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The Purpose - John 20:24-31

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 16th December 2007.

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One of the most famous episodes in British Naval history is the Mutiny on the Bounty. It happened on 28th April 1789 when a group of sailors led by a man called Fletcher Christian on a ship called the Bounty mutinied against their Captain, Captain Bligh and took over the ship. They put the Captain and some other men on a small boat and cast them adrift, while the mutineers themselves sailed off on the Bounty to find treasure and wealth. Against astonishing odds, however, Captain Bligh found his way back to England and the British Government dispatched a warship to hunt down the mutineers. When the warship arrived at Tahiti some of the mutineers were captured, but seven of them seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Those seven knew the British would come after them and so they set sail from Tahiti with six Polynesian men and twelve Tahitian women they kidnapped. Eventually they came to the uncharted Pitcairn island, burned The Bounty to avoid detection, and these men and women set about making this tiny island their home. The story of this fledging community is not a pretty one. Over the next few years, fifteen men had been murdered, one had committed suicide, and one had died of natural causes. Three of the women were also dead. The island was a place of violence and sexual jealousy, often leading to murder. But when these people were eventually discovered in 1808, there had been an amazing transformation from murderous jealousy, to idyllic friendly living. Historians debate the causes, but it seems that a large part at least was the conversion of the Pitcairners to Christianity. The last surviving European, John Adams, had assumed the role of chief, and had been converted himself after learning to read the Bible and Prayer Book that had been taken from The Bounty before it was destroyed. Adams set about converting the others and soon after the islanders were living by the principles they found laid down in the Bible. The result was by no means a perfect community, but it was a community marked by peace and the desire to live virtuous lives. 

            Well I guess if we were honest there are some things about ourselves that we would love to change. I wonder if you have those standing in the front of the mirror experiences and you wonder to yourself: “What if this were different or that were different in my life. Things would be a little bit better!” We are never ultimately satisfied. We want to change home, job, relationship, body, brain and so it goes on. But what is often so sad is that underlying these surface changes, there is for many a deep lack of satisfaction which cosmetic changes will never fully address.

But tonight we meet a man whose entire life was turned round in the most remarkable way in just one evening. It’s a transformation that is as dramatic as those islanders on Pitcairn. And the reason is the same. He, like they, met the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Except that for Thomas, he was actually able to meet Jesus in the flesh. And his story is meant to teach us that whilst we can no longer see Jesus physically, yet that does not matter. Because we can still meet the risen Lord Jesus Christ, we can know him personally like Thomas and our lives, like his, can undergo a transformation which gets to very heart of our need and our dissatisfaction. It’s more important than any house upgrade, more lasting than a nose job, more joyful than the most amazing experience this world offers us.

And we’ll also see that as John describes for us this scene, he is wanting us to come to some conclusions about Jesus. John has been asking us all the way through the gospel what we make of Jesus Christ, and now we must decide. And running all the way through this passage is the question of belief. The word for belief in the original comes some seven times. The point is: Do we believe, do we trust what is said about Jesus? And if not, why not? So let’s look at this remarkable transformation of Thomas under three headings, lessons which are applicable to each one of us too:

1) Why we don’t believe

2) Why we should believe

3) How we can believe

1) Why we don’t believe

So first then, we see why we don’t believe. And that was certainly the case with Thomas. He refused to believe. Now we don’t know that much about Thomas but he does crop up a few other times in John’s book and he appears to be a determined man who is not easily taken in. In John chapter 11, Thomas says that he is ready to die for Jesus should the need arise. And in John 14, Jesus is explaining that he is the way, and that the disciples know where he is going, and everyone is no doubt nodding in sage agreement, concealing their probable confusion, when Thomas blurts out: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” He says what’s on his mind. So he’s not the sort of guy to believe anything. In fact if anything, he’s a hard nosed realist whose mind is not easily changed, but perhaps with a hint of an Eeyoreish character which is ready to see the problems in everything! But more recently, Thomas’ world has collapsed around him. He’d pinned all his hopes on Jesus. Jesus had become one of his closest friends, indeed more than that. Jesus had been the messiah, the rescuer, the king promised in the OT to bring freedom to the people of God. But just three days before these events, Jesus had hung on a cross. Brutally and clinically murdered for nothing it seemed. Thomas’ dreams were in tatters. Totally disillusioned, absolutely distraught. Life was not worth living. Thomas was shattered!

            So you can imagine how he must have felt when his ten best friends come up to him in verse 25 and say that they have seen Jesus, their master and friend alive. Thomas hadn’t been there when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples in verse 19. They were overjoyed when they saw him! It must have been almost too good to be true. So when Thomas’ friends turn up saying Jesus was alive and well, then you could forgive him for being a little sceptical couldn’t you? Do you see how Thomas responds? Verse 25: “But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’” A stubborn refusal to believe unless it’s plain as a pikestaff it really did happen.

            Now at this stage we might want to congratulate Thomas, mightn’t we? After all, he’s not going to be easily duped. He’s not going to be taken in by some well meaning, but gullible friends? Surely all Thomas wants to do is make sure they aren’t barking mad? Perhaps they have seen a ghost? Perhaps they have all had the same hallucination? Maybe some of Peter’s fish bone wine has gone to their heads? But the trouble is, there is a little more here than simple doubt. It’s more an unwillingness to believe which is Thomas’ problem. “I will not believe,” he says. It’s not so much “I cannot believe”, as “I won’t believe”. Unless my criteria for belief are fulfilled, I won’t believe. That’s his problem. This resurrection of Jesus was simply not part of Thomas’ experience. And if he’d not experienced it, then he won’t believe it! And still the same happens today.

            By way of illustration, the story is told of the Italian priest who was once trying to convince a sceptical peasant of the possibility of miracles. “What would you call it, he asked, if I jumped off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, landed on both feet and walked off unhurt?” Well, grunted the peasant, I’d call it an accident.” “Well, said the priest patiently trying again, what would you call it if I went up the Tower again, and exactly the same thing happened- I jumped off and landed on my feet and walked away!” “Well, grunted the peasant again, I’d call it another accident!” Growing frustration and rising blood pressure! Well, said the priest, what if I went up a third time and exactly the same thing happened.” “Well, said the peasant, I’d call that a habit!”

            You see for some it’s not so much I cannot believe, but I won’t believe and that was certainly the case for Thomas. And there are many reasons today why people won’t believe. For some it’s an understandable reason like lack of knowledge. Some people don’t know enough about the Christian faith, so won’t believe. But it’s easy enough to get the information. The bigger problem is what happens next. Perhaps for some the reason for unbelief is pride. An unwillingness to submit to the Lordship of Jesus. You know he’s true, you know he’s Lord, but in your pride you refuse to bow the knee before him, to surrender to him. Perhaps for others the reason is fear. A number of non Christian friends of mine have refused to become Christians, not through intellectual doubts, but because of fear. Fear of what will happen to them if they do, fear of changing their lives to suit what God thinks as opposed to what they think, fear of friends and family and how they will react. You see often the reason why people don’t believe is because it’s a case of unwillingness to believe rather than inability. They might even see the truth, but they won’t believe for whatever reason.

            And you know this refusal to believe or to trust, because the word in the original language means both things, can be a problem for Christians too. I won’t trust God for the future. Of course we might not put it that way, but the attitude is revealed in our language and actions. We fear the future and we won’t trust God to take care of it. We worry unnecessarily, we fear what will happen- we fret over the consequences of the what ifs. It’s actually a refusal to trust the God who says he cares for us. Perhaps a future job, a hospital appointment, a child’s welfare. God knows our worries far more deeply than we do. And we cause ourselves pain when we don’t trust God for the outcomes, however difficult they might be. Or unbelief in the Christian might be seen in a refusal to take certain parts of the Bible seriously. God’s understanding of sexual ethics, his view of judgement and hell, his word on the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. It’s not so much that “I can’t believe” but “I won’t believe.” And such stubborn unbelief affects both Christians and non Christians. So what is the solution?

2) Why we should believe

Well that brings us onto the second part of Thomas’ story, or why we should believe. Because Thomas would find that he had moved from being very stubborn to very surrendered. Because a week later Jesus came once again to that same upper room, and stood among the disciples. So let’s read from verse 26: “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though 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; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” He gives to Thomas exactly what Thomas wanted. This same Jesus who was butchered on the cross, whose hands and feet were pierced with nails, whose side was ripped open by a soldier’s spear, this same Jesus stands before Thomas in living, breathing flesh and blood. It’s no hallucination. Because they all saw him standing there. He’s no ghost, because Thomas can touch him. Yes he appears and disappears at will. But Jesus is beyond death now. He can do what he wants having defeated death. He can go where he wants when he wants. But there is no doubt that this is the real, physical Jesus Christ standing before Thomas.

So what does Thomas conclude? “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” Thomas confessed that Jesus was in fact his Lord and his God. And it wasn’t as if everything hung on this moment. This was certainly the “penny dropping” moment for Thomas. But for three years, he’d followed Jesus round and watched his every move. He’d seen Jesus feed thousands of people with a boy’s packed lunch. He’d seen Jesus calm a raging storm. He’d seen Jesus bring back from the dead a man who’d already begun to decompose. But only now did the penny drop. All the evidence pointed to one direction. All the signposts pointed to one thing. And now Thomas realised it was true. Jesus was God himself. He was the Lord and God.

Do you remember the painter Picasso? Well Picasso went into a furniture maker's shop one day, although the furniture maker didn’t recognise him. Picasso said, ‘I want you to build me a cabinet.’ He asked for a pencil and paper and sketched his design. The furniture maker looked at the sketch and thought, ‘I’m sure I recognise that style. Yes…that bears all the marks of Picasso.’ So he said, ‘Are you Picasso?’ And Picasso said, ‘Yes. How much will a cabinet like that cost?’ To which the man shrewdly replied: ‘Nothing. Just sign the sketch.’ And when Jesus stood before Thomas that day, it was as if he’d signed the sketch he’d been drawing for three years, signing it, “Your Lord and God.” And for Thomas, it was so blatantly obvious he could doubt no longer. All the signs pointed to one thing: Jesus was God in the flesh! And the solution to Thomas’ unbelief was to see Jesus as he is. My Lord and my God.

Now Thomas’ reaction to Jesus shows why we should believe. Because belief in Jesus is not something we can take lightly. It is a matter of life and death. Do you see how John puts it in verse 31. When we believe in Jesus Christ we can have life in his name. Because the fact is we deserve death. John has made that clear all the way through his gospel. In our carol service reading from John chapter 1, we will read these words: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” And in chapter 3, we read these words: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” We naturally prefer the darkness spiritually speaking. We are creatures of the dark, morally speaking. And the light exposes our crimes. And we stand accused of crimes against God- we stand condemned. We’re facing eternal darkness, which is a thought so horrific as to be unbearable. Jesus describes it again in chapter 3 as God’s wrath remaining upon us. That’s what life without God is like. But in Jesus life and light has come into the world. As God himself he is able to deal with the judgement that is against humanity. He takes the penalty we deserve as he dies on the cross. So Jesus can say that God loved the world, that is you and me, so much, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish, which is what we deserve, but have eternal life. That’s why Jesus can say in verse 26, ‘Peace be with you.’ It’s not just a form of a greeting here. It’s something Jesus has said three times in verses 19, 21 and here in verse 26. It’s more an explanation of what Jesus has just achieved. He’d just paid on the cross the penalty the disciples should have got. So he could now assure them that they were forgiven and could know peace with God his Father. No wonder Thomas bowed before Jesus and cried out “My Lord and my God.” In one staggering moment he realised everything that God in Christ had done for him.

            Let me tell you about a true story that came out of the American Civil War about a young man called Charlie. Charlie left home to fight, but he got fatally wounded. And a friend he’d made, called Jim, got him back behind the lines. But sadly there was nothing anyone could do for Charlie and it was obvious he would die. But shortly before he died, Charlie handed a note to Jim and said, ‘If you make it, please take this to my parents.’ Well, Jim did make it through the war, and so after the war was over, Jim headed for Charlie's home. By this time, Jim was pretty much a beggar, with nothing to his name apart from the clothes on his back. He arrived at what turned out to be a smart, rich homestead. He went up to the house, and the servants tried to turn him away. But then an older man came out and asked what he was doing here. ‘I have a note from Charlie,’ said Jim. And Charlie's father took the note, read it, then said to Jim, ‘Welcome home.’ Because the note said this: ‘Dearest Father and Mother, by the time you receive these words, I shall be dead. The hand from which you receive them is that of my closest friend in life and death. Please take him in, in Charlie’s name. Your loving son, Charles’.

Because of our sin, morally we’re like dirty beggars in God’s sight. But through Jesus death and resurrection we can know life. So that to those who turn to Jesus and trust him, God is willing to say: Welcome home. Your sins are forgiven, in Jesus’ name, that is because of the cross. So verse 31, real Christian faith isn’t just believing that something is true - believing ‘that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.’ It does involve believing that, but it’s more than that. Real Christian faith involves turning back to Jesus, admitting you’ve left him out of your life, being forgiven and starting life over again with him as your Lord and your God - a relationship which begins now, and lasts for all eternity in God’s kingdom. And that’s why Thomas could say to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” It was a personal relationship with God himself, with the one who had just secured his forgiveness and new life. A relationship open to everyone.

Now for those who are not yet Christians, then Thomas’ story is a powerful witness to see why we should believe. Because in Jesus is life and peace. In fact only in Jesus is there and peace, a fact we have seen again and again in John’s gospel. Only in Jesus is their real life, lasting joy and true satisfaction. And that is why when Jesus comes face to face with Thomas, Jesus actually gives him a mild rebuke. It’s loving but firm. Because in verse 27, literally Jesus says to Thomas, “Stop being an unbeliever and become a believer.” And if you have not yet done that, then what stops you? The risen Lord stands before you, his scarred hands and side and feet reflecting his love for you, and he says to you, “Stop being an unbeliever and become a believer.” And if you already love this Jesus, then we should be thrilled with awe and delight in seeing again that Jesus is my Lord and my God. He is not a distant God. No this God has taken on flesh and lived our life. He knows human weakness intimately. This is the God who is totally trustworthy and all powerful. He is loving enough to give us wonderful promises of life and peace and he is powerful enough to keep them. It should cause us to pause and praise God afresh for his incredible love to us, that he should to go to such lengths for our rescue. This is what he was willing to do that for you and me, to bring us his peace. To give us life. Are you still rejoicing in that today. Or like the Thomas of the previous week, have you grown tired, disappointed, just a touch cynical, a little world weary. Like Thomas, bow before the risen Jesus again even tonight and say, “My Lord and My God.”

3) How we can believe

But perhaps there is nagging doubt eating away in our hearts. Because it’s one thing for Thomas to have this incredible experience of seeing the risen Lord standing before him. But we cannot. Jesus has ascended to glory. What are we to do? Is it really possible for us to believe in the same way as Thomas. Well that brings us to our final point which is how we can believe. And that is what is explained to us in verses 29-31: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Jesus is saying to Thomas that he believed because he saw. Thomas was graphically and starkly confronted with the evidence. And so Thomas believed. But what about us who cannot see physically the risen Lord Jesus? Is there any hope for us? Well yes, says Jesus. Because there is blessing for those who don’t see yet believe. Well how can that be? Is Jesus expecting us to believe with blind faith? Maybe like Alice in Wonderful believing in Christianity is like believing in six impossible things before breakfast! Well no, says John,  because the reason Jesus can say there is blessing for those who don’t see Jesus physically alive, is what follows next: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The whole point of John’s gospel is that we don’t have to have been there. Eye witnesses have written down what happened so that we can believe too. The signs which Jesus did, his miracles of healing and feeding the five thousand, the walking on the water, they’ve all been accurately written down so that we might believe in Jesus too. That we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour King promised by God. And that by believing we might have life in his name.

            You see there is a great myth that is going around that you have to have been there to really believe Christianity. If only I’d been there, says someone, I’d have believed. Actually that is completely wrong. You might have believed, but there were thousands in Jesus’ day who saw lots of the miracles but weren’t moved at all! People were healed in front of them, dead people rose up from the grave, storms were calmed, but still people didn’t believe. And even when Jesus rose from the dead, some who saw him still refused to believe. You see the problem is not the evidence. The problem is our hearts. Human hearts were just as stubborn in the 1st century as they are in the 21st century. And the only way you and I can come to believe that Jesus is the Christ and have life in his name is if God softens our hearts and helps us believe. Jesus is not a dead hero. And he’s not like Elvis is for some people. Alive in their hearts. Not Jesus is truly physically alive and by his Spirit he is with us now. And today, you and I can meet him and believe in him and have life. And that is why today we continue to present this unchanging message to a very needy world. That is why we Christians can continue to have confidence in the faith because it is timeless. Just as Thomas’s heart was opened by Jesus all those years ago, so God is in the business of opening hearts today. And it’s the same method. By confronting people with the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we have the enormous privilege of having the evidence right in front of our eyes, in the pages of the Bible. The question is not the lack of evidence. But the state of your heart. What will you do with Jesus Christ?

            So as we finish, let me tell you about one man who did examine the evidence and come to know Jesus Christ for himself. His name was Lionel Luckhoo, and you might just know that Lionel Luckhoo was a most extraordinary man. He was a lawyer, and is in the Guinness Book of Records as being the most successful lawyer ever, winning 245 murder acquittals in a row. He was twice knighted by the Queen and was mayor of his hometown in Guyana four times. He himself described his life in this way. “Sir Lionel Luckhoo, Ambassador at Large from Fort Worth, Texas, was the owner of an island, raised horses, owned a hotel and was honoured by the Queen of England four times. He was once an ambassador for both Guyana and Barbados at the same time. He had everything this world could offer, but he didn't have Jesus. He had a vacuum in him that needed to be filled.” Yet despite his fame, success, and wealth he felt empty inside. The older he got the more meaningless life appeared. Then at 63 he turned his analytical skills to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. He found that the message of Jesus' resurrection satisfied his personal needs and his intellectual questioning. "I have spent more than forty-two years as a defence trial lawyer in many parts of the world." he later wrote. "I say unequivocally the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt!" He said this about the day he became a Christian: “The transformation was immediate. From that day my life changed- I moved from death to life, from darkness to light. I found real peace and happiness and joy.” Thomas and Lionel Luckhoo have much in common. You wouldn’t have thought it would you separated by millennia. But they have both met the risen Jesus. Thomas met him in the flesh, but Lionel Luckhoo as well as millions of Christians down the ages including us here tonight, can say we know Jesus too. For he is alive. He reigns supreme. And in the face of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, unbelief in whatever form it takes, whether Christian or non Christian, must be laid aside. Stop doubting and believe, says Jesus. And then truly we can say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

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