Humbled by Mercy

The Gospels tell an incredible story.  A virginal conception.  Miraculous healings.  Even people coming back from the dead.  How are we to know that it’s not all just a fanciful fabrication?

There is much evidence for the reliability of the Gospels, but here is one of the strongest bits of evidence I know.  Think for a minute.  If you were part of a group who decided to perpetrate an elaborate hoax, what would be your motive?  Wouldn’t you want to gain some significant benefits from such a risky business?  Maybe fortune, fame, and privilege?  And if you were to be prominent figures in this tall tale, wouldn’t you at least want the story to make you look good?

But in the story told by the apostles, virtually all of them look really bad. During Jesus public ministry they repeatedly fail to “get it.” In fact Jesus wears himself out trying to hammer the truth through their thick skulls.  After witnessing three years worth of miracles, one of them betrays Jesus and their leader denies him.  All but one run away when he’s crucified, and no one believes Mary Magdalene when she brings them the news of his resurrection.

But the episode recounted in John 20:19-31 takes the cake.  The Risen Christ appears to the twelve on Easter Sunday evening.  Or rather, I should say he appeared to the ten.  Judas, the traitor, had taken his own life.  And Thomas, the twin, missed the occasion.  When Thomas returns to the group, he refuses to believe them.  He demands empirical proof submitted personally to his lordship: “Unless I put my finger in the nail marks in his hands and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  This sound more like a pouting of a child than the words of an apostle.

In justice, Jesus could have just said “enough.”  Thomas had already seen so much.  Acts 1 tells us that Judas was replaced by Matthias.  This ungrateful skeptic could easily have been replaced as well.

But Jesus does not deal with us by virtue of strict justice.  God forbid!  No, he comes to us in mercy, giving us what we do not deserve.  And that’s how he dealt with this doubter.  A week later, he gives him what he asked for.  Imagine how badly Thomas yearned to eat his words as he put his hand into the sacred side of the New Adam.

Thomas can’t be said to come to true “faith” in the resurrection through all this.  Because faith is about believing what you can’t see.  Walking by faith means NOT walking by sight.  In heaven, we’ll see God face to face, so “faith” will be no more.  Blessed, says Jesus, are those who have not seen, and yet believe.

But Thomas does come to faith in something else that he can’t quite see.  He saw Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain plus the daughter of Jairus all raised from the dead.

Thomas now looks at yet another risen human being before him and says what he did not say to the prior three: “My Lord and My God.”  Thomas here professes what can only be seen by the eye of faith.  The resurrection of Jesus is not just a marvel for Ripley’s Believe it or Not.  Jesus is not just some first century Houdini.  No, his resurrection is a sign that he is the Messiah, the King, even the Eternal God, come in the flesh.

So this man, humbled by Christ’s mercy, is content to be known for all generations as “Doubting Thomas.”  He and the other apostles spread a story in which they look real bad.  And for it they receive not privilege but persecution and death.

So why do they spread the story?  Because it’s the truth.  And because it’s a proclamation of the mercy of God who does not reject the thick-headed, the weak, and the doubting but instead gives them the power to become strong, loving, and wise.  “Behold,” says Jesus, “I make all things new.”  (Rev 21:5)

image: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D.

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Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For info on his resources and pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 800.803.0118.

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  • This article does not, I feel, do any justice to Thomas’ character and motives. He comes across to me as one of the deepest, most penetrating disciples: profoundly devoted to Jesus and the most ready to give his life up for Him. He had exclaimed ‘Let us all go to Jerusalem and die with Him ‘, did he not? He seemed to possess a precocious sense of the significance of Christ’s suffering. When told He had risen, those marks of His suffering were what he looked for, in order to be sure this was indeed Jesus. And how interesting that he expected those wounds to be there – that his true Saviour would still carry them, they would not have vanished in the process of resurrection. St Thomas is a deeply mystical man – the right apostle for the East, perhaps?

  • Dennis Whittington

    Thomas has been given a bad name throughout the centuries for one statement. Similarly, Mary Magdalene is described only once as the woman from whom Jesus drove out 7 demons from her. For this the idea developed that she was a harlot and a grave sinner. It’s funny how these things take shape and then cloud and command our reason for generations, even millennia.
    Thomas could been seen as the most practical and clear thinking one of the Apostles. When all the rest objected to Jesus wanting to return to Bethany to see Lazarus because they were in fear for the lives, only Thomas has the faith to say that they too should go with Him to die. When the rest had lost their senses in a whirlwind cloud of fear, Thomas remains clear headed and puts the reality of Faith into action. There is no doubt in Thomas’ faith in that incident. But is he remembered for that? No, he is remembered for that one incident in the upper room. Let’s examine that.
    The great dissenter, Jesus of Nazareth, had been dealt with by the Sanhedrin. However, they well knew the threat still eminent from Jesus’ followers. They knew the claims of Jesus well enough to go back to Pilate and request that a guard be placed at the tomb of Jesus to prevent his followers from coming and stealing his body then claim that He had risen from the dead. It was also considered necessary to round up and execute any of the followers of any insurrectionist. Refer to the antiquities of Josephus is you need to there. That is why the Apostles were gathered in the upper room out of fear. Thomas would have known this too. Given the others track record, Thomas well could have thought that this was a trick by the authorities to discover their whereabouts and then return later to arrest them. He may not have been doubting Jesus’s promise to return to them but rather he could well have doubted if the Jesus that the others saw was the genuine article. It Thomas is guilty of anything, it is allowing his practicality to blind his faith rather than doubting the word of Jesus. Now, can this be backed up by Scripture? Of course it can’t but neither can the claim that Thomas doubted that Jesus would be resurrected. Scripture just doesn’t say it. The point Jesus was making is that faith should be our guide and not our fears. Thomas responded to Jesus with one of the greatest statements of faith in Scripture, “My Lord and my God.”
    It’s strange how Thomas is beat up over a simple misunderstood statement yet it was Peter who was guilty of a much graver sin that our Lord forgave him of. Like Judas, Peter also betrayed Jesus. His sin was no less that that of Judas. Judas doubted Jesus then betrayed him to the Jewish authorities. Peter doubted Jesus and betrayed him through denial to the crowds when Jesus was first brought forth. Even when Jesus forgave Peter, Peter could not respond to Jesus in the same love that Jesus gave to him. Jesus uses agape (a deep marital love) as the Greek verb for love when He asks Peter if he loves Him. I forget, unfortunately, the verb used by Peter but it is more along the lines of brotherly love. Given this, I refer to a point in the article that says Jesus could well have had Thomas replaced along with Judas and I just don’t get the comparison there.
    Finally, two points in folklore about Thomas. The first is that Thomas was martyred in India in 47 AD. I call this folklore because while the Church believes Thomas to have been martyred in that year, there is little to back that up. However, if it is true then Thomas evangelized further than any of the Apostles including Paul. The second is in ancient American folklore. It is said that Christianity was first evangelized in ancient times by both Jesus and Thomas. Again, this is folklore and legend of ancient American tribes. It does beg the question though of how did “Doubting Thomas” make it into an ancient folklore half a world away and the others did not?
    Doubting Thomas? I think that moniker should be greatly reassessed.

  • Linda

    What a great insight, John! Thanks to your keen-and profound-observation of Thomas’s deep and loving character, I will forever look upon St. Thomas with new eyes!

    I bristled when I read the words describing Thomas as “an ungrateful skeptic”. Wow. Just unnecessarily harsh. So I want to thank you for your very sinple, yet tremendously enlightened evaluation of dear St. Thomas, forever-and unfairly dubbed “Doubting Thomas”.

  • You’ve greatly encouraged me! I really disliked the way he writes about all the apostles, eg “Jesus wears himself out trying to hammer the truth through their thick skulls”. Shocking language to use about 11 great and heroic men, whom Jesus chose knowing everything that lay in their hearts, and who indeed repaid His confidence in them as the very existence of the Church proves!

  • Linda

    Oh, I so agree with you, John! I believe it is highly disrespectful to speak so disparagingly of men who so loved Jesus and souls, that every one of them, except John, died a horrific martyr’s death.

    Yes, Jesus chose simple men, not highly educated, but sincere and willing to learn and to follow their Master. He did know their weaknesses more than they did, but He still chose them.

    I believe that we should honor the Apostles, the first priests, bishops, and martyrs! Not stand in judgement of their weaknesses and deficiencies, and call them disrespectful pejoratives.

    Thanks again for your insight about St. Thomas! God bless you!

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