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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Commission—John 20:19-31 (Alastair Roberts)

John’s account of Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples differs from that of the Synoptics in illuminating ways. Through an understanding of the relationship between Jesus’ own commission and that of his disciples, we can gain a richer appreciation of the primary character of our political task.

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, 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 the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, 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. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt 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 come to believe.’

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

In these concluding episodes of the Gospel of John, the Evangelist returns to a number of the central themes of the book. The gift of the Spirit, signs, witness-bearing, and faith are all prominent within this passage. By drawing together these themes at this point—the conclusion of the main body of the gospel—a fitting capstone is provided for the text as a whole.

Our passage consists of two related scenes and a concluding summary statement, within which the purpose of the entire gospel is explicitly stated. While Mary Magdalene was the central figure in John’s account of the earliest events surrounding the resurrection—and was the first to be commissioned, as the apostle to the apostles—the text now shifts its attention to the Twelve and the other disciples that were with them. It is with Christ’s appearance to them and their consequent faith, commission, and witness that these verses are concerned.

Both of the scenes in this passage follow a similar pattern, as the disciples are assembled together behind bolted doors, for fear of the Jewish authorities (verse 19). In both cases, Jesus miraculously appears in their midst. The first occurrence is on the first day of the week (verse 19) and the second is on the eighth day (verse 26), both numbers might hint at a theme of new creation, which, as we shall see, is borne out in other details of the text.

As Jesus appears to his disciples for the first time, he demonstrates his identity by displaying the signs of his crucifixion, the wounds in his hands and his side. The disciples’ response of joy fulfils the promise that Jesus made in 16:20-22. The fact that Jesus twice repeats his statement of peace—‘Peace be with you!’—suggests that it carries a particular force in this context. Jesus had earlier promised to ‘leave’ his peace with his disciples, a peace that should allay all of their fears, and which was associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit (14:25-27). This peace—a calm and settled security and stillness in the midst of hardship and conflict—is left as a sort of personal legacy. This peace is accompanied by a commission, as Jesus sends his disciples in the same way as the Father sent him.

The peace and the commission are received together in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The exact relationship between John’s account and the Lukan account of Pentecost has been extensively debated. Whatever position we may take in these debates, we can see in this event the fulfilment, even if only symbolically and proleptically, of the various promises of the gift of the Spirit made earlier in the gospel. Such a proleptic expression of Jesus’ gift of the Spirit may already have occurred in his giving up of his Spirit in 19:30. Perhaps, reading John in concert with the Lukan account, we might think in terms of a progressive gift, as a dying gasp becomes a life-giving breath, which then swells to a mighty wind on the day of Pentecost.

Readers typically focus upon Thomas’ doubts in the second scene in our passage, but his confession is arguably much more noteworthy. Of all of the disciples, it is Thomas who makes the ‘climactic Christological confession’ of the gospel—‘My Lord and my God!’[1] In this statement we finally see the disciples arriving at the high Christology of the gospel’s prologue. It is in the confession of doubting Thomas that we arrive at the definitive form of faith to which the Evangelist is summoning us as his readers. This point is underlined in the summary verses that follow: the purpose of the entire gospel is to enable us to come to this point. In Jesus’ response to Thomas it is as if the fourth wall is broken and he turns to address us directly—blessed are we who have not seen and yet have believed.

Within John’s account of the commissioning of the disciples, he emphasizes the continuity between Jesus’ mission and that of his disciples. They are sent in the same way as Jesus himself was sent by the Father: they make known his identity in the world, just as he made known the Father. The gift of his Spirit as the guarantee and representation of this continuity of mission is reminiscent of the account of Elijah and Elisha. In 1 Kings 19:15-18, God gives Elijah a three part commission. The only part of this commission that Elijah personally fulfils is that of anointing Elisha as his successor: Elisha fulfils all of the rest. As Elijah ascends into heaven in 2 Kings 2, Elisha receives the first born portion of his spirit and embodies and completes Elijah’s mission. A similar pattern of prophetic succession is implied here: Jesus’ gift of his Spirit equips his disciples to embody and complete his mission.

Jesus’ use of a life-giving breath might suggest a further set of echoes within this account, echoes that are especially resonant within the context of the surrounding new creation typology. Just as in Genesis 2:7 God breathed life into the first human being to continue and complete his creative work of taming and bringing order and life to the world that he had established, so Christ breathes the Spirit of life into his disciples to continue and complete the work of new creation.

The commission accounts of the synoptic gospels place their primary accent upon a task that is laid before the disciples, a task in which they will be empowered by Christ. John’s account, however, offers us a subtly different perspective upon what is taking place, not least on account of its connection between the reception of the Spirit and the commission. In John’s account, it is to the personal correspondence between Jesus’ commission and that of his disciples that our attention is drawn.

John’s account of Jesus’ commission is focused upon the identity of Jesus as the personal revelation of the Father. All that Jesus does is merely a window into this deeper mystery of the incarnate Word’s unique relationship to the Father. John presents us with the commission of the disciples within a corresponding framework. The disciples are to make known Jesus in the same way as he made known the Father: not just as emissaries bearing his message, but as the embodied revelation of his person. The gift of Jesus’ Spirit is that which equips them to be such a manifestation of his presence within the world. It will be as the disciples love one another in the peace of Jesus’ Spirit that his presence will be made known in them and they will fulfil their commission.

When we consider our political task as Christians, it is common for a task-oriented account of witness to prevail over the Johannine vision I have outlined above. The Church can be reduced to a functional entity, committed to some combination of proselytization and social justice. The commission account of John pushes back against all such approaches. Stanley Hauerwas captures something of the Johannine message in his off-repeated dictum that ‘the first social task of the church is to be the church,’ something which in turn enables us to ‘help the world understand itself as world.’

By giving us his Spirit, Jesus establishes the Church as the great sign of his presence and identity in the world. Our task, political and otherwise, starts and ends with our calling to live out this reality. As a communion of Spirit-empowered peace, love, and joy appears in the midst of a fearful and sin-shattered world, that world will encounter the wonder of the risen Christ the disciples experienced that first Easter Sunday. Seeing the light of the resurrection in the lives of believing disciples, it may also, like the once doubting Thomas, be brought to confess its Lord and God.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 2:1210.

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