Sunday, April 15, 2012

The First Sunday after Easter; Exegesis and Sermon

John 20:19-30 (ESV)

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."

 Jesus and Thomas

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." 28Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

The Purpose of This Book

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Historical and literary context

The events recounted in this pericope, commonly used on the first Sunday after Easter,1 occurred the evening immediately following Christ's resurrection.2 This is St. John's account of these events; a parallel account of the first part of this pericope appears in St. Luke's gospel.3 In St. John's Gospel, this account follows immediately upon the Resurrection narrative;4 St. Luke interposes the account of Jesus' appearing to and accompanying two of the disciples to Emmaus.5

These events occurred in a time when the disciples were in great fear. Not only one door but all the doors to the place where the disciples met were locked “for fear of the Jews.”6 This fear of the Jewish leaders was entirely justified, as can be seen from St. Luke's various accounts of Jewish persecution of the Church for considerable time after the Crucifixion and Resurrection7 and, from a secular source, Suetonius' reference to Jewish riots because of “Chrestus” in Rome, sufficient that Claudius Caesar expelled the Jews, or at least their leaders, from the city.8

The second major part of the pericope9 occurred a week later, when Thomas, who had not been present on the previous occasion, was skeptical of the Resurrection and insisted on touching Jesus' wounds to see that this was indeed Jesus. The final verse of the pericope appears to be the original end of St. John's gospel, as it sets forth that Jesus did other things not enumerated in the book and then states St. John's purpose in writing the book. There is every indication that the 21st chapter which follows was added thereafter.10

Text issues

Most of the few differences in the available Greek texts are extremely minor (e.g., “where the disciples were” vs. “where the disciples were gathered,”11) and hence do not require discussion. There are three worth mentioning. The less significant is when, in verse 22, most translations I have consulted say that Jesus breathed “on them.”12 The Vulgate, on the other hand does not include “on them,” though the word St. Jerome uses, insufflare, is ambiguous—it could mean to breathe into, but also to draw a breath. Leon Morris cautions that “on them” is not a part of any very early text except Tatian's Diatessaron D syr, and says that these words “should not be read.”13

The relevant Greek verb in that verse is enefushsen, a past active indicative of emfusaw, meaning “to breathe on”, with the further connotation of transmitting the Spirit, according to Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich.14 Other examples of the verb being used to mean to transmit life and the Spirit to humans can be found in the Septuagint.15 Given that this verb is not used otherwise in Scripture, whatever ambiguity may exist in Latin, that ambiguity does not exist in the Greek. He breathed upon someone with the purpose of transmitting the Spirit, and that someone is those who were present there.

There is no conflict between this transmission of the Spirit and the events at Pentecost or in any of the other accounts in Acts.16 Morris points out correctly that there are differing gifts of the Holy Spirit, and they need not all have been conferred simultaneously.17

A fine grammatical point that raises a broader theological argument is in verse 23. The ESV has the verse: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."18 The texts that were used in older translations say, for forgiven, afientai19—a present passive translating “they are forgiven.” However, the UBS text has afewntai20—a perfect passive translating “they have been forgiven.” The dogmatic implication is this. If the forgiveness is delivered in the present, then the administration of the keys is simultaneous with the minister's pronouncement of absolution, the Lutheran and Roman view.21 Compare the use of afientai in Jesus' forgiveness of the man with the palsy in Matthew, where there is no question that the forgiveness is delivered at that moment.22

On the other hand, if the perfect passive indicative is the correct text, there is at least some argument for the Reformed view that God does not communicate to His Church the power to bind and loose sins. Rather, there is simply an announcement of the grace already given, apprehended without means through the indwelling Spirit, who needs no vehicle.23 To that, the Lutheran response is that the use of the perfect means no such thing, but only that the forgiveness is done; the matter is ended before God.24

The perfect makes more sense textually, in terms of parallel structure. In the second half of the verse, on the retention of sins, the verb kekrathntai is in the perfect. Hence, it is probably, but not certainly, the better reading. Lenski comments that there is no inconsistency if forgiveness and retention are in different tenses grammatically. “They have been held, from the moment of their commission onward. Jesus has already held them, the disciples join Jesus in this, add their verdict to his, and so for all time to come (this is the force of the intensive perfect), they continue to be held.”25

The perfect is by no means a settled question; texts with the present passive indicative go back to Chrysostom and Eusebius, and if Eusebius is correct, to Origen, well before the manuscripts on the basis of which the perfect passive has been used in more recent Greek texts.26 Certainly there is not enough in this change in the text from that which was received before to cause a Lutheran pastor, in preaching this text, to veer away from established Lutheran dogma.

Jesus' statement that if the disciples forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven; if they retain them, they have been retained27 is similar to a promise made by Jesus to Peter recounted by Matthew that “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”28 That promise is then repeated to all the disciples a little later in Matthew.29

The verbs used in Matthew are different ones, “bind” and “loose” (dew and luw), but it can hardly be doubted that what is meant there is different from what is meant in John by “retain” and “forgive” (kratew and afiemi). In both cases one means to release and the other means its opposite.30 The use in Matthew of the future passive to say that these things shall be bound or retained in heaven (estai dedemena en ouranw … estai lelumena en ouranw), suggests that the “high” view of ministry, that the present pericope tells of an actual authorization of the disciples to be Christ's agents of forgiveness or retention of sins and not merely the announcers of something already done, is correct.31

It may be significant that when Thomas says, “My Lord and my God,” he is not addressing Jesus. He is stating a fact. This is his Lord and his God. That is evident from the Greek. He does not use the vocative, the form of address, but the nominative. He is naming who is standing before him. Theodor Zahn says that Thomas is saying, “You are my Lord and my God.”32

There are no major textual issues in the rest of the passage. There is a suggestion that the plural pronoun as to whose sins are forgiven means that this excludes individual confession and absolution..33 That conclusion is unwarranted. The plural includes the singular. There is nothing in this language to exclude the singular and to mandate that it be only in the case of the collective body.

Literary structure

While the text is in three parts, the pericope is a whole. Verse 24 shows that the Thomas account is a completion of the story already begun. He “was not with them when Jesus came.” (ouk hn met autwn ote hlqen IhsouV).34 The repetition of the word hlqen in this verse, which was also used in the first verse of the account,35 is a parallel suggesting that this is part of the story already begun and should be read together with it. The self-revelation of Christ to His disciples is not complete until He has shown Himself to all of them.

Thomas' incredulousness stands out in this account because the problems of other disciples in recognizing that Jesus had returned are not mentioned. In this account, we hear only that they said upon seeing, “It is the Lord.”36 The structure of this account does not include what Luke tells us of the other disciples' difficulties—that when He walked with two of them and ate with them at Emmaus, they did not even recognize Him until they received the bread,37 and that when He first appeared in the locked upper room, they thought He was a ghost until, as John does tell us, He showed them His hands and feet, and as John does not tell us, He took a piece of fish and ate it to show that He was not a ghost.38

The impact of John's not including the incredulousness of the other disciples makes Thomas's stand out, and can only be assumed to be intentional—John is making a point about skepticism, and it becomes more vivid by being separated out and emphasized. Jesus' words to Thomas mirror exactly what Thomas has said to the other disciples. By doing so, Jesus, gently but firmly, is making Thomas recognize his error, which He emphasizes again by telling him that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”39

The conclusion is a part of this story in that we, too, who have not seen, are blessed because we believe. Reading or hearing the words of not only this story but the entire book, we believe and we through that belief have eternal life.40

Significance of the pericope for today's Church

The Church receives its Savior as the risen, glorified Lord. He is no longer bound by the grave or by any other physical barriers. The grave could not hold him, nor could locked doors keep Him out. He will come to His Church no matter how it is persecuted or driven into hiding. But His return is only made real to us when we believe. We, in hearing the Word, as it has been written down for us, come to believe and are blessed. It is when we believe that we can say, and mean it, “My Lord and my God.” That blessing is eternal life.

Thomas' exclamation is the one time in the Gospels when someone is directly quoted saying that Jesus is God. In the gospel's original form, it is at the end of the last narrative of the book which began with the first naming of Christ as God in the New Testament: “and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”41 Ultimately this is the testimony of John—that Jesus is the Word made flesh, our Lord and our God.

The conclusion is important to our understanding of why the Scriptures exist and their power to convert. They are not simply a history. They are capable of leading us to belief.42 This is not, as some would have it, only as the Gospel is preached by an ordained minister, but as every Christian, reading John's account and the other Scriptures, receives the Gospel.43 With these Scriptures, we can believe without putting our fingers or hands into Christ's hands and side. We have believed without seeing, and we are blessed.


Bible versions used


Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossways Bibles, 2001) (primary text used)

Tyndale's New Testament, tr. William Tyndale (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

New International Version, New King James Version, King James Version, all available, accessed February 20-21, 2010.


Luther-Bibel 1534, vol. II, tr. Martin Luther (Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1534), facsimile edition (Cologne: Taschen-Verlag, 2003).


Latin Vulgate, tr. St. Jerome, available, accessed February 20-21, 2010.


Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini and Bruce M. Metzger, ed., The Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005).

Stephanus 1550, Westcott-Hort 1883 and Scrivener 1890 versions, all available, accessed February 20-21, 2010.


Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., ed. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). (The second edition is used in intentional preference to the third because of philosophical difference with the nature of the revisions in the latter.)

Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 11 vol., tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976).

Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged ed., tr. Geoffey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985).

Other Sources

Bruce, F.F. , The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).

Gerhard, Johann , Theological Commonplaces, vol. I, On the Nature of Theology and Scripture, tr. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).

Lenski, R.C.H., The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998).

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).

Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).

Melanchthon, Philip, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. XI, F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau, ed., Concordia Triglotta (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921).

Pieper, Franz, Christian Dogmatics, vol. III, tr. John T. Mueller (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953).

Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1928).

Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius, The Twelve Caesars, tr. Robert Graves, rev. ed. Michael Grant (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003).

Theodor Zahn, Evangelium des Johannes (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1912).

Zwingli, Ulrich, “Ulrich Zwingli's Antwort, daß diese Worte: Das ist mein Leichnam, ewiglich den alten einigen Sinn haben werden”, Johann Georg Walch, ed., Dr. Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, vol. XX, Reformationsschriften, Zweiter Teil, Dogmatisch-Polemische Schriften (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1890), 1122-1473.


On that first Easter night, the disciples were at dinner. We have another account of this dinner in the gospel of St. Luke. Some of what St. John tells us about is also in that account, but what does not appear there is an important part of what happened that evening. It is the night of the beginning of Christian ministry, when the disciples became apostles. The significance of this new name for them will become clear in the course of this sermon.

St. John tells us that the doors--plural--were closed. This doesn't mean that the room had French-style double doors. What it means is that not only were they in a locked room, they were in a locked building. Why? St. John says, "For fear of the Jews." The Jews have, only two days earlier, taken Jesus and had Him crucified by the Romans. Now the disciples are afraid that the same will happen to them as Jesus' followers. We know from the account in Acts that there was an ongoing persecution of Christians by the Jews for a long time thereafter. This is why all of them except John ran away in the night that Jesus was betrayed, and only John was present under the Cross at the Crucifixion, together with Jesus' mother and a couple of other women. They are afraid. They've locked the outside door and then locked the room. Nobody is coming in there who isn't supposed to be there.

Suddenly, there stands Jesus. He shows His hands and side, and says, "Peace be with you." Why do you suppose He showed His hands and side? Everyone knows that Jesus died Friday afternoon. Everyone THINKS he knows that dead people don't really rise from the grave, unless maybe some kind of apparition like a ghost is possible. Jesus is removing all doubts. This is He. This is not a ghost. This is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God whom they had followed, alive and risen again.

He greets them, "Peace be with you." We say that frequently in our liturgy: "The peace of the Lord be with you always." "And on earth peace, good will toward men." "The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace." All those lines are familiar to you. You have either said, sung or heard those words so many times that you may be inclined to take them as a matter of form, just something we say in church. When Jesus said it to His disciples, it was so much more than a pro forma greeting. He was truly pronouncing His peace upon them, the peace only God can give, peace with God and with ourselves. When the pastor says these things to you, that peace is also being given to you.

What is that peace? It is the peace of knowing that you are part of His Church, that He has died and risen FOR YOU--not for some abstract mankind, but really for you--and that He has risen again. The grave could not hold Him and it cannot hold you. When Jesus says that to His disciples, He is making that promise to them. Through them, He says it to you and to me.

For them it was also an absolution. Absolution is the pronouncement of God's forgiveness on the one to whom it is said. Why do the Apostles really, really need an absolution right now? Think about the last time they saw Him. Peter drew his sword, and he knocked off a servant's ear. Later he denied that he knew Jesus. All the other disciples except John ran away, and John followed only at a safe distance.

They would not confess Him before mankind. Remember, Jesus said that He would confess before His Father those who confess Him before mankind. They are guilty of a dreadful sin here! They need His forgiveness, and His declaration of peace to them is that forgiveness.

Jesus could have appeared in the room in a flash of lightning and a blast of thunder, roaring at them, "You faithless servants! You abandoned Me; now I shall surely abandon you!" Some of our friends in the Roman Catholic church think that He will be like that, a terrible Judge, on the last day with us and that we have to count on His mother Mary to ask Him to be more merciful to us.

Jesus is not like that. Jesus comes to the disciples, as they cower in that locked building, and says simply, "Peace be with you." He comes to you that way, too. That same peace brought by Jesus to them comes to you today, as it does every time you come here. It was His peace then; it is His peace now.

Jesus tells them, "As my father has sent me, so I send you." The Father sent Him bearing the Gospel of our salvation. He sent Him with the Sacraments to give us. He sent Him with all the means by which we are saved. God sent His Son to the world irrespective of whether He would be popular, whether His ministry would be profitable, or whether it would even be dangerous.

That is how the Father sent Jesus, and it is how Jesus sends His Church. We are not here to be popular. You see and hear about churches that are just rolling in money. These churches often tell you that it is "God's plan" for your life for you to be rich, successful and popular, with a great home life and everything you want. They have not been sent the way God sent His Son, or the way Jesus, through His Church, sends His ministers. They are not bringing the Gospel that you are to confess and proclaim to those around you.

Long before, Jesus had promised to give His apostles the keys to His kingdom and told them what those keys do--the forgiveness or binding of sins, the giving or the withholding of God's grace. You'll find it in Matthew 16. In today's Gospel, He gives what He promised--His Holy Spirit through whom we can receive His grace, His forgiveness. The keys by which the Church gives His grace to us are the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through them, the Holy Spirit creates faith in us. He teaches us to believe. The Holy Spirit came to the Church that night.

One of the apostles, however, wasn't there that night. Thomas did not see Him or have the Holy Spirit given to him that night. Now he has to see for himself. He is like all of us. He is skeptical. We still say "doubting Thomas" to mean anyone who has to have everything proven to him. He's like what they say about people from Missouri--you have to show them or they won't believe you.

You may be wondering, "If the Holy Spirit was given to the Church that night, what's Pentecost about?" The answer to that is that what the Holy Spirit worked in them that night was the power to proclaim the Gospel and to forgive sins. The gift of language, to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, would be given several weeks later, at Pentecost. On Pentecost, the ears of those who would hear were opened. The Church was planted the night after the Resurrection in the locked room. It would begin its growth on Pentecost.

This story is your assurance that when you hear preaching, you are not just hearing some man talking. You are hearing the Word of God itself, explained through the one called to preach it. That breath of Christ, that statement, "Receive the Holy Spirit," is still with all faithful preachers of the Gospel today. It is also Jesus' promise to you that when you hear a pastor's absolution--or even your fellow Christian's absolution in the private context--you hear God's own word of forgiveness to you. Absolution isn't really coming from the one speaking to you--it is coming from Jesus Himself.

The other apostles originally thought, when they saw Jesus, that they were seeing a ghost. Now Thomas thinks the same thing. He is apparently not even going to be convinced the way the other apostles were. St. Luke tells us that Jesus convinced some of the other apostles when He gave them the bread to eat at Emmaus and the rest of them by eating a piece of fish in front of them. Thomas is a tougher sell. He wants to put his hands in Jesus' wounds. Jesus lets him do just that. At that point, as he touches the body and blood of Christ, Thomas believes. "My Lord and my God," he says. There is no more doubt.

You, too, should have no doubt. He is risen, and you have the testimony of those who saw Him. You do not have to have your hands in His side or on His hands to believe. You need only have His Word in your ears and His Body and Blood in your mouths. Jesus promises you that you are even more blessed than Thomas for believing on that basis. So believe, and rejoice to say, with him, "My Lord and my God."

The bread and wine at Emmaus; Christ's very body and blood personally present in that locked house in Jerusalem--it is through that means that the Apostles are persuaded, that they have confidence that Jesus is truly risen. It is through the Body and Blood of Christ joined to the bread and wine that you, too, are strengthened in your faith, first begun as you heard the Gospel of Jesus and were washed in Baptism. In His Body and His Blood, they, and you, have peace.

That Gospel, Baptism, and Communion are given to you by the successors of those first men whom Jesus called, sent, and entrusted with them the keys. Those are the ministers of Word and Sacrament, your pastors. They are carrying out the task set for them, and for the whole church, by Jesus. Today you have heard the story of how He first ordained His ministers. You have heard how the Church was born.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in +Christ Jesus. Amen.


1E.g. Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), xxi; Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1928), 171.

2John 20:19.

3Luke 24:36-49.

4John 20:1-18.

5Luke 24:13-35.

6John 20:19.

7Acts 4:1-21; 5:17-41; 6:8-7:60, etc..

8Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Twelve Caesars, tr. Robert Graves, rev. ed. Michael Grant (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003), 200.

9John 20:24-29.

10John 20:30. See R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 1399; see F.F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 398.

11John 20:19.

12John 20:22 (ESV, NIV, NKJV, Tyndale 1534); also in Luther 1534 (“blies er sie an”-- “he blew on them.”).

13Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 747, n. 60.

14Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick Danker, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 258.

15Gen. 2:7; Ezek. 37:5,14.

16E.g. Acts 2, 10:44, 11:15, 4:8.

17Morris, 747-748, citing 1 Cor. 12:4.

18John 20:23.

19Stephanos at John 20:23.

20Aland, 402.

21See Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. XI, F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau, ed., Concordia Triglotta (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), 248; Franz Pieper,, Christian Dogmatics, vol. III, tr. John T. Mueller (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 191, n. 90.

22Matt. 9:5.

23See Ulrich Zwingli, “Ulrich Zwingli's Antwort, daß diese Worte: Das ist mein Leichnam, ewiglich den alten einigen Sinn haben werden”, Johann Georg Walch, ed., Dr. Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, vol. XX, Reformationsschriften, Zweiter Teil, Dogmatisch-Polemische Schriften (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1890), 1131.

24Pieper, 191.

25Lenski, 1376-1377.

26See Aland, 402, n.

27John 20:23.

28Matt. 16:19.

29Matt. 18:18.

30Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, 125, 177-178, 448, 483.

31See Pieper, 191; Francis J. Hall, Theological Outlines, 3rd ed., Frank Hudson Hallock, ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1933), 235.

32Theodor Zahn, Evangelium des Johannes (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1912), 683. See Morris, 753, n. 81; Lenski, 1389, says that though the form is nominative, we should understand the vocative.

33See Morris, 750.

34John 20:24.

35John 20:19.

36John 20:20.

37Luke 24:16-25.

38Luke 24:36-43.

39John 20:29.

40John 20:31.

41John 1:1,14.

42John 20:31.

43Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces, vol. I, On the Nature of Theology and Scripture, tr. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 331.