The Thomas We Never Knew

The Thomas We Never Knew

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Published:
November 6, 2020

“When the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said recently that at times he questioned if God was really there, much of the reaction was predictably juvenile: ‘Even God’s earthly emissary isn’t sure if the whole thing is made up!’ But Archbishop Welby’s candor only makes him human.”[1]

The archbishop lost his seven-month-old baby girl in a car accident that led to a lengthy period he described as “utter agony.” The deeper the love the deeper the grief and despair, causing Welby to intermittently wrestle with doubt during much of his deeply spiritual ministry.  

The disciple Thomas suffered from a shattering loss as well. The unthinkable image of the nails that pierced his Savior’s hands and the soldier’s razor-sharp sword that opened a gaping wound in his best Friend’s side, dominated Thomas’ every thought. That image ruined every plan, killed every ounce of hope, negating all that he had invested in and given up for the previous three years. It all lay in still smoldering ashes.

He was so devastated and shocked by Jesus’ crucifixion that he felt he had to be alone and absented himself from the Upper Room where the remaining members of the Twelve had gathered.

Christ appeared first to Mary Magdalene. The gospel of Mark tells us, “She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it” (Mark 16:10-11 NIV).

The Lord then appeared to other women and specifically told them to share the good news with “the brethren” in hiding. The gospel of Luke records, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11). The words translated “idle tale” are the same words the medical language of the day used to describe someone sick with delirium.[2]

Next, Christ appeared to two followers on their way home to Emmaus. They ran back into the city and pounded on the locked door to the Upper Room. After being let in, they declared excitedly what had happened. Mark tells us, “But [the disciples] did not believe them either” (Mark 16:12-13 NIV).

Later Jesus Himself appeared in the Upper Room when Thomas was not there. Christ admonished the disciples more than once for their lack of faith:

He rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” (Mark 16:14 NIV).

“Why do doubts rise in your minds?” (Luke 24:38).        

Christ even had to eat some fish and chips to convince them. I get a mental image of the disciples gawking at the Lord as He takes bite after bite, chewing and swallowing. “He looks real!” they whisper to each other.

Sometime after this first appearance in the Upper Room the news reached Thomas — “We have seen the Lord! He is risen!” In response, he uttered those now famous words, “But he 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’” (John 20:25 NIV).

Those words have stuck to him like glue and defined him down through the ages as “Doubting Thomas.” I believe it is a bad rap.

The scripture record indicates that the other disciples were just as faithless. So why don’t we label all ten of them “doubting”? We focus on Thomas because he was so vocal about it.

Labeling Thomas is a sad substitute for understanding. If we take time to know him more fully, a dramatically different, more complete, picture emerges.

Thomas was a man of fierce loyalty, whose deep love for the Savior was stronger than death. About two months prior to the crucifixion, Jesus announced that He intended to go back into Judea where they had tried to stone Him twice during the last six months. The disciples were shocked and urged Him to reconsider. Seeing Christ’s determination, Thomas bravely stepped forward and said, “Let us also go that we may die with him” (John 11:10).

Commenting on Thomas’ willingness to face the stones, William Barclay writes,

That is the highest form of courage. It does not mean not being afraid. If we are not afraid it is the easiest thing in the world to do a thing. Real courage means being perfectly aware of the worst that can happen, being sickeningly afraid of it, and yet doing the right thing. That was what Thomas was like that day.”[3]

Thomas was also a man who was open and honest. During the Last Supper, Jesus spoke enigmatic words about going away to a place that has lots of rooms and later returning (John 14:1-4). Only Thomas is willing to express the inner bewilderment that everyone around that table felt when he asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). It was this question that called forth Jesus’ famous answer, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NIV).

We next read about Thomas in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The week following the first appearance of the risen Christ in the Upper Room was the worst time in Thomas’ life. The way the disciples broke the news to him about the Lord’s appearance didn’t help at all. “Thomas, the night was completely amazing! First the Lord breathed on us and we received the Holy Spirit in an incredibly powerful way. Nothing like it had ever happened to any of us before. And then He commissioned us to share the good news with unbelievers! Too bad you missed it.”

In spite of Thomas’ stated requirement that he touch Jesus’ wounds before he could believe, he nonetheless harbored a faint hope that the good news was actually true.[4]

Because of that lingering hope, I can imagine Thomas secretly yearning for Christ to appear to him on Monday. As noontime arrives, nothing. By sunset, still nothing.

He must have been thinking, “If the Savior really did rise from the dead, how could He appear to women before me? And then taking the time to walk a full fourteen miles round trip to eat lunch with a couple of men from Emmaus. It makes no sense. Why spend so much time with them? And if He appeared to Peter and Mary individually, why not me?” (Luke 24:13).

Thomas can hardly sleep Monday night. The hours drag by as he tosses and turns alone. He cannot bear being around the other disciples who exude such joy.

Monday becomes Tuesday. “Maybe today,” he thinks. Still nothing. He sits staring out across the countryside, wondering. If it’s true, it could happen anytime.

All day Wednesday, no risen Jesus. Time ticks slowly by. At some point, Thomas might have thought, “How can He really have risen? Sure, Christ raised others from the dead, but what happens when the Resurrector Himself is murdered?

All day Thursday. Nothing. Expectancy begins to ebb into a heart wrenching sadness and jealousy.

Imagine if my father died and then my brother and sister told me that he had risen and appeared to them and some of our neighbors. One day goes by and I don’t see him. Two days. Three. Four. He and I were very close. We worked on so many projects together! I could easily imagine myself thinking, “If dad had actually risen how could he possibly ignore me for so long? It doesn’t make any sense. They must have somehow been mistaken. If I admit that he has risen, I would also have to admit that he has been intentionally ignoring me all this time.” Something similar must have tormented Thomas. As the hours drag on, he sinks into despair.

All day Friday.

All day Sabbath. Surely on such a holy day.

Finally, on Sunday, Thomas simply cannot stand being alone with his own thoughts any longer. He thinks, “Perhaps if I go to the place where Christ was last seen,” and soon he is climbing the stairs to the familiar Upper Room where he is greeted warmly by the other disciples.    

Suddenly, toward evening, Christ does in fact appear. There is no question that Thomas has been on the Lord’s heart because He immediately turns to him directly. It’s almost as if Jesus was waiting until Thomas rejoined the rest of the disciples before He chose to manifest Himself again.

The Savior looks deeply into Thomas’ reddened, tear-filled eyes. The Savior knows all about Thomas’ inner turmoil because He repeats the disciple’s earlier demand exactly as he had expressed it. Thomas knows that no one told Jesus about his demand because no one has seen Him since the previous Sunday. Thomas suddenly realizes that he has not been abandoned after all. It just seemed that way.[5]

Jesus graciously invites his hurting disciple to not only see the wounds, but to actually stick his finger in the very visible indentations and scars.

Thomas is overcome, forgets all about touching the Lord’s flesh, falls to his knees in worship and declares, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28-29). Leon Morris comments on how incredible this brief declaration really is:

“‘My God’ is a quite new form of address. Nobody has previously addressed Jesus in this way. It marks a leap of faith. In the moment that he came to see that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead Thomas came to see something of what that implied. Mere men do not rise from the dead in this fashion. The One who was now so obviously alive, though He had died, could be addressed in the language of adoring worship.”[6]

The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary observes, “[Thomas’] confession was more profound and more far reaching in its implications than those made earlier by others of the disciples.”[7] No one had ever addressed Christ with such an exalted title before — “My God.” Thomas’ re-emergent faith enabled him to see what no one else could.

Christ then admonishes Thomas for not accepting the truth of His resurrection earlier. He uses the Greek word “apistos” which is variously translated as “unbelieving,” “faithless,” and even “incredulous.”[8]

There are several lessons that emerge from Thomas’ experience:

1. The main lesson is revealed in Jesus’ statement, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29 NIV). Christ was fully aware that Thomas would not be in the Upper Room that first Sunday night. He also knew that he would later demand proof. Jesus took that demand and used it as a ‘teachable moment’ for Thomas, the disciples, and especially the church down through the ages. If the church was to survive after the ascension, it would have to depend on people accepting Jesus as Savior by faith alone and not by sight.

Years later, perhaps recalling Jesus’ admonition years earlier in the Upper Room, Peter commended his readers for this very point, “Though you have not seen [Christ], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1Peter 1:8 NIV).

2. The church can learn much from Thomas’ spiritual endurance. The Lord knew that Thomas would hang in there for seven bewildering days and not give up. He knew that His devoted follower would endure the darkness of being excluded from any sightings and come out the other side. His terrible week is an example of exceptional resilience in the face of confusion and hurt.

3. Jesus is with us even when we feel like He is a million miles away. In the second Upper Room appearance, the Lord made it clear that He fully understood Thomas’ heart and struggle. He was never alone.

4. William Barclay makes the important point that Thomas’ biggest mistake was in separating himself from the Christian community. “When sorrow comes and sadness envelops us, we often tend to shut ourselves up... That is the very time when, in spite of our sorrow, we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people, for it is there that we are likeliest of all to meet Him face to face.”[9] Even in the midst of the current pandemic, we need to seek out safe ways to experience human connection and encouragement.

In light of this fuller understanding, I think it is appropriate to select a different moniker, a more appropriate label, for our disciple. Perhaps Intrepid Thomas would do.

     

Notes & References:

[1] Julia Baird, “Doubt as a Sign of Faith,” New York Times, September 25, 2014

[2] Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans, 1975) 626

[3] Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1975) 88

[4] Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association) 807

[5] Ibid.

[6] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) 853-854

[7] The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1956) 1068 

[9] Barclay, 276.

 

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

 

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