St. John 20:19-31
“The Incarnate, Spoken, and Written Word”
April 28, 2019
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, "Peace be with you." When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, "We have seen the Lord." So he said to them, "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." And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, "Peace to you!" Then He said to Thomas, "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." And Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. St. John 20:19-31
This morning, let’s talk about the Word of God. When we Christians talk about the Word of God we are talking first of all about Jesus Christ. He is the Word made flesh. He was God from eternity. In time, he took on flesh and blood from the Virgin Mary. Of him John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This Word became flesh. So we call him the incarnate word. When we talk about the Word we are talking about Jesus, the incarnate Word.
When we talk about the Word we are talking about the spoken Word. God speaks. This is how he creates. We become Christians by hearing his voice. Jesus spoke to his disciples. He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whosever sins you forgive they are forgiven and whosever sins you retain they are retained.” God gives us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation by speaking to us. He uses the voices of men. The Word of God is the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. The spoken word is preached. It is the preaching about Jesus. It is the preaching of Jesus. He who hears you hears me, Jesus says. When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples and gave them the commission to forgive and retain sins, the incarnate Word entrusted the spoken Word to his church. When we talk about the Word we are talking about the spoken Word.
When we talk about the Word, we are talking about the written Word. St. John writes:
The written Word is also called the Holy Scriptures. Holy Scriptures means holy writings. God’s Word is written down. The written Word was written so that we may know and believe in the incarnate Word. The written Word is not to be left on the page. It is to be proclaimed. When the written Word of God was first written, it was written to be spoken out loud to people gathered together to hear it. It has been only for the past few hundred years that Christians have had in their own possession the entire Bible written down in their own language that they could read for themselves. The written Word is to be preached so that it may become the spoken Word. The topic of the written Word is the incarnate Word.
Today’s Gospel deals with the incarnate Word, the spoken Word, and the written Word. That we may be kept safe in the true Christian faith, relying on the forgiveness of sins secured for us by Christ our Savior, we must hold onto the truth about the incarnate Word, the spoken Word, and the written Word.
We confess the truth about the incarnate Word in the creeds. When we gather together as Christ’s church, we always confess the truth about who Christ is. He is true God and true man. We always confess the truth about what he has done. He has redeemed us with his blood. He was crucified, died, and rose from the dead.
Early in the history of the church, heretics arose who denied that Jesus was really and truly God. Their soul destroying heresies have arisen in our time. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarians, and others have denied that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. In so doing, they deny Christ altogether. If the Word is not God, the Bible lies about him, Jesus is not our Savior, and the Christian church has a rotten foundation. The Word is God. He was God from eternity. He was God when all things were made through him. He was God when he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. He was God when he nailed to the cross. He was God when the spear pierced his side and water and blood flowed out. He was God when he appeared to the apostles and showed them his hands and his side. He was God when Thomas, seeing him with his own eyes, said, “My Lord, and my God.” We must hold onto the truth about the incarnate Word.
We must hold onto the truth about the spoken Word. When the crucified and risen Lord Jesus appeared to his apostles, he gave them the power or office of the keys. Jesus mentioned the keys in Matthew 16 where he said to Peter,
Jesus mentioned the keys again in Matthew 18 where he said to the whole church,
Here in John 20 Jesus gives what he promised to give: the power of the keys. Jesus purchased the authority he gave. He provided the evidence to his disciples. He showed them the wounds of his crucifixion, proving that he had died for the sin of the world and was raised victorious over sin, death, and the power of the devil. He gave the power he had purchased. The power of the keys is the power to unlock the door to heaven by forgiving repentant sinners all of their sins and the power to lock the door to heaven by retaining the sins of unrepentant sinners as long as they do not repent. When Jesus gave the apostles this power, he gave it to his church. It is a church power. It isn’t given to the state, the bank, the school, the lodge, the union, or the hardware store. It is given to the church, to the whole church, and to the church alone. It is peculiar to the church.
This is a precious power. You come to church. You confess your sins. You see and hear a man – a sinner like you – up in the front of the church saying to you, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He’s just a man. He’s no different than you are. But Jesus put him there to speak for him. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” So said Jesus. The spoken Word may come from the lips of mere men, but it is the Word of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. It is the voice of the Holy Spirit. It conveys the peace of God that the world cannot give. It actually bestows what it says so that you can believe what you hear and know that it is true.
Some say no. They say that only God can forgive sins. Sinners can’t. “Who do you think you are?” they ask. “Who are you to forgive sins? Why, you’re sinners yourselves! Only God can forgive sins!”
Yes, only God can forgive sins. And God does forgive sins. He chooses to forgive sinners their sins by speaking his word of forgiveness to them. He chooses to speak his word of forgiveness through the mouths of those he has forgiven. Are we saying that our pastors have the power to speak words that actually impart to others the forgiveness of all their sins? Not only are we saying that, we are saying that every single Christian – everyone who has received the Holy Spirit – has this power. You can absolve sinners in the name of Christ.
More than that, the church also has the power to retain, that is, withhold forgiveness from, those who are openly unrepentant. Repentant sinners should be forgiven. Nobody but God can see repentance and faith. We don’t judge the heart. We forgive those who confess. But if someone who claims to be a Christian, who claims to be sorry for his sins, continues in a sin and refuses to repent of it but instead holds onto it and insists on continuing in it, it then becomes the church’s duty to tell such a sinner that his sins are not forgiven. They are retained. Forgiveness is withheld.
The spoken word is both binding and loosing. It is forgiving and withholding forgiveness. It is preached and taught. Pastors do so publicly. Parents do so in their home. Christians do so privately. We speak God’s word and whenever we do God does what he promises to do in the words he says through us. We must hold onto the truth about the spoken Word.
We must hold onto the truth about the written Word. First, the written Word is God’s word and therefore entirely true in everything it says. The Bible cannot err, lie, deceive, or mislead because God is the Author of the Holy Scriptures. They say exactly what he decided they should say.
Second, the written Word is God’s word and therefore a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. God has given us the Bible to enlighten us. The Bible is therefore a clear book. It isn’t a dark and impenetrable book that requires expert clergymen to interpret because we cannot read it for ourselves. It is clear. It means what it says.
Third, the written Word is about the incarnate Word and the only standard for the spoken Word. The Bible is about Jesus. You want to get rich? Go buy a book by a successful capitalist. You want to make friends? Go buy a book about how to win friends and influence people. You want a Savior who has died for you and risen again, who forgives you all of your sins, who gives you the Holy Spirit who fills you with his peace, who sustains you in the hour of trial, who comforts you in losses, sorrow, and strengthens you to face death without fear? Read your Bible! Read it every day. Go to Bible class. Read it at home. Read it when you get up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. Read your Bible. It is the written Word of God. It is the authority by which you can make sure that your pastor is rightly preaching God’s Word. The Holy Scriptures will always reveal to your faith the incarnate Word who gives you life in his name.
Rolf D. Preus