“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25)
The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the most important event of human history. If it didn’t happen, the most influential world religion is a sham. If it did happen, “all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
The resurrection is a fantastic claim. Jesus’ own disciples didn’t believe it at first. And Thomas struggled more than anyone with his skeptic side. And in his experience1 in particular there is hope for all of us stumbling doubters. Jesus knows how and when to reach us.
Jesus’s death had been difficult and confusing for everyone. Having been welcomed into Jerusalem like a king, he was dead before the week was over. And when the shepherd was struck the sheep scattered (Mark 14:27). But they re-gathered in a secret hideout in Jerusalem.
On Sunday things took a weird twist. It began with Mary Magdalene insisting that she had seen Jesus alive that morning. True, Jesus’s body disappearing was admittedly strange. But still, everyone knew Jesus had really died. No one could really believe Mary’s claim, except maybe John.
Then later in the day Peter announced that he also had seen Jesus alive. This troubled Thomas. But he figured he could cut Peter some slack. After denying Jesus publicly, who could blame Peter for desperately wishing it to be true. He just needed time.
But then Cleopas burst into the house Sunday night claiming that he had walked — walked! — with Jesus to Emmaus that afternoon. What Thomas found particularly hard to believe was that Cleopas and his friend hadn’t recognized Jesus the entire time until dinner when poof he just disappeared.
Well, this excited everyone else, but Thomas only felt agitated. He desperately missed Jesus too, but he wasn’t going to let grief make him believe bizarre things. Jesus was dead.
Yet he didn’t feel like dousing everyone’s unreal hope with a wet blanket of reality. They weren’t ready to hear it anyway. Thomas decided he needed to clear his head with a walk. By himself.
So after whispering a discreet excuse to Nathaniel, he managed to slip outside without notice. After being very careful not to betray the hideout, he covered his head and started down an empty street.
The quiet was refreshing. But the walk wasn’t as helpful as he had hoped. The Jesus sightings disturbed him, especially because the witnesses were credible. He knew them. They certainly weren’t liars. They weren’t unstable. None were given to delusions. Peter, particularly, was a rock of reason.
Then a rush of memories from the past three years flowed through Thomas’s mind. He had seen so many things that would have been unbelievable if he hadn’t seen them. Most haunting right now was Lazarus.
And Jesus had seemed to know that he was going to die in Jerusalem. He had said those strange things about death and resurrection.
Suddenly Thomas realized he was arguing with himself. His agitation really wasn’t over his friends’ failure to face the facts. The facts, in fact, were now confusing. He was agitated because part of him actually believed Jesus was alive again. That’s what Jesus had meant, wasn’t it? But this frustrated the skeptic in him who took pride in being a man of common sense. A resurrection just seemed too incredible to be true.
The more he thought, the less sure he became. No one knew where Jesus’ body was. Those who claimed to have seen him were people he trusted. It would make sense of certain prophecies. Could it be?
Show me the body! his skeptic side shouted. At least Lazarus could be seen and touched in Bethany by any doubter. So if Jesus really was alive, why this “hide and seek” game? Wouldn’t he just show himself to them all?
He’d believe Jesus was alive when he saw him alive.
When Thomas returned to the house four of his friends pounced on him, “We have seen the Lord (v. 24), Thomas! It’s all true! He was just with us! Where were you?”
Thomas felt a surge of shock, unbelief. Then he felt regret for having left. Then he felt isolated. He was now the only one who hadn’t seen Jesus.
In self-pity fueled anger he blurted out with more conviction than he felt, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (v. 25).
Most of his friends were dismayed. But Peter just watched him, smiling slightly.
The following eight days were long and lonely for Thomas. His friends were gracious. No one debated him. It was, in fact, their calm confidence in Jesus’ resurrection that aggravated Thomas’ growing conviction that he was wrong. Outside he tried to maintain a façade of resolute intellectual skepticism, but inside he was wrestling and melting and wanting more than anything to see Jesus too.
And then it happened. Thomas was staring at the floor, sinking again under the fear that maybe Jesus had rejected him because of his stubborn unbelief. If so, he knew he deserved it. Then someone gasped. He looked up and his heart leaped into his throat! Jesus was standing across the room looking at him. “Peace be with you” (v. 26).
Thomas could hardly breathe. Jesus spoke to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27).
All objections and resistance in Thomas evaporated. And in tears of repentance, relief, and worship Thomas dropped on his knees before Jesus and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (v. 28).
The most wonderful thing in this story of Thomas is that Jesus came to him. But he did not come right away. Jesus let Thomas wrestle with his unbelief first. It exposed weaknesses in Thomas’s faith. It made him think hard about what he believed and why. I’m sure it made him more desperate and humble. But when the time was ripe, Jesus rescued Thomas from his skepticism.
And Jesus does the same for all of his doubting sheep. Take heart.
The Lord is risen! Yes, he really is. “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
1 Thomas’ skepticism over Jesus’s resurrection is recorded in this text, but the chronology of events are drawn from a combination of all the gospels’ accounts of the days following the crucifixion.