By Joel Ryan, Crosswalk.com
Thomas was one of Jesus’s chosen 12 disciples and closest followers during his earthly ministry. While he was a devout servant of Jesus who would later go on to play a vital role in the early church, Thomas is widely known by his nickname, “Doubting Thomas,” given in response to his professed disbelief in the resurrection of Jesus.
Today, a “Doubting Thomas” is a name given to someone who is notoriously pessimistic, lacks faith, or doubts what they have not seen with their own eyes. Unfortunately, while Thomas was skeptical of the resurrection at first, his nickname may not be as fitting as history or the church have assumed. Let’s get to know Thomas a little better:
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Who Was Thomas in the Bible?
At the onset of his earthly ministry, Jesus called 12 men to be his disciples, Thomas among them. The Twelve, as they were often called, were Jesus’s traveling companions, pupils, and direct witnesses to the miracles performed in the gospels.
Not only that, the disciples would become Jesus’ closest friends. As one of the Twelve, Thomas would have been part of Jesus’ inner circle and shared a very personal relationship with Jesus, inheriting his knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual authority.
That being said, there were many things that Thomas did not understand about the kingdom of God and divine mission of Jesus, but he was not the only one who lacked perspective in spiritual matters. The rest of the Twelve often failed to grasp the bigger picture of Jesus’s ministry and were similarly prone to fear, narrow-mindedness, and doubt.
Thomas, however, gets remembered as the doubter of the group because of his reaction to news of the resurrection, and his tendency to be more of a pessimist and brooder than the rest. In John MacArthur’s Twelve Ordinary Men, MacArthur refers to Thomas as the “Eeyore of the Twelve,” a young man who always anticipated and expected the worst.
However, there is also more to Doubting Thomas than just his doubt and pessimism. At heart, Thomas was a fiercely loyal friend and committed follower of Jesus Christ who loved his Lord with a passion worthy of more admiration than he often receives. So, where exactly is Thomas mentioned in the Bible?
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Where Is Thomas Mentioned in the Bible?
In John 11, Jesus decided to travel to Bethany to visit Mary and Martha after the death of their brother Lazarus. While the rest of the disciples tried to talk Jesus out of traveling too close to Jerusalem (where the Pharisees resided) Thomas professed a willingness to go with Jesus and die with him if that’s what was at stake.
In John 14, at the Last Supper, Jesus spoke of his eventual departure from this earth to prepare a place for his followers. To this, Thomas asked where he was going and how his friends would get there, not wanting to be separated from his Lord.
And in John 20, the disciples told Thomas of Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas, who was not present at the time of Jesus’ initial reappearance, refused to believe unless he touched the hands of Jesus for himself. Later, Jesus would reveal himself to Thomas (John 20:24) to confirm that he had indeed returned, putting Thomas’s fears and doubts to rest once and for all.
Thomas is mentioned by name in these other two biblical stories:
Apart from these, all other references to Thomas are as a member of the Twelve, functioning as a single body of apostolic leadership in the early church. Next, let’s unpack the story of Thomas:
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What Is The Story Behind 'Doubting Thomas'?
As mentioned before, Thomas is featured in several prominent stories in John’s gospel, each of which reveals something about the character of this widely misunderstood apostle.
In John 11, Thomas proved to be more willing to travel with Jesus to Bethany, even if it meant risking death. It’s important to understand that the town of Bethany is geographically only about two miles from Jerusalem, the city where the most powerful Pharisees lived.
For years, the Pharisees had targeted Jesus and searched for ways to kill him. Knowing this, the disciples weren’t exactly motivated to visit a town within walking distance of those who wanted their best friend dead. The disciples, therefore, did everything they could to try and talk Jesus out of this side trip.
Thomas, however, took a much different stance.
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.' (John 11:14)
An optimist would have believed in the best and trusted that everything would turn out okay so long as Jesus was by their side. Thomas was not an optimist, but he was no coward either. His loyalty to Jesus was unquestionable, and his courage, brash as it may have been, was on full display in that moment. If he was going to die, he was going to die next to Jesus.
In John 14, Thomas questioned Jesus’ comments about his eventual departure, asking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) This was in response to Jesus stating, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:2-4)
This idea clearly troubled Thomas, who failed to understand what Jesus was saying and who didn’t like the idea of being separated from Jesus. Again, this aligns with the emotional response we saw from Thomas in John 11.
These two stories illuminate Thomas’ response to the crucifixion of Jesus and his subsequent doubt surrounding the resurrection. Thomas is really a lot like many of us. And here’s proof that Jesus understands:
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Jesus Meets Thomas in the Midst of His Confusion
Following the death of Jesus, the Twelve had gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem. Thomas, however, was not counted among them. Why not?
It’s impossible to know the exact reason why Thomas wasn’t among the Twelve in the Upper Room, however, for someone as emotional, melancholy, and brooding as Thomas was, it makes sense that he would want to be alone in a moment of such immense sorrow.
Everyone grieves in different ways, and Thomas was not alone in feeling confused and perhaps betrayed by the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus would have devastated Thomas on a deeply emotional level, especially for someone who often thought and acted with his heart. After all, he had just lost his friend, his mentor, and everything he knew and trusted in life. His world was shattered in a matter of hours.
When the disciples proclaimed that Jesus had returned, Thomas’ response was fairly straightforward and even natural for such a pessimist, “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) False hope was just too much for Thomas to bear.
According to John MacArthur, “what set Thomas apart from the other ten was not that his doubt was greater, but that his sorrow was greater.” (pg. 163, Twelve Ordinary Men)
Also, would any of the other disciples have been just as skeptical had they not been there to encounter Jesus firsthand?
And yet, in his moment of deepest sorrow, hopelessness, and doubt, Jesus appeared to Thomas, meeting him exactly where he was. He even went so far as to show him the very thing he needed to believe. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” (John 20:26-27).
To this revelation, Thomas proclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Let’s examine the significance of this.
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Why Is Thomas’ Story Significant to Christians Today?
Jesus reminded Thomas and all his followers that, “because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) This, of course, highlights the importance of faith in the life of Christ’s followers, then and today.
Jesus himself had also previously taught that, “truly, I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
Faith is an essential ingredient for Christ-followers, but that doesn’t mean that believers are courageous, optimistic, or faithful all the time. So are any of us really that different from Thomas on our worst day?
Jesus may have challenged Thomas’s doubt, but he also didn’t condemn him for his lack of faith or pessimism. Instead, he came down to Thomas’s level, overcoming his fear and uncertainty with compassion and grace. How much more is Christ willing to do for those who struggle with faith today?
History may remember Doubting Thomas, but when it came time for Thomas to finally enter eternity and be reunited with his lord, Jesus didn’t remember Thomas’s lapses in faith or greet him as the Doubting Thomas. He instead welcomed his loyal friend with open arms.
Just like any one of us, there’s more to Thomas than one perspective or quality. And all of it is divinely purposeful in God’s great story. Here are a few more facts to ponder about Thomas:
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5 Interesting Facts about the Apostle Thomas
1. In John’s gospel, Thomas is also referred to as “Didymus,” a Greek name that means, “the Twin” (John 11:16). This likely suggests that Thomas was a twin to either a sister or brother.
2. Other than Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the Pharisees (Luke 22:47-48) and later hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-5), Thomas was the only member of the Twelve who was not in the Upper Room when Jesus initially returned after his resurrection (John 20:24).
3. Like the rest of the Twelve, Thomas was also filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-31), performed miraculous signs and wonders (Acts 5:12-15), and fulfilled the Great Commission of Jesus by traveling to the ends of the earth to preach the Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20).
4. Most traditions point to Thomas traveling to modern day India with the Gospel. There, he was eventually martyred.
5. At his death, Thomas was most likely run through with a spear, an ironic death for someone who needed to feel the pierced hands and spear mark on Jesus’s own body to believe in his resurrection and power.
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Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s and young adult author who teaches writing at Life Pacific University. Joel is passionate about helping youth encounter the Lord through storytelling and art. In his blog, Perspectives Off the Page, he discusses all things writing, the creative process, and what makes great stories so impactful.