A Resurrection Day Meditation
The Apostle Thomas has been under-appreciated and unfairly characterized as “doubting” – as we understand doubting. Rather than doubting, Thomas is better described as the ultimate realist. He doesn’t put on rose colored glasses and see an idealized world. He sees things as they are in the real world. As such he provides one of the best proofs of the resurrection recorded in the Bible. A good thing to realize as we celebrate resurrection day. Let me explain why.
Thomas, the Devoted, Ultimate Realist
We don’t see much of Thomas, but what we see is revealing. After being named as one of the Apostles (Matt 10.3), the next time we see Thomas is when Jesus has “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51) before the triumphal entry and the events of Resurrection week. By this time both Herod and the Pharisees are trying to kill Jesus. (Luke 13.31, John 7.25) and in fact the Pharisees had been trying to kill Jesus since early in his ministry, when Jesus had called God his own father, thus “making himself equal with God.” (John 5.18). In John chapter 10, the apostle John tells us they’re in Jerusalem for the feast of dedication (Hanukkah). Jesus tells the people “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30) once again “making himself equal to God.” The Jews, no doubt considering that blasphemy (a mere man cannot be equal to God), have a predictable response:
“Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him” (John 10.31).
After that incident we’re told Jesus goes back across the river Jordon, (John 10.40) which would have taken him out of the vicinity of Jerusalem, and out of the immediate danger of the Jews who want to kill him.
When John chapter 11 opens Lazarus is sick and within a few days, dies. Jesus then decides to go to him (John 11.15). He knew what he was about to do, though the disciples didn’t know. Lazarus lived in Bethany, a town just east of Jerusalem, which meant they would have to cross the Jordan again, and head towards the place where the Jewish leaders were waiting to find him and kill him. What is Thomas’ response to the idea of heading toward what could be a potentially lethal ambush?
Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas, the realist, had no expectation of heading back to the place where they’re trying to kill Jesus, and coming out alive. (Apparently he hadn’t learned the lesson of the ship in the storm. (Luke 8.24-25)) But does that prevent him from going? Not at all. His devotion is so strong he’s willing to face death with Jesus and encourages the other disciples to do the same – so they could all go die with Jesus. Because apparently it seemed obvious to him that with all the people looking to kill Jesus, they wouldn’t make it out alive.
That speaks not only to the fact that Thomas was a realist, but that he was totally devoted to Jesus. Do you think Peter was a great apostle for being willing to lay down his life for Jesus? (Luke 22.33). Well here Thomas shows he has the same heart of devotion. So two key facts we learn about Thomas:
- He’s a realist – he doesn’t sugar coat the way things are
- He’s as devoted an apostle as they come
The Ultimate Realist meets a man once dead, but now alive
How do you make sense of the unexpected that’s impossible? That’s a question that the gospels confronts us with time and again. One of those times is an incident that made such an impression, it is recorded in 3 of the 4 gospels: Jesus walking on the water. (Matt 14.25-26; Mark 6.48-49; John 6.19).
“During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.”
The reaction of the disciples may at first seem over dramatic, but upon reflection it makes sense. This is one of those unexpected, impossible things that happen (when Jesus is around) that you’re challenged to make sense of. So how do you make sense of what appears to be a man, at night, walking on water? Humans do not walk on water. So what are the options for creatures that move around at night, with the power to walk on water? When asked that way, supposing what they saw was a ghost makes sense. It also explains their fear.
Jump forward to the first Sunday after the crucifixion. Jesus appears to the disciples when Thomas is not present. (John 20.19-25). The other disciples tell Thomas they have seen the risen Lord. What is the ultimate realist to make of such a statement, knowing that dead men do not rise from the dead? Thomas makes the calculations of a realist: dead men don’t rise. So from his vantage point the other disciples were mistaken. And he was not about to change his mind unless he had proof himself. Proof that it was really the Jesus he knew who died, and he would know by the scars in his hands and his side. (John 20.25)
Thankfully, the Lord Jesus elected to give Thomas that proof, I suspect because in so doing, he gives it to us all:
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!”
27 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.”
With these words Jesus once again shows his omniscience, as the apostle Peter pointed out, “Lord, you know all things” (John 21.17). With the few words he used, Jesus shows:
- He knows what Thomas said, down to the exact words, using the same words Thomas did speaking of the wounds in Jesus hands and side.
- He knows the exact state of mind Thomas was in. We tend to use the word “doubt” like something that may be possible, but you expect it hasn’t happened, like “I doubt you learned how to swim.” But I don’t think that was Thomas’ frame of mind. I suspect he was still in the “this is impossible” frame of mind (after all dead men don’t rise) and so it was not mere doubt, it was flat out unbelief, as in “I don’t believe your solid lead balloon is capable floating to the moon or anywhere else for that matter.”
The rebuke that John records Jesus giving to Thomas emphasizes the contrast in the mindset that Thomas needs to have. To make it clearer the correction given to Thomas could be translated like this:
“No longer be a non-believer (apistos) but a believer (pistos).”
Jesus uses a different form of the same word (πιστος – pistos – believing) to indicate two states of mind – unbelieving (apistos) and believing (pistos). In so doing Jesus confronts Thomas with a choice: Are you going to believe what your eyes, ears, hands and the other disciples are telling you, or will you remain stubbornly un-believing? Fortunately Thomas responded correctly:
“Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!'”
In that confession, we see how the unexpected and impossible is resolved: The only way a truly dead man, dead for 3 days, could rise from the dead is if he were God. Thomas sees that truth, and elects to believe. He now understands there’s another category to add to the reality of life: Jesus – God made flesh – capable of all things – even rising from the dead.
And so we have much to thank Thomas for. If you consider yourself a realist, then understand, the ultimate realist was persuaded that Jesus rose from the dead, proving himself to be the Son of God. (A way of saying he is equally God as God the father.) And because Thomas heard Jesus, and saw him, and likely touched him (if he didn’t we know John the beloved did (1 John 1.1) we know we can dismiss the claims of the Docetists and Gnostics and all who claim either Jesus didn’t rise, or if he did, Jesus just appeared to have flesh, but he was really just a spirit. Thomas’ confession refutes that, as does the confession of the apostle John, when he writes “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4.2) (which could also be translated “Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh”).
So if you think the example of Thomas is a bad one, think again.
- Even the strongest realists have reason to believe the resurrection, declare Jesus is God and become a Christian
- When you recognize you’ve been wrong, have the courage to acknowledge the truth
- Docetists, Gnostics and other deniers don’t have a leg to stand on. Jesus Christ has a (now glorified) physical body. He was not mere spirit, not a ghost. And flesh is not inherently evil, so there’s no problem with him having a body, (or us – for when we are resurrected, we’ll get a body like his (1 John 3.2).
- Don’t give up your devotion because of lack of faith or something you don’t understand. If there’s something you don’t understand, as the apostle Paul says, eventually “…that too God will make clear to you.” (Phil 3.15)
- God is patient with us even when he knows that we should know better (from previous experience). But as long as we stay devoted and willing to believe, God can use us.
I for one, am thankful for the example of Thomas. And not only will I give thanks to God now, I intend to thank Thomas and shake his hand when I see him.
All images used by permission
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (L’Incredulità di Tommaso) by Caravaggio (Public domain)