They say a picture tells a thousand words. Stories go further and paint a thousand pictures in our minds. It is that ability to inspire our imagination that has made story telling such an impacting form of communication in every time and culture.
The gospel of John re-tells the greatest story ever told, that is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also contains some of the most profoundly impacting stories of people encountering Jesus in their day to day lives. We hear about a religious leader, a rejected woman, a grieving family, a disbelieving disciple, and a remorseful follower of Christ, who all have their lives radically changed as they put their trust in Jesus. These stories can also have a powerful impact in our own lives as we read and reflect on them.
In this discussion study, we look at the story of Thomas, a disciple of Jesus who struggled with pessimism, doubt and unbelief until he encountered the risen Jesus. That one encounter totally transformed the life of Thomas. Despite his earlier doubts and questions, Thomas found that Jesus was completely trustworthy; and for the rest of his life he believed in him and put his trust in him. This powerful story of Thomas can also encourage us as we struggle with questions of life and faith.The Story of Thomas in Five Scenes.
The New Testament only talks about Thomas a few times. He is only briefly mentioned once in each of the first three gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, the book of John provides a more detailed personal picture of Thomas and his encounters with Jesus towards the end of Jesus’ ministry.Scene One: The Disciple Thomas
(Lk 6:15, Mt 10:3 Mk 3:18). When Jesus chooses his twelve disciples at the beginning of his ministry, Thomas is mentioned briefly by name only. However, this brief mention shows that Thomas heard Jesus preach and teach; he saw him walk on water; he watched him feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes; and he was even sent by Jesus with the other disciples to share the good news with others two by two. For up to three years, Thomas was a faithful and fervent follower of Jesus.Scene Two: Pessimistic Thomas
(Jn 11:7-18).The second time we hear of Thomas is in a scene towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. Here Thomas makes the rather gloomy comment to his fellow disciples, “Let us go too, so that we may die with him.” Either Thomas was pessimistic by nature or something had happened to dampen his enthusiasm and make him concerned about the possibility Jesus could die, and the disciples along with him. We have all had moments of pessimism like Thomas. It’s reassuring to note that that Jesus does not comment or critique Thomas for his negativity.Scene Three: Doubting Thomas
(Jn 14:1-7). We hear from Thomas again just after the last supper and before Jesus’ crucifixion. As I read this scene in John, I can imagine Thomas getting increasingly concerned when he hears Jesus describe his impending death through the dramatic pictures of broken bread and wine like blood. He would have noted that someone was going to betray Jesus; and he would have overheard Jesus tell Peter that he will deny him. So when Jesus says, “You know where I am going,” I am not surprised Thomas asks somewhat doubtfully or even fearfully, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” After the ominous dialogue over supper, I would have wanted Jesus to spell out the way ahead in a bit more detail too. Again it is encouraging to note that Jesus does not criticise Thomas; and this time he even responds lovingly with the profound words, “I am the way the truth and the life.”Scene Four – Incredulous Thomas
(Jn 20:24-25). Things now seem to get worse for Thomas. After the crucifixion, he is not there to see Jesus who has risen from the dead. In this fourth scene, he is no longer asking questions. His pessimism and doubt have descended into incredulous disbelief. He will never believe that Jesus is risen without seeing the scars in his hands and side. Who can blame him? Having someone rise from the dead does not happen every day! Like many in our time and culture, Thomas finds that incredibly hard to believe.Scene Five – Believing Thomas
(Jn 20:26-29). This is the climactic scene of the entire book of John. It is the surprising moment to which John has been leading us all along. Thomas declares that Jesus is “My Lord and my God”. He no longer needs “proof”, he doesn’t even try to put his finger in Jesus side or hands. Encountering Jesus is enough. As George Beasley-Murray puts it, “The most outrageous doubter of the resurrection utters the greatest confession of the Lord who rose from the dead.” With this radical change of heart, Thomas “does not simply acknowledge the reality of the resurrection … he expresses its ultimate meaning.”The Ultimate Meaning and Purpose of the Book of John
Thomas is the first person in the book of John to declare that Jesus is not just Lord or master but God himself. This powerful confession of personal faith links back to the opening statements of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (Jn 1:1, 14 ESV). Finally, someone has acknowledged the divinity of Christ and recognized the full meaning of his life, death and resurrection. God himself has come into the world as a human, he has taken on the flesh of broken humanity and defeated the power of sin and death, and whoever believes in him will not perish but find eternal life (Jn 3:16).
Immediately following Thomas profound statement of faith, John states his purpose in writing this book. “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31 ESV). For every generation from then until now, the stories of people encountering Jesus in the book of John provide a powerful testimony to the divinity of Christ. As we read these stories, they can encourage our faith and help us to place our trust in a trustworthy God. Many times, the story of Thomas has encouraged my own faith in times of doubt and uncertainty.Discussion Questions
One of the reassuring things I have learned from reading the story of Thomas is that questions are OK. God does not get disturbed by our doubts, queries and concerns. He continues to work by his Holy Spirit, and through the testimony of others, to respond to our doubts, all our fears and encourage our faith. After reading the story of Thomas, here are some questions you could discuss in your Life Group to help strengthen each other’s faith.1. Is the Story of the Resurrection Trustworthy?
Someone rising from the dead defies our normal understanding of the natural world in a radical way. How do we know it is true? It is impossible to apply standards of scientific observation and proof to non-repeatable historical events. Historical events require a different type of reasoning to establish plausibility. Events such as World War Two, the moon landing, the death of Julius Caesar, and the resurrection of Jesus can all be assessed for plausibility by standards of legal evidence and the reliability of witnesses. Thomas along with all the other witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus were willing to die for their faith rather than deny the reality they had seen. For example, Thomas was martyred for his faith in 72 AD in Chennai, South India. That alone makes him, along with the other disciples who were martyred for their faith, a credible witness. When I first came to Christ, I found this argument very persuasive. What insights or testimonies have helped you believe in this amazing story?2. Is Jesus Trustworthy?
For many people, the struggle they have is not simply believing in God or the miraculous, but believing that God is good and that God is concerned with human suffering and their own sin and brokenness. Many deeply question how a good God could allow so much violence and tragedy in the world. The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides a profound way of approaching that question. It shows us that the God who created the world was also willing to embrace our pain, brokenness and sin, along with our doubts and fears. He himself came to earth to take on the sin and brokenness of the world. When he did, everything changed. He brought light out of darkness, life out of death, hope out of despair, and faith out of unbelief. The story of Thomas shows us that a similar transformational experience is available to everyone who puts their trust in Jesus as their Lord and God. The resurrection shows us we can trust in Jesus whatever our doubts, questions or fears. How do you think the story of Jesus Christ transforms our understanding of violence and injustice in this world? Do you think Jesus is trustworthy? How can we continue to put our trust in him even when we have doubts and questions?3. Why do you believe in Jesus?
Like Thomas or any of the other characters in the book of John, every Christian has had an encounter with Jesus where they have entrusted their life to him. Why not share your own stories with each other, and talk how you have moved from doubt to faith through an encounter with Jesus. Together we can strengthen each other’s faith with our personal testimonies.