The Sunday evening of Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples are gathered in a house in Jerusalem, with the doors locked because they are afraid the Jewish leadership will find and arrest them. Jesus suddenly appears in the room with them and says “Peace be with you,” a common Jewish greeting, but filled with deeper meaning. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, explains:
Though a common word, šâlōm was also the embracing term used to denote the unqualified well-being that would characterize the people of God once the eschatological kingdom had dawned. Jesus’ ‘” Shalom!” on Easter evening is the complement of “it is finished” on the cross, for the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted … Not surprisingly it is included, along with “grace,” in the greeting of every epistle of Paul in the NT’ (Beasley-Murray, p. 379).
To prove that his body was physical, and not ghostly or immaterial, Jesus invites the disciples to look at the wounds in his hands and his side. Once they realize that he is physically present with them, the disciples are filled with joy.
Jesus then commissions them to continue his ministry after he is gone. He promises them the Holy Spirit as a seal on their authority to be his apostles (messengers). Jesus instructs them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Jesus is here referring to evangelism. Gerald Borchert, in John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary, explains:
Thus one could say that Jesus’ followers are to make the Gospel so clear that it is evident where people stand on the nature of sin. When these texts are understood in this perspective, it should become clear that Jesus’ commission to his followers is not one of privileged judgment but of weighty responsibility to represent the will of God in Christ with extreme faithfulness and to be honest and authentic about their evaluations or judgments.
This statement by Jesus would have been especially comforting to believers in the first century because the traditional Jewish authorities in the local synagogues had been the arbiters of God’s demands. First-century believers had mostly been excommunicated from synagogues, so John is making clear to them that Jesus’ followers have become God’s messengers, not the Jewish religious institutions of the day.
Edwin Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, adds:
Forgiveness of sins is one of the major benefits of the death of Jesus. It is the essence of the New Covenant (cf. Matt. 26:28; Jer. 31:31–34). Proclaiming the forgiveness of sins was the prominent feature of the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts. Jesus was giving the Apostles (and by extension, the church) the privilege of announcing heaven’s terms on how a person can receive forgiveness. If one believes in Jesus, then a Christian has the right to announce his forgiveness. If a person rejects Jesus’ sacrifice, then a Christian can announce that that person is not forgiven.
In verse 24, we learn that the disciple Thomas was not present on Resurrection Sunday when Jesus appeared before the Twelve. When the rest of the Twelve tell Thomas they saw Jesus, he is skeptical that Jesus is really alive. He likely believes that they saw a ghost or a spirit. Thomas needs to physically touch Jesus’ wounds before he believes that Jesus has risen from the dead.
One week later, the disciples are again gathered in the same house, and this time Thomas is with them. Again Jesus appears in a locked room among them. Jesus invites Thomas to inspect his hands and his side so that Thomas will believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. We are not sure if Thomas does touch Jesus, but regardless, he has seen enough!
In verse 28, Thomas exclaims the climactic confession of the Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas, the most skeptical of the Twelve, has proclaimed that Jesus is God, thus affirming the words of John in the prologue of his Gospel. D. A. Carson writes:
The thoughtful reader of this Gospel immediately recognizes certain connections: (1) Thomas’ confession is the climactic exemplification of what it means to honour the Son as the Father is honoured (5:23). It is the crowning display of how human faith has come to recognize the truth set out in the Prologue: ‘The Word was God …; the Word became flesh’ (1:1, 14). (2) At the same time, Jesus’ deity does not exhaust deity; Jesus can still talk about his God and Father in the third person. After all, this confession is set within a chapter where the resurrected Jesus himself refers to ‘my Father … my God’ (v. 17). This is entirely in accord with the careful way he delineates the nature of his unique sonship (5:16–30). (3) The reader is expected to articulate the same confession, as the next verse implies. John’s readers, like Thomas, need to come to faith; and this is what coming to faith looks like.
Jesus (and John) both recognize that virtually everyone who hears about Jesus after his resurrection will not have the physical evidence that Thomas had. John’s readers, and certainly all of us living today, must believe based on the testimony of others. We will not be able to see Jesus’ physical body standing right in front of us. To John’s readers and us, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Everyone who comes to faith in Jesus, not having seen him with their own eyes, is blessed by Jesus himself!
In the final two verses of chapter twenty, John clearly presents the purpose of his Gospel. John first notes that Jesus performed many other miracles (signs) while he was on earth, a probable acknowledgment on his part that he is aware of the twenty-plus other miracles reported in the Synoptic Gospels. John, we learn, specifically chose to highlight seven miracles (signs) in chapters 2-12, and then, even more importantly, the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, so that readers would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.