THE TWELVE — THOMAS
by Pastor Mike Fortune
July 18, 2009
Introduction Video: Unbelief, Going Through The Motions
- Belief takes courage [John 11:8,16; 10:42; Philippians 1:20-21]
- Because sometimes, your worst fears do come true [John 14:2-5]
- But no matter how we’re wired, we can live by faith [John 20:19, 24-28; 2 Corinthians 12:9]
He is usually nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.” Hopefully, you’ll see why that isn’t exactly fair. For he was a better man than story tellers describe. Thomas, in Hebrew and Aramaic, means “twin” and according to John 11:16 (KJV), he was also called “Didymus” which means “twin” in Greek. So apparently, he had a twin brother or sister, but this twin is never identified in Scripture. Like Nathanael, Thomas is mentioned only once in Matthew, Mark, and Luke with the other eleven apostles in the list. John, however, provides some details into the character of Thomas and those few accounts are what we’ll zero in on today as we continue our sermon series The Twelve.
John’s first mention of Thomas comes in John 11:16 amidst the story describing how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ good friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived in Bethany, a mere 55 minute walk from Jerusalem. They were his dear friends. Who provided for His needs when in town. Now one of them was sick. So Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus saying in John 11:3, “3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’” They knew if Jesus came to see Lazarus, He would be able to heal him. Which presented a sticky situation for Jesus. He knew if He went that close to Jerusalem, he was walking into the perfect storm of hostility.
John 10:39 says the Jewish leaders were seeking to seize Him. They were determined to kill Him. He had eluded their grasp before, but if He returned to Bethany, they were certain to find out, and they would try again to seize Him. Which is why the apostles said in verse 8, “8‘But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?’” They didn’t want to go back to Jerusalem or anywhere near it.
They wanted to stay in the region where they were already having success. John 10:40 describes how the apostles and Jesus were hanging out in the wilderness beyond the Jordan where John the Baptist had been teaching and preaching and baptizing people. John 10:42 (NIV) says “42And in that place many believed in Jesus.” Unlike that guy in the video clip, just going through the motions, these people were responding to Jesus. People were believing and were converted. They were able to minister and share the good news without opposition or fear. But in Jerusalem and in nearby Bethany, they all risked being stoned. So you can imagine the apostles reluctance for a field trip into the Jerusalem suburbs.
They obviously did not want to die. But Jesus knew His time to die was in God’s timing not His enemies’ no matter how hard they tried and how long they schemed. So John 11:11 (NIV) says, “11After he had said this, he went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’” But the apostles missed the point. They said in verse 12. “‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ After all, Jesus had just said in verse 4, “‘This sickness will not end in death.” So Jesus told them plainly in verse 15, ‘Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’”
Now they were beginning to get it. Jesus had to go back to Bethany near Jerusalem because it was part of the plan. There was no talking Him out of it. Still, to them, it must have seemed like crazy talk. A death wish from a dead man walking. They were convinced if Jesus returned to Bethany, He would be killed. But He had made up His mind. And it was at that point that John alone records that Thomas spoke up. Here is where we meet Thomas for the first time in all the Gospel records. John 11:16 says, “16Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”
Now, no one would argue that his glass is definitely half empty. The only thing missing is Eiyore’s bass voice and droopy tail. No doubt about it, Thomas is a melancholy guy. But if you were in his shoes, would you have felt any differently if you were convinced that Jesus was heading straight into the perfect storm of hostility and hatred? An optimist might have said, “Let’s go. Everything will work out fine. The Lord knows what He’s doing. He says we won’t stumble.” But Thomas moans, “He’s going to die so let’s go die with him.”
Everybody knows that John was devoted to Jesus. The only apostle not to die a martyr’s death, writing epistles well into his 90's, forming the foundation of the early Christian church. But in spite of Thomas’s pessimism, you’d have to say based on his statement in verse 15 that Thomas was just as devoted to Jesus as John. John may be the one in all the pictures of Jesus, resting on his shoulder, but it is obvious that Thomas didn’t want to live without Him either. If Jesus was preparing to die, Thomas was prepared to die with Him!
“Let us also go, that we may die with him!” Paul would write something similar in Philippians 1:20-21. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul said the same thing a little more poetically than Thomas, but the rest of the apostles still got the point. Thomas’ courage was obviously contagious because all of them did go with Jesus to Bethany. And this is point number one. Belief takes courage. And Thomas, though he had his doubts just like all of us, still believed. He wasn’t just going through motions. He would rather die with Jesus than spend his life without Jesus. And Jesus feels the same way about you.
Thomas’ undying devotion and love for Jesus shows up again in John 14. You may remember from our study of Philip last summer that Jesus was telling them of His imminent departure in John 14:2 (KJV), “I go to prepare a place for you.” And in verse 4 (NIV), “4‘You know the way to the place where I am going.’” In John 14:5 (NIV), it is brave Thomas who has the courage to say what they were probably all thinking, “5‘Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’”
Sprinkled in his courage, again we see his pessimism. He was basically saying, “You say we know the way, but you’re the One making all the decisions. We don’t know what you’re talking about half the time! We thought Lazarus had the flu and was taking a nap! We’re just following Your lead. Wasn’t it a better plan just to die with you? Then there would be no separation. No confusing period trying to figure things out on our own. But now you’re going to leave us?”
Reading between the lines, it’s tempting to criticize Thomas. And conclude that his pessimism was greater than his love for the Lord. Or that he was lazy and just didn’t want to think and act on his own. But that would be a surface reading of his character and it would be wrong. Sure, separation stinks. And figuring stuff out, seemingly on your own, isn’t always comfortable. Like Paul, as followers of Jesus, we must learn to live in the tensions of this world while simultaneously longing to be with Jesus. Even when our worst fears come true. And this is point number two.
Belief takes courage. Point number one. Because as John 14 reveals, sometimes your worst fears do come true. And this is Point Number Two. To me, this means we won’t always understand why babies are born premature and die at birth. We might be forever scarred by the abandonment of a parent when our mom or dad got divorced. In my visitation of Toledo First members still on the books but not in the pews, I hear heart breaking stories of how sometimes the professed followers of Jesus have done the most harm and good. Yes, friends, sometimes our worst fears do come true.
But when Thomas said, “5‘Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”, he was merely doing his best to live within the tensions of his world. Like Thomas, whether we like it or not, as we discussed in our last sermon series, we too are living in the meantime. We are walking on a bridge we’re simultaneously trying to build. And some of things we see and hear, we just don’t understand. But whoever said we’d understand everything anyway?
That’s why belief takes courage. Point number one. Because sometimes, your worst fears do come true. And this is Point Number Two. Our final snap shot of Thomas comes in John 20. After Jesus’ death, all the apostles were in deep sorrow. His worst fear did come true. Jesus died and he didn’t. Mark 14:50 says they all fled. They were embarrassed. Afraid. Overwhelmed. John 20:19 (KJV) says, “The doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews.” So they huddled together, probably in the same upper room they shared with Jesus Thursday night, for protection and comfort. Everyone that is, except Thomas.
John 20:24 (NIV) says, “24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.” Which is too bad because his arrival must have been breathtaking. Here they were, locked in a room, when suddenly although the doors and windows were sealed shut, verses 19–20 (NIV) say, “19Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” But Thomas missed the whole thing. The One he loved so deeply and followed so courageously was gone.
Have you ever had your heart broken? Thomas had. And he was not in the mood for small talk and reminiscing. If two is company and three is a crowd, Thomas didn’t even want company. Eventually, though, we all need each other. Romans 12:5 (NLT) says, “5So it is with Christ's body. We are all parts of his one body, and each of us has different work to do. And since we are all one body in Christ, we belong to each other, and each of us needs all the others.”
Thomas must have figured that out because in verse 25 (NIV) he eventually shows up. “25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’” But this news was too good to be true. So “He said to them, ‘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.’” It is because of this one statement that he has been forever branded “Doubting Thomas.”
We too quickly forget about his courageous statement in John 11:16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” We too quickly forget that Mark 16:11 says none of the apostles believed Jesus was alive. We too quickly forget that Philip doubted three times more often than Thomas. Remember, according to John 2:2, Philip was present when Jesus turned water into wine, but that didn’t stop him from doubting Jesus could feed the 5,000 with five barely loaves and two small fish (John 6:7). Philip also doubted Jesus would speak with a group of Gentiles who wanted to talk to Jesus so he asked Andrew to introduce them instead (John 12:20–22). And don’t forget the double whammy doubter, in the upper room before Jesus died, when Jesus’ heart was heavy and He needed encouragement, instead doubting Philip asks Jesus in John 14:8 to “Show us the Father.”
So if anyone should be labeled Doubter, it should be Philip who unlike Thomas, repeatedly doubted Jesus. Which is why one writer, accurately I think, emphasizes that what set Thomas apart from the other ten apostles was not that his doubt was greater. No, they all doubted. Philip even more than Thomas. What set Thomas apart from the other ten apostles was not that his doubt was greater, but that his sorrow was greater. His heart wasn’t just broken. It was shattered into millions of tiny pieces and lay scattered on the floor.
Thomas said what he said in that Upper Room not because he doubted or lacked faith, but because his heart was breaking. The thought of living without Jesus was too much to bear. But eight days later, still nursing his wounds, Thomas was with the other apostles again. Verse 26 (NIV) continues, “Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’” And when He arrived, no one needed to tell Jesus what Thomas had said earlier in verse 25. He knew. He looked right at Thomas and quietly said, “27‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” Jesus was amazingly gentle with him. And He is amazingly patient with us.
Thomas erred because he was pretty much wired that way. He wasn’t a rebellious Christian. He was sincere. Often when people let us down or say things they don’t mean, it isn’t because they really mean what they say or even how they say it. It is because inside, they’re afraid. Hurt. Or frustrated. And they don’t know how to handle what they feel. So they bury stuff. Or just as bad, they keep a longer list of wrongs. Either defense mechanism allows them to inoculate themselves from the other. Zoning out. Pretending they’re not there. Today, we self–medicate by watching TV which requires no thinking or participation.
Jesus understood how Thomas was feeling. And Jesus understands how we feel too. He knows when we lash out, at Him or at others, that we’re just using our defense mechanisms. He’s gentle with us when that happens. And compassionate. Time after time after time. Hebrews 4:15 says Jesus understands our weaknesses. And I think that’s what He’s asking us to do too. If you’re a Christian in relationship with Jesus, you will gently seek to understand and share compassion with your brothers and sisters in Christ forever and whenever they err. And when you do, that fear, hurt, and frustration will often melt away and be replaced, according to Philippians 4:7, with a peace and joy that passes understanding. No wonder Thomas joyfully shouted out in John 20:28 (NIV), “28‘My Lord and my God!’”
In the twinkling of an eye, a great church planter and builder and evangelist was born. Most scholars think Thomas carried the gospel first to Babylon and from Persia to India where to this day there is a small cave near the airport in Chennai (Madras), India where Thomas is said to have been buried. The most likely traditions agree he was martyred for his faith by being run through with a spear. So the broken hearted but courageous apostle who saw the scar where soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear eventually died by the spear.
But Thomas shouldn’t be remembered as Doubting Thomas. He should be remembered as Thomas the Brave. Because it takes even more courage for someone who is wired melancholy, seeing the glass as half empty, to confront their very real personalities and fears surging through their veins and begin choosing instead to live by faith. It can be done!
Thomas’ life reminds us that by God’s grace, all of us can change. And this is point number three. No matter how we’re wired, we can live by faith. We can change. God can make us courageous. And faithful. And loving. Even after our worst fears come true. It’s my hope and prayer that God will give us all the courage of Thomas the Brave, not just to live, but to love. Till death do us part. If that is your desire, would you please stand with me and read the words to 2 Corinthians 12:9 off the screen? “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Amen. For more information see John MacArthur’s Twelve Ordinary Men pages 157-165.