Friday, April 05, 2013

Thomas the Doubter? Doubtful

I heard 2 pretty good sermons for Resurrection Sunday, both focused a great deal on Thomas in John 20. I quite like John, it's the gospel I know best in the most languages. Anyway, I think we readily misread Thomas. He is often presented to us as the skeptic, the doubter, the one who needs proof. Why do I think this is a misreading?

v20  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

Jesus first appears to the other disciples, and after greeting them, he shows them his hands and his side. Here Jesus gives them a visible exhibition that (a) it is he, Jesus, and (b) concurrently that he is alive. Thomas is absent (v24). We are not told why, but given the silence on the subject it seems circumstantial, not culpable - there is no blame for Thomas not being there at that very time, it just happened to be that way. So hearing the testimony of the other disciples, "We have seen the Lord." (v25), Thomas' response is that he will both need to see, and test by tactile sensation, the reality of the risen Lord.

It seems to me that Jesus could easily have arranged to have appeared when Thomas was present. I believe that Jesus deliberately chose not to appear when Thomas was present, precisely because of what occurs on the second appearance here. Eight day later (v26), Jesus appears again in very much the same way with the same occurences. Jesus offers to Thomas the proofs he requests (v27) both visual and tactile. The text is silent about whether Thomas takes up that offer, but given his response in v28 it is natural to conclude that Thomas does not touch the risen Lord in order to test him in that way. But, the nature of sight being what it is, Thomas does indeed see the wounds of the hands and side. Thomas' response is, as the disciples, one of faith, but Thomas' expression of that is a confession of divine Lordship (v28).

Thomas believes on no greater proof than the other disciples do. Receiving the same proof, he responds with the same faith. So why do we think he doubts more than the others? Rather, isn't the exchange with Jesus in v27-29 the purpose of Jesus here. Jesus' response in v29 is seen as foreshadowing the future witness of the church, the many like myself who have believed without these visible proofs. Thomas' absence and 'doubt' are designed to elicit faith for those who doubt but do not see.

The connection of v29 through into v30-31, the virtual purpose statement of the book of John, helps us see how that functions. John knows that many people long for this kind of proof, but it is not available - the risen Lord Jesus does not appear to people just because they demand visible proof. And yet John's gospel is written so that people will believe based on these testimonies to Jesus' signs, including the one given to Thomas, and that there is indeed blessing for us "who have not seen and yet have believed."

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