Under the hot afternoon sun, we stood, a pack of about twenty third-grade boys. The game was to be soccer, and it was team-picking time. I was late in the draft, very late. They had already picked the tall, the fast, and the tough. But who wanted me, a scrawny kid, who from the look of it had never heard of a comb. I had one wish, I didn't want to be the last. The last one standing alone was leftover meatloaf. His privilege was to follow whichever team was unlucky enough to lose the player lottery. As the teams picked the better players, it began looking thin.
Four eyes went one way, potbelly the other. Untied Shoes went left, Snot Nose Sneezer went right. Still, I was left standing, but not alone yet. It came down to myself and another kid named Zack. Impossibly Zack was smaller than I was. Ultimately my height tipped the scale in my favor. The extra inch won me a coveted spot on a team that didn't really want me. Zack, being the last picked, knew the drill. He began to walk toward his team.
"The teams are full. You'll make an odd number,” said the team captain who didn’t want him. Zack looked at the ground and walked away sad. For a moment I felt lucky until I realized what that meant. I had been picked last after all.
Did you know there was a day somewhat like this in Jesus' ministry? For a while, there was just a large crowd of disciples who followed Him, but at some point came the picking day. It was the day in which Jesus chose his team. Images of Harry Potter’s sorting hat come to mind, although there is much less written about the event than J.K. Rowling gave us. Let’s see how Thomas fits into this event.
Thomas was one of the twelve disciples of Christ. That is known since all four of the gospels list his name as such.1 However, he was not among the first disciples to voluntarily follow Jesus. According to John chapter 1 Andrew, John,2 Peter, Philip, and Nathanael who is sometimes called Bartholomew were the first to be the Lord’s followers by choice. Somewhere between the happenings of John 1 and Mark 3 Thomas became acquainted and known by Jesus.
And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted. And they came to Him. Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons: Simon, to whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, “Sons of Thunder”; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananite; and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him. And they went into a house. 3
From these verses, the first pieces of biographical information begin to emerge. Thomas, as with each of the twelve apostles, would be sent out to preach, heal sicknesses, and cast out demons. The word “disciple” is often used of the twelve whom Jesus specially appointed, but there should be a distinction made between these twelve appointed men, and those who were general disciples. Luke gives us clarity on this distinction when he says:
He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles.4
The text shows that there were more disciples who were not appointed. In a similar way, a baseball coach can only have 25 players on his active roster. That leaves a lot of would-be players without a uniform. Apostleship was a group to be respected because it was exclusive and was by appointment only. Anyone could choose to follow Christ, but only Christ could choose the twelve. Notice that this appointment happened as a public event. That can be seen by the words, "he went up on the mountain,"5 and "He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose…"6 That means that all who were present witnessed the appointment. It was not a private designation, but one equivalent to public office. This, an inauguration of sorts, conferred on them the title of Apostle.7 The word Apostle literally means “he that is sent,”8 “envoy,” or “messenger.”9 Thomas must be seen in the light of this calling and duty. Whether latent or currently evident, Christ must have seen something in him that qualified him for appointment. As an appointed Apostle he would be expected to fulfill the three primary tasks, to wit, preaching, healing, and exorcising demons.
In popular circles, much has been made of the fact that the apostles were untalented, unqualified, and incompetent. Preachers have pounded pulpits as they’ve hurled insults at the apostles for their lack of faith and nincompoopery. They’ve peddled the idea that the apostles were originally incompetent with statements like, "Jesus does not call the qualified but qualifies the called.” This concept is present to some degree in Scripture in passages like Hebrews 13:21 and 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, but these should not be taken to mean that God completely ignores natural talents and innate abilities.
Though it makes for interesting sermon fodder, the notion that Christ intentionally chose apostles who were incompetent doesn’t come from Scripture. There is no evidence to suggest that Christ enlisted anything less than the most qualified and talented among his number. That he chose those most likely to accomplish his purposes can be supported by Mark’s words when he explains, Jesus “called to Him those He Himself wanted.”10 It’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus picked the ones he deemed capable of fulfilling his mission.
Some scholars have proposed that a handful of the disciples came from a wealthy, well educated, and high society families.11 In John chapter one two of the disciples had previously been the students of John the Baptist, an incredibly coveted position.12 Another demonstrates that he has studied the Scriptures. The first handful of disciples were so excited that they evangelized their friends without being asked to do so.13 Jesus called one of his disciples a “true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.”14 Of another he said he was a “Rock.”15 Two others he called, “Thunder’s sons.”16 One carried the title, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”17 I believe that Jesus had nick names for all of the twelve, even though we only have a few of them recorded. At one point when the disciples gave a very good answer Jesus said, “Did I not choose you, the twelve.”18 It is almost like he’s saying, “I chose well.” It seems that Jesus was very fond of the ones he chose. He was proud of them. He saw a mountain of potential in these young guys. They seem to be the best of the best, in terms of what they finally accomplished.
Obviously, in comparison they would prove to be less competent than the Lord. However, any incompetence they displayed is because they were being compared to the perfection that was demonstrated in Christ. It was not because Jesus intentionally appointed buffoons. After all, would not any humans be measured shortly in the shadow of Jesus? There’s no evidence that Jesus intentionally picked untalented morons to prove how great of a teacher He was, and there is a fair amount of evidence that He did just the opposite.
The point is that Thomas had some apparent talent and ability that fit well with what Christ wanted to accomplish. Later in the Gospel of John We have clues as to why Thomas was picked, and to that we will shortly look. At this point in the story we can assume he must have been more committed than many and showed promise and potential in his previous encounters with Christ.
Although Thomas was among the twelve apostles, he was not counted among the more exclusive group to which fellowship with Christ was increasingly close. The inner circle, as it will be called, consisted of three of Jesus’ appointees; Peter, James, and John. The benefits of membership in this inner circle can be seen in Matthew 17:1-2 when it is revealed that nine apostles are excluded from seeing a miraculous event. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain only Peter, James, and John were allowed to see.19 After the event, the other disciples, including Thomas, were not allowed to know about it until Jesus rose from the dead.20
All of this gives the impression that Thomas, although more committed and qualified than many, was certainly not the valedictorian of his discipleship class. Christ had reasons for appointing him to apostleship, but to be sure; He also had reasons for not allowing him into his inner circle. Thomas made the cut and was on the Apostle team, but he rode the bench at least part of the time.
There is a lesson in this for all who wish to be devoted followers of Jesus. Our faithfulness to Christ matters. When comparing the faithfulness of Thomas with that of John, for instance, it is quite clear who demonstrated more faithfulness during Jesus’ ministry. His Gospel reminds us that John was the disciple whom the Lord loved.21 They were so close that John leaned against Christ’s chest and asked who the betrayer would be at the last supper.22 He was such a good friend that when Jesus hung on the cross He entrusted the care of his aging mother to John.23 John was so reliable that the night Jesus was arrested, John didn’t abandon him, but went with him into the court where he would be tried.24 Where was Thomas? Not even Peter went so far as John. John’s faithfulness was rewarded by closeness to his Lord. It’s no mystery why Jesus loved him. Jesus explains the way a discipleship relationship works when he said:
“If you love Me, keep My commandments.”25
Both John and Thomas were eternally saved because of their faith in Jesus. However, their faithfulness to Christ was not identical. Therefore, the reward of relationship with Jesus was also different than one another’s. John had a closeness with Christ that was unrivaled by any of the other disciples, including Thomas.
Many people seem to think that everyone can expect equal treatment from Jesus once they become saved. However, Jesus didn’t even treat the twelve equally. He treated them as friends, some he treated as good friends, and one he treated as a best friend. About friendship with Himself Jesus said:
You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.26
Salvation is free, but friendship with Jesus will cost us something. The way to be friends with Jesus is to obey him. Obedience is the key to unlocking reward in this life and in Heaven. The greatest reward that heaven and earth has to offer is a close fellowship with our maker. The more obedient we are the closer the fellowship we will have with Jesus. Anyone who gains salvation by faith but then wants nothing more from Jesus is missing out on the seminal experience in the universe. Nothing has the power to bring meaning, peace, joy, and pleasure like a relationship with our creator, the Word who became flesh. We are saved by grace, but if we want closeness with the grace giver we must obey.
This raises a difficult question. How do we obey when we are dogged by doubts? If obedience is the destination then doubts are road blocks. In the next chapter Thomas will teach us how to obey in the face of uncertainty.
1 Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, Matthew 10:3, John 20:24
2 Although not explicitly said, it is assumed by scholars that the second unnamed disciple of John the Baptist is the author of the gospel.
3 Mark 3:13-19
4 Luke 6:13
5 Mark 3:13
6 Luke 6:13
8 James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 15.
9 James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
10 Mark 3:13
11 Zane Hodges. “Introducing John’s Gospel: Miraculous Signs and Literary Structure Part 1 of 2.” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 20, (2008), 15-16.
12 John 1:35-37
13 John 1:35-50
14 John 1:47
15 John 1:42
16 Mark 3:17
17 John 21:7
18 John 6:70
19 Matthew 17:1-2
20 Matthew 17:9
21 John 21:7
22 John 13:25
23 John 19:26-27
24 John 18:15
25 John 14:15
26 John 15:14