What is the gospel? According to Paul, the gospel contains three parts, as he describes in 1 Corinthians 15: Jesus Christ died and was buried for our sins AND he was raised on the third day, both according to the scriptures. These are the first two parts of the three-fold gospel. The third is something that is neglected but is just as important as the first two parts: witness.
As Paul writes, Jesus appeared to Peter and then to the disciples, and then to more than five hundred people at once, and then to the apostles, and to James, and then last of all to me. The reason this part of the gospel is so important is that it is through eyewitness testimony that this gospel gets passed on. Christianity would have died out without it. We, too, are witnesses, because Jesus has appeared to us as well, in our hearts, in our minds, through the testimony that has been passed on to us. We believe because we have seen him working in the world. Jesus is like the wind. We cannot physically see him, but we see the effect has has on the world, and so we can “see” him. We can see his work in progress. We know he is there.
Today's scripture readings are all about witness and the power of witness. This is such an important part of the gospel that you can see it all throughout the Bible. In our Acts passage (4:32-35) it looks like we are reading about how the early Christians were communists, but what we are actually seeing is the power of witness: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” The communal sharing of property is a voluntary reaction to the witness of the apostles. How many communist countries do you know became that way because the leaders bore testimony about Jesus' resurrection? Zero.
Our first letter of John is all about testimony: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and we declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.” This is the witness part of the gospel, and is such an important part of the gospel. Without it, there would be no gospel.
In my private devotionals, I read all of second Peter this week. Here is a passage of witness that I came across: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Peter then describes Christ's baptism with the dove and booming voice, and then he describes the transfiguration on the mountain, also with the booming voice. Peter was there. He was an eyewitness to Christ's glory, and he passes that eyewitness testimony on to us.
Notice what Pete says about cleverly devised myths. Eyewitness testimony dispels myths. The apostles speak the truth, because they witnessed the risen Christ. What about us? A couple thousand years have passed since these things happened. We have been listening to the testimony, but isn't it just hearsay? Aren't people today telling us again that we believe cleverly devised myths with no truth in them. How can we respond? We weren't eyewitnesses.
The answer to this is the Holy Spirit. He is the eyewitness. He lives in our hearts, interpreting scripture for us, revealing God in creation for us, revealing Christ in the world for us. He is the perfect eyewitness, and when we see something with God's fingerprints all over it, the Holy Spirit points out that this is the risen Christ. We become eyewitnesses through the Holy Spirit. When you know something is true, you have that feeling that you are a witnesses to the truth. You may try to explain why that thing is true, and you may fail at describing why it is true, but you know in your blood and bones that it is true. “I can't tell you why,” you may say, “but I KNOW that it is true.” That is the Holy Spirit acting as eyewitness in you.
We have this knack in our modern times, due to the modern mindset, to say that we will not believe without concrete evidence. And yet, so much in this world is held on faith, that we take so much for granted. When it comes to science, there is so much unseen faith. For example, scientists may use the scientific method, but how do they know that the scientific method is reliable? Faith based on the eyewitness testimony of others.
When Thomas says that he will not believe that Christ has risen from the grave until he actually puts his fingers into his wounds, we point to “Doubting Thomas” as being a scientist, a modern doubter, who must have concrete evidence or he will not believe. Well, when we read today's gospel passage (John 20:19-21), we see that Thomas rejects eyewitness testimony, and this testimony by people who have freshly received the Holy Spirit, so it does sound like Thomas is a modern doubter. But in the next scene when Thomas is there, and Jesus appears among them, and he tells Thomas to start performing his scientific study and observation and hands-on evaluation. Does it get that far? Is Thomas a modern doubter? Is he a skeptic after all? No, all he has to do is lay eyes upon the Risen Christ and he responds, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas is an eyewitness. All he needs to do is “see” Jesus to believe.
Jesus tells Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That is us, but we HAVE seen. The eyes of our heart have been opened by the Holy Spirit, who has seen and bears testimony to the truth. We know with all our heart it is the truth, because the eyes of our heart have seen. Blessed are we who have not seen but know the truth, because Jesus Christ has given us a vision of his majesty.