He Showed Them His Wounds

We all have scars, from the unsutured nicks of our childhood to long gouges left on a chest from bypass surgery, to the empty rippled space from a mastectomy. Some scars are readily visible; others are hidden and remain hidden from embarrassment or reticence.

Then there are the countless inner wounds: the griefs that never quite heal, wrongs that can never be righted, memories that cannot be erased, hurtful words or betrayals that still seem to have a direct line to our tear ducts or to the recurrent knot in our stomach. We are all scarred in one way or another. You can’t get through life without scars, inside or outside.

So it’s fascinating that when John tells the story of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after the resurrection (John 20:19-31), he tells how Jesus shows them his scars—not once, but twice.

The risen Christ slips through the locked doors and appears before his frightened, despondent disciples. But they seem almost numb. So he shows them his wounded hands and side. He makes a special point of it.

Thomas, who wasn’t among the disciples for Jesus’ first appearance, shows up a little late. Evidently the other disciples told him about Jesus’ visible scars, but Thomas is skeptical: “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” (v. 25).

A week later, the risen Christ surprises the disciples once more. This time Thomas is there, and Jesus obliges his doubts. “Put your finger here,” he says, holding out his hands to Thomas. There’s no indication that Thomas did what Jesus invited him to do. Rather, he falls to his knees. Whether it was the sight of Jesus alive or the sight of the wounds that brought Thomas to his knees in recognition and adoration, we don’t know.

We wonder why Jesus showed the disciples his wounds. But prior to that, we wonder why he had wounds anyway. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the risen Lord to show himself in a resurrection body sleek and whole, marking his complete victory over sin and death?

And what about our resurrection? When we rise at the last day, will we be raised with wrinkles and bald heads? Will there be crushed skulls and severed limbs and bullet holes? I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. The Bible indicates that we will have new bodies in a new world. Then why Jesus’ wounds? Is this some kind of oversight?

I think Jesus showed his wounds as a badge of identity. He is the risen Lord who conquered death, and he is also the risen Savior who entered the depths of human pain and sin. He displayed the marks that proved his finished work. He showed the disciples what that work cost. The risen Christ has scars; being raised from the dead does not erase them. The scars of Good Friday are visible on Easter Sunday.

Sometimes people have this idea that if you’re a real Christian you’ll always have a sense of joy and peace within your heart. I remember one such man who woodenly smiled his way through his teenage daughter’s funeral. Christ is risen, after all. But this man forgot about the wounds. His younger daughter watched him and never quite forgave him for his failure to share her wounds.

Life isn’t all sweet and lovely for Christians. We feel great pain and sadness. Our depression and anxiety aren’t automatically lifted. The painful events of our past aren’t erased. Life’s absurdities still drive us to doubt. The church is often a messy place populated by broken, flawed people.

Yes, we experience great joy and deep faith, and we know that we can never be separated from God’s love—but we still bear the scars of human life. And so did the risen Christ.

The risen Christ has scars; being raised from the dead does not erase them. The scars of Good Friday are visible on Easter Sunday.

John tells us that Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side. “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (20:20). It’s as though the wounds somehow opened them up to joy. No wounds, no joy.

Why would the disciples be glad to see the wounds? When Jesus showed them his wounds, it meant that they could remember the pain they had all experienced on those last few days—the fear, the tears of remorse, the terrible hours watching him die. Their emptiness, their loneliness, their hopelessness: it was all there in those wounds. In his wounds they were free to probe their own. Now they could remember. Now they could rejoice. It’s the same reason we need to ask people who are grieving how it’s going, or say something about the one they’re grieving for—it gives them the freedom to remember, perhaps to weep—the kind of weeping that releases and cleanses.

The wounded Christ is the Lord and Savior of a wounded community. There’s scar tissue all over the place, even though we in the church sometimes act like we are all floating a few feet above life’s dirt. But we’re not fooling anyone. And besides, if there aren’t any wounds visible in the Christian community, no one will want to be a part of it. It’s wounded, broken, forgiven people, singing and praising their Savior, that attracts a crowd. And that’s why we’re so glad to see Jesus with those gaping holes.

Richard Selzer is a surgeon who also has an extraordinary gift for putting his everyday work into words. Here he describes a memorable encounter:

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve.

Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. . . . The young woman speaks.

“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.”

She nods, and is silent. But the young man smiles.

“I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that her kiss still works.

—Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1996), p. 45.

When Jesus appeared behind those locked doors to greet his fearful, wounded, ashamed disciples, he showed them his scars. It was like a kiss that conformed to their wounds. It was as if the Lord were saying, “I know your wounds, and I love you still.”

This isn’t the last time in the Bible we see Jesus with his wounds. John sees it all in his vision called Revelation. “‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’” (Rev. 5:12).

I find it infinitely comforting that the wounded one is the object of heaven’s praise. There, before the great white throne in glory, stands our wounded Lord. Even in the glory of God’s presence, the wounds are visible. In fact, it’s the wounds that elicit the thunderous praise of the heavenly hosts. In Jesus’ wounds the wounds of human life are never far from the heart of God. And if Jesus bears our wounds, then we know that he will also bestow on us his healing—the conforming kiss of love.

Leonard J. Vander Zee is pastor of South Bend (Ind.) Christian Reformed Church.