“Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” – John 20:29
Think of something you believe but have never seen. It’s actually more common than you might imagine, even for the post-modern scientific mind. Gravity, for instance. I’ve never seen it but believe it’s there which is why I refrain from stepping off ten story buildings. Or oxygen. We don’t actually see oxygen but we certainly know when it’s absent.
There are many things we’ve never actually seen but know are there – radio waves, dark matter, ultraviolet light, the imaginary number constant i (just trust me on this one – if you don’t believe in unseen things try being an air traffic controller without using numbers that can’t seem to exist), our minds and emotions, the entire universe. Hey – I even believe in honest politicians, though I’ve heard they’re rare as winged unicorns.
It’s easy to believe what we see or experience directly, and just as easy to disbelieve something we haven’t. “I saw it with my own eyes,” we say. Yet when we hear an incredible story from someone else we, too, can find ourselves skeptical.
On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, scripture describes a similar exchange. By this time (Sunday morning), Jesus had been dead and buried two full days and nights. The burial, accomplished quickly to honor the Jewish rules of sundown, had not allowed for fully preparing Jesus’ body after being taken down from the cross.
At dawn following the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and at least two other women approached the sealed tomb to ask the covering stone be rolled away so they could administer the remaining treatment of Jesus’ body for the traditional year of rest prior to final burial of his bones in a stone ossuary. They were shocked to find the sealing stone already removed and the tomb empty of Jesus’ body.
Dumbstruck, Mary and the others encountered a very much alive Jesus who instructed them to go tell the apostles he had risen and “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you” (Mark 16:7).
Running breathlessly to share the news with the apostles who were still “mourning and weeping” (Mark 16:10), Mary’s story was met with rebuke and disbelief, “appearing to them as nonsense.” Returning to the tomb to see the evidence first-hand Peter “went away wondering to himself what had happened” (Luke 24:11-12).
The scripture passage I opened with happens a few days later. Jesus has already appeared to the apostles and they have believed – all except Thomas who famously states he would not believe “unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side.” (John 20:25).
Appearing to Thomas in the midst of the apostles, Jesus challenged him to “reach here with your finger, and see my hands.” Thomas never completes the test, instead exclaiming for the first time by anyone in the New Testament that Jesus is “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
Thomas finally saw and believed. Jesus acknowledged his belief but went further to say those who believed yet have not seen are blessed.
I’ve always been struck that God didn’t simply whisk Jesus away and leave the tomb sealed. We read in John 20:19 that Jesus appeared to his disciples while they were locked away behind closed doors and in other instances he was able to materialize in the midst of followers who were either unaware of his presence or didn’t recognize him. The point of the rolled away stone was not to allow Jesus to leave the tomb, but to provide yet another visible proof of his resurrection.
The rolled away stone and Jesus appearing to the eleven remaining apostles (and many others) following his resurrection were foretold and necessary parts of God’s plan. They became foundational truths, proving beyond doubt the reality of the resurrection – seen and confirmed by multiple eyewitnesses, many of whom Luke describes as ”foolish men and slow of heart to believe” during the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25).
Jesus insisted these first witnesses – ordinary, unremarkable men and women with no special status or religious standing outside of their relationship with him – verify he was alive, a complete and undeniable human being, not a bodiless apparition with no substance.
Believing without seeing
The encounter with Thomas was crucial because it demonstrated the essential element of God’s central aim: trusting in His Will through faith. The apostles had lived in faith-by-sight throughout Jesus’ ministry. They saw the miracles first hand; they saw him calm the storms, walk on the waters, debate the Pharisees into silence. They saw him raise Lazarus. They saw him heal the lame and bring sight to the blind. Peter, James and John even saw his transfiguration alongside Moses and Elijah. One would think seeing these and countless other things with their own eyes would have solidified their faith beyond doubt.
Yet even at the height of his ministry Jesus reminded the twelve how small their faith continued to be. Following the feeding of the four thousand as told in Mark, Jesus listens as his disciples worry they have nothing to eat and asks incredulously “Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?” (Mark 8:17-18).
In another encounter with the Pharisees and scribes Jesus is asked for more signs of his fulfilling the messianic prophecies. Rejecting their disbelief, he responded “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Matthew 12:39).
To some, seeing will never be believing
Jesus is indicating that for many (including those of us today), seeing is never believing. There will never be enough signs, enough evidence, enough “proof” to satisfy the unwilling mind. God tells us to look beyond what we see to find truth, as even our eyes can deceive us.
In the human generations since Jesus’ ascension (100, 60, 50, pick your math), one message is clear – God stepped into humanity for a brief moment through Jesus so that we might see and believe, and then stepped out of humanity again so that we might then know and believe. Paul describes this by saying “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)
As Christians, we know this today because we’ve received an incontrovertible truth passed down through the centuries essentially unchanged since originally told by eye-witnesses who themselves first doubted. While we sometimes ask God to show us “signs,” we ultimately realize God’s work is most often revealed through the signs of our actions through faith.
Our faith is not blind
Much has been said about the “folly” of believing in an unseen God. Like the apostles cowering behind locked doors when Mary rushed in to tell them of the incredible news of Jesus’ resurrection, modern culture doubts and questions. We’re suspicious a Just God could exist in a world of pain we ourselves have created. Yet connection through prayer can show us the way.
Jesus reminds us in John 1:18 “no one has seen God.” As Believers, we trust in a God we’ve never seen. We trust in a resurrected Christ we’ve only read and heard about. We trust in a Holy Spirit we sense but can’t identify. We embrace a death and resurrection we can’t prove but understand are necessary for our salvation. We do this most directly through prayer, when we are most intimate with God.
The writer of Hebrews comments “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” Hebrews 11:1.
Yet our faith is not blind, but is instead based on evidence – the evidence of God’s Word and how that Word works in our lives. The Word is Truth, it is sure, it is unassailable. And it is connected through prayer. And when we trust in that Word – regardless of what we have or have not seen – the world loses its hold on us and fear is replaced with the confidence of eternal triumph.
“All things are possible to him who believes,” Jesus tells the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9:23. This is the essence of faith – trusting in the infallibility of God’s Word as handed down to us generation after generation. We need exercise only the simplest degree of faith to call down the power of God in our lives.
Do you have the faith to believe our unseen God can transform your life?