Faithful Thomas

Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared after the resurrection. 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. 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.

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 the disciples tell him that Jesus is alive. Jesus is “more than alive,” he has risen from the dead to a new kind of life. Whatever the reason, 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, that the messiah intended to die and rise to eternal life. This will require them to re-think virtually everything that they believe.

When Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples a second time, Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as “Lord and God” (v. 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 v. 28.

John therefore intends Thomas’s words as a 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). Are there other ways in which Thomas’s faithful statement functions like a theological conclusion to the Gospel of John?

John 20:28 – Believing Thomas

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”
(Caravaggio)

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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).

Who was the Apostle Thomas?

Thomas has an unfortunate nickname – doubting Thomas.  Most people have heard the phrase even if they have no idea where it came from.  This nickname has stuck, and Thomas’ character as a doubter is famous.  The problem is, it is difficult to know whether his doubt was in fact doubt about Jesus, or confidence in his own understanding about the nature of the Messiah and resurrection.  One can describe Thomas as a very faithful disciples who did not lose his hope in Jesus, despite his own misunderstanding.  In fact, what seems like pessimism may also be read as a willingness to lay down his life for Jesus, to face his persecutors and force the issue of who Jesus really is.

Thomas is only mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but he is featured in three key stories in the gospel of John.  All we really know about him on a personal level is that he is called “Didymus,” a word which means “twin,” presumably because he had a twin brother. In fact, the Hebrew name Tom or Tomas in Aramaic also means twin.  There were Gnostics who thought that Thomas was Jesus’ twin, and died in his place.  The so-called Gospel of Thomas was written by Gnostics and preserves some teachings of Jesus in an overly-spiritualized form. According to tradition, Thomas ended up as far east as India and planted many churches there before he was martyred.

After the resurrection, Thomas is not among the disciples when Jesus first appears, prompting his famous “doubt” about the resurrected Lord Jesus (John 20:24-30). Where was Thomas?  Why was he not with the disciples?  Was Thomas not with the disciples because he was still in despair over the death of Jesus?  Possibly.  On the other hand, it is possible that Thomas is the only disciple willing to show his face outside of the locked upper room!  Perhaps he is out in the streets, going about his life, willing to “take the risk” that someone might recognize him and arrest him as a follower of Jesus.

Dorothy Lee suggested that John uses Thomas and Mary Magdalene as examples of two individuals who struggle to understand the resurrection.  There a few parallels between the two witnesses of the resurrection.  For example, both attempt to touch risen Jesus.  Both Mary and Thomas mix faith with misunderstanding, and both receive a revelation from Jesus.  For Lee, Thomas is no less faithful than the other disciples because of his absence from the upper room.  Thomas’ reaction to the resurrection leads to a significant statement of who Jesus is in the conclusion of gospel of John.

Thomas is therefore singled out from the disciples to be the first to recognize Jesus as Lord and God after the resurrection.  In the synoptic Gospels, Peter speaks for the twelve at the midpoint of the story to confess that Jesus is God’s Messiah, but in John it is Nathanael in the first chapter and Thomas in the twentieth chapter who confess that Jesus is the messiah.  In Thomas’ case, he calls Jesus Lord and God – a highly theological statement which indicates that Jesus is not just messiah, but in fact God.  Notice that Jesus does not correct Thomas, as an angel might if someone offered to worship it as a god.  Jesus accepts this worship from Thomas because he is in fact God.

Bibliography: Dorothy A, Lee, “Partnership In Easter Faith: The Role Of Mary Magdalene And Thomas In John 20,” JSNT 58 (1995): 37-49.