The scripture passage that Sharon just read is one of my all-time favorite stories in the Bible. Now I can see how you might be wondering why the story about ‘doubting Thomas’ could possibly rate as one of my favorites when there are so many other stories that are more interesting or exciting or more meaningful or especially more inspiring. But I have come to understand something about Thomas in this story, and more importantly, about Jesus, that has become a source of inspiration to me, and I want to share it with you this morning.
When I read the Bible, there are times when I find myself focused on the people that I’m reading about, finding characters in the stories that I like or admire… and… those I don’t particularly care for. I find that there are people in the Bible that I really wish I could be like. People like Abraham, the father of our faith. There are times I wish I had his faith. Or someone like David, there are times I wish I had a heart like David’s, who through his psalms testifies to how much he pours his heart into his relationship with God, and I wish I could be like that.
And then there’s someone like Thomas. For the longest time, Thomas wasn’t someone I found myself wishing I could be like. Instead, I found Thomas to be someone I had more in common with than I wanted. At least, that’s the way I felt for the longest time. Like many of you, I grew up in the church occasionally hearing sermons about “doubting Thomas”. And in these sermons, Thomas was virtually never cast in a particularly favorable light. After all, he was the disciple who showed a kind of defiant doubt in a time that called for extraordinary faith. So in that light, Thomas was made to look like something of a failure. And, consequently, he was given the moniker, “doubting Thomas”. But is that really who Thomas was? Are we being fair to Thomas in calling him, ‘doubting’ Thomas? What do we know about this disciple, Thomas?
Turns out, not very much at all. There are only a handful of scriptures in the New Testament that even mention Thomas, and most of those are in various listings of the apostles (Matt 10: 3; Mark 3: 18; Luke 6: 15; John 21: 2; Acts 1: 13). The longest story concerning Thomas in scripture is this one we read this morning (John 20: 19 – 29), but he is also mentioned in John 11: 16 where Jesus is insisting on going to Judea even though His life is threatened, and Thomas turns to the other disciples and says, “Let us also go, that we may die
with Him.” This shows me that Thomas had a degree of courage in him, which is not something you would expect from someone filled with doubt; and in John 14: 5, 6 where Jesus tells His disciples He is going away to prepare a place for them and they know the way to this place, Thomas asks Jesus, “…how can we know the way to where you’re going when we don’t know where you’re going?” In this I see a man seeking clarity concerning something he didn’t understand. Those who seek clarity like this are usually people who seek truth. Not likely the trait of a doubter because a lot of doubters usually don’t want to know the truth.
There are only 8 sets of scripture I could find that even mention Thomas, and put all together, they don’t give us much information at all. And that’s the point: We just don’t know very much about this disciple. We don’t even know if his real name was Thomas, only that the disciples called him, Thomas, which means twin.
So our scripture this morning is really the best place where we can get to know Thomas, but as it turns out, it’s also the place where I think Thomas has been the most misunderstood. I want to walk with you through a rather condensed version of this story this morning and show you why I now believe that history hasn’t been kind to or entirely accurate about Thomas. In the
process, I’m hoping we might learn something about Thomas that will help us to understand something about Jesus that I think we already instinctively know, but perhaps, too often forget.
IN DIRE STRAITS
Our scripture reading starts off with all of the disciples except Thomas gathered together in a locked room because of their fear of the Jewish authorities. Jesus was crucified just 3 days ago and the disciples are afraid they might be next.
It is the evening of the day that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. For the disciples, this has been a long, chaotic, and confusing day. It started early, before sunrise, with some of the women going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with burial spices. Of course, as we all know, they find the stone that sealed the tomb was rolled away and the body missing. Some of these women go back and report to the disciples that someone has taken Jesus’ body from the tomb. And from that moment on, for the disciples, the day is met with what must’ve seemed like whirlwind after whirlwind of different stories from different sources about Jesus being raised from the dead. And now it’s evening. The disciples have not yet seen Jesus, they only know His body has gone missing. All of the disciples are gathered in this locked room, except Thomas,
and of course, Judas. We know why Judas isn’t there, but we have no idea why Thomas isn’t there.
This is the first indication to me that something is up with Thomas. What? I couldn’t say for sure because the Bible doesn’t tell us, but I can speculate. [Now it’s at this point, as a true Methodist, I have to point out that on Wesley’s list of sources, I’m blowing through scripture, tradition, and experience here and landing all the way down on reason, the least stable source. I want to make that very clear here.]
We know according to scripture that all of the disciples are in fear for their lives from the Jewish authorities, which means that Thomas is facing the same fear as all of the rest of the disciples. And I think we can all agree that when we are facing a fear as great as what these disciples are now facing, we don’t like to face those fears alone, and we can assume the disciples feel the same way. Just as we like to be in the company of those with whom we feel a common bond, even if, or maybe especially if that bond is a mutually felt fear, we can assume the disciples are gathered together for the same reason. So why is Thomas missing?
I think it’s because Thomas is just as disillusioned and confused as he is afraid. Jesus was killed. Think about what that means to a man like Thomas. He saw Jesus heal, so he saw in Jesus a power that he’s never seen in anyone else before. He saw Jesus cast out demons, an indication that Jesus has power even over the forces of darkness. He saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, which showed Thomas that Jesus has power even over death! Thomas witnessed all of these things. In all of these examples, Jesus’ power is being expressed by how He delivers people from things we fear in life: sickness, evil, and death. And yet, just 3 days ago, Jesus couldn’t, or wouldn’t deliver Himself from those who wanted Him dead.
Being Jewish, Thomas has been taught all of his life about the coming Messiah. More importantly, he’s been taught to look for the coming of Messiah, to anticipate His coming, and to watch for His Messianic kingdom to be established. And by what he saw in Jesus and the power that Jesus displayed and the lessons that Jesus taught and the wisdom in those lessons, He knew Jesus was the Messiah. And I think that for Thomas, it might have been a case of more than just believing. I think, in his own way, he might have actually thought he knew.
I just don’t think he properly understood what he knew. Yes, Jesus displayed the kind of power Thomas must’ve been looking for in Messiah, he just didn’t understand why Messiah came: to conquer not earthly kingdoms, but sin and death itself! At this point, all Thomas knows now is that Messiah is dead, so I believe Thomas might be off by himself trying to figure out what happened. How did it all come to this? How could someone, especially if He really was the Son of God, be tortured and killed like that? What kind of Messiah could that possibly make Him? Was He really Messiah at all? Or was He just a great prophet? I’m pretty certain these were the kinds of questions running through Thomas’ mind while he was off by himself.
While Thomas is absent, Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples gathered in that locked room. This is His first appearance to the disciples since He was raised from the dead. With the exception of John, who was at the crucifixion, some of the disciples haven’t seen Jesus since He was led away to be scourged; most haven’t seen Him since He was arrested and taken away out of the garden. So these disciples now get to see the risen Jesus, and the scriptures tell us they were filled with joy at His appearing. But again, Thomas is not there.
Some of the disciples meet with Thomas after that encounter and tell him that they have seen the risen Lord. But Thomas’ response is probably not quite
what they expected, and this is where Thomas received his nickname, doubting Thomas. Thomas replies that until he puts his finger in the nail wounds in Jesus’ hands and his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side, He won’t believe. He doesn’t say he can’t believe, he says he won’t believe. As defiant as that sounds, what that word ‘won’t’ tells me is that Thomas is now a man on a mission. He has contemplated and asked himself the deep questions. And that mission, I believe, is to find out just who Jesus really was and why he (Thomas) put his faith in Him in the first place. Thomas is looking for proof to back his faith. Now that might seem to counter the whole concept of faith, but you have to take into account everything Thomas, and the other disciples, have been through over the last few days.
What I see in Thomas at this point is a man who hasn’t necessarily given up his faith in Jesus; after all, the miracles he has seen and the wisdom he has heard from Jesus, convinced Thomas that Jesus was worthy of Thomas’ faith and trust. The doubt that Thomas displays here might not be that he doubts Jesus is Messiah, but that he doubts what he has been led to believe about Jesus as Messiah based on what he was taught while he was growing up in the synagogues. Is Thomas a doubter? Yes, he has his doubts. And guess what. So did all the other disciples! They were hidden away in a locked room in fear for
their lives! Not only that, but when the women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James reported to the disciples that angels told them Jesus wasn’t dead, but that He was raised from the dead and was now alive, Luke (24: 9 – 11) tells us that their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe them. So Thomas isn’t the only one displaying symptoms of doubt here. But I think that Thomas probably is the only one that it can be said that, even though he doubted, he doubted faithfully. At least, as faithfully as he could, given the circumstances.
Thomas didn’t doubt because he disagreed with Jesus on principle. He didn’t doubt because Jesus wouldn’t be the God of his back pocket: someone he could pull out whenever he needed Him. Thomas didn’t doubt because Jesus wouldn’t conform to his expectations. Thomas doubted with what I believe was a degree of integrity. I think Thomas doubted that he really understood who Jesus was. And it was going to take some kind of verification of what Thomas was now hearing about Jesus’ resurrection to bring him back to a faith he could exercise.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF THOMAS
That proof would come 8 days later. Thomas is now with the other disciples in
a room with the door locked behind them. Did you notice that the other disciples are still in a locked room?! They’ve seen the risen Savior and they are still afraid! It’s also worth noting that Thomas has stayed around for the week. If his doubts really ran so deep, would he have stayed around another week? If he wasn’t willing to believe that Jesus could be alive, would he have stayed and listened to the other disciples talking about how they saw Jesus alive? That would’ve sounded as nonsensical to Thomas as the women sounded to the disciples when they returned from the tomb. But I think Thomas wanted to believe that Jesus could be alive. He wanted to believe their story about having seen Jesus raised from the dead. So he stayed.
And Jesus does indeed come into the room a second time, despite the locked doors, and offers His peace to the disciples. And it’s here that we’re going to learn something about Jesus through Thomas that gives me the hope that I was speaking about in the beginning of this message.
Jesus turns His attention towards Thomas and in just 2 short, sweet verses, an incredible transformation in Thomas takes place. Listen very carefully to verses 27 and 28 again and pay particularly close attention to the interaction between Jesus and Thomas:
“27 Then He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here. Look at My hands. Put your hand into My side. No more disbelief. Believe!’ 28 Thomas responded to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God!’” Do you realize the depth of what happened here? Thomas went from “I won’t believe” to “My Lord and my God”. He was the first disciple to come to realize who Jesus really was! In an instant, all of those conversations Jesus had with His disciples about if you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father; and the prayer Jesus prayed over His disciples for the Father to make them one even as God and Jesus are one… it all clicked in that one instant for Thomas. And why?
Because of what Jesus did right there. Jesus was willing to meet Thomas where he had his greatest need. He told Thomas to go ahead and put your finger where the nails were driven, put your hand in My side. If this is what it takes to get you to believe, then do it and just believe!
Yes, Thomas needed to know that Jesus had been raised, that doubt needed to be erased, but he also needed to know that the Jesus whom he knew to be Messiah was indeed alive and risen, and had, Himself, conquered death. And Jesus met that need for Thomas.
I said earlier that I found I had more in common with Thomas than what I was comfortable with. This is because, like Thomas, I’ve struggled with doubts in my Christian walk. Because of the way I’ve seen Thomas portrayed in sermons as doubting Thomas, I’ve looked at doubt like it was a ball and chain preventing us from walking in faith. But these scriptures show us that doubt doesn’t always have to be negative. We all have doubts at times. And these doubts can cause us to question our faith at times. But take heart, like Thomas before us, Jesus will meet us – where our needs are greatest – if we seek Him with the same earnest desire for truth as Thomas did. I think that was Thomas’ saving grace, he was seeking truth. And the One who searches all of our hearts, searched Thomas’ heart and understood Thomas’ doubts. He also understood Thomas’ desire for truth. And this is why this story gives me so much hope. Sometimes it takes questioning our faith to find our faith, and I believe that’s part of what Thomas was facing. And by meeting Thomas where his needs were greatest at that moment, Jesus brought Thomas back to the faith that transformed him from ‘doubting’ Thomas to ‘eyes and heart wide open’ Thomas. May we all be so transformed when struggling with doubt.