Thomas, a man often labeled as “doubting”, but are we really sure that is an appropriate label for this fella? He just may have been a better man than the legend makes it out to be.
It probably is fair, however, to say that Thomas was a somewhat negative person. He was a worrywart. He was a person who brooded over things. He tended to be anxious and angst-ridden. He was like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. He anticipated the worst all the time. Pessimism, rather than doubt, seems to have been his besetting sin.
Thomas, according to John 11:16, was also called Didymus, which means “the twin”. Apparently he had a twin brother or sister, but his twin is never identified in scripture.
Like Nathaniel, Thomas is mentioned only once each in the three synoptic Gospels. In each case, he is simply named with the other eleven apostles in a list. No details about him are given by Matthew, Mark or Luke. We learn everything we know about Thomas from John’s Gospel.
It becomes obvious from John’s record that Thomas had a tendency to look only into the darkest corners of life. He seemed always to anticipate the worst of everything. Yet despite his pessimism, some wonderfully redeeming elements of his character come through in John’s account of him.
Of course, Jesus, with His supernatural knowledge, knew exactly when Lazarus died. That is why he waited. “then after this He said to the disciples “let us go to Judea again” (v. 7)
John’s first mention of Thomas is found in John 11:16. It is a single verse, but it speaks volumes about Thomas’s real character.
In this context, John is describing the prelude to the raising of Lazarus. Jesus had left Jerusalem because His life was in jeopardy there and “he went away again beyond the Jordan to a the place where John was baptizing at first, and there He stayed” (John 10:40). Great crowds of people came out t hear Jesus preach. John says, “An many believed in Him there” (v. 42). This may have been the most fruitful time of ministry the disciples had witnessed in all the time since they had begun to follow Christ. People were responsive. Souls were being converted. And Jesus was able to minister freely without the opposition of the religious rulers of Jerusalem.
But something happened to interrupt their time in the wilderness. John writes, “Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick” (John 11:1-2). Bethany was on the outskirts of Jerusalem. And Jesus had formed a close and loving relationship with this little family who lived there. He loved them with a special affection. He had stayed with them, and they had provided for His needs.
Now His dear friend Lazarus was sick, and Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick” (v.3). They knew if Jesus came to see Lazarus, He would be able to heal him.
This presented a quandary. If Jesus went that close to Jerusalem, he was walking into the very teeth of the worst kind of hostility. John 10:39 says the Jewish leaders were seeking to seize Him. they were already determined to kill Him. He had eluded their grasp once, already, but if He returned to Bethany, they were certain to find out, and they would try again to seize Him.
The disciples must have breathed a sign of relief when Jesus answered, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). What He meant, of course, was that Lazurus’s death would not be the ultimate result of his sickness. The son of God would glorify himself by raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus knew, of course, that Lazarus would die. In fact, He knew the very hours of his death.
John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister, and Lazarus. So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (vv. 5-6). At first glance, that seems a strange juxtaposition of statements: Jesus loved Lazarus and his family, so He stayed put my Lazarus was dying. He deliberately tarried to give Lazarus time to die. But this was an act of love, because ultimately, the blessing they received when Lazarus was raised from the dead was a greater blessing than if he had merely been healed of his sickness. It glorified Jesus in a greater way. It strengthened their faith in Him immeasurably more. Therefore Jesus waited a couple of extra days so that Lazarus was already dead for days by the time He arrived (v.39)
of course, Jesus, with his supernatural knowledge, new exactly when Lazarus died. That is why He waited. “Then after this He said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again'” (v.7)
The disciples thought this was crazy. They said, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?” (v.8) they frankly did not want to go back to Jerusalem. The ministry in the wilderness was phenomenal. In Jerusalem they all risked being stoned. Now was not a good time for a visit to Bethany, which was virtually within sight of the temple, where Jesus’ bitterest enemies had their headquarters.
Jesus’ answer it’s interesting. He gives them an illustration. “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (vv.9-10). In other words, there was no need for Him to skulk around like a common criminal. He was determined to do His work in the bright light of the day, because that’s what you do in order not to stumble. Those who were walking in darkness the ones in danger of stumbling- particularly the religious leaders who were secretly looking for a way to kill Him.
You said that to the disciples to calm them down. They obviously did not want to go back and die. But Jesus reassured them they had nothing to fear. And of course, He knew His time to die was in God’s timing. not His enemies’. Our Lord made His purpose clear when He said, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” (v.11)
The disciples missed His meaning. They said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well” (v.12). If he’s only asleep, why not let him rest? After all, Jesus had already said his sickness was not unto death. The disciples couldn’t see the urgency of the situation. It sounded to them like Lazarus was already on the road to recovery.
“However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him'” (vv. 13-15).
Now they understood Jesus had to go back. He was determined to do so. There would be no talking Him out of it. To them, it must have seemed like the worst possible disaster. They were floundering in fear. They were convinced that if Jesus returned to Bethany, He would be killed. But He had made up His mind.
It was at this point that Thomas spoke up. Here is where we meet him for the first time in all the Gospel records. “Then Thomas, who is called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘ Let us also go, that we may die with Him'” (v.16).
Now that is pessimistic, and that’s typical for Thomas. But it is a heroic pessimism. He could see nothing but disaster ahead. He was convinced Jesus was heading straight for a stoning. But if that is what the Lord was determined to do, Thomas was grimly determined to go and die with Him. You have to admire his courage.
It is not easy to be a pessimist. It is a miserable way to live. An optimist might have said, “Let’s go; everything will work out. The Lord knows what He is doing. he says we won’t stumble. We will be fine.” But the pessimist says, “He’s going to die, and we’re going to die with Him.” Thomas at least had the courage to be loyal, even in the face of his pessimism. It is much easier for an optimist to be loyal. He always expects the best. It is hard for a pessimist to be loyal, because he is convinced the worst is going to happen. This is heroic pessimism. This is real courage.
Thomas was devoted to Christ. He may have been the equal to John in this regard. When we think about someone who loved Jesus and was intimate with Him, we usually think of John, because he was always near Jesus. But it was clear from this account that Thomas did not want to live without Jesus. If Jesus was going to die, Thomas was prepared to die with Him. In essence he says, “Guys, suck it up; let’s go and die. Better to die and be with Christ than to be left behind.”
Thomas was an example of strength to the rest of the apostles. It appears that collectively followed his lead at this point and said, “OK, let’s go and die” — because they did go with Him to Bethany.
Thomas obviously had a deep devotion to Christ that could not be dampened even by his own pessimism. He had no illusion that following Jesus would be easy. All he could see were the jaws of death opening to swallow him. But he followed Jesus with an undaunted courage. He was resolved to die if necessary with his Lord rather than forsake Him. He would rather die than be left behind and separated from Christ.
Thomas’s profound love for the Lord shows up again in John 14. You’ll recall from our study of Philip that Jesus was telling them of His imminent departure. “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2) “And where I go you know, and the way you know ” (v.4).
In verse 5 Thomas speaks: “Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?'” Again we see his pessimism. In essence, he was saying, “You’re leaving. We’ll never get where you are going. WE don’t even know how to get there. How are we supposed to get there? It was a better plan for us to die with You, because then there’s no separation. If we died together, we would all be together. Be if You just go, how are we ever going to find You? We don’t even know how to get there.”
Here is a man with deep love. He is a man whose relationship with Christ was so strong that he never wanted to be severed from Him. His heart was broken as he heard Jesus speak of leaving them. He was shattered. the thought of losing Christ paralyzed him. He had become so attached to Jesus in those years that he would have been glad to die with Christ, but he could not think of living without Him. You have to admire his devotion to Christ.
This was overwhelming for Thomas. And his worst fears came to pass. Jesus died and he didn’t.
We pick up the next picture of Thomas in John 20. And Jesus’ death, all the disciples were in deep sorrow. But they all got together to comfort one another. Except for Thomas. John 20:24 says, “Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them.”
It is too bad he wasn’t there, because Jesus came and appeared to them. They had locked themselves in a room somewhere (most likely the Upper Room in Jerusalem). John writes, “The doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews” (v. 19).
Thomas missed the whole thing. Why wasn’t he there? It is possible that he was so negative, so pessimistic, such a melancholy person, that he was absolutely destroyed, and he was probably off somewhere wallowing in his own misery. He could see only the worst of everything. Now his worst fear had been realized. Jesus was gone, and Thomas was sure he would never see Him again. He may have still been thinking he would never find the way to get where Jesus was. He was not doubt regretting the fact that he did not die with Jesus, as he had been so determined to do in the first place.
Thomas may well have felt alone, betrayed, rejected, forsaken. It was over. The One he loved so deeply was goine, and it tore his heart out. He was not in a mood to socialize. He was brokenhearted, shattered, devastated, crushed. He just wanted to be alone. He simply couldn’t take the banter. He wasn’t in a mood to be in a crowd, even with his friends.
“The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord'” (v. 25). They were exuberant. They were ecstatic. They were eager to share the good news with Thomas.
But someone in the kind of mood Thomas was in was not going to be cheered up so easily. He was still being a hopeless pessimist. All he could see was the bad side of things, and this was just too good to be true. “So he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe'” (v.25).
It is because of that statement that he has been nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.” But don’t be too hard on Thomas. Remember, the other disciples did not believe in the resurrection until they saw Jesus either. Mark 16:10-11 says after Mary Magdalene saw Him, “She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.” The two disciples on the road to Emmaus walled with Him a long distance before they even realized who He was. And then “they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either” (v.13). When Jesus showed up in the room where the disciples are gathered, “He showed them His hands and side” (John 20:20). Then they believed. So they were all slow to believe. What set Thomas apart fromt he other ten was not that his doubt was greater, but that is sorrow was greater.
John 20:26 says that eight days passed after Jesus apperaed to the disciples again. Finally Thomas’s ragged grief had eased a bit, apparently. Because when the apostles were returned to the room where Jesus appeared to them, this time Thomas was with them. Once again, “Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace to you!'” (v.26)
No one needed to tell Jesus what Thomas had said, of course. He looked right at Thomas and said, “Reach your finer here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, be believing” (v.27). The Lord was amazingly gentle with him. Thomas had erred because he was more or less wired to be a pessimist. But it was the error of a profound love. It was provoked by grief, brokenheartedness, uncertainty, and the pain of loneliness. No one could feel the way Thomas felt unless he loved Jesus the way Thomas loved Him. Jesus was tender with him. He understands our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). So He understands our doubt. He sympathizes with our uncertainty. He is patient with our pessimism. And while recognizing these as weaknesses, we must also acknowledge Thomas’s heroic devotion to Christ, which made him understand that it would be better to die than to be separated from this Lord. The proof of his love was the profoundness of his despair.
Then Thomas made what was probably the greatest statement ever to come from the lips of the apostles: “My Lord and my God!” (v.28). Let those who question the deity of Christ meet Thomas.
Suddenly, Thomas’s melancholy, comfortless, negative, moody tendencies were forever banished by the appearance of Jesus Christ. And in that moment he was transformed into a great evangelist. A short time later, at Pentecost, alone with the other apostles, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered for ministry. He, like his comrades, took the gospel to the ends of the earth.
There is a considerable amount of ancient testimony that suggests Thomas carried the gospel as far as India. There is to this day a small hill near the airport in Chennai (Madras), India, where Thomas is said to have been buried. There are churches in south India whose roots are traceable to the beginning of the church age, and tradition says they were founded under the ministry of Thomas. The strongest traditions say he was martyred for his faith by being run through with a spear — a fitting form of martyrdom for one whose faith came of age when he saw the spear mark in his Master’s sid and for one who longed to be reunited with his Lord.
It’s interesting that God used a pessimist like Thomas. Thomas was the tender-hearted, moody melancholy individual. But both of them were transformed by Christ in the same way He transformed the others. Are you beginning to get the idea of what kind of people God uses? He can use anyone. Personality, status, and family background are all immaterial. The one thing all the apostles except Judas had in common was a willingness to acknowledge their own sinfulness and look to Christ for grace. he met them with grace, mercy, and forgiveness and transformed their lives into lives that would glorify Him. He does that for all who truly trust Him.
MacArthur, John. Twelve Ordinary Men. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002. Print.