“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’”
Read: John 20:11-31
John, who wrote his account of Jesus’ life and ministry last (decades after Luke), filled his gospel narrative with many glorious events that are not found in the other gospel narratives. Many of these comprise some of the most popular portions of Scripture, such as Nicodemus meeting Jesus at night, which gives us the most memorized verse in the entire Bible (John 3:16). John also provides us with Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:7-26), and the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41). John also tells us about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to a certain “doubting” disciple named Thomas (John 20:26-29).
Those who have grown up going to Sunday school have likely heard at least one lesson on this passage with the application point, “Don’t be a doubting Thomas.” Some of us have probably heard sermons preached with this being the main point of the passage. This passage and Thomas’ doubt are so famous that my next point might be hard to hear, but, “Don’t be a doubting Thomas” is not the point of that passage.
“But Thomas clearly doubts the firsthand eyewitness testimony of the other disciples!” you might argue. That may be true (see John 20:26), but just because something is in a passage doesn’t mean that it is the point of the passage. So, what is the point? The point is that for Christ’s elect, he will remove every single ground for unbelief in their hearts. To put it another way, as Jesus himself states 10:16, his sheep “will listen to my voice.”
John’s account of Jesus’s resurrection is all about belief. The chapter begins with Mary finding the tomb empty. She goes and gets Peter and John who check it out and see that the cloths that wrapped Jesus’ body are still there, as if Jesus’ body just went right through them. We aren’t told how Peter reacted. But John, when he comes upon the empty tomb, believes, though he doesn’t fully understand (John 20:8). Peter and John then go home, but Mary stays by the tomb weeping (John 20:13). It is abundantly clear that the thought of resurrection has not crossed her mind at all. As she tells the angels, and humorously even Jesus himself, she believes that someone has stolen Jesus’ body and put it somewhere else (John 20:13, 15).
Whether it is due to her grief or the possibility that Jesus’ resurrected body is similar but different to his pre-resurrection body, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus despite the fact that she is face to face with him (John 20:15). Even as Jesus first speaks to her, she does not recognize his voice. She does not believe in the resurrection. That is, until “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’” (John 20:16). As Jesus said of himself earlier, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Mary believes at the moment Jesus calls her name.
Jesus then instructs Mary to go and tell the disciples about the risen Lord, but the fact that they are huddled in a locked room fearing for their lives (John 20:19) indicates that they have not truly believed or apprehended the reality and implications of the resurrection. But then, Jesus appears in the midst of them, bringing peace and the physical evidence borne on his body that it is truly him, and they rejoice greatly (John 20:19-20). Nevertheless, after telling Thomas that they had seen the risen Lord (John 20:24-25), they return to their fear (John 20:26), showing their need of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
This brings us to Thomas, who wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the ten (verse 24). Though they tell Thomas what had happened, Thomas doesn’t believe and even gives an unreasonable demand that unless he physically touches Jesus’ side he will never believe (John 20:25). But the passage doesn’t end there. Jesus leaves Thomas in his unbelief for eight days, with the full number of the disciples huddled together again in exactly the same circumstance as before, and just as before Jesus appears in the middle of them with the same message, “Peace be with you” (John 20:26).
Then Jesus turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas then gives one of the clearest and greatest declarations of faith in the entire Bible, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). We note three things from this interaction between Jesus and Thomas.
First, Jesus was not physically with Thomas when Thomas gave his condition for belief, and yet Jesus heard him. Jesus knows his sheep and knows exactly what it will take for each and every one of them to believe.
Second, Jesus removed every possible ground that Thomas had to disbelieve. Though in his divine sovereignty and perfect timing he waited eight days, he didn’t leave his sheep wandering in the foreign fields of unbelief. He called his sheep, and the sheep came running without hesitation.
Third, we are not told if Thomas ever actually touched Jesus’ side. Why is that significant? Because, although Thomas thought that he needed to physically touch Jesus to believe, that isn’t necessarily the case. Likewise, although a person may think they need a sign from above, an audible voice from heaven, or some other miracle to believe, Jesus knows what they truly need, and he has given it to them in his Word.
As modern readers of this gospel we might read this account and think, “Wow, John, Mary, Thomas, and the other disciples believed when they saw either the empty tomb or the risen Jesus. I better book my ticket to Israel to visit where they think the tomb of Jesus was so that I can believe and be saved!” If that’s your thought, keep reading in John’s gospel! After his declaration of faith, Jesus tells Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 10:29). Thomas believed by sight—great for him! But that’s not necessary for belief. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Jesus knows what we need, and what we need is John’s gospel and the rest of the Scriptures.
John ends this chapter by explaining the purpose for why he’s written his gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). Through the message of the gospel, written in the God-breathed Scripture (see 2 Tim 3:16), Jesus is calling his sheep by name throughout the ages and the world, and they will hear his voice, believe, and have life in his name. Have you heard his voice? As Peter said at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). If you already belong to his fold, then your charge is to be the means through which Christ calls his other sheep. Go and proclaim the message that Christ has risen from the dead and that there is life in his name!
Discuss and Pray Together: Reflect together on John’s purpose statement for writing in verses 30-31. What does this purpose statement tell us is the underlying point of each and every one of those events that we love in his gospel account? Finish by sharing prayer requests with one another and praying for them.