Formations 04.23.2017: Sitting a While with Thomas

John 20:19-31

According to a new survey, fully one-fourth of British people who identify themselves as Christian say they do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. In a recent article, author and columnist Theo Hobson weighs in on this by writing,

Well, it won’t surprise you to hear that I think they are on theologically dodgy ground. Christians should affirm the resurrection of Jesus, however much they struggle to reconcile it with their rational assumptions. Unless it is affirmed, this whole religion is obviously toast.

And yet, Hobson urges a certain degree of restraint in our responses to such people. After all, our universal human experience is that dead people stay dead. To say otherwise flies in the face of all that we know about how the world works.

Maybe, Hobson says, these questioning Christians are just being honest. Maybe part of them believes the mystery of the resurrection, but part of them does not. Their stance might, he suggests, “be a valid attempt to express the complexity of faith, a way of saying, ‘I believe, help my unbelief.’”

Rembrandt, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1634 (detail)

This Eastertide, let us remember these followers of Jesus who struggle to believe—especially as we read the story of Thomas. When Thomas missed an encounter with the risen Christ that the other disciples experienced, he found their account too good to be true and demanded proof: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe” (John 20:25).

The story the others tell Thomas was (frankly) unbelievable, but it was true. As the passage progresses, Jesus’ second appearance gives him the confirmation he needs.

This text can be a springboard for participants to express their own doubts and questions about the resurrection. Few if any of us understand fully what the resurrection of Jesus means, and fewer still have never wondered how such a thing could even be possible.

This Easter, we would do well to sit for a while with Thomas and wrestle with our own struggles to believe.

Theo Hobson, “In Defence of Christian Doubt,” The Spectator, 10 Apr 2017 .

Discussion

• What is your first response when you hear that a modern-day faith healer has raised someone from the dead? Why do you respond this way?
• Why might someone—even a believer—struggle to affirm that God raised Jesus from the dead?
• Where can we identify with Thomas?
• Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who “don’t see and yet believe” (v. 29). How can we claim that blessing for ourselves?
• What can bring us, like Thomas, to worship Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (v. 28)?

Reference Shelf

Thomas

Thomas had not been present when Jesus appeared on Easter day to his disciples, and when they told Thomas about it, he vowed that he would not believe in the resurrection until he had touched Jesus’ hands and side; later generations nicknamed him “doubting Thomas” because of this vow. A week later Christ appeared again to the disciples, with Thomas present, and Christ offered to allow Thomas to touch his hands and side. He then commanded Thomas to stop doubting and to have faith. Thomas did exactly that, and he gave to Jesus one of the most direct confessions of faith in the NT, “my Lord and my God” (v. 28). Jesus commended him and offered a blessing on all who, unlike Thomas, trust in Christ without benefit of seeing his risen body.

Fisher Humphreys, “Thomas,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 911.

Seeing and Believing

Jesus responds to Thomas’s confession: “Because you have seen me in the past and continue to see me [perfect tense], you have believed and continue to believe [perfect tense]” (v. 29a). The verb tenses are appropriate to Thomas’s situation. He had seen Jesus (i.e., prior to Easter) and now he continues to have the experience (i.e., in a resurrection appearance); he, therefore, believed (prior to Easter) and continues to believe (after Easter). Because of his empirical experience, he believes in Jesus who is the same person prior to and after Easter…. Continuing to believe in Jesus is the desired aim. Thomas has done so because of his empirical experience, but there are others who will not have such experience and yet need to believe…. The situation is analogous to that described by Rabbi Simeon b. Laqish:

The proselyte is dearer to God than all the Israelites who stood by Mount Sinai. For if all the Israelites had not seen the thunder and the flames and the lightnings and the quaking mountain and the sound of the trumpet they would not have accepted the law and taken upon themselves the kingdom of God. Yet this man has seen none of all these things yet comes and gives himself to God and takes on himself the yoke of the kingdom of God. Is there any who is dearer than this man? (Tanhuma §6 [32a]…)

“Blessed [cf. 13:17; Rev 14:13; 19:19; 20:6; 22:4; Lk 10:23] are those who do not see and yet believe” (v. 29b). Congratulations to those disciples who believe in Jesus whether or not they have experienced him during his earthly career.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 266.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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