Simon Bowkett's Podcast

7 - Case Studies for our Era of Anxiety - 3 - Thomas - John 20 vv 24-29

March 05, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Show Notes Transcript

                  •        Introduction

You may remember that the premise for our short series ‘Hope for an Era of Anxiety’ is that …

in spite of our technical sophistication, our medical advances and our high-powered scientific and academic capabilities, we do somehow seem to live in an age characterised by anxiety.

And I suspect that has been taking root from uncomfortable uncertainty.

According to Dan W. Grupe and Jack B. Nitschke in Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2013 July; 14(7): 488–501:

“Uncertainty diminishes how efficiently and effectively we can prepare for the future, and thus contributes to anxiety … 

Comprehensive information about the probability, timing, and nature of a future negative event promotes more efficient allocation of these resources, but such information is rarely available owing to the inherent uncertainty of the future.”

As we’ve noted from the beginning of this series, people can’t survive long without hope.

It is after all hope that keeps us going through both our present painful experiences AND our anticipatory fear of what the future may hold for us.

And in our communication of the Gospel (that is, of the Good News Jesus brings to our Era of Anxiety) I fear we may have soft-pedalled this important element of hope.

In my work for y GRWP as a Rural Chaplain, I come across a lot of folks who would admit they could do with a bit of hope.

People are LOOKING for it, though not always necessarily in all the right places!

Today we’re going to do a quick case study on Thomas the twin and ask how hope can dawn for a person crippled by the loss of hope.

And in doing so we’ll be asking the question: what is it that moves a person from disappointment, disillusionment, and anxiety to hope … how DOES a person who is short on positive thoughts come to a position of hope by becoming a Christian?

How does a person come to make the change?

         •        1. The Psychology of a Doubter

Let’s examine the anatomy of Thomas’s unbelief.

We’re looking at John 20:24-29:

“Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

 

But 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.”

 

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 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.”

 

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

 

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

That’s a really rapid shift.

What brought it about?

What’s going on in that man’s head?

Well, to be perfectly honest, the Gospels haven’t really got a lot to tell us about Thomas.

In John 11:16 when the disciples are a bit wary of following Jesus in the direction of Jerusalem … where they feared for Jesus’s safety … it was Thomas who loyally if rather negatively persuaded them:

“Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Now, Thomas (Aramaic) and Didymus (Greek) both mean twin.

I don’t know any more about his family relationships than that, but it seems safe to say Thomas might have been a twin! 

How he got on with his sibling we don’t know, but he certainly had a fairly grim but nonetheless definite loyalty to Jesus.

Then we read in John 14:15 that after Jesus has been trying to prepare His disciples for His departure … talking about His Father having a house that Jesus was going to in order to prepare a place there for His disciples too … Thomas simply didn’t seem to get it.

We can reckon Thomas was not expecting to be an eye-witness to the Resurrection!

He was headed for a shock, which makes sense of the first thing we need to notice about the incident we are looking at in John 20:24-29 today.

Notice first please that in the first instance, Thomas was …


            •          Absent when Jesus turned up

At first, when Jesus went and appeared to His disciples, Thomas was nowhere around.

That says a lot.

“Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”

He wasn’t there to see this momentous event that the Lord had spent a lot of effort trying to prepare them for.

I find that surprising, but the books tend to suggest that I shouldn’t.

Milne, in his ‘Message of John’ p. 302 suggests that “the death of Jesus was such an overwhelming reality that he must get alone to try to come to terms with it. So, when Jesus comes to the disciple on Easter evening, Thomas is not there.”

I suppose that makes sense of the situation … and I’m just expecting Thomas to have stuck around there with the Twelve simply because I know how the story’s going to end.

But whatever the case, the fact is that the same Thomas who had shown such great loyalty when he wanted to stick with Jesus on the journey up to Jerusalem, was far from wanting to stick with the disciples after the traumatic events of the crucifixion.

The powers in the Land had crucified the Lord, he thought the game was up and no doubt expected that together in a huddle, if once caught, was going to be a risky place to be.

But then another window opens into Thomas’s psychology … 


            •          Reluctant to believe the other disciples’ testimony

“… the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

I suppose they MEANT that to be an encouragement for their possibly slightly pessimistic, and now no doubt rather downcast companion.

Did you notice the other disciples were so blown away by seeing the Risen Jesus that they take no pains at all to meet Thomas where he was down in the dumps but trumpeted the cheerful truth in his downcast ear.

If he was of a pessimistic disposition (‘let’s go up with him that we may also die with him’ does to my mind suggest a pessimistic disposition) and if he is in a downcast frame of mind after the crucifixion, then the blurted message ‘we have seen the Lord’ might be almost guaranteed to be heard as something else … something more like ‘Jesus came, but you missed the party, ya loser!’

Do you see what I mean?

Thomas’s anxiety at the situation and discouragement with events isn’t going to be helped at all by that!

He immediately starts …


            •          Laying down conditions for faith

Rather than accepting his friends’ testimony to their joyful experience, then, Thomas laid down conditions for coming to believe.

This is typically blunt and straightforward … given what we’ve heard already from Thomas:

“But 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.”

John 20:25b

It’s pretty clear Thomas was well up to speed with the Crucifixion.

He knows what went on and it was lethal.

No-one could have received the wounds Thomas is describing and lived.

It wasn’t happening!

So IF Thomas could see and actually touch a LIVING body that had received wounds like those, then THAT would show that he was neither dealing with an impostor nor a ‘ghost’.

A living person carrying those tangible wounds whilst looking and sounding like His (familiar) Jesus, was pretty likely to be the real resurrected Jesus … but the slightly pessimistic, traumatised and downcast Thomas was NOT going to believe any of this otherwise.

Or was he?

We’ll get to that but just for a moment let’s stop and bring this Thomas into our contemporary experience.


            •          Encountering our contemporary Thomas

Now, I’m not the only person to suggest this, but there are clear parallels between the psychology and behaviours of Thomas and our contemporary anxious and (strictly) hope-less skeptics.

Of all the facts of our faith that give comfort and hope to our Age of Anxiety, the resurrection is the great big humdinger!

And here’s Thomas doubting and depressing himself over that one.

But look … please notice this … many people in the world all round us doubt the resurrection (as Keller puts it) “on the basis of temperament as much as reason.”

‘Hope in Times of Fear’, p. 92.

Thomas certainly seems to be the type of person who ‘goes with his gut’ rather than just rationalising things through … but still defends his position behind a wall of after-the-event reasoning.

Now, rural people tend in my experience to be more transparent with the reasons they use to reject the facts of the faith than people who have done much with university and who live in towns.

But actually, my experience of people who have done a lot with university and who live in towns tends to make me think that this sort of behaviour … deciding for non-rational reasons then rationalising it afterwards … is a human rather than a university-acquired trait.

PEOPLE tend to be sceptical about the facts of the faith (as Tim Keller puts it) “on the basis of temperament as much as reason”.

I’d want to go further.

I’d want to say that behind the most intellectual arguments against the facts of the faith (and the life-giving hope of the resurrection is a MAJOR one of those facts) there often lies a matter of temperament that drives the passion of the intellectual debate.

And it’s often the protection of cherished sin that’s been fixed deep down in the personality that drives the expression of that temperament and disposition.

That will have MASSIVE implications for how we commend faith to unbelieving people, because if THAT’s the case we may find intellectual apologetics alone is NOT going to change a THING!

HOWEVER, we will probably still have to open ears a bit at the start when people object that ‘dead people simply CAN’T come back to life’.

Thomas, in common with many Jewish people of his day, would have expected a general resurrection at the End of the Age (like Martha in John 11:24 ““I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”)

But NOW?

Here and NOW?

Thomas clearly needed some in-depth teaching to correct his understanding of individual eschatology … as we may well be tempted to think of people in our day.

Interestingly he DIDN’T get any of that from the Lord.

The Lord took a very different tack, but we’ll come to that.

There may be one more shared feature between Thomas and our contemporary sceptics.

There may well also be a heart-felt fear of disappointment … a sort of longing for this to be true but not daring to think it might be, because the pain of disappointment if hope were to be confounded is simply too painful to contemplate.

It’s the voice that says: ‘Don’t get my hopes up, it would be too painful’.

And you and I too might be no stranger to the sorts of things that from the little we learn of him in Scripture we suspect may also have been real issues for Thomas:

·       A worldview that says it can’t happen.

·       A temperament that predisposes to scepticism, or even cynicism.

·       A heart fearful of disappointment, hardly daring to think that this could possibly be true.

… and all that ranged against the clear eye-witness testimony of close and trusted friends of long standing.

So in summary, the strange thing begins to seem to be NOT that Thomas came to faith but that he hadn’t already on the basis of the friends’ testimony … and yet we can find ways to explain that NOT based on the evidence available to him but on the basis of his pre-conceived ideas, personal temperament and disposition and then his fear.

Those are things we NEED to address in our personal evangelism, building hope in the folks who inhabit our strange era of anxiety.

         •        2. The journey from doubt to faith

Funnily enough Thomas’s journey from doubt to faith contains none of our accustomed ‘historical evidence for the Resurrection’!

But the path he took from deepest doubt ended up in clearest faith … perhaps the clearest profession of faith in the New Testament:

John 20:28 “Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!””

Wow!

It’s an amazing turn around, which surely gives amazing hope!

That’s a pretty big journey and it SEEMS to be completed pretty quickly.

In fact it is so striking that some consider this to be the climax of the Gospel of John.

The arch-doubter find crystal clear commitment born of faith in the Lord’s physical resurrection.

How did THAT happen?

It happened in just about three significant steps …


            •          a) Thomas received apostolic testimony

First of all, Thomas HEARD and then Thomas ACCEPTED the testimony of the Apostles, in this case they said v. 25 “We have seen the Lord!”

Indeed they did, and indeed they had.

The significant change is that by v. 28 Thomas has renounced publicly his earlier hostile response to that suggestion.

Now that Thomas has seen and heard from the Lord, there was no possibility Thomas was going to need first to get really ‘hands-on’ with Jesus.

Jesus invited that, but there’s no hint that Thomas paused to check the nail holes before confessing - proclaiming - his faith in Jesus.

Look: Thomas put his faith in Jesus having ABANDONED his own previous pre-conditions.

He MET Jesus … and hope dawned over the cynic’s previous scepticism.

How do you DO that?

You read the eye-witness testimony to Jesus, Who still speaks faith to doubt through the pages of His Word.

I mean, if you NEED to you could read Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony’

He proves that the gospels don’t bear the tell-tale signs of fictional storytelling but of eyewitness accounts.

OK.

Thomas had the same eyewitnesses telling him that Jesus had been raised that we have … the Gospels-writing apostolic team.

But secondly, he quickly came to see that Jesus did not merely rise from the dead but rose from the dead for HIM, instigating the response we read in v. 28:

 


            •          b) Thomas made the Good News Personal

“My Lord and my God” 

For those who do this stuff:

ὁ κύριος μου καὶ ὁ θεός μου

Now … to my mind that sounds pretty emphatic.

‘Lord of mine, GOD of mine’ … which sounds like it should be a song by City Alight or something. Maybe we can suggest it to them!

Can you see what’s happened here?

This is not ‘the Lord’

This is ‘MY Lord’.

This is not ‘the God’ … crucially, crucially this is ‘MY God’ that springs from Thomas’s lips.

What swung it for him?

When Jesus apaeared that second time to the disciples, who Thomas had now given sufficient credibility to be WITH them the next time the Lord joined them in their private meeting place, He turned directly to the doubter and invited Thomas directly to put his hand in the wound sites and check him out.

And IMMEDIATELY Thomas made his confessions of faith, on the Lordship and deity of Christ.

Where did that suddenly and decisively come from?

Leon Morris suggests what swung it for Thomas was not the wounds but the words of the Saviour.

What the Lord said to Thomas showed He was well aware of the things Thomas had said when the Lord wasn’t visibly present … which must mean that He HAD been there present but totally unseen.

He’d been as committed to being with Thomas whether seen or unseen!

Christ had committed Himself to walk with Thomas.

Hearing his refusal to believe his friend without tangible proof for himself.

Seeing the cynicism and ANXIETY in Thomas heart.

And yet Jesus STILL came to Thomas as requested … and ‘requested’ none too graciously, at that!

Jesus might as well have voiced what was going on like this:

He might have said 

‘I know all about your doubts, your fears, your broken promises and all your flaws.

I have seen right into the deepest pit of your soul.

But I still love you, you anxious and miserable thing, and LOOK … knowing and seeing all of that I’m still here for you, and I’m doubling back when you don’t deserve it so you can WALK with me!’

You can take this or leave it as you wish but Keller suggests:

“He originally wanted to see the wounds as evidence of Jesus’s power. Now he saw them for what they really were - evidence of Jesus’s love, His sacrificial love for Him.’

Keller p. 93

Interestingly, Jesus has one more little thing to put to posterity …


            •          c) The blessing of not having seen but believed

There is BLESSING in believing without having seen all that Thomas was privileged to believe.

Hopelessness and anxiety breed scepticism.

They often don’t DARE to believe what they’d possibly quite LIKE to.

Now, as a ‘missionary’, if you like, to rural people who are often non-literate (which means they they don’t read much, not that they CANNOT read) and who may well think profoundly but often don’t decide on the basis of analytical thought, I tend to the belief that our concentration as UK Evangelicals in the last fifty years is good but not as universally helpful as you might think.

It can unintentionally de-emphasise the way, the process, by which many Biblical characters came to faith.

As a simple miracle the resurrection is spectacular and the evidence we have for it is formidable.

I am convinced by the evidence for Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead, and I see that as the climax of the way we were provided with the potential for salvation … the means of the defeat of our two most anxiety-inducing and greatest enemies: sin and death.

But it is as the means of the restoration of my personal relationship with the all-seeing, all-knowing, even me-loving God that the restoration starts to happen in my life as the sent Spirit brings me to the Christ Who gives me hope and help … and even the wholeness born of holiness.

We’re trying to say that once Thomas saw and heard Jesus all his preconditions for faith … to touch his wounds and so on … fell instantly aside because what Jesus said showed He knew EXACTLY what a failure Thomas had been and loved Thomas and wanted to reach out to him anyway.

And yet … better to not have seen all Thomas had seen and exercised greater faith in God and trust in the eye-witness testimony, because seeing is NOT always believing, the Lord delights in the believing which to that person counts as seeing.

         •        Conclusion

There is HOPE in our Era and in our experience of circumstantial anxiety.

It lies not in relished and in nurtured scepticism and cynicism … for many of us THAT is what we turn FROM to Christ.

If you are the theological type ‘repentance’ is the word we use for this thing here, and cynicism and scepticism might be what we need to repent of to come to Him.

We don’t need the same experience Thomas had.

But we DO need to make the same discovery Thomas made, and personalise that trust in Christ and His resurrection which revolutionised Thomas … sending him out we understand to take the Good News he’d learned about Christ to the sub-continent of India, giving His life with joy and purpose to making the living Lord known.



 


Table of Contents

•       Introduction

•       1. The Psychology of a Doubter

•       Absent when Jesus turned up

•       Reluctant to believe the other disciples’ testimony

•       Laying down conditions for faith

•       Encountering our contemporary Thomas

•       2. The journey from doubt to faith

•       a) Thomas received apostolic testimony

•       b) Thomas made the Good News Personal

•       c) The blessing of not having seen but believed

•       Conclusion