Thomas: The Disciple with a Bad Reputation

If you have been around church you may have heard of the Apostle Thomas or as most call him Doubting Thomas. Names have a lot of power; in the recent past people have committed suicide or lived in depression in large part because of the names people put on them. For thousands of years people have put this name on Thomas. It may be in part true, but when we look at life through his perspective we may not be as hasty to label him with this sad name. Hope you enjoy this look at the Apostle Thomas.

God Bless!

Introduction

The Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. Throughout His ministry, He had many followers, but there were twelve who He chose to be His disciples. Among these twelve was a man named Thomas or Didymus in John’s Gospel. Thomas, along with the other disciples were chosen by Jesus to be more than just followers. In Mark 3 it says, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:13-15 NIV). These were men Jesus believed would be able to preach and drive out demons. Thomas was one of these people; however, Thomas is not often seen as a hero of the early church. One who preached and drove out demons, but as a doubter, even though the other disciples doubting too other times in the Gospels.[1] He has been labeled as doubting Thomas, because he wanted to see Jesus after His resurrection from the dead.[2] Thomas’ unbelief of the resurrected Christ is not the only aspect of his life that is seen in the Gospels; Thomas, like the other disciples had some possible failures and successes that should be considered before labeling him doubting Thomas.

Who was Thomas

In the Gospels, there are a few of the disciples who have a lot written about them; Thomas is not one of them. Thomas or Didymus is written about only a few times. He is listed with the other twelve disciples (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15).[3] There are only three placed in Scripture in which Thomas is depicted as talking; they all happen in the Gospel of John (11:16, 14:5, & 20:24-29).[4] There is also a gospel attributed to Thomas that is not part of the Canon of Scripture. The rest of this section will identify the different passages about Thomas to understand his strengths and weaknesses as a disciple and man.

Thomas was willing to go with Jesus. In John 6 Jesus gives a teaching about Himself saying, “I am the bread of life…Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:35, 53 NIV). At this many of the disciples left Jesus believing the teaching was too hard to accept. Jesus asked the twelve, including Thomas, “You do not want to leave too, to you?” (John 6:67 NIV). Peter is the one who gets the credit for trusting that Jesus was God, he was not the only one who stayed each of the twelve chose to remain with Jesus. This is reinforced by the second-time Thomas is seen interacting with Jesus. Jesus informed the disciples He is leaving and will prepare a place for them. Thomas asked, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5 NIV). Thomas did not want to be left behind. He wanted to understand what will happen so he would be ready. He was focused on action and following Jesus at all cost.[5]

Thomas was a man of action.[6] In John 11:16 Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (NIV); after he finds out Lazarus is dying. The disciples are seen attempting to help Jesus avoid death throughout the Gospels, but Thomas wanted them to be willing to stay with Jesus at all cost.[7] Even at the expense of their death. Then in John 14:5, “Thomas said to him (Jesus), Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way” (NIV)? In his excitement to follow Jesus and act he missed the greater meaning of Jesus. Thomas had already demonstrated that he would follow Jesus unto death; he did not want to miss out simply because he did not know where Jesus was going.

Thomas also displays is he was moldable. In John 20, Thomas does not believe the testimony of the other disciples, but when Jesus arrives he immediately changes. Because he was a man of action; he wanted to keep moving forward and he was able to understand what was happening.[8] Jesus appeared to the disciples and said,

“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.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:26-29 NIV).

In this interaction between Jesus and Thomas; Thomas does not hesitate to believe. The text does not say Thomas touched Jesus simply, “Because you have seen me, you have believed” (20:29).[9] Thomas did not believe the testimony of the disciples, but his faith was restored by the sight of Jesus.[10] Thus Thomas was willing to be molded and change his thinking quickly and easily once he saw Jesus. He seemed to be more in doubt than the other disciples, but when he changed his expression of, “my Lord and my God (20:28)” seem to indicate a better understanding than the others had.[11] This is understood to have meant “It is my Lord (as I knew him before his death) but not that I see him risen he is also my God.”[12] Thomas struggled to believe without seeing, but he was not different from the other disciples who did not believe until they saw Jesus.[13] The idea Jesus expressed is reiterated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “For we live by faith, not by sight” (NIV). His lack of faith in the moment has given the church the ability to read Jesus’ words about belief.

Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is an account of the evangelism that took place in India.[14] It is believed to have existed in India for more than 1,500 years.[15] The Gospel of Thomas is not part of the canon of Scripture. It a collection of sayings, because it was believed, among the Thomas Christians, that there was power in the words.[16] The community of Thomas began to believe salvation was not throughout a belief in Jesus and Thomas was equal to Jesus.[17] This confusion came from the Scripture that denotes Thomas as twin, believing he was Jesus’ twin.[18]

Thomas Questioned the Other Disciples

In John 20, Thomas questioned the witness of the other disciples. This has often been a major down point for the discipleship of Thomas. However, this is only one of four possible reasons for Thomas’ questioning their testimony. The four are: he simply doubted, the others had a haughty attitude, he wanted to understand, or he wanted to have a personal experience like the other disciples.

There is no question that Thomas doubted, because he has lacking faith. Jesus points out that Thomas was making the request to touch the marks out of doubt. Jesus said to him, “Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27b NIV). This could have been the bottom line in the story; Thomas doubted either the testimony of the disciples or the ability for Jesus to raise from the dead. On the surface, it seems as though Thomas just doubted, but there could be deeper implications for his desire to touch Christ.

It is possible the other disciples used a tone or attitude that conveyed to Thomas that they were better or above him when they told him.[19] There are other places in the Gospels where the disciples are arguing about who is greater (Luke 9:46 & Luke 22:24); some of the disciple’s mother even asked Jesus to make them greater. “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:20-21 ESV). These times give some insight into the desire for power or authority that many or all the disciples had. It is possible they told Thomas in a way that made him feel as though they were better than he was, because they had the opportunity to see Jesus and he did not.[20]

Thomas’ Personal Experience

Another possible reason for Thomas’ doubts is; he may have wanted to experience the risen Christ for himself.[21] As discussed earlier, Thomas asked Jesus where he was going in order that he may follow. Thomas wanted to be able to follow Jesus anywhere and if Jesus truly was alive again he may have wanted to see Him and follow Him. Thomas desired a first-hand encounter with Jesus.[22] The personal experience Thomas has with Jesus is found in John 20. This passage has been discussed previously in this paper, but it is where most of Thomas’ interaction is found. It is in this section where he gained the nickname doubting Thomas.[23] After the disciples told Thomas Jesus had appeared to them; he tells 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” (John 20:25 NIV). After a week of waiting to seek what will happen; Jesus showed up. Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27 NIV). As stated earlier, this is the point when Thomas changed immediately.[24] After saying he needed to touch the marks; the text seems to indicate that Thomas did not wait to touch Jesus, but believed.[25] This is an important dialog between Jesus and Thomas that has many implications on believers today.

Lessons from Thomas

Thomas is not one of the disciples who has a lot written about him in the Gospels, like some of the others. However, there is a lot from what is written believers today can learn from. The four main lessons that can be taken from the life of Thomas is: it is important to follow Christ at all cost, believers need to be available, Jesus is a personal God, and a willingness to change.

Follow Christ at all Cost

In John 11:16 Thomas tells the other disciples to join Jesus and die with Lazarus. When they had heard, Lazarus was dying, Thomas was ready to rush in and help or die there. Later in John 14:5, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way” (NIV)? Thomas wanted to know where Jesus was going and preparing a place so that he would be able to follow.[26] Thomas was not concerned about where He was going, because of the location, but so that he had the ability to follow.

This is a great example for the believer today. Christ is always moving and it is up to the believer to be willing to follow. There are many areas where God is moving and attempting to use people to minster to the world. Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV). Jesus commanded believers to minster to the world and promised to always be with them. This can be difficult, but when believers are willing to follow Christ’s leading as Thomas was they will never be alone.

Be Available

Thomas seems to change his perspective after Jesus died. The Bible does not indicate why Thomas was not with the other disciples or where he was at the time Jesus appeared to them.[27] It simply states, “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came” (John 20:24 NIV). This seems to be a change from his actions and questions before Jesus died. Questions like asking where Jesus was going so they would be able to follow. Whether it was out of fear or simply he had personal business he needed to attend too; either way he was not present when Jesus appeared. Therefore, he began to doubt and had to wait a full week before he was able to see Jesus.

The lesson here is to be available. In times of trouble or victory the Lord is always there ready to meet the needs of His people; but it is necessary for the believers to be available to receive from God. Thomas was not at the place where Jesus showed up. This can happen to believers today; Christ may show Himself in a situation or to people. But people can be so blinded by the situation that they are not available to see Jesus.

Seek a Personal Experience

Thomas did not have the opportunity to meet the risen Jesus with the other disciples the first time He appeared. This caused Him to doubt. The testimony of others is vital to sharing Christ with others, but it is only through a personal encounter with Christ that someone will be able to believe. John 16:13a, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (NIV). The working of the Spirit of truth or the Holy Spirit in the life of a person is the only that person will accept the testimony of a believer. Paul wrote, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NIV). Like Thomas, he was not able to accept the testimony of the disciples; because the Spirit of truth had not reviled the truth of their testimony to him.

Thomas was met where he was spiritually; the Holy Spirit meets people where they are today.[28] Jesus came to build a relationship with everyone. The love of God is so great that He desires to give everyone that personal experience, but it is the responsibility of each person to be willing to let God meet them. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). It does not matter if a person is living in faith or doubt; Jesus is willing to meet the needs of that person. Jesus was willing to have Thomas touch the nail holes because that is what Thomas needed at the time. Jesus has a plan to meet the needs of everyone as He did for Thomas.

Change Instantly

Thomas is often seen as the doubter and a negative disciple. He is considered not as bad as Judas, but he is placed at the bottom of the disciples just above Judas. However, one characteristic of Thomas that is a great example for believers today is he changed immediately. When he had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus he stopped doubting and believed. This perspective change happens to many people when they find Jesus and become Christians, but there is a tendency to fall into doubting.

When Jesus arrived, Thomas did not follow through on his plan to touch Jesus; he simply believed.[29] In the sixtieth century, it was commonly believed that Thomas did in fact touch Jesus, but the text does not seem to indicate he did.[30] “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:29 NIV). Jesus implied Thomas only looked at Him and believed. Christians today cannot physically touch or see Jesus, but through the Spirit all people can see Jesus’ hand at work. Once their eyes are opened by the Holy Spirit they must make the choice to change and believe what they see as Thomas did.

Conclusion

The life and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels have so many examples of life. Thomas is one of the characters who does not have a large part in the Gospels, but his story is like many people throughout history. Throughout his story; Thomas seems to be attempting to figure out how to be a follower of Jesus. The story of Thomas doubting the risen Christ; is like most people. There is a point in everyone’s life where they have attempt to answer, “How do we come to believe?”[31] This is an important question that is never said in the story of Thomas, however, Thomas claims touching is the only way he would believe. However, Jesus told Thomas it was the sight that caused him to believe.

Today, Christians do not have the ability to see or touch Jesus; so how is it people can believe? Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29 NIV). So how is it that belief is possible for the Christian today? Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ” (NLT). Thomas heard the good news about Christ, but he did not believe. Today, the Holy Spirit softens the hearts of people so they can believe the testimony of others and the Word of God.

As discussed above, Thomas was not simply a doubter and he was not perfect.[32] He made mistakes and had successes. It is easy to read the story of his life and conclude that he just doubted, but he is simply a human with struggles; like everyone. He struggled with doubt and distrust, but he demonstrated a heart that is willing to change. Thomas the follower is a better name for him. As an academic, thinking man; Thomas asked questions and attempted to follow Christ the best way he knew how.[33] Therefore he asked Jesus where He was going and why he wanted to have a personal encounter with Jesus after the resurrection. Thomas was not a bad disciple, but he was a man who wanted to trust, but did not know how.

Bibliography

  1. Bruce, F. F. The Gospel Of John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Pickering & Inglis, 1989.

  2. Lea, Thomas D, and David Alan Black. The New Testament. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2007.

  3. Nedungatt, George. “The Apocryphal “Acts Of Thomas” And Christian Origins In India”. Gregorianum92, no. 3 (2011): 533-557.

  4. Patterson, Stephen J, Hans-Gebhard Bethge, and James MacConkey Robinson. The Fifth Gospel. London: T & T Clark, 2011.

  5. Salisbury, Joyce E. “Doubting Thomas (Review)”. The Catholic Historical Review92, no. 1 (2006): 95-96.

  6. Spurgeon, Charles. Spurgeon’s Verse Exposition Of John: The Expansive Commentary Collection. Kindle, 2017.

  7. Sylva, Dennis. The Library Of New Testament Studies: Thomas – Love As Strong As Death : Faith And Commitment In The Fourth Gospel. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2014.

  8. Ward, J. “Wounded Faith: R.S. Thomas, Tomas Halik, And Doubting Thomas”. Literature and Theology27, no. 4 (2013): 439-451. https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1093/litthe/frt038.

  9. Wright, Rebecca. “Doubting Thomas: A Cautionary Tale”. Sewanee Theological Review52, no. 2 (2009): 179-182. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/214705825?accountid=12085.

[1] F. F Bruce, The Gospel Of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Pickering & Inglis, 1989) 393.

[2] Thomas D Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2007).

[3] J. D Douglas, Merrill C Tenney and Moisés Silva, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011) Location 57555.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dennis Sylva, The Library Of New Testament Studies: Thomas – Love As Strong As Death : Faith And Commitment In The Fourth Gospel (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid,.(12).

[8] J. Ward, “Wounded Faith: R.S. Thomas, Tomas Halik, And Doubting Thomas”, Literature and Theology 27, no. 4 (2013): 439-451, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1093/litthe/frt038.

[9] Joyce E. Salisbury, “Doubting Thomas (Review)”, The Catholic Historical Review 92, no. 1 (2006): 95.

[10] Ibid.

[11] F. F Bruce, The Gospel Of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Pickering & Inglis, 1989) 394.

[12] F. F Bruce, The Gospel Of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Pickering & Inglis, 1989) 394.

[13] Ibid.

[14] George Nedungatt, “The Apocryphal “Acts Of Thomas” And Christian Origins In India”, Gregorianum92, no. 3 (2011): 533.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Stephen J Patterson, Hans-Gebhard Bethge and James MacConkey Robinson, The Fifth Gospel(London: T & T Clark, 2011).

[17] Quarles, Charles L. “Thomas: The Other Gospel.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 1 (03, 2008): 158-60, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/211234654?accountid=12085.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Rebecca Wright, “Doubting Thomas: A Cautionary Tale”, Sewanee Theological Review 52, no. 2 (2009): 179-182, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/214705825?accountid=12085, 179.

[20] Ibid,. (180).

[21] Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Verse Exposition Of John: The Expansive Commentary Collection (Kindle, 2017) 370.

[22] Rebecca Wright, “Doubting Thomas: A Cautionary Tale”, Sewanee Theological Review 52, no. 2 (2009): 181.

[23] F. F Bruce, The Gospel Of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Pickering & Inglis, 1989) 394.

[24] J. Ward, “Wounded Faith: R.S. Thomas, Tomas Halik, And Doubting Thomas”, Literature and Theology 27, no. 4 (2013): 439-451.

[25] Joyce E. Salisbury, “Doubting Thomas (Review)”, The Catholic Historical Review 92, no. 1 (2006): 95.

[26] Dennis Sylva, The Library Of New Testament Studies: Thomas – Love As Strong As Death : Faith And Commitment In The Fourth Gospel (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2014).

[27] Rebecca Wright, “Doubting Thomas: A Cautionary Tale”, Sewanee Theological Review 52, no. 2 (2009): 179.

[28] Rebecca Wright, “Doubting Thomas: A Cautionary Tale”, Sewanee Theological Review 52, no. 2 (2009): 181.

[29] Joyce E. Salisbury, “Doubting Thomas (Review)”, The Catholic Historical Review 92, no. 1 (2006): 95.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Joyce E. Salisbury, “Doubting Thomas (Review)”, The Catholic Historical Review 92, no. 1 (2006): 96.

[32] F. F Bruce, The Gospel Of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Pickering & Inglis, 1989) 393.

[33] J. Ward, “Wounded Faith: R.S. Thomas, Tomas Halik, And Doubting Thomas”, Literature and Theology 27, no. 4 (2013): 439-451.

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