I’m nearing the end of the study on the Gospel of John I’ve been doing and then sharing with the girls in the mornings. This morning we got to the story of “Doubting Thomas,” as he is commonly known.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend and then my pastor about this label, and thinking it was perhaps a bit of a harsh judgment on Thomas, that for two millennia he is remembered as “the Doubter,” when the others knew him as “the Twin.” It seems to me that Thomas has gotten a bad rap, because even though he did have doubt, he also responded completely appropriately when he saw the risen Lord, even acknowledging him to be “My Lord and my God!” There’s no doubt in that statement! We even applied to him the principle that “one who is forgiven much, loves much.” And I like that. But I still think there’s more to this story.
So this morning, I was asking myself why it was that Thomas had doubt in the first place. And this little line jumped out at me: “Peace be with you.”
The reason this jumped out at me wasn’t exactly something to be proud of. In fact, the first time I read it, I rather glossed over it. Yeah, yeah, peace be with you…sounds like a common greeting. But I don’t think this was intended as a common greeting from Christ to the disciples at all. I think it was meant to be a transfer of power.
When Jesus says something once, we should pay attention. This is the very first thing he is recorded as saying when he appears in the locked room with the disciples, who were gathered there “for fear of the Jews.”
Earlier this day, they had discovered the empty tomb. Here they are, gathered together in something of a tomb of their own—locked up in the dark (it says it was evening), too afraid of their murderous enemies to go out. And the resurrected Jesus appears and offers them peace.
Now, here’s the thing. They see him, physically raised. The text says that the ones who are there get to see his hands and side. And they were “glad.” Some translations say they “rejoiced.” But it doesn’t say they were filled with peace or relieved of their fear. They saw, and yet somehow even this truth didn’t fully penetrate. So Jesus says it again, “Peace be with you.”
Now when Jesus says something twice, we know it’s important and we should sit up and take note. It should have an effect. He goes on to give them directions: “I am sending you…Receive the Holy Spirit…forgive sins.” He has given them peace, proof, purpose, and power.
And yet, a WEEK later, they are still entombed behind locked doors. This time Thomas is with them. This Thomas, who is remembered as the one who didn’t believe the testimony of the other disciples when they told him they had seen the risen Lord.
And we say, “Oh, Doubting Thomas. He didn’t believe what he heard.”
Well, now I say, “Can we really blame him?” His friends had seen the Lord appear, seen the marks in his body. They knew death had no power over him. They heard him speak the command to have peace and get up and get to work. And yet, nothing changed.
Maybe Thomas doesn’t believe, not because he doubts God’s ability to be raised, but because he knows how he would react to seeing the Lord, and he doesn’t see that reaction from the others. They are still dead in their fears.
I think we often read his words, hearing the emphasis on the seeing or on marks of the crucifixion and that might be the wrong emphasis. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Maybe the emphasis should be on the word “I” instead. “Unless I see…” Maybe this is because they claimed to have seen, and yet received nothing from it. It doesn’t sound like valid testimony to Thomas because it brought no practical reaction, no active or obedient response, no peace. They are still gripped by their fear of the Jews, as if there was no God in Israel.
But the Lord gives Thomas his chance. He appears again in the same way, and greets them with the same words, now stated for the third time. (Are we listening yet?) “Peace be with you.” And again he offers a view of the physical proof of the cross and his resurrection, and Thomas responds in a way that is much greater and more complete than anything recorded from the disciples at the earlier meeting. Not just gladness, but awe and worship and the fullness of the Christian’s testimony: “My Lord (ruler and director of my life) and my God (omnipotent Creator)!” There’s peace and power in that statement. Thomas simultaneously submitted his will to Christ and acknowledged the power of God to overcome any fear of men in just five small, awe-inspired words. Words pouring out of belief.
In the next scene, we see that the disciples have returned to work. They are no longer hiding in the darkness of a locked room. They are out fishing, and Thomas is mentioned by name as being there.
I think Thomas deserves some credit. Perhaps it was the full belief of the one who saw and did believe, which helped empower those who saw and still could not yet go where he sent them.
I don’t think I’d mind being remembered as a Thomas.