Christians often claim to know their Bibles well. The study and contemplation of Scripture is meant to be a part of everyday life, and with this constant presence there should naturally develop a certain familiarity with the Bible. This familiarity with God’s Word is an excellent goal and should be consistently on the mind of a dedicated Christian—but familiarity can also bring a certain level of complacency. As we study certain key parts of (or stories within) the biblical text, over time we may feel like we have a firm grasp on most of what is written—and the intended meanings. Eventually, we may allow certain words, phrases or preconceived notions that often get touted in theological conversations to intermingle with the text itself, making it hard to remember exactly what is held within Scripture, and what is not.
For example, many have heard the phrase, “God will not give you more than you can handle,” but might not be able to place exactly where this passage is. That is because those words aren’t found in any translation of the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul discusses the idea of God not allowing you to be tempted beyond what you can bear and providing a way of escape from those temptations. While this might seem like a small difference, often God does give us more than we can handle on our own and expects that we will rely on Him, for Whom nothing is too big to handle. Therefore, these phrases are not synonymous. If we continue to use the common saying mentioned above, speaking of it as if it were included in Scripture, we only perpetuate the idea in the minds of others. It can potentially trip them up later, and unwittingly misrepresenting Scripture can discredit us in the eyes of skeptics of Christianity.
Examples of how this can be a problem
This issue that we can have in our Bible study—feeling as if we know Scripture so well that we quit analyzing the text critically—can inhibit us from understanding what is actually written there, versus what we assume is probably in there somewhere. This issue doesn’t just have the potential for us to make assumptions about biblical lessons, but can also cause us to gloss over entire people by painting them with incredibly broad strokes. For some individuals in the Bible, this broad strokes method of remembering them works in their favor. Abraham is known as “the man of faith,” and David is known as “a man after God’s own heart.” These descriptors are straight out of the pages of the Bible and are true. However, these descriptors, when we remember them alone, might cause us to have flawed thinking about these individuals. We often remember David as an overall good person in spite of his flaws and we remember Abraham as a good person often without remembering his flaws. These descriptors, when not accompanied with critical thinking and good study, can cause us to forget that these men were both human—they had moments of faith and strength, and moments of doubt and weakness.
However, many are comfortable calling Abraham faithful as the Bible does, but often forget that it wasn’t just Sarah who laughed at the idea of having a child in old age. Genesis 17:17 says, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” Fortunately for Abraham, we remember his good attributes far more than his shortcomings and moments of doubt. With David, we remember that he is “a man after God’s own heart” despite his shortcomings and moments of doubt.
The apostle Thomas
Another individual in the Bible isn’t so lucky, however. Many are familiar with the phrase, “Don’t be a doubting Thomas!” This references the apostle Thomas, who said in John 20 that he wouldn’t believe that Christ had risen unless he had some concrete proof—he wanted to literally feel the wounds of the crucifixion. This one moment in time, and a preconceived notion about what this account tells us, has entirely washed over the reputation of one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. “Doubting Thomas” has become such a commonplace phrase that it may be difficult to doubt its biblical accuracy. However, if we follow three simple steps when studying our Bibles, we will find ourselves much closer to effective study of Scripture.
First, we need to refuse to blindly accept things that might be misleading; second, we need to read the text for ourselves rather than relying on our memory of it; and third, we need to dispel any preconceived notions with what we learned from that text. A closer look at all accounts written of Thomas, as well as a closer look at his “moment of doubt” itself, will show us a lot about this man. It is also good practice for how to study our Bibles so that we don’t continue to make wrong assumptions throughout our learning based on external things we might hear about Scripture rather than what we read from Scripture.
Refuse to blindly accept things that might be misleading
If we refuse to blindly accept this descriptor of Thomas, we would start by reading other accounts about Thomas to get a better understanding of his character. The first account that gives us an indication of Thomas’ character can be found in John 11, just prior to Jesus resurrecting Lazarus. The apostles knew that if Jesus returned to Judea—which had become hostile territory for Him—the Jewish people would stone Him, and so they all tried to dissuade Him from returning. Thomas, however, makes a bold claim: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16). Some believe that the Jewish people didn’t have any concept of a dying (much less rising from the dead) Messiah and could potentially claim this to be a bluff on the part of Thomas. However, even if Thomas didn’t believe Jesus would actually die by returning to Judea, extraordinary faith is still shown. Perhaps Thomas believed Jesus could be killed in this endeavor and was willing to die with Him. Perhaps Thomas didn’t believe Jesus would be killed but was willing to die for Him, or perhaps Thomas believed so strongly in the God-given power of Jesus that he wasn’t as afraid of the idea of dying as the other disciples were. Either way, this passage shows Thomas showing incredible boldness and faith in Jesus Christ.
Another reason we might consider Thomas bold, even in his moment of doubt, is found in a warning given by Christ to His disciples in Matthew 24. While His disciples asked Him about the end of the age and His second coming (as they were slowly starting to piece together the parts), Christ warns that false teachers would come in the end attempting to deceive the elect into following false messiahs. Jesus illustrates this point and gives an admonition when He says, “Therefore, if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or, ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it” (Matthew 24:26). When the other disciples came to Thomas saying they had seen the risen Christ in the inner rooms of their living place, it seems that part of Thomas’s doubt was fueled by a desire as an elect follower of Christ to not be deceived. Though his boldness might have been taken a bit too far when he said he would not believe unless under certain conditions, and his faithfulness might have been in his understanding of prophecy rather than a proper expectation of Jesus’ resurrection three days and three nights after His burial, this background and context does show impressive characteristics of Thomas that should not be ignored. Why, then, is “Faithful Thomas” not the nickname we know him by? Obviously, Thomas’ stubbornness and overconfident speech are not things to emulate and the account of his meeting the risen Christ is a cautionary tale, but might we get a clearer picture of this account by adding some context and reading the text for ourselves?
Read the text; don’t just rely on your memory of it
In Luke 24:36-40, we can read a parallel and complementary account following Jesus’ appearances to His disciples: “Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you.’ But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.” Strikingly, Jesus speaks to the disciples in this account of the doubts (plural) that He is aware that they have in their hearts (again, plural) showing that all of the disciples had a measure of skepticism about Jesus truly being risen from the dead.
What is incredible about this account is that, if we read these accounts in Luke 24 and John 20 as a harmony, we see that Jesus’ admonition to Thomas, that those who have not seen and have believed are blessed, is not necessarily a scolding of Thomas—or even directed only at Thomas—but is a statement of fact about all who would believe in the apostle’s testimony after His departure, directed at all the disciples who needed that same evidence to be convinced of the resurrection. If anything, Thomas’ immediate and decisive declaration of “My Lord, and my God!” at the end of the account shows a willingness to change his doubt into belief and a teachable heart that isn’t brought out quite as strongly with the other disciples.
Expel preconceived notions about the text
Thomas was a flawed human being like we all are. However, it seems clear when we follow the process of refusing to blindly accept things that might be misleading, and actively reading the text for ourselves in context rather than relying on our memory of it, that we can now expel this preconceived notion about the text that Thomas’ overarching characteristic to remember was doubt. To continue calling Thomas, “Doubting Thomas,” requires that we call all of the disciples doubting as well. It would also require that we take all people who have ever had doubt (including faithful Abraham and our own selves) and label them as doubters as well. If we read and study our Bibles with good processes on how to think critically about the text, we can be that much more confident that we know what God has for us in the pages of His Word.