April 23, 2000

BELIEVING THOMAS

Jesus said to Thomas, “…Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”  John 20:27-28

On the first Easter Sunday, Thomas missed the excitement.

Thomas was one of the twelve apostles, the inner circle closest to Jesus.  But when Jesus was killed and buried one terrible Friday, Thomas figured it was all over.  Thomas could see no point in serving a dead man or in hanging around with his heartbroken disciples.  So on the first day of the week, when Jesus’ other friends were huddled together behind locked doors, meeting secretly in case the people who crucified Jesus caught up with them, Thomas stayed away.  What was the use of attending their gathering?  Jesus was dead.

Then some of Thomas’s friends, bursting with excitement, rushed to him and exclaimed: “We have seen the Lord!”  They claimed that right while they were meeting behind locked doors, Jesus was suddenly standing among them.  They claimed that they heard him say, “Peace be with you,” and that Jesus showed them his hands and side.  They wanted to let Thomas in on the good news so he could celebrate with them.

How did Thomas react?  He 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 a crazy 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.  Doubting 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.

Surprised by Joy

Thomas missed out on seeing Jesus that first Easter Sunday. He didn’t have the same joy as Jesus’ other disciples.  But the following Sunday, when the disciples gathered again in the same house, Thomas was with them.  He still had his doubts, but he seemed to realize that skipping the prayer gathering and avoiding believers wasn’t the best way to find out if Jesus was really alive.  Thomas 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, 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 declaration of faith in Jesus Christ found in the Bible. Doubting Thomas became believing Thomas.  The most stubborn skeptic ended up making the greatest confession of Christ.

That’s how it often is.  Great doubters can become great believers.

Listen to this excerpt from a letter a young man wrote to his friend.  “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.”  Do you know who wrote that?  A young man named C. S. Lewis.  And who ended up being the most persuasive Christian writer of the twentieth century?  C. S. Lewis!

  1. S. Lewis was a world-class doubter. He had a brilliant mind.  He knew every last reason intellectuals could come up with for denying that Christianity is true.  What’s more, his pessimistic temperament and his own tragic experiences gave him even more cause 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 in a horrible World War. Some of his dearest friends were killed and he himself was wounded.  C. S. Lewis had all the intellectual arguments and all the shattering personal experiences to make a great unbeliever.

But God took this world-class unbeliever and turned him into a world-class 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 are doubters, maybe even outright unbelievers.  While many Christians get excited about Easter, you see no reason to celebrate.  You see no reason to believe 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 believing Thomas.  The Lord can surprise you with his joy; he can use the very things that made you a stubborn doubter to make you an especially strong believer.  It happened to Thomas, it happened to C. S. Lewis, and it can happen to you.

Faults Become Strengths

Thomas is often remembered as “doubting Thomas,” but some of the very things that make a stubborn doubter can be transformed and make an especially strong believer.  Let’s explore how this could happen in Thomas and in us as well.

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

First, Thomas was a pessimist.  He had an eye for the darker side of things.  According to the Bible, when Jesus earlier set out for Jerusalem, where 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).  If you’re familiar with children’s stories about Winnie the Pooh, just think of Eeyore, the gloomy donkey who always expects the worst, and you’ll have a pretty good of idea of Thomas’s temperament.  You can almost hear Thomas Eeyore gloomily droning, “Let’s all just go and die together.”  He tended to notice every problem and danger and even imagine some that might not be there.  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.  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 blurted out, “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 solid 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 and grieve 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.”  In themselves, these traits can be 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.

Nobody has a stronger grip on the truth than a converted pessimist.  If an optimist believes good news, big deal!  Some optimists are so eager to look on the bright side that they believe happy things even if they’re not true.  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.  You believe it not just because it sounds appealing but because it really is true.

Nobody is better at stating what they believe and explaining it to others than a converted questioner.  When someone comes to faith in Jesus without asking many hard questions, fine; not everyone has the same personality.  But it’s often the case that people who never ask question aren’t very good at answering questions, either.  If you’re a questioner and you come to faith in Christ, you know may understand the truth more deeply than those who don’t ask questions, and you can usually be of more help to others who are struggling with tough questions.

Nobody is more believable than a converted skeptic.  People who easily believe anything they’re told can be wonderfully warmhearted, but they can also be a bit soft-headed; they don’t make the best witnesses when something is in question.  But when a hardheaded skeptic testifies that something is true, the testimony is persuasive.  When you’re a skeptic and believe in Christ, you know the objections and the alleged reasons for not believing, and yet you find the Lord Jesus Christ persuasive.  The result?  A converted skeptic can, like C. S. Lewis, become a very persuasive advocate for the Christianity.

Nobody is more courageous for Christ than a converted loner. Some people are sociable and always want to be with others and do things in groups.  That sort of personality has much to be said for it, but if you’re a loner and you become a Christian, the characteristics that made you a loner can be transformed into something very valuable.  You shouldn’t be a complete loner, of course.  You should get involved with the rest of God’s people, become part of the church, and enjoy fellowship with others.  But as a transformed loner, you can 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 you know the Lord himself calls you to do it.

These are some of the great things that can happen when the Lord Jesus Christ transforms a doubting Thomas into a believing Thomas.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying doubt is noble 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 he harnesses them for his great purposes.

Thomas is one example of this, and Saul of Tarsus is another example.  Saul opposed the Christian faith with 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, when Saul met the risen Christ, Jesus didn’t destroy his personality.  The Lord simply turned that same zeal and determination in a new direction.  The result was a mighty missionary, the apostle Paul.  When Saul became Paul, the things that made him an effective opponent of Christianity were transformed to make an effective proponent.

It seems that God loves a challenge.  When he decided who ought to the first person to speak of the risen Jesus as Lord and God, he chose the most stubborn doubter, his friend Thomas.  When he decided whom to make the greatest proclaimer of his gospel, he chose the greatest persecutor: his enemy Saul.

That’s why you’d better watch out if you think there’s no way you’ll believe in the risen Christ or serve him.  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 make it impossible for you to follow Christ into things that make you unusually effective in honoring God and building up his church.

Beyond Doubt

But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  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, consider the evidence for a moment.  If you think Jesus didn’t rise, there are all sort 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 saw Jesus alive?

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

Take these witnesses and many others, 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 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.

Jesus’ resurrection is such an astounding event that even if the evidence seems to indicate that it must be true, you still might feel that it can’t be true.  The problem isn’t a lack of evidence–there’s plenty.  The problem is that the resurrection is such an astonishing event, and the risen Christ is such an incomparable Person, that the lesser ideas you accept as facts can’t handle something so immense.  You want everything proven in terms of your own notions of what’s possible and what’s not possible, and you can’t 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 would not believe until the risen Christ personally showed him that reality is much bigger and much more glorious than he dared to imagine.  Poet Thomas Troeger 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.

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 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 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, 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. Even if you tend to believe things quite easily, you may still need to learn something from Thomas.

You may find it easier to believe in the resurrection than Thomas did, but though you find it fairly easy to believe, the belief doesn’t seem to mean much.  To you the resurrection is just an event that happened long, long ago, and Jesus is just someone who lives in a galaxy far, far away.  You believe Jesus is alive just as readily as you believe Pluto is the ninth planet from the sun–and it makes just as little difference to you.

This is where believing Thomas can teach us a thing or two. For Thomas, the question whether Jesus is alive wasn’t just a trivia question with no real impact.  It made all the difference in the world.  Sure, Thomas was hard to convince, but once the Lord convinced him of the truth, Thomas didn’t just say, “I guess I was wrong.  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.  Thomas’s faith meant personal commitment: he gave his life and his loyalty to Jesus, to trust and worship and obey him.

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, like believing Thomas, say to Jesus, “My Lord and my God” and love him and honor him with your entire life.  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.