The Apostle Who Would Not Believe: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Broken Dreams
April 15, 2001
Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe in honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned acts of God? That’s a good question to ask on Easter Sunday. Most of us, I suppose, would immediately answer, “Yes, I believe in miracles.” And I would say the same. If I were to ask you how many miracles you have ever seen, you would probably say, “Oh, I don’t know. I think all of life is a miracle.” Or you might say, “I finished my income tax last night and that’s a miracle.”
Both those things are examples of the English word “miracle,” but that’s not exactly what I mean when I say, “Do you believe in miracles?” I’m not thinking about the surprising events of life or difficult projects finally completed. By “miracle” I mean those contrary-to-human-possibility events that have no natural explanation. “Oh,” you say, “That kind of miracle. Sure, I believe in that kind of miracle.” But now you are a little more uncertain. By definition, that kind of miracle doesn’t happen every day. They happen very rarely, in fact. When they do happen, they are very hard to believe—partly because they don’t happen very often and partly because we can’t explain them. Even in the Bible that kind of miracle is not an everyday occurrence.
Little Silver Empty Tombs
The resurrection of Jesus is that kind of miracle. It is totally unexplainable by any human or natural means. That may be why we don’t talk about it very much. We’re not sure how it happened. The crucifixion we can understand; the resurrection is another matter. Here’s the proof: Lots of people wear silver crosses around their necks. You don’t see many people wearing little silver empty tombs.
So I ask the question again: Do you believe in miracles? Especially this, do you believe in the greatest miracle of all—the resurrection of Jesus Christ? In case you think you have to answer “Yes” just because you happen to be in church, put your mind at ease. If you answer “No” or “I’m not sure,” you are in good company. There are lots of people today who aren’t sure whether they believe it or not. And there were lots of people on the first Easter Sunday who weren’t sure either. Folks like Peter, James, John, Matthew, Bartholomew, Simon the Zealot, and a man whose name has become synonymous with doubt—Thomas. Doubting Thomas.
In this message I want to take a closer look at Thomas because I think he’s gotten a bit of a bum rap. As I study his story, his doubt seems very understandable to me. I think a consideration of all the evidence will help us see him in a different light.
I. The Man
A. He was a twin.
The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Thomas. We don’t know anything about where he comes from or what he did before becoming a disciple. We do have a little clue about his family. When you read about Thomas, he is usually introduced this way—”Thomas who was called Didymus.” Now that doesn’t mean anything to us, but the original readers recognized it immediately. The name “Thomas” comes from the Aramaic word for “twin.” And Didymus is the Greek word for “twin.” Thomas had a twin brother or sister, and “Twin” was his nickname. In the early church there was quite a bit of speculation about who the other twin might be. Some have suggested Matthew, but no one knows for sure.
B. He possessed enormous courage.
It’s unfortunate that Thomas is remembered solely in a negative light. There is more to this man than doubt. He first steps onto the stage of biblical history in John 11. Lazarus has died in Bethany—a suburb of Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples are in the area of Jericho when they get the word. When Jesus decides to go to Bethany, his disciples remind him that the last time he went near Jerusalem, the leaders tried to stone him to death. It would be suicidal to go back. Jesus decides to go anyway. But the disciples were unconvinced. At that point, Thomas speaks up and says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). It is a brief statement that reveals enormous courage. Thomas agreed that the Jewish leaders would probably kill Jesus if he went back to Jerusalem. Events would soon prove him correct. But what can you say about a man who says, “If they kill him, they’ll have to kill me too?” It takes a real man to say that. There is love there, and loyalty, and despair, and sacrifice, and total commitment. It may just be that Thomas understood better than any other disciple what was about to happen. And that brave statement—if you think about it—may explain his later doubts.
C. He did not accept easy answers.
John’s gospel mentions Thomas one other time before the crucifixion. It is late Thursday night in the Upper Room. Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet and given them the great command to love one another. Judas leaves the room to do his dirty deed. The rest of the disciples crowd around their Lord, knowing the end was not far away. To them—those loyal men who had stood with him in his hour of trial—Jesus said,
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place I am going (John 14:1-4).
Thomas has been listening quietly, intently, carefully. All this talk of coming and going is too much for him. It seems vague and mysterious. In a moment of great honesty he blurts out, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Those are the words of a totally honest man. The rest of the disciples were just as perplexed, but only Thomas dared to speak out. We all know people like that—if they don’t understand, they won’t let it pass. They keep asking until it makes sense. That’s Thomas. And that’s a second key to his personality. He was an independent thinker, a thoughtful man, not easily stampeded. He wouldn’t make a confession of faith unless he deeply believed it to be true. Let others have a glib, easy faith that comes without reflection and deep thought. Not Thomas. His was a faith won through the agony of personal struggle.
D. He was fully devoted to Jesus Christ.
So the picture we have of Thomas on the eve of the crucifixion is this: He is a brave man, intensely loyal and deeply committed to Jesus. If need be, he is ready to lay down his own life. He is no doubt inclined to look somewhat on the dark side of life. He is completely honest about his doubts, confusion and fears. And he won’t be satisfied with second-hand answers.
Thus the stage is set for the greatest crisis of his life.
II. The Situation
We tend to forget what it was like on that first Easter morning. It is worth asking ourselves: If we had been there, would we have believed or would we have doubted? Or to put the question another way, what would it take to convince you that someone you loved had come back to life after being dead three days? Suppose it was a close friend or family member and you saw them die? What would it take to convince you? Or is there any way you could be convinced? Rising from the dead is not a common thing. At best, it hasn’t happened for centuries. If we had been there in Jerusalem with Matthew, James and John, would we have believed those strange rumors that Sunday morning? In answering that question, it helps to remember how those who knew Jesus best reacted to news of his resurrection.
A. None of the disciples believed at first.
Very simply, they were not expecting a resurrection. Now it’s true that Jesus had predicted that he would be put to death and then raised to life. But his followers did not understand it. A resurrection was the farthest thing from their minds. Forget his predictions. Forget all that brave talk. They had given up. Who really expected a resurrection on that Sunday morning? Not the disciples. It was the Jewish leaders who persuaded the Romans to seal the tomb. The enemies of Jesus feared something might happen. His friends weren’t expecting anything.
Mark 16 says that the women who came to his tomb on Sunday morning came to anoint his body. That was part of the embalming process. In the confusion of trying to get the body in the tomb before sundown on Friday, spices had been placed on Jesus’ body, but not the ointment. The women came to finish embalming his body. What did they find when they got there? The stone rolled away and an empty tomb. All four gospels agree on this fact. The women did not have the slightest idea what had happened. They weren’t looking for a resurrection.
Mark says that even after the angel explained what had happened, they fled from the tomb trembling and afraid (Mark 16:8). John says that even Mary thought someone had stolen the body (John 20:2). Luke adds that when the women came and told the apostles what the angel had said, “They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). Nonsense. Of course. No one rises from the dead. Not after three days. Not after being scourged. Not after hanging on a cross for six hours. Not after having a sword thrust in his side. Not after being covered with 100 pounds of spices and wrapped in a burial cloth. Not after being sealed in a tomb. No, the odds are against it. It was impossible. He was a nice man. He meant well. We all loved him. We walked with him as he told those wonderful stories. And, oh, the miracles he did. We laughed when he told off the Pharisees. How about that time when he did that miracle with the fishes and the loaves? We thought that was great.
Sure, he said he would rise again. We all believed it. He even believed it. He had never been wrong before. Why not? He said he was the Son of God. We’re sure going to miss him. Wouldn’t it have been great if he had pulled it off? Nobody would believe it. What a party we’d have. And Mark says, “When they heard Jesus was alive … they did not believe it” (Mark 16:11). Who could blame them? If you had been there, would you have believed it?
B. Thomas was not present.
John tells us that Thomas was not present on that Sunday evening when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst (John 20:19-25). The Bible doesn’t say why, but I think I know. There are basically two different ways people respond to sorrow and tragedy. Some seek solace in the company of their friends. They want people around to help them talk it out. Others prefer to be alone with their thoughts. Such was Thomas. If it is true that Thomas realized more than the others what was going to happen in Jerusalem, then it may also be true that he was more deeply hurt. He was not with the disciples because his heart had been crushed. Everything he had, he had given to Jesus, and Jesus had died. He still loves, still cares, still wants to believe, but his heart is broken. He is not a bad man nor is his doubt sinful. Deep inside he wants to believe. Don’t put him down too hard. We’ve all been in the same place.
III. The Explanation
If you wish to call Thomas a doubter, please do not make him out an unbeliever. Some have tried to place him in the company of the skeptics. He does not belong there. Thomas is definitely not a skeptic or a rationalist. His doubts come from devotion to Christ. There is no doubt like the doubt of a broken heart. It’s one thing to doubt the Virgin Birth in a classroom setting. It is something else again to lose someone you love and wonder if there is still a God in heaven.
A. Thomas was not a skeptic.
There are two kinds of doubters in the realm of spiritual truth. There are those hard-boiled rationalists who say, “I don’t believe it and there’s nothing that will make me believe it.” Such people enjoy their doubt, talk about it, laugh about it, and get angry when they are refuted. A person like that is not looking for answers; he’s looking for an argument. He counts the difficulties, seizes objections, and looks for loopholes. The Pharisees fall into that category. When they asked Jesus for a sign, he refused, calling them “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 16:1-4).
B. His doubt sprang from a broken heart.
But there is another kind of doubter, the person who says, “I don’t believe but I’m willing to believe if I can see for myself.” Thomas fits this category. He is not an unbelieving skeptic; he is a wounded believer. Remember, Thomas didn’t doubt the miraculous in general. He had seen many of Jesus’ greatest miracles. But this one was too big to take someone else’s word for it. He had to see it to believe it. And who could blame him?
C. He was not unwilling to believe but unable.
No one wanted to believe more than Thomas. But he had seen too much, he knew too much; all the facts pointed in one direction. Before Thomas would believe he had to personally see Jesus. And he had to be sure it was Jesus—not some dream or vision. He had to be sure it was the same Jesus he saw die. That’s why he couldn’t just take the word of the disciples. Not on something like this. He was not unwilling to believe, but unable.
Some people are satisfied with the testimony of others. Some are not. Thomas was not. Did he doubt the truthfulness of the others? No, he knew they believed they had seen Jesus. But that wasn’t enough. Lots of people think they see things. Thomas couldn’t get rid of the suspicion that they had seen a ghost. He could not live with a second-hand faith. He had to see for himself. When he says, “Unless I touch his wounds, I will not believe,” there is much more than doubt. There is love, and sorrow, and pain, and a tiny grain of hope. Thomas stands for all time as the one man who most desperately wanted to believe if only he could be sure. Can you blame him? Would you have been any different?
IV. The Resolution
A. Jesus invited Thomas to see for himself.
After all these years, Thomas has gotten a bad reputation. Doubting Thomas, we call him. We tend to look down on him. But not Jesus. Eight days later Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus speaks to him as to one whose faith is weak, not to one who has an evil heart. He said, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27). It’s worth noting that Jesus knew all about Thomas’ doubts. He knew the raging sea within his heart. And he came just so Thomas could be sure. Jesus didn’t put him down. He said, “Go ahead, all you who wonder if it is true. See for yourself. Stop doubting and believe.” Here is the wonderful truth: Doubters are welcome at the empty tomb.
Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe in the miracle we celebrate on Easter? If you answer “No” or “I’m not sure,” then welcome. It’s okay to be an honest doubter. If you came that way and want to leave that way, it’s okay. When you’re ready, he’ll be there waiting for you. Sometimes we act as if all doubt is sinful and that people with doubts are not welcome in church. And sometimes we try to pretend that Christians have everything sewn up, all questions answered, and that we never have doubts. That attitude is both sad and wrong. We all have our doubts and most of us would be healthier if we admitted that fact. Our Lord welcomes every sincere person and invites the doubters to check out the evidence for themselves.
This story also teaches us that Christianity is based on verifiable evidence. Christ never asks us to believe for no reason at all. He told Thomas to check out the evidence and come to his own conclusion. He makes the same invitation to you and to me. Ours is a skeptical, jaded generation that has learned to question everything. We’ve been lied to by people in authority and misled so often by the media and by Hollywood that we automatically doubt any claims to absolute truth. When Christians declare that Christ is risen from the dead, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone says, “Oh yeah? I saw that on the David Copperfield special the other night.” Over the centuries unbelievers have propounded many theories to explain away the bodily resurrection of Jesus: That Jesus didn’t really die, he just passed out and revived in the tomb; That the women went to the wrong tomb; That someone stole the body—the Romans, the Jews, the disciples; That Jesus somehow faked his own death and then pretended to come back from the dead; That the disciples had a mass hallucination and imagined that Jesus rose from the dead; That Jesus rose spiritually while his body remained in the tomb; That the early church concocted the whole story. Even today there are those who still cling to these outmoded, discredited ideas. We say to everyone what Jesus said to Thomas: “Come and see for yourself. Check out the evidence. Read the story with an open heart and an open mind. Stop doubting and believe.” We believe that when all the evidence has been fairly evaluated, the only possible conclusion will be that on Good Friday Jesus died and was buried and on Easter Sunday morning he rose from the dead. The entire Christian faith hangs on this one fact: Jesus rose from the dead—literally, physically, bodily, visibly.
During the turbulent days following the French Revolution, a man decided to start his own religion but found that he had difficulty attracting new converts. When he asked for advice, a friend told him this: “To ensure success for your new religion, all you need to do is have yourself crucified and then rise from the dead on the third day.” His religion disappeared because he was unable to follow that advice. Jesus is the only person in history who has ever met that qualification.
B. The strongest doubters often become the strongest believers.
Doubt does have its uses. Deep doubt is often the prelude to an even deeper faith. I love the way Frederick Buechner expresses it: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving” (from the book Wishful Thinking). It is a wonderful truth that the greatest doubters often become the strongest believers. And the honest doubts—once resolved—often become the bedrock of an unshakeable faith. It has been said that no truth is so strongly believed as that which you once doubted. In the history of the Christian church, the greatest doubters have often become the strongest believers. That’s why the story of Thomas is in the Bible—so that honest doubters might be encouraged to bring their honest doubts to the empty tomb. Thomas did, and his doubts were washed away by the person of Jesus Christ—alive from the dead.
C. Blessings come to those who believe what God has said.
All that God asks is that men be consistent with themselves. He asks that you give this story the same treatment you give to any other story. Sift the evidence, judge the record and come to a conclusion. It’s all right to doubt, but don’t let your doubts keep you away. Come to the empty tomb and see for yourself. When Thomas saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). That stands as the greatest testimony given by any of the apostles. It is the climax of John’s gospel. And it comes from the man who had the strongest doubts.
Where do we fit in? After all, Jesus has gone back to heaven. We don’t have the same opportunity Thomas had of seeing the Lord Jesus face to face. What do we do with our doubts? Jesus has a word for us too. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). There are those who say that the resurrection of Christ is not important, that what matters is that Jesus lives in our hearts. But if Jesus is still in the tomb, he is not living in our hearts. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:17). Too many people, including some Christians, approach faith like the boy who said, “Faith is believing what you know is not true.” Wrong! Our faith is founded on the facts of history. If any atheist or Buddhist or Hindu or materialist or Muslim or anyone else had been standing in that same room, he would have seen what Thomas saw. He would have seen Jesus because Jesus Christ was really there—alive from the dead. If we had been there, we could have touched his scars with our own hands.
We are not there, we are here, 2,000 years have passed, and Jesus promises a special blessing to those who of us who believe without seeing. If you are waiting for some sort of mathematical proof that Jesus rose from the dead, I can’t give it to you. But the historical record is there for everyone to examine. It contains abundant evidence for those who choose to believe, and people who decide not to believe can always find reasons not to believe.
D. Don’t let your doubts keep you from Jesus.
No one can remain neutral forever. You can bring your doubts to the empty tomb, but you have to make a choice. You cannot stay on the fence forever. Either you believe or you don’t. This is Easter Sunday. It’s a wonderful day to make that choice. It’s a great day to stop doubting and start believing.
You know that Jesus died. There is no doubt about that. You know he died for you. You know he rose from the dead. The question God is asking you is, “What have you done with my Son?”
Jesus said, “Stop doubting and believe.”
Father, we thank you for the beauty of Easter. We thank you that the deepest questions of life are answered with the simplicity of an empty tomb. Lead us into the garden of the Resurrection where we may meet our risen Lord. May we never live again as if Jesus were dead. May those who doubt come to saving faith and find life through his name. In the name of Jesus who died and rose again, and who lives forevermore. Amen.