Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg

with Tom Fuller

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Barriers to Belief

John 20:1-31

The account of the resurrection of Jesus as recorded by the Apostle John is really about three encounters with the risen Lord. The first is Mary Magdalene, the disciple out of whom Jesus had driven seven demons (Luke 8:1-3). Then there was Peter and John, probably Jesus’ closest friends on earth (though we will focus on one of them today). Finally, there is Thomas. From these three we learn three great lessons about our own encounter with the risen Lord.

1 – 2

Mark’s gospel (Mark 16) tells us that Mary and a group of other women came out as soon as they could after the Sabbath. Their express purpose was to complete the Jewish burial rituals, but Matthew tells us they wanted to “view” the tomb. Joseph and Nicodemus had brought 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes and had already anointed the body, but because they were in such a rush perhaps they hadn’t been able to do it perfectly. Or maybe Mary and the other women just wanted a part in the burial since Jesus was so important to them. At this point they have no notion of the resurrection.

They talked on the way about who would roll the stone away for them but when they arrived they saw it already removed. Grave robbing was probably not that uncommon given the story that the chief priests give to the Roman guards to tell. Again, they probably went to the most common notion—no resurrection in view.

Mary’s upset, and rightly so, so she tears back to where they were staying (the upper room perhaps?) and tells the two men in charge: Peter and John. We don’t know who “they” are. Perhaps Mary is worried that the religious leaders, Jesus’ enemies, have taken Him. Her focus: “we don’t know where they’ve put Him.” All she can think about is caring for the body of the One she loved and loved her. His body is the only thing remaining of Him, she thinks.

3 – 10

I can’t help but notice the subtle competition between Peter and John. In the footrace to the tomb, it is John who points out who won. But notice too that John does not go in, only stoops and looks into the tomb and can just see the linen cloths, and perhaps was afraid the body was there, and did not want to defile himself by entering. Or perhaps he was afraid that if he confirmed the presence of a body, it would dash all hopes that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

Peter has no qualms about entering the tomb. John follows. What they see is odd, especially if the body had been stolen. Jesus apparently rose right through the grave cloths, as He will go right through other matter (doors, to be precise) a little later on. It’s the first hint we get at the differences between a body of this creation, and one of the next. Matter, apparently, doesn’t matter to a resurrected human. Grave cloths were a bit like a mummy would be wrapped. Remember Lazarus in John 11? Jesus had to command them to “unwrap” him. So not only were the grave cloths laying there undisturbed (impossible if robbers had moved Him) but the face cloth was all folded up neatly. The significance of this is widely debated. Some feel it follows a tradition that a host would fold up his napkin to say “I’m done” when dining. Others, that a Jewish carpenter would fold his handkerchief to indicate he was finished with his job—like a final inspection report.

There’s really nothing in the text to help us. The word for handkerchief is also used in Acts 19:12 when it speaks of Paul’s handkerchiefs being carried and God healing sick people they touched. The idea of “folded up in a separate place” – folded up comes from a Greek word that means “to twist” or “entwine”. One commentator (Expositors Bible Commentary Abridged NT page 368) suggests the cloth kept the shape of Jesus head.

For some reason this was so significant to John that when he saw it, he “believed”. Yet it was belief in what? John goes on to say they had no clue about the resurrection (though Jesus had told them on numerous occasions). Surely, though, it signified that something special had happened. This was no grave robbery.

11 – 14

Mary won’t go in. She already knows the body isn’t there so she’s now focused on finding Him, to continue her service to her Lord even in His death. Two times she is asked about her grief—once by angels sitting by where Jesus’ body was (why didn’t Peter and John see them I wonder?) and then by Jesus standing right there. Her grief and purpose and tears made it so she couldn’t hear and couldn’t see straight.

15 – 18

At this point Mary had her back to Jesus. The Lord addresses her with a term of respect and she won’t even turn around to see Him but says that if this guy can help fulfill her purpose then fine, otherwise don’t bother me. All Jesus has to do is say her name. Though His physical appearance looked different, His voice never changed. Mary clings to Him like “now that I’ve got you I’m never letting you out of my sight again!” Jesus wants her to accept a new reality, then really get back on page with His purpose, and that is to make sure the disciples know that He is alive and that His purposes have never deviated: to ascend to the Father and send the Holy Spirit.

19 – 23

The disciples were behind locked doors. Though they had seen the empty tomb and had heard Mary’s story, they feared that they were next on the Most Wanted list. Jesus appears and twice tells them “peace”. “It’s all right” He’s saying. He proves it is Him, the resurrected Jesus, and that nothing has changed, they are to go in the power of the Holy Spirit and preach the gospel of forgiveness. Where they preach, lives will be changed. Where they do not, they will not.

24 – 29

I personally believe Thomas suffered from clinical depression. It was he that said: (John 11:16) “Let’s go so that we may die with Him.” And (John 14:5) “Lord, we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way?” I call Him the Eeyore of the disciples. We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the others on that Sunday. Maybe he was depressed. Maybe he was angry. The others told him Jesus was alive but he refused to believe until it was proven. He didn’t have to wait long, but when Jesus appeared to Thomas and offered the proof, suddenly Thomas didn’t need it anymore. He was the first after the resurrection to refuse to believe, and then the first to call Jesus Lord and God.

So what happened with these three and what can we learn from it? First, let’s look at their perspective:

  • John was not close enough to see (he stayed outside the tomb). Have you been afraid to actually consider the claims that Jesus is the Messiah and the only way to God and eternal life?
  • Mary was too close to see (she encountered Jesus but wouldn’t even look at Him). Maybe you focus in so much on supposed contradictions or minute details of doctrine that you miss the gospel—our need for forgiveness and that coming from Jesus.
  • Thomas wasn't even in the neighborhood (he refused to be with the other disciples). Maybe you go your own merry way and think the gospel is only for the weak. You miss it to your own peril.

It wasn’t just perspective, though. Each of these (Mary, John, Thomas) had barriers to belief:

John’s barrier was fear:

Perhaps he feared that if he went in, he’d find Jesus’ body there and it would be another blow, another loss.

Mary’s barrier was grief:

Marry was so focused on her own conceptions and purpose she couldn't see Jesus right in front of her

Thomas’ barrier was anger:

Notice the anger in his voice when he says in verse 25 “I will never believe!”

Thomas had given up before seeing it through to the end.

Each of them had barriers so that they couldn’t see or hear what Jesus was trying to demonstrate to them—that He was alive and well and now, so would they!

So how did they over these barriers overcome?

  • John had to push past his fear and enter the tomb to see for himself.
  • Mary had to listen and be reminded of her personal relationship with Jesus as He called out “Mary”.
  • Thomas had to see the Lord and have his anger called out—to deal with it squarely with Jesus.

Fear, grief, and anger are real emotions and there is nothing wrong with them. But these emotions tend to cloud our thinking and put up barriers to us thinking clearly about Jesus. If you are having a hard time understanding the gospel, or for that matter, what Jesus is doing in your life, you might examine yourself to see if one of these emotions is making it harder for you.

How do you get past it? You get past fear by pushing through, to see for yourself and then deal with the consequences. Fear is the dread of an unknown future. When John saw the face cloth all folded up something clicked in Him. Even though he didn’t fully understand, he trusted that this wasn’t his worst fear. Somehow Jesus had this under control.

You get past grief by being reminded of your personal relationship with Jesus. If you love Him, as Mary did, hear Him calling your name. Grief is suffering a severe loss of something dear to you. In Jesus, you need to know that the most precious thing in the universe will never be taken away.

You get past anger by addressing it. Anger is the expression of pain brought about by personal loss. Thomas let his anger keep him from seeing that everything was really okay, more than okay in fact. He wanted proof. But anger, as is often the case, clouds our judgment. It’s interesting to me that Jesus offered the proof to him, but in the end it wasn’t needed. For you, demanding that God prove His love for you isn’t going to really get you anywhere. Face your anger over injustice or loss or fear by facing the nail-scarred hands and pierced side of Jesus. He paid the price for all the loss and injustice and sin in your life and in the lives of everyone in the world. Let your anger turn to trust in Him.

I want to end with verse 29. Jesus says: “You guys got to see me so it’s easier to believe. But it’s even cooler for those who haven’t had the opportunity to see Me in person, and yet trust in Me.” Today we can’t see the physical Jesus. He ascended as He told Mary He was going to do, and sent the Holy Spirit into the hearts of those who trust in Him to tell His story. It started with those who saw Him—this rag-tag group of men and women. But their eyewitness testimony has come down to us. They wrote down what they experienced and now you get the opportunity to trust in Jesus too.

What’s keeping you? Unbelief? Grief? Anger? Fear? Want proof to your satisfaction? My advice is to push past those things—see the empty tomb, see the risen Lord, and see the nail prints in His hands and sword-pierced side and realize He did this all for you individually. He wants just as much a personal relationship with you as He has with Mary Magdalen. And you can have it, by turning away from what this age offers in terms of security, intimacy, and purpose (which, by the way, lead to a body left in the tomb, not risen). And let the sacrifice of Jesus on your behalf forgive your weaknesses, fill you with His Spirit, and give you the security of knowing you will live with Him forever, the intimacy of a close personal relationship with the maker of the universe, and purpose to help Him bring this good news to others. I guarantee you will NEVER regret it!

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