Fear. Confusion. Anxiety. Grief. It’s really pretty impossible for us to imagine exactly what emotions the disciples felt in this moment. Were the authorities coming to arrest them? Would they be executed too? Was their movement over? After all, their leader was gone. The man they considered not only a mentor but also a friend was dead. Should they flee the city? Had God abandoned them? So many questions, both practical and theological.
And yet, Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen Jesus alive. Could it be true? Surely not. After all, she’s just a hysterical woman. We all know they can’t be trusted. She was probably hallucinating.
They were betwixt and between. As the IVP commentary on this passage says, “The Feast of Unleavened Bread was still in progress, but these disciples are isolated from the festivities. They have lost the feast of Israel and have not yet discovered the peace of Jesus.” They are the living embodiment of the New Testament’s “already-not yet” dynamic. Already redeemed, but not yet empowered. Stuck somewhere between justification and sanctification. As John 7:39 tells us, “Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (NIV)
They had been through a catastrophic upheaval in a very short time. They could not know that another, more positive transformation was about to occur right in their midst. Jesus’ sudden appearance was no doubt doubly shocking. Not only did they believe he was dead, but they had also locked the doors “for fear of the Jewish leaders.” (NIV) How could he be here? How could ANYONE get through the doors, let alone a dead man? Fear was almost certainly their first reaction.
After speaking a word of peace to the frightened disciples, Jesus breathes out the Holy Spirit onto them. The Greek word used here for “to breathe on” (emphusao) is unique in the New Testament, but is the same word used in the Greek translation of Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed (emphusao) into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The author’s clear implication is that this is a moment of recreation and rebirth. Jesus is inaugurating the new creation with his resurrection.
This is the first appearance of the Spirit in John’s gospel. However, it has been introduced previously, in chapter 7 as mentioned above, and most significantly in John 14:15-31. In this section, sometimes referred to as the “Paraclete” passage (after the Greek word for “advocate” or “helper” used in v. 16), Jesus promises his disciples that although he will soon be leaving them, God will give them the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ name, to teach them all things (v. 26).
The chronological placement of the Paraclete passage in the gospel is significant. In the previous chapter Jesus, at the Last Supper, has described to his disciples what is about to happen to him–he will be betrayed and then afterwards he will be leaving them: “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.” (13:33). The disciples must have been filled with consternation and confusion. First of all, Jesus accuses one of THEM of being his betrayer (13:18-21), to which the disciples respond with dismay and alarm (vv. 22-25).
Then, as if that weren’t enough commotion for one night, Jesus predicts his coming ascension back to the Father (13:33-36). The disciples, of course, didn’t truly understand what this meant, but they did know that Jesus was leaving them. Peter even asks where exactly he is going (v. 36) and begs to follow him (v. 37). So, this feeling of being stuck between one place and another in chapter 20 was not a new one for the disciples. In chs 13-14 they are also portrayed as hanging in the balance between old and new realities: the old world of sin, death and condemnation, and the coming world of love, life and redemption. It’s only natural that they would be on edge and seek assurance from Jesus about their futures.
Yes, anxiety, confusion, consternation and apprehension practically exude from every action of the disciples in chapter 13. So it’s only natural that in the following chapter Jesus feels it necessary to calm their fears, using strikingly similar language to that of 20:21. In 14:27 Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Compare that with Jesus’ post-resurrection proclamation of 20:21: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Jesus’ word of peace is so welcome in both situations. He knows the turmoil of their minds without them even expressing it (note that none of the disciples speaks a word during this first post-resurrection appearance–they were probably too incredulous to do so!). He has come not only to ease their anxieties in this moment, but more importantly to bequeath to them the person of his Spirit, the one who will calm all their anxieties from this point forward.
I’ve found myself at times betwixt and between: caught up in periods of anxiety, confusion, and dismay. Times when I’ve entertained serious doubts about God’s plan and direction. Like Doubting Thomas in vv. 24-29, I’ve also demanded from God concrete proof that he knows what he’s doing. Demanded that he show me his plan. That he calm my fear and doubts. You probably have, too. John 20 shows us that in those moments, Jesus speaks a word of peace that we can believe in. Notice that while Jesus does provide Thomas with the physical proof he demands, he does not tell the disciples the plan for going forward. He does not predict the future. He does not assure them they’ll all get what they want, that everything will be rosy from here on out. But, he does promise that those who believe WITHOUT seeing, will be blessed (v. 29). True peace in the midst of turmoil, then, comes by believing that God has it all under control, even when we can’t see how that could possibly be true.
The disciples clearly didn’t believe at the beginning of this passage. Indeed, Mary Magdalene had told them that she had seen Jesus alive and they still were huddled together in fear. They didn’t believe that God could accomplish things beyond their imagining. But, it turns out that such belief is the only path to true peace.