Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
John 20:19-31 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.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And 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.” 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.” 28 Thomas 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.” 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.
Thomas was a modern man, and for modern men seeing is believing. I don’t know how they thought about it in antiquity, but I certainly know that today, when we read the story of “doubting” Thomas, our sympathies lie with him. The other disciples are spouting a crazy story: “We have seen the Lord.” “Yeah, well, he was dead. I saw it.” Why in the world should Thomas believe the accounts of a risen Jesus? It didn’t make sense. Nobody rises from the dead.
And yet, today’s text challenges us to reverse our normal way of thinking: Not “seeing is believing,” but
Believing Is Seeing.
Or as Jesus himself said it, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v 29).
But before we talk about what it means to believe while not seeing, let’s consider why it’s necessary in the first place. What’s wrong with Thomas’s attitude? “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” (v 25). What’s wrong with insisting on seeing something before we accept it?
In this life and for this life, skepticism is often a good thing. If you’re buying a car or a home or anything at all, it’s a good idea to test the claims of the seller and see for yourself whether everything is on the up-and-up.
Likewise, when it comes to politics, it’s wise to listen to the various claims of the candidates and then think them through for yourself: which candidate really makes more sense?
So “seeing is believing” is a good philosophy for life in this world.
But what happens when we apply it to ultimate questions about the significance, aim, and meaning of human life? What do we see when we look for answers to questions like these?
When it comes to such things, we don’t see very well. Consider Thomas. What was his situation during that week of doubt? It couldn’t have been pleasant. A whole week went by. All of his friends were abuzz with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. But Thomas stuck stubbornly to what he had seen: Jesus suffering, dead, and buried. For a solid week, Thomas was holding on to death instead of the good news of life.
And this is exactly our condition too—so many centuries later—if we, like Thomas that first week of the first Easter, reject the resurrection. What are we left with? Only death. The wages of sin is death. All are sinners; all will die.
We live in a death-denying society. A lot of people don’t die at home anymore; they die in a hospital or nursing home. But no matter where they die, we turn the body over to a funeral director, so that he can make the dead person look as lifelike as possible for viewing—not at home but in a church or a funeral parlor. Previously, burial preparation was done by the dead person’s loved ones. Funerals were from homes draped in black, and people wore mourning clothes for months thereafter. But we want to avoid death—avoid seeing it, dealing with it, confronting it.
We really cannot. In spite of all our best efforts, death is the ultimate reality for each one of us—and every human knows it. The people who are dearest to us die, but so do complete strangers. Poor people die, but so do the rich—the famous and powerful as well as the humble and ordinary. And—oh, yes—so will you and I. Our death is coming too—unavoidably, sooner or later. Everybody dies because everybody is a sinner.
If we are honest and open about the meaning of human existence on the basis of what we see, that is, death, we have to say: There isn’t any. No meaning, no purpose, no significance, because it all ends in death. Not only will you cease to see whatever you’ve accomplished, whatever good you’ve done, but eventually, so will everybody else. They’ll all be dead too, and what good will anybody’s anything do anybody? In our efforts to make sense of everything, we discover that it is all nonsense because of death.
If seeing is believing, that is, if our hope and confidence are based only on what we experience, and what we experience is only death, then our lives are pointless. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we do; it all ends the same way . . . dead.
Unless there is something more to human existence than what we see. Or, to put it another way, unless there is someone from outside of our experience who can make a difference in the face of death; unless there is someone who can turn away God’s anger from us on account of our sin.
But this brings us back to Easter. For there is Someone who has made a difference—a radical difference—in the human story. Someone who could make us righteous before God and turn away his anger. Someone for whom death was a reality but not the reality. Someone who could deny death not just in appearances but in truth.
That Someone is Jesus Christ! The one who came to save sinners. The one who died for our sin. The Lamb who takes away the sin of the world by his death on the cross. “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17–18). When death had done its worst, when Jesus was for sure dead—they had pierced his side, they had hauled down his body, and they had put him into Joseph’s tomb—when all that was over, it still wasn’t over, because on the third day, he arose from the dead! He said “No!” to death, and he meant it.
In that single act of defiance, Jesus Christ changed the lot and destiny of man: not death but now life has the last word! And with the gift of life comes everything else that makes life worth living.
Consider again what it is we see in ourselves as well as others—the weaknesses, the faults, the failures—what the Bible calls sin and declares to be the cause of death. We see our own helplessness. No matter how hard we try, we cannot measure up to God’s Law—and we usually don’t try all that hard. So we end up living in a world that is filled with sin and its consequences—not only out there but here in our own hearts and lives—and we deserve the death and hell that God threatens against sinners.
But Jesus’ victory over sin was the conquest over death, for he who had come to assume not only our nature (God became man) but also our burden, our obligation, our sin and its punishment, did so effectively and forever. He resisted every temptation the devil could throw at him. He suffered every punishment that God ever imposed. And then he arose from death, triumphant over it all.
This great victory is what Christ now offers to us in his Word through the power granted on Easter evening: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” (v 23). No conditions, no strings attached, just forgiveness and all that follows: eternal life and resurrection—ours through faith.
“Eight days later, [Jesus’] 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.’ 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’?” (vv 26–27).
For those who believe this Word—the Word that Jesus is risen and that he forgives just as he forgave Thomas—everything is different: there is meaning and significance to human existence. Our Lord’s Word of forgiveness to us is also a Word for others, and we preach it. A world wracked by sin and death is precisely where we spend our lives in loving service to others for the sake of God, who first loved us. Then, when this life is over, we go right on living with God until on the Last Day we rise again with glorified bodies just like Jesus. Then we will see with our eyes what for now we only believe. For now, believing is our seeing, but believing is also the way to seeing, the way to seeing Jesus with our eyes for all eternity.
This doesn’t mean that we never experience anything bad, anything difficult, anything dangerous. No, our lives are filled with challenges, hurts, bereavements. That’s what we still see with our eyes and feel with every measure of our senses. But in the midst of pain, sorrow, and loss, there is a certain hope that rests on the victory of Christ. For now, we see that simply by faith. Believing is seeing.
We don’t yet see with our eyes, but where there is sin, Christ offers forgiveness; where there is hurting, Christ offers hope; where there is bereavement, Christ offers life. All this is sure and certain, for God is greater than our sight—just as Easter shows us: death, our ultimate reality, was not his ultimate reality. And what he has obtained, he has obtained for us.
“Seeing is believing”—the attitude of doubting Thomas—may be perfectly fine for buying a car or casting a vote, but when it comes to sin and forgiveness, death and life, man and God, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v 29). Believing comes first, for believing grasps hold of what is greater, indeed the greatest. It grasps hold of Christ, the risen and triumphant Lord, and joins Thomas not in doubting but in confessing: “My Lord and my God.” Amen.