Saturday, January 11, 2014

What Do You Choose to Believe?

By Pastor Paul Wolff

Proverbs 23:23
Buy the truth, and do not sell it.

John 20:26-29
A week later (Jesus’) disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus Walks on the Sea
Issues Etc. frequently plays a sound clip of President Obama describing a person’s faith as “What one chooses to believe.” This is a politician’s way of describing religion, but it is a strange way of describing one’s faith.

What is it that you believe? There are only two categories of things that you can believe: Truth or Lies. Which do you believe?

Let’s first assume that you believe the truth. I trust that is a good assumption, but do you have to decide to believe the truth?: “Hmmmm, Am I going to believe the truth... or a lie?” If you have to decide to believe the truth then you are doing it wrong, and it is most likely an accident that you chose the truth. If you have to decide to believe the truth then sooner or later you will be seduced by the lie. It will happen. The devil works hard to make the lies seem more attractive than the truth, so if you have to decide to believe the truth, then eventually you will find the lie much more appealing and lose the truth for a lie.

Now, if you decide to believe a lie, then you are just a fool. Little more needs to be said about that except to note that this is different than people who mistakenly believe a lie. Sometimes people who don’t know the difference between the truth and a lie will believe the truth once they learn the truth, but people who choose to believe a lie will find it difficult to choose the truth.

It is hard to get through to people who choose to believe a lie because one can’t easily reason with them. They have rationalized and justified their choice, and they feel they must embrace the lies out of fear that the truth is somehow worse (though it never is). One can try to help people like this, but they don’t want to be helped and they resent the effort.

The Risen Christ appears to two men on the road 
to Emmaeus.
Window from Zion Lutheran Church, Columbus, Ohio

Christ’s apostle, Thomas, knew the truth. At the time of Christ’s resurrection he had been a Disciple of Jesus for about three years. Thomas had heard Jesus teaching. He had seen many miracles such as: Jesus walking on the water; Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two small fish; and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Thomas had heard Jesus say plainly, “We are going up to Jerusalem … and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mk. 10:33-34)

When all this came to pass, the other ten apostles came to Thomas and told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Yet, Thomas did not believe.

It wasn’t that Thomas doubted. He willfully refused to believe. He said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” This was not doubt. This was stubborn unbelief.

Thomas thought he knew what life was and what death was, and this didn’t fit. He thought: You live – you die – then … No, that is all. That is what experience taught him. You have surely had the same experience. You may have heard some people claim to have come back from the dead in the hospital, but those people weren’t really dead. They were nearly dead. There is a big difference between nearly dead and dead. Nearly dead – you might be revived. Dead – and you cannot be revived.

Jesus was dead. Pontius Pilate’s soldiers made sure of that. After Jesus died they stuck a spear in His side to make sure that He really was dead. If Jesus had shown signs of life, then they would have broken His legs as they did to the other two. The spear pierced His lungs and water poured out, then it pierced His heart and blood poured out. He was dead. He was mutilated. He wasn’t coming back. At least, that is what Thomas thought. He was wrong.

When Jesus is involved – Life and Death don’t work as we expect them to, and honestly, when is Jesus NOT involved? Jesus is the Lord of Life and the Conqueror of death. Jesus didn’t have to appear to Thomas. He had appeared to the ten Apostles, and others. But Jesus had important work for Thomas to do and He didn’t want Him to have any doubts, nor to be a stubborn unbeliever.

Jesus knew that others would have the same concerns as Thomas: “How can I believe Jesus is raised from the dead when I haven’t seen Him?” Jesus would send Thomas into the world to preach the Gospel with authority, and ultimately, Jesus would ask Thomas to give his life in witness to the truth of the Gospel. So Jesus appeared to Thomas as He had with the other Apostles.

Jesus turns water into wine.
Window from Zion Lutheran Church, Columbus, Ohio
You should note that Jesus didn’t appear to Thomas right away. Remember that in His glorified state, Jesus – even in His physical body – is omnipresent (present everywhere). When Thomas was telling the Ten, “... unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were …” Jesus could have tapped him on the shoulder then and said, “Thomas, see my hands and side. Stop doubting and believe.” But Jesus made Thomas wait one whole week. This gave the other Apostles time to try to convince him that they had seen Jesus alive. Though the Scriptures do not tell us all the conversations that went on between the Apostles, I don’t doubt that the phrase, “Doubting Thomas” was first used by the other apostles to tease Thomas about his stubborn unbelief.

Jesus didn’t tease Thomas. He just appeared in the locked room, as before, and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Then Thomas believed and said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Why did Jesus appear to Doubting Thomas? First it was out of love for Thomas. Jesus wanted Thomas to be certain that he trusted in a living savior – a flesh and blood savior who is also God! Second, Jesus appeared to the Apostles so that you also may believe through the eyewitness testimony of many people.

Jesus sent the Apostles to testify to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and the forgiveness which He won for us on the cross. The Apostles, and many others, got to see Jesus alive, but we have to wait a little while before we see Him as they did. We have their eyewitness testimony written in the Holy Scriptures to know that Jesus is alive, and Jesus calls us blessed for believing before we have seen Him with our own eyes.

We also have pastors and teachers to teach us the Truth of God’s Word that we might receive the blessings of Christ’s forgiveness and salvation through faith. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” In his letter to the Romans (10:13-15) St. Paul tells us how and why Jesus has sent us men like these Apostles: “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”

What is the message the Apostles were sent to give? Jesus tells us in John 20:23, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” We call this the Office of the Keys. It is not that the church (or the pastor) forgives anyone they want to, but that they forgive according to Christ’s command. Faithful pastors forgive the sins of penitent sinners, and withhold forgiveness from sinners who do not repent.

Like Thomas, not everyone believes the message. Unlike Thomas, some wish to hold on to their sins, but we must not forgive them until they repent, lest they remain in their sins and perish through them. But to all who trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins they are completely forgiven, and shall receive eternal life — even as Jesus has risen from the dead to everlasting life.

Window from Zion Lutheran Church, Columbus, Ohio
The Apostle, Thomas, did not choose to be one of Christ’s disciples. Jesus chose him to be a disciple. It is possible that you believe that you chose to be a Christian, but that is not correct. Jesus chose you, too. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (John 15:16)

There is great comfort in not having to choose what to believe, but in simply believing the truth. If we had to choose, then we could choose the lie;  or we could choose the truth, but do it in the wrong way; or we could choose the truth and later change our mind and choose something else. The comfort of Christ doing it all for you is that there is no doubt. Christ has done all that is needed for your salvation, and simply asks you to believe the truth. “(Jesus) is the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

There are times when we all may doubt, or even be an unbeliever like Thomas was. Take comfort. The Christian faith is not a blind faith. Thomas saw Jesus alive after His death and touched Him, as did John and many more people. We have their eyewitness testimony. More than that, we have the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures. We also have the testimony of Jesus Himself who gives His body and blood to us in the Sacrament of The Lord’s Supper. As Martin Luther taught, “(Jesus’) words, ‘Given and shed for you’ require all hearts to believe.” Blessed are you who have not seen, and yet believe.

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