Gospel of John (21) — Doubting Thomas

            This morning, we continue in our study of the gospel of John.  In just a little bit, we’ll be in chapter 20, as we look at the rather familiar story of the man we have come to know as “Doubting Thomas.”

            I think it’s accurate to say that, when it comes to Jesus, we live in a world that is full of doubters and skeptics.  But Thomas wasn’t just a normal guy who lived next door.  He was one of the apostles.  He was one of the leaders of the early church.

            And I think that’s important because the church will always have some Doubting Thomases.  And I think to some extent, I’m one of them.  Thomas is definitely someone with whom I can identify, because over the years, I’ve struggled with a lot of doubts.  And sometimes those doubts can lead into skepticism.

            I would describe myself as a rather curious person.  At least, when it comes to religion, I tend to ask a lot of questions. 

  • Questions about God, and how God works;
  • Questions about our universe, and how it works.
  • Questions about how faith and science relate to one another.
  • Questions about how prayer works (or how it doesn’t work).
  • Questions about why bad things happen to good people, why children suffer, and why the wicked often prosper.
  • Questions about the Bible — how to understand it, how to interpret it.
  • Are we doing church the way we ought to be doing it?  Or is there something we should be doing differently?

            And so, I’m always asking questions.  But while I’m curious by nature, at the same time, I’m also rather cautious. 

  • Maybe it’s because I’ve been hurt by some of the wrong answers I’ve received to some of those questions I’ve asked over the years.
  • Because there are times when I trusted people and I trusted what they taught me, and later learned that they were mistaken or, worse yet, that they lied to me.

            And I think it’s that particular combination — when you’re curious by nature, but you’re also cautious because you’ve been hurt chasing your curiosity — that can make a person become a Doubting Thomas.

            So, I can see myself in Thomas’ story.  If I had been there with him after the resurrection of Jesus, I probably would have been slow to believe, too.  And it’s not because I wouldn’t have wanted to believe.  But because I would have been so afraid of trusting the wrong person.  Or believing the wrong thing.  And being let down.  Again.

            Maybe you’re here this morning, and you’re a lot like Thomas, too.  You’ve got that blend of cautious curiosity.  You wrestle with a lot of questions.  But you’re slow to believe.  Not because you don’t want to believe.  But because you’ve been hurt by believing the wrong people and the wrong ideas.  So, you feel the need to see it for yourself before you believe.

            Or maybe you’re here this morning, and you don’t struggle with any of that at all.  You believe with all your heart and you’ve never questioned anything about God or the Bible or Jesus.  And you don’t really understand the Doubting Thomases you sometimes encounter at church.  Maybe you feel like their doubts are a sign of weak faith.  Or even worse, maybe you feel like they’re sinning because they’re questioning God.  You might not ever say it out loud, but maybe sometimes you wonder if Thomas wasn’t almost as bad as Peter when he denied Jesus or Judas when he betrayed him.  

            Whatever your circumstance is — whether you’re a Doubting Thomas, or a True Believer, or something somewhere in between — I think our story this morning has something to say to all of us.  And my prayer is that if you are a Doubting Thomas, this lesson will help you to grow in your faith a little bit.  And to help you to see just how valuable you are to Jesus, and to the church.  And for everyone else — my hope is that learning Thomas’ story better will help us to see the value of the Doubting Thomases among us.

            So, let’s take a look at our text.  If you’d like to follow along in your Bibles, we’ll be in John chapter 20, and our video will pick up in verse 18.

            VIDEO

            All of the apostles are involved in our story this morning, but it is Thomas who is at the very center of our attention.  Verse 24 tells us that, “Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.” (John 20:24).  Let’s take a look at what we know from scripture about the apostle Thomas  

            In John chapter 10, Jesus received word that his good friend Lazarus was very sick.  Jesus and his apostles were some distance from Bethany which was where Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived.  When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days.  Then he told his apostles that Lazarus had died, and that they would now go to Bethany.

            But Jesus had reached a point in his ministry where it had become dangerous for him to travel.  His enemies were out to kill him.  Most of that opposition was centered in Jerusa­lem, and now Jesus was considering a trip that would take him within two miles of that city.  It was a dangerous trip, and his apostles realized that.  But listen to the words of the man that we call the Doubter.  In John 11:16, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.

            Thomas was an extremely loyal friend.  Here was a man who had probably waited his whole life for the Messiah, and Thomas was con­vinced that he had found him in Jesus.  He was determined to stay close to Jesus even if that meant his own death.  So, Thomas was able to say, “Come on guys, let’s go die with him!”  That’s not doubt; that’s loyalty.

            Then, in John 14, Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:1-4).

            Many times, Jesus had told his apostles where he was going, but they still didn’t understand.  They didn’t understand how he was going to the Father, and they certainly didn’t understand the way by which Jesus was going, because that way was the cross.  They were all confused.

            But, again, it was Thomas who spoke up.  Because Thomas had a curiosity.  He had so many questions.  So, he was honest enough to express his doubts and his failure to understand.  He said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?(John 14:5)

            And once again, I think this question is a sign of his loyalty.  Thomas didn’t want Jesus to leave, but if he did leave, Thomas was willing to follow him wherever he went.  He said, in essence, “Jesus, just tell me where you’re going and I’ll be right there with you.”  We can see the loyalty.

            And then, we come to our text for today.  If we go back to the beginning of John 20, we see Mary Magdalene, Peter and John all discovering the empty tomb.  Then after the two men left, Jesus appeared to Mary.  She then went and told all the apostles about seeing Jesus.  Then, later that day, as ten of the remaining eleven apos­tles were gathered behind locked doors, Jesus suddenly appeared to them.  He showed them his hands and his side, and the apostles were overjoyed to see that the rumors were true — Jesus was alive!

            But there was one apostle who was missing.  Thomas wasn’t there.  We don’t know why he wasn’t gathered with the rest of the apostles. We can speculate, and many have.  Some people believe that Thomas wasn’t there because he had lost his faith — he had totally given up and deserted the rest of the apostles.  Or maybe Thomas was feeling betrayed.  He felt like Jesus had let him and the others down.  He felt left behind.

But we could also say that maybe Thomas wasn’t there because his faith was greater than the rest of the apostles.  They were there hiding because of their fear.  Maybe Thomas wasn’t afraid, and so he didn’t need to hide with the rest of the apostles!  In the end, though, all of these ideas are simply speculation.  The only thing we know for sure is that Thomas wasn’t there.

            And we don’t know where Thomas was, but if he was anything like me, Thomas was probably sitting alone somewhere feeling very numb.  Staring at the ruins of his life.  He’d left everything to follow Jesus, and now maybe he was regretting it.  He was probably just wondering how he would put his life back together again.

            Moving into verse 25, we hear the other disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord!”  And I think it’s significant that the other disciples didn’t just write Thomas off.  They went out looking for Thomas. And when they found him, they told him the good news.  

            In fact, I think they fell all over one another in their excitement to tell Thomas about the greatest event in all human history, the event that turned the world upside-down.  Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.  He was alive, he was alive!

            But Thomas’ reaction was to say, “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)

            Why wouldn’t Thomas believe?  There were ten of his friends telling him, “We saw it with our own eyes!”  But I don’t think we should be too hard on him.  After all, Thomas wasn’t asking for any proof other than what the other apostles had already received.  In verse 20, when Jesus appeared to the ten apostles, he offered them his hands and side as proof.  So, when Thomas said, “I won’t believe until I see it,” he was only asking for what the other apostles had already had.

            But I think there’s another consideration to be made in defense of Thomas.  In Matthew 24, Jesus warned his apostles to be very careful when people made claims about his appearance.  He said, “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.  For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”  (Matthew 24:23-24).

            It’s possible, maybe even likely, that when Thomas heard the rumors that Jesus had appeared, he thought about that warning.  And his reluctance to believe the other apostles may have been tied to his insistence upon believing what Jesus said.  Jesus said, “Don’t believe it!” 

            Thomas could have been thinking, “Jesus warned me that there would be rumors like this, but I didn’t think that my own friends would fall for it.”  And so, it’s possible that what we regard as Thomas’ statement of doubt is actually a statement of great faith, because he believed what Jesus had told him earlier.

            Or maybe, it really was doubt.  Sometimes those of us who are wired like Thomas — with that blend of curiosity and caution — when we’ve experienced enough trauma and disillusionment; we find ourselves moving from doubt to skepticism and eventually into downright cynicism.

            Maybe that’s where he was.  And I think most people find themselves there at some point in their life. But listen to what happens beginning in verse 26“Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them.” 

            This time Thomas was with the other apostles.  We call this man “Doubting Thomas.”  We judge him for his lack of faith.  But this guy had enough faith to meet with the apostles to see if this rumor really was true.  There was a caution about him, but there was also a curiosity.  Thomas needed to know if it really was true.

            And then we’re told, “Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” (John 20:26) 

            If you look back at verse 19, you’ll see this is exactly what Jesus did for the other disciples one week earlier.  They were hiding behind locked doors.  Jesus found a way to get inside, and he spoke a word of peace to them, basically, telling them not to be afraid.  So, this time, Thomas got to experience the exact same thing the rest of the apostles did.

            Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.” (John 20:27).  Which is exactly what Thomas said that he needed to do in order to believe.  He needed to examine Jesus’ wounds for himself. To trace them with his fingers. To touch them for himself.  And Jesus was ready to give Thomas whatever proof was needed to help him to overcome his doubts.

            And then Jesus told Thomas: “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27), or as the NIV puts it, “Stop doubting and believe.”

            In John’s gospel, belief isn’t just something you do with your mind.  It doesn’t mean you just accept a bunch of facts.  If you’ve ever had a parent, or a spouse, or a friend tell you, “I believe in you”, you know that what they mean by that is that they have confidence in you, and that confidence is based on their relationship with you.  In John’s gospel, that’s what it means to believe in Jesus.  It’s about having a relationship with Jesus and out of that relationship comes a confidence.  And we believe, we trust Jesus.

            So, here’s some good news for those of you who might be Doubting Thomases.  Maybe you feel like your doubt is the result of having so many questions that you don’t have answers to.  Ut, the truth is, you don’t have to have all of your questions all figured out in order to follow Jesus.  The only thing you have to be certain about is that you have confidence in Jesus, because of your relationship with him.

            And when Jesus actually offered his wounded hands and side for Thomas to touch, Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)   There is not a greater statement of faith in all of scripture, and it comes from the lips of the man that we call “Doubting Thomas”! 

I heard once about a man who was driving his SUV when he came to a detour sign that said, “ROAD UNDER REPAIR.”   But this guy’s got an SUV!   He’s not going to let a little construction stop him.  So, he throws it into 4-wheel drive, drives around the sign and gets through the construction site with no problem.  And he does just fine for about 20 miles until he comes to the absolute end of the road, beyond which there is a huge gorge with no bridge.

The guy had no choice but to turn around and retrace his route back to the detour sign. When he approached the back side of the same construction sign, he read what someone had written on the back of it: “WELCOME BACK, STUPID.”

I’m so glad that’s not the way Jesus welcomed Thomas back.  Jesus met Thomas and his doubts with love and grace.  I can even picture Jesus smiling; smiling to the point of nearly laughing because of the look of surprise and joy on Thomas’ face when he finally saw that Jesus truly was risen from the dead

            When you look at all of Thomas’ life, it is not his doubt that stands out, but his loyalty.  Once Thomas was convinced that the good news of the gospel was true — Christ is risen – he was ready once again to follow Jesus anywhere and to put his life on the line.  Legend has it that Thomas traveled to India to spread the good news about Jesus.  There they had to kill him to keep him from telling the story of his dead friend who had come back to life.  Thomas had once offered to follow Jesus even though it might mean his death and, if we can believe that legend, that’s exactly what happened.

            The last thing Jesus told Thomas was this, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29).

            Some people think Jesus is fussing at Thomas here.  Like Jesus was saying, “I can’t believe how much trouble I had to go to to make you believe!  Shame on you!”  But that’s not what Jesus was saying.

            Jesus was thinking about all the future generations of Christians when he said this.  He was thinking about you and me.  And giving us a blessing because we believe in him.  Even though we didn’t see him working miraculous signs. Even though we didn’t see him walking around after the resurrection.  But we still believe.  He wasn’t scolding Thomas. He was blessing us.

            So usually, I try to send you home with something to think about, or something to do, based on whatever scripture we’ve been thinking about and talking about.  But this morning, I want to give you a couple of different applications. 

            One is specifically for those of you who may be Doubting Thomases.  My challenge for you is this — Be skeptical enough to doubt your doubts.  I know you have a wonderful mix of curiosity and caution.  So be cautious not to be consumed by your doubts.  And be curious in the direction of your doubts.  Maybe there are some things you doubt because you haven’t found a good answer to your questions yet.  Don’t be afraid to talk honestly about your doubts.  Keep asking the big questions.  But don’t ever doubt Jesus’ passionate love for you.

            And secondly, there’s something I want everyone to understand. Remember that Jesus handpicked Thomas to be his disciple.  And when he chose him, Jesus knew Thomas was prone to wonder, to question, and to doubt.  And I believe Jesus still chooses Doubting Thomases.  And they’re as valuable as anyone else in the church.

            In fact, I’ll come right out and say that our Doubting Thomases are a real asset.  Because they keep us honest.  They challenge us to stretch our thinking.  Because they’re the ones who continue to ask the big questions.They’re not going to let us be superficial.  They’re not going to settle for easy answers.

            Our doubting Thomases keep us grounded. They give us our reality checks. And they can also be some of the most loyal, trustworthy people you will ever know.  We needthem.

            So, Doubting Thomases, never doubt that the church needs you.  And to everyone else, I say, Don’t abandon our Doubting Thomases.  Learn from what the other disciples did for Thomas in our story today, during his time of doubt:  Embrace them.  Encourage them.  Experience life with them.  And walk with them.

            And Doubting Thomases, stay with us.  Make us uncomfortable when we need to be uncomfortable.  Keep challenging us not to leave our brains outside the church house doors.  But let us embrace you.  Let us love you just the way you are.  

            Brothers and sisters, it is our responsibility to spread the good news.  But spreading the word begins here.  With us.  Before we can tell the world the good news, we have to tell ourselves and each other the good news that Jesus is alive, that he’s reigning over this universe, and that he’s making all things new.  We need to abide in that good news.  And we need to live out that good news. With each other, and for each other.

            When Jesus showed Thomas his wounds, he was really showing him how much he loved him.  And when Thomas saw Jesus taking his doubts seriously, he believed.  When he saw Jesus care enough to meet his needs.  Jesus loved him even through his doubts, and loved him into belief.  As you go forth from here, may you show that same kind of love to the Doubting Thomases you meet in the church and in the world.  So that they will catch a glimpse of Jesus in your care for them.

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