IntroductionNot much is said about Thomas in scripture. Matthew, Mark, and Luke merely list him among the twelve closest disciples of Jesus. John gives us a little more information about him.
When John first mentions Thomas, Jesus has declared his intent to go to the tomb of Lazarus despite the warnings that the Jews had already tried to stone him once and would do so again. Thomas, with heavy resignation, says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
The next time Thomas appears, Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them but that they know the way to where he is going. Thomas, not able to make any sense of this, butts in with, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
In the account we've heard read today, Thomas sticks to what he knows: he saw Jesus crucified; saw the Romans make sure he was dead by spearing him; saw the tomb and the stone rolled in place. Dead people don’t come back so, regardless of anything anyone says they saw, Jesus is dead. For him to believe otherwise he must see it for himself: “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.”
He seemed to have little confidence in his closest associates or in their ability to see things right. Ever since, he's been known as Doubting Thomas which is somewhat of an unkindness, if the legend of his subsequent activities is true. But, at this stage of his experience, he epitomises unbelief for us, just one week after the most significant sequence of events in human history.
His unbelief raises a few questions for us.
- What does unbelief look like?
- Where does it come from?
- What effect does it have on us?
- What can we do about it?
What Does Unbelief Look Like?The first symptom of Thomas’s unbelief is that he rejects the evidence of credible witnesses.
The people telling him that Christ was alive were not strangers. They were people known to him, people like himself. He'd spent three years in their company, and had shared their experiences. The only difference was that Thomas was missing when Jesus appeared after his resurrection. They were overjoyed, and eager to tell Thomas they had seen the Lord.
We can imagine the logic behind Thomas’s reaction. “I’m sure you think you did, but things like that don’t happen. If it makes you happy, then good for you; but I’m a realist—you can’t expect me to believe the impossible.” Thomas said he would not believe unless he saw it for himself. Perhaps he thought the stress had all been too much for them and they'd lost the plot.
Are we not the same? We meet people who claim a tangible experience of God. They have the embarrassing habit of talking about God all the time. They seem to have a bit more joy than the rest of us. We say, “I won’t believe God can touch anyone in this way unless he touches me too. But that isn’t likely to happen because God doesn’t do that sort of thing, and I don’t need it.”
Another symptom is that Thomas rejects the words of Jesus. Somehow, all Jesus had taught had gone over his head. Jesus had explained to the disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:21)
We are also very good at judging things not against the Bible but against our own interpretation of the Bible, or even explaining the Bible away where it doesn't fit our experience:
- There have been times of silence from God before and this is another one.
- God healed then but doesn’t today.
- The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not for now.
Our apparent religion leaves us in danger of “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Ti 3:5).
Where Does Unbelief Come From?What is unbelief anyway? It's not merely absence of faith; I think it's something more sinister than that.
It's not just having questions about the truth of something. We all have honest questions about some of the things we believe. It’s not that we don’t believe, more that we haven’t yet found the right perspective on the problem. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Unbelief is more of an inability to believe something, or even a determination not to believe something. Look at what Thomas said in verse 25. Paraphrasing, “Unless my exacting proofs are given I WILL NOT believe.” He's already made his mind up!
How did Thomas get into this state? One cause of unbelief can be our circumstances. By tradition, Thomas was a carpenter, like Jesus, but we can hardly blame his occupation for his cynicism. Perhaps he suffered terrible disillusionment when all his hopes for Jesus failed at Calvary. What would he have thought after the crucifixion? It all came to nothing in the end. You fool! Fancy being taken in by all that.
We can well understand Thomas's reluctance to join another risky adventure. Thomas needed his perspective changing if he was to recover faith.
How many people have lost faith because of a sudden reversal of fortunes? Could it be that it's not that Jesus has failed but that their expectations have been misplaced? Might we need a change of perspective?
I have friends who, some years ago, lost their daughter at the age of eight through a tragic accident. People said to them, “How can you believe in a God who lets this happen?” Their response was, “How will we ever get through this without God's help?”
The apostle Paul gives us a big hint about another source of unbelief in 2 Corinthians 4:3. He writes, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel...”. People are locked into unbelief because Satan has blinded them to truth. As “the god of this world”, he's pulling the strings of our society.
In the west, the Age of Reason has robbed us of faith. We look for rational explanations. Where we can’t find one, we paper over the cracks with the idea that one day, when we have more knowledge, we will find one. Well, one day it will be too late! Perhaps the only explanation is God!
Then, we have our affluent society. We have no apparent need of God. We can take care of ourselves. We don’t need faith when we’ve money in the bank!
Even as believers, we swim in the same soup. We need to guard our hearts and minds against the influence of today’s society. We cannot rely on only what we can see.
Once when I went scuba diving with a friend in the sea at Whitley Bay, we were looking for a shipwreck we knew was there. Visibility was awful, and we were tempted to give up, but we had a compass bearing to follow. We pressed on and found not only the wreck but an enormous lobster and an octopus! We'd have missed out if we'd gone only by what we could see.
Thomas was not alone in his unbelief, of course. All the disciples were numbed in their senses. All had lived in the world influenced by Satan but we can’t blame it all on Satan and circumstance. Perhaps they all needed to hear the words that Jesus spoke to two others on the road to Emmaus. “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25). Our own hearts can be faulty.
I confess the often slowness of my own heart to believe. I am an analytical person by nature and by training. There is nothing wrong with that but my tendency has been to over-analyse things that affect me personally. I've identified all the problems. I've looked for the low-risk option. I've tended to rule out steps of faith. For me, this is unbelief. God wants me to live by faith not to restrict myself to my own perspective.
We need to guard our hearts and minds against the influence of today’s society. As Proverbs 4:23 tells us, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it."
What Effect Does Unbelief Have On Us?The writer to the Hebrews says of the Israelites “...they were not able to enter [into God's rest], because of their unbelief.” (He 3:19). Unbelief will keep us out of what God has for us. Thomas, for a while, missed out on the joy of the other disciples because of his unbelief.
I believe we are at a very significant time in the life of our Circuit: it could be make or break for us. I believe God wants to work in Tynedale. There's a wave coming in and, like a surfer, we need to catch it. I don't want us to miss out on riding God’s wave of renewal because we don't have the faith to see it. We need to get in the water where the wave will be, not wait to see if the wave is really there. If we only watch from the beach, the wave will break on the shore and be gone.
The writer to the Hebrews also warns, “See to it brothers that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (He 3:12). This points us to the biggest danger of unbelief. The writer here is not saying get rid of people with unbelief but see to it they find a remedy because unbelief can turn them away from God.
What Can We Do About Unbelief?Here are three remedies to think about: the grace of God, the evidence, and personal choice.
First, think of the grace the Lord Jesus showed to Thomas. He came back when Thomas was there and dealt very personally and directly with him. He made sure that Thomas got to see his hands and side. The Lord will surely meet us at our point of need too, if we give him the chance. We need to put ourselves in the right place at the right time. God has promised we will find him when we seek him with all our heart!
Second, consider the evidence. We have in the Bible the accounts of reliable eye-witnesses. In Christian bookshops you can find no end of books about countless believers who have proven God faithful down the ages. Search the Internet for a film called “Transformations” to see the changes God brought in modern times to the societies of a Columbian city, a town on the outskirts of Nairobi, a valley in California and a rural town in Guatemala. Believe the evidence you see. God can do the same here! Expect to see God at work.
Third, start making the right choices now. Jesus gave Thomas a command: “Stop doubting and believe”. But it was his choice to believe. Let's not allow our thinking to be characterised by unbelief. Let's recognise we are not immune from the circumstances of life and not let circumstance rob us of faith. Let's recognise that the enemy of our souls is blinding the minds of unbelievers and that he will still try to blind us if we let him. Let's each one of us make Jesus truly our Lord and our God, like Thomas did. Let's trust him, no matter what. “Stop doubting and believe”.
EpilogueAfter the events in our passage, Thomas is next heard of in Acts joining constantly in prayer with the other apostles after the Ascension of Jesus, renewed and restored and active in the life and mission of the church. Beyond that is legend. Thomas went to India and founded a church that is still in evidence today. He laid down his life there for what he believed. Thomas the Doubter proved full of faith in Jesus Christ, his Lord and his God.
What of God's purposes in Tynedale? Are we involved yet? Is unbelief in our way, or are we ready to grasp the vision, believe it and pray and work for its fulfilment? Can God use people like us? Yes he can!