Monday, 9 May 2011

‘Doubting Thomas’ John 20:19–31

"Doubting Thomas." If you look up this phrase in the dictionary, you'll find something like: "one who habitually or instinctively doubts or questions." A "doubting Thomas" is somebody who always lags behind in matters of faith. A "doubting Thomas" always needs more proof, more time. A "doubting Thomas" has a hard time trusting others.

For years I've felt bad for Thomas, also known as Didymus.  I mean, how'd you like it if your name went down in history attached to "doubting"? How would it feel to know that every time someone uses your name it had a negative connotation?

Of course Thomas isn't the only person in history whose name is married to some depressing connotation. It's synonymous with making a really bad, obvious mistake. You know, whatever else comes of my life, I really hope that by the end of it my name isn't synonymous with something bad.

Part of my point in today's sermon is to come to the defence of "doubting Thomas." I'd like to suggest a new phrase for this disciple, not "doubting Thomas," but "honest Thomas."  -  it almost rhymes! But, more importantly, I think it accurately portrays the character of the one who was willing to be honest even when it wasn't pretty, and even when others were not quite so truthful.
More importantly still, when we really understand what's going on with Thomas, we'll find new freedom to be honest about our own faith, or, as is sometimes the case, lack of it. Believe it or not, I'm going to suggest in this sermon today that you and I need to be more like Thomas, not by doubting more, but by being more honest with God and with each other.

Before we examine the story of Thomas in detail, we need to remember the context. The historical setting was Jesus's mission of proclaiming and enacting the kingdom of God. He assembled around him a group of close followers who came to believe that he was the Messiah who would save Israel. Through Jesus, they thought, Israel would finally be set free from the heavy hand of Rome and God would once again rule over his free people.

But all of these hopes came crashing down when Jesus was arrested, tried before a kangaroo court, and sentenced by the Roman governor to death by crucifixion. For the disciples of Jesus, his death wasn't merely a horrific execution of a dear friend. It was the end of their vision, the passion in which they had invested years of life. The death of Jesus must have felt like a giant betrayal, not only by Jesus, but even by God himself. Why, after all, did the Lord back up Jesus's ministry with such mighty miracles if, in the end, it was all for nothing? For Thomas and his friends, the death of Jesus must have seemed like a cruel trick.

But then, on Easter morning, some women claimed that the tomb where Jesus had been buried was empty, and that they had even seen him alive. "Nonsense," Thomas must have figured. "Nothing but delirium. Wishful thinking!"

Yet that evening, while Thomas was away from the group, Jesus appeared to the other disciples. When he returned, they excitedly reported to him: "We've seen the Lord." But Thomas didn't share their joy or confidence. He said to his fellow disciples, "I won't believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side." (v 25) There you have it: doubting Thomas.

But do you blame him? Remember, he had been burned before, big time. He had gone out on a limb for God, and the limb broke off. What had that got him?  Discouragement.  Defeat. Devastation! Thomas wasn't going to fall into that trap all over again. No way! Can you relate to Thomas at all? I know some of you can. You went out on a limb. You trusted God. You tried to live as a good Christian, to do the right things, when all of a sudden your life fell apart: your marriage disintegrated, or you got cancer, or you lost your job, or your teenager got involved with the wrong crowd. No matter how you try to rationalize what happened, the truth is that you have felt let down by God. And no matter how much others try to encourage you, you're just not sure you're ready to trust him again. There are some of you here right now who know exactly what I mean. So you can relate to Thomas.

Or maybe you connect with Thomas because, like him, you don't believe in Jesus. You've heard your friends and family members tell you how great it is to be a Christian.

You hear people like myself talk about God's love in Christ, but you're still not sure. So you can relate to Thomas as one who stands on the outside of faith, peering in.

To be honest, if I had been in Thomas's shoes, I'm not sure I would have been able to accept the testimony of the other disciples. You see, some people are sceptics. Some think a lot, maybe too much. Some don't find it easy to put their faith in anything. So putting ourselves in Thomas's place I wonder: Wouldn't it have made just as much sense to suppose that the disciples had had too much to drink, or that they'd seen some sort of ghost, or that their grief had overwhelmed their reason?

Whether Thomas should have believed or not, at any rate he was bluntly honest about where he was. He didn't pretend.  He told the truth. Was he "doubting Thomas"? Well, perhaps. But even more clearly he was "honest Thomas."

Thomas in fact turned out to be more honest than some of the other disciples. As far as we know, none of them admitted to having any doubts about Jesus at this time. They were happy to go along for the Resurrection ride. But if you turn over to Matthew 28, you read something quite startling. The disciples have followed Jesus's orders to go to Galilee, their home ground, and meet him there. This is what it says beginning with verse 16: "Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him - but some of them still doubted!" Did you catch that? "But some of them still doubted."

As far as we know, these disciples had been willing to play along as if they truly believed, but in fact their doubts persisted. Unlike Thomas, however, they weren't honest. They pretended to have unhesitant faith when all along they weren't quite sure.

If you're struggling with doubt today, don't pretend. And don't judge yourself. Doubt is a natural part of the faith journey of many, many Christians. If you doubt, be an "honest Thomas." First, tell the Lord about it. Don't hold back in your prayers. God can handle your doubt. God wants you to be completely honest in prayer. Second, if you're struggling with doubt, you can be an "honest Thomas" by sharing it with others whom you can trust. Get them to pray with you, support you, and walk with you through the dark valley of doubt. They'll help you get through.

Let's take another look at John 20 to see how Jesus responds to Thomas. It says, "Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them." For eight days Thomas was left in his doubt. For eight days he stood around watching the celebration of his colleagues while he was stuck in indecision. Don't you think Thomas began to wonder if Jesus had forgotten him? Maybe he began to fear that he would never get to see the risen Jesus, that he would live in doubt forever.

The fact is that Jesus chose to let Thomas wait. He didn't show up right away to relieve Thomas's fears. We don't know why. We don't know what needed to happen in Thomas before Jesus appeared to him. All we know is that Jesus made him wait.

There will be times when you're struggling with faith and doubt, and God will make you wait. It won't seem fair at the time. In fact, it might seem mean. But God knows what he's doing.
The Psalmists often speak of how for days they cried out to God for help. And for days God was silent. For days they begged to see God. And for days the eyes of their hearts were blind. They would feel desperate, terrified, and empty. And God would have seemed to have abandoned them during that time, their "eight days" of waiting, if you will.

I don't know what God was doing with Thomas during his eight days, but sometimes during our times of doubt, he can break our pride and set us free from our self-reliance. He will show us the limits of our reason. He will teach us that we can’t do things alone or in our own strength. And he will prepare us to receive his grace, not as something we think we have earned, but as a free gift.

When, after eight days, Jesus finally appeared to the disciples in Thomas's presence, he addressed the "doubter" directly: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!" (v. 27).

Do you know what's missing here? The rebuke! The guilt! The lecture on not doubting! It's not here. Jesus doesn't reprimand Thomas for his unbelief. Rather, he gently and mercifully offers Thomas exactly what he had wanted. Jesus met Thomas right where he was. And he offered himself to Thomas: "Here, touch me, and believe."

In his time and in his way, Jesus comes to us and makes himself known to us. Sometimes he does it in the way we have wanted. Sometimes he doesn't. But he always gives us exactly what we really need. And it comes, not because we've earned it, but by grace.

Many of us struggle with doubt that can seem to choke the very life out of us. We can fall into a pit of despair and not know how to climb out. We can use books, logic, and evidence that demands a verdict. We can be stuck in unbelief, helpless before God.

We may cry out to God, again and again and again. We may have sleepless nights and eventually pour our hearts to God, and often when we do, you may feel a calming presence surrounding and embracing you. The desperate doubts may drain out of your tormented souls, replaced by the deepest peace you’ve ever known. Your tears of sorrow may become tears of joy. It’s as if Jesus himself is saying to us, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!"

Returning to John 20, notice how Thomas responded to Jesus. It's curious, isn't it, that we're never told whether or not Thomas actually touched Jesus's wounds. The silence of the text suggests he didn't. Confronted by the gracious presence and offer of Jesus, Thomas exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" He didn't need to touch Jesus after all because the presence of his Lord had touched his heart.

Now I want you to notice something absolutely crucial here. Thomas said, "My Lord and my God!" This makes him the first person in the gospels, perhaps even the first person in all of history, to confess Jesus not only as Lord, but also as God. Doubting Thomas, or better yet, honest Thomas became faithful Thomas, bold Thomas, believing Thomas.

This is where honesty with God leads. This is the outcome of an open confession of doubt. This is not pretend faith. This is not the sort of Christianity we wear as a costume to impress others. It's a 100% genuine faith that issues from the deepest corners of our soul. It's a faith that transforms our lives. It's the sort of faith that I want. And I expect you do too.

Notice how Jesus finishes his encounter with Thomas: "You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who haven't seen me and believe anyway." This is a word of encouragement for you and me, because we don't get to see Jesus. One day we'll see him face to face. But that day is still a long way off for most of us. In the meanwhile, you and I are those who have to believe without seeing.

And in this we are blessed. Being blessed doesn't mean we're great, or worthy, or morally superior. Being blessed means that God has chosen to pour out his goodness upon us, to be gracious to us, to reveal his Son to us. Indeed, all who believe without seeing are truly blessed.

Have you been blessed in this way? Do you believe in Jesus, even though you haven't seen him? If so, then praise God! You've been granted a marvellous gift. So use it and enjoy it and share it with others. Let your faith in Christ be the centre of your life.

I'm sure there are some of you here this morning who came not fully believing in Jesus. You just haven't been ready to put your trust in him. But maybe during this service you've sensed the presence of Jesus through his Spirit. Maybe you've heard his invitation to believe, even as he once gave it to Thomas. If this describes your experience, then I would invite you to say "yes" to Jesus today. Put your trust in the one who died for you, bearing your sin, and who was raised from the dead three days later so that you might have the fullness of life forever.

I expect that there are some of you here today who still feel like Thomas before he saw Jesus. You've heard the good news of salvation in Christ. You've heard that Christ is risen. You've heard the invitation to find true life in him. But you're still not sure. If this is how you're feeling right now, then let me encourage you to be like honest Thomas. Be real. Don't pretend. Tell God exactly where you are and ask for his help. And, if I could add one more thing, keep on hanging out with God's people. If you live around here, come back and join us for worship. Or sign up for a forthcoming Alpha course. Or talk with a Simon, Phill or myself. Let us walk with you on your journey to faith.

No matter where we are in our relationship with Jesus today, the good news is that he meets us in that place. In his time and his way, he graciously draws us near to his heart so we might know his love and grace. The one who gave his life for you so that you might be forgiven, the one who was raised so that you might live forever, seeks a genuine, honest relationship with you. He wants, not just a religious performance, but an intimate friendship. So no matter where you are on the road of faith, let the risen Jesus walk with you today, tomorrow, and every day from here on. Amen!


  1. Doubt is a very scary thing. I get scared of being wrong. I get so scared of not having solid proof, and I'm also a bit ashamed that my faith is so lacking that I need it. It's essential to be absolutely certain you're right or the consequences could be horrifying. I feel I'm sure that I'm correct. But at the same time, I'm terrified of the consequences if I'm wrong. I want desperately to be in Heaven with Christ when I die that thoughts of error bring me to tears and also adds pressure and stress to always be sure that I'm right. I prayed for God to take away the doubt or bring me consolation, but little came. I was pacified just enough to fall asleep. Tonight, I was going crazy. I needed something, so I looked up doubting Thomas and found this blog and it brought me to tears. I felt peace. Whether this lasts or not, the consolation relieves so much stress that I don't know what to do. I'm so glad to be at peace for the time being. This was posted a long time ago, but the joy it's brought me right now makes me truly thankful you wrote it.

  2. wonderful stuff, just getting to know my relationship with God. This story makes me thankful I am.