I’ve always felt that the reputation history has bestowed on St. Thomas was more than a little undeserved. We call him “doubting” Thomas and see in him an object lesson about faith and unbelief. We take the risen Christ’s gentle rebuke to “stop doubting and believe” as being indicative not of a momentary lapse in the face of apparent death but an ongoing character flaw.
I’ve always felt that this was unfair to the man who was one of Jesus’ inner circle for three years and whom early church tradition records as having taken the Gospel as far as India.
For all that he’s one of the Twelve with whom I’ve long felt a personal connection, he doesn’t get a lot of face time in the Bible.
He shows up first as an already-established follower of Jesus as the Messiah is naming the Twelve who will be His Apostles. Along with most of the others, we’re not told of his calling; just that he had already become one of Jesus’ followers.
Matthew’s account pairs the Twelve as it lists them: Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector…”. It’s an interesting pairing, but doesn’t necessarily tell us much.
Mark and Luke just list them off as individual names; Mark not even bothering to note Peter and Andrew’s fraternal relationship, and John never gives a list of the Twelve at all. In all three lists, Thomas shares the same seventh place in the list.
Seven is a deeply symbolic number in the Bible, standing for God Himself, for holiness, and for completion and rest. Ironic that the one that we so ften portray as an arch-sceptic and with a besetting sin of unbelief has this place, though I’m cautious about reading too much into it.
Apart from that, he’s in the background a lot. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, seeing as how whenever one of the disciples is mentioned it often seems to be because they are missing the point and getting it wrong somehow. Not being mentioned by name almost seems like the jokey epitaph of a successful civil servant: “He never did anything to get his name in the paper.”
John is the Gospel-writer who mentions him, both in his famous “doubting” incident and one other time which I want to look at first, because it’s chronologically first and because I want us to have it in mind when we look at the more famous chapter of his life.
Thomas’ sole mention prior to the resurrection is in John 11:16. Right in the middle of the account of the raising of Lazarus, Thomas makes a statement which shows both a surprising amount of commitment to Jesus and a shocking level of missing the point.
Jesus has just given up speaking obliquely about Lazarus’ death and told the Twelve bluntly that “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
He follows that with “But come, let us go to him.”
There’s two ways of understanding that statement, and Thomas, true to form as one of the Twelve, gets the wrong one. Jesus, it seems obvious to us, was merely meaning “let us go to Bethany to his corpse”. What Thomas, and perhaps the other disciples too, hears is “let us go to him in the nether world”.
It’s not quite as outlandish as it sounds to our ears. When King David’s son with Bathsheba dies, David says that “I will go to him, but he will not come to me”. Obviously this is a fairly normal and astablished way of euphemistically talking about death.
Thomas’ response impresses me, though. Rather than pulling a Peter and taking the Lord aside to rebuke Him or fleeing from the thought of the Master’s apparent imminent demise, he seems to sort of shrug his shoulders and say “let’s get on with it, then!”
“Let us also go, so that we may die with Him”. He says.
Here is a man who is prepared to go to death along with Jesus, if that’s what Jesus is doing. I don’t know whether he thinks Jesus is contemplating suicide or what, but his answer seems to me to show a level of commitment to following Jesus that you don’t find every day. Live or die, it’s all the same. Just let me be with Jesus.
This, then, is the same disciple who has come down in history as “doubting” Thomas.
John gives him another name, saying that he was “called Didymus”. Didymus, so I’m told, means “the twin”. We don’t know anything about his family beyond that; we don’t know his brother’s name or whether he too was a follower of Jesus. But Jesus saw something in this Thomas the Twin that evidently He did not find in his brother, and called Thomas, not his brother, to be one of the Twelve.
And so we come to the only story about Thomas that anyone remembers. He wasn’t with the other disciples the first time Jesus appears to them. We don’t know where he was, either. As someone to whom this sort of thing has happened, it’s tempting to paint a picture of Thomas just stepping out to go and use the latrine when Jesus shows up, and Thomas completely misses it. But we’re simply not told. Had he gone home, like Peter’s sudden decision to go back to fishing? Had he been out of town on some other errand? We simply don’t know.
We often think that we would have done better if we were in Thomas’ shoes, though; that we would have believed when all the other disciples started saying they’d seen Him.
Given the incredulous reaction of them all to the account of the women who went to the tomb only a few days before and claimed to have seen Him, his scepticism is understandable. Here were the ten people apar from Jesus to whom you’d been closest over the last 3 yearas, and you know that two days ago they were incredulous and scornful at the testimony of the women who claimed to have seen Him. You’d all just gone through the incredibly stressful events of the trial and crucifixion, and you were all grieving the loss of your beloved Rabbi. You’re really going to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead (something no-one has ever done before without being recalled to the land of the living by a prophet or holy man of God) rather than the more probable situation, that grief and despair had overthrown your friends’ wits to the point of group hallucination? Yeah, sure.
“Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe it.”
I’m right there with you, Thomas. Too good to be true normally means it isn’t, in my experience.
My American wife would say that Thomas was from Missouri. For my non-American audience, Missouri is known as the “Show Me State” after a former president made the comment that “I’m from Missouri. You have to show me.”
I’m a bit like that. I’m a very visual learner, and if you want me to really get something, don’t read it to me, let me see it.
And so here is Thomas, standing in for all of us visual learners, sceptics and Missourians: Unless I see it with these eyes and put my hands on Him so I know He’s no ghost or doppelgänger, you are just mouthing words. Show Me.
And the wonderful thing is that Jesus isn’t about to let Thomas get left out or left behind.
He didn’t have to show up, subject His risen body to Thomas’ poking and prodding. He had ten who had already seen and believed. Would one more really make that much difference?
Jesus evidently thought so. He had a plan for Thomas, and a mission for him on the other side of Pentecost. According to early church tradition, after the scattering of the first church the apostle Thomas went further than any of the other twelve apostles in preaching the Good News: all the way to India, where through his bold proclamation an Indian king by the name of Gundaphar came to faith in Jesus the Messiah. To this day in India there are ancient churches that trace their origins to the apostle Thomas.
So Jesus makes a special point of appearing to Thomas. Here I am, Thomas. Put your fingers in my nail-prints. Put your hand in my side, so that no-one can claim I’m an hallucination.
Even his rebuke, “stop your doubting and believe” is remarkably gentle. Compare His words to the two on the Emmaus road: “How foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have written!”. Or “get behind me, Satan!”, directed at Simon Peter for trying to stop Him going to the Cross.
Thomas, by contrast, gets not a word of blame, just a gentle “stop doubting and believe”. I undersand your difficulty, Thomas. You want to be shown. I can work with that. But now that you have seen, it’s time to stop your doubting, lest it become unbelief. Doubts I can work with; unbelief is something else entirely.
Thomas’ faith rises to the challenge, though Jesus points him beyond. “You believe now that you’ve seen Me. But there will come those who will never get this opportunity; these are the truly blessed ones.”
And he gets it. There’s little reason to suppose that Thomas didn’t in fact get to India and preach there; certainly the Indian “Thomas churches” are very ancient and sent bishops to some of the early church councils. Imbued by the Spirit who descended at Pentecost to bring power and boldness to the church, Thomas is able to make headway in the Indian subcontinent, in whose culture the material world is shadow and illusory and seeing isn’t necessarily believing.
“Die With Jesus” Thomas. The One That Jesus Wouldn’t Leave Out. Faithful Thomas. Missourian Thomas, if you insist. Seeing Thomas. Fallen For A Moment Into Honest Doubt Thomas, if you like. But “doubting” Thomas seems unfair.