Such an explanation limits unduly the meaning of the word ‘believe.’ It substitutes one kind of seeing for another (for what does testimony do but place us in the position of the original witnesses?); and, by failing to bring us into direct contact with the Person of Jesus, it lowers the state of mind to which the blessedness of the Gospel is attached. The contrast is of a deeper kind, between a faith resting entirely upon outward evidence of Divine claims, and a faith rising higher and resting upon that intuitive perception of the Divine in Jesus which is afforded by the consideration of what He is in Himself as the Crucified and Risen Lord. In the ages of the Church which were to follow the ‘going away’ of Jesus, it was needful that faith should rest first upon testimony; but it was not to pause there. It was to rest upon the spiritual apprehension of that to which testimony is borne, of that which the Lord is in Himself as the embodiment of the Divine, and the unchanging spring of the heavenly power and grace which are manifested in His people. Thus to us, who are separated by many centuries from the time when the Lord was personally present in the world, is the blessed assurance given that, though we have not seen Him, we may love Him; and that, though now we see Him not, we may rejoice in Him with a joy unspeakable and glorified (1 Peter 1:8). We need not envy Thomas or his fellow - apostles. They were blessed in their faith; we may be even more blessed in ours. The more we penetrate through the outward to the inward, through the flesh to the spirit, through communion with the earthly to communion with the heavenly Lord, the more do we learn to know the fulness that is in Him, in whom ‘dwelled all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,’ and in whom we are ‘complete’ (Colossians 2:9-10).

Verses 30-31

John 20:30-31. Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this hook: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name. Almost every word of this statement is of the utmost importance. ‘Many other signs did Jesus:’ hence it is only a selection that has been given in the book. The writer knows much more of a similar character and fitted to make a similar impression, but he has not deemed it necessary to tell it. What he has related are ‘signs,’ not simply miracles of Divine power, but manifestations (now in deed, and now in word) of an inner meaning, illustrating the Divine in Him by whom the deeds are performed or the words spoken. ‘In the presence of His disciples:’ why not in the presence of the world? Had they not been done in public as well as in private, before enemies as well as friends? They had: but it is not upon them as signs which ought to have convinced the unbelieving that the Evangelist has chiefly dwelt. As he recalled them, he once more beheld Jesus in the midst of the little band of His disciples, making manifest His glory to them alone; while they apprehended that glory, forgetful of everything but itself, and the feelings of admiration, wonder, delight, and love which it awakened in their hearts. They thought not of the world at the time; they saw only that all was done for them. So now in the vividness of John’s recollection every ‘sign’ appears exactly as at the moment when it was wrought, full of meaning to disciples; to others, nay, it is not necessary to mention them at all (comp. chap. John 17:9; 1 John 5:16). ‘But these are written:’ that is, these ‘signs’ are written. The Gospel then is a record of ‘signs,’ and whatever else it contains must be regarded as subordinate to them. ‘That ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God:’ words by which we are not to understand that the signs have been written in order that unbelieving readers may be led to acknowledge the claims of Jesus. The word ‘believe’ is not used in the sense of being brought to faith, as if those addressed had not had faith before. They are already believers, disciples, friends. What has been aimed at is not the first formation but the deepening of faith within them (such as that of which we read in chap. John 2:11, where we are told that His disciples ‘believed’ in Him), by which they are led into a truer knowledge of their Lord, as well as into a more intimate communion with Him and, in Him, with the Father. To make his readers rest in faith, so that faith shall not be a mere conclusion of the intellect, but the element and spirit of their lives, is what the writer has proposed to himself. ‘And that, believing, ye may have life:’ not, that, being brought to faith through the record which he gives, they may obtain life in Jesus; but that, as already believing , in Him as the branch is in the vine, they may in Him enjoy that spiritual and eternal life which He possesses, and which He makes ever more and more largely the portion of His people, as their faith in Him deepens, and their fellowship with Him increases. Finally, ‘in His name:’ not merely naming His name or confessing Him before men, but in His Name, in Himself as revealed, made known as what He is, the revelation of the Father, and possessed of all the glorious qualities belonging to the Son.

Such is the meaning of these words when they are looked at in the light of those rules of interpretation which are supplied by the Gospel; and, with this meaning, they set before us in the most definite manner the writer’s own conception of the task which he had undertaken. They refer obviously, too, to the Gospel as a whole, and not to any single section. At this point, then, the narrative of the Fourth Gospel closes, having exhibited to us that ‘life’ which was in the Word (chap. John 1:4), and having so set that Word before us that believers, dwelling upon His manifested glory, may be brought to a deeper knowledge of what He is, and to more and fuller life in Him.

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on John 20". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". 1879-90.