The disciple Thomas is an easy target for preachers, who call him “doubting Thomas” and urge their congregations to have more faith than this skeptical follower of Jesus. This is unfortunate, since it appears that John uses Thomas’ confession of faith in Jesus as Lord and God as the theological apex of the book. Finally, at long last, someone fully understands who Jesus is and announces for the reader the true identity of Jesus: he is the Lord, and he is God.
Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them in the Upper Room. We are not told why, and it may not be important. But while the other ten were locked in the Upper Room out of fear, Thomas was someplace else. There are two possible explanations for his absence.
On the one hand, Thomas seemed ready to die with Jesus in John 11, so it may be the case that he is willing to go about his life, almost daring the Jews to arrest him too. The other disciples are locked in a room, more or less hiding from the Jewish authorities. Rather than the skeptical, doubting disciple, Thomas was out in public, willing to be arrested as his master was.
On the other hand, perhaps Thomas experienced a “crisis of faith” when Jesus died. If he believed Jesus was the Messiah and that the Messiah was not going to be crucified by the Romans, perhaps Jesus’ death caused him to doubt everything. He may be in a state of denial, like Peter, but deeper.
Whatever the case, he returns to the upper room has is told that Jesus is alive, but more than that, he has risen from the dead to a new kind of life. When he is told that Jesus rose from the dead, he refuses to believe without further evidence. Thomas gets a bad reputation as a skeptic for not believing what the disciples told him. On the other hand, there is virtually nothing in Second Temple Period Judaism that anticipated the death of the Messiah not his resurrection to eternal life. It was something which Thomas was not ready to believe since it was unbelievable within his world view.
The disciples are making an extraordinary claim, something which will require them to re-think virtually everything that they believe. No Jewish group in the first century thought Messiah would offer himself as a sacrifice, and no one would have guessed that he would be raised from the dead. There is simply nothing in Thomas’s world view to handle this wort of claim. He therefore needs to experience it himself in order to understand it.
When Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples a second time, Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as “Lord and God” (verse 28). Thomas’s confession is a theological statement for the whole book of John. The writer has been slowly revealing who Jesus is through a series of misunderstandings, people hear Jesus’ words but do not fully comprehend his meaning. Even after the resurrection, Mary thinks Jesus’ body was stolen, then the disciples wonder if he ever really died. Even when he appears to them, they still do not confess Jesus quite the way Thomas does in verse 28.
John intends this statement to be the final word on who Jesus is, he is the “Lord and God” of the reader, and that by believing that he is the Lord one can have eternal life in his name (verse 31).