TEXT: John 20:19-31
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)
I love to read about the disciples of Jesus—mostly because they are so very human and so very far from perfect. I find that comforting, because it means they were a lot like I am.
Consider Peter as an example. Many call him “the prince of apostles”—yet in Scripture, he appears as bumbling as he is brave. In chapter 16 of Matthew, when Jesus has just finished explaining God’s plan for him—that he must suffer and die—Peter butts in and shouts, “God forbid it … This must never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22-23).
James and John didn’t get it, either. In chapter 10 of Mark—after Jesus has again explained the fate that lies before him—they approach him with a request for cabinet positions in his government: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). It’s as though they hadn’t been listening to him at all.
As I said, the disciples of Jesus were very human—often confused, often selfish, and frequently a source of frustration for their Teacher. And I do find it comforting—even encouraging—to realize that. There’s hope for me, yet!
But I have always regretted the way we have treated one of those Twelve—the one we call “doubting Thomas.” He was a person of great faith and great courage, but we forget about that because of the label we’ve put on him.
The first time we hear from Thomas is in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. Things are not going well. The authorities have already tried twice to have Jesus killed, and the disciples know that it is far too dangerous for them to go back into Judea anytime soon. But then Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is seriously ill, and he tells the Twelve that he must go to visit him in Bethany—in the very heart of Judea!
They protest. Going back there is too risky. It’s a stupid, reckless thing to do. It looks as if they may abandon Jesus once and for all, telling him to go alone if he must go at all. At this critical turning point in the ministry of Christ, we first hear from Thomas. It is Thomas, this man of courage and faith, who says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
Now, I want you to notice that Thomas was no fool. He was not following Jesus blindly. He did not believe that there was going to be a fairy-tale ending. He knew what was involved. He had counted the cost. But he intended to follow Jesus, even if it meant death. Thomas may have had his doubts about the wisdom of Jesus’ actions, but he also had the faith to follow in spite of those doubts.
More than that, Thomas had the courage and the faith to ask questions—to admit to Jesus that he simply did not understand. The next time we hear from him, it is in the upper room, during Jesus’ last talk with the disciples before his arrest and trial. Jesus was trying to explain to them the significance of the cross and what lay beyond it, and he said, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:4).
Only Thomas had the courage to admit his ignorance. It was Thomas who had the faith to know it would be all right to interrupt and ask, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”(John 14:5).
Be assured that Thomas was not the only one in that upper room who was puzzled. However, because Thomas had the courage to ask his question, we have all received the answer—an answer that is one of the most quoted passages in all of Scripture: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Thomas had courage enough to question—and faith enough to know that it was all right to question. And because he did, Jesus could give him—and us—an answer.
How often, I wonder, do we brush aside uncomfortable questions? And how often do we say to those who dare to ask them: “Oh, you just have to have more faith”? How often are we afraid to admit—even to ourselves—that we have questions, because we don’t want to be labeled a “doubting Thomas” or a spiritual weakling? Yet it is only by asking questions and wrestling with them that we are able to grow in faith. Honest inquiry does not destroy our faith—it increases it. Our faith is in far more danger when we pretend we don’t have any questions, because then our doubt can spread like a cancer, until doubt overwhelms everything else.
I’ve heard it said that the way to learn is by asking the right kind of questions. Thomas not only teaches us that, but also shows us that one way to attain greater faith is by expressing the right kind of doubt.
Thomas, you will remember, was not alone in his refusal to believe in the risen Christ until he saw for himself. According to Luke’s Easter account, when the women who had seen Jesus’ empty tomb reported this to the apostles, the men did not believe them. When the women said that they had encountered angels who told them Jesus was alive, the apostles thought it was “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11).
No, Thomas was not the only one who doubted. It’s just that Thomas’s doubt is expressed in ways we can understand. When he heard the news that the risen Christ had appeared, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe”(John 20:25). He wanted hard-core evidence of this resurrected Jesus.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails …” I think those words shake us up the way they do because there are times when we could say them as easily as Thomas did—times when we want solid physical evidence of God’s presence in our lives. When we have our doubts, we want a flesh-and-blood Christ to stand before us. The trouble is: we don’t always have Thomas’s courage to speak our doubts aloud.
Look what happened when Thomas did express his doubt. Christ appeared to give him the proof he asked for. And as soon as that happened, Thomas no longer needed the evidence. He did not need to place his finger in the nail prints or his hand in Jesus’ side. Instead, Thomas responded in faith: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
Thomas’s doubts were not barriers to his faith. Rather, when he admitted them, when he confessed them—when he confronted them—his doubts led him to greater faith.
Jesus never condemned Thomas for his doubts; we are the only ones who do that. Jesus knows that asking questions takes courage—particularly if we, like Thomas, choose to wrestle with doubt until we reach our own certainty.
It’s always easier to go with the flow, to just pretend we believe, to just say we have no questions—but it is in the struggle for answers that our faith grows. It was because he was willing to engage in that struggle that I count Thomas amongst the greatest heroes of Christian faith. I pray that each one of us may have more of his spirit—more of his courage, and more of his faith. By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.