What does ‘doubting Thomas’ teach us?

The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for the Second Sunday in Easter is John 20.19–31, which includes Jesus’ encounter with so-called ‘doubting Thomas’. It is the set reading for this week in all three years of the lectionary, so we know it well—and need to reflect on it if we are going to preach effectively on this well-trodden ground.

In 2013 we moved to our current home, which was built in 1850 as a square farmhouse in what was then part of a rural village outside Nottingham. One of the changes we made quite soon after moving in was to restore the historic kitchen garden, which had been planted over for the previous 20 or 30 years with trees and shrubs. The soil in the area is heavy clay, and in one flower bed it feels as though you can actually dig up red lumps and start making a pot straight away! But I have had no trouble growing all manner of fruit and vegetables in the kitchen garden, since the area had cows and horses on it for a hundred years, and they have clearly made their contribution! In addition, there was an enormous well-rotted compost heap, and digging it out gave the whole area a three- or four-inch covering. It is very fertile ground.

It feels as though this reading is similarly rich, fertile and multi-layered, the historical base overlaid with the author’s reflections on the theological importance of what happened. Any number of theological reflections will quickly grow up in this fertile ground—and hopefully bear fruit.

There seem to be two major changes of gear in this passage from what has gone before. The first relates to time: in the first part of the chapter, narrative time slows down so much that we are told who is running to the tomb fastest, and who enters in first, followed by the poignant account of Mary’s encounter with Jesus. Here you can almost count the passing seconds; it is all marked by the slowness and stillness of the early morning. By contrast, the second half of the chapter appears to be highly compressed, with a summary of Jesus’ giving of the Spirit and commissioning the disciples, and a week skipping past in a moment. It is, once again, worth noting that this corresponds very well with the way that we remember important experiences; the key moments are often slowed down in our memory, and details remain vivid, long after we have forgotten other details, perhaps even including what would otherwise be important details of chronology. (I can remember the colour of the car I was following on my bike as a teenager when it crashed head-on with one coming the other way; I can see the glass showering across the road and the noise, but I am blowed if I can tell you the month or even (reliably) the year.)

The second change of gear relates to the symbolic and theological meaning of this section. In the preceding passage, the typical symbolic double-meaning of much of the Fourth Gospel has fallen away. Where Nicodemus’ twilight of understanding matches the time of his visit to Jesus in John 3, and the bright noonday light of John 4 expresses the Samaritan woman’s recognition of Jesus, the actions of Simon Peter and the other disciple don’t appear to have any such significance. The disciple’s bending over to look in the tomb simply happens because that is what is required by the low entrance of any similar first-century rock-cut tomb, as we know well from archaeology. The separation of the sidarion that was wrapped around Jesus’ head from the othonia, the strips of linen wrapped around his body (John 20.6–7), is what you would only find if the body had passed through the material and left them in their place—assuming you understood how bodies were prepared for burial in the first century.

Verse 19 begins with one of the Fourth Gospel’s customary mentions of timing, locating the encounter of the Ten (the Twelve without Judas or, on this occasion, Thomas) in the early moments of their receiving the news from Mary (John 20.18) and the other women. The news has not yet sunk in; they still remain behind locked doors for fear of the Iudaioi, best translated here as ‘the Jewish [or Judean] leaders’, since they still believe that they were next in line for the chop, as those whose power is threatened seek to snuff out this dangerous new movement. Some versions (like the NIV) describe the disciples as being ‘together’, but there is no such word in the text; it is far from clear that they are, as a group, any less fragmented than when they were scattered by the crisis of Jesus’ arrest (else why would Thomas be missing?). They are, mostly, in one physical place but (in contrast to later occasions like Pentecost) it is far from clear that they are ‘together’.

Despite the doors being locked, Jesus comes and stands ‘in their midst’, a phrase which has a curious parallel with the vision in Revelation 1 of the Son of Man ‘in the midst’ of the lamp stands (Rev 1.13). In this passage, Jesus is both clearly corporeal (bodily) but in a transformed way so that he is unconstrained by the limits of the physical world, and can come and go as he pleases. As in the parallel account in Luke 24.36, Jesus greets them and shows them his wounds; in that gospel, this everyday greeting becomes part of Luke’s interest in the theme of the peace of the gospel. But in the Fourth Gospel, the language of peace specifically reminds us of the Last Supper discourse, in which Jesus offers peace in contrast with the ‘trouble’ his disciples will have in the world (John 14.27, 16.33). On saying this, he immediately shows them not his ‘hands and feet’ as in Luke, but his ‘hands and side’. This confirms that it is the same Jesus they knew before, but also that it is these wounds that bring about the peace that he has promised. The springs of living water that Ezekiel anticipated flowing from the side of the renewed temple (Ezekiel 47.1) actually flowed from the side of Jesus (John 19.34), who is the true temple (John 2.19–21), in fulfilment of Jesus’ own teaching (John 7.38). Joy comes to the disciples as they begin to recognise who Jesus really is, and what his death and resurrection really mean.

The second of three greetings of ‘Peace…’ moves the encounter on to its next stage. Jesus has not come simply to minister to them, but to commission them to minister to others in the same way he has ministered to them. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. There are two different words used here for ‘send’, apostello and pempo respectively, but there is no sense of different meaning. (The Fourth Gospel often uses synonyms with no differentiation of meaning, the most celebrated and debated example being the different words for ‘love’ in John 21.) We then are offered a concise ‘Johannine Pentecost’ as Jesus breathes on the disciples and invites them to ‘receive the Spirit’. I don’t think there is any easy way to resolve the chronological differences between this and Luke-Acts; for the possible options see Craig Keener’s extended discussion in his commentary on John, pp 1196–1200. But theologically the Fourth Gospel says something very similar to Luke:

Christology: As Jesus’ breathing illustrates, Jesus is the one who dispenses the Spirit of God, a claim that thus enfolds Jesus within the Godhead (as Max Turner has argued in relation to Luke’s account of the ascension and Pentecost).

Missiology:  their apostolic ministry, sent to continue the work that ‘Jesus began to do’ (Acts 1.1), can only be effective when empowered by the Spirit. Luke expresses this in the close linking of the Spirit, power, and testimony both in the ministry of Jesus and throughout Acts.

Ecclesiology: the realisation of the forgiveness that comes from Jesus’ death and resurrection only takes place in the context of this Spirit-filled resurrection community. Jo-Ann Brant (Paideia commentary, p 276–7) argues against the traditional understanding of John 20.23 as an ‘antithetical parallelism’, contrasting the forgiveness of sins with their ‘retention’, is mistaken, not least because the word ‘sins’ is not repeated and the term krateo (‘retain’) does not usually have such a negative connotation. A better way of understanding the second phrase is the ‘grasping’ or ‘retaining’ of someone in the community, thus forming a synthetic parallelism between the forgiveness of sins and the building of community: ‘Whosoever’s sins you forgive they are forgiven; and whosever you keep, they are kept.’ (The verb krateo is used of Jesus’ grasp of the ekklesiae, the believing communities, in Rev 2.1.)

There are objections to Brant’s reading in this way; with the exception of Matt 9.25 (which is paralleled in Mark 1.31), the verb krateo takes the accusative case, so it would not be possible to translate this directly as ‘whosoever you keep’ since τινων is in the genitive plural. And, though the language of ‘keeping sins’ is unusual, and a unique use of krateo, the Fourth Gospel does indeed talk of sins ‘remaining’, for example when the Pharisees question Jesus in relation to the man born blind in John 9.41. Most commentators connect this saying with Matt 16.19, and Peter having the ‘keys’ to the kingdom. But we noted that this is about being steward of the household, rather than being the one who grants permission to enter, and both there and here (by means of the ‘divine passive’) the emphasis is on the power of God to forgive, not the disciples. However you read it, there is a strong focus on belonging to the community of forgiveness.

It is within the broad context of this rich tapestry of ideas that the narrative about Thomas comes. The others greet Thomas just the same way Mary had greeted them ‘We have seen the Lord!’, using exactly the same words—but the effect is quite different. Thomas’ response is not rational but emotional; it is full of repetition (nails/nails, put my finger/put my hand) and drama, as he demands to merely to touch but to ‘thrust’ (ballo) his finger and hands in the gaping wounds. What was the reason for this bitter response?

A number of years ago, I was taking an assembly in a primary school, and asking the group to name some of their heroes. As each one was mentioned, I exclaimed dramatically that I had only recently seen these people—some of them on the way to school that morning—and if only I had known I could have brought them along or introduced them! There was growing incredulity in the group, and rightly so. But when I asked how they would feel if this had really happened—and so how Thomas might be feeling having missed out on the encounter—a hand at the back shot up. ‘I would be very angry!’ It was an amazing insight into the things that hold us back from believing, and anger at what has happened to us and the way life has turned out seems to me to be far more common than an actual lack of evidence, even if it is evidential language that we naturally reach for. (And I have ever since called the Twin ‘Angry Thomas’ rather than ‘Doubting Thomas’.)

Jesus’ next appearance takes place ‘after eight days’, which perhaps, by counting the days inclusively (that is, including the first and last within the number) means ‘one week later’ as many English translations have it. This second encounter at first exactly mirrors the first: the door are locked; Jesus stands in their midst; he greets them a third time ‘Peace be with you!’ Then his attention is turned to Thomas, with two remarkable features. First, the risen Jesus completely accepts Thomas’ demands of proof, so that his invitation repeats exactly the language of finger and nails and hand and side that Thomas himself used. There is no sense in which Jesus requires belief as something contrary to or lacking in evidence. The second remarkable thing (contrary to Caravaggio’s famous painting above) is that there is no suggestion that Thomas takes him up on the offer; seeing Jesus for himself is enough, as Jesus’ following saying emphasises. Whatever Thomas’ sin is (if that is what it be) is immediately forgiven, and he is once more incorporated into the apostolic community.

This then leads into Jesus’ saying itself, and the first concluding statement that the writer adds at the end of the chapter (the second concluding statement coming in John 21.24–25). Although in the narrative, Jesus is speaking to Thomas, in recording it the gospel writer is speaking to his audience, since ‘those who have not seen, yet believe’ are precisely the first generation of readers of this gospel—especially if it was written at the end of the apostolic era, when the first generation of eye-witnesses are passing away.

And we need to note that those ‘who have not seen’ are not in any sense inferior to those who ‘have seen and believed’; it is the shared reality of belief that matters. Where Thomas had the visual evidence of the Living Word before him, we now have the evidence of the written word, the testimony of the beloved disciple, and both are equally sufficient evidence for placing our trust in Jesus. In reflecting on our relationship to Thomas, we might want to borrow the language of the following chapter. ‘Never mind about what I want for him—what matters is that you follow me.’

(Published previously)

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

4 thoughts on “What does ‘doubting Thomas’ teach us?”

  1. What does it teach? Assuage your anger by doubting your doubts about the risen, living Jesus, his presence with us, in us, by faith.

  2. One aspect to this story I’ve never considered before is that John presents these two appearances of the risen Jesus in the Upper Room (first to 10 of the disciples, missing Thomas; then a week later to all 11 including him) as a kind of verbal diptych; just as the two sides of a diptych painting usually complement one another, so I suspect these two appearances are intended to complement each other. But I’ve not yet worked through the implications that ‘insight’ might have on understanding the passage. Anyone have any thoughts?

    • That’s interesting. My sense is, like other verbal diptychs in this gospel, the author is offering us a depiction of different faith responses to Jesus (compare John 3 and John 4).

      • Thx. Interesting thought. Though I’m not convinced the 10’s response was all that full of faith – after all, they were still behind locked doors a week later…


Leave a comment