The problem with “Doubting” Thomas wasn’t that he had trouble believing in a resurrected Jesus, whom he had not yet seen. A lot of people had trouble with that. The problem with “Doubting” Thomas was that he demanded more proof than Jesus had deemed necessary. Jesus had risen from the dead, presented himself alive to the other 10 disciples (Judas was dead), and then had given them the power and authority to offer the forgiveness of sins to those who would believe in a crucified and resurrected Savior. The shorthand term for this is Gospel, and it is the Gospel that Thomas rejected. For Jesus, the Gospel was enough for a person to exercise saving faith, but Thomas demanded more.
John 20 tells the story, but it’s not really about Thomas. A focus on Thomas misses the point. In fact, I suspect that in the providence of God, Thomas was missing from that first encounter precisely so that Jesus, through the writings of John, could make the point.
What’s the Point?
When Jesus finally appeared to Thomas, he immediately invited Thomas to do what he had demanded, to put his fingers in the nail prints and thrust his hand into the hole in Jesus’ side left by the soldier’s spear. But when he said this, he was not stooping to the demands of a mere man; he was using Thomas as an example. He gave the invitation, but he also commanded Thomas to stop acting like an unbeliever and instead believe. Ultimately, Thomas had not believed the Gospel that was spoken by the Lord’s witnesses.
The happy ending is that Thomas immediately fell before Jesus and confessed, “My Lord and my God!” I don’t think he even bothered to touch Jesus before doing this. He had seen what he had demanded to see, but in Jesus’ next words, he made clear that there is something everyone else needed to see.
Jesus accepted Thomas’s confession of faith, but then he blessed all those who would believe in him, not through sight, but through the message of the Gospel. John concludes the story at this point by explaining that he has written all of this so that his readers might also believe in Jesus through the Gospel, and so have eternal life.
Jesus never intended to appear personally to every person so that they might believe in him. Instead, he designed a message, a message of power and authority, that he would use to reveal himself to all who would hear so that through it, they might believe in him. In his plan of redemption for the world, the Gospel would replace a personal encounter with the risen Christ. It would bear his power to save, and his authority to command repentance and faith. Amazingly, John wrote this many years after Jesus had ascended into heaven because he knew that the same salvation he enjoyed could be had by any and all who would believe in the risen Christ through the message of the Gospel that he had to share.
Unfortunately, we don’t always share his confidence.
Have we missed the point?
I don’t mean that we have people running around demanding physical proof of the resurrection. (Well, I suppose there are some of those, just as there are those who demand proof for the existence of God, and so on. But as Jesus once said, if they will not believe the Gospel, no amount of proof can possibly satisfy such obstinate hearts.) I mean that we have all sorts of people – Christians included – for whom the Gospel is not sufficient. And if we may expand the notion further, the sufficiency of God’s Word is respected so little in some quarters, that the entire Christian life appears from the outside to require a host of manufactured supports. Some of these external confirmations are demanded from hearers like Thomas, while others are simply offered by the preachers who lack confidence in their message.
I am thankful for every Christian who wants to see others experience salvation through the name of Jesus Christ, and I am far from being the consummate evangelist. But I have to wonder sometimes if we really believe in the power and authority of the evangel, the Gospel we are offering.
I’m talking about all of the methods that men and women have used in their attempts to secure “results.” Things like creating the right atmosphere, using the right music, developing the right kinds of appeals and even vocal inflections. Sometimes, in our zeal to “seal the deal,” more emphasis is placed on physical gestures, such as raising a hand or walking an aisle or repeating a verbatim prayer and “meaning it.” I’ve even known one technique that prescribes a bit of role-play to get an affirmative hand shake.
This isn’t a criticism of those who are simply trying to communicate the Gospel as clearly and lovingly as possible. It is a question of whether the Gospel is enough when we rely on the same techniques as political speakers and car salesmen to get a profession of faith out of someone who might simply have a tough time saying “no.” And when people start stripping out such embarrassing and difficult elements as repentance and the resurrection, it’s no longer a question of whether the Gospel is enough but whether the Gospel is even being offered. Unfortunately, there are all too many preachers and even well-meaning “soul-winners,” who do not seem to handle the Gospel as if it were the “power of God unto salvation.”
In Western culture today, it is more often the psychologist than the pastor who is seen as the most capable physician of the soul. (Interestingly, both psychologists and many pastors share this perspective.) For example, despite the fact that marriage is modeled on the Gospel, and the fact that in the Gospel God’s power is revealed to overcome the sin that is wreaking havoc in the marriage, many couples, pastors, and psychologists would sooner seek the assistance of a therapist for these problems.
But consider what is being said. If our problems can be traced to sin, the consequences of sin, or simply the results of living in a sinful, fallen creation, then it seems that Christ’s death and resurrection might be relevant to addressing these problems. But when a pastor says he has little to offer and refers the sufferer to a psychologist whose model leaves very little room for a Creator, an eternal soul, or even the notion of sin and a Savior, he has basically said that for a large segment of life, the Gospel is not enough.
(Admittedly, the idea of Gospel-centered counseling has been hurt by two kinds of “Christian counseling” that often get mistaken. The first is based upon a secular model that loosely sprinkles Bible verses across the surface in order to give a “Christian” appearance. The second digs deep into the Bible but ends up applying the Law of “do this and live,” without the offering the grace of Christ to perform it.)
3. Ministry Methods
The early church experienced an explosion of growth when the Gospel was believed, shared, and lived. Today, we think we need more – attractive facilities, big programs, flashy banners, anything and everything to tell the world that we’re not out of touch with culture.
Once again, this isn’t a criticism of those who are trying to connect with people in a way that they understand, but how much is given to simply satisfying the eyes? Or the belly? While aesthetics are important and visual communication can be a powerful tool, “curb appeal” can quickly develop into a ministry priority, instead of the character of God’s people. Mega ministries with large budgets spend untold dollars creating dazzling displays of ingenuity and creativity; some even try to go “bigger and better” than large corporations in an attempt to attract attention.
I wonder what would happen if we treated the lives of Christians who had been transformed by the power of Christ in the Gospel as our best advertisement.
Yes, even preachers can have a problem with this. Too often, we are tempted simply to give the people what we think they want. Some preachers are funny; some are learned. Some are simply entertaining. But when the effectiveness and popularity of a preacher has more to do with a his jokes, his education, or his ability to tell stories than with whether he preached “Christ, and Him crucified,” then the Gospel is apparently not enough. And when the preacher begins preaching like it isn’t, the people start believing that it isn’t, and cycle spirals downward until their enthusiasm for what they call “good preaching” is only matched by their ignorance of solid Scriptural teaching that has Christ at its center.
5. Ministry Qualifications
What makes a good pastor? Preacher? Church staff member? Christian leader? There are lots of answers to this question – ability to preach, leadership qualities, vision, business acumen, personal charisma, risk management, people skills, organizational abilities. But when was the last time that we valued a person for their deep understanding of the Gospel, for the powerful and obvious way that it had affected their life, and for the loving and persuasive way that he or she shared it and applied it in the lives of others? I will grant that a leader needs to be able to lead, just as a teacher needs to be able to teach. But sometimes, when we look to men and women for Christian guidance, it’s not longer a question of whether the Gospel is enough but whether it’s even important.
I might have listed this under “Evangelism,” but this seems to be the title that is most often used because the concept of actually giving the Gospel has been eclipsed. Sometimes, the Gospel that can save souls is even eclipsed by compassion for souls. In many quarters, the cry has become, “No creeds, only deed.” And compassion is good; meeting immediate, physical needs is good. But where the church of the past may have failed to love in word and deed, some of the church in the present are in danger of failing to love in word, confident that their deeds are filling the void in so many people’s lives. In an effort to share the love of Christ in tangible ways, some of us began by saying the Gospel wasn’t enough and ended up not even sharing Christ.
Christians love to praise God. But for what? In our testimonies, it seems increasingly rare to hear of the newness of Christ’s resurrected life taking the victory in our sin-plagued hearts, but one often hears of physical healings, bargain deals on automobile purchases, profitable home sales, vocational placement, financial rewards, near-death experiences, and other events that lend to the impression that Christ purchased our best possible life here and now. Some of the most thankful people speak as if they feel that the Gospel of Christ is not enough; it must be confirmed by its ability to satisfy the fleshly demands of the world and give us what the nations of the world seek after. What’s more likely to occur in a prayer meeting – a saint giving glory to God for his grace in overcoming covetousness and granting contentment? Or a “praise” for how God helped someone get a good deal on a new ATV?
Thomas got the point
Thomas demanded more from Jesus than what he provided in the Gospel witness, but only for a moment. Once he understood, it wasn’t too much later that he packed his things and went to India to share the message of Christ with those who had never heard. What did he take with him? A picture of Jesus? A drama company? A caravan of musical instruments? A celebrity? No, he took the Gospel. For Thomas, it was enough. But maybe for some of us, at least in some way, we’re still looking for a little bit more.