Each week as I prepare for my sermons, there are things I find in my study that I simply don’t have time to include. They get left on the cutting room floor. A lot of what gets left out isn't needed in the sermon, but sometimes I run across something I really want to share. That happened last week. I was really blown away by some observations James Montgomery Boice made in his sermon on Thomas, and I’ve been mulling them over since.
The story of Thomas in John 20 has given us the well-known epithet “a doubting Thomas.” Is this the best or only way to think about Thomas? I don’t think so. Sure, Thomas was a doubter. And his doubt has been encouraging and instructive for many skeptics and evangelists throughout the centuries. I thank God that we have record of Thomas’ doubt in Scripture, but there’s more to Thomas than his doubt. There’s more below the surface. Thomas has more than one characteristic, and each aspect of his unique personality and faith is helpful and insightful for thinking about our own lives and our ministry. There are basically three passages in John that deal with Thomas. They help give us a more complete picture of the famous doubter.
A Doubter and a Believer
The most well-known passage is John 20. It’s where we find Thomas the doubter. But as I said in my sermon, people shouldn’t give Thomas such a bad rap. Sure, he doubts the resurrection when he first hears about it; but none of the apostles believed until Jesus sought them out after the resurrection. Thomas is no different than any of the apostles in that respect. And in the end, Thomas also believed, just like the other apostles! So maybe we should call him “believing Thomas.”
The big difference between Thomas and the other apostles is he wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to them that first time. So he didn’t see Jesus at first. But why wasn’t Thomas with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them? We don’t know for certain, but I wonder if Boice isn’t on to something when he says Thomas had a “gloomy” temperament. And people with gloomy temperaments tend to go off by themselves when things get hard. Maybe Thomas was like Eeyore—off by himself, with a cloud over his head and rain falling down on his heart.
Loyal but Grim
Boice says if you look at Thomas in John 11 and 14, you start to get a picture that he was prone to gloom. I think he’s right. When Jesus announced he was going to Jerusalem, all the other disciples warned him—you might be killed! But Thomas said to the group, “Let us go with him, that we may die with him!” (John 11:16). These are not the words of a coward or a fair-weathered friend. These are the words of a loyal and courageous disciple. But they weren’t cheerful words either; these are quite grim words.
Honest but Gloomy
Another time Jesus tried to explain to his disciples that he was going to the Father. And he told them that they knew the way. In reality, nobody had any idea what Jesus was talking about. And nobody spoke up…except for Thomas. He said, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Thomas was honest, and he was bold. He came right out and told Jesus he didn’t know what he was talking about. But can you also hear a trace of gloominess in his voice. “Lord (alas), we don’t know where you are going…” A.W. Pink says that Thomas reminds him of John Bunyan’s Mr. Despondency and Miss Much-afraid. He reminds me of a bolder version of Eeyore. He’s honest and loyal, but grim and gloomy.
Seeking Those Who Go Off by Themselves
And those who are gloomy tend to go off by themselves. Maybe you can relate to that. Maybe that’s your tendency when things get hard or life seems impossible. How should you respond if you are prone to gloom and isolation? And how should you respond if you encounter others who are prone to gloom and isolation?
Those who are prone to go off by themselves are the ones who can least afford to be alone. Gloom and despair prey upon them, and such people will become more gloomy and less believing if left alone. Go to them. Find them. Bring them back into that fellowship you enjoy.
That’s what Jesus did. Jesus met Thomas where he was at. Thomas said he needed to see and touch, or he wouldn’t believe (v. 25). Jesus comes to him and invites him to see and touch and believe (v. 27). But Jesus not only met Thomas at the point of his doubt, he also sought him out in his despondency. He came specifically to Thomas.
When Thomas expressed his doubt to the other disciples, how did they respond? They could have responded by saying, “It’s not our problem that you were off moping around. We had a get together last Sunday night and you should have been there!” But that’s not what they did. They went and told him, “We have seen the Lord” (v. 25).” Boice says they were so filled with joy in the knowledge that Jesus was alive that they went to tell everyone. They sought out Thomas and made sure that he was with them when they gathered to worship on the second Sunday.
Thomas is ironically a very encouraging character. Although gloomy and doubtful, he gives hope to others who struggle with gloom and doubt. He’s also instructive. If you’re prone toward isolation, you may need to be reminded that if left alone things won’t get better, they may get worse. Don’t neglect gathering together with other believers. This is how we spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:25). And if you know someone who’s gone MIA—off the grid, underground, whatever—don’t just talk behind their back about how they should be here. Go after them. They may need you to bring them back into the fold where they can encounter Christ and be lifted out of their doubt and/or despair.