Did you experience being given a nickname when you were young, with everyone picking it up? Often it was a term of endearment. But sometimes it was not so dear, and you couldn’t wait for it to ultimately fade away.
One enduring nickname that eventually stuck to a biblical figure is “Doubting Thomas.” One of the original 12 apostles, he is often identified this way 2,000 years after he lived!
Thomas was not there when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the other disciples, and he would not accept that Jesus had risen from the tomb until he personally saw Him and felt His scars. Later Christ appeared again and gave Thomas that opportunity.
What was the risen Christ striving to accomplish with Thomas in that seemingly frozen moment in time? Thinking about this can help us appreciate how Christ intervenes to broaden our own understanding of His personal invitation to each of us of “Follow Me” (see Mark 1:17; John 21:19). Consider that Thomas was not the only one concerned with probing and poking into someone—for Jesus was doing His own probing into a needy heart.
“I will come to you”
Now let’s move into that room in which, on the first occasion, the disciples were hiding behind closed doors from the authorities (John 20:19). It’s a little over three days since their Master, their Rabbi or Teacher, had been brutally slain. There’s word that He’s alive and outside the confines of His tomb, but most haven’t personally seen Him.
They are perhaps mulling over His statement that He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights as likened to the prophet Jonah’s entombment in the belly of the great fish (Matthew 12:40). Their knees are shaking, and their hearts aren’t too far behind. Some of their Rabbi’s final words are tumbling around in their heads. “I will come to you,” He had said (John 14:18; compare verse John 14:28). But how could He?
Suddenly someone unexpectedly enters, through a door that has been shut! What’s happening? It’s their Master and friend, Jesus! His promise was true. They know it’s Him because He openly reveals His wounds from His brutal execution at Golgotha (John 20:19-20).
He addresses them twice with the heartwarming greeting of “Peace.” Just imagine the overwhelmingly joy. Here the One who proclaimed, “I am the Door” (John 10:9) doesn’t come to them in a normal manner through a manmade opening. They see again that they, as all of us, should come to expect the unexpected from our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ—who enter our lives in Their time and way to fortify our belief.
But wait a moment—someone’s missing. It’s Thomas.
When those gathered later encounter Thomas, they “unload” and share everything. Wouldn’t you? When’s the last time you saw a dead man alive, especially one scourged and beaten to a pulp and crucified? It’s here that Thomas utters, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
Did Jesus make a mistake in selecting this “stuck in park” individual, or is there more to the story?
What’s the backstory on Thomas?
Let’s recall that Jesus spent an entire evening praying for those He selected to initially be witnesses of His life, death and resurrection (see Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:2, Acts 1:8). There were some interesting selections like Peter, Judas Iscariot and two brothers, James and John, the “Sons of Thunder.”
Ultimately one would betray Him, and all would abandon Him in His greatest moment of human need at Gethsemane. And yet all except the traitor are to have their names written on the foundation of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:12-14).
Surely none were random selections. So, what’s the backstory on Thomas? Let’s connect some dots and understand why it’s not wise to pigeonhole people for one moment in time.
Often overlooked is a prior time when Thomas spoke up while everyone else warned Jesus not to go to Bethany to see Lazarus due to impending harm (see John 11:7-8). Jesus still said, “Let’s go,” and Thomas spoke to the others saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (verses 15-16). Thomas seemed willing to sacrifice his all for Christ’s cause. And everyone else then came along.
Let’s now connect another dot. On the night before Jesus’ death, He shared with His disciples, “I will come again and receive you to Myself.” It’s Thomas who inquires, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?” (John 14:3-5).
His inquiry is the launchpad for Jesus’ self-disclosure, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Little did Thomas know he would have to wait for the answer—but it would come.
So now, why wasn’t Thomas in the room at Jesus’ first appearance? We aren’t told. Just before Jesus appeared, the two who’d seen Christ on the road to Emmaus had “found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together,” where they learned Peter had seen Jesus too (Luke 24:33-36). Since Thomas was one of the gathered eleven, he must have been there when they arrived. That means he must have left the room shortly before Jesus entered.
Again, we don’t know why Thomas went out. But no doubt Jesus’ entry after Thomas’ exit was intentional. Thomas himself would surely have wondered about it. It may help explain why he would not believe the detailed and corroborating reports of the others.
Recall that Thomas had previously thrown down the gauntlet in stating, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him,” but when the ultimate test came, his courage melted. Accepting that he was left out of meeting Jesus may have saddled him with shame and guilt over his failing.
Of course, all the others had likewise scattered when Jesus was arrested—and it may be that any one of them would have reacted just as Thomas if they had been left out as he was. But someone had to demonstrate the lessons Christ was teaching here—lessons we all need to learn.
Probing the hole of a broken heart
Eight days later the disciples are again gathered in the same room, and Thomas is now with them. Jesus comes again, once more bypassing the door but now to knock on someone’s heart (John 20:26). He again greets the assembly with “Peace.”
Now He zeroes in on Thomas. As the Good Shepherd (John 10:14), He knows this struggling lamb is in need. Jesus is neither hesitant nor offended, but invites the disciple to reach in and probe all he needs to be convinced. He bluntly offers: “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). His words are not an utterance of condemnation, but encouragement.
So often we center on Thomas’ probing of Christ’s wounds, when the real story is how Christ is probing the hole in Thomas’ heart. It’s here we discover that Christ comes to us in ways particularly appropriate to us to enhance our walk of faith.
Have you ever noticed how some people are auditory learners, while others better acquire knowledge by reading and viewing imagery, and still others by “hands on” experiences? It works the same in “the university of life.” One form of an old Asian proverb states: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Here, Christ, the “Master Potter” (Isaiah 64:8), is helping His friend and molding his future.
We should also consider how hard it probably was for Thomas in being singled out as the only apostle Jesus hadn’t appeared to—and that he’d been reacting against that disturbing thought.
Our Heavenly Father has not called us to faith that evaporates under pressure. Thomas could have nodded in agreement with His fellow disciples, but if his heart wasn’t in agreement for whatever reason, it would serve no one. Jesus knew once Thomas “got it” that his courage would revitalize. This same disciple who said he was willing to go like a lamb to the slaughter with his friend would now live, breathe and share the good news of a risen Lamb.
What was the end product of the probing of the Master? Thomas declares to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). He mouths the ultimate confession of every believer that Jesus is more than a good man, wise teacher, prophet or dead martyr for the cause. Thomas comes to understanding through the personal touch of the Master—being allowed to reach into God in the flesh. Clearly, good fruit was produced!
Christ had great plans for His apostle and friend, who would not be propelled forward on the fumes of fake faith. Tradition holds that Thomas would later evangelize throughout Asia as far as India. He would ultimately be martyred in preaching about the risen Lamb of God and His coming Kingdom.
What are we to believe?
This account illustrates Jesus’ encouragement to us who live today to build on Thomas’ acclamation. Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen [referring to us!] and yet have believed” (John 20:29). What elements from this account can we take away to enhance our personal walk of faith?
• God the Father and Jesus Christ don’t mind being questioned. Think of Thomas—and while you’re at it, of Job. God doesn’t view struggling with questions as a wall, but a bridge to understanding. To learn, we need to ask questions and poke around and reach for answers that only God can supply.
• Come to expect the unexpected from our Heavenly Father and Christ. The ways of God are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). God answers when the time is right, which includes us being ripe for emboldening in understanding. The Father and Christ open seas, shower bread from heaven, raise the dead, come through walls and open hearts that are dead. Be alert, and get used to it!
• Christ as the Good Shepherd knows our personal needs and learning styles and comes to us particularly in how we can best learn and embrace genuine faith that endures. He knows it’s a learning curve to embrace a risen Savior who lives for us—now, and each day.
• Christ often introduces Himself to us with “Peace,” like He did to the gathered disciples. This is the common Hebrew greeting Shalom, but in Jesus’ case it means so much more. He promised before He died: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). Christ is willing to have you seek and probe Him and His ways, and in turn you must be willing to allow Him to probe the depth of your being—your very heart—to receive the depth of peace He offers.
Thomas’ story is our story. It’s the story of the Good Shepherd actively tending to His sheep as we take up His invitation of “Follow Me.” It’s a path leading to a future in which Christ promises to give us new names (Revelation 3:12). I trust we can reasonably agree that for Thomas, and for us as well if we remain faithful and receive these new names, there will be no “doubting” attached to them! Remember Christ’s encouragement: “Do not be unbelieving, but believing”!