Cloud of Witnesses: Thomas the Disciple

Vincent Kaminski now teaches business at Rice University, but he once served as managing director of research for Enron…the Enron that spectacularly crashed in bankruptcy in 2001.

Before the crash, Enron had grown exceedingly quickly. They got to that place with smoke and mirrors, using reckless and aggressive business practices. Kaminski was one of the few brave and quiet souls within the organization who had repeatedly tried to sound the alarm. When senior management didn’t listen to his concerns, he refused to sign off on dangerous transactions and ordered those under his authority not to work on them. He was stripped of any power to review company-wide deals.

“We don’t need cops, Vince,” Enron’s president told him. The optimistic leaders of a famously growing company like Enron didn’t want to be policed by pessimistic middle managers.

In 2007, as the recent credit crisis came to a head and some of the country’s biggest banks faced insolvency, Kaminski saw the same thing happening again. It wasn’t just that banks and investment firms were taking huge risks they didn’t understand. For years, the people who made money and were promoted were the confident risk takers who convinced people to invest money with promises and definite optimism.

When someone like Kaminski would raise a concern, a “what if” question…when someone did see the danger and said, “If this scenario happens, the whole thing explodes…” no one would listen. Kaminski described it this way: “The problem is that, on one side, you have a rainmaker who is making lots of money for the company and is treated like a superstar, and on the other side you have an introverted nerd. So who do you think wins?” [Quoted in Quiet: The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain, p. 165]

I think we can safely say, “Nobody wins.” That crisis threw the entire world into recession and on the brink of financial collapse.

We like our heroes and our leaders and our role models to be positive, confident people.

We’re not big fans of those who analyze and critique and question and warn about this or that potential scenario. At this point, my wife is saying, “Uh huh. And you are the pot calling the kettle black right there, Mr. Positive.”

So I’m admitting two things today: I’m admitting first that it’s true, I sometimes get frustrated by people who question and critique and raise doomsday scenarios. It’s hard when I have my great optimistic vision for life, and someone ruins it with…you know…facts. It’s so annoying. And I’m ALSO admitting that the world needs those people. I need those people. I would do better to listen to them more often.

As I said earlier, today we are looking at the disciple Thomas as our example in our Cloud of Witnesses.

The bible doesn’t speak a lot about Thomas, but in the few mentions he gets, it’s not too hard to paint the picture of a personality who bordered on the pessimistic. He saw the danger everywhere. He wasn’t willing to let things just move forward in some floaty, optimistic, vaguely hopeful way. He’s going to call a spade a spade.

So we slap him with this label, and the world knows him as “Doubting Thomas”. Some people make him the poster child for how not to do it…you should just believe things, that’s how you follow Jesus. But I’d like to try and redeem him today. I don’t think the way the bible talks about him is negative at all. For those of you who do question things and say, “But, what about…” and for those who can’t help but see the potential dangers or risks of something…my hope is that in Thomas you will see an example of someone who is like you, and who faithfully followed Jesus.

How do we make sense of what the bible says about Thomas?

It’s actually not too difficult to sit down and read every single reference to Thomas that there is in the bible. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all make first mention of him in the list of the disciples. The lists seem to roughly show a pecking order, beginning with the good or at least the famous disciples, and always ending with Judas Iscariot, the disciple the early church saw in a hugely negative way because he betrayed Jesus.

Thomas appears to be sort of middle of the road: he’s 7th in Mark, 8th in the lists in Matthew and Luke. Sort of your non-descript, average disciple. In fact, he blends in so much that after being named as a disciple, his name isn’t mentioned again in Matthew, Mark or Luke. The only way we get any insight into his character at all is through the gospel of John. In John 11:5-16, Thomas is shown to be quite brave. He’s realistic; he remembers Jesus almost being killed the last time they went to Jerusalem, and he doesn’t understand why Jesus feels the need to go back, even to help his friend Lazarus. It’s too much of a risk. There are bigger things at stake. But when Jesus makes up his mind to go, Thomas is the one who rallies the rest of the disciples to join Jesus.

It’s pretty clear it isn’t because he’s hopeful that Jesus will somehow prevail. He’s realistic. If Jesus goes, Jesus will be killed. So he actually shows great devotion and courage by being the one to say, let’s go die with him. I’m actually really inspired by that, on a couple of levels. One, just being able to have the courage to see the worst and be willing to follow the one you’ve given your life to is very impressive. Two, Thomas is one of the first who really seems to grasp what becomes the heart of the gospel: following God involves a self-sacrificing devotion to Jesus. We follow no matter what the cost to ourselves.

Doesn’t this demonstrate precisely the opposite of the connotation, “Doubting Thomas”? He believes so strongly he’s willing to give his own life to stay by the side of the one who has changed his life.

The next glimpse of Thomas comes in Jerusalem.

Turn with me to John 14. As they are preparing to eat the Passover meal together, Jesus has just washed all the disciples’ feet. Peter has protested, been reprimanded, gone too far, then said he’s willing to die for Jesus…but Jesus has told him he will deny him three times before morning comes. He’s telling them over and over that he is going away, and that they will follow him. But no one understands.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.”
“No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:1-5)

Again, can you picture this? All the disciples, passively nodding as Jesus teaches, trying to pretend they understand, not wanting to be honest because they are afraid of looking stupid. And Thomas, true to form, bluntly cuts through it all. No! We don’t even know where you’re going. We don’t know what you’re talking about! We don’t know the way to something we don’t understand.

I’m thinking if Thomas lived today, and he was driving around lost somewhere, he would actually pull over and ask for directions! He’s willing to be honest.

Sometimes we seem to get the idea that to be a person of faith means going along and pretending. We sometimes think it’s not very smart, or not very holy or something, to say, “I just don’t get this. Could you be more clear?” Thomas breaks through that mirage for us. People of faith don’t understand everything. Followers of Jesus are sometimes confused by what Jesus says. It is perfectly ok to bring all of that out in the open, to bring it to Jesus and even in front of other people admit, “I’m just not getting this. Could you be more clear?”

The result of Thomas’ question is that Jesus gives one of the clearest statements in the bible about who he is and what he does for us.

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7)

Because of Thomas, we get one of the clearest statements on record that Jesus is one with God. Because of Thomas, we in the church now understand that Jesus claimed he was more than a prophet, more than a teacher. Jesus is in unity with God, is part of the Godhead.

Honesty. Humility. A willingness to take off the mask of, “I’ve got this figured out.” These are the characteristics that Thomas rightly teaches us. These are the characteristics of a disciple. You might be thinking, “Hold on. You haven’t gotten to his big doubting scene. Didn’t he blow it there?” Let’s take a look. Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, bringing them all hope and joy…except for Thomas, who wasn’t there.

One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.”
Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”
“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed. (John 20:24-28)

At Thomas’ crucial moment, let’s not forget that several of the gospels tell us many of the disciples didn’t believe immediately when they heard the news of Jesus being alive again. Matthew and Luke tell us that after the women reported that the tomb was empty and Jesus was alive, that many disciples didn’t believe. It took Jesus appearing for many of the disciples to believe.

Why does Thomas get singled out? I think Thomas desperately wants it to be true, but he is so committed to THE Jesus he knew and loved, that he will settle for no one else. I think a great case can be made that his faith in and love for Jesus are so strong, that he will not accept any substitute!

When Jesus does appear, Jesus invites him to touch his wounds-not something the others are invited to do. We’re not told he actually DOES, by the way. Just like the rest of the disciples in Jesus’ first visit, seeing Jesus seems to be enough for Thomas. He goes on, though, to make the pinnacle statement of the Gospel of John: “My Lord and my God!”

John is written to build up to this very statement. The gospel of John is written to help us follow and obey Jesus as Lord, and to accept and acknowledge that he is God in the flesh. It all builds to this one, pivotal moment…a moment not delivered by Peter, the Rock on whom Christ builds the church. Not by John, the beloved disciple. It’s delivered by Thomas…faithful, stick it out through thick and thin, tell it like it is Thomas. This is an example to follow!

Let me offer a perhaps alternative explanation for Jesus’ response. [READ 20:29]

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” (John 20:29)

Most seem to read this as a sort of reprimand. “Well, sure, you finally believe because you saw me. The really blessed ones are the ones who just accept it when they hear it.” Perhaps the reason it’s here, though, is not to reprimand Thomas, but to encourage the billions of Christ-followers who didn’t get the opportunity to live during the time when Jesus walked the earth in the flesh.

The grammar in the original language points in this direction. Jesus is affirming toward Thomas: you believe! Good! And then he uses a comparative word that is best translated, “And even more blessed are those who haven’t seen and believe.” The assumption is not, Thomas you are NOT blessed and the others are. It’s simply giving hope to us, that we who didn’t get the chance to see and touch and yet believe receive a deeper blessing from God. It’s a positive for us, not a negative on Thomas.

Like a lawyer, I will present two more data points that support my contention that the bible sees Thomas in a positive light, then ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, to render your verdict.

First, in John itself; in John 21, when Jesus appears to the disciples while they are fishing, not all the disciples are even named…but Thomas is listed 2nd, right after Peter. He’s moved up from the 7th or 8th spot in the initial list. And in the book of Acts, which was written by Luke along with the gospel of Luke, Thomas has moved up from 8th to 6th, “passing” Matthew and Bartholomew from the first time Luke named the disciples.

Ok, ok, that might be stretching it a bit…but it does seem to be a little significant to me. I’d love, if I had all power, to wipe out the “Doubting Thomas” nametag. I’d love to come against any negative assessment of Thomas.

I see Thomas differently. I see him in many ways braver. He knows the cost. He knows the struggle. He sees how difficult things are and can be, and yet he looks the difficulty in the face, names it, and commits to Jesus anyway. Time and again, he lives out deep, sacrificial faith, devotion and obedience.

May we take his example to heart.

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