Not Faithless but Believing

April 20, 2014 / No. 3720

Dear radio friends,
Every Sunday is a day of remembering the resurrection of our Savior from the dead. Early on the first day of the week He arose from the grave. And, ever since, the Christian church has kept this day as her Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, in remembrance and celebration of His victorious resurrection.
Today, on what has become known as Resurrection Sunday or Easter Sunday, we give special attention to the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection was a literal, bodily resurrection, a real, historical event. Not only do we remember it as a historical event, but our interest as Christians is especially in its purpose for us. Why and for what did Jesus rise from the dead? And what does that matter? What does it mean for the Christian today in the twenty-first century?
Today we are going to look at the resurrection of Christ from the point of view of John 20:24-29, where Jesus appears to His disciples in the upper room. This is the second time that He has come to them here. And this time Thomas, who was not there the previous Sunday, is present with them.
After the first visit the other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” But Thomas says, “except I shall see his hands and the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Now, it is very typical of Bible commentators to analyze and be extremely critical of Thomas for this statement. Often he is called “Doubting Thomas.” He is judged as a skeptic, a pessimist, and a stubborn character. His absence at the time of Jesus’ first appearance is said to be an indication that he is wavering in faith and forsaking the other disciples.
But the Bible says nothing like that. Such speculation is not helpful at all in our learning from this appearance of the risen Savior. What can we, twenty centuries later, say about Thomas that would be fair? These things are written for us. And we need to examine ourselves, not Thomas.
From a positive point of view, there are certain things that we can say about Thomas. The Bible tells us that Thomas was a true and faithful disciple of Jesus, a man whose faith was genuine, who was loyal to the Lord, and who loved the Lord. That was the Spirit’s work in Thomas. In John 11:16, after Jesus tells the disciples that He is going to the house of His friend Lazarus in Bethany (who had died), Thomas says to the other disciples, who are reluctant to go with Jesus, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” That is an amazing confession of loyalty to Christ. Here is a faithful disciple, willing to die with and for the Lord. How many of us would be willing to do that—to follow the Lord in mission work, for example, to a place where our life would be threatened by persecution—when we are often reluctant to say anything, even in a society where we have freedom and do not have to fear the loss of life for our faith?
You see Thomas’ love for the Lord also in John 14:5. Jesus had told His disciples there that He is going away. And Thomas says, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” That is said out of his love for the Lord. He loved the company of Jesus. He loved to hear His teaching. And he wants to be with Christ.
Yes, there is doubt in Thomas’ statement to the other disciples, but they and we are no different than Thomas. All of the disciples, with Thomas, equally doubted the resurrection of Jesus. In Luke 24:11 the Bible tells us that when the women came from the tomb saying that they had seen the risen Lord, the words of the women seemed to the disciples as idle tales and they believed them not. They dismissed the reports of the women as ridiculous fairy-tales. Mark tells us that when multiple witnesses of the risen Lord came to them they did not believe. When Jesus appears to them, He rebukes them for the hardness of their heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He was risen. When He comes to them at the time of His ascension, Matthew tells us that some of them worshiped Him, but others doubted. That is in Matthew 28:17. So this doubt was not unique to Thomas, so that he should be labeled “Doubting Thomas.”
But then, even as we talk about the doubt of all the disciples, let us also not condemn them as if we would be any different. Just think of what these disciples had gone through. All their hopes and all their emotional attachment dashed in a day. In Luke 24:21 the travelers to Emmaus say, “We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel,” and now things have taken a drastic turn in His death and in these stories of His resurrection. What turmoil, what trial their faith had to go through.
I do not mention all this to justify their doubt and the weakness of their faith. No, Jesus rebukes them and Thomas for their weak faith. But I say all this because 1) we must not put ourselves above them, but rather should stand alongside of them. Our faith, which comes without seeing, is as much a gift of God’s grace as was theirs. And, 2) the weakness of their faith, and Jesus’ dealing with them, is recorded in Scripture for us so that we might, without seeing, believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that believing we might have life through His name. I just quoted the last verse of John 20, which follows the story of Thomas, which tells us why this was written. Our faith is far from perfect. And this appearance of Jesus to Thomas and the other disciples is written so that we may be strengthened in our faith.
Now let us see how Jesus encourages and strengthens these disciples, and particularly Thomas, who are weak in their faith.
There are two things we should notice. First, what Jesus says to Thomas. And then second, the manner in which He says it.
In what He says, Jesus is direct and forthright. He says in verse 27: “Be not faithless, but believing.” He is saying to Thomas, “Don’t be unbelieving, but have faith.” He is telling Thomas, “This is your problem: you don’t believe, you don’t have faith when you should.” Now, that does not mean that Thomas was an unbeliever, but rather that, as a believer, he was not trusting and believing the promises and the Word of God as he should. He was refusing to accept them as true and reliable. And for the believer, that is sin, very serious sin. All our other sins get at the things of God that He has given to us and created. This sin, the sin of doubt, gets at the character of God. When we do not believe the Word and the promises of God, we are questioning His truth and His dependability.
And that is what Thomas is doing here. He did not believe what the other disciples told him. But, worse, he did not believe what Jesus had told him. Before His death, Jesus had told the disciples very plainly and repeatedly that He would rise again from the dead on the third day. He had demonstrated His power over death in raising several people from the dead. He had told His disciples, in connection with the resurrection of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” But they did not believe. And now, Jesus is reminding Thomas of what He had said and done and He is telling him, “You should have believed. I told you these things before. And I proved it. Be not faithless, but believing.”
We need to hear the same words of the risen Savior. Jesus is to be believed. He is to be taken at His word. Everything that He says, everything that God says in the Scriptures, is trustworthy and true. And, too often, we are faithless when we ought to be believing. Just think of the promises, all the promises of God in Scripture. And then think of your life and the times of doubt and the times that you wrestle with sin. God has promised that all our sins are forgiven through Jesus’ blood. Yet, all the weight of the guilt of sin makes us wonder sometimes about the power of the cross and the strength of God’s love. The power of sin has been overcome. It has been defeated. God has promised us His Holy Spirit. And yet, too often, in unbelief, we just give in to sin. You believe that all things work together for good to them that love God. You believe that the God who loves you and gave His Son for you is the sovereign over all things. And yet, you are troubled and anxious and faithless when trials come into your life. You believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Yet, at the grave of a loved one, fear wells up in our souls. You believe the promise of Jesus that He is going to come again and that we will be taken to heaven and glory, yet we forget that so often and we do not live in the light of that coming. And then you, then we, need to hear Jesus rebuke: “Be not faithless, but believing.” Believe the word and the promises of the risen Lord.
Now, I want you to notice also how Jesus says this to Thomas. I love this because this is how Jesus deals with me in my weakness and unbelief. He is not only straightforward, but He is also tender. Verse 26 tells us that He greets the disciples with the words, “Peace be unto you.” That implies that He knew their turmoil. He understood what they had been going through in the struggle of their faith. Think of Thomas in the intervening week, between hearing when Jesus was risen and this appearance. He had heard all the stories of Jesus’ resurrection and appearances, but he says, “I will not believe except I touch Him and see Him.” How unhappy that must have made him. The times that we doubt the promises of God are our most troublesome and unhappy times. Unbelievers are the most troubled of people in the world.
And now Jesus’ first word to Thomas is: “Peace,” He speaks peace! “Peace be unto you.” Those are the words of blessing and benediction of God to His people. “Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you.” There is a kindness and a love, a tenderness and an empathy, in those words. Jesus does not come and censure and condemn Thomas. He comes to those who are slow and dull in their faith with a shepherd’s heart. Verse 27 tells us what He is willing to do to help Thomas. He says, “Thomas, reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.” In those words Jesus is not ridiculing Thomas or making an example of him. He is showing His mercy and His condescension. He accommodates Himself to the weakness of Thomas’ faith in order to lift him up.
Now, think about it. Usually we shrink away from wounds and scars caused by injury. And we are shy or embarrassed about physical deformities. Jesus is saying here to Thomas, “Thomas, if that is what you need to do, if you need to put your finger through my hands, if you need to thrust your hand into my side, I’m willing. Do it, Thomas.” This is how Jesus treats all the disciples after His resurrection. He suits His appearances to them in their unique situations in order to draw them out and to strengthen their faith. Here He shows Thomas not only that it is really Himself. But the signs and the evidences are here of His suffering and then of His resurrection, of His sacrifice and His power.
And He condescends in exactly the same way to us, to His church today in the world, in the weakness of our faith. I think of the sacraments that He has given to remember His suffering. Why did He give them? Is it because His promises and His word are not enough? No, the word is sufficient. The value of the sacraments, though, is this, that He adds visible and external signs to His word, to help us in our faith. We are just like Thomas. We want to see and to touch. So He gives us the sign of washing of sin in baptism, and the signs of broken bread and bitter wine at the Lord’s Supper to remind us of His suffering. He condescends to us in this physical world.
And in that mercy towards us we have a pattern and an example for how we should deal with and treat others—our children, for example. Every person that God creates in this world is different and unique. Every child that we have is different. We must appreciate that. We must appreciate that in our families and in the church, and approach each individual with understanding and with kindness and with mercy, in order to reach them and to help them. That is effective communication. And we see how effective it is with Thomas. Now Thomas does not need to touch. The mercy and the compassion and the approach of Jesus to him is enough. We can be thankful for merciful people like this in our lives. A tenderhearted mother or wife in the home, a gentle father or gentle elder in the church. These people who know Christ’s mercy to them are a great blessing to us. People who can be honest with us but whom, at the same time, we can trust because we have experienced their love.
The words and approach of Jesus to Thomas bring from him a beautiful confession in verse 28. Thomas answers: “My Lord and my God.” This is, first, a double confession of the deity of the Savior. He is saying, “You are God.” Lord and God are titles that do not belong to a man but to God alone. And Thomas gives both of these titles to Jesus. The purpose of the resurrection is that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Thomas, seeing the risen Lord, believes and confesses this. That is a complete confession. That is the foundation to any Christian confession. He was not just a man, but He was God in the flesh. His resurrection proves that He is God. He did not come simply to deliver from earthly troubles, but He came as the Savior from sin. And because He is God, He could make that payment for our sins.
For Thomas, this is a personal confession: “My Lord, and my God.” That shows that Thomas rests now in Christ and trusts now His word and promises. Now he does not need to touch and to see. But Lord, my Lord and my God, You have spoken: I believe.
This confession shows also the resolve of Thomas. Not only does he say, “my God,” but also “my Lord.” We do not know much about Thomas’ life after this, but one who says, “my Lord,” to Jesus expresses a willing submission to Him, a readiness to live in service to Him. My Lord, and my God.
That should be the confession of every believer. Do you make that confession today? Or, like the old Thomas, do you want more, do you want to see and to touch something? You want a sign of some sort? In verse 29 Jesus makes a comparison. He says, “Thomas, because you have seen me you have believed. Blessed are those that have not seen and yet have believed.” In those words Jesus is looking ahead to the rest of the New Testament and to all the believers that will follow. He is saying not only that the faith of those who have never seen Him is superior to the faith of Thomas who did see Him; but also that true faith does not need to see and to touch Him. True faith does not need visible signs, extraordinary signs, for confirmation.
Let me ask you: what would you prefer, an hour with Jesus, or an hour with your Bible? What would make your faith stronger: a miracle, someone raised from the dead, or spending time in the Word of God and reading what has been recorded there for us New Testament believers? Today, too many are looking for extraordinary revelations, for visions, for experiences, for miracles, for extra blessings that result in prophecy and speaking in tongues and so on. They suppose that these things are really going to help them to believer, to make them stronger in their faith. In fact, some say that you really are not a Christian until you have their extra blessings and experiences in your life.
But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” You see, the object of our faith is not something visible and tangible. The object of our faith is the Word of God and the revelation in it—not only of true historical events, but of the Savior and His work for us. Jesus is the object of our faith.
May God give us that kind of faith, the faith that believes and hopes in Christ and the promises of His Word.
Let us pray.
Lord, we give thanks for the risen Savior and for His finished work. We thank Thee for His death and suffering for sin, for His victorious resurrection. And we thank Thee for His mercy to us sinners, for the way that He comes to us by the Word and Spirit to awaken us and turn us from darkness and unbelief to faith in Him. Give us a strong and true faith that hopes in His promises and that believes His Word in the Scriptures. For Jesus’ sake we pray, Amen.