“But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe’” (John 20:25).
It is no wonder that Thomas is infamously labeled “Doubting Thomas” by much of the church. Thomas is very little attested to in the literature of the Bible with the exception of John’s gospel. However, to simply label Thomas a doubter is neither fair to him, nor does it take into full account the Scriptural teaching regarding him. In this blog, I hope to provide a more clear picture of Thomas and show that Scripture portrays him as a loyal pessimist, a seeker of truth, and a bold confessor.
Thomas: A Loyal Pessimist (John 11:16)
At the end of John chapter 10, Jesus and the disciples had fled across the Jordan because the leaders in Jerusalem had sought to have them arrested. John 11 opens with Jesus receiving the message from Mary and Martha that their brother and Jesus’ friend Lazarus of Bethany had fallen ill (v. 1-3). After waiting a few days so that “the Son of God may be glorified” (v. 4), Jesus informs the disciples that they are going to leave for Judea to heal Lazarus. In v. 8 the disciples are perplexed why Jesus would want to head back towards Jerusalem where they were just trying to “stone him.” In v. 9 and 10 Jesus issues implicit assurance to the disciples, and in the next few verses explains to them that Lazarus is not merely ill, but is now dead and that now they will go to him (v. 11-15). “So Thomas, called the twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him (John 11:16).
“Doubting” Thomas reflects no doubt in this statement. Rather, he displays devotion, loyalty and courage, however, it is seasoned with quite the pessimistic attitude (“go and die with him”). Though both loyalty and pessimism are shown in Thomas’ statement, his loyalty clearly outweighs his pessimism. These men had just escaped with their lives in Jerusalem and now they are asked to head back that direction, it is hard to blame them for being somewhat pessimistic. However, Thomas’ pessimism reflects misunderstanding more than anything, he clearly did not comprehend the assurance given by Jesus in verses 9-10. Thomas’ loyalty is undoubtedly expressed here. In light of his pessimism, and in light of the very possible danger they are going to be walking into, Thomas says, “Let us also go with him…” His statement of loyalty expresses much more than he even realized.
Thomas like many others in the gospel of John spoke better than he knew. For Jesus this journey would be for death, but one that would mean life for the World. The church that arises from the death and resurrection of Christ is called to make the journey like its Lord, and to bear its cross and reveal thereby, the life that conquers death (Mark 8:34). Thomas’ words would become a clarion call to would-be disciples to take up their cross and follow Jesus. However, Thomas statement does not only provide the type of loyalty any follower of Jesus should show, but it also serves as the platform by which Jesus will make a very important revelation about himself. Upon Thomas’ loyal but pessimistic statement to follow and die with Jesus, it is revealed to the reader that instead of following Jesus to death, Thomas is actually following Jesus to life. Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25).
Thomas: A Seeker of Truth (John 14:5)
The second time John fleshes out Thomas comes in the 14th chapter of his gospel account. The beginning of John 14 is structured very similarly to that of John 11. Jesus opens up the chapter by teaching the disciples to believe in him (v.1), and then gives them an assurance by revealing that his departure is for the disciples’ benefit. He is going to “prepare a place for them” in the Father’s house, and he will come again and take them with him (V.2-3). Jesus then assures his disciples that they “know the way” to the Father’s house (v.4). Upon hearing this Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way” (v.5). Thomas here voices the incomprehension of the rest of the group with his question, and genuinely seeks to know this truth.
Here again Thomas, though courageous and loyal, is found once more misapprehending Christ’s teaching, specifically that of the Father’s House (v. 2-3). Thomas’ courage is shown in that it is clear that the disciples have not understood Jesus’ teaching, yet he is the one who asks “the dumb question.” Thomas was honestly seeking the answer to the truth of where the Father’s house was, but he had interpreted it in the most natural way possible. Thomas truly seeks to find his way to the Father’s house, but what he wants is an unambiguous destination, a route to take him directly there.
Once again, like in John 11, Thomas’ question in this chapter leads to one of the most important revelations about the person of Christ. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (v.6). Thomas’ courage in truly seeking the answer to “what is the way to the Father’s House,” provides for us one of the most classic summaries of salvation in Scripture. Jesus tells Thomas as he does the reader today, that the way to heaven (The Father’s house) is exclusively through Jesus himself. Here again, one does not see the doubt that is so often argued as synonymous with Thomas, rather, one sees a courageous seeker of truth. Thomas truly shows us that if you ask, you shall receive. The reader today is blessed by Thomas’ courage to ask the question because of the answer that Jesus provides for all to know.
Thomas: A Bold Confessor (John 20:24-29)
Thus far, John has portrayed Thomas as a loyal pessimist, and a courageous seeker of truth, but with each revelation of who Thomas is comes a revelation of who the Lord is. So far through the misapprehensions and questions of Thomas the reader has learned that Jesus is both the resurrection and the life (11:25), and the way, truth, and the life (14:6). The final attestation of Thomas in John 20 is by far the most well-known. For it is here where Thomas receives his infamous title as “Doubting Thomas.”
In John 20:24, the reader is told that the post-resurrected Jesus had appeared to the disciples with the exception of the apostle Thomas. So the disciples who had seen Christ came to Thomas and told them of their finding (v.25a). This would set the stage for Thomas’ infamous expression, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (v. 25b). Though this statement clearly expresses doubt, the rubric “doubting Thomas” is not entirely fair. It is easy for us to cast stones at such a bold statement, but Thomas is not the only disciple who displayed doubt at the revelation of Christ’s resurrection. In Mark 16:11-13, the fellow disciples manifested the same attitude to the women who said that they had seen the risen Savior, and had the apostle been there when Jesus appeared to the other ten disciples then surely he would believe. So the immediate question becomes, “Why wasn’t Thomas there a week earlier? Scripture does not say, but in the providence of God his absence and subsequent coming to faith have generated one of the greatest Christological confessions of the New Testament.
Once again Thomas’ statement leads to an incredible revelation about Christ. Eight days later Christ takes up Thomas’ challenge (v. 26, 27) and proves two things: 1) That he hears his disciples even when not physically present and 2) He removes all possible grounds for unbelief for his disciples (“Do not disbelieve, but believe”). We are not told whether or not Thomas touched the body, but based upon Jesus statement that Thomas believes “because you have seen,” it is likely that the appearance of Christ was enough to convince Thomas. Seeing the Savior, Thomas would utter one of the most important statements in the New Testament. Thomas proclaims with acclamation to the Lord, “Ὀ Κύριός μου καὶ ὀ θεός μου” (My Lord and My God). Thomas’ confession reveals the reality of who Jesus is, both Lord and God. Encountering the risen Lord, Thomas goes from extreme doubter to bold confessor.
The apostle Thomas though rarely spoken of in Scripture, is found in three of the most important passages of the New Testament. Though he is often plagued with the title “Doubting Thomas,” a study of the Scriptures quickly reveal that this is a very superficial understanding of him. He is a loyal pessimist in John 11, a seeker of truth in John 14, and a bold confessor in John 20. Each time Thomas is mentioned in John, it is followed by a revelation of who Christ truly is: the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth, and the life; and the pinnacle of the three, Jesus is Lord and God. Tradition has it that Thomas’ bold confessing did not end here, but that he took the gospel to India where he would finally fulfill his words in John 11, he “died with the Lord.” This is the apostle Thomas: from pessimist to proclaimer. What a wonderful testimony of the power of experiencing a risen Savior.