Monday Preverb – 01April2024



The theme for next week, starting Sunday, is the blessing of peace and joy.

  • In our call to worship psalm, we are given a picturesque depiction of unity and harmony lived out among God’s people.
  • The reading from Acts also displays a peace and joy in the form of solidarity and sharing of possessions among the earliest believers.
  • 1 John links the fellowship among believers with the fellowship given in Christ with God, and then elaborates on confession and forgiveness, which brings peace.
  • The Gospel text in John recounts the post-resurrection story of Jesus’ blessing of peace, along with his bestowal of the Spirit, on his fearful disciples behind locked doors.



Life in a Handful of Dust
Greg Williams

John starts his gospel work “In the beginning.”  Later Jesus creates sight for a blind man with a handful of dust.  After his resurrection, he meets Mary in a garden on Easter morning. In the Upper Room, he breathes on his apostles.  Notice John’s words:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

John 20:21-22 (ESV)

Throughout the gospels, most vividly in John, we see the familiar images of dust, gardens, and breath.  History started this way, in the garden, where God first breathed life into Adam.  Here at the start of the New Testament church, Jesus begins the whole process again, by breathing the Spirit into us.

There’s that Hebrew word for breath — ruach — the word for Spirit.

Instead of destroying us for our rebellion and for turning from him, instead of starting over with a scorched earth policy from the ground up, God came here himself to re-create.  These echoes of creation remind us that God always kept a remnant, Noah, the Exodus, the people brought back from exile.  And then he brought forth his Son from one family, one woman, one womb.

He kept the remnant because that was his plan all along.  He is the God who re-creates.  He takes the dust and waste that sin has turned the world into and starts his kingdom here and says, “It is good.”

Has he breathed life into the dust of your life?  Has he taken what is lifeless and dry and made it live?  Think of the addict who is healed and goes on to support other addicts.  Think of a mother who was hurt and abused as a child, but was then given her own children to cherish and break that cycle of pain.

We live in a world of death and resurrection with a God who, over and over, breathes life into a handful of dust.  How is he breathing life into you?

I’m Greg Williams Speaking of Life.




21 So Jesus said to them again, Peace to you!  As the Father has sent Me, I also send 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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.”   

24 Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”  

So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”  

26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them.  Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace to you!  27 Then He said to Thomas, Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”   

28 And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”  

29 Jesus said to him, Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed.  Blessed are  those who have not seen and yet have believed.”    .

30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.    




A Double Blessing

John 20:19-31 ESV

The Easter season is a time when the church can once again revisit the biblical witness of the risen Jesus, along with the blessing that comes to those who put their trust in him. This Easter season we are following closely the Apostle John’s testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and the implications of faith in him based on who Jesus has revealed himself to be. Considering John’s gospel account of the first encounters of the risen Lord, along with a look at today’s account of a later post-resurrection appearance, we are given an opportunity to make use of a wordplay to make a point. That wordplay will be the word “double.” Which is why this sermon is titled “A Double Blessing.”

To set this up, let me point out some “doubling” that we see in John’s writing. First, the way John tells the story of Jesus’ first resurrection appearance in John 20:1-18, along with today’s story of Jesus’ later post-resurrection appearance, is by making use of two parallel “double-stories.” So, there are two doubles right there. If you remember John’s telling of the Easter story, he pairs the story of two disciples with Mary Magdalene. In doing so he shows a contrast between faith and doubt of those who are encountered by Jesus. In the resurrection story, it is the “beloved disciple” who demonstrates faith upon seeing the empty tomb, contrasted with Mary Magdalene who still believes Jesus is dead, even while standing face-to-face with him. Then, in our story today, John contrasts the response of rejoicing by ten disciples who are encountered by Jesus in a locked room, with that of Thomas who is absent and declares he will not believe without proof. So, now let’s take a look at some more “doubles” in John’s second use of a “double-story.”

As you read through this story you may notice a few more doubles. First, we see an image of two doors. There is the locked door of the room the disciples are hiding in and then there is Jesus, the Door, who appears in the room. Admittingly, that may be an exegetical stretch. But these are not: There are two occasions of disciples locked in a room. There are two blessings of peace pronounced by Jesus. There are two appearances of Jesus—one with the absence of Thomas and one with him present. There are also two presentations of Jesus’s hands and side. And just for fun, Thomas is referenced as “the Twin.” You may be able to find a few more doubles. But I probably should stop and make my point.

The point is simply to reiterate a pattern observed in all scripture from Genesis to Revelation. In Jesus, what is lost, is not only restored, but exponentially renewed. So, even using the “double” wordplay is not good enough. God is up to far more than just “doubling” of some blessing. He aims to bring us into the very source and fountain of all blessing, his own life and love shared by the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Here’s another way to think about it.

Borrowing from theologian Walter Brueggeman, we see a pattern particularly in the Psalms, and generally in all scripture, of God bringing us through the process of Orientation-Disorientation-New Orientation. When we go through a crisis, experience a loss, or have any experience that amounts to “disorientation,” we usually want to go back to the way things were. We seek re-orientation. However, not only is this impossible, but it’s not the pattern that God holds out to us in scripture. In Jesus Christ, God has done a new thing. He leads us to “New Orientation” which transcends the past and leads us to a joyous future. This framework is one aspect we can see in the story of Jesus encountering the fearful disciples in a locked room after the resurrection. Let’s take a look and keep in mind, the “double-blessing” pattern of Jesus’ work in our lives.

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.” (John 20:19 ESV)

We can identify with the disciples locking the doors because of their “fear of the Jews.” When we go through “disorienting” events in our life we can be fearful of the future, locking ourselves away, grieving the loss of the past. But Jesus gets behind our locked doors. He doesn’t wait for an invitation, and he is not hindered by our fears. He shows up with the words, “Peace be with you.” For the disciples this would be comforting considering the last time they saw Jesus they had abandoned and denied him as they acted fearfully during the events leading to his crucifixion. But Jesus transcends our past actions and the past events of disorientation of our lives. He restores us with peace – a lasting reconciliation that frees us from all past events that have left us scarred and wounded.

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:20-23 ESV)

Jesus used his own scars and wounds to serve as a connecting point for the disciples. Most likely, a very real fear the disciples had was being caught by the Romans and having their own hands pierced by nails and their own side impaled with a spear. To see the resurrected Jesus in their midst displaying these scars was a message that the Romans have no lasting power. Jesus gets the final word and that word in this moment is “Peace.” This is a second pronouncement of “Peace be with you” from Jesus. We can see the weight and force of the reality of peace that Jesus brings by his speaking of it twice. If all of creation was called into existence through the Word spoken once, then how much more of a reality of something he speaks twice! In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we do indeed have an abiding and lasting peace.

Within this reality of peace given to us, Jesus then commissions the church. He tells the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Jesus’ whole life and ministry was lived in the Spirit. From birth, through ministry, and all the way to his death, all that Jesus said and did was done in the Spirit. This is how the church is sent into the world. We are not sent out alone or abandoned. We are not sent out on our own power, cleverness, or ability. He begins a new mission for the disciples as he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Being sent does not mean being sent away from Jesus but being sent with Jesus into his continuing ministry. Jesus has begun a new thing in his disciples to go out and fearlessly proclaim the new creation and it’s new King. As we see who Jesus is as the resurrected one who sends his Spirit, we can move forward into the new orientation he has for us. It’s in this newness that we have life. There is no going back to the past, but we need not fear the future as Jesus stands as the Alpha and Omega, redeeming all time past, present, and future in his finished work on the cross. And we are not left alone but are given the Holy Spirit who encourages and empowers us to move forward into the new life and mission he has for us. The disciples are about to take their first steps from being fishermen to being fishers of men. The “double-blessing” is upon them. It’s a blessing held out to us as well in Jesus Christ.

In giving the Holy Spirit for this new mission the disciples would be entering, Jesus gives a descriptor of what that will look like: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” We will want to make sure to understand this in light of all scripture. We know Jesus is not giving us the power to make people forgiven or not forgiven but rather he is teaching the disciples the importance of living in the Spirit. As we forgive others, we come to understand more fully the truth and reality of forgiveness found in Jesus.

As a side note, Jesus also reveals by showing them his hands and his side that he is no ghost. His resurrection is a bodily resurrection. He restores and redeems all humanity with all our scars and all our wounds to a glorified body with a glorious future. That’s a glory we can’t fully comprehend this side of death. But Jesus gives us a glimpse of it as he stands unaffected and unhindered by the scars from his crucifixion. Those scars are now being used to elicit rejoicing from his disciples. We can trust that he will turn our scars and wounds into points of rejoicing as well.

It’s also the scars of Jesus that serve as the point of connection for Thomas to overcome his doubts.

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 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.” 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.” 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29 ESV)

Now we come to see the contrast in faith that John highlights with his “double-story” of the ten disciples first encounter with Jesus behind locked doors, and Jesus’ second encounter with Thomas included. It’s important to note here that even though the ten disciples who were in the room when Jesus appeared are telling their brother Thomas that they “have seen the Lord,” they too, along with Thomas in this moment, are still hiding behind locked doors. Often Thomas bears the brunt of unbelief in this story but that may not be a fair reading of John’s point. Each person in John’s narrative is dealing with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection in different ways and at different times. Faith in Jesus is personal. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to putting one’s trust in the Lord Jesus. It’s a work of the Spirit in each of us at a very personal level. It is not some mechanical method, automatic technique, or magic formula at play. Faith, by which we mean trust, is, by definition, something that can only take place in a relationship. And Jesus by the Spirit, is the initiator of that relationship. And he will take whatever time and approach that is fitting for each of us to grow our faith in him.

For Thomas, it seems he needed another week to even be in the same room as the other disciples. They are all behind locked doors, but Thomas seems to have another door locked as well. The door of belief. And before we look down on Thomas, let us not forget the many times we have done the same. Whether through life experiences or human reasoning we decide that Jesus is not to be trusted. Have you been there? Maybe you have been there and back again. Trust takes time and fear certainly impedes our progress. So, we react by locking the door and refusing to let Jesus in. But then, unexplainably, and without our invitation…. Jesus appears. He doesn’t need our belief in order for him to be present in our lives. He just appears behind our locked doors of unbelief and starts bringing forth a faith that we couldn’t bring forth on our own. Praise God! Jesus finds a way behind all our locked doors, and he meets us where we are, building a faith in us that leads to life.

Did you notice that Thomas’ demand for evidence that Jesus was alive was the very thing Jesus had already presented to the other ten disciples? And Jesus did not lose his patience with Thomas, or tell him, “Sorry, you should have been here last week.” No, he just presented his hands and side again, this time with the added invitation to touch them as that was what Thomas declared it would take for him to believe. And to Thomas’ credit, he was a man of his word by professing, “My Lord and my God!” We don’t know if Thomas actually touched the scars or not, but we do know that Jesus restored his faith by meeting Thomas where he was in his unbelief.

After Thomas’ profound confession of faith, Jesus asks, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Is Jesus making a comparison here to diminish how Thomas grew in faith? I think we are inclined to read it that way as we love to make comparisons that put us in a favorable light. But it seems more probable, in the way John is writing this, that Jesus is alluding to Thomas’ and the other disciples’ role in being sent into the world to proclaim the very message they have just come to believe. Jesus is risen. In hearing this message which the disciples will preach, others like you and me, who were not present to witness Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, will share the same blessing of being encountered by the risen Jesus, who gets behind our locked doors to bring us to faith. In this way, the passage concludes on a note of double-blessing that comes with the blessing of Jesus appearing to the disciples and commissioning them to tell us the story today where we can receive the blessing of placing our trust in the one who was raised to bring us new life. And that’s the story we have just heard. Do you believe it? If not, there are more stories to be told. Jesus is not done getting behind our locked doors and bringing us into his peace. John concludes saying much the same thing:

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. (John 20:30-31 ESV)

As we continue our journey through this Easter Season, may we see the risen Lord who gets behind our locked doors. As he meets us where we are, even in the middle of our fear and pain of loss, may our faith grow as he encounters us, helping us to move forward in newness. This new orientation in Jesus is where we find life–joyous, abundant overflowing life. It’s where we find that we are “double-blessed.”



There seem to be two major changes of gear in this passage from what has gone before. The first relates to time: in the first part of the chapter, narrative time slows down so much that we are told who is running to the tomb fastest, and who enters in first, followed by the poignant account of Mary’s encounter with Jesus. Here you can almost count the passing seconds; it is all marked by the slowness and stillness of the early morning. By contrast, the second half of the chapter appears to be highly compressed, with a summary of Jesus’ giving of the Spirit and commissioning the disciples, and a week skipping past in a moment. It is, once again, worth noting that this corresponds very well with the way that we remember important experiences; the key moments are often slowed down in our memory, and details remain vivid, long after we have forgotten other details, perhaps even including what would otherwise be important details of chronology. (I can remember the colour of the car I was following on my bike as a teenager when it crashed head-on with one coming the other way; I can see the glass showering across the road and the noise, but I am blowed if I can tell you the month or even (reliably) the year.)

The second change of gear relates to the symbolic and theological meaning of this section. In the preceding passage, the typical symbolic double-meaning of much of the Fourth Gospel has fallen away. Where Nicodemus’ twilight of understanding matches the time of his visit to Jesus in John 3, and the bright noonday light of John 4 expresses the Samaritan woman’s recognition of Jesus, the actions of Simon Peter and the other disciple don’t appear to have any such significance. The disciple’s bending over to look in the tomb simply happens because that is what is required by the low entrance of any similar first-century rock-cut tomb, as we know well from archaeology. The separation of the sidarion that was wrapped around Jesus’ head from the othonia, the strips of linen wrapped around his body (John 20.6–7), is what you would only find if the body had passed through the material and left them in their place—assuming you understood how bodies were prepared for burial in the first century.

Verse 19 begins with one of the Fourth Gospel’s customary mentions of timing, locating the encounter of the Ten (the Twelve without Judas or, on this occasion, Thomas) in the early moments of their receiving the news from Mary (John 20.18) and the other women. The news has not yet sunk in; they still remain behind locked doors for fear of the Iudaioi, best translated here as ‘the Jewish [or Judean] leaders’, since they still believe that they were next in line for the chop, as those whose power is threatened seek to snuff out this dangerous new movement. Some versions (like the NIV) describe the disciples as being ‘together’, but there is no such word in the text; it is far from clear that they are, as a group, any less fragmented than when they were scattered by the crisis of Jesus’ arrest (else why would Thomas be missing?). They are, mostly, in one physical place but (in contrast to later occasions like Pentecost) it is far from clear that they are ‘together’.

Despite the doors being locked, Jesus comes and stands ‘in their midst’, a phrase which has a curious parallel with the vision in Revelation 1 of the Son of Man ‘in the midst’ of the lamp stands (Rev 1.13). In this passage, Jesus is both clearly corporeal (bodily) but in a transformed way so that he is unconstrained by the limits of the physical world, and can come and go as he pleases. As in the parallel account in Luke 24.36, Jesus greets them and shows them his wounds; in that gospel, this everyday greeting becomes part of Luke’s interest in the theme of the peace of the gospel. But in the Fourth Gospel, the language of peace specifically reminds us of the Last Supper discourse, in which Jesus offers peace in contrast with the ‘trouble’ his disciples will have in the world (John 14.2716.33). On saying this, he immediately shows them not his ‘hands and feet’ as in Luke, but his ‘hands and side’. This confirms that it is the same Jesus they knew before, but also that it is these wounds that bring about the peace that he has promised. The springs of living water that Ezekiel anticipated flowing from the side of the renewed temple (Ezekiel 47.1) actually flowed from the side of Jesus (John 19.34), who is the true temple (John 2.19–21), in fulfilment of Jesus’ own teaching (John 7.38). Joy comes to the disciples as they begin to recognise who Jesus really is, and what his death and resurrection really mean.

The second of three greetings of ‘Peace…’ moves the encounter on to its next stage. Jesus has not come simply to minister to them, but to commission them to minister to others in the same way he has ministered to them. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. There are two different words used here for ‘send’, apostello and pempo respectively, but there is no sense of different meaning. (The Fourth Gospel often uses synonyms with no differentiation of meaning, the most celebrated and debated example being the different words for ‘love’ in John 21.) We then are offered a concise ‘Johannine Pentecost’ as Jesus breathes on the disciples and invites them to ‘receive the Spirit’. I don’t think there is any easy way to resolve the chronological differences between this and Luke-Acts; for the possible options see Craig Keener’s extended discussion in his commentary on John, pp 1196–1200. But theologically the Fourth Gospel says something very similar to Luke:

Christology: As Jesus’ breathing illustrates, Jesus is the one who dispenses the Spirit of God, a claim that thus enfolds Jesus within the Godhead (as Max Turner has argued in relation to Luke’s account of the ascension and Pentecost).

Missiology:  their apostolic ministry, sent to continue the work that ‘Jesus began to do’ (Acts 1.1), can only be effective when empowered by the Spirit. Luke expresses this in the close linking of the Spirit, power, and testimony both in the ministry of Jesus and throughout Acts.

Ecclesiology: the realisation of the forgiveness that comes from Jesus’ death and resurrection only takes place in the context of this Spirit-filled resurrection community. Jo-Ann Brant (Paideia commentary, p 276–7) argues against the traditional understanding of John 20.23 as an ‘antithetical parallelism’, contrasting the forgiveness of sins with their ‘retention’, is mistaken, not least because the word ‘sins’ is not repeated and the term krateo (‘retain’) does not usually have such a negative connotation. A better way of understanding the second phrase is the ‘grasping’ or ‘retaining’ of someone in the community, thus forming a synthetic parallelism between the forgiveness of sins and the building of community: ‘Whosoever’s sins you forgive they are forgiven; and whosever you keep, they are kept.’ (The verb krateo is used of Jesus’ grasp of the ekklesiae, the believing communities, in Rev 2.1.)

There are objections to Brant’s reading in this way; with the exception of Matt 9.25 (which is paralleled in Mark 1.31), the verb krateo takes the accusative case, so it would not be possible to translate this directly as ‘whosoever you keep’ since τινων is in the genitive plural. And, though the language of ‘keeping sins’ is unusual, and a unique use of krateo, the Fourth Gospel does indeed talk of sins ‘remaining’, for example when the Pharisees question Jesus in relation to the man born blind in John 9.41. Most commentators connect this saying with Matt 16.19, and Peter having the ‘keys’ to the kingdom. But we noted that this is about being steward of the household, rather than being the one who grants permission to enter, and both there and here (by means of the ‘divine passive’) the emphasis is on the power of God to forgive, not the disciples. However you read it, there is a strong focus on belonging to the community of forgiveness.

It is within the broad context of this rich tapestry of ideas that the narrative about Thomas comes. The others greet Thomas just the same way Mary had greeted them ‘We have seen the Lord!’, using exactly the same words—but the effect is quite different. Thomas’ response is not rational but emotional; it is full of repetition (nails/nails, put my finger/put my hand) and drama, as he demands to merely to touch but to ‘thrust’ (ballo) his finger and hands in the gaping wounds. What was the reason for this bitter response?

A number of years ago, I was taking an assembly in a primary school, and asking the group to name some of their heroes. As each one was mentioned, I exclaimed dramatically that I had only recently seen these people—some of them on the way to school that morning—and if only I had known I could have brought them along or introduced them! There was growing incredulity in the group, and rightly so. But when I asked how they would feel if this had really happened—and so how Thomas might be feeling having missed out on the encounter—a hand at the back shot up. ‘I would be very angry!’ It was an amazing insight into the things that hold us back from believing, and anger at what has happened to us and the way life has turned out seems to me to be far more common than an actual lack of evidence, even if it is evidential language that we naturally reach for. (And I have ever since called the Twin ‘Angry Thomas’ rather than ‘Doubting Thomas’.)

Jesus’ next appearance takes place ‘after eight days’, which perhaps, by counting the days inclusively (that is, including the first and last within the number) means ‘one week later’ as many English translations have it. This second encounter at first exactly mirrors the first: the door are locked; Jesus stands in their midst; he greets them a third time ‘Peace be with you!’ Then his attention is turned to Thomas, with two remarkable features. First, the risen Jesus completely accepts Thomas’ demands of proof, so that his invitation repeats exactly the language of finger and nails and hand and side that Thomas himself used. There is no sense in which Jesus requires belief as something contrary to or lacking in evidence. The second remarkable thing (contrary to Caravaggio’s famous painting above) is that there is no suggestion that Thomas takes him up on the offer; seeing Jesus for himself is enough, as Jesus’ following saying emphasises. Whatever Thomas’ sin is (if that is what it be) is immediately forgiven, and he is once more incorporated into the apostolic community.

This then leads into Jesus’ saying itself, and the first concluding statement that the writer adds at the end of the chapter (the second concluding statement coming in John 21.24–25). Although in the narrative, Jesus is speaking to Thomas, in recording it the gospel writer is speaking to his audience, since ‘those who have not seen, yet believe’ are precisely the first generation of readers of this gospel—especially if it was written at the end of the apostolic era, when the first generation of eye-witnesses are passing away.

And we need to note that those ‘who have not seen’ are not in any sense inferior to those who ‘have seen and believed’; it is the shared reality of belief that matters. Where Thomas had the visual evidence of the Living Word before him, we now have the evidence of the written word, the testimony of the beloved disciple, and both are equally sufficient evidence for placing our trust in Jesus. In reflecting on our relationship to Thomas, we might want to borrow the language of the following chapter. ‘Never mind about what I want for him—what matters is that you follow me.’

For video discussion of this passage and all these questions, join James and Ian here:

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