Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

249. "Help Thou Mine Unbelief" (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23)

Even though the majority opinion of the disciples had settled once again into a mood of scepticism about their Lord's resurrection, this did not mean an end to discussion about it, for when a man knows the truth about Christ he is not readily silenced concerning it. Especially is this the case when that truth appears to be answered only by blind and seemingly wilful prejudice. Men in this condition cannot appreciate the deep satisfaction and abiding happiness which can be theirs through the knowledge of Christ. They must be shown. For their own sake they must be made to realize how wonderful is the truth they now hold at arm's length. So the talk went on ceaselessly.

Among them there was now a group of at least three, but maybe as many as eight in number, who were convinced that their Lord was alive. Their persuasions were making but little headway when, suddenly Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, saying: "Peace be unto you." But there was no peace. Instead, only immediate consternation and confusion. Luke's words: "they were terrified and affrighted ... troubled ... thoughts (rationalistic explanations) arising in their minds."

The door was shut fast—they knew this for certain — and had remained shut. (This is clearly implied by the Greek of John 20:19). Then how could it be their Lord himself, even though they heard his voice! The hypothesis of hallucination, which had seemed adequate enough to explain the stories told by the others, was useless now to discount the evidence of their own senses. So in their bewilderment and panic they fell back on the universal inheritance of stupid tales about ghosts and spirits. That must be it! There were even some people known to assert that Samuel appeared thus to King Saul in ancient days. Then what more likely than a like appearance by their prophet who had been so much greater than Samuel?

Thus they convinced themselves (AV of v.37 is too weak here), and cowered away from this apparition in fear, whilst the few who knew better kept an awed but glad silence, waiting for Jesus to exorcise an unbelief which they had grappled with in vain. "Why have you been troubled, and still continue so?" he chided, with reference to their chaotic confused state of mind all through that day. And why do explanations and arguments even now arise in your minds?" Yet still most of them "believed not for joy." 'It's too good to be true' was their continuing reaction.

It was Joseph and his brethren over again: "I am Joseph; doth my father yet live? And his brethren could not answer him, for they were troubled at his presence ... Behold, your eyes see ... it is my mouth that speaketh unto you" (Genesis 45:3,12).

Jesus went on with the most matter-of-fact appeal imaginable: "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have." In Eden the instruction had been: "Touch not, lest ye die." But now it was.-"Handle me, and live!" And in the time of the Patriarchs, Jacob, seeking to be accepted as the first-born, feared that "my father peradventure will feel me" (LXX). But here was "the first-born from the dead" challenging the same test to vindicate his claim to the Promise.

Flesh and bones

From the Lord's expression "flesh and bones" and Paul's contrasting phrase: "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God," the inference has often been made that the resurrection body was, and will be, devoid of blood, which has ever been the vehicle of mortal, natural life (Leviticus 17:11). This argument is inconclusive. The conclusion drawn maybe correct, but the evidence is inadequate for dogmatism. Paul's phrase about "flesh and blood" (1 Cor. 15:50) has no reference to the fluid which flows in a man's veins. It is the familiar Bible expression which indicates mortal human nature. In such passages as Matthew 16:17 and Galatians 1:16 reference to literal blood and literal flesh leads to absurdity. The risen Jesus may have had blood in his veins without that blood being the fundamental principle of his new immortality. But at this time the challenge was that they handle what they could fee/-the flesh of his arm, and the bones of his fingers.

There were also subtle overtones to the use of these words just now. Doubtless they were designed to recall how the first Adam, raised from sleep, greeted the bride whom God had provided to be a helpmeet for him: "this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23).

Again, when David was brought back from his tribulations and 'death' after he had been rejected by the nation which should never have ceased to honour him, he greeted those nearest him thus: "Ye are my brethren, ye are my bones and my flesh" (2 Samuel 19:12). Perhaps these were Bible passages which Jesus had already "opened" to the two on the way to Emmaus.

It may safely be assumed that at first none of the disciples was courageous enough to take up the Lord's challenge. Who was the first to do so? Was it Mary who had handled him already? Or was it Peter, once again the leader in loyalty to the Lord he loved? Almost certainly it was not John, for he had been convinced by the empty tomb, and now he quietly waited for his brethren to join him in a new and higher understanding of their risen Master.

So Jesus "showed them his hands and his feet" - and also his side. (John 20:20).

Even now the majority hesitated to abandon their incredulity. So Jesus seated himself at the table and asked for food. Someone pushed a plate towards him, and slowly, deliberately, whilst every eye in the room was on him, he ate a portion of fish. Then, reaching across, he rounded off a fragmentary meal with a piece of honeycomb. (Half a dozen of the "better" manuscripts omit this detail. But it is so obviously not an invention that those manuscripts censure themselves by the omission).

What more could he do to convince them he was really, truly, bodily, alive? Thus, by "infallible proofs" which he provided for their senses, Jesus swept away all unbelief.

Resurrection and eating

In the New Testament there is a remarkable consistency about the way in which the eating of food is unobtrusively associated with resurrection. When Jairus's daughter was restored to life, Jesus immediately commanded to give her food (Mark 5:43). Lazarus, raised from corruption, is next mentioned reclining at the meal table in the company of Jesus. The Book of Acts twice emphasizes that Jesus shared meals with his disciples after he was risen (1 :4 RVm; 10:41). This will also be the experience of the saints in Christ in the day of their resurrection: "that ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom" (Luke 22:30). "I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me (Revelation 3:20; Luke 12:37 requires a future application for these words) "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life" (Revelation 2:7).

"Then were the disciples glad." The words must rank as one of the most telling understatements in the whole volume of Scripture. As conviction seeped into their minds, the disciples would be hard put to find adequate expression for their joy. Ejaculations of praise and thanks to God would be instinctive. But soon they would fall to discussing amongst themselves—since they could not al I ta Ik with Jesus at once — the amazing implications behind this resurrection of their Lord. Here was the final proof that he was the Messiah. Their exultant interpretation of his royal entry into Jerusalem only a week earlier had not been far wrong. Now doubtless, at this time, he would restore again the kingdom to Israel. No longer need they fear arrest by the authorities. The future, which only an hour ago had been dark and cheerless, was now dazzlingly bright, full of comfort and promise. Now Jesus repeated to them his "Peace be unto you." The confusion was stilled. The doubts were gone, it was peace indeed which they now experienced.

But Jesus said nothing to them about establishing the kingdom. Instead he spoke of a mission full of responsibility: "As my Father hath sent me, even so I send you." As he, anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, had gone about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, God being with him (Acts 10:38), so now they were to take up the same divine work. They were to be ambassadors for Christ. In his stead they were to beseech men: "Be ye reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Earlier, during the Lord's own ministry they had served an apprenticeship to this high calling. Temporarily endowed with the Holy Spirit's credentials for the work, they had gone forth to welcoming towns and villages, and had returned exultant at the encouraging response they had met with. Now the responsibility was to be vastly greater, the field of activity incomparably wider, but the reception of the message by no means as encouraging. "As my Father hath sent me..."! The Father loved the Son as no son had ever been loved, yet He sent him to suffer and die. "Even so send I you." Within months they would begin to learn the meaning of the words. No more shut doors to give them secrecy and hiding from the chief priests and rulers. But instead a fearless open witness before all men, whether they listened in sympathy or plotted in resentment.

The Holy Spirit

"And when he had said this, he breathed on them (literally: he in-breathed them; s.w. Gen. 2:7), and said unto them, receive ye the Holy Spirit." The action was a deliberate reminiscence of Genesis. Like the angel of the Lord in Genesis he was now imparting spiritual life and power to the New Creation which had been hitherto until this moment earthy and lifeless. "Thou sendest forth thy breath (spirit)), they are created; and thou renewest the face of the earth."

These words of Jesus are usually taken to be a further promise and anticipation of the heavenly gift which came upon them at Pentecost: "You are to receive the Holy Spirit." Probably, then, Christ's in-breathing was not only a symbolic "kiss of life" but an immediate imparting of heavenly guidance and wisdom (cp. Acts 1:2). However, it is not to b» assumed that the dramatic powers of the Holy Spirit which they were able to display in later days were now theirs from this moment onwards. This was "in-breathing," not the "rushing mighty wind" manifest with the flame of fire at Pentecost.

The mysterious commission which accompanied this gift has been gravely misunderstood in Christian orthodoxy: "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." Here, some would claim, is the founding of an episcopacy descending from the apostles. Others with equal confidence make these words the sole basis for the validity of priestly absolution. Yet only ten of the apostles were present. Then was Thomas (and also Matthias and Paul) left without the authority these words imparted? And since the two from Emmaus, and the women, were certainly present, they must have shared whatever special blessing was intended by the Lord's words and action.

Here, then, was the Lord's extension to the entire church of a responsibility and authority. It was also a warning deliberately couched in terms which, like his allusion to "flesh and bones" and his breathing on them, was intended to take their minds back to Genesis. When Eve succumbed to temptation and thus brought herself under condemnation, Adam had it in his power to intercede for her or even die for her; but instead he too reached out and grasped the forbidden fruit and shared her sin. Now in the New Creation, the same situation would present its challenge: "Whose soever sins ye remit (through the preaching of the gospel and ministry of the saving grace of Christ), they are remitted unto them. But whose soever sins you hold on to, they are retained —to your account." Over the ensuing years, the early church taught immense numbers of people – both Jews and ignorant pagans — the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and the hope of life in Christ. But they saw also the onset of spiritual decay; all kinds of false ideas and evil practices were increasingly tolerated. And for such lapses the church was, and today is, held accountable.

Alternatively, there was in these words of Christ that which he had foreshadowed in earlier days: "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). The context of these words concerns decisions made by the Body of Christ. But it is important to note that there the Greek text implies decisions already made in heaven and through the power of the Holy Spirit made operative in the life of the believers: "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall have been (already) bound in heaven."

It seems probable, therefore, that this authority of remitting and retaining sins which Jesus now imparted, covered such powers as the preaching of the gospel (1 Peter 2:5) to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46; 18:6; 28:28), decision who should be accepted for baptism (Acts 10:48), and the exercise of discipline in the community (Acts 5:3; 1 Corinthians 5:3).

A wonderful new life, a vitally important work, and a high responsibility were now opening out before these disciples who only a short while before had trembled in fear of a high-priest's reprisals for the finding of an empty tomb.

MOTES: Luke 24:36-43

Terrified; s.w. Ex. 19:16.

Supposed, Gk. is stronger than this: they felt sure.
Thoughts. See the use of the same word in 9:46; Rom. 14:1; Phil. 2:14; 1 Tim. 2:8.
Handle me. See on this word in "Bible Studies", HAW 17.01. Hoskyns observes that neither here nor at Jn. 20:23; 21:23 is there any hint of Jesus leaving the disciples.

The reader is tempted to continue on with 24:44-49 as though part of the narrative just considered. But there are decisive reasons for believing that these verses belong to the end of the Forty Days.

See: Behold; a strange word to use regarding flesh and bones.

John 20:19-23

Shut, Gk. pf. implies and stayed shut.

Lit: into the midst. What does this imply?
Sent... send. Two different Gk. words. Remarkably, the first is apostello (s.w. Heb. 3:1), the other word seems to imply sent, yet in a sense, accompanied.

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