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Doubting Thomas and Faith by Hearing

27 October, 2007

b and lily“Doubting Thomas” is a familiar character in the Gospels, who often gets short shrifted as an incorrigible skeptic who refuses to ‘have faith.’ The account goes like this:

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:24-25).

The moral of this story, understandably enough, is usually given as follows: ‘Don’t be like Thomas, who refused to believe until he saw Jesus for himself, because that’s not having faith.’ While this is one aspect of what’s going on, the story has something more fundamental to teach us, particularly about the power of the apostolic testimony as the faith-producing Word of God–in fact, this is exactly what Jesus focused on with Thomas. After Jesus did show himself to Thomas, the conversation went like this:

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (vv. 26-28)

Contrary to the usual moral of the story, the focus of this climactic event is not so much on the relative virtue (or lack of it) in Thomas’ faith in what he saw, but on Jesus’ pronouncement of blessing upon those who believe by hearing. In other words, Jesus is not rebuking Thomas for believing because he saw, or even for wanting to see for himself. Jesus is not contrasting Thomas’ reaction with that of the other disciples, either, since they also believed after he “showed” himself to them-they too “saw the Lord” (20:20), even though Thomas wasn’t with them at the time. In the other Gospel accounts, as well, no one is asked to believe in the event of the resurrection apart from the visual evidence of Jesus’ presence until Thomas (cf. Matt 28; Luke 24). Thomas isn’t a relentless skeptic, any more than the others or any more than us. John is not denegrating eyewitness faith in the resurrected Jesus, and certainly not trying to undermine the sincerity and clarity of Thomas’ confession of faith in Christ; the point is that, unlike what we’d expect, as far as Jesus in concerned, eyewitness testimony to him is no less firm a foundation for our faith than the witness of our own eyes.

This is why Jesus reprimands Thomas, and it is extremely important that this is the immediate context out of which the apostle John presents the purpose of his own (written) testimony, employing the words and actions of “Doubting Thomas”–and especially Jesus’ response to him–as the mirror in which we as readers/hearers, who are by nature exactly like Thomas, must compare our own response to this authorized New Testament testimony:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:30, 31).

Jesus called the apostles to be his witnesses (15:27), and gave them his Spirit (20:22), so that their words would be his words–so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (5:25). In other words, we hear this Word in the testimony and proclamation of the same Scriptural witnesses to the Gospel, the actual “Word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess 2:13) by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Is 55). Because the apostles were commissioned and equipped by Jesus to be his messengers–to bear his Word–we can have confidence in their truth and in their life-giving power, by the power of the Spirit of Life himself. As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).

When we, like Thomas, hear the apostle’s tesimony to the risen and ascended Jesus, we must, unlike Thomas, take it as a ‘blessedness’ as good as seeing and touching the Lord of Glory with our very own eyes and hands. And not only so, but trust that all God’s purposes will be accomplished by this Word, as in us the Spirit brings what is spoken into existence–“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). By the grace of God those of who have heard this apostolic testimony and thus have believed, do not testify against but rather with Doubting-but-now-Believing Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought [i.e., its ordained means of working, is] by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. (Westminster Confession, 14.1)

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One Comment
  1. 28 October, 2007 5:00 pm

    Brian Blake and i think you should get your M Div.
    you’d like preaching.
    Different subject but check out the Thomas Goodwin site. Mark has something right up your and JK’s (and von Balthazar’s) alley. The PS.

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