"So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. For as yet, they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead" (John 20:8-9).
In her book The Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a tenured English professor at Syracuse University, talks about the radical and unlikely conversion she experienced in the late 1990s.
Rosaria Butterfield is a bona fide scholar. She considered herself a leftist professor, one who literally choked on the name of Jesus. Stupid, pointless and menacing are words that describe her thoughts of Christians and their God, Jesus.
With a major publication, she reached what many in her profession prize: tenure. She described her life as happy, meaningful, full. With tenure in hand, she started researching the Christian community, what its adherents believe, and its perceived hatred of people such as herself. To do this, she would need to read the one book that (by her estimation) put so many people off track. She read the Bible.
In her own words, she said she read the Bible the way a glutton devours food. That year, she read it through—cover to cover—multiple times from varying translations. Then it started to happen. Her lesbian partner and other dear friends began to say her reading of the Bible was changing her. Butterfield’s reply was striking, “What if this is true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?”
Some months later, she found herself sitting in the Syracuse Presbyterian Church. Conspicuously, she sat in the back as an outsider. Sitting in the church, she reminded herself that she came to meet God and not to fit in socially. That morning, looking past the stares of parishioners, she fought the idea that she was lost. Everybody she loved, including her partner was lost. She fought those images with all her might. She did not want to be lost. She did not want an eternity of pain and suffering after death.
In that moment, she recounts that the promises of God rushed in as waves on the shore of her heart. She was prompted to trust Christ for salvation and reclaim her true identity. Although weak at first, her confession of faith has grown into one of the most intriguing and unlikely testimonies of conversion heard in America today.
Her story may not be your story, and your story may not be my story. However, there are—here today– some other unlikely converts. Some of you a few years back never would have imagined yourselves sitting in a church on a Sunday morning, enjoying a sermon—much less calling yourselves Christians. Butterfield reminds us that heaven has no tough cases, only trophies of grace.
In John 20, we meet another unlikely convert. He was an unlikely convert for very different reasons than Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. He was an unlikely convert because, upon first glance, he looked as if he already was a believer. It would seem to the casual Bible reader that given his nearness to Jesus, his deep and personal love for Jesus, and his commitment to follow Jesus that by this point John already was a convert. However, John’s story teaches us a few lessons about the danger of being close to Jesus without being a believer in Jesus.
This text is tailored to teach us that genuine discipleship affirms the resurrection of Jesus and appropriates its significance in life and practice.
John’s Gospel is quite unique from the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. His gospel is written from a post-resurrection perspective. The aim of His gospel is to present the marvelous and miraculous works of Jesus as evidence that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing we will have life in His name.
In the other gospels, the resurrection is the culmination of Jesus’ life; it is vindication and exaltation. In some sense, the gospel accounts anticipate it. John however, given his unlikely conversion experience, wrote from the opposite perspective. His entire gospel is written from the perspective of someone who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It says to us that we ought to live our lives from a post-resurrection perspective. You can sum up the entire Gospel of John in these 7 words: “Jesus made a believer out of me!”
On a cursory level, you can sense a crisis of belief brewing in John 20. There are four escalating episodes of belief in crisis. In each episode, followers of Jesus struggle with the reality of the resurrection. In each episode—starting with Peter and John, then Mary’s sorrow in verse 11, the disciples’ fear in verse 19, up to Thomas’ cynical demand that unless he could touch the risen Jesus he would not believe—the level of faith dropped to a new low.
Picture the irony of this unbelief. Those who walked with Jesus and stood with Him as He turned water into wine; those who mingled with the crowd when He preached to the multitudes; those who helped pass the buckets when he fed the 5,000; those who were present when he raised Lazarus from the dead—these are the ones scratching their heads in puzzlement at the reality of the empty tomb. If anybody should have understood what took place, it should have been these people!
Yet let’s not look with disdain too quickly. This is where Scripture is a window and a mirror. Do you see yourself in these episodes? This kind of faithless following of Jesus still permeates pews in churches just like ours.
In fact, that seems to be a theme thrust upon us. You can feel something in this passage about the deception of membership. We must admit that if nothing else, John’s self-admission of his unbelief is striking, startling and unsettling. I was so taken by these words this week, unable to comprehend them fully that I reached out to more seasoned Bible scholars for insight.
My questions were these: “If John had not believed before the resurrection, what do we call his life for the last three years of following Jesus? If John had not believed before the resurrection, what do we make of him assuming responsibility for Jesus’ mother at the crucifixion? He clearly held a very high level of commitment to Jesus. Help me understand this, please.”
My queries were met with these words, “What do we make of this? He loved Jesus.” I pondered it, and then came the eureka moment. Jesus was John’s beloved Friend, but not his Savior. He loved Jesus; but before the resurrection, Jesus was not yet his Lord.
Herein is the deception of membership, of mere Christian party affiliation. This is a warning against fluent Christianese, a kind of faithless familiarity with Jesus.
Membership and belief are not the same. You can go to church, love Jesus, give generously and still not be a believer. John’s testimony bears record.
Everybody who’s ever been a member of a Christian church should heed this warning. Don’t mistake your membership in the clan of Christ as evidence that you believe in the personal witness of Jesus Christ.
You need something more than membership. You need to experience the power of the resurrection. We can sense from this passage that the resurrection was not only a victory for Jesus, but it should be our greatest triumph, too. What made John a believer makes us believers: Jesus was raised from the dead.
The eyewitness evidence is overwhelming. John came to faith in Jesus not because they could not find the corpse of Jesus, but because they found Jesus alive. The discarded grave clothes spoke to John in a way the other miracles had not. Jesus’ resurrection made a believer out of him. The resurrection explained the previous signs.
While many in our world want God to demonstrate His love by meeting our unending demands, we miss that through the resurrection He already has supplied our greatest need. The settled, incontrovertible evidence of the resurrection is heaven’s exclamation point on God’s pronouncement of redemption.
This text says something else. It speaks to the importance of application. The average observer of resurrection weekend must go beyond affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus to the actual point of application. Apply its significance to your life.
We come to church on Easter because we affirm the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, but we live in power because we apply the significance of His resurrection to our lives. We read our Bibles because we affirm the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, but we believe our Bibles when we apply the significance of His resurrection to our lives. We are kind to people because we affirm the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, but we love our enemies when we apply the significance of His resurrection to our lives. We call Jesus Christ Savior because we affirm the fact the He was raised from the dead, but we call Him Lord when we apply the significance of His resurrection to our lives. Affirming the resurrection is the first step, but answering the question “What difference does it make?” is the ultimate step.
Examine the difference the resurrection made in John’s life and the early church. The bold proclamation and rapid growth of the early church are historically inexplicable apart from the resurrection. There is but one way to reason that the disciples overcame their fear, defied ostracism and proclaimed the gospel with boldness: Jesus is alive! His resurrection transformed the disciples from cowards into Christians. It changed His disciples from seamen into fishermen, from social misfits to competent missionaries, from being the objects of laughter to being filled with irreducible joy.
If belief in a resurrected Jesus did that for them, imagine what it can do for you. I can give you a few ideas. It can give you meaning and purpose in life. It can cause you to move mountains or plough through them. It can conquer your fears. It can help you to defeat temptation. It changes everything, and it will help you understand God’s Word.
We notice in John’s testimony that the resurrection of Jesus Christ causes the rest of the Bible to make sense (v. 20:9). It has been rightly quipped that the Bible is not a hymnbook, but a Him-book. The redemptive historical narrative is long with twists, turns and detours; but it bends toward Jesus. Many have stumbled over the details of dates, measurements and ideas in the Bible; but the Scripture is not about men calculating the ways of God so much as it is about God becoming the way to save men.
Neither Peter nor John understood from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. Yet when they encountered the empty tomb, they started to understand. He had to be raised from the dead because Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness. Now Scripture makes sense. He had to be raised from the dead because Rahab draped that scarlet cord outside her apartment on the Jericho wall. He had to be raised from the dead because David sang about the Lord his Shepherd. Jesus had to be raised from the dead because Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish. He had to be raised from the dead because Isaiah prophesied surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.
Jesus had to be raised from the dead because the Word of God was at stake. His resurrection opens our comprehension. If He hadn’t risen, the Exodus merely would have been an experiment in political science. If He hadn’t risen, all the prophets were delusional liars, King David forever an unforgiven adulterer, and Ruth bereft of kinsman redeemer. If He hadn’t risen, we should close the doors of the churches.
If He hadn’t risen, my preaching is wasting your time, you are still in your sins, and life is worthless. Yet because He was raised from the dead, life is worth living. Because He was raised from the dead, death has lost its victory, and the grave has been denied.
Because He was raised from the dead, we can believe all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord. We can say with confidence: Fret neither myself because of evil doers, nor be envious against the workers of iniquity. We can rest assured that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
We can face uncertain days with the certainty that greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world. We can repeat with Paul that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. We can sing with the psalmist, surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. We can be confident that my God shall supply all our needs according to His riches in glory.