Exploring the Meaning of John 20

By Ray and Star Silverman
The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection, a painting by Eugène Burnand

Chapter Twenty

The Resurrection

1. And the first [day] of the week Mary Magdalene comes in the morning, it being yet dark, to the sepulcher, and looks at the stone taken away from the sepulcher.

2. Then she runs, and comes to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and says to them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have put Him.

3. Then Peter and the other disciple went out, and they came to the sepulcher.

4. And they both ran together; and the other disciple outran Peter and came first to the sepulcher.

5. And stooping down, he looks at the sheets laid out; however he came not in.

6. Then comes Simon Peter following him, and came into the sepulcher, and beholds the sheets laid out,

7. And the napkin which was over His head, not laid with the sheets but apart, wrapped together into one place.

8. Then therefore the other disciple entered also, who came first to the sepulcher, and he saw and believed.

9. For they knew not yet the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.

10. Then the disciples went away again to themselves.

At the end of the previous chapter, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointed Jesus’ body with an abundance of oil and spices, wrapped it in strips of linen, and laid it in a tomb. We noted that this act represents the tender, reverent regard for the literal sense of the Word. While we may not fully understand the inner meaning of a particular passage, we still sense its holiness. Therefore, we regard it with the deepest respect and lay it in a special place in our minds. All this is represented by the way Joseph and Nicodemus care for Jesus’ body.

When Joseph and Nicodemus placed Jesus’ body in the tomb, it was Friday evening just before the beginning of the Sabbath. As this next episode begins, it is now the third day since Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and the beginning of a new week. As it is written, “On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark.” The darkness signifies Mary’s lack of understanding about what has happened to Jesus. The first thing she notices is that “the stone had been taken away from the tomb” (John 20:1).

Normally, after a body is laid in a tomb, a heavy stone is placed by the opening, effectively sealing the tomb. But this is different. The stone has been moved. Seeing this, Mary assumes that someone has taken away Jesus’ body. As she runs from the tomb, she meets Peter and John and says to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have put Him” (John 20:2). Without hesitating, John and Peter run to the tomb to see what has happened. As it is written, “So they both ran together, and the other disciple [John] outran Peter and came to the tomb first” (John 20:4).

Only in the Gospel According to John do we read that John and Peter run to the tomb together, and that John eventually outruns Peter. Throughout the gospel narratives, we have seen that “Peter” signifies the faith that comes through understanding truth, and “John” signifies the love of serving others. As we learn truth and put it into our life, we begin to receive a new will. This is when the love of service gradually takes the lead. We not only begin to see the goodness within the truth, but we begin to experience that goodness as well. 1

From this point onwards, a reversal takes place. We begin to live according to the truth, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because we genuinely love God and love serving others. Moreover, we feel joy in being useful. Therefore, it is written that John, who signifies the love of service, outruns Peter and is the first to arrive at the tomb. 2

Although John arrives first, Peter is the first to enter. As it is written, “And he [John], stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him and went into the tomb” (John 20:5-6). In our own spiritual development, this refers to the vital role that the understanding of truth continues to play in our regeneration. Although a reversal takes place when love takes the lead, the understanding of truth is not abandoned. While no longer in first place, truth still works together with the love of service.

In this case, Peter, who signifies truth in the understanding (which is faith), enters first. As he enters, he carefully examines the details. As it is written, “And he [Peter] saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself” (John 20:6-7). These outer coverings, when separated from Jesus’ body, signify the external truths of the Word without their spiritual meaning. 3

Though faith is the first to enter, love quickly follows. Thus, after Peter enters, he is joined by John. As it is written, “Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed” (John 20:8). In the literal story, both Peter and John believe, as did Mary Magdalene, that someone has moved the stone and taken away Jesus’ body. This is because, “They did not as yet know the scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9).

For the moment, and especially because they did not understand the scriptures that prophesied Jesus’ resurrection, Mary, John, and Peter are feeling lost and confused. They only know that their beloved teacher has been crucified, and now His body has been taken away. They do not know that Jesus has risen. The only thing they can see are the linen clothes that had covered Jesus’ body and the folded cloth that had covered His head.

Bewildered and disappointed, the disciples depart from the tomb. As it is written, “The disciples went away again to their own homes” (John 20:10). It should be noted that the phrase “to their own homes” is a loose translation of the Greek phrase pros hautous [πρὸς αὑτοὺς] meaning “to their own” or “to themselves.” While it makes sense to take this to mean that John and Peter returned “to their own homes,” the actual Greek teaches that they returned again “to themselves”—that is, to their old attitudes and familiar behavior patterns.

Mary, however, does not return to her home, or go anywhere. Instead, she remains at the tomb.

A practical application

Whenever we hear upsetting news, face challenging circumstances, or experience a disappointing loss, we might be tempted to revert to old ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. These are the times when we are tempted to “return to ourselves”—that is, to return to our old attitudes, behaviors, and responses. This tendency to relapse into old patterns is represented by John and Peter “returning to themselves.” It’s a cautionary lesson for all of us. As a practical application, then, be careful about tendencies to relapse into former ways of thinking and behaving. Instead of reverting to your old patterns, follow Mary’s example. Remain steadfast. Even if the tomb appears to be empty at the moment, Jesus is still very present, encouraging you to rise above old responses, and act from your new will.

Mary Sees the Angels

11. But Mary stood at the sepulcher weeping outside. Then as she wept, she stooped to the sepulcher,

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

13. And they say to her, Woman, why weepest thou? She says to them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have put Him.

14. And saying these things, she turned back, and beheld Jesus standing, and she knew not that it was Jesus.

15. Jesus says to her, Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, thinking that He was the gardener, says to Him, Lord, if Thou hast carried Him hence, tell me where Thou hast put Him, and I will take Him away.

16. Jesus says to her, Mary. She, turning, says to Him, Rabboni, which is to say, Teacher.

17. Jesus says to her, Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brothers, and say to them, I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.

18. Mary Magdalene comes, reporting to the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and [that] He had said these things to her.

Mary Magdalene does not leave the area or return to her home. Instead, she remains at the tomb. This is where the next episode begins. As it is written, “But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept, she stooped down and looked into the tomb” (John 20:11). Out of her love for Jesus, Mary is able to see things of the spirit that John and Peter could not see. In fact, it is written that Mary “saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (John 20:12).

When John and Peter looked in, they saw only the lifeless linen and the folded cloth. But when Mary Magdalene looks in, through her grief and through her tears, she sees living beings—in fact, she sees two angels. Similarly, there are times when we look into the Word and see nothing more than lifeless words that do not move us or speak to us. It is altogether different, however, when we look into the Word and see angels speaking to us, inviting us to reflect on our inner states. Therefore, these angels ask Mary, most appropriately, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:13).

Mary’s response is simple and straightforward. She says, “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:13). In this case, Mary is representatively speaking for each of us. Like Mary, we, too, experience times when the Lord appears to be absent, and we don’t know where to find Him. At the moment, goodness and truth seem to be absent from our life. This is what is contained, more interiorly, in Mary’s lament, “They have taken away my Lord.” 4

The truth is, however, that the Lord is never “taken away,” nor does He ever abandon us. It’s just that there are times when we cannot sense His presence. Even at those times when God seems to be absent, He is, in reality, still very near. As it is written, “Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus” (John 20:14). Repeating the same question that the angels asked, Jesus says, “Woman, why are you weeping?” And then Jesus adds these words: “Whom are you seeking?” (John 20:15). 5

Although Mary loves Jesus, she still does not understand His true nature. That is why she is not able to recognize Him, even as He stands before her. We read, “She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, ‘Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away’” (John 20:15). In the depth of her grief, Mary does not realize that the One whose loss she so desperately mourns is standing right in front of her. Overwhelmed by her grief, Mary sees in Him only a person that might help her find Jesus’ body. It is at this point that Jesus says to her, “Mary” (John 20:26).

It is not until Jesus calls her by name that Mary has a moment of recognition. This brings to mind Jesus’ words earlier in this same gospel when He said that the Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name … and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice” John 10:3-4). In calling Mary by name, Jesus touches something deep within her, awakening her spirit. It is then that Mary recognizes Jesus and exclaims, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16).

Mary’s choice of the title “rabboni” rather than “Lord” is significant. The word “rabboni” simply means “teacher.” This is the origin of the word “rabbi”—a title given to a Jewish religious teacher or spiritual leader. In this case, there is a distinct difference between seeing Jesus as her spiritual leader and seeing Jesus as her Lord. Mary, for all her love and devotion, still calls Him—at least in this moment—“Rabboni.” Because of this, Jesus’ response is clear. He says to her, “Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17). 6

While it is true that Mary is devoted to Jesus, her understanding has only developed to the point where she recognizes Him as her beloved teacher. It is for this reason that Jesus says, speaking in accommodation to Mary’s state of understanding, that she should not touch Him—for He is not yet—in her mind—ascended to the Father. The continuing obscurity in Mary’s mind is suggested by the context. Mary had come to the tomb that morning while it was still dark. Although she was gradually coming into greater light, the dawning of a full awareness had not yet arrived. In brief, Mary still regards Jesus as her rabbi, but does not yet see Him in His risen glory. 7

Jesus then adds, “But go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God’” (John 20:17). Although the process of glorification had been fully completed on the cross, this has not yet become a reality to Mary or to the disciples. In fact, to their minds, the only thing they know is that Jesus died on the cross, and that His body has been taken away.

This is why Jesus now sends Mary to the disciples with a message that is similar to what He told them in His farewell address. At that time, He said to them, “A little while and you will not see Me; and again, a little while and you will see Me because I go to the Father” John 16:16). This time Mary is to tell them that Jesus is “ascending to His Father.”

While this is not the fullest expression of what really happened on the cross, it is an explanation that the disciples can understand at this point. Meanwhile, Jesus will continue to rise in their understanding until He is fully ascended in their minds and seen as the risen and glorified Lord. It is then that they will be able to understand the true meaning of the resurrection.

The empty tomb

The mysterious disappearance of Jesus’ body has been both alarming and confusing for Jesus’ followers. Unaware of the biblical prophecies that predict that the Messiah would rise on the third day, Mary, John, and Peter all assume that Jesus’ body has somehow been taken away. And yet, seven hundred years earlier, the resurrection had been prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures. The prophet Jonah spoke about being “raised on the third day” (Jonah 2:10), and Hosea said, “On the third day He will raise us up” (Hosea 6:2).

According to scripture, then, Jesus was “raised up”—that is, resurrected—on the third day. But how? What happened in the tomb? Why did they only find the linen strips for Jesus’ body and the folded cloth for His head? Where was Jesus? And what happened to His body? In order to answer these questions, it is important to understand that the crucifixion was the final step by which Jesus fully glorified His humanity. In doing so, He put off the last vestige of His infirm humanity and became fully divine.

To help us understand this concept, biblical scholars have compared this process to first removing a thread of wool from a garment and then replacing it with a thread of gold. As the woolen threads are removed and replaced by golden ones, the entire garment eventually becomes pure gold. Similarly, but in a much greater way, Jesus gradually replaced everything that was imperfect and finite in Himself with that which is Perfect and Infinite. He did this through successive temptation combats in which He utterly eradicated every inclination to evil and falsity. Finally, nothing was left except Divinity Itself—that is, a Divine Body of pure love and pure wisdom. 8

All of this, however, was a gradual process. As long as Jesus was still on earth, He was continually in the process of uniting the divine truth He came to teach with the divine love that was His very soul. There were times, of course, when this unition seemed to be relatively complete, for example, when He said, “I and My Father are One” John 10:30). But these moments were part of the continual progress towards complete glorification. This process only became complete at the time of the resurrection and ascension. It was only then, when everything that He had inherited from the mother was dissipated, that a new “resurrection body” was put on. Only then could He truly say, “It is finished” John 19:30)—His very last words from the cross. 9

The idea that the Lord’s material body was dissipated, leaving nothing behind, can be compared to the way that anger ceases to exist when understanding is found, or how resentment disappears when forgiveness is given, or how hatred vanishes when love arises. These negative attributes do not “go” anywhere. They simply cease to exist in the presence of understanding, forgiveness, and love. Similarly, every appearance of truth in the literal sense of the Word, for example that the Lord is angry, vengeful, and punitive, disappears as we enter more deeply into the spiritual sense of the Word.” 10

Another way to understand the Lord’s glorification process is to compare it to a marriage. In the beginning, the husband and wife promise to love each other. Vowing to put away hereditary tendencies towards unkindness and selfishness, they turn to the Lord in order to do so. Over time, as they live according to God’s commandments, their joy in living together increases. At the same time, the promises and pledges made at the time of the wedding and in the early years of marriage seem to “vanish.” Instead, the husband and wife now love each other, not because they have promised to do so, but because, from their hearts, it has become their way of life. Because their spirits have become united, they are, so to speak, “one flesh.” 11

A similar process takes place on the individual level as well. In the beginning, truth appears to be outside of us. It is something we learn. Eventually, as we sincerely live by the truth, especially during difficult times, deliberate decisions become spontaneous actions. What was once experienced as dutiful self-compulsion to live by the truth eventually becomes a heavenly habit. Gradually, truth and goodness become indistinguishable in thought, word, and deed. In this way, as we develop a new or “second” nature, the truth becomes so united with love that the truth seems to have vanished. In a comparable way, but to a much greater degree, Jesus vanished from the tomb leaving nothing behind except the linen cloths that had covered His body. Divine wisdom had become one with divine love. 12

Mary, of course, could not have known any of this, because it had yet been revealed. At this point, all Mary can do is marvel at Jesus’ sudden appearance and follow His instructions. Therefore, as this episode ends, Mary leaves the tomb and goes off to tell the disciples what Jesus has told her to tell them—that He is ascending to His Father and to their Father, to His God and to their God. When she arrives, she tells them that she has seen the Lord, and that “He had spoken these things to her” (John 20:18).

The message that Mary brings to the disciples is accommodated to their understanding. Although Jesus has indeed risen and become fully united with His divine soul which He calls “the Father,” this is still beyond the comprehension of His disciples. For them, at this point, it is enough to know that Jesus is still in the process of ascending to the Father. This is something that takes place in each of our minds as well. It is only over time that Jesus “ascends” in our understanding until we come to the realization that He is indeed “one” with the Father—that in Him perfect wisdom and perfect love are inseparable.

A practical application

Regeneration begins by learning truth and striving to live according to it. Eventually, what begins as a matter of deliberate decision and strenuous effort becomes easier as we develop “spiritual muscle.” Of course, spiritual development is impossible without God who does the heavy lifting for us in secret, but we must do this lifting anyway, as if by ourselves. While none of our struggles can compare with Jesus’ combats against the entirety of hell, we all have our own crucifixions and resurrections. As a practical application, then, consider the possibility that any moment could be a resurrection experience for you. For example, when you notice a negative thought or feeling coming in, perhaps after a setback, loss, or disappointment, acknowledge it, pray to the Lord for help, call truth to mind, and then allow the Lord to rise in you, giving you all the strength you need. Even as He totally vanquished evil and falsity in Himself, He can subdue the evils and falsities in you. In this way, the Lord’s resurrection and subsequent ascension can become living realities in your own life. Not only are there continual resurrections, but there are also continual ascensions into higher states of love and wisdom. Beyond your conscious awareness, Jesus is both rising and ascending in you. As He told Mary to tell the disciples in another I AM statement, “I AM ascending.” 13

Jesus Gives the Holy Spirit

19. Then, it being evening on that day, on the first of the week, and the doors being shut where the disciples were gathered for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood into the midst, and says to them, Peace [be] to you.

20. And saying this, He showed them His hands and side; then the disciples rejoiced, seeing the Lord.

21. Then Jesus said to them again, Peace [be] to you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.

22. And saying this, He breathed into [them], and says to them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit.

23. Whosever sins you forgive, they are forgiven to them; whosever you retain, they are retained.

As the next episode begins, it is still the day of the resurrection, but it is now evening, and the disciples are gathered together behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). While we know today that the Lord’s resurrection brought the possibility of salvation to humanity, the disciples were still a long way from understanding this. They remained, so to speak, “in the dark” and afraid.

Their fear is understandable. The religious leaders, particularly those who had conspired to bring about Jesus’ death, might now be seeking to kill them as well, especially as the rumor spreads that Jesus’ body has been taken away. We can imagine that the disciples may be talking about the mysterious disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb, and what might happen to them now that Jesus is gone. They might also be wondering about the message that Jesus had given to them through Mary, saying, “I am ascending to My Father and to your Father, to My God and to your God.”

The gathering of the disciples behind closed doors represents those times when worry, grief, or fear seem to shut out the presence of the Lord. However, Mary’s message about Jesus’ ascension must have cheered them with hope and opened the way for Jesus to appear to them in their minds and in their midst. As it is written, “Jesus came and stood in their midst, saying to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19). 14

Then, to further reassure them, and to accommodate to their level of understanding, Jesus shows them the wounds in His hands and in His side. This moment of recognition brings both comfort and joy to the disciples. As it is written, “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20).

The power of the Holy Spirit

After showing His disciples His hands and His side, Jesus reassures and calms them for a second time, saying, “Peace be with you.” Jesus then adds, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21). Jesus, who came forth from love, now sends His disciples forth in love. This is what is meant by the words, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

This, however, will not be possible without the Holy Spirit—that is, Jesus’ continual presence with them. It is this Spirit that will make it possible for them to go forth in love; it will enable them to preach, teach, and baptize; it will empower them to forgive sins as Jesus has forgiven them, and it will inspire them to love others as Jesus has loved them. That is why Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. And if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).

This moment, which is recorded only in the Gospel According to John, is one of the clearest indications of Jesus’ divinity. It brings to mind the words spoken by God when He first created human life. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). 15

This passage from the Hebrew scriptures seems to be speaking about the creation of physical life. But when Jesus’ breathes on His disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” He is speaking about the creation of spiritual life. Whereas the birth into natural life requires no conscious effort on our part, the birth into spiritual life requires both a conscious decision and an unceasing effort to align ourselves with God’s will. Only then do we become receptive to the love and wisdom that continually flow in from God. This is our second birth—the birth that takes place within us when the spirit of God enters our life. This is what it means to “receive the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit, then, is not a separate divine person of the trinity. In the language of sacred scripture, the Holy Spirit is really Jesus Himself, the divine truth fully united with divine love coming forth into our lives as divine power for useful service. This is the power that enables us not only to perceive the truth from love, but also the power to use that truth in our lives. Sometimes called “the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” it is as vital to our inner spirit as breath is to our physical bodies. 16

The Holy Trinity, then, is not three separate persons. Rather, it is three aspects of One God—divine love, divine wisdom, and divine power for useful service. These divine qualities, which exist in the Lord alone, radiate out to all people, and are received by those who align themselves with God’s will. 17

The remission of sins

As already mentioned, when Jesus breathed upon His disciples, He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.” Obviously, there is an important connection between the reception of the Holy Spirit, which comes first, and the subsequent ability to forgive sins.

In the original Greek, the word which is translated as “forgive” is aphēte [ἀφῆτε], meaning “to send away.” This idea, that sins must be “sent away” is known as the “remission of sins.” In the Hebrew scriptures, when the sins of the people were placed on the head of a goat, the goat was sent away into the wilderness, symbolically “sending away” the sins of the people (see Leviticus 16:21). While a goat cannot actually take away human sin, this ritual does speak about the necessity of removing evil from oneself and sending it far away “into the wilderness.” Throughout Christianity, this process is known as “the remission of sins.” 18

The idea that forgiveness is related to the remission of sins is an important one. To remit sins is to send them away. And yet, sins can only be remitted—that is, removed and driven out of our lives—through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what can occur within us whenever we respond to a current situation from a new understanding and a new will. When we are operating at this higher level, ascending above previous states, prior habits, and earlier attitudes, our sins are forgiven. That is, when we are closer to God, our sins are further removed from us. 19

When the Lord’s Holy Spirit is received as the truth which is infilled with His love, we no longer entertain lower thoughts and feelings, nor do we repeat earlier behaviors. They are, so to speak, behind us. That’s because we are now living at a new level where previous sins are no longer a part of who we are. While we may have occasional slip-ups, we are now humbly operating from God-centered states rather than self-centered states. We have a new nature. This is what takes place when our repentance is actual. It is not just repentance of the lips, but repentance of life. 20

While the driving out of sinful tendencies is accomplished over time and in innumerable ways, our part in that process is summed up in the Ten Commandments. As we strive to keep them, we not only allow God to remove evil, but we also allow God’s love to flow in and work through us. Whenever this takes place, it can be said that the Holy Spirit is working in us and through us, effecting and accomplishing all things that are good, true, and useful. 21

The retention of sins

It should not be forgotten, however, that Jesus does not only speak about the remission of sins. He also speaks about the retention of sins. As He puts it, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This cannot possibly mean that we have the power to release people from sin or keep them in sin. It does mean, however, that if we forgive the sins of any, we will experience a sense of forgiveness in ourselves. Conversely, if we retain the sins of any, we will retain the bitterness, the resentment, and the unforgiveness in ourselves.

Because we are all born with tendencies to evils of every kind, it is inevitable that self-serving, unforgiving thoughts will flow into our minds from time to time, even if we have not invited them. These thoughts can do us no harm as long as we do not allow them to remain. Therefore, it’s best to send them away as quickly as possible. However, if we do choose to hang on to them—that is to retain them—they can have a destructive influence on our character. A sickness that goes untreated, can spread to various parts of our body, leading to a worsening condition, and eventually to death. The same can be said about negative thoughts that are allowed to linger. 22

Jesus, then, is giving His disciples a most powerful lesson about the importance of forgiveness, and the consequences of unforgiveness. Beginning with themselves, they can call upon the power of the Holy Spirit to send away every negative influence so that they might be filled with God’s spirit of forgiveness. At the same time, they are being cautioned about the danger of harboring bitter, resentful, and hateful thoughts.

This also includes the tendency to lock people into the negative pictures and prejudices we may have had based on previous experiences with them or rumors about them. No one wants to be seen in terms of their earlier misbehaviors or through the lens of past mistakes. When people repent, change, and grow, they need to be seen in terms of their best qualities—that is, the Lord’s qualities in them. As long as we “retain” their sins, we fail to bring out the best in them. Similarly, if we retain our negative thoughts about others, refusing to give up those thoughts, even justifying them, it can become a part of our essential nature. This is why Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. 23

A practical application

If our repentance is sincere, previous sins are sent away and are no longer associated with us. We have begun and are now living a new life. Because the Lord has forgiven us, we can forgive ourselves. Just as we would not want to be defined by the sins of our past, we can give others the same consideration. As a practical application, then, when you see people striving to change and grow, support and encourage them in their efforts. If negative thoughts and prejudices arise based on someone’s past, send those thoughts and images away as soon as possible. Do not let them linger. When you do this for others, it frees you to think higher thoughts about them and to put the best interpretation on their actions. As Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24

“My Lord and My God!”

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

25. Therefore the other disciples said to him, We have seen the Lord. But he said to them, Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and thrust my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into His side, I will not believe.

26. And after eight days again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace [be] to you.

27. Then He says to Thomas, Bring hither thy finger, and see My hands, and bring thy hand and thrust [it] into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.

28. And Thomas answered and said to Him, My Lord and my God.

29. Jesus said to him, Because thou hast seen Me, Thomas, thou hast believed; happy [are] they who have not seen, and have believed.

30. And indeed many other signs therefore Jesus did in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book.

31. But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you might have life in His name.

When Jesus breathed on His disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Thomas was not present. Therefore, when Thomas returns, they say to him, “We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25). But Thomas has not had this experience. Therefore, he says, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

Thomas is not willing to believe merely because the disciples say, “We have seen the Lord.” He wants to see for himself. After all, Thomas was not there when Jesus suddenly appeared in the room, offered a greeting of peace, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” While this must have been a profound experience for the disciples, they were unable to transfer this spiritual experience to Thomas. 25

Believing what others say without understanding or experiencing it for ourselves is called “blind faith.” This kind of faith should not replace rational understanding. When our spiritual eyes are opened, we can see the Lord for ourselves and hear His voice in His Word. This is the understanding that goes hand in hand with true faith. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things in Your law.” (Psalms 119:18). Also, “In Your light we see light” (Psalms 36:9).

Eight days later, when Jesus again manifests Himself to the disciples, Thomas is in the room. Once again, Jesus appears in their midst while the doors are shut. And once again, Jesus begins by saying, “Peace be with you” (John 20:26). Jesus then turns to Thomas and says to him, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). Now that Thomas’ spiritual eyes are open, and he is experiencing the spiritual presence of Jesus for himself, he is deeply affected. Although he had wanted to physically touch Jesus, Jesus has spiritually touched him. Therefore, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28).

Thomas’ exclamation, perhaps more than any other utterance in the gospels, comes the closest to describing Jesus’ true nature. Thomas sees, understands, and believes that Jesus is both his Lord and his God. In this rare and blessed moment, Thomas sees for himself that Jesus is not just the Messiah, or the Son of man, or even the Son of God. He is God Himself—fulfilling the words spoken at the beginning of this Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” John 1:1;14).

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed

As this episode draws to a close, Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). Here Jesus teaches that spiritual belief does not depend on physical proof. A belief that is truly spiritual comes about when our spiritual eyes are opened, and we see truth in the light of higher understanding. Just as the physical eye sees things in the natural world, spiritual eyesight gives us the ability to understand spiritual reality. When we suddenly comprehend something, we might be inclined to say, “I see,” meaning that we understand. 26

External sight is based on the evidence of the external senses. It tells us that the sun rises and sets, that the earth is flat, and that the stars are very tiny. It also tells us that there is no heaven, there is no hell, there is no God, and no life after death. After all, it cannot “see” any of these things. Sometimes we are so blinded by the physical that we cannot see what is truly spiritual. 27

But internal sight is quite different. It’s why Jesus so often opened the eyes of the blind (see John 9:1-41; 10:21; 11:37). These physical healings represent the deeper healing that can take place within each of us when the Lord opens our spiritual eyes. Only then can we truly see that there is a God, that death is the continuation of life, and that all life is from the Lord alone. These are the essential things that are invisible to our physical eyes, but visible to our spiritual eyes. This, then, is what Jesus means when He says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Deeper signs

As this chapter closes, the narrator tells us that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30). In His wondrous mercy, God allows us from time to time to experience moments when we sense His presence working in our lives. 28

For some of us, these miraculous moments might include an extraordinary coincidence, a serendipitous meeting, or an unexpected surprise that turns out to be a great blessing. It could also include seeing angels, having a prophetic dream, experiencing a vision, or receiving a message from a departed loved one. While we should, of course, be grateful for these signs and wonders, they should not be the center or basis for our belief.

Instead, we can let them confirm what we already believe—that God loves us with a love we can scarcely fathom, that His wisdom is an infallible guide to happiness, and that He leads us in marvelous ways that are incomprehensible to our finite minds.

The many wonders of God’s invisible leading are all there, even those that are beyond our conscious awareness. These are the wonders that are “not written in this book” (John 20:30). But still, they are there, silently running beneath the surface of our lives, going on with precision and order every moment. This is the Lord’s divine providence, secretly guiding us at all times. Although we cannot see it all, God does provide that we see enough—just enough to know and to believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we may have life in His name” (John 20:31). 29

These are the deeper signs that demonstrate how the Lord is working secretly within us. When we have “life in His name,” we are being regenerated. As changes take place in our inner spirit, we are continuously ascending. In this way, our existence becomes a series of steady, progressive, and miraculous resurrections to new life. 30

A practical application

“To believe in His name,” and “to have life in His name,” is to live according to the qualities that God gives us—specifically the qualities that are manifested in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In doing so, we will experience signs of His presence along the way. As a practical application, then, be on the lookout for those “signs” that indicate that you are indeed experiencing “life in His name.” Some of these signs might include a growing willingness to admit wrong and seek forgiveness, an expanding ability to see the good in others, an increasing tendency to respond from your higher nature, a greater awareness of and appreciation for the blessings in your life, and an increasing faith and trust in God. Let these signs of spiritual development serve to strengthen your spirit and deepen your faith. 31


1Apocalypse Explained 444:11: “The three sons of Leah born in succession were Reuben, Simeon, Levi. These three signify the chief and primary essentials of the church, that is, truth in the understanding, truth in the will, and truth in action. Similarly, the three disciples of the Lord, Peter, James, and John have a like signification. Peter signifies truth in the understanding, James, truth in the will, and John, truth in action, which is the good of life.” See also Arcana Coelestia 7167: “That which proceeds from the Lord is divine good and truth; and divine good is love and charity, and divine truth is faith.”

2Arcana Coelestia 5773:2: “With people who are being regenerated a reversal takes place. That is to say, first they are led by means of truth to good, but after that they are led from good to truth.” See also Arcana Coelestia 3995:2: “While people are being regenerated, they do what is good from the truth they have learned, it being from truth that they learn what good is…. Then a reversal takes place and truth is done from good.” See also Arcana Coelestia 3563:5: “Before regeneration, the will, to which good belongs, exists outwardly, while the understanding, to which truth belongs, exists inwardly. But in the state following regeneration, the situation is different. In this case people desire truth not only because they have life in view but more still because they desire the good itself which constitutes that life. Previous desires, that is to say, those connected with outdoing others, with childish envy, and with glory, now fall away, so much so that they seem to have been dispelled. At this point, good which belongs to the will exists inwardly, and truth which belongs to the understanding exists outwardly. The result then is that truth acts as one with good since it stems from good. This order is genuine order.”

3Arcana Coelestia 7601:5: “In the Word, ‘linen’ signifies the truth of the exterior natural, and the exterior natural is what clothes things more internal.” See also Arcana Coelestia 10177:5: “Whatever proceeds from love to the Lord and charity towards the neighbor is heard and received by the Lord. When holiness and piety are not from this source … they are merely externals without internals…. A holy external without an internal is merely from the mouth and the gestures, whereas a holy external from an internal is at the same time from the heart.”

4Arcana Coelestia 2689: “In the Word, ‘lifting up the voice and weeping’ represents the utmost extremity of grief…. Those who are being reformed are maintained in the affection for good and in the thought of truth. Therefore, when they are deprived of these, they become distressed …. This state of grief is more interior, and therefore more severe because it is not the death of the body that distresses them, but rather the loss of goodness and truth, the loss of which, to them, is spiritual death.”

5True Christian Religion 126: “In temptations apparently a person is left alone, although this is not the case; for God is then most nearly present in one’s inmosts and sustains the person.” See also True Christian Religion 774: “The Lord's presence is unceasing with every person, both the evil and the good, for without His presence no one can live.”

6Apocalypse Explained 899:14: “Because people rise again after death, therefore the Lord was willing to suffer death and to rise again the third day; but for this reason, that He might put off everything human which He derived from the mother, and put on a Divine Human. For the whole human which the Lord took from the mother He rejected from Himself by temptations, and lastly by death; and by the putting on of a Human from the Divine itself, which was in Him, He glorified Himself, that is, made His Human Divine. This is why, in heaven, by His death and burial, are not meant death and burial, but the purification of His Human, and glorification. That this is the case, the Lord taught … when He said to Mary Magdalene, ‘Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended to My Father.’ By ascending to His Father, is meant the unition of His Human with His Divine, the human from the mother being completely rejected.”

7Arcana Coelestia 6832: “When the Lord appears, He appears according to the quality of a person, because a person receives the divine no otherwise than according to one’s own quality.” See also Arcana Coelestia 865: “After a period of temptation, the truths of faith start to appear as a first glimmer of light. This is the kind of state in which falsities continue to give trouble, making this state resemble the morning twilight when the obscurity of the night is still lingering on.”

8Apocalypse Explained 178: “When He glorified His Human, He dissipated all evils and falsities arising from the human that He had from the mother.” See also Arcana Coelestia 2288: “While He lived in this world, the Lord had two states, namely, a state of humiliation and a state of glorification. His state of humiliation was when He was in the human which He took by inheritance from the mother; His state of glorification was when He was in the Divine which He had from Jehovah His Father. The former state, namely, that of the human from the mother, the Lord altogether put off, and put on the Divine Human, when He passed out of the world, and returned to the Divine Itself.” Note: the golden thread replacement analogy is attributed to Rev. Samuel Noble (1779-1853).

9Arcana Coelestia 5078:2: “The Lord made the very bodily in Himself Divine, both its sensuous things and their recipient organs; and He therefore rose again from the sepulcher with His body.” See also Arcana Coelestia 10252:7: “It is known that the Lord rose again with the whole body which He had in the world, differently from other men, for He left nothing in the sepulcher.”

10. The The Athanasian Creed 162: “The Lord, in the sepulcher, and thus by death, rejected all the human from the mother and dissipated it.” See also Arcana Coelestia 1799:4: “If love to the Lord and charity to the neighbor were the principal of faith … all the dissensions that come forth from doctrine would vanish; indeed, all hatreds of one against another would be dissipated in a moment, and the Lord’s kingdom would come upon the earth.” See also Arcana Coelestia 1874: “The literal sense of the Word perishes as it ascends and becomes spiritual, then celestial, and at last Divine.”

11Arcana Coelestia 3703:2: “In the heavens all things in general and particular are seen in terms of the way love for the Lord and faith in Him are related to each other—that is to say, all things are seen as a relationship between goodness and truth. Because of this the earliest people compared each and all things to a marriage.” Apocalypse Explained 725:3: “In the Word, ‘male and female’ signify in the spiritual sense truth and good, consequently the doctrine of truth, which is the doctrine of life, and the life of truth, which is the life of doctrine; these must be not two but one, since truth does not become truth with a person without the good of life, nor does good become good with anyone without the truth of doctrine…. When these are one, then truth is of good and good is of truth, and this oneness is meant by ‘one flesh.’” See also Apocalypse Explained 1004:3: “When, therefore, two minds act as one their two bodies are potentially so united that they are no more two but one flesh. To will to become one flesh is conjugial love; and such as the willing is, such is that love.”

12Heaven and Hell 533: “That it is not so difficult to live the life of heaven as some believe can now be seen from this, that when anything presents itself to people that they know to be dishonest and unjust, but to which their mind is inclined, it is simply necessary for them to think that it ought not to be done because it is opposed to the divine precepts. If people accustom themselves so to think, and from so doing establish a habit of so thinking, they are gradually conjoined to heaven.” Arcana Coelestia 9394:4: “When the things of the memory become a part of a person’s life, they vanish from the exterior memory, just as the gestures, actions, speech, reflections, intentions, and in general the thoughts and affections normally do when by continual practice or habit they become spontaneous and natural.” See also Arcana Coelestia 9918: “When a person lives according to doctrine, truth becomes faith … and good becomes charity. It is then that they are called spiritual. When this happens, they almost vanish out of the external or natural memory, and seem to be innate. This is because they are now implanted in a person’s life. It is the same with all those things which have become, through daily use, second nature.”

13Arcana Coelestia 2405:7: “When a person is being regenerated, and being made new … the Lord’s kingdom is arising in that person…. Hence the Lord’s resurrection on the third day in the morning [represents] His rising again in the minds of the regenerate every day, and even every moment.” See also Divine Providence 36: “I have sometimes conversed with angels about wisdom…. They said that they picture to themselves wisdom as a palace, magnificent and highly adorned, the ascent to which is by twelve steps, and that no one reaches the first step unless from the Lord through conjunction with Him. Further, they said that people ascend according to the measure of the conjunction; and as they ascend they perceive that no one is wise from oneself, but only from the Lord, and that the things in which they are wise, compared with those in which they are not wise, are as a few drops of water to a great lake. By the twelve steps leading to the palace of wisdom are signified principles of good conjoined to those of truth, and principles of truth conjoined to those of good.”

14Arcana Coelestia 6893: “In the internal sense, to be ‘seen’ does not signify being seen by the eyes, but by the thought. Thought causes presence. This is because the person who is thought of appears as if present before the internal sight. In the other life this is actually the case, for when anyone is there thought of intently, that person becomes present.” See also Apocalypse Explained 628: “The Lord is present with all according to their love to Him.” See also Last Judgement (posthumous): “In the spiritual world distances are only appearances; and when anyone is thought of, the distance perishes, and that person becomes present.”

15Arcana Coelestia 9229:3: “After His resurrection, when speaking with the disciples, the Lord ‘breathed on them’ and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ The breathing upon them was representative of making them alive by faith and love, as also in the second chapter of Genesis where it is written that ‘Jehovah breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” See also Apocalypse Revealed 962:12: “In our Lord Jesus Christ there is a Divine Trinity, which is, the Divine from which, that is called the Father; the Divine Human, which is the Son; and the proceeding Divine, which is the Holy Spirit. Thus, there is one God in the church.”

16Arcana Coelestia 9818:14-18: “This holy thing which proceeds from the Lord, and flows into people through angels and spirits, whether manifestly or not manifestly, is the Holy Spirit…. It is the divine truth that proceeds from the Lord…. It is said that ‘He [the Holy Spirit] will lead into all truth’… and also that when the Lord departed from the disciples, ‘He breathed into them, and said, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit.”’ Since respiration signifies the life of faith, the inspiration [or breathing] of the Lord signifies a capability imparted to people to perceive divine truths, and thus to receive the life of faith.”

17True Christian Religion 188:12: “In the Lord God the Savior Jesus Christ, there is a Divine Trinity. This Trinity is made up of the originating Divine called ‘the Father,’ the Human Divine called ‘the Son,’ and the emanating Divine Influence called ‘the Holy Spirit.’” See also Last Judgement (posthumous): “In the literal sense of the Word, three names for the one God are used. By ‘the Father’ is meant the Creator of the universe, by ‘the Son’ the Savior of the human race, and by ‘the Holy Spirit’ is meant the Enlightener. Moreover, these three aspects exist in the Lord alone.” See also True Christian Religion 167: “The three essential components that are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in the Lord, just as soul, body, and actions are one in a person.” See also Divine Love and Wisdom 299: “Love, wisdom, and use, are in the Lord, and are the Lord.”

18The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Teachings 170: “Being withheld from evil and kept in good is remission of sins.” See also True Christian Religion 614:1-2: “The remission of sins means their removal and separation…. It may be compared to the casting out of what was unclean from the camp of the children of Israel.” See also Arcana Coelestia 9670:6: “The confession of sins over the living goat which was to be sent away into the wilderness represents the casting away of evil.” See also Divine Providence 127: “It is the commonly held religion throughout the Christian world that people should examine themselves, see their sins, acknowledge them, confess them before God, and desist from them, and that this is repentance, remission of sins, and thus salvation.”

19True Christian Religion 142: “The divine power and activity meant by the Holy Spirit are, generally speaking, reformation and regeneration, which lead to renewal, enlivening, sanctification, and justification. These, in turn, lead to purification from evils which is the forgiveness of sins, and ultimately to salvation… While all of this done by means of divine truth, it must be understood as divine truth acting from good. To put it another way, it is by means of faith inspired by charity that a person’s reformation and regeneration is effected. This is how a person is renewed, enlivened, sanctified, and justified. As all these processes advance and increase, a person is cleansed from evils, and this cleansing is what is meant by the forgiveness of sins.”

20Arcana Coelestia 8910: “Evil and falsity are introduced into a person’s thought by hell and are sent back there again.” See also Arcana Coelestia 5398: “They who are of the church at this day talk about the remission of sins and about justification, and believe that sins are remitted in a moment, and some that they are wiped away like filth from the body by water, and that a person is justified by faith alone or by the confidence of a single moment. They believe this because they do not know what sin or evil is. If they knew this, they would know that sins can by no means be wiped away from anyone, but that when a person is kept in good by the Lord, evils are separated or rejected to the sides so as not to rise up. This, however, cannot be accomplished unless evil is continually cast out.”

21True Christian Religion 329: “When a person keeps the Ten Commandments by shunning evils, love and charity flow in. This is evident from the Lord’s words in John: ‘He that has My commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves Me and he that loves Me shall be loved of My Father; and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him: and We will make our abode with him.’ By commandments here the commandments of the Decalogue are particularly meant, which are that evils must not be done or lusted after, and that the love of a person toward God and the love of God toward a person then follow as good follows when evil is removed.”

22True Christian Religion 524: “The sins which are retained in an unrepentant person may be compared with the various illnesses people suffer, and unless cures are applied to get rid of the harmful element, they may die of those illnesses.”

23Arcana Coelestia 6204: “It should be recognized that evil entering a person’s thought does not do that person any harm; for spirits from hell are constantly pouring in evil, but angels are constantly driving it away. But when evil enters the will, it does do harm, for it leads on to actions as often as external restraints do not hinder it. Evil enters the will when it is retained in one’s thought, is approved of, and especially when it is acted upon and therefore delighted in.”

24Arcana Coelestia 6206: “All evil flows in from hell, and all good through heaven from the Lord. But the reason why evil is appropriated to people is that they believe and persuade themselves that they think and do evil from themselves, and in this way, they make it their own. If they believed as is really the case [that evil flows in from hell] … the moment that evil flowed in, they would reflect that it was from the evil spirits with them, and as soon as they thought this, the angels would avert and reject it.” See also Arcana Coelestia 6818: “When the good in people is loved, the Lord is loved.”

25The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem Regarding Faith 1-2: “At the present day, the term ‘faith’ is taken to mean the mere thought that the thing is so because the church so teaches, and because it is not evident to the understanding. For we are told to believe and not to doubt, and if we say that we do not comprehend, we are told that this is just the reason for believing. So that the faith of the present day is a faith in the unknown, and may be called blind faith. Because it is faith in something that somebody has said, it is faith in somebody else. That is, it is faith in hearsay…. People who have true faith think and speak in this way: ‘This is true, and therefore I believe it.’ This is because faith is related to truth, and truth to faith. Moreover, if they do not understand how something could be true, they say, ‘I do not know whether this is true or not. Therefore, I do not yet believe it. How can I believe what I do not comprehend? It may possibly be false.’”

26Apocalypse Explained 1156:2: “‘Those who ‘believe and do not see’ are those who do not desire signs, but truths from the Word, that is, ‘Moses and the prophets,’ and who believe them. Such people are internal, and because of this they become spiritual.” See also The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem Regarding Faith 10: “The Lord said to Thomas, ‘Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ This does not imply a faith divorced from any internal acknowledgment of truth. Rather it means that those people are blessed who have not seen the Lord with their eyes, as Thomas had, and yet believe that He exists. For this is seen in the light of truth drawn from the Word.”

27Arcana Coelestia 129: “Those who assume as a principle that nothing is to be believed until it is seen and understood, can never believe, because spiritual and celestial things cannot be seen with the eyes, or conceived by the imagination.” See also Divine Love and Wisdom 46: “It can now be established how sensually, that is, how much from the senses of the body and their darkness in spiritual things, those people think who declare that nature is from herself. They think from the eye and cannot think from the understanding. Thought from the eye closes the understanding, but thought from the understanding opens the eye.”

28Arcana Coelestia 2016: “To say that the Lord is the source of all good, and from this of all truth, is to express an unchanging truth. Angels see this truth with perception, so clearly that they perceive that insofar as anything is derived from the Lord it is good and true, and insofar as anything is derived from themselves it is evil and false…. Indeed, they go so far as to declare that they are withheld by the Lord from evil and falsity which arise from their proprium and are kept by Him in good and truth. The actual withholding from their evil and falsity and the actual entrance of the Lord with good and truth is also perceptible to them.” See also Arcana Coelestia 1102:3: “When people feel or perceive in themselves that they have good thoughts concerning the Lord, and that they have good thoughts concerning their neighbor, and desire to perform kind offices for their neighbor, not for the sake of any gain or honor for themselves; and when they feel that they have sympathy for anyone who is in trouble, and still greater sympathy for one who is in error in respect to the doctrine of faith, then they may know that … they have internal things in them through which the Lord is working.”

29Arcana Coelestia 144: “To ‘call by name’ signifies to know the quality. This is by the ‘name’ the people of ancient times understood the essence of a thing, and by ‘seeing and calling by name’ they understood to know the quality.” See also True Christian Religion 682: “By the name of the Lord Jesus Christ nothing else is meant in the Word but an acknowledgment of Him and a life according to His commandments.” See also Arcana Coelestia 8455: “Peace has in it confidence in the Lord, that He directs all things, and provides all things, and that He leads to a good end.”

30Arcana Coelestia 5202:4: “People who are in good are reborn every moment, from their earliest infancy to the last period of their life in the world, and afterwards to eternity, not only as to their interiors, but also as to their exteriors, and this by stupendous processes.” See also Arcana Coelestia 6611: “I have spoken with spirits about the changes of state of people’s lives, that it is inconstant, and that they are carried upward and downward, now toward heaven and now toward hell. But they who suffer themselves to be regenerated are being carried continually upward, and thus always into more interior heavenly societies.”

31Conjugial Love 185: “From infancy to the end of life, and afterwards to eternity, a person’s state of life is continually changing…. The changes that take place in the inner qualities are changes in the state of the will in respect to its affections, and changes in the state of the intellect in respect to its thoughts.” See also Arcana Coelestia 5847: “While people live in the world, they induce a form on the purest substances of their interiors, so that it may be said that they form their own soul, that is, its quality; and according to this form is received the life of the Lord.”