If last week we celebrated the anniversary of Jesus’ resurrection, then yesterday would have been the anniversary of the day that he appeared to the man that history has dubbed – perhaps a little unfairly – “Doubting Thomas.” I say “unfairly” for two reasons. First, a quick study of his life and character as told in Scripture and history reveals a man of deep faith and love for Christ, despite this one rather brief lapse. Second, he received the news of Christ’s resurrection in almost exactly the same way as most everyone that has ever lived, including his 10 compatriots. Including us.
However, before we draw any conclusions, I need to clarify something. We might easily say, “Oh, yes, I know I’ve doubted Christ.” The literalists among us might protest, “I’ve never doubted Christ’s resurrection!” And this would be missing the point because we’ve latched on to a word that the Bible never ascribes to Thomas, doubt. I suggest we use a different word, demand. Again, it’s not a word ascribed to Thomas, but it more accurately describes what he did. What did he do? John 20 tells the story.
It’s important to consider all of John 20 because John, like any good writer, begins with the end in mind. He’s moving his readers to his conclusion in vv. 30-31, and to do so, he begins with Christ’s resurrection, describes the empty tomb, and then moves to tell of Christ’s appearances to Mary Magdalene, the 10 disciples, and then Thomas. In this sequence, Jesus appears to Mary and tells her to tell the disciples that he has risen from the dead. The very next scene finds 10 of them gathered together in a locked room because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.
Did they believe Mary’s report? John doesn’t say, but Luke and Mark are both clear that they did not. John, however, has a different purpose for his story. In his version, Jesus appears to them, greets them with a divine Shalom (as only he could do), and then proceeds to show them his hands and side. Only then, John says, were they glad to see the Lord. (Luke adds that he invited them to touch him, and he even ate food in front of them before they were satisfied.) It is here that John begins to unfold his main theme.
In the next few verses, Jesus does something remarkable with these 10 disciples. In v. 21, he transfers his heavenly mission to them, commissioning them to go into the world. in v. 22, he gives them the power for such a mission, the Holy Spirit. (Scholars are somewhat divided on whether he actually gave them the Holy Spirit at this time or merely gave them a symbolic promise of what would occur on Pentecost a few weeks later, but we don’t have to answer this question to understand John’s meaning.) In v. 23, he gives them authority to spread the divine offer of forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Christ. So, what did he really do with these 10 disciples? He gave them the task, the power, and the authority to spread the Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ so that those who would believe in him might have their sins forgiven and receive everlasting life. And Thomas was not there.
But he might have been the first person they told. If he wasn’t the first, then it certainly wasn’t because they didn’t care about him. The verb used in v. 25 indicates that the 10 disciples made repeated attempts throughout the next week to convince Thomas that Jesus had risen from the dead. Perhaps it was because of all these repeated attempts that Thomas would utter those words that have earned him his dubious nickname.
After who knows how many times they told him, after God knows how many times Thomas had prayed for it to be true, after a week of living in a world turned upside-down, Thomas had had enough, and he said it: “Unless I can stick my fingers in the nail prints of his hands and plunge my hand into the hole in his side, I will never believe.”
This was not doubting. This was demanding. And in John’s story it had relatively little to do with whether or not he thought Jesus had really risen from the dead. It had everything to do with what he was rejecting. This was not the same thing as the 10 disciples doubting the report of Mary Magdalene; it was Thomas refusing to accept the Gospel message delivered by commissioned, empowered, and authorized representatives of the risen Lord. He demanded more than they were capable of giving, and more than what Jesus considered adequate.
John is clear. For Jesus, the Gospel is sufficient witness to his resurrection for anyone to believe. For Thomas, the Gospel was not enough. The Bible’s question to all its readers is this: Is the Gospel enough for us, or do we demand more?
In pt. 2, I’ll try to answer that one.