Monday, 31 August 2015

Evidence that Deamnds a Verdict (John 20:24-31)

I read my first Sherlock Holmes book over the summer.  I loved it.  In it Sherlock declares, ‘… when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’  Sherlock is encouraging a careful examination of the evidence, and a willingness to follow that evidence wherever it leads.  I believe that John would have approved of such an approach.  John is not asking people to take a blind leap in the dark.

Sadly, many of our friends believe that a blind leap in the dark is all that Christianity offers.  The online version of the Collins Dictionary includes the following definition of faith: ‘strong or unshakable belief in something, especially without proof or evidence.’  But John says that he is a trustworthy eyewitness who has recorded these signs so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing we may have life in his name (20:31).  He wants us to move from evidence to belief in the person of Jesus, who is the only source of eternal life.  He has presented evidence that demands a verdict.

Thomas had no reason to doubt

I am not sure where Thomas was when Jesus appeared to the other disciples.  They saw him on the evening of the resurrection.  He spoke the words, ‘Peace be with you’ and their hearts were overjoyed at seeing him.  They spent the following week trying to convince Thomas of the good news of the resurrected Lord, but Thomas refused to believe.

I don’t know why Thomas refused to believe the words of the other disciples.  There was no reason for them to lie to him.  In fact Thomas had more reason than most to believe—he had witnessed the feeding of the five thousand and the raising of Lazarus, and he had heard Jesus explain how the promised Messiah would die and be raised from the dead.  Thomas’s doubt was not the result of a lack of evidence, and therefore Jesus gives him the loving rebuke, ‘stop doubting and believe!’

I am not saying that all doubt is a moral failing.  There may be innocent reasons why you are struggling with doubt at the moment.  Maybe someone has unsettled your belief by asking questions that you can’t answer.  The epistle of Jude was written to people who had been shaken by false-teachers, and Jude instructs the church to have mercy on those who doubt (Jude 22).  Talk to experienced Christians and ask them how they deal with these questions.  Doubt can also arise from the strains caused by illness in the family, grief or depression.  Why not pray with the man who approached Jesus declaring, ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief’?  But sometimes our doubt is rooted in the fact that we have failed to examine the evidence, won’t trust him in the storm or are refusing to accept the challenges presented by a risen Lord.

Jesus offers us peace with God

Thomas is presented with the same evidence that we are presented with as we read John’s Gospel—the reliable testimony of eyewitnesses to the resurrection.  Jesus says that we are blessed if we accept this evidence, and that Thomas was making an unreasonable demand.  ‘Unless I see in his hands the marks of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’  You can hear the stubborn defiance in his voice!

The next Sunday, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked, Jesus came and stood among them.  He greets them again with the words, ‘peace be with you’ and invites Thomas to touch his scars.  Isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ glorious resurrection body shows the wounds of the crucifixion?  Someone has said that the only manmade things in heaven are the marks on Jesus’ body.  We sing of the scars that speak of sacrifice.  In heaven they worship the lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:12).      

‘Peace (Shalom) be with you,’ is the well-known and everyday greeting of Jews in Palestine, even to this day.  But although it was an everyday greeting it was loaded with profound significance.  All of the major Old Testament prophets used this word Shalom to describe the blessing of being a part of God’s kingdom.  The apostle Paul would later include the word peace in the greetings found in every one of his New Testament letters.  ‘Peace be with you’ is the great follow on from Jesus dying words, ‘It is finished’ (19:30), for sinful and rebellious world is offered peace with God by a crucified Christ who has taken the full punishment for our guilt. 

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.  The Christian does not need to dwell on past failures or fear future separation from God’s love.  We may not always feel at peace, but God no longer feels enmity towards us.  Forgiveness and reconciliation with God are central to the eternal life that is offered to us in Christ.  When Billy Graham wanted to write a book that summed up the blessing of being a Christian he chose the title, ‘Peace with God’.

Thomas declares that Jesus is his Lord and God

‘So it comes about that the most outrageous doubter of the resurrection of Jesus utters the greatest confession of the Lord who rose from the dead’ (Beasley-Murray); ‘my Lord and my God.’  Notice that Thomas speaks in the first person, ‘my’ Lord and ‘my’ God.  He is confessing Jesus to be Lord and God, and he is declaring himself to be a willing subject of Jesus.  No less a declaration of faith is demanded from us!

Thomas’s declaration of the full deity of Christ reminds us of the beginning of this gospel—there we heard that Word was God (1:1).  John then demonstrated that Jesus is the promised Christ and unique son of God foretold in the Old Testament.  He did this by recording the seven signs.  He also recorded seven ‘I AM’ sayings—which would have reminded John’s Jewish readers of God’s self-disclosure to Moses as the ‘I AM’.  Now he says that the eye-witness accounts of the resurrection should, added to everything else, should convince that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Conclusion—this is a message to be shared

Richard Dawkins writes, ‘Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.’  Yet when the atheist C. S. Lewis examined the evidence for Christ he says that he became the most reluctant convert in all of England and wrote of his experiences in ‘Surprised by Joy’.  Josh McDowell believed that Christians were out of their minds, but when he examined the evidence he realised that Jesus was ‘More than a Carpenter’.  Lee Strobel was an award-winning journalist, who examined the evidence and later wrote ‘The Case for Christ.’  No one is asking you to take a leap in the dark.

Jesus says ‘blessed are those who believe though they have not seen’, not because he is encouraging blind faith, but because it is reasonable to accept the testimony of reliable eyewitnesses like the disciple John.  Indeed, John would stick by this story, even as the other disciples (including his brother James) and martyred, and he spends time imprisoned on the island of Patmos.

This gospel that he has written is primarily evangelistic—it is a message to be shared.   But he knows that the evidence must be accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit—for people run from the light, and no one can come to him unless the Father draws us (6:44).  This ought to make us the most humble people in the world—for we were spiritually dead rebels, but the Holy Spirit blew where he pleased and breathed life into us.  It also should drive us to prayer in the knowledge that our friends will resist this evidence unless God lovingly breaks their resistance.

Finally, we should delight to feed from John’s Gospel because it is a glorious message.  Apparently, John’s declaration of purpose can be read, ‘these are written that you may continue to believe’ (31a).  We are to preach this gospel daily to ourselves, for it nourishes, sustains us and brings us joy.  This will help us move us beyond the complacency that we all struggle with, for ‘when the heart is full, the mouth must speak’ (Hendrickson).

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