By Martin Osman
Genesis 12:1-9; John 20:24-31
How often have you said, or hear it said, something like "If I see it with my own eyes I'll believe it". In other words seeing is very much believing.
Quite a few years ago now England played Columbia in a friendly football match at Wembley and I remember I was watching the highlights on television when something quite unusual happened. An England player had a shot at goal and instead of trying to catch the ball the Columbian goalkeeper dived forward, flicked up his legs and saved the shot by kicking the ball out with his heels. It became known as the scorpian.
I remember sitting in my armchair and thinking did I really see what I thought I’d seen. Of course, thanks to the innovation of the action replay within a matter of seconds what I’d thought I’d seen had been confirmed.
But suppose for a minute there was no television. Suppose the only people to have seen that save were those in the stadium that evening. If someone had come back and described that save to me I don’t think I’d have believed them. I must confess though I’ve often wondered what the Columbian manager would have said had the goalkeeper misjudged it and a goal had been scored.
But that’s by the way. It was because the goalkeeper had done something unexpected and certainly produced a save that you wouldn’t find in the coaching manual that led me to doubt what I’d seen. Sure I wanted to believe what had happened at first sight but I couldn’t fully believe until I’d seen the action replay.
And something unexpected also happened on that 1st Easter day and I guess Thomas must have had similar feelings to me when the other disciples told him that Jesus had risen from death and appeared to them. After all those things just don’t happen in reality. Unfortunately there was no immediate replay in this case and Thomas had to wait a further seven days to see the evidence for himself.
Why Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus first appeared we don’t know. It may have been purely circumstantial But there is a hint that his absence and attitude are linked. Thomas has appeared twice before in John’s Gospel. First as the spokesperson for those who haven’t grasped the basic concept of Jesus going to the Father in Chapter 6 And then expressing a willingness to go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus in Chapter 11
So we can come up with a picture of someone who’s loyal but unimaginative and who will only act on what he’s sure of. Not a bad quality in itself, but those with this kind of temperament can carry the instinct to its limits and so miss out on many positive and hopeful things in life.
If the description fits Thomas with any accuracy then it could well explain his absence after Jesus death. The death of Jesus was such an overwhelming reality for him that perhaps he needed to be on his own to come to terms with it. So when the disciples meeting the evening of that first Easter day Thomas is missing. And the testimony of the others does nothing to persuade as he lays out his terms for belief.
A week later of course Thomas is present when Jesus appears again and after greeting all of them Jesus gives Thomas his personal attention. Put your finger here, look at my hands, stretch out your hand and put it in my side, stop doubting and believe. And here are two wonders for Thomas. Jesus really is alive and he also met Thomas on his terms as his laid down conditions for belief are fully met.
But did Thomas actually take Jesus up on his invitation? We aren’t told, but we can probably say he didn’t. He surely had no need to take up the invitation as with awe he utters that great confession “My Lord and my God.”
The key theme of the closing verses of John 20 is the nature of faith and in particular four aspects of faith are focused.
1stly we are taught of faith’s agony
Thomas’s experience shows us that faith is not always a straight forward
affair. A fact surely emphasised by the healing of the boy with the evil spirit in
Mark 9 where the Father cries out I do have faith, but not enough, help me to have more.
Many people down the years have doubtless uttered a cry such as this.
One of Thomas’s problems was his personality, and if our earlier picture is correct, we see a gloomy, pessimistic person who struggles to make the great positive affirmations at the heart of faith. It gives us a picture of those for whom the Gospel is almost too good to be true. A risen Lord was not altogether credible.
Another of Thomas’s problems was isolation. He cut himself off from the other disciples, possibly to work through his problems alone or maybe he felt unable to identify with what they represented anymore. But whatever the reason he missed out when Jesus first appeared to the disciples and ended up with another week of struggle.
The message to us has to be not to go it alone. Jesus said where two or three are gathered together in my name I am there. How much do we lose out on if we don’t regularly attend worship? The very sermon we miss may well be the one that contains the message we need. The missed praise meeting may be the very one that would have cheered and lifted us up.
Another of Thomas’s problems was contradiction. The sheer reality of Jesus crucifixion overwhelmed him. Nothing had comparable significance be it the witness of the other disciples or the repeated teaching of scripture. Or indeed for that matter Jesus own teaching.
And here perhaps is the root of doubt, something happens in our lives, something that contradicts all we’ve previously known or believed. And as we remember and think about what’s taken place, everything else goes out the window, including God’s word and his promises. We can however take comfort from the fact that Jesus didn’t dismiss Thomas and he won’t dismiss us either. This further appearance would seem to be essentially for the benefit of Thomas.
To doubt is not a sin. Jesus knew all the thoughts that had been going through Thomas’s mind. He knows too our doubts and fears, he knows their circumstance, he knows their every detail, and he’ll deal with them if we’ll let him. Thomas though doesn’t get off entirely scot free as he gets the mild rebuke stop doubting and believe.
Our 2nd aspect of faith is its assurance.
Thomas came through his time of doubt into a clear and firm conviction. He played his part as the church was born and grew and according to fairly reliable tradition took the good news of the Gospel east as far as India and there he died for the sake of Christ. Therefore I would suggest the tag Doubting Thomas is a tad unkind for out of the doubter came a firm believer. It was the resurrection that made the difference; it was sufficiently real and verifiable to put his doubts to rest. It can be the only explanation for his subsequent life and career.
It is of course easy to say well it was different for Thomas he actually had the privilege of seeing the risen Lord. But the basis of his faith remains for us today. There’s the eye witness testimony. Thomas had been there, he’d seen the whole story unfold and at a historical level we too can have firsthand experience of Jesus ministry. That was precisely why John wrote his gospel that we may believe and through faith have life.
In our modern age, at an historical level we can confirm even more the reliability of these New Testament records. They were and indeed still are eye witness accounts of the life and work of Jesus Christ. But Thomas’s faith was also based on his first hand experience. He met Jesus personally and thers obviously a difference between this meeting and our experience today.
But the Christian claim down the ages is that we can still meet Jesus. That’s not emotion it’s logic. For if Jesus rose from death, as we know and believe he did, then he has conquered death and is alive for ever. It’s a plain and simple fact that millions around the world daily fall at Jesus feet and like Thomas echo those words My God and my king. We too can experience the assurance of faith.
The 3rd aspect of faith is the glory of faith.
We’ve already heard Thomas’s great confession “My Lord and my God”. And it sets in stone the great arch of truth that the gospel represents. Here is faith's special blessing.
Human, sinning people can glorify God by placing their trust in his son and calling him their Lord and God.
When John wrote his gospel the province he resided in was a centre for emperor worship and it’s likely that both his readers and himself would be familiar with the processions of devotees through the streets of Ephesus chanting Caesar is Lord, Caesar is God!
Against that Thomas utters that cry that is also our cry and the cry of very Christian throughout all ages Jesus is Lord Jesus is God! And the challenge for us today is to make that same fearless witness in the face of the many so called lords and gods of our day. For Caesar worship is very much still alive in the world today in the gods of state and nation and in the gods of the many false cults that exist in our world.
It is in the face of these things that we exalt in our worship the one who alone is worthy.
And it’s a confession made in the midst of a world that denies Christ’s claims. But also in the light of Jesus words in verse 29 of that reading from John’s gospel, "How happy are those who believe without seeing me". And is doing so we can assert there is a special glory brought to the Lord. A special vindication of his name in the heavenly places when in the midst of the broken order of this world, and in the face of assaults and contradictions, we affirm in faith his utter trust worthiness and rest ourselves on his everlasting grace.
4th Aspect of faith is the invitation of faith
John’s purpose is clear and the challenge insistent as he reaches his conclusion. In the light of his presentation of Jesus through the gospel, the signs of his life and ministry, his teaching and claims, his death and resurrection where do we stand?
It’s a question I’ll come back to in a minute. But where does that reading heard from Genesis fit in to this? Where does Abraham fit into it? Well it seemed to me that Abraham was almost the complete opposite of Thomas. If Thomas rightly or wrongly is dubbed the bibles great doubter, then surely Abraham has to be held up as the great man of faith.
Thomas has been around with Jesus for some three years, he’s heard his teaching, he seen the miracles and healing of the sick and generally shared life with him. So surely he has no cause to doubt and no cause to question. Abraham on the other hand was an old man when he was called to leave his country, leave his relatives, leave his father’s home and go to a land that God was going to show him.
If anyone had a case for doubting then surely it’s Abraham. Surely you can’t mean me? I think would have been a question I’d have asked in his position And I’d probably of added along the lines of Hang on a minute, I am enjoying my retirement where I am can’t someone else go? But Abraham it seems goes along with God seemingly without doubt or question and sets out for the land of Canaan.
Later of course Abraham showed great faith in being prepared to offer Isaac as a sacrifice at God’s command even though this was the son of whom God had promised Abraham would have many descendants. Abraham of course is always put forward as one of the great character of faith, so much so that Paul in his letter to the Romans devotes a whole chapter to him in Chapter 4. And of course Abraham’s willingness to obey God lead to him getting a mention in the great chapter of faith in Hebrews 11.
But if we’d delve a little further into the story of Abraham we may be both surprised and encouraged to discover that such a great character of faith sometimes got things wrong.
If we’d read a little further into Genesis 12 we’d have seen him lying to the king of Egypt about his wife telling her to tell the king she was his sister as he was afraid the Egyptians would kill him. In Genesis 17 we find him questioning can a man have a child when he is 100? Can Sarah have a child at 90? This despite God’s promise that he will give Abraham many descendants. And in Genesis 20 we see Abraham in a similar position to which he was in the latter part of Chapter 12 only this time in Gerar.
The great man of faith sometimes got it wrong, he sometimes doubted and he sometimes tried to do things his way and not God’s Sounds familiar doesn’t it, but I find it very encouraging that such a great man of faith was in fact just the same as each one of us.
So where do we stand? John invites us to believe, to commit ourselves personally to Jesus as Lord and God, trusting in his death as that of God’s sacrificial lamb to atone for our sins. And to follow him the path of discipleship as our way, truth and life. And the result will be life in his name, the eternal life of his kingdom. And we can come whether we have the faith of Abraham or whether we have the doubts of Thomas.
As we sang earlier.
Just as I am though tossed about
With many a conflict many a doubt
Fighting’s and fears within without
O Lamb of God I come.
We don’t have to wait to get rid of any doubts first. God is more than capable and more than able to deal with them.
The only important thing is that we do come just as we are even with all the baggage we may be carrying. And as we allow him to deal with our doubts and concerns we can journey forward as that other hymn we sang put it.
We of this generation on whom God’s hand is laid
Can journey to the future secure and unafraid
Rejoicing in God’s goodness and trusting in his word
That you shall be my people and I will be your God
Jesus says to us today, as he said to Thomas all those years ago stop doubting and believe. And as we do that may we like Thomas respond with that great affirmation My Lord and my God