The last of the disciples in our series is Thomas. Thomas is also called Didymus (John 20:24) which means “twin”. Whether he was quite literally a twin, or whether it was just a name given to him, we just don’t know. If he did have a twin, we know nothing about him which raises some interesting questions about why not.
I only mention this because it is tempting to draw spiritual lessons from things we infer from the Bible text rather than from what it actually says.
As a general rule, I would say that anyone who makes a dogmatic statement of faith or doctrine because of an inference or implication in Scripture without recognizing that it is actually not explicitly stated.
What the Bible actually says about Thomas.
That said, let’s look at what Scripture says about Thomas. There are some references to Thomas as part of the larger group of the disciples. He is included in the lists of the disciples, and he is also named as one of the 6 disciples who went fishing with Peter in John 21. He did ask Jesus a question which triggered one of the “I am” statements of Jesus. In John 14:5: “Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus responds “I am the way, the truth and the life”. I am not going to tackle this particular exchange this morning. There is a temptation to try to cover everything in these studies, but I want to focus on the other two specific references to Thomas and his interactions with Jesus.
One is where Thomas speaks out as the disciples are considering the reception that they will get if they go to Bethany after the news about Lazarus’s death has reached them. The second is the interaction with the disciples and Jesus for which Thomas is most well known, his statement which earned him the title “doubting Thomas”. We’ll come onto those two accounts presently.
Courage and Fear.
John 11:16: “Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”. Reveals courage in the face of fear, or at least a belief that this action will result in death and a willingness to face that end.
Did the disciples really believe that they would be killed? — The text doesn’t say, John merely records Thomas’s words.
I see a parallel with Peter’s declaration “I will never leave you Lord even if it means I will die” (Matthew 26:31–35; Mark 14:27–31; Luke 22:31–34) and Peter fails to live up to his declaration(though he ultimately follows through on this and gets martyred). Jesus even tells him this. Thomas on the other hand convinces the other disciples to go to Bethany.
What do I take home from this?
Fear and Courage. The disciples were aware of, or at least had an anticipation that they would not be welcomed into Bethany. They articulate in John 11:8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”. Were they afraid? I would have been. Jesus is clear that there will be things to fear in this world, but he warns us to be sure we are fearful of the right things, or rather, not to be fearful of things we don’t need to fear. He says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Luke 12:4,5 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”
Jesus also says to the disciples in John 16:33 that “in this world you will have troubles, but take heart I have overcome the world” (note that in the first half of the verse, he declares that our peace is to be found in him). He has earlier expounded on this in John 15:18–21
1 Peter 3:14 says, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened”.”
The point here is that following Jesus is far from the “crutch” that people think it is. In fact, choosing to follow Jesus in the face of the anti-Christian indoctrination and ridicule and social pressures we have around us is about as far from conforming as you can get. Choose to be a bible-believing Christian means that the things you will accept about people, about marriage and sexuality and the value you place on human life (especially unborn human life) will put you at loggerheads with nearly everyone you meet.
Anyone who is a Christian really must consider where their faith will lead them. We truly must as all the commentators suggest, take up our cross and follow him. Bonhoeffer is very blunt in his book the cost of discipleship about this. We must not live under cheap grace, we must understand all that following Jesus implies, up to and including death. This is the overwhelming witness of Scripture from Jesus own words about the world hating us and taking up our cross, through Paul asserting that following Jesus means we will have to give up all things and become like Christ, Hebrews describing the heroes of the faith and the troubles they went through, Peter says we will be persecuted for our faith, as does James. Again and again the New Testament tells us that we will be persecuted for our faith. And finally in Revelation, the second half of 12:11 says “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death”. In the 21st Century many think that they won’t be killed for the faith, but increasingly the Christian faith is seen as incompatible with modern society, and the only truly humanistic societies in our world, the communist nations both past and present have appalling human rights records, ESPECIALLY toward Christians, so I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom, but that kind of persecution and hate is just around the corner again for Christians in modern societies. It is already a reality for Christians in North Korea, China, numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa, it is becoming increasingly common in India, Pakistan and any one of a number of “anti-Christian” nations. Suggest you look at the organisation Open Doors which will give information to inform your prayer lives.
Doubt and Faith
The second thing I want to unpack this morning comes from the most well-known account of Thomas, the one which earn him the reputation of “doubting Thomas”. The account in John’s gospel puts this into context:
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
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.”
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!” 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.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24–29)
This is the account for which Thomas is most remembered, in fact it is this characteristic of Thomas which has so informed our culture that anyone who looks with any skepticism about something that they are given the title which I’ve already used – “doubting Thomas”.
But we must note this: none of the disciples believed Jesus was raised until he appeared to them. The women at the tomb believed, but the disciples we are told “did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11), and again Matthew records that the disciples meet Jesus at the shores of Galilee and Matthew records that “when they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted”. Matthew 28:17
For the last three years all the disciples had witnessed and shared in Jesus ministry, they had been there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they were there at the last supper when Jesus predicts his death. Then their world had fallen apart. They had seen their leader arrested and tried and executed, they had all fled in terror, they were expecting a knock on the door from the authorities at any moment. This is a chaotic time for the disciples, and emotionally and mentally they must have been all over the place. And then the women come back from the tomb with an incredible story — that Jesus has risen.
What would you have done?
Although Thomas is the one tarred with the reputation of being the doubter, he is not alone. Either then, or now. None of the disciples had believed, Thomas was they only one honest enough to articulate it. All Christians suffer doubt at one time or another, but the example of Thomas’s doubt provides both instruction and encouragement.
How do we keep from doubting as Thomas did? Here are just a couple of thoughts to help you.
Firstly, one of the most significant things which we know from this account is right at the start, “Now Thomas … was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”
The first point I want to make is this: If you are not there you will miss out!
I have lost count of the number of times that something has happened and I’ve missed it because I wasn’t there. For Thomas, this is significant, because he missed seeing the resurrected Jesus along with the others, and it was this missing out which was articulated in his expression of doubt.
Having said that, one remedy to or defence against doubt is the fellowship of the church, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that the fellowship “spurs us on” towards love and good works, and that it is a source of encouragement.
If we absent ourselves from our fellow Christians, we are almost certainly going to experience higher levels of doubt in our faith.
It is counter-intuitive I know, because when we feel low in our faith, our first instinct it to withdraw from church, but this is the very moment we should make the effort and join in with our fellow believers.
Ecclesiastes says that, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12. This is not immediately a verse which comes to mind when thinking about doubt and the role of fellowship, it shows how important others are when we are weak or stumble and need help. We so often think of this verse in practical terms, but I would suggest that other people can also help us carry our faith. Just as we carry bags for our children until they are old enough to carry them for themselves, just as when someone sustains an injury and we do what we can to assist them physically until they are healed, I venture to suggest that as we fellowship, one of the greatest strengths and joys of being in fellowship is this corporate carrying of one another’s burdens. Fellowship with others is key for us in maintaining our faith.
But we do have a tension here, Jesus words to Thomas seems to cut across this. Thomas, having missed out articulates “I won’t believe unless I see for myself”. Jesus didn’t have to reveal himself to Thomas, but he did, and Thomas believed. However, Jesus says to Thomas something which reaches across time and declares that we are blessed, he says “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That is us, today that Jesus is talking about. Like Thomas we have not seen the risen Christ physically, but we believe, and Christ declares us blessed. So whilst it is incredibly important, and a real antidote to doubt, personal experience is not absolutely essential to faith. It is possible to believe in Jesus even though we have not seen him. In fact in Hebrews 11:1, one of the best descriptions of faith we have, we read “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” and this same thought is reinforced by Peter who writes this: 1 Peter 1:8–9 Though you have not seen him, 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, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
I have not touched Jesus physically, he has not eaten with me — yet. But Jesus words to Thomas stretch through time and promise us who believe that we are blessed! Wow! What a promise!
Secondly, doubt is not constant. Doubt rises and falls in us, sometimes our faith seems strong and other times, doubt crowds in and it it feels like we’ve lost it all together. James talks about doubt, in James 1, talking about prayer, he says this, …
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord”. (James 1:6–7)
Doubt is rarely intellectual. It is far more frequently an emotional response to our circumstances than it is a thought out response to an argument. Jesus also talks about doubt and the affect it has on prayer, in both Matthew and Mark, he says that one of the keys to our effectiveness is that we don’t doubt, so for example, taking Matthew’s gospel, we read …
“Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done”. (Matthew 21:21)
So doubt is a problem in the life of a believer.
I want to make one comment which may seem odd, but just bear with me as I try to articulate it …
Doubt is not possible without faith. What I mean by that is that if you don’t believe, you are not a doubter, you are an unbeliever. Doubt can only exist in the presence of faith. Unlike an unbeliever, a doubter is open to the possibility of faith, so if you are experiencing doubt, be encouraged! It doesn’t mean you have lost your faith.
Note also that James says that doubt is like a wave of the sea, and to strap from a metaphor I heard about something else, for many people, doubt and faith are like two wolves fighting inside us for dominance, and as has been said, the one which wins is the one you feed.
Mark records that on one occasion, a man brought his son to Jesus who was afflicted by a demon, and during the interaction between Jesus and the man, Jesus says “everything is possible for one who believes”, the man’s response is “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:14–29)
First, we must recognize that Christians fight a spiritual battle daily. We have to gear up for the battle. Doubt is a spiritual attack, it is something which we must defend ourselves against. Do not see doubt as a weakness or deficiency in you, it is an attack which comes from the enemy.
Second, the antidote to doubt is faith, so building our faith is a powerful defence against doubt, and we can do this by:
- Feeding on the word of God. Paul writes that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17), Times of doubt will become less frequent if we take advantage of the good times to feed our faith with the Word of God. Then when we raise the shield of faith and do battle with the enemy of our souls, his flaming darts of doubt will not hit their target.
- The next thing we can do when doubt attack us is to go to God in prayer when experiencing doubt. Like the man who brought his demon possessed child to Jesus but was unsure whether Jesus could help him, we go to God because we believe in Him and ask Him for more and greater faith to overcome our doubts, crying, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17–27).
- Lastly, at the very least it make good sense to stay in fellowship with other Christians. I have met people on numerous occasions who for one reason or another leave a church, and rather than seeking out fellowship, stay isolated. Overwhelmingly such people find that their doubt increases, their faith wanes and eventually they drift away from it altogether.
History records that Thomas carried the Gospel to India and was martyred there.
The essential message of Thomas is this, do not be derailed by doubt!