[nextpage title=”Introduction” ]Introduction: Scars on the Resurrected Jesus?
(24) Thomas, one of the twelve (the one called Didymus), was not with them when Jesus came. (25) Therefore, the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and unless I feel with my finger the marks of the nails and I feel with my hand his side, I will not believe it.” (26) After eight days, again the disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. While the doors were closed Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be to you.” (27) Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and put your hand here and feel my side. Do not be unbelieving but believing.” (28) Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God.”
In this story from near the end of the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples and presents the evidence that his disciple Thomas said he would need in order to believe that Jesus truly had been raised from the dead. That evidence consists of the marks from where Jesus was nailed to the cross and where his side was pierced by a spear. This is the story from which we get our term “doubting Thomas”. But what I want to talk about isn’t “doubting Thomas”. Rather, I want to draw your attention to a sneaky little detail in the text that is actually enormously important. And the detail isn’t really that sneaky, but it is usually overshadowed by our tendency to focus on Thomas and his doubts when we read this story.
This is the detail: have you ever stopped to reflect on the fact that the resurrected Jesus has scars?
Jesus, after being raised from the dead, possessing a new kind of physicality, something Paul calls a “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15:44, has physical scars in that new spiritual body that he inherited from his pre-resurrection existence.
Without too much reflection, it is clear that this fact creates problems for our typical way of understanding the resurrection and its effect on our human bodies. With biblical justification, we believe that our resurrected selves will be completely healed. If we have lived life as a paraplegic, our resurrected body will be able to walk. If we have lived with an incurable genetic disease, like cystic fibrosis, all traces of that disease will be gone. Our resurrected bodies will be perfected bodies, completely free of disease and disability. While the Bible doesn’t say this in so many words, this expectation is well founded on numerous biblical texts. For example, the same passage in 1 Corinthians 15 that talks about us possessing a spiritual body in the resurrection also talks about the resurrection in this way, imagining the human body as a seed:
It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
So we are right to expect that all those things that presently afflict and weaken our natural bodies will no longer afflict us in the resurrection.
Yet it is an undeniable fact that the resurrected Jesus, who had been cured of death itself, nevertheless had scars on his hands and on his side. Now, we have no reason to think that Jesus’ resurrected physicality is somehow fundamentally different from what we ourselves will have in the resurrection, or that he appeared to his disciples in some kind of intermediate form. Rather, the Bible says … in fact, John himself says, “Beloved, we are even now children of God, and what we will be is not yet apparent. We know that when he shall appear we will be like him, for we will see him just as he is” (1 John 3:2). Even though the first generation of Christians did not fully understand what the resurrected experience would be like, they believed that they had encountered it personally in the resurrected Jesus. The way he was in his post-resurrection appearances was the way they too would be when everyone was resurrected at the end of the age.[/nextpage][nextpage title=”What Are Scars, Actually?” ]
What Are Scars, Actually?
This means that we need to reflect a little bit more on what scars are and what they are not. We have to distinguish between scars on the one hand and disease or disability on the other. A disease or a disability is like an injury: it is something that inhibits the proper functioning of the body or otherwise represents physicality separated from God’s original intention for humanity. Disease, disability, and injury are all a little foretaste of death. Or, in other words, death is the incurable disease, the total disability, the ultimate injury.
A scar, on the other hand, is the memory of an injury, not the injury itself. It is both the physical evidence of healing and the physical evidence that healing was needed. A scar is a story branded in our body. Has anyone ever had a conversation where you showed someone a scar and told them the story behind it? I find it really interesting that we all gravitate towards doing this. And not uncommonly there is a moral to the story. I have an oval scar on my forearm that only I can see easily. I got it when I was waiting tables. I picked up a large tray with hot plates in an unsafe way, and one of the plates slid across the tray and branded me. It could have been a lot worse. This scar is an ever present reminder of the importance of doing things safely and correctly. But the function of my left arm is in no way inhibited by this scar. It isn’t an injury – it is the memory of an injury.
My son, who was born very premature at 23 weeks gestational age, has two tiny little marks on his abdomen that are difficult to see. They mark the entry points where a highly skilled surgeon performed endoscopic surgery to mend twin hernias that Peter had been born with. Not only are they reminders of all the many medical challenges Peter faced as a premature infant, they are also evidence of the expert level of care God provided for Peter. Every doctor we see in the United States who looks for the scars is absolutely amazed at how difficult they are to spot visually, evidence that the surgeon who performed the surgery was an expert of unusual ability. Those two tiny scars in no way affect Peter today. Rather, they are the memory of an injury, a memory both of suffering and of God’s amazing grace. So rather than being a foretaste of death, as disease and injury are, scars are actually a foretaste of the resurrection.
Admittedly, some kinds of scarring can become disfiguring and even disabling. In cases such as these, I think they really fit more in the injury category than the scars category. But in most cases, our scars do not adversely affect our lives by causing us pain or inhibiting the ability of our bodies to function normally. Rather, they are the record in our bodies of the unique story that God has been telling in our lives. It is like the story of your life written in your flesh.
The fact that scars are present in the resurrected body of Jesus tells us that at least certain scars are important to God, important enough not to remove them in the resurrection. This is because scars are a vital part of God’s creative work in us. You see, sometimes we will say things like “God created you for this or that,” as if God’s creative act is something exclusively in the past – at the moment of conception, for example. But in fact God’s creation of you is something that is still happening. While it is as good as accomplished from the perspective of eternity, from our perspective as beings who live within time God’s creation of us is worked out through the course of our lives. It isn’t simply that God created you and that’s over with now, but in fact God is still creating each one of us, and part of his creative work in us involves bringing us through difficulties and sufferings, through things that leave scars. Those scars are not simply undesirable and unavoidable by-products of our sufferings. They are the story of the redemption of our sufferings and an integral part of our God-given identity.
Now it may be evident to you that I am not talking simply, or even primarily, about physical scars. We all bear the marks in our spirits of suffering. Loss, disappointment, and abuse, including that which we inflict on ourselves when we sin, all affect us in lasting ways. Sometimes the spiritual damage done by suffering takes a while to heal, and even when it does we find ourselves profoundly changed by the healing process. Rarely do we find ourselves so healed emotionally that it is as if the suffering had never happened. Suffering leaves indelible emotional scars, even when we have come to terms with the suffering and healed to whatever extent it is possible.
Often we feel that our emotional scars are blights, aspects of ourselves that need to be covered up and hidden while we pretend they don’t exist. Our enemy targets our scars because they are located in the places inside us where we are the most vulnerable. Our enemy does what he can to inhibit the healing process, and then when healing does take place he does what he can to convince us that our scars disqualify us, make us less worthy, less holy, less attractive, so to speak, both to Christians and even to God. The enemy points to our scars and tells us that we can never return to the scar-less perfection that God had intended for us from the beginning. Everything in our relationship with God from here on is just going to be second best, all because of those scars. Some who claim to be Christians, but who are really mouthpieces of the enemy, would seem to confirm the enemy’s whispers, continually reminding us of our scars and treating us poorly on account of them. So we hide our scars and hunker down waiting for the day of the resurrection when, we think, those scars will be removed.
But Jesus’ scars weren’t removed, were they? Not only were they not removed, they became a source of blessing and an integral part of Jesus’ eternal identity. Who is Jesus? He is the one who bears the scars on his hands and his side. The marks of the cross were not erased from his resurrection body because those marks represent his whole reason for existence. To erase the scars would be tantamount to erasing Jesus himself. His scars were not blights to be covered, but marks of God’s salvation to be gloried in.[/nextpage][nextpage title=”Following Jesus in Suffering” ]
Following Jesus in Suffering
The same is true of our scars when we follow Jesus, because God has a different perspective on our emotional scars. Consider this text from 2 Corinthians 1:3-5:
(3) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, (4) who comforts us in every one of our afflictions so that we might be able to comfort those enduring every affliction with the comfort wherewith we were comforted by God. (5) For just as the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, so also through Christ our comfort abounds to others.
The point is simply this: in Christ the sufferings we endure and the scars they leave behind have a purpose. Our scars are the stories of God’s redemption and healing in our lives, and they are stories that need to be told to a lost and hurting world. Those who are suffering loss need to hear from the ones scarred by loss that God can bind up the brokenhearted. Those who have suffered abuse need to hear from the ones scarred by abuse that God can give you a turban of joy in place of the ashes of sorrow. People who have fallen from grace need to hear from the ones scarred by their fall from grace that God can lift us up and make us oaks of righteousness, priests and servants of our God. We are comforted by God in every single one of our afflictions specifically so that we can comfort others with the exact same comfort we ourselves have received, so that we can be the agents of God’s redeeming and healing love. That is actually precisely how God redeems our sufferings. That’s what it means for God to redeem our sufferings, to take what the enemy meant for evil and turn it around for good, for the saving of souls.
So often we are tempted think that following Jesus is mostly about knowing him in his resurrection and in his power. The enemy, I think, is more than happy for us to think that this is what it means to follow Jesus. But the fact is that if we truly want to know Jesus, as Paul tells us in Philippians, we cannot simply know him in his resurrection, but we must also know him in his sufferings, because without the sufferings, the resurrection is meaningless. You cannot heal what isn’t broken. You cannot resurrect what isn’t dead. In order to rise from the grave, Jesus first had to be placed in the grave.
Our scars, then, which are the simultaneous proof both of suffering and of healing, are integral to our Christian walk. Moreover, just like Jesus’ scars were what identified Jesus to Thomas, what convinced Thomas that he was looking at the real deal, so also our scars are the marks that prove we belong to Christ.
In Galatians 6:17, Paul says, “From henceforth let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” The context in Galatians is circumcision, and what Paul is saying is that he bears marks in his body that identify him as a participant in the covenant of Christ far more effectively than circumcision could. What are these marks he is talking about? The fact that he says that he bears those marks in his soma, his “body”, means, I think, that he is talking about physical scars: the marks left from being beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked – from his sufferings in Christ. But there is a bigger principle lying underneath this talk of physical scars, and I suspect that if Paul were pressed, he would readily extend his meaning to include emotional scars, as well. The point, though, is this: our scars, physical or emotional, mark us as belonging to Jesus, as having followed him both in his resurrection and in his sufferings, far more effectively than any mark we might make on ourselves willingly, such as circumcision. It isn’t your clothes or your hair or whether you wear this or that on your body that marks you as a follower of Christ. It is your scars that provide the incontrovertible evidence that you belong to God in Christ.
So hear me on this: your scars don’t separate you from Jesus. They make you like him, because he himself bears scars in his own body. Your scars are not irreparable blights on God’s pristine image in which he once created you. They are part of his image and likeness in which you are being created. Your scars do not surprise or shock God. God knew everything he was getting into when he made you, and he knew there would be things he would need to heal and redeem. Your scars do not shame God. They glorify him, because only God can take what we and the enemy mean for evil and mean it for good. You are not a second rate Christian because of your scars. Your scars are the sign that you are a new creation in Christ, just like Jesus’ scars were a sign to Thomas of the truth of his resurrection.[/nextpage][nextpage title=”The Eighth Sign” ]
The Eighth Sign
So we have seen what the scars of the resurrected Jesus tell us about scars in general and about the significance of our own scars, but Jesus’ scars tell us other things, too – surprising things about his own identity and even about the nature of God. In our text today, why is it that Thomas wants to see the scars before he will believe? What is it that the scars will do for him? The initial reason Thomas insists on seeing the scars is that he feels they will prove that the resurrected Jesus is the real deal rather than a fraud, a real physical presence rather than either a hallucination or a disembodied spirit. But upon seeing the resurrected Jesus with his scars, the effect on Thomas actually goes beyond this. Seeing the scars triggers an awareness of a truth that he didn’t even realize he was looking for.
To understand what it is that Thomas perceives in the scars, we need to zoom out a bit and look at one of the many recurring themes in the Gospel of John. (In what follows, I owe a great deal to N. T. Wright’s marvelous little book Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship.) At the beginning of the second chapter of John’s Gospel, we see the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. The conclusion of this story in verse 11 says this in a very literal translation: “Jesus did this, the first of the signs, in Cana of Galilee and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” The word “signs” is an interesting choice. While it is not unique to John, if the meaning of verse 11 were simply that turning water into wine in Cana was the first miracle Jesus ever performed, we might expect a different Greek word, such as dunamis (“miracle”) or teras (“wonder”). Instead, John chooses the word semeion, which means a sign or an identifying mark. In other words, this word focuses more on the fact that what Jesus did signified or identified something or someone than it does on the act’s supernatural nature. Of course it is supernatural, but it actually signifies something more. It points to something beyond itself. It is a sign, the effect of which is to instill his followers with faith.
This word semeion or “sign” occurs again in 4:46-54, a story where Jesus heals a man’s son from a distance just by saying the word. Again, this story concludes, “Jesus did this, again a second sign, coming from Judaea into Galilee.” So we might expect to see a series of “signs” in John, miracles that signify something, but the word essentially disappears at this point. Nevertheless, if we keep counting the miracles in the Gospel of John as “signs”, something interesting happens. In chapter 5, a lame man is healed at the pool of Bethesda. In chapter 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000 and walks on the water, a pair of miracles that always occur as a pair in the Gospels and that serve as a single sign. In chapter 9, Jesus heals a man blind from birth. In chapter 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. How many is that? (1) Water into wine; (2) healing the little boy; (3) healing the lame man; (4) feeding the 5,000/walking on water; (5) healing the blind man; (6) raising Lazarus, which precipitates the conspiracy to kill Jesus.
Now, considering the symbolic nature of numbers, we would expect to find not six signs, but seven. We could count feeding the 5,000 and walking on the water as two separate signs, but if we count them together, where else might another sign be lurking? Moreover, what could all these signs be pointing to? If we were to identify a central question in the Gospel of John that the narrative is working to answer, what might that question be? Who is Jesus? And the reality that all of these signs are pointing to is becoming gradually clearer over the course of the narrative, not only through these signs but through the famous “I am” statements and through Jesus’ other teaching – Jesus and the Father are one. He is the Word made flesh. We are his own, but his own don’t recognize him. As Jesus says in John 4:48, “Unless you all see signs and wonders, you just won’t believe.”
So he gives us these signs, but so far we only count six. Where is the seventh? Jesus tells us in John 12:32 – “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself.” Do you understand? The seventh sign is Jesus on the cross. It is in the face of the crucified Jesus that we behold most perfectly the glory of God. In a Gospel that begins by recalling the opening of Genesis, these seven signs correspond to the days of creation. Like God looking over all he had made and saying, “It is very good”, in John 19:30, just before he breathes his final breath, Jesus says, “It is finished”. And then like God resting on the seventh day, Jesus is buried in a tomb.
But not everything is accomplished, yet, is it? While we might behold the glorious, self-sacrificial love of God in the crucified Jesus, if that is where the story stops, his disciples are still left alone, confused, and defeated. Most importantly, I don’t think they or we really understand who Jesus is just yet. We have seen him on the cross, but we still haven’t recognized him.
The moment of recognition comes when Thomas sees the resurrected Jesus and is shown his scars. What does Thomas say? “My Lord and my God.” Thomas isn’t saying this as a meaningless expression of surprise, as in “OMG! It is you!” When Thomas says “My Lord and my God” he is addressing Jesus. He is stating Jesus’ full identity, an identity which, it seems, had not fully occurred to him until that moment. In other words, after all the miracles, after all of Jesus’ teachings and I am statements, the scars were the thing that finally revealed to Thomas who Jesus really was. The scars are, in fact, the eighth sign. If seven is the number that represents completion of the old order, eight represents the beginning of the new order, the more complete completion. The scars represent everything about Jesus. They are the proof that Jesus was crucified, but they are also the proof that the crucifixion was not the end. Both death and resurrection, the two sides of the coin that is our glorious salvation in Jesus, are written into the resurrected body of Jesus via his scars. Without the scars, we don’t really know who Jesus is, but through his scars we at last see the full death-defeating glory of the Son of God.[/nextpage][nextpage title=”The God Who Has Scars” ]
The God Who Has Scars
So the scars are the final sign of Jesus’ true identity in the Gospel of John, and Thomas’ reaction to them is what we are intended to understand: the resurrected Jesus is the final, completely perfected human image of our Lord and our God. What this means is astounding – it isn’t just the resurrected Jesus that has scars, it is God himself who bears the scars of the cross, and those scars are how we identify the real God and distinguish him from all the frauds.
Let’s take a moment for that to sink in. The God that we worship is a God who has scars, and if he has scars now, it means he has always had those scars. God wasn’t somehow different after Jesus’ crucifixion than he was before the crucifixion. The suffering and death of Jesus to make a way for our sins to be forgiven wasn’t God’s plan B. Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth. The death and resurrection of Jesus is built into the very fabric of all of creation. From the beginning, the Word of God, which is God, was destined to appear in human history as Jesus the son of Mary at the moment that he did, to suffer under Pontius Pilate, to be crucified, to die, to be buried, and to be raised again on the third day. And the effects of his atoning work exploded forward and backward through all of human history to become the basis for God’s forgiveness long before our ancestors knew anything other than a mere foreshadowing of Jesus in the Torah and Prophets. This means that Jesus was always destined to have those scars. And if Jesus, the express image of the invisible God, the fullness of the Godhead expressed in bodily form, bears scars in his resurrected body that he was destined to acquire from the foundation of the world, then in a sense we have to say that the eternal God bears eternal scars.
But what does that even mean? God cannot die, can he? Obviously not. God is spirit. At the same time, however, we have to be careful about making hard distinctions between Jesus’ physicality and God as spirit. When we start trying to keep Jesus as human hermetically sealed away from Jesus as God, we get a strangely bifurcated Jesus, a Jesus who has two halves to his being that never come into contact with one another. While God as God cannot die, in a way that we cannot fully understand he experienced death in Jesus’ physicality. He was fully involved in that physicality without being defined within it. The point is that while it is true that God cannot die, he certainly did suffer the death of Jesus, and the scars that we see on the hands and side of the resurrected Jesus are not simply scars of the resurrected human Jesus, but scars of the eternal God.
The God we worship is a God who bears scars, a God who understands suffering because he has experienced suffering, and he understands what it means to overcome suffering. Sometimes we try to offer our brothers and sisters comfort or advice when we may not have any idea what it is like to go through what they are going through. Comfort or advice offered in ignorance, while well meaning, often misses the mark, and at the worst it can cause further harm. This is why the most effective comfort we can give comes out of our own experience of having suffered something comparable if not identical. If God were a God who had created humanity without any idea what it would be like to be human and then started making demands of us and started punishing us for not meeting those demands, it would be very difficult to consider such a God to be a just or loving God. But the scars of the resurrected Jesus show us that we do not worship a God who cannot sympathize with our pain, our weakness, our humanness. There is nothing we can experience that he has not also, in some sense, experienced. Have you been abused? So has he. Have you been rejected? So has he. Have you fallen from grace. Amazingly, so has he on our behalf, because remember the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”
Because of that, whatever need you have, however life has tried to destroy you, the scars of the resurrected Jesus show us that our God knows exactly the kind of comfort and healing that you need. Whatever your scars are, don’t let the enemy convince you that they make you somehow unreachable or unusable. God understands what you’ve been through, and he has the scars to prove it. He is willing and able to forgive anything that needs to be forgiven, and he has the scars to prove it. He wants to take you in, scars and all, and turn your scars into signs that point to the redemptive glory of God. He has the power to do just that, and he has the scars to prove it.[/nextpage]