When I was a child, I had an experience in which I strongly doubted my dad's judgment. My family and I had returned from a trip. As we were getting settled in for lunch, I noticed that my mother was crying as she stood over the stove. I approached her and asked about her tears. Overcome with emotion; she said, "You will have to ask your dad."
My brothers and I looked around the house but couldn't find him within. We located Dad in the backyard, shovel in hand, digging a hole. That was strange since Dad's hobbies did not include anything so sweat-inducing. Trying to put together these two strange clues my eight-year-old mind found a connection point with something about which Mom and Dad had recently been talking.
We had a neighbor at the time who was about eighty years old. She had smoked heavily all her life, and her health was failing. Since my brothers and I had often played with her grandkids when they were in town, my parents felt the need to prepare us for Mrs. McCullough's soon-expected death. They did this with periodic talks about mortality. They had explained that Mrs. McCullough was elderly and death is a natural part of life. With these discussions still ringing the bells of my mind, I began to piece together the puzzle.
As I watched Dad lift each shovel full of dirt from the ground, the truth dawned on me. I was absolutely sure that our neighbor, Mrs. McCullough had passed away, and Dad was digging a grave to bury her in our backyard. Since I had not yet attended a funeral, being only eight, I had no idea what society did with the dead. Backyard burials seemed a perfectly natural option to me. Although I thought I understood what was happening, I was certainly not comfortable with it. I doubted my father's judgment seriously. I spent all of my free time playing in that backyard, and it caused all kinds of prickly emotions to think of Mrs. McCullough laid to rest beneath my active feet.
"Are you going to bury Mrs. McCullough there?” I asked, hoping he would change his mind. The answer I received completely distracted me from my concerns for Mrs. McCullough.
As you can imagine, my Dad was not digging a grave to bury our neighbor. He explained that Mrs. McCullough was still alive, but our family's cat was not. Leo had died while we were away and he was digging a grave for our beloved pet. As we stood, teary-eyed, around Leo's little spot of freshly packed earth, my doubts about my dad's judgment slipped away. I had doubted him because I didn't understand. I doubted him because his actions didn't make sense to me. I doubted him because I didn't have the full picture.
In this section, we will look at a time when not only Thomas but the entire troop of apostles doubted Christ. What Thomas does, will stand as a lesson for us when we find ourselves in a similar situation.
The first of Thomas’ solo scenes in this unfolding epic appear relatively late in the story of John. Chapter eleven contains this interesting exchange:
Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus… When Jesus heard that… He said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?”1
Lazarus was a man who was, along with his sisters, dearly loved by Jesus and his disciples.2 Thus, the decision to return to Judea should be no surprise. The group to which the disciples were referring should be rendered “Judeans” since that is the sense in which it is meant.3 That the Judeans sought to murder Christ gives the disciples serious doubts about their safety. If Jesus was to be arrested and murdered, the disciples would be next in line to receive the ax.
Jesus says, “Let us go to Judea again.” Notice the word “us.” Jesus intends the disciples to accompany him on this life-threatening journey. However, the disciples respond with, "are You going there again?” Notice the word “you.” Their strong objection to visiting Judea is evident. By the singular pronoun they use, they intend, it seems, to exclude themselves from this dangerous trip. Their lack of zeal for this idea comes out in the following conversation. The discussion that ensues reinforces their desire to stay where they are, instead of travel back to the capital. Jesus reaffirms his intention with no uncertain terms when he states:
“Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.”4
Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless, let us go to him.” 5
Jesus reveals his plan to them, here. Lazarus is dead, although they are slow to understand his metaphor, He finally makes it plain. At this point, it is explained that Jesus is going to “wake him up,” which could mean nothing other than bringing him back from his slumber of death. Some have proposed that the disciples mistrust Jesus’ ability to raise Lazarus from the dead. However, it seems more likely that their misgivings are no deeper than what they have already stated. They are concerned about their adversaries who plot their leader’s death in Judea. They mistrust Jesus’ judgment concerning a return visit to Jerusalem.
They have followed Christ for some time, but are finding it increasingly more difficult to follow him into the dangerous environments he was determined to visit. Jesus had warned them to “count the cost,” and “take up your cross.”6 That is to say, he warned them early on that death was a possibility. Maybe they thought it was just poetic language or hyperbole. They are beginning to find out that he meant it literally. The full weight of those instructions are beginning to wear heavy upon their shoulders and can be seen by their strong reluctance. Despite their reticence, Jesus’ words stab to their faith-failing hearts when he says:
“I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless, let us go to him." 7
Much like a parent motivating reluctant children, Christ demonstrates his will of iron and commands obedience. The tone of his words are unknown, but the content is that of deliberate instruction. This moment marks another in a long line of opportunities for the disciples to obey their Lord despite their mistrust.
It should be noted here that Jesus is not calling into question their saving faith. That can be seen since John states that the disciples had already believed in Jesus at a previous event in Cana.8 A second time Jesus directly affirms that eleven of the twelve disciples, all but Judas, had believed in him.9 In that same chapter, Jesus makes it plain that anyone who believes in Him has eternal life.10 Therefore, it was not saving faith in focus when Jesus says, "that you may believe." Instead, they doubted His judgment and ability in practicality, as is seen when they say, “and are You going there again?" It is for this purpose Jesus desires them to have a more robust belief. Augustine of Hippo put it beautifully when he said of Jesus’ words:
[T]he disciples themselves, who already believed in Him, had their faith built up by miracles: not that a faith, utterly wanting till then, might begin to exist; but that what had previously come into being might be increased; … “that ye may believe;” …is to be understood as meaning, that your faith may be fuller and more vigorous.11
Since his ability and judgment are in question, the disciples will gain an indispensable insight as to what Jesus was capable of but only if they obey and join him in Judea. Therefore, it is not that they would come to a first belief at what Jesus would do, but instead, the faith they already had would increase.
Although Thomas has often been derided in this story for his lack of faith, it seems that the opposite should be upheld. In the midst of Jesus’ difficult command to follow, It is Thomas that interjects these words:
Then Thomas… said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”12
It is easy to see why so many have defamed Thomas' reputation over this utterance. As early as the fourth century, and possibly before, Thomas was being called a coward for what he says here. John Chrysostom viewed Thomas’ words as less than heroic. He wrote:
“Some say that he desired himself to die; but it is not so; the expression is rather one of cowardice.”13
Chrysostom acknowledged that the debate about Thomas’ intentions had already been kindled by the fourth century. His negative view concerning Thomas' outlook has echoed down through popular discussions of Thomas even to this day. I believe many rush in to slander him because most already know of him as doubting Thomas, and therefore are unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. It seems that many want to flatten him to an utterly two-dimensional character such that his every appearance in Scripture is marked by doubt.
The claim that Thomas was abundant in doubt at this point in the narrative seems more to be conjecture based on what is known from the later chapters of his journey than actual textual evidence present in this passage. With a closer examination, many reputable scholars have concluded that Thomas is not operating out of a doubtful disposition, but courageous obedience. Outside of Christ himself, Thomas proves to be the single character who shows any measure of heroism in this scenario. After all, the disciples are all resistant to Jesus’ instructions to reenter Judea. None have been singled out by the text as enthusiastic about the grave turn of events. Not even John, the veritable valedictorian of disciples speaks up here. Nonetheless, Jesus’ instructions stand. It is Thomas, then, that encourages obedience when he says, “Let us also go…” Despite the overwhelming opposition to Jesus’ ministry in Judea, Thomas is the one who decides that obedience is the right course of action. It is not without measuring of the cost, as Thomas adds, “…that we may die with Him.”
Championing the notion of Thomas’ heroisms, the famous New Testament Scholar F.F. Bruce said, “If his Master is to die, Thomas has no desire to survive him.”14 This phrase is mirrored almost to the word by Matthew Henry in his famous commentary.15 In his popular Bible study series William Barclay points out, “He loved him enough to be willing to go to Jerusalem and die with him when the other disciples were hesitant and afraid.”16 A host of other scholars have seen Thomas urging his fellow disciples to follow Jesus into Judea, even if it means death.17 As much as first-century disciples loved their teachers, this is a rare expression of commitment.18 His statement shows that Thomas was ready to die for his Messiah.19 After considering the evidence, it is hard to imagine how this statement could truly be anything other than a courageous call to obedience.
It is hard for me to imagine showing the kind of devotion that Thomas does in these verses. From Thomas’ action I derive this lesson:
To allow doubts to grow say “no.”
To keep doubts away, obey.
There will certainly be times when we are expected to do things that are difficult to comprehend. Jesus gave loads of commands that may cause us to doubt. Turn the other cheek20, love your enemy21, forgive seventy times seven times22 are just a few of the instructions that Jesus expects us to follow. By no means are these simple. When faced with an aggressor it’s easy to doubt that we should turn the other cheek. When faced with a murderer it’s easy to doubt that we should love our enemies. When faced with a repeat child abuser it’s easy to doubt that we should forgive seventy times seven times.
How far are you willing to go? How obedient are you willing to be? What will you do to find your confidence? We saw in a previous chapter that confidence has a reward, but let’s put that statement in its wider context.
[F]or you… joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward.23
Those who are able to live as Christ commanded, have an enduring possession waiting for them in Heaven. This is not talking about eternal life since the believer already has eternal life now.24 The verse is referring to an extra, above and beyond, bonus reward in heaven for those who are able to overcome their doubt and live in confidence. It’s hard to know exactly what motivated Thomas, but may we let the hope of this reward drive us to obedience. It motivated those talked about in this verse to live like Christ, so too it should us.
In the verses we looked at in this chapter, Thomas showed verbal enthusiasm which would prove ironic in the light of the following days. His faith would be put to the test, and stretched almost to the breaking point. The next time we find Thomas, his enthusiasm is still intact, but his understanding of Jesus will be challenged.
1 John 11:1,5-6
2 John 11:5
3 Strong, 38.
4 John 11:11
5 John 11:14
6 Luke 14:26-33
7 John 11:14
8 John 2:11
9 John 6:69-71
10 John 6:47
11 Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 274.
12 John 11:16
13 John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. John,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. G. T. Stupart, vol. 14, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 228.
14 F.F. Bruce, The Gospel Of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 242.
15 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary On The Whole Bible, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc.), 1,990
16 William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 2, The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, KY: Edinburgh, 2001), 321.
17 Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 246.
18 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Jn 11:11–16.
19 Robert N. Wilkin, “The Gospel according to John,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 425.
20 Matthew 5:38-40
21 Matthew 5:43-48
22 Matthew 18:22
23 Hebrews 10:34-35
24 John 3:36, 5:24, 6:47