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Hearing is Believing: Seeing Jesus with our Ears Before our Eyes

17 June, 2008

I’ve heard the phrase as often as anyone else, “Seeing is believing”, and others like it: “I’ll believe it when I see it”, “What you see is what you get”, and so on. Unless we are forced to rely on something else, we really like to put a lot of stock in what we can see right in front of us. On the other hand, we don’t always trust even what we do see, and we recognize that what we see is not always what we get. Even in those situations, though, we still really like to rely on and trust our eyes; the reason we sometimes get more or less than we bargain for, after all, is because we didn’t see everything first. If we would have, things would’ve gone our way, right?.

In the Bible, this comes up quite a bit, and is often (not always) tied to our sinful grasping after things and trusting in our own understanding rather than Gods: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was ‘pleasant to the eyes’; the Israelites at Sinai wanted to worship a visible god in the golden calf; Jesus chides the Pharisees for thinking they see when in reality they are spiritually blind.

This sinful reliance on seeing and judging for ourselves rather than trusting in God’s provision (that is really spiritual blindness) is likewise often (not always) opposed to hearing, which is part of trusting in the Word of God’s promises to us. The point is that hearing requires faith in what is spoken to us and promised to us, something we don’t yet see (at least not fully and clearly). We don’t really have to trust what someone else tells us in order to see something — or do we? We do, according to the Bible, if what we’re ‘seeing’ are the things of God.

The clearest teaching on this may be Paul’s in Romans 4, talking about Abraham: though Abraham saw that Sarah was barren and that he was as good as dead, nevertheless believed the promise he heard from the God he trusted, the God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (vv. 13-24).

But all this has to be reinterpreted when we get to Jesus, ‘God manifest in the flesh’. The second person of the Trinity took upon himself the fullness of our humanity for our redemption, and in doing so the promises that God made and the faithful heard and believed where now revealed and seen. The Word could be seen, as well as heard. The problem, again, is that in our sinfulness we refuse to listen or even to see the truth of Jesus.The Pharisees don’t see who Jesus really is because his words found no place in them. So again, they were trusting what they themselves saw rather than what they heard from God, even as they were fooling themselves into thinking what they saw was something else.

This spiritual sense of seeing vs. hearing really plays out in the encounter of Thomas with the risen Jesus, and in that encounter we find a testimony to our own hope in Jesus, 2,000 years removed from seeing him with our own eyes:

“Doubting Thomas” is a familiar character in the Gospels, who often gets short-changed as an incorrigible skeptic who refuses to ‘just have faith.’ The account goes like this:

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:24-25).

The moral of this story, understandably enough, is usually given as follows: ‘Don’t be like Thomas, who refused to believe until he saw Jesus for himself, because that’s not having faith.’ While this is one aspect of what’s going on, as I’ve been talking about, but the story has something more fundamental to teach us, particularly about the power of hearing the apostolic testimony as the faith-producing Word of God–-in fact, this is exactly what Jesus focused on with Thomas. Thankfully, the story doesn’t end with Thomas as a bad example for our own propensity toward “I’ll believe it when I see it”.

After Jesus did show himself to Thomas, the conversation went like this:

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although 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, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (vv. 26-28 )

The focus of this climactic event in John’s Gospel is not so much on the relative virtue (or lack of it) in Thomas’ faith in what he saw, but on Jesus’ pronouncement of blessing upon those who believe by hearing. In other words, Jesus is not rebuking Thomas for believing because he saw, or even for wanting to see for himself. Jesus is not contrasting Thomas’ reaction with that of the other disciples, either, since they also believed after he “showed” himself to them–they too “saw the Lord” (20:20), even though Thomas wasn’t with them at the time. In the other Gospel accounts, as well, no one is asked to believe in the event of the resurrection apart from the visual evidence of Jesus’ presence until Thomas (cf. Matt 28; Luke 24). Thomas isn’t any more of a relentless skeptic than the others or any more than us. John is not minimizing the importance of eyewitness faith in the resurrected Jesus, and certainly not trying to undermine the sincerity and clarity of Thomas’ confession of faith in Christ; the point is that, unlike what we’d expect, as far as Jesus in concerned, eyewitness testimony to him is no less firm a foundation for our faith than the witness of our own eyes. We have to see Jesus with our ears before we can see him with our eyes, by faith which is in ‘things not seen’ (Heb 11:1).

This is why Jesus reprimands Thomas, and it is extremely important that this is the immediate context out of which the apostle John presents the purpose of his own (written) testimony, employing the words and actions of “Doubting Thomas”–and especially Jesus’ response to him–as the mirror in which we as readers/hearers, who are by nature exactly like Thomas, must compare our own response to this authorized New Testament testimony:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:30, 31).

Jesus called the apostles to be his witnesses (15:27), and gave them his Spirit (20:22), so that their words would be his words–so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (5:25). In other words, we hear this Word in the testimony and proclamation of the same Scriptural witnesses to the Gospel, the actual “Word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess 2:13) by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Is 55). Because the apostles were commissioned and equipped by Jesus to be his messengers–to bear his Word–we can have confidence in their truth and in their life-giving power, by the power of the Spirit of Life himself. As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).

So when we, like Thomas, hear the apostle’s testimony to the risen and ascended Jesus, we must, unlike Thomas, take it as a ‘blessedness’ as good as seeing and touching the Lord of Glory with our very own eyes and hands, like the apostles (1 John 1:1-3). And not only so, but trust that all God’s purposes will be accomplished by this Word, as in us the Spirit brings what is spoken into existence: ”For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). By the grace of God those of who have heard this apostolic testimony and thus have believed, do not testify against but rather with Doubting-but-now-Believing Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” And we do this because we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good–primarily with our ears. Though we do not see him, we love him.

And finally, even though we’re 2,000 years removed from seeing Jesus during his earthly ministry, we are nevertheless in the ‘last days’ and wait expectantly for his return. Even if it takes another 2,000 years (only the Lord knows), ‘every eye will see him’ on that Day. For those who believe, in his death and resurrection the comfort of our own death and glory of our own resurrection is assured because of the promises fulfilled in Jesus, so that when we see him in whom we have believed, we will be like he is.

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