April 10, 1994

TRUSTING THOMAS

Jesus said to Thomas, “…Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”  (John 20:27-28)

Thomas decided to skip church.  His friends were huddled together behind locked doors, meeting secretly in case the people who crucified Jesus caught up with them.  But this was one meeting Thomas didn’t feel like attending.  What was the use?  Jesus was dead.  Thomas preferred to be alone and deal with his sorrow in his own way.

And then several of his friends came rushing to Thomas and breathlessly told him:  “We have seen the Lord!”  They claimed that right while they were meeting behind locked doors, Jesus was suddenly standing among them.  They claimed they heard him say, “Peace be with you,” and that Jesus showed them his hands and side to prove it was really him.  They were full of excitement, and they wanted to let Thomas in on the good news so he could celebrate with them.

But Thomas only looked more sour.  He wasn’t about to get his hopes up.  He wasn’t about to take someone else’s word for such an outrageous story.  No way!  He’d have to see for himself, and even seeing wouldn’t be believing.  He’d have to actually touch Jesus’ wounds.  Thomas told his excited friends, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”  And because he said that, Thomas has been known throughout history as “doubting Thomas.”

But the story doesn’t end there.

The following Sunday, the disciples were meeting again in the same house, and this time Thomas was with them.  He still had his doubts, but he seemed to realize that skipping church and avoiding believers wasn’t the best way to find out if Jesus was really alive.  He wanted to be in the right place with the right people just in case his friends were telling the truth.

Though the doors were locked says the Bible, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here;  see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting and believe.”

That was it.  In the presence of the risen Christ, knowing that Jesus had somehow heard his stubborn statement of a week earlier, Thomas could only stammer in amazement, “My Lord and my God!”  In that moment Thomas understood that the living Christ is the Master of all things and the God of the universe, and Thomas declared his personal loyalty:  “My Lord and my God!”  That’s the supreme confession of faith in Jesus Christ recorded in the gospels.  Doubting Thomas became trusting Thomas.

And that’s how it often is.  Great doubters often become great believers.

Listen to this excerpt from a letter a young man wrote to his friend.  He wrote:  “You know, I think, that I believe in no religion.  There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint, Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s inventions–Christ as much as Loki.”  Do you know who wrote that?  A young man named C. S. Lewis.  He would later become the most renowned and persuasive Christian writer of the twentieth century.

  1. S. Lewis had a brilliant mind. He knew every last reason intellectuals could come up with for denying that Christianity is true.  Not only that, but his pessimistic temperament and his own tragic experiences gave him even more reasons not to believe in God.  His mother died when he was a boy.  He was shipped off to a boarding school where the headmaster was cruel and abusive and mentally unbalanced.  He endured the terror of trench warfare. Some of his dearest friends were killed and he himself was wounded.  C. S. Lewis had all the intellectual arguments and all the personal experiences to make a great unbeliever.

But God took this man and made of him a great believer.  Lewis tells the story of his conversion in his book Surprised by Joy.  The stubborn, pessimistic young scholar came to the point where he just had to believe in God.  He couldn’t help it.  In Lewis’s own words, “You must picture me alone in that room … night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.  That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me…  I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed:  perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Some of you listening to me have all sorts of doubts.  Maybe you’re even an outright unbeliever.  While many Christians were getting all excited about Easter last week, you didn’t see any reason to celebrate, and you still don’t.  You don’t see any reason to believe the outrageous claim that Jesus rose from the dead and that he lives today.

But remember:  That’s also how Thomas felt on Easter, and yet a week after Easter, doubting Thomas became trusting Thomas.  So if you’re a doubter, watch out!  The same thing could happen to you.  As C. S. Lewis put it, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful…  There are traps everywhere…  God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”  You know what that means, don’t you?  God may be laying a trap for you right now, and once he catches you, he can use the very things that made you such a doubter to make you an especially strong believer.

It happened to Thomas, it happened to C. S. Lewis, and it may just happen to you.  So if you want to remain a doubting Thomas, perhaps I should warn you:  it’s probably safest for you to stop reading right now, because if go any further, you’re going to learn more about trusting Thomas–and the way the Lord operates, Thomas’s faith might turn out to be so contagious you’ll catch it yourself.  But I hope you’ll run that risk and keep reading.

What sort of person was Thomas.  The Bible offers some hints which show that he had a lot in common with most doubters.

First of all, Thomas was a pessimist.  He didn’t have a “Don’t worry, be happy” kind of temperament.  He was realistic about the darker side of life.  The Bible says that when Jesus set out for Jerusalem, where many powerful enemies awaited him, “Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go that we may die with him” (John 11:16).  Thomas wasn’t a positive thinker who pretends everything is fine even when it’s not.  He knew the problems and the dangers.  Thomas was a pessimist.

Second, Thomas was a questioner.  If he heard something he didn’t quite understand, he wasn’t willing to leave it at that.  The Bible tells how, shortly before Jesus died, he told his disciples not to be troubled.  He was going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house and take them to be with him.  Jesus said, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  As you can see, when Thomas didn’t quite understand something, he wanted to know more, and he wasn’t afraid to ask.  Thomas was a questioner.

Third, Thomas was a skeptic.  He wasn’t the sort to swallow whatever he was told.  He wasn’t easily convinced.  He wanted proof.  He wasn’t about to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead just because someone said so, or just because he wished it were true.  Thomas wanted to base his beliefs on something more substantial than hearsay and wishful thinking.  He said he would not believe in the risen Christ unless he could see for himself and actually touch Jesus’ hands and side.  Thomas was a skeptic.

Fourth, Thomas was a loner.  When Jesus was killed, Thomas didn’t hang around to commiserate with the other disciples.  He went off by himself.  When all the others met together on Sunday, Thomas was somewhere else.  It seems that when times got tough, he preferred to avoid the company of others.  Thomas was a loner.

Put it all together–pessimist, questioner, skeptic, and loner–and you’ve got a typical doubter.  No wonder he’s called “doubting Thomas.”

Now, in themselves, these traits can be very damaging.  But once the Lord Jesus Christ takes hold of you, he can turn these very things into the stuff of a clear and powerful faith.

If an optimist believes good news, it’s almost what we’d expect.  But if you’re a pessimist and you come to believe in the resurrection, it’s not because you tend to believe happy things but because you’ve faced the grimmer possibilities and are still convinced that the risen Jesus is for real.

When someone comes to faith without asking many questions, fine.  But when you’re a questioner and you come to faith in Christ, you know the implications more clearly than those who don’t ask questions, and you can usually be of more help to others who are asking questions.

When you’re a skeptic and you come to faith in Christ, you know all the alleged reasons for not believing, and yet you find that the Lord Jesus Christ is more persuasive than all these.  The result?  A converted skeptic can, like C. S. Lewis, become a very persuasive advocate for Christianity.  You’ve already faced the challenges that others are facing, and God can make your witness to them especially powerful.

When you’re somewhat of a loner and you become a Christian, the characteristics that made you a loner can be transformed into something very valuable.  You won’t remain a complete loner, of course.  You’ll get involved with the rest of God’s people and become part of the church.  But as a transformed loner, you have a special individuality and originality and courage that honors God and inspires others.  You’re the kind of person who believes something not because everybody else believes it but because it’s true, who does something not because everybody else is doing it but because it’s right.

These are some of the great things that can happen when the Lord Jesus Christ transforms a doubting Thomas into a trusting Thomas.  Again, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that doubt is a noble thing in itself.  But the negatives of a great doubter can, by God’s grace, become the positives of a great believer.  The man who insists fervently, “I will not believe,” may end up confessing even more fervently, “My Lord and my God.”

When the Lord Jesus Christ takes hold of you, he doesn’t destroy your personality.  He transforms it.  He takes the very characteristics that were once counterproductive and harnesses them for his great purposes.  A person who is a strong, intelligent doubter becomes a strong, intelligent believer.

Likewise, a person who is a fiercely determined enemy of Christ may end up being just as fiercely determined as a friend of Christ.  Take Saul of Tarsus.  This man opposed the Christian faith with enormous determination and zeal–so much so that he hounded and harmed Christians whenever he got the chance.  There’s obviously nothing noble about being a vicious persecutor.  And yet, once Saul met the risen Christ, Jesus didn’t destroy his personality.  The Lord simply took that very same zeal and determination and turned it in a new direction, and the result was a mighty missionary, the apostle Paul.  The very things that made Saul a forceful opponent of Christianity were transformed to make Paul a forceful proponent of Christianity.

It seems that God loves a challenge.  When he decided who ought to be the first person to call the risen Jesus “My Lord and my God,” he chose the most stubborn doubter, his friend Thomas.  When he decided who to make the greatest proclaimer of his gospel, he chose the greatest persecutor of the gospel:  his enemy Saul of Tarsus.

That’s why I warned you earlier:  if you think there’s no way you’ll believe in the risen Christ or serve him, watch out!  God may have his sights set on you.  He may be getting ready to create faith in you and transform all the things you think to make it impossible for you to follow Christ into things that make you unusually effective in honoring God and building up his church.

But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.  I’ve been saying what God can make of you once he converts you, and meanwhile, you’re still not convinced that Jesus Christ is even alive at all, let alone that he might take over your life.

Well, let’s consider the evidence for a moment.  If you think Jesus didn’t rise, there are all sorts of facts you really can’t explain.  How do you explain that a heavily guarded tomb turned up empty?  How do you explain the testimony of all the eyewitnesses who said they had seen Jesus alive?

Consider who the witnesses were.  Mary Magdalene, a woman so heartbroken she never expected to see Jesus again.  Joanna, a woman from a high society whose husband was King Herod’s chief of staff.  Peter, James, and John, the no-nonsense fishermen.  Matthew, a tax man with the precise mind of an accountant.  Simon a political Zealot, who by nature had more confidence in human uprisings than in God’s power.  And, of course, Thomas himself, the ultimate doubter who ended up making the ultimate confession of faith.

Take these people and many others as well, line them up in a court of law, all very different people but all telling the same story, and you’d win your case every time.  Not only that, but these people later faced persecution for saying they had seen the risen Christ, and yet they were willing to die rather than change their story.  How do you explain that?  And how do you explain the conversion of people like the apostle Paul or C. S. Lewis or the millions of other people whose lives have been changed by Jesus Christ?  There’s just one explanation that makes sense of all this:  Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Ultimately, though, a resurrection is such an astounding event that even if the evidence seems to indicate it must be true, you still might feel that it can’t be true.  It’s not that there isn’t enough evidence–there’s more than enough.  It’s just that the resurrection is such an astonishing event, and the risen Christ is such an incomparable Person, that all the lesser ideas which you accept as facts can’t provide the space for something so immense.  You want everything proven in terms of your own notions of what’s possible and what’s not possible, but how can you fit a reality as big as the resurrection into the tidy little boxes in your brain?

That was Thomas’s problem.  He had evidence–he knew about the empty tomb, he heard his friends talk about seeing the risen Christ–and yet Thomas refused to believe until the risen Christ personally showed him that reality is much bigger and much more glorious than he dared to imagine.  As a poet writes,

These things did Thomas count as real:

the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,

the grain of wood, the heft of stone,

the last frail twitch of blood and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind

was keen enough to make him blind

to any unexpected act

too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied

that one could live when one had died,

until his fingers read like braille

the markings of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe

and thus the risen Christ receive,

whose raw imprinted palms reached out

and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

(Thomas Troeger)

Only the Lord himself can beckon you and me out of our doubts and create true faith in us.  An encounter with Christ will do more to change you than all the evidence in the world.  For Thomas, it was a physical encounter.  For us who live in the period after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, it is a spiritual encounter.

Jesus chose certain people to be eyewitnesses to the fact that his physical body had indeed been raised, and he showed himself to them before he went to heaven.  Thomas was one of those chosen eyewitnesses.  But you don’t have to be an eyewitness to encounter the risen Lord.  You don’t have to see and touch Jesus’ body to be certain that he is alive and enjoy the blessings which go with that certainty.  In fact, Jesus pronounced a special blessing on those who would believe in him without actually seeing him.  He said to Thomas,  “Because you have seen me, you have believed;  blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Since Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven, he has not been physically present on earth in his human nature, but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Holy Spirit, he is not absent from us for a moment.  The Spirit who raised Jesus’ body from the dead can raise your mind from the deadness of unbelief. The Spirit who inspired the eyewitnesses to write down the accounts of what they saw and heard and touched can convince you that the biblical accounts are true and that Jesus is alive.  The Spirit who built a small band of people in Palestine into a great international church can help you to encounter Jesus through that church.

The Spirit can move in your heart and life in ways that no one could predict in advance.  Even while you’re lying in bed, or brushing your teeth, or driving your car, or sitting at your desk–even while you’re listening to a broadcast like this–you may sense that the Spirit is moving into your life and connecting you with the living Christ.  And as the Spirit of Christ does his work, your doubt and resistance melt away, and you find yourself dealing with Someone whose reality you can no longer deny.  Your stubborn doubt becomes stalwart faith.  It’s happened to millions of people before you, so why can’t it happen to you?

If you tend to be a doubter, the story of Thomas shows that the Lord Jesus Christ can still make a great believer out of you.  If, on the other hand, you tend to believe things quite easily, you may still need to learn something from Thomas.

I know people who seem to find it easier to believe in the resurrection than Thomas did, who have a tendency to believe what they’ve been told without thinking about it too much.  But for some of them, although it’s fairly easy to believe, the belief doesn’t seem to mean much.  The resurrection is just an event that happened long, long ago, and Jesus is just someone who lives in a galaxy far, far away.  They believe Jesus is alive just as readily as they believe Mercury is the planet closest to the sun–and it makes just as little difference to them.

That’s where Thomas can teach us a thing or two.  To him, the question of whether Jesus is alive wasn’t just a trivia question with no real impact.  It made all the difference in the world.  Granted, Thomas was hard to convince, but once the Lord convinced him of the truth, Thomas didn’t just say, “I guess I was wrong, folks.  Jesus really did rise after all.”  No, Thomas embraced the full meaning of what the resurrection showed about Jesus, and Thomas honored him as Lord and God.  And Thomas’s faith led him to a personal commitment:  he gave his life and his loyalty to Jesus, to trust him and worship him and follow him as “my Lord and my God.”  That’s what true faith is all about.

I pray that by God’s grace and through his Holy Spirit, you’ll encounter the risen Christ in such a way that you’ll bow before him and say, “My Lord and my God.”  Then you’ll find yourself caught up in the great outburst of worship and delight recorded in the Bible:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…  Though you have not seen him, you love him;  and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3,8-9).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.