When it comes to the resurrection stories of Jesus everybody’s favourite character is Thomas – Doubting Thomas – although few will admit it. We love Thomas because we find it easy to identify with him, and the fact that he eventually found his way to vital faith encourages us all. Thomas was ‘a man with a question mark mind’ (Lindsay Glegg). To Thomas, the cross was only what he expected. When Jesus (having received the news of his friend Lazarus’ serious illness) proposed going to Bethany (a very dangerous decision since the Jewish authorities were looking for an opportunity to dispose of Jesus) Thomas’ reaction was predictable: ‘Let us also go so that we may die with him’ (John 11:16). Thomas never lacked courage, but Thomas was also a natural pessimist. There can never be any doubt that Thomas loved Jesus. He loved him enough to go to Jerusalem to die with him when the other disciples had been hesitant and afraid.
What Thomas had expected had eventually happened (albeit later on) and when it happened Thomas was broken hearted. So broken hearted that all Thomas wanted was to be alone with his grief. So when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples Thomas was not there (John 20:19-24) and the news that Jesus was alive seemed far too good to be true, and he refused to believe it! Belligerent in his pessimism, he said that he would never believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he had seen and handled the print of the nails in Jesus his hands and thrust his hand into the wound the spear had made in Jesus side (v.25). Another week elapsed and Jesus appeared again to the disciples and this time Thomas was with them (v.26). Jesus repeats Thomas’ own words back to him and invites him to fulfil the tests he had demanded (v.27). Thomas is wrecked! All he can do is fall on his knees. All he can say is: ‘My Lord and my God!’ (v.28).
We love Thomas because many of us also have ‘question mark minds’. We must not let our empathy for Thomas cloud the truth of the situation, however. There is an old saying that still has merit, ‘Hate the sin, but love the sinner!’ We love Thomas but he had feet of clay. By nature he appears to have been a pessimist. He always expected the worst to happen. He was rather like my late father-in-law whose favourite saying was, ‘Behind every silver lining there is a dark cloud!’ He was like Puddleglum the Marshwiggle (in C S Lewis’ Narnia stories) who always expects the sky to fall on his head at any given moment. Everything changed for Thomas, however, when he finally came face-to-face with the risen Christ. According to Christian tradition Thomas became the first of the Apostles to take the Gospel outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire becoming the first Christian missionary to India, and even possibly China, such was the strength of his new-found faith! If Thomas were here with us today, no doubt he would encourage us to stop doubting and start believing! So what can we learn from John’s account of Jesus and Thomas?
A Common Mistake: Thomas made a huge mistake when he withdrew from Christian fellowship. John tells us here that ‘Thomas … one of the Twelve was not with the disciples when Jesus came’ (v.24). Thomas sought isolation rather than togetherness, and because he was not there with his fellow Christians he missed that first coming of Jesus to the upper room. We miss a great deal when we separate ourselves from Christian fellowship, and when we try to go it alone. There are times, when like Jesus, we need to retreat, but real danger comes when life becomes a total retreat from church. We all have times (even when we are Christians) when sorrow or doubt or despair threaten to envelop us, and escaping to isolation seems to be the way to go. May I suggest that this is the very time when, in spite of how we are feeling, we need to seek the fellowship of Christ’s people for it is there that we are most likely to find loving support, come face-to-face with Christ himself, and experience the renewal of hope and even faith itself. Which is why, of course, the Writer to the Hebrews encourages us to ‘not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but [rather] encourage one another [by continuing to meet together] … all the more so as you sense the Day [of Christ’s return] approaching’ (Hebrews 10:25). A Pastor went to visit a church member who had not been near the church for months. They sat together in front of an open fire as the Pastor listened to the man explain that you didn’t have to go to church to be a Christian, etc., etc. The Pastor knew it was pointless to argue. All he did was to take hold of the tongs and remove a glowing coal from the fire and place it in the hearth. Together they watched the coal smoke and cool and finally go out. The Pastor then took the same coal and placed it back on the fire where, in the company of other burning coals, it caught fire again. The Pastor made no comment before leaving. Next Sunday the man was back in church again!
An Uncompromising Honesty: Despite his disparaging nickname, Thomas had two great virtues. Firstly, he absolutely refused to say that he believed when he didn’t believe. When the other disciples told him they had seen the Lord, Thomas refused to believe without seeing the Lord for himself (v.25). Thomas would never say that he understood what he did not understand, or that he believed what he did not believe. There is an uncompromising honesty about Thomas. Thomas would never still his doubts by pretending that they did not exist. Thomas was not the sort to rattle off a creed without understanding what it was all about. Thomas had to be sure. ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds’ (Alfred Lord Tennyson). There is more ultimate faith in the person who insists on being sure than in the person who glibly repeats things which they have never thought out and which they do not really believe. Thomas was what we might call an ‘honest doubter’. Unlike what we might call a ’dishonest doubter’, Thomas wanted genuine answers to genuine questions rather than simply excuses not to believe, not to respond, not to take any meaningful action.
A Whole-Hearted Commitment: Thomas’ other great virtue was that when he was sure, he went the whole way! There was no halfway house with Thomas. Thomas was not airing his doubts just for the sake of mental aerobatics. Thomas doubted in order to be sure. He asked questions in order to find genuine answers. And when he did become sure, his surrender to certainty was complete. When Thomas confesses Jesus Christ as ‘My Lord and my God!’ (v.28) the Greek word translated ‘Lord’ (kurios) means ‘master, owner’ – the word by which a bond-servant or slave would acknowledge their master – signifying Thomas’ total allegiance to Jesus Christ. In passing, we should note (in the light of Thomas’ earlier mistake) that this kind of commitment went much farther than just going back to church on a Sunday. Let me encourage you to be more than merely a ‘Sunday Morning Christian’. Those early Christians ‘joined with the other believers in regular attendance at the apostles’ teaching sessions and at the Communion servicesand prayer meetings’ (Acts 2:42 LB). If someone fights their way through their doubts to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, they have attained a certainty that the person who unthinkingly accepts things can never reach. ‘The person who has fought their way through doubt is the surest person in Christendom!’ (William Barclay).
There is an old legend about Thomas that, sometime after this experience in the upper room, Thomas fell into doubt once again. He went to see Peter, James and John but they were all too busy to help him. He found his way to Dorcas, who was also busy stitching away when Thomas came in. ‘Dorcas, I’m full of doubt again,’ Thomas blurted out, ‘can you help me?’ ‘Look here Thomas’ replied Dorcas, ‘go out and do something! Go and tell somebody that Christ died for their sins and rose again according to the scriptures!’ And Thomas went out, and said to the first man he met, ‘Do you know that Christ lives? He died for our sins but he rose again for you and for me!’ And right there and then, so the story goes, Thomas and the stranger went down on their knees together … and both rose up triumphant in faith!