John 20 Bible Commentary

John Lightfoot’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of John 20)
5. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.

[He stooping down, &c.] Standing within the cave, he bowed himself to look down into the place where the body was laid, which was four cubits lower than the floor of the cave itself. See Bava Bathra about places of burial; which place I have quoted and explained, Century Chorograph.

12. And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

[The one at the head, and the other at the feet.] So were the cherubims placed at each end of the mercy seat, Exodus 25:18,19. As to those cherubims that were in Solomon's Temple, 2 Chronicles 3:10, I cannot but by the way observe what I meet with in Bava Bathra: "Onkelos the proselyte saith, 'The cherubims are like children going from their master.'" That is, with their faces turned partly towards their master, and partly towards the way wherein they were to go. For as the Gemarists, "When Israel obeyed the will of God, the cherubims looked towards one another; but when they did not, then they turned their faces towards the walls."

Thus Onkelos comments upon this place of the Chronicles. I hardly think he Targumizeth on the book; for the Targum, at least that which is in our hands, renders it, Both the cherubim are made of lily work.

17. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

[Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended, &c.] These words relate to what he had spoken formerly about sending the Comforter, and that he would not leave them comfortless, &c. And this probably Mary Magdalene's mind was intent upon when she fell at his feet and would have embraced them. But he, "I must first ascend to my Father before I can bestow those things upon you which I have promised: do not therefore touch me and detain me upon any expectation of that kind; but wait for my ascension rather; and go and tell the same things to my brethren for their encouragement."

23. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

[Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted.] He had formerly given them a power of 'binding and loosing'; and therefore probably bestows something more upon them now than what he had conferred before. For,

I. It would seem a little incongruous for our Saviour to use an action so new and unwonted, such as was his 'breathing upon them,' to vest them only with that power which he had before given them.

II. The power of 'binding and loosing' was concerned only in the articles and decisions of the law; this power which he now gives them reached to the sins of mankind. That power concerned the doctrines; this, the persons of men.

Now that we may understand the words that are before us, let us a little consider what is said, Luke 24:46: "Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." Which words we may suppose he spoke before he uttered what is in this verse. And so might there not, upon the occasion of those words, arise some such scruple as this in the apostles' breasts: "Is it so indeed? must remission of sins be preached to those in Jerusalem who have stained themselves with the blood of the Messiah himself? 'Yes,' saith he, 'for whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.'" To this those words of his upon the cross have some reference, Luke 23:34; "Father, forgive them," &c. And, indeed, upon what foundation, with what confidence could the apostles have preached remission of sins to such wretched men, who had so wickedly, so cruelly, murdered their own Lord, the Lord of life, unless authorized to it by a peculiar commission granted to them from their Lord himself?

[Whose soever ye retain, they are retained.] Besides the negative included in these words, that is, "If you do not remit them, they shall not be remitted," there is something superadded that is positive. That is,

I. There is granted to them a power of smiting the rebellious with present death, or some bodily stroke.

II. A power of delivering them over to Satan. Whence had St. Peter that power of striking Ananias and Sapphira with so fatal a bolt, whence St. Paul that of striking Elymas blind, whence of delivering over Hymeneus and Alexander to Satan, if not from this very commission given them by Christ? Christ himself never exercised this power himself. There was not one person whom he struck either with death or any afflictive disease: some indeed he raised, when they had been dead, and infinite numbers of the sick and diseased, whom he cured: he snatched several from the power of the devils; he delivered none to them. That the apostles therefore might be capable of performing things of so high a nature, it was necessary they should be backed and encouraged by a peculiar authority: which if we find not in this clause, "Whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained," where should we look for it? And therefore, when he endows his apostles with a power which he never thought fit to exercise in his own person, no wonder if he does it by a singular and unusual action; and that was 'breathing upon them,' verse 22.

But we must know, that whereas, amongst other mighty powers conferred, we reckon that as one, viz. 'delivering over unto Satan,' we are far from meaning nothing else by it but 'excommunication.' What the Jews themselves meant by that kind of phrase, let us see by one instance:

"Those two men of Cush that stood before Solomon, Elihoreph and Ahijah the scribes, sons of Shausha. On a certain day Solomon saw the angel of death weeping: he said, 'Why weepest thou?' He answered, 'Because these two Cushites entreat me that they may continue here.' Solomon delivered them over to the devil, who brought them to the borders of Luz; and when they were come to the borders of Luz they died."

Gloss: "He calls them Cushites [ironically], because they were very beautiful. They 'entreat me that they might continue here.' For the time of their death was now come: but the angel of death could not take their souls away, because it had been decreed that they should not die but at the gates of Luz. Solomon therefore delivered them over to the devils; for he reigned over the devils, as it is written, 'And Solomon sat upon the throne of the Lord, for he reigned over those things that are above, and those things that are below.'"

Josephus also makes mention of the power that Solomon had over the devils. God taught him an art against demons. The belief of either of these stories is at the liberty of the reader. Only from the former we may make this observation, That a power of 'delivering over to Satan' was, even in the Jews' opinion, divine and miraculous. We acknowledge this to have been in the apostles, and in the apostles only: and I know nowhere, if not in the words we are now treating of, from whence otherwise the original of this power and authority can be derived.

III. It seems further, that at this very time was granted to the apostles a commission to confer the Holy Spirit on those whom they found qualified, and that in these words, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost": i.e. "Receive ye it to distribute it to others." For although it cannot be denied but that they received the Holy Ghost for other reasons also, and to others ends, of which we have already discoursed; yet is not this great end to be excluded, which seemed the highest and noblest endowment of all, viz. that Christ breathing upon them inspired them with the Holy Ghost, with this mighty authority and privilege, that they should be capable of dispensing it to others also.

24. But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

[But Thomas, called Didymus, was not with them.] I. The evangelist does not here, as the writers of lexicons, render the signification of a Hebrew name into Greek, when he tells us, "Thomas is also called Didymus"; but only lets us know that as he was called Thomas among the Hebrews, so was he called Didymus among the Greeks. There is not another amongst the twelve apostles of whom this is said. Simon indeed is called Peter; but these are really two distinct names: so was Nathanael called Bartholomew: but Thomas and Didymus both one name, of one signification in different languages. Perhaps Thomas was born in some place where the Jews and the Greeks promiscuously inhabited: such a place was the region of Decapolis; and so by the Hebrews he might be called by his Hebrew name, and the Greek by the Greeks.

II. The disciples had all fled and were dispersed when Christ was apprehended, Mark 14:50, except Peter and John. Whence it is said in verse 2 of this chapter, that Mary Magdalene came to Peter, and "to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved"; for she knew where she might find them; and so she could not for the rest. And thus scattered, as it should seem, they passed over the sabbath day; but when they heard that their Lord was risen, then they begin to associate again. But as yet Thomas had not got amongst them; and indeed Peter himself had been absent too, but that having seen the Lord he returned from Emmaus.

III. Thomas therefore not being present when our Saviour breathed on the rest and gave them the Holy Ghost, are we to suppose that he, by his absence, was deprived of this gift and privilege? No surely, for it was a privilege common to the whole apostolate, and peculiar to them as Apostles: so that however by his absence he might have missed of it, yet by reason of his apostolacy he could not. St. Paul, distant with a witness while these things happened, both from the apostleship and religion too, yet when made an apostle, was withal adorned with this privilege.

25. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

[Except I shall see, &c.] They judge Moses once to have been thus weak and wavering in his faith: "When the holy blessed God said to Moses, Go down, for the people have corrupted themselves; he took the tables, and would not believe that Israel had sinned, saying, 'If I do not see, I will not believe.'"

"Thou Racha, wouldest thou not have believed if thou hadst not seen?"

26. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

[The doors being shut.] I would not easily believe that the intention of the evangelist in this place was to let us know that Christ penetrated the doors with his body; but rather that the doors were shut for fear of the Jews, as verse 19; which he also reiterates in this verse, that he might let us know the disciples were still at Jerusalem, where their greatest danger lay. On the morrow, probably, they were to make towards Galilee.

29. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

[Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.] "R. Simeon Ben Lachish saith, 'The proselyte is more beloved by the holy blessed God than that whole crowd that stood before mount Sinai. For unless they had heard the thunderings, and seen the flames and lightnings, the hills trembling, and the trumpets sounding, they had not received the law. But the proselyte hath seen nothing of all this, and yet hath come in, devoting himself to the holy blessed God, and hath taken upon him the kingdom of heaven."