The Message of Jesus: Believing Thomas
I don’t know how you deal with disappointment, but I have a method I’ve used since I was a child. I imagine a worst-case scenario, so if it happens, I won’t be disappointed, it’s just what I expected. If things don’t go wrong, I should be pleased. The problem is I’m not, and my negativity makes me and everyone around me miserable.
A few years ago, for Father’s Day, my daughter, a psychologist, sent me Eeyore. For those of you who may not know, Eeyore is a character from A.A. Milne’s stories of Winnie the Pooh. Eeyore tends to think negatively and cynically about everything. For example, if you said, “Good morning, Eeyore.” Eeyore would probably respond, “Good morning – but I doubt that it is, and if it is, it will probably get worse.” Or if you said to Eeyore, “Hey, let’s have a picnic today,” Eeyore would likely reply, “Okay, but it will probably rain, and if it doesn’t, ants will probably get into food.” Sadly, I can identify with Eeyore.
There’s also a person in the Gospels I can identify with as well. His name is Thomas, one of the 12, usually known as Doubting Thomas. I don’t think Thomas was as much a doubter as he was a cynic, the kind of person who believes the worst and doubts the best. I can identify with that.
The first time we meet Thomas in the Gospel of John is in chapter 11 verses 7 through 16. Here Jesus had just told the disciples that he’s going back to Jerusalem, and the disciples warn him that he should not go because there are those there who will seek to kill him. Jesus tells them he is going anyway, and invites them to go with him. We notice Thomas’s reaction to this in John chapter 11 at verse 16. Thomas says, “Then Thomas called Didymus said to rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”
Negative? Yeah, but brave. I like that. Thomas was a realist. What I’d like for us to do now is take a look at Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ in the Gospel of John chapter 20 verses 19 through 29, and explore what maybe we can learn from the story about our own doubts and cynicism as well as consider what we learn about God’s reality versus our reality. So let’s look at John chapter 20 verse 19.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews [and by this he means the Jewish religious leaders], Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Now, we might ask, “Why did Jesus show them the wounds (evidently) in his hands and his side?” I think one reason is to say, “Look, I’m not an apparition. I’m not a ghost. You’re not having a delusion. I’m here, I’m real, it’s the same me. You’re looking at the same Jesus that you have known now for years. The same Jesus whom you saw crucified, and the same Jesus who came out of the tomb is the one who went in, and I’m here, and I’m real.”
When the disciples saw that, they were happy and they rejoiced. We continue reading. Verse 21: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them.”
Here we find that Jesus is sending out his disciples. He’s telling them that they’re going out with the same authority and the same mission that he has had from his Father. They are to continue in his ministry on the earth even after he has left and gone back to heaven. He is sending the Holy Spirit, and in the Holy Spirit, they will be able to work with him in his ministry, and then the power of God at work on earth through the followers of Jesus.
The next thing that Jesus says to them after he breathes on them is, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” This particular verse over the years has been subject to many different interpretations, and indeed it is a challenging verse to look into. The Roman Catholics have used this as a proof of needing to go to a priest and receiving forgiveness for your sins from the priest in the act of confession.
Protestants have looked at it in several different ways, including a communal view, where it is the community of faith, the church, which either lets people into the church, allows them to be baptized, or denies them admission from the church, or even sometimes excommunicates them from the church. But let me give you another view of this scripture which works for me, and I hope that it will work for you. Let me use an analogy:
Let’s say a man robs a convenience store, steals all the money, makes a getaway, but from that day forward, he lives with the feeling of guilt. He knows he has done wrong, and so for the next 20 years every time he sees a police car, every time he hears a knock at the door, he wonders, “Is this it? Have they finally caught up with me? Will I be going to prison now?” He can’t sleep at night. He lives in guilt for all that 20 years, and then suddenly one day, there’s a knock on his door and of all things, it’s the sheriff, so he puts out his hands and says, “All right, put the handcuffs on me. I know you’ve been looking for me. I knew my day would come, take me away to prison.”
The sheriff looks at him and says, “No – you’re not guilty. Let me tell you what happened. Even at the very moment that you robbed that convenience store, the governor simultaneously pardoned you and declared you not guilty. We’ve been looking for you for 20 years to tell you that you are a free man.” The person who robbed the store would probably say, “Why did it take you so long to tell me that? I’ve lived 20 years of my life under guilt, and in fear, and you tell me that I’m not even guilty of a crime!”
To be free, to be declared not guilty and not know it is to continue subjectively to live with the feeling of guilt, not knowing that you’re free. How many people do not know that God and Jesus Christ has indeed forgiven them of their sins, and because of not knowing, they’re living a life of condemnation, a life of guilt, a life where they fear what the final judgment may be? Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would find those people and tell them that they have been declared not guilty, and that in Jesus Christ they are free of the sins?
That analogy works for me and helps me understand what this particular scripture says, for he says, receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, it is as though they have not been forgiven.
Verse 24: “Now Thomas called Didymus [meaning, a twin], one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.” I have asked myself the question, “Why wasn’t Thomas there? Was he discouraged, was he like Eeyore, saying, “I knew he was going to die. I knew it was not going to work out. I knew this was all going to fail.” Perhaps, he just in his own mind faced the situation realistically and felt, “It’s all over. Jesus is dead.” The other disciples met; Thomas stayed home.
Verse 25: “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But Thomas said to them, ‘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 it.’”
This is interesting, that Thomas would not even take the word of the other disciples. Perhaps he was somewhat of a scientist, and without an experiment to verify and prove it, he could just not accept this. “How could this be Jesus? Jesus is dead. People don’t come back from the dead! Do they?”
Isn’t this really a question about God’s reality versus our reality? Thomas, like many of us, knows human reality all too well, and according to human reality, people do not come back from the dead. But in God’s reality, they do. Which reality is more real? I’d say, they’re both real, but God’s reality is even more real than what we know as humans as our reality.
Let’s take another case in point. Can humans walk on water? I think many of us would say, “Well no, of course not. Humans can’t walk on water.” And yet in Scripture, we’re told that both Jesus and Peter walked on water. Which is real? Is it real that humans can walk on water, or is it real that humans cannot walk on water? Have you ever walked on water – and I don’t mean ice, I mean water? I have not walked on water – don’t know that I could. Why? That’s my reality, but in God’s reality, according to God’s will and by the power of the Holy Spirit, humans can walk on water. I ask you, which is most real?
Now, many of us as Christians would say, “Well, God’s reality is most real,” but then we have to ask ourselves, why is it we’re not walking on water? Why is it that we like Peter when he first accepted God’s reality and began to walk on water, but then look at the human reality of the high waves, and the wind, and then doubted, and then began to sink, and called out to Jesus to save him.
Isn’t that the way it is for most of us? We believe in God’s reality, but our human reality often interferes with our acceptance of the reality that is the most real of all. I think we can understand why Thomas had a problem with accepting the fact that Jesus had come back from the dead.
But now let’s notice what happens in our story. Let’s look at verse 26: “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Here we have Jesus appearing behind locked doors.
Some say, “Did he pass through the doors, did he come through the walls, how did Jesus get there?” What is clear is that Jesus is no longer veiling his divinity. For the time that the disciples had known him, Jesus was fully human and fully God, but his divinity was veiled, was hidden from them. Now, he is fully present as a human but also in his divinity, and as the Son of God, he is the Lord of all creation, including space and time, and so Jesus appears behind locked doors through closed windows into the room with his disciples.
Let’s read on: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Verse 27: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” Here Jesus allows Thomas to make a scientific experiment. Stop doubting – believe – accept God’s reality. It is far greater reality than the one that you know as a human. “I am the same Jesus you knew, fully human but also a fully God, come back from the dead, and I still bear the scars in my body.”
Some ask, “Well, were the scars not healed, why did Jesus still manifest these scars?” One reason is that Thomas and the others would know he was Jesus, he was the same human that they had known for so many years. He is not some different being. He is not some ghost, some spirit, some thing of their imagination. He is really and truly Jesus, fully human and fully God standing before them.
Listen to what Thomas says in his reply, verse 27: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” Verse 28: “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” I don’t think Thomas should be known as Doubting Thomas. In fact, in this verse, he’s probably made one of the most important and powerful statements in the New Testament about the divinity of Jesus Christ. He has called him my Lord.
The Greek word for Lord, Kurios, is the same word that’s used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the Hebrew word Yahweh. So what Thomas is saying here, in a sense, is “Yahweh, my Lord and my God.”
I feel for so-called Doubting Thomas, and on behalf of all realists everywhere, I would like to suggest that we now call him Believing Thomas, because Thomas now accepts God’s reality as the most real reality of all, and he becomes a faithful believer. Let’s read on and notice how John concludes the story in verse 29: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”
Thomas was blessed. He saw, he believed, and gave a great profound announcement of faith, and yet, what about you and me today? We have not seen Jesus literally, physically with our own eyes. We have not been able to perform a scientific experiment of touching scars and yet we believe. We do know that Jesus is alive. We experience him in the spirit, and he becomes to us over time, communing with him, our best friend.
I was sharing that fact with one of my very close friends who is a non-believer, and I was explaining to him that Jesus is really my best friend. I spent lots of time with him every day. I talk with him, I ask him questions, I share my burdens, I share my problems, and Jesus is always there for me, and he always comforts me, and he always understands. He doesn’t agree with what I do, but he always loves me, and always encourages me, and offers me hope.
My non-believing friend looked at me like, “Yeah, we’re glad that’s working for you.” I knew he didn’t believe, but I did, and I do, and I hope you as a Christian know Jesus and believe as well, because he is your best friend. He is real. He is alive. Thomas came to know that.
I hope and pray that everyone of us can come and know Jesus as well as Thomas knew him, confess him as Lord and God even though we have not yet seen him. We have not seen the scars in his hand or in the side – or have we? How do you view Jesus when you pray? Do you pray to the Father, through Jesus, and in the Spirit? Do you see Jesus at the right hand of God? How do you view him and how do you picture him? I tell you how I do. When I see Jesus interceding for me, mediating between all of humanity and the Father, but most particularly for me and my time of need, I see the scars in his hands.
I see the scar and the side, and for me, they’re still there, even as Isaiah said, “He has born our sorrows. He has taken our iniquities upon us, and by his wounds we are healed.” If you have need of a Savior, when you pray, see that Jesus, see the same the Jesus that Thomas saw, the one who forever bears our burdens for us, who has the scars in his hand and the wound in his side, there for us, because he deeply cares for us and always will.
What do we take home from this story? Let’s consider some points. We realize the same Jesus the disciples knew is alive today – eternally incarnate and glorified.
We have not seen him with our eyes nor put our hands upon his scars, but we have experienced him in our lives. We believe in him and we know him. In his scars, we believe as Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises, we are healed.”
When we go before God’s throne of grace, we can believe, as did Thomas, that Jesus is alive, he is our best friend, and he has taken our sins and burdens upon himself, and he has set us free, and given us eternal life. Let’s not doubt that, let’s be as Thomas, and know for a certainty that Jesus is alive. He is our Savior, our best friend, our Lord, and our God.
Author: Dan Rogers