Jesus’ disciples make for a very unlikely crew of role models. It’s hard to imagine a more flawed group of followers, and yet, these oddly compelling sinners are largely responsible for founding the Church. There’s Peter, a brash, sword-toting fisherman who only opens his mouth to switch feet. There’s Matthew, a highly disliked tax collector who has only recently turned over a new leaf. There are James and John, a pair of impetuous glory-seekers. And then there’s Thomas, the infamous doubter.
I’ll admit up front that I have something of a personal stake where Thomas is concerned, and he’s been drawing my attention more and more lately. My parents selected my name at least partially with this disciple in mind, so that has driven me to explore him quite a bit over the years.
While he is mentioned in all the gospels, only John records the events where Thomas spoke, and there are three of them:
(1) In John 11, as the disciples prepare to return to Judea so that they can mourn the death of Lazarus, several of them urge caution and plead with Jesus not to go. After all, the people of Judea had previously tried to kill Jesus, so returning to the area doesn’t seem like the wisest move. Torn by concern for Lazarus and fear of death, the disciples become indecisive, and it falls to Thomas to shake them out of their hesitation. In John 11:16, Thomas boldly declares, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” What a statement of loyalty! If Jesus is to be killed, then Thomas plans to be at his side. Sure, he’s a little dramatic about it, but still, that’s some serious faith!
(2) In John 14, Jesus prepares his disciples for his death with words of comfort and reassurance. The scene is pretty easy to imagine: the disciples sit there and nod as if they understand, but it’s clear that they really have no clue what’s happening. Perhaps they’re all following Peter’s lead, as the famously loud-mouthed disciple had just boasted that he would die for Jesus when, in reality, he will deny him to protect his own skin. As Jesus speaks of the place where he is going, it’s Thomas who finally speaks up and admits that he doesn’t understand: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Jesus responds with his famous statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” and this prompts other questions from the disciples. Looking at the passage, I’m grateful that Thomas admitted his confusion and asked Jesus the question that was on everyone’s minds. It led to a more fruitful conversation and probably humbled the disciples quite a bit.
(3) Of course, John 20 retells the most famous story about Thomas: the time where he doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. After claiming that he wouldn’t believe unless he could feel the nail scars for himself, Thomas gets the chance to do exactly that and quickly repents of his doubt. As Thomas beholds the risen Christ, he utters Jesus’ proper title for the first time: “My Lord and my God!” And as this encounter draws to a close, Jesus offers a special blessing for those who believe without seeing (for example, us).
That’s it for Thomas in the Bible. The only other places he appears are in lists of the apostles. It’s only from these three accounts in John that we learn much about him, but what a full portrait they provide!
I love the disciple Thomas because I think all believers find themselves in his shoes from time to time. We should be thankful for the days where our faith is strong– the days where we would gladly die for Jesus like Thomas desires in John 11.
Of course, life offers its fair share of confusion and frustration as well, and in those times, I hope we have the courage of Thomas in John 14– the courage to say those three embarrassing words: “I don’t know.” How many wars, schisms, and fiscal crises could have been averted by someone simply admitting that he or she didn’t understand something? If only we all had the courage of Thomas in those situations!
And then there’s the doubt portion. Doubt’s a tough concept to unravel because we as Christians are called to lives of absolute faith. We’re supposed to stake everything we have on the belief that Jesus came to redeem us, and doubt is pretty clearly the opposite of that. Still, look at how Thomas handles his doubt: he talks about it openly and relies on his fellow disciples to show him the risen Christ. He doesn’t allow his doubt to fester in secret. He doesn’t let it gnaw at him and consume him. He tells trusted friends who are able to help him through it, and his reward is the full recognition that Jesus is “my Lord and my God!”
I often wonder who around me is experiencing incredible hardship (particularly doubt) and keeping it secret. Who among us might need to take a page out of Thomas’s book and admit to confusion and questions? That’s the beautiful thing about church: when it’s functioning properly, it should be the best place for those exact conversations. This should be the safe space to lay bare our burdens and present them to Christ in the company of caring brothers and sisters. Of course, now we come to the hard truth: when’s the last time we did that?
Bayshore Baptist Church has some of the most capable and caring ministers I’ve ever seen (and a few of them are even paid). If you’re facing doubt or distress of any kind but aren’t taking full advantage of this, I’d encourage you to seek someone out. The staff, the teachers and leaders, or even just the person sitting next to you in worship– we’re all here for the same reason. Like Thomas, let us rely on each other as we learn to rely fully on Christ.
Grace and Peace,