Why do we insist on labeling Thomas the “doubting disciple”? Is he getting a bad rap from history, or does Scripture support our nickname for him? And how does his story encourage us today?
After a week of vacation, I’m returning to this brief series on the eye witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. In our last post we considered Mary Magdalene’s story. She was the first person to see him alive.
For 40 days, starting with the day he rose, Jesus continued appearing to one follower after another, at one time appearing to 500 people at once. Apparently he was intent on publicizing his resurrection so that the reality and ramifications of this unprecedented event would never be forgotten.
How would he do it? With a host of eye witnesses to validate the event.
Now I’ve watched enough crime shows to know that when a case comes to trial, witnesses are essential. Expert witnesses may be needed to testify about technical details. But it’s the eye witnesses who were actually at the scene that can tell the judge what he or she saw.
In fact, the more eye witnesses the better, if you want to get an accurate picture of what happened.
What Peter Saw Left Him Marveling, But Doubting
Peter was the first man to look into the empty tomb.
There had been several other women with Mary Magdalene, Luke tells us, though it seems only Mary saw him personally. What the other women saw, though, was the tomb. Not only had the enormous stone been moved, but the tomb was empty, the clothes folded as neatly as if his mother had been there.
These women were the ones who ran back and told the apostles. Upon hearing their story, Peter bolted for the garden. He had to see for himself.
The scene was exactly as the women had described. John got there first, but Peter was the first to go inside.
They may not have see Jesus, but the empty tomb gave them the shock of their life. Luke’s research records that Peter “went home marveling at what had happened (Luke 24:12).”
However, the next scene shows the disciples huddling behind locked doors. It seems they were still doubting, too.
Why Did Jesus Appear to the Doubting Disciples?
What difference had the resurrection made to Jesus’ followers at that point? The tomb might be empty, but they were still terrified.
John picks up the story here. That evening in the midst of their fear, Jesus came and stood among them. His first words were “Peace be with you.” The voice was familiar, but who was this?
Resurrected, Jesus must have looked different from the worn and bloody mess they had seen on the cross. Was this a mirage? An impostor? A ghost? Immediately he gave proof of who he was, reassuring them in seconds by showing holes where the iron stakes had pinned him, a slash where the iron spear had pierced him.
It really was him! That must be why he repeated himself, “Peace be with you.”
Here was real evidence—the kind you could hear and see and touch. The kind that would not just stop their doubting, but stand up in court. They must have breathed a deep sigh of wonder and relief.
Why Did Thomas Demand to See and Touch, too?
We’re told that Thomas wasn’t there that evening. He had missed the moment.
Of course the others told him all about it, but he insisted that he needed to see Jesus for himself. In one sense he did need to. He had been one of the twelve, chosen to be Jesus’ follower. This calling had made him an eye witness to the life of his Messiah. He had followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem for the final Passover.
In fact it was Thomas who leaned over to ask him at the Supper, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus answered him with a sentence that is one of the clearest gospel answers in Scripture,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).”
If Thomas had been an eye witness of Jesus’ life and death, we can see why it was essential that he be an eye witness of his resurrection, too. Whatever Thomas’s emotional make-up might have been, (remember how he responded to the news of Lazarus’ death with these gloomy words: “Let us also go, that we may die with him”?!), he must carry the apostolic witness to the next generation. His doubting, like theirs, must be replaced with faith.
How Are Thomas’ Doubts Good News for Us Today?
There are two ways Thomas encourages my faith. I hope you feel the same way.
First, even though he was in the inner ring, he struggled with unbelief. His words had been extreme the week before, “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).”
When Jesus appears a second time in that upper room the following Sunday (Scripture says “eight days later” which includes both Sundays), he shows himself to Thomas, but then rebukes him gently. “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
What kind words Jesus has for a disciple who is faltering. What a generous gesture to appear and give him the evidence he asked for.
Second, Jesus loves your faith and mine, too, a faith that believes without seeing. We were not privileged to be eye witnesses, but we have been called to be witnesses. Our Lord recognizes the effort this takes and speaks a special blessing over us:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29
Finally, Isaiah helps us shift out of neutral and respond to this fabulous news. How should we handle good news when we get it? When you’ve got “good news of happiness,” don’t fiddle with it or fuss over it. Press publish and let it out.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
“Our God reigns.” Let’s press publish without over thinking the editorial process!