Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/04/1999
20:19 When therefore it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus therefore said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you." 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained."
24 But Thomas, one of the Twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore were saying to him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I shall see in his hands the imprint of the nails and put my finger into the place of the nails and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." 26 And after eight days again his disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the door having been shut, stood in their midst and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Reach here your finger and see my hands, and reach here your hand and put it into my side, and be not unbelieving but believing." 28 Thomas answered and said to him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed."
30 Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
How does the resurrection of Jesus Christ affect you? What difference does it make in your life that God has raised him from the dead? Has this astounding Good News become so familiar, so much a part of our Christian subculture, that it has lost its drama, its ability to shock? Let's see if we can restore some of it. Suppose I told you that John F. Kennedy had returned from the dead? His tomb has been discovered to be empty, no one can explain what has happened to the body, and there are so many apparently credible witnesses who claim they have seen him alive that you begin to be almost convinced. Would there be a chill down your spine? Well, yes, if you really were convinced that it might have actually happened. What would it take to convince you? The evidence would have to be pretty good, wouldn't it?
Well, I do not claim that President Kennedy has come back from the dead. But I ask again, how do you respond to the resurrection of Jesus Christ? How do you react to that? What would it take to convince you of that, to the point that you would react? I would like to examine with you today the response of one man who was hard to convince. We know him as "Doubting Thomas."
"Doubting Thomas." Surely this is a disciple to whom history has given a bad rap. Why is he more remembered for his week of doubt than for the affirmation of faith which followed it, which is simply the most ringing endorsement of the deity of Christ in all the Gospels? It hardly seems fair. And so I would like to offer today a more balanced portrait of this enigmatic man.
What was Thomas like? Skeptical? Somewhat. Unfaithful? Wavering? Not really. We actually know more about Thomas than any other disciple except Peter, James, and John. And what we know points to a recognizable personality type: Pessimistic, pragmatic, prone to assume the worst, but also solid and loyal once he has made a commitment. We have seen versions of him in literature more than once: Puddleglum, MacPhee, Eeyore. We meet him in John 11. Jesus has proposed a trip to Judea, and the disciples are worried because the Jews are seeking to stone him. Then he reveals the reason for the journey: Lazarus has died. And Thomas pipes up in v. 16, "Let us also go that we may die with him." He may be a pessimist, but he is loyal. He may be prone to believe the worst, but he is also prepared to face it. I find it interesting that when Peter made a similar statement in Luke 22:33 he was rebuked. Die with me? A rooster isn't going to crow before you've denied me three times! There is no rebuke for Thomas because the Lord knew that he would have done it. Good old Puddleglum; dear old Eeyore.
We see Thomas again in John 14:5. Jesus has just told the disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them so he could come again and receive them unto himself. "And you know the way where I am going," he concludes. I love Thomas for his next statement: No we don't! I don't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about! "Lord we do not know where you are going, and how do we know the way?" Thomas would have made a sometimes annoying but ultimately a very good student. He is not going to pretend he understands something that he does not, not even to avoid seeming to contradict Jesus! God send all of us teachers more students like that. Thomas will later make one of the great affirmations of Scripture, but here Jesus lets him play the straight man to set up another one: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me." You don't get good answers like that unless you stubbornly ask the questions that need to be asked. Thomas was a down to earth guy. He was not going to accept an easy answer or religious sounding words that to him were not an answer. He knew that he did not know; he understood that he did not understand. And that is one of the most important things you can ever know or understand, as even Socrates could teach us. Thomas knew he did not know, and he was not afraid to put up his hand and ask, even if it was embarrassing. He might be slower than the others in forming an opinion or reaching a conclusion. But when he does, it will not have come cheap, it will mean something, and it will not stay on the surface. Good old Puddleglum; dear old Eeyore.
So why the bad rap on this man? Well, he did finally get a mild rebuke from the Lord (along with a gracious invitation to check out the hands and side). Christ says that those who believed without seeing are blessed, implying that there was a defect in Thomas' faith, and exhorts him to be not faithless but believing. Well, ought Thomas to have believed without seeing? Yes. He had the Scriptures, including Isaiah 53:10b-11a, which says that after being crushed as a guilt offering the Suffering Servant would "see his offspring." He had the teaching of Jesus, who had often stressed to his uncomprehending disciples that the Son of Man would be handed over to the Gentiles and be killed and rise on the third day. And he had the testimony of ten plus friends who had nothing to gain by lying and everything to lose if they were proved wrong. Yes, he should have believed without seeing.
OK, Thomas should have believed. Fair enough. But who are these people who "believed without seeing"? It might be a reference to you and me. It can not be a reference to the other disciples! Not one of them understood Jesus' own predictions of his death and resurrection. Not one was expecting the resurrection. When the women first reported it, the didsciples, having not yet seen, still doubted. They had the doors locked in fear of the Jews--not exactly a resounding vote of confidence. And they were all present at the first appearance, where Jesus had shown them his hands and side without their even needing to ask. (Why Thomas was absent then we simply do not know.) So sure they believed. It was easy for them to say. My point is that Thomas' unbelief, his doubt, was not, as far as I can see, radically different from that of any of the others. He was unfortunate enough to be remembered for it because of his tendency to say out loud what others were probably only thinking. Yes, his unbelief was a problem. But it is just not fair to single him out for it--especially when he is not equally singled out for his positive characteristics.
What seems to me to be most missing in our understanding of this story is any recognition of the positive aspects of Thomas' "doubt," or, perhaps better, his sagacious skepticism. I see at least three principles of Thomas' thinking that are intellectually (and spiritually) virtuous. First is that he was not easily taken in. Had not Jesus predicted that many would come claiming to be him and warned the disciples not to be misled? In the light of that teaching, I do not see how we can blame Thomas for being suspicious. Second, his criteria for warranting belief in the resurrection were logical, relevant, and appropriate to the truth claim in question. He wanted to be sure that the Jesus who had allegedly been raised was the same one he knew who had been killed. And third, while he demanded proof, he still kept an open mind. He set the bar of belief high, but was prepared to accept the claim if it was met. I think the openness of his mind is shown by the fact that he was there in the Upper Room on the second occasion. Here is a man who asks the right questions, who has appropriate criteria of evidence, and who keeps an open mind. If only we could get everyone to doubt like Thomas did!
If we could get people to doubt like Thomas, maybe they would also be able to believe like Thomas. His confession of faith is one of the high points of John's Gospel: HO KYRIOS MOU KAI HO THEOS MOU: "My Lord and my God!" It ranks with Peter's confession, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," as one of the great affirmations of faith in all of Scripture, but it is even more forthright and more direct. It showed great insight into the meaning of the resurrection; at that moment all of Jesus' three years of teaching fell into place and it all came together for Thomas. It was probably delivered on his knees at Jesus' feet. It was more than good theology; it was also a personal confession of allegiance and loyalty. As is not seldom the case, those who come hardest to faith may also come the deepest. I find it interesting that tradition records that Thomas became a missionary to India. He went the farthest with the Gospel of anyone except Paul. Such is the legacy of this man we remember as "Doubting Thomas." Good old Puddleglum; dear old Eeyore.
Blessed, said Jesus, are those who have not seen and yet have believed. We have already seen that he could not have been talking about the other disciples. Who was he talking about, then? He was talking about us. We were not there, we have not seen, but we have the testimony of Scripture, of Christ, of the Marys, of the Ten--and of the skeptic Thomas himself. And on that basis we have the opportunity to do what Thomas ought to have done: to believe on the basis of good and sufficient evidence, without asking for a "sign." And if we do, we receive the blessing: "Every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3). It would have been a great privilege to stand with Thomas and hear his confession. But it is a greater to make our own. "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed." And Thomas is one of the reasons why we can receive that blessing. That skeptic was convinced; so may we be. Thank the Lord!
Now, in all my attempts to rehabilitate our memory of Thomas, I don't want you to miss the point--and neither did John. "These things were written that you might believe." The bottom line is not what we think of Thomas but how we respond to Jesus Christ. What is at stake? Eternal life though his name. What must we do? Simply believe. In other words, it matters not so much what we think of Thomas and his doubting as it matters whether we will join him on his knees saying to the risen Christ, "My Lord and my God!" Like John, I want you to relate better to Thomas to the end that we might more easily join him in his confession.
So how do you relate to the resurrection? How does it affect you? As a myth? As a story that is part of our culture? Or as the truth which affects the whole of your life? Thomas--hard nosed, skeptical, pessimistic, doubting Thomas--was convinced. His testimony among other things convinces me. What about you?
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 4/13/2004 8:49 AM