“The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.” No disciple better personifies this truth than Thomas who we find in all four apostolic lists. Only John refers to him by name. Ironically, despite knowing little about him and despite the fact he wrote no Gospel or letter accepted by the early Church, he may well be one of the more generally well-known disciples of Jesus. Unfortunately, this popularity is associated with the familiar moniker, “Doubting Thomas,” that has unfairly singled him out from the other disciples. Despite what the other disciples told him; Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. But when he saw the marks in Jesus’ hands left by the nails of the crucifixion, Thomas was persuaded of more than the resurrection! Amazingly, he called Jesus his Lord and his God (Jn.20.28).
The name “Thomas” in both Hebrew and Aramaic mean “twin,” and is not attested in literature prior to John’s Gospel. However, the Greek term didymos, (twin) is known to also serve as a proper name. According to J.A. Fitzmyer it was a genuine Greek name.
After hearing that Lazarus had died and Jesus’ invitation to “go to him,” Thomas responded by saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn.11.16). Some believe Thomas was speaking cynically while others attribute great courage to him. Some say it speaks of “raw devotion and courage.” Biblical scholar, Andreas Köstenberger says the strongest endorsement of sincerity comes when one says, Thomas displays “an incredible picture of faith,” is “following out of loyalty,” and is a “model disciple.”
Köstenberger however agrees with Ben Witherington, another Bible scholar when he comments it “sounds more like fatalistic resignation to what seems inevitable.” M.W.G. Stibbe says that Thomas’ comment “reveals an element of misunderstanding,” showing “naivete at best, insincerity at worst.” He also calls it “false bravado” while drawing a connection to Peter’s statement and then asking, “where are Thomas and Peter when Jesus is crucified?”
Perhaps John MacArthur states it best when he writes,” Thomas’ words reflect loyal devotion and, at the same time, pessimism over the fact that they would probably all die. His fears were not unrealistic in the face of bitter hostility toward Jesus, and had the Lord not protected them in the garden (Jn.18.1-11), they may also have been arrested and executed (Jn.20.24-29).
The second mention by John regarding Thomas was in the upper room as Jesus was pouring Himself into His disciples during these final hours (Jn.14.1-14). Jesus is encouraging the disciples not to “let their hearts be troubled” and to believe in God and Him (Jn.14.1). Next, He makes an enigmatic statement saying He is going away, preparing a place for them, coming back to pick them up, and they know where (Jn.14.2-4). Thomas again, as spokesman (Jn.11.16), asks what all eleven of them must have been thinking, “Where?” He says, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (Jn.14.5). The disciples are experiencing perceptible anxiety. Neither Thomas, nor assumedly any of the eleven disciples knew to what Jesus was referring nor where He was going. Eckhard Schnabel believes Thomas was “asking for specific directions to a geographical place.”
To this Jesus responds with the sixth of His seven “I am” statements recorded by John when He says “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn.14.6).
Apparently, all the disciples are together with the exception of Thomas when Jesus shows up (Jn.20.24). When Thomas does arrive, Jesus is gone and the disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord” (Jn.20.25). In Thomas’ famous response, he says, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe” (Jn.20.25b). This seems consistent with his personality and is not dissimilar to the skepticism expressed by the disciples to the female disciples previously.
Interestingly according to Köstenberger, “from the evangelist’s perspective” Thomas unwittingly creates a wonderful opportunity for John to fulfill his stated purpose in writing his account (20.31). Additionally, Thomas’ doubt turned to belief would “foil and forestall the incipient gnostic notion that Jesus only appeared to be human.”
Eight days later (v.26), Jesus appears again to the disciples miraculously as He had done before (v.19). Again, He says, “Peace be with you” (v.26). Jesus seems immediately to speak to Thomas and invites him to do just as he a week earlier said he wanted to do, “see His hands, and touch His wounds” and to “believe” (vv.25b, 27). To which Thomas declines the invitation to touch but exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (v.28). To which Jesus offers a “mild rebuke “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (v.29). It is worth noting that Köstenberger lists nine commentators that agree with the idea of a rebuke.
Such a heartfelt response of belief is evidence of the journey to eternity with Jesus that transcends living for this world in lieu of the kingdom to come. “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people…waiting for our blessed hope…” (Ti.2.12-14).
Bruce Milne states the two terms “Lord” and “God” are virtually equivalent and refers to the Septuagint as supporting this. Thomas’ response cleared the way for one to “address Jesus in the same language Israel addressed Yahweh…nothing more profound could be said about Jesus.”
Thomas is last mentioned among the seven disciples fishing in the sea of Tiberias (Jn.21.2). According to tradition it is believed that Thomas took the Gospel to India which in Schnabel’s estimation (and mine) confirms his courage.