Scripture: John 20:19-31
One of the most important events that takes place on Easter Sunday isn’t narrated within any of the four gospels. Instead, it takes place in between verse 18, which we looked at last week, and verse 19, the first verse of today’s scripture.
Last Sunday, on Easter Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene encounters the Risen Lord. And Jesus commissions her to go and tell the other eleven disciples the good news of the resurrection. John, as we saw last week, already believes in the resurrection, based on the evidence of the empty tomb.
But it’s clear in today’s scripture, that at least ten of these eleven disciples do not believe Mary’s testimony.
So, do you get the picture? Jesus sent Mary to them. She witnessed to them. They didn’t believe her.
This sermon is mostly about the disciples’ lack of belief… or doubt: First, the problem of doubt; second, the solution to doubt; and, third, what do we do on the other side of doubt… in other words, if we no longer doubt, but genuinely believe, what do we do now?
I’m going to spend most of the sermon on this first point—and just a little bit of time on the other two… Which means, as I’m talking about Point Number One, I don’t want to see anyone looking at their watch, thinking, “He better get on with it! He’s got two more points to cover!”
So first, the problem of doubt…
And on this first point, I confess that I have changed my mind since previous times I’ve preached this scripture. You see, in previous years when I’ve preached this text I’ve felt far more sympathetic toward these eleven “doubting disciples” than I feel today.
See, unlike in previous years, it now strikes me as borderline insane that these disciples still didn’t believe in the resurrection! I mean, really?Even after the empty tomb, even after Mary’s witness… Not to mention everything they experienced of Jesus before his death… like, “How many miracles do they need to see before they believe Jesus—before they start to trust in his word, before they believe that Jesus is telling the truth? They’ve got the empty tomb, they’ve got the testimony of a trusted friend, they’ve got three years of experience with Jesus… Honestly, don’t they have enough evidence already?
Apparently not! They still doubt! And that seems wrong to me! I’m not very sympathetic. They should be ashamed of themselves.
And the word “doubt” might even be too weak of a word anyway! They don’t merely doubt. Jesus doesn’t call their lack of faith doubt… Look at what he tells Thomas in verse 27. Some translations translate it doubt, butour ESV captures the literal sense of the Greek words: He tells Thomas, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
Look, for the purposes of this sermon, I’m happy to describe the disciples’ experience as “doubting”—because that’s how everyone refers to it—but when you get right down to it, let’s just call it what it is… it is simply a lack of faith. They don’t believe what Jesus said! They don’t believe God’s Word…Whether that’s the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, or the Word that Christ’s very Spirit breathed out, holy scripture—which prophesied about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection! They don’t believe it!
So I’m tempted to point to these stubborn, hard-hearted disciples and say, “Shame, shame…” Aren’t you?
But you’ve probably heard what happens when you point with an “accusatory finger”? Every time you point your finger at someone, you have three fingers pointing back at you!
Well, that’s true for me!
How easily and how often do I fail to believe in God’s Word for me? How easily and how often do I fail to trust that the Lord is telling me the truth… Even if I say all the right words: “I’m an evangelical—I’m not one of those progressives. Like John Wesley himself, I believe in the infallibility of scripture. I believe in the bodily resurrection”… Even if I say these things, how often do my own actions betray these words I speak? How often does my belief in Christ’s bodily resurrection fail to penetrate my thick skull and my hard heart… and make a tangible difference in the way I live my life? Do I imagine, when I stand before Christ in final judgment, that he will be impressed with the fact that I can recite all the right doctrines—when those doctrines haven’t sufficiently changed my life?
After all, how many times could Jesus look at the way I live and say, “Do not disbelieve, but believe”?
How about you? It’s not just me, right? I hope…
See, one problem is that we often think of faith as a one-time decision. We walk down an aisle during a tearful altar call, we “accept” Christ as Lord and Savior after going through an eight-week confirmation class, we pray a sinner’s prayer and get baptized. Faith in Christ is like… a rite of passage—something we check off our list… like getting a driver’s license, or graduating high school, or going off to college, or joining the military, or getting married.
And I’m sorry… I have known preachers and evangelists who’ll tell me things like, “That person got saved when I shared the gospel with him.” And they’re referring merely to something that happened in the past tense. He “got saved.” And I’m like, “That’s all well and good… and I hope it’s true. But I know that person. He’s mean as a snake! His life is indistinguishable from any old heathen. So maybe he did get saved… but is he still saved, if he ever was?”
Don’t get me wrong: You’ve got to get started in the Christian life; you’ve got to be converted; you’ve got to make a conscious decision to follow Christ; you’ve got to be born again. And on this point I disagree with many of my United Methodist clergy colleagues who think that becoming a Christian happens through osmosis or something… that you never have to really choose, so we Methodist pastors never ask anyone to choose Jesus!
So yes, we have to choose. That’s necessary. And that decision may very well happen when we walk down an aisle, or pray a sinner’s prayer, or go through confirmation. But Jesus says if your life doesn’t bear any fruit of salvation, you’re not saved1—it doesn’t matter whether you prayed that prayer on that one occasion, or responded to that altar call, or recited words from the confirmation liturgy in church!
And it won’t do me any good to say, “But I was an ordained elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church.”Jesus will not be impressed this or any other worldly credential! So we need to examine our lives, the apostle Paul says, and see if our lives are bearing this fruit.4 If not, we may have a deadly serious spiritual problem.
My point is this: Being a Christian, despite what many of us think, is not simply a decision we make… and now… having made that decision, we can get on with the rest of our lives.
Indeed, if we have truly “made the decision” to receive Christ—which means repenting and believing and entrusting every part of our lives to Jesus Christ, seeking God’s kingdom, living for his glory, repenting of ongoing sin and disbelief as we become aware of it… if we’ve done all that…. then the last thing we’ll want to do is simply “get on with the rest of your our lives”!
Why? Because Jesus Christ has become our life… Jesus Christ has become our greatest treasure… Which means Christ is what we want more than we want anything else… Which means we’d rather die than get on with the rest of our lives, if “getting on with the rest of our lives” means living without Christ!
Or another way of putting it: We would rather have Jesus and die, than to live another moment without him… because, after all, in Christ, death is no longer the worst thing that can happen to us; not even close. Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him”—by which Jesus means God—“who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”5
But for those of us in Christ, we don’t have to fear death because we know that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”6
I went to a conference last week in Louisville—called “Together for the Gospel,” or “T4G.” It was attended by thousands upon thousands of pastors and some laypeople. And one of the pastors who spoke told this crowd—with stone-cold seriousness—“It’s very likely that some of you who are listening to me right now will have to lay down your life because of your faithfulness to Jesus Christ.” And he wasn’t referring to us Americans, by the way… This was a global gathering.
He went on to explain that some people in attendance today were from places like Russia, and the Middle East, and China, and parts of Africa like Nigeria and Somalia and other parts of the world where simply being a faithful Christian, and simply following the commands of Jesus, and simply fulfilling his Great Commission… will likely get themselves killed.
And make no mistake: Christians are getting themselves killed… in larger numbers today than at any point in the history of the church—including the first few centuries. Years ago, this prompted Pope Francis himself to wonder aloud whether or not we were nearing the time of the Second Coming, since one sign of that will be increased persecution of Christians!
But this speaker at the conference believed, quite sincerely, that some people in this crowd would die for Jesus…
And a sinful and—I hope—small part of me thought, “Glad that’s not me!” I’m just so addicted to being comfortable. And I get so mad when things don’t go my way… I get frustrated and impatient and, God forgive me, I even curse sometimeswhen I’m inconvenienced in any way.
I’ve said this before: but I worry sometimes that I wouldn’t be willing to die for Jesus… because I know my own heart… How could I be willing to die for Jesus when so much of the time, I’m unwilling to risk “dying of embarrassment” for Jesus!
For example, when God called me into ministry around 2002 or -3, and after I had made all of my arrangements for attending seminary, and as I was about to leave a relatively prosperous engineering career, and uproot my family, and move to a different part of the state, where I could pastor a little church and live in a parsonage with my family, rent-free, and somehow find a way to make ends meet while I got my required Masters of Divinity degree from an expensive private college for the next three years…
After I had made all those arrangements, I put in my notice at work… again, I was an engineer, a proud “Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech”… I was doing okay for myself.
But I’ll never forget after I put in my notice… man named Wayne… oh, boy, Wayne!
Forgive me, I double-checked the church directory to make sure that there were no Waynes on the rolls, but… I’ve never had a good experience with people named Wayne… for whatever reason. So if your name is Wayne, please introduce yourself to me, because I believe you’re wonderful… you’re the exception.
But Wayne—he was kind of a grown-up bully to me—he walked over to my cubicle when he heard the news about my going into ministry, and he just laughed. He laughed and laughed—he thought that what I was doing was the craziest thing he’d ever heard! And he told me so!
And you know what I wish I had done then? I wish I would have said, “Wayne, let me tell you the reason why I’m doing this. You see, the most important Person in my life is Jesus Christ. He saved me from my sins. He redeemed me by his blood. He gave me the gift of eternal life. And I owe him everything. And I love him and always want to do what he says…”
Instead—God help me—I said nothing… And I blushed and I felt ashamed…
Why? Because at least a small part of me was worried—slightly worried—that Wayne was on to something! “Maybe this is crazy! I mean, why can’t I just be a normal Christian… Go to church every once in a while… Give about 1.8 percent of my income as a “tithe”… Nottalk about Jesus to anyone because it’s so embarrassing… just blend in… and you know… not be weird about my faith?”
Because, you see, in that moment, I doubted God’s Word, and I doubted Jesus when he said stark and sobering words like, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”7
I wondered, “Are the stakes really as high as Jesus says? Are so many people really in danger of forfeiting their souls if they don’t repent and believe in Jesus? Does heaven and hell really hang in the balance based on decisions that you and I make in this life? Has God put every single one of us in this place and time, in part, to bear witness to the truth of the gospel, so what we do here makes a difference for eternity? Is all of that really true?”
In that moment, when my “frenemy” Wayne was laughing at me, I thought, “Maybe I should continue, alongside Wayne, designing and writing code for industrial machines that put cans of Coca-Cola in 12-pack cartons. Because at least there’s nothing weird about that! At least I can continue to be a completely inconspicuous Christian… and be respectable, and enjoy a good reputation, and just sort of blend in.”
But what I failed to appreciate is that when you strive to live on that narrow way that leads to life, which few find, rather than to live on the wide, easy path on which most people travel and that leads to destruction, you may at times seem weird to other people! Because what you’re doing will be deeply countercultural, deeply out of step… It will go against the grain of the way most people live. And as Christians we’re supposed to be okay with that.
But more than anything, when you get right down to it, what I experienced with my “frenemy” Wayne was nothing other than doubt… I doubted God’s Word.
And here’s what I haven’t emphasized in previous sermons on this text: While doubt is a normal and at times inescapable part of living a Christian life, that doesn’t mean that doubt is good or desirable. When you experience doubt in your life as a Christian, you need to take it as a sign that our gracious Lord wants to give you the grace to overcome this doubt… to heal you of your doubt… to enable you to move beyond it. Because for your sake you need to move beyond it. Living with doubt is a harmful way to live.
If you don’t believe me, consider the disciples in today’s scripture… Consider the consequences of their doubt… Consider, for example, verse 19 and these “doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews…” If there were ever a fitting symbol of their doubt, it is these locked doors.
What do these doors represent to them, after all? Fear… Anxiety… Despair… Anger… Bitterness… Resentment… Sadness… Depression… Self-pity… Each of these doubting disciples was likely thinking, “We’ve wasted our lives following Jesus—at least the last three-plus years of it. What am I going to do now? How will I be able to pick up the pieces and move on?”
That’s no way to live! And they didn’t have to experience any of those things right now… If they only believed Jesus and God’s Word!
Fear… Anxiety… Despair… Anger… Bitterness… Resentment… Sadness… Depression… Self-pity…
How often do we experience these kinds of emotions? How much of our personal suffering do we bring on ourselves… because we fail to trust in God… doubt his promises… doubt that he’s telling us the truth in his Word?
So that’s the problem… that’s Point Number One.
So what’s the solution? And this brings us to Point Number Two…
I was listening to a preaching podcast on today’s scripture. The two preachers in this podcast talked about the meaning of the locked door, and they said, in so many words, that today’s scripture teaches us that we don’t have to do anything in order for Jesus to “show up” and give us exactly what we need… that Jesus will walk though any locked door that our own doubt or lack of faith puts in his path.
“Isn’t that what Jesus does, after all, for the eleven disciples who were cowering behind a locked door in today’s scripture?” Jesus just shows up!
And I almost agree with them… I love and respect these guys and I’m this close to agreeing with them. Because, yes, Jesus does walk through these locked doors… Jesus shows up! Amen, hallelujah, that’s true!
But based on today’s scripture… that doesn’t exactly mean these disciples did nothing… Does it?
I mean, it’s true that Jesus showed up, but guess who also showed up? The disciples… In fact, one of the disciples didn’t show up that night, and guess what happened to him? He had to wait and suffer things like fear… anxiety… despair… anger… bitterness… resentment… sadness… depression… self-pity… for a whole ’nother week before Jesus came and gave him what he needed to overcome his doubts and fears!
But even poor Thomas got precisely what he needed… after… after he showed up for Jesus on that Sunday night a week after Easter!
I’m not saying that Jesus will never ever “show up” for us if we don’t show up for him—of course he will and he does… sometimes. But you gotta admit, good things seem to happen in our lives when we show up for him first!
Are we doing that?
Are we “showing up,” for example, by placing God’s Word at the very center of our lives—reading it daily, reminding ourselves of God’s promises, listening to God speak to us through it?
Because look at verses 30 and 31:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 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.
This tells us that God’s primary appointed means for believing—which, as I’ve argued throughout this sermon, means overcoming our own doubt and disbelief—the primary means for doing so is reading and studying and immersing ourselves in God’s written-down Word, holy scripture, the Bible!
And while it’s true that John is referring to the words of his gospel… if it’s true for this gospel, I would and I can argue that it’s true for the rest of scripture as well… I don’t have time to lay out this argument right now, so just trust me on this.
We need to do what these disciples do in today’s scripture and show up for Jesus! That means daily quiet times, that means prayer, that means worship—with God’s Word at the very center of it.
And maybe you feel like you don’t have time for that… But if so, I invite you to consider the things in your life that you do show up for… Work, for instance… You don’t miss work, because it’s important. Or school… You don’t miss school… It’s a priority. Also, we show up for our spouses, or our boyfriends or girlfriends, if we have them… We show up for TV shows we binge on Hulu or Netflix… We show up for golf or pickle ball or other leisure activities… We show up for the gym or exercise, or at least we tell others we do… We show up college football, when that’s in season… We show up for hunting and fishing, whenever we can… We show up for social media, every hour of the day… If we’re parents, we show up for nearly anything involving our kids—sports, band, music, extracurricular activities!
Don’t misunderstand: I hope you know that I’m not saying any of these things is necessarily bad, in and of itself. Not at all… I’m saying, “We show up for people and things we love and care about.”
And believing in Jesus—by which I mean, we no longer doubt or disbelieve in him… believing in Jesus means that “showing up for him” is more important than “showing up” for any other good thing in our lives or world!
So by all means, Jesus wants to walk through that locked door of fear… anxiety… despair… anger… bitterness… resentment… sadness… depression… and self-pity…. The question is, when he walks through that locked door, will he find us on the other side of it?
That’s Point Number Two: Are we “showing up” for Jesus?
Finally, Point Number Three… “What now?” “What do we do on the other side of doubt and disbelief?
I’ll be brief: The main thing we do… after Jesus heals us of our doubt and unbelief… is the same thing we see ten of the disciples “doing” in verse 20 when it says they were “glad” when they saw the Lord… and what we see Thomas “doing” in verse 28, when, overcome with joy, he says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
We enjoy our Lord Jesus! In fact, we enjoy him more than we enjoy anything else!
One of the speakers at last week’s conference was retired pastor John Piper. He is perhaps most famous for the following maxim or pithy saying. It’s sort of his trademark: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. He repeated it again last week, saying he would write it as an epitaph on his headstone—if he wasn’t going to put a Bible verse on it instead.
I believe Piper’s words here: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Because I believe they’re faithful to scripture.
I believe we find our greatest satisfaction in life—not by pursuing the treasures we find in people or possessions or position or prosperity or power or popularity, or any treasure this world offers… but in Christ alone.
I want all of y’all to possess this treasure! To experience it! It’s not too late! If you have life and breath, the good news is, it’s not too late!
And here’s the way: “Do not disbelieve but believe.”