“A Bout With Easter Doubt”
March 25, 2016
By Ed Young
Let’s face it, we all have our doubts from time to time. But do our doubts disqualify us from experiencing the full life God has for us through Christ? You and I know the answer to that last question is a resounding “No!” But many people we rub shoulders with aren’t sure. So this Easter, I’m taking a unique look at the resurrection and addressing the topic of doubt.
Today’s message is about doubt. That’s right, on this Easter celebration, it’s about doubt. Also, it’s a bout with doubt that so many people have. It seems rather unusual to talk about, but most people – I’m talking to even followers of Christ – experience a bout with doubt.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the essence of Christianity. Around the resurrection we see many different emotions and decisions. One was one of doubt by one of the disciples named Thomas. Thomas had such a bout with doubt that we even use his name in the phase “a doubting Thomas.”
Thomas had that sort of pessimistic mindset. He sort of saw the glass as half empty rather than half full. He would see a dark lining in every silver cloud. He was a man who would feel bad when he felt good because he was afraid he would feel worse when he felt better.
The name Thomas is the word “Didymus” which literally means “twin”. And I believe Thomas has many twins in our culture today, many twins in these various environments where we’re holding our Easter services today. A lot of us have had an ongoing bout with doubt when it comes to Jesus.
While some of the disciples were famous for what they did, this disciple was famous for what he did not do. He did not believe in the resurrection. He was more pessimistic than optimistic. He was more cynical than being soft.
But again, I say, Thomas has a lot of twins here, because a lot of us wrestle with the resurrection. We have a bout with doubt. And today, as we delve into doubt, we’re going to talk about how to turn our doubt inside out. How to move from being pessimistic to being optimistic; how to move from floundering around to being faithful; how to move from being a doubter to a devoted follower of Christ, to a disciple.
That’s again one of the great things about the Scripture. You have the gospel of John. John records this bout with doubt at the end of his book. Yet, little did Thomas realize that he would give Godfidence to billions and billions of people in the future who struggle with doubt.
I think the thing about doubt that is unusual is I think most in the Christian community would expect to see doubt in the lives of atheists and agnostics. We would expect to see doubt in the lives of those who don’t go to church. But followers of Christ? They never really doubt, would they? Well, the truth of the matter is, yes. Every once in a while they doubt. And the interesting thing about this story is we find one of Christ’s closest followers, one of his disciples, doubting.
And again, what’s so hilarious is that his very name has become synonymous with doubts. When we encounter someone who refuses to believe something that is true, we call them a Doubting Thomas.
So often, as we jump in the ring with doubt and wrestle with the resurrection, I think today’s talk will help all of us. For starters, let’s look at what caused the rift, what caused the bout with doubt.
John 20:24-25, “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
There’s nothing wrong with doubt. Let me say that again. There’s nothing wrong with doubt. IN fact, faith presupposes doubt. And faith is preceded by doubt. If there’s no room for doubt, there’s no place for faith. The only thing that you don’t doubt is what you don’t believe.
In essence, Thomas was saying, “Seeing is believing.” He was living by empirical evidence. If I can’t see it, touch it, taste it, feel it, I won’t believe it.” Thomas was believing his doubts and doubting his beliefs.
As you dissect Thomas’ doubt, one of the things that is so interesting and one of the things that caused the doubt would be that Thomas was absent from fellowship.
John 20:24, “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”
Well, when did Jesus come? Look at John 20:19, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
Thomas missed fellowship. He missed church. And for a solid week, while the rest of the disciples were partying, Thomas was pouting. While they were dancing on the mountaintops of delight, Thomas was wandering in the wilderness of doubt. While the rest of the disciples had their hands up in victory, Thomas was getting pummeled and dogged by doubt. Why? Because he missed Jesus. He missed him.
We need to understand that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. Some people call Sunday the Christian Sabbath. But Sunday is not the Sabbath. The seventh day of the week – the Sabbath – commemorates God’s finished work of Creation. Genesis 2:1-3). The Lord’s Day commemorates Christ’s finished work of redemption, the new creation. God the Father worked for six days and then rested. God the Son suffered on the cross for six hours and then rested.
There were at least five resurrection appearances of Jesus on that first day of the week. It appears that the believers began to meet on Sunday, which came to be called the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10) and it also appears that the early church met on the first day of the week to worship the Lord and think about his death, burial, and resurrection. The Sabbath was over when Jesus arose from the dead on the first day of the week. The change from the seventh day to the first day was not effected by some church decree. It was brought about from the beginning by the first believers.
For centuries the Jewish Sabbath had been associated with the Law. Six days of work then you rest. But the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, is associate with grace. First there is faith in the living Christ, then there will be works.
I know this is a very basic, yet foundational principle. Let me unpack it this way. The greatest tragedy in life is to miss Jesus. Every weekend thousands enter churches. Yet, so often, they miss Jesus. Thomas was in bad company. Only one other disciple of the twelve missed church that Sunday. That was Judas. One denied Jesus and the other doubted Jesus. One was strangled by unbelief; the other tangled in doubt.
Whenever you are able to come to church but you don’t, you weaken your faith and strengthen your doubt. And every time, you’re missing Jesus. You’re missing something God has for you. You show me someone who doesn’t go to church and I’ll show you one of two things. A weak believer or a lost soul.
Every time you miss church, you are voting to shut the doors of the church. You know everyone says, “Well, the majority rules.” Well, I thank God that really isn’t true. Because if the majority ruled, we wouldn’t have church. Being a pastor is funny hearing the excuses people give about why they don’t come to church.
ILLUS: I thought about one weekend doing away with all the excuses to make it possible for everyone to attend who has given me and so many others all these reasons why they don’t go to church. I think we’ll hand out sleeping bags for those who say, “Sunday is my only day to sleep in.” Maybe we’ll hand out some blankets for those who say, “The church is too cold.” And little fans for those who say, “It’s too hot.” We’ll give away hard hats for those who say, “The church might cave in if I attended.” We’ll give out headphones for those who say, “The church is too loud.” We’ll handout scorecards for those who wish to list the hypocrites who are present. We’ll serve a full breakfast for those who say they didn’t’ want to miss brunch. One section will be devoted to trees and grass and flowers for those who like to worship God outdoors. Finally, our worship center will be decorated strategically with Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who have never seen a church without them.
I think we need to understand there are several layers of doubt. There’s the kind of doubt when I want to pray for something but I hesitate because it just seems too bold and outrageous. “I’m not sure if I want to ask that big of a request from God.”
Then there’s the kind of doubt when I suddenly feel overwhelmed by my circumstances and take my eyes off Jesus and find myself focusing more on the surroundings. Sort of like Simon Peter did when he took his eyes off Jesus and fell into the water. You know, we shouldn’t doubt like that but we do. It’s human, isn’t it? It’s normal for us to hesitate once in a while and become overwhelmed by our circumstances.
But the kind of doubt that Thomas had is sort of a different kind of doubt. It’s a dangerous form of it. The others will slow down our faith or cripple us in crucial moments. But the kind of doubt that Thomas had – apistos – is no faith. The kind of doubt he had is the kind that can destroy us. It can cut us off from God.
Again, though, let’s think about it. Thomas was a great guy. It helps us to know that Jesus prayed all night before he selected his disciples. And Thomas made the cut of the Dream Team. He’s a man who shows promise. He’s a man who has the ability to believe and act on his belief. All the other times Thomas shows up in the gospels he looks pretty good. In John 11, when Jesus is determined to go to Jerusalem in a dangerous situation, Thomas says, to the rest of the gang, (John 11:16), “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
And later, when Jesus told his disciples in John 14:2-4, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas spoke up and said in John 14:5, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
And Jesus responded in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
So Thomas loved Jesus. He walked with him and was willing to suffer and even die. But then he shows up late to the party after Jesus rose from the grave. The other disciples are trying to share their excitement but he’s having no part of it. You can almost feel the anger in his voice in John 20:25, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Not “I have my doubts.” Not “I’m having trouble swallowing this.” Not “Are you kidding me?” What he said was, “I will not believe it.”
Doubt is one thing. But telling God what you accept as proof is another thing. Telling God to come down and settle things on your terms is not generally a good idea.
Another reason that he had a bout with doubt was Thomas forgot the facts. Maybe I could say he was just ignorant of the facts. He had every reason to believe in the resurrection. He had, for example, the testimony of the prophets. John 20:9 (NKJV), “For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.
Luke 24:44-46 (NKJV), “Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.’ Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day.’”
If Thomas had just looked at the Bible he would have believed.
This is one of the most important reasons why I need to study the Bible, God’s Word. You need to study the Bible, God’s Word – every day. Every time we read it we starve our doubt and feed our faith. Every time we read the Bible it give us Godfidence.
Thomas had the prophets. He also had the teaching of the Lord.
John 2:19-22 (NKJV), “Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?”
But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.”
Then also, there was the transformation of the disciples. Their fear turned into faith. Panic had been turned into peace. Fearfulness’ had been turned into cheerfulness.
Then there was the truth of the empty tomb. The stone had been rolled away and jesus was not there.
Then the next thing I want you to realize is that Jesus drilled down into his doubt.
John 20:26-27, “And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
A great definition of doubt is between belief and unbelief. It’s like an icy road. We also see the only manmade thing that is in heaven today – the scars of Jesus.
Now look at how his doubt was changed into dogma. When he saw Jesus (John 20:28 NKJV), “And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas’ words, “My Lord and my God” were an amazing statement of faith. And one of the only places in the gospels where one of the disciples directly refer to Jesus as God. Thomas’ doubt, whether right or wrong, led him to utter his incredible claim.
One look was all it took. He didn’t even have to touch the Lord Jesus. He saw the nail print and saw the wounds, and he gives us the greatest confession in the New Testament.
I believe when a person truly meets the crucified yet resurrected Jesus, his first response will be, “My Lord and my God!
Look carefully at this confession. He calls him Lord. That refers to his divine authority. He calls him God. That refers to his divine identity. But then he calls him “My Lord and my God.” That refers to his divine necessity.
He didn’t just call him Savior. He called him Lord. If you want to be saved, Jesus must be your Lord. The Bible says in Romans 10:9 (NKJV), “…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Thomas also confessed him as God. Not just the Son of God, but God. Jesus accepts his worship.
And in Acts 10:25-26 (NKJV) when Peter met Cornelius the Bible says, “As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I myself am also a man.”
Peter basically said, “Get up from worshipping me, because if you don’t we’ll both be in trouble – you for worshiping me and me for letting you.”
Then, I guess the next thing is that Thomas’ doubt was corrected. In John 20:29 (NKJV) Jesus gives us his last beatitude. “Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”
Thomas’ request for more evidence was granted by Jesus. He benefitted from being able to see the risen Lord right before his eyes. However, Jesus statement would be for all of us in the future who would believe without seeing.
Jesus blesses all those who have not seen, yet have believed. Who was he talking about? He was talking about you and me. I’ve never seen Jesus. I’ve never touched his nail-scarred hands. But I know Jesus. I have Jesus. And I love Jesus.
Definitely Thomas was aloof until he had the proof. The news that Jesus was alive began to spread among his followers, first with sort of a hesitation. Then, with absolute elation and celebration. Wherever people were confronted with the reality of his resurrection, their lives were transformed. As you follow me through this text, through this account, the changes that took place in the lives of people can take place in your life as you meet the resurrected Lord.
T.S. When you have a bout with doubt, here is what God does. Here is how he changes our fear into faith, our doubt into something definite.
For one thing, Jesus came to them. They were behind locked doors, and Jesus came to them and reassured them. In his resurrection body he was able to enter the room without opening the doors. It was a solid body. He asked them to touch him and he even ate some fish. But it was a unique and different body; one that is not limited by the laws of nature.
Jesus said to them, “Shalom. Peace.” Doubt was dogging them. They were at war. Yet, Jesus said, “Peace!” He didn’t jam them. He greeted them. The work of the cross is peace. Man has declared war on God, but God would declare peace with man.
But not only did Jesus come to them, Jesus reassured them. He was not a phantom. The wounds meant more than identification. They were also evidence that the price for salvation had been paid, and man indeed could have peace with God.
IN our fears, we cannot lock him out. He comes to us in grace and reassures us through his word.
Also, Jesus commissioned them. We have to understand that the original disciples were not the only ones present. Others, including the Amaeus disciples were in the room. John 20:21, “As my father has sent me, I am sending you.”
So Jesus was entrusting them with his word and his work. What a great warning! Thomas is a good warning to all of us not to miss meeting with God’s people on the Lord’s Day. Because Thomas was not there, he missed seeing Jesus, hearing his words of peace, and receiving his commission and gift of spiritual life. He had to endure a week of fear and unbelief when he could have been experiencing joy and peace. Remember Thomas when you are tempted to stay home from church. You never know what special blessing you might miss.
But we’ve got to give him credit for showing up the next week. The other 10 guys told Thomas they had seen the Lord’s hands and his side. So Thomas made that his test. Think about it. Thomas had been there when Jesus raised Lazarus, so why should he question Christ’s resurrection? But again, he was aloof until proof. Seeing is believing is what he said.
Thomas’ words help us understand the difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt says, “I cannot believe. There are too many problems.” Unbelief says, “I will not believe unless you give me the evidence I ask for.”
So the next day, Jesus appeared in a room again where the doors were locked and dealt personally with Thomas’ unbelief. God is so gracious to stoop to our level of experience to lift us where we ought to be.
Jesus saw a dangerous process at work in Thomas’ heart and he wanted to put a stop to it. And his words literally were, “Stop becoming faithless, but become a believer.”
It isn’t’ easy to understand the psychology of doubt and unbelief. They can be linked to personality traits. Some people can be more trusting than others. Perhaps Thomas was pressed and was ready to quit, so he threw out a challenge and didn’t think Jesus would accept it.
John 20:29 indicates that Thomas’ testimony didn’t come from his touching Jesus, but from his seeing Jesus. It’s so encouraging to us to know that the Lord had a personal interest in and concern for Doubting Thomas. He wanted to strengthen his faith and include him in the blessings that he had for him.
Unbelief robs us from blessings and opportunities. It may sound sexy, sophisticated and intellectual to question what Jesus did. But such questions are usually evidence of hard hearts, not searching minds. Thomas represents the “scientific approach” to life and it did not work.
After all, when a skeptic says, “I will not believe unless…” he is already admitting that he does believe. He believes in the validity of the test or experiment that he had devised. If he can have faith in his own scientific approach, why can he not have faith in what God has revealed? Everybody lives by faith. The difference is in the object of that faith. Christians put their faith in God and his word while those who are not followers put their faith in themselves.
I think it’s ironic – the most powerful things are things we cannot see. If we only believed in things we could see, wow, that would be a horrible existence. We could not experience love, smell, thoughts, so forth and so on.
I think it needs to be said that we need to feed our faith and starve our doubt. It’s just like a muscle. If you exercise it every day, the muscle will be built up. You’ll be ripped. If not, the muscle will deteriorate. In the same way, reading your Bible is like spiritual exercise. It strengthens the muscles of your faith.
God doesn’t mind if you doubt, as long as you don’t make decisions based on that doubt. IT’s not how much you believe that impresses God. It’s how much you risk on what you believe that impresses him. Faith is a willingness to trust God, to believe God, to obey God, to serve God even when doubt is present.
Here’s the deal. The Bible does not tell me everything I want to know, but it tells me everything I need to know. And the Bible tells me how to interpret every experience I have with God.
What’s so interesting is Thomas did not take his friends at their word, but instead wanted empirical evidence in order to dust away his doubts or cancel his doubts. But to understand Thomas, we really have to look at him holistically. His life is sort of paradoxical. On one hand he was fearless, but here we find his faith faltering.
You know, much has been written in recent years about the so-called Gospel of Thomas. Darrell Bock’s book, “Breaking the DaVinci Code” and N.T. Wright’s book, “The Meaning of Jesus” helpfully demonstragte the irrelevance of the “Gospel of Thomas” to the New Testament.
As you read the gospels, it appears that the disciples wanted proof for themselves as well. But it seems they did not verbalize this request. Thomas did, and I like that. He laid down his criteria for belief. He must see the nail marks, etc. He doesn’t close off the possibility of believing, but rather sets down a list of evidences that would be necessary in order for him to believe. Long before David Hume and Immanuel Kant influenced the modern mindset, Thomas laid down his empiricist challenge.
A great question would be “Why did Thomas doubt?” He’d been with Jesus for three years. He’d seen the blind, the deaf, and the possessed healed and delivered. He saw Jesus walk on water. He saw him feed 5000. Why did Thomas doubt?
Perhaps more puzzling is the context. He had just seen Jesus raise a dead man from the grave. So why was it so hard for Thomas to believe? Thomas did not hold and anti-supernatural bias in spite of the fact that he cried out for some empirical standards of evidence in order to slide from doubt to belief. He was not an advocate of an early form of philosophic naturalism.
Maybe he doubted because of his melancholy temperament. He was depressed and despondent and thought the news was too good to be true. Maybe it was a reaction to the gruesome torture of crucifixion. Or maybe he was one of those guys who didn’t trust the word of others.
He didn’t keep his doubt on the down low. He verbalized his doubt in front of his enthusiastic, resurrection rumbling friends.
Jesus used the word “diakrino” – the word for doubt, which means “to hold back”. He also use the word “apistos” which literally means faithful. Jesus did not start his conversation with Thomas in anger. He didn’t’ want his disciple to remain on the ice in a state of doubt. Instead, he offered Thomas the freedom to investigate his body. That was the proof he need to slide toward belief.
John didn’t have to include this story in his gospel. The other gospel writers obviously didn’t put it in there. He could have left it out and made it look like all the disciples believed in the resurrection immediately. But Thomas’ story lends credibility to John’s account by demonstrating that not everyone’s faith was immediate. This offers hope to all who struggle to quickly resolve their doubt with faith.
Blaise Pascal wrote “I believe only the histories whose witnesses got themselves killed.”
Speaking of doubt, even Jesus in his full humanity experience what one might call doubt as he cried out in Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Christ’s resurrection is the baseline of our faith. First of all, because Jesus said he would. Secondly it shows us that the living Christ, not a false prophet, is the ruler of God’s eternal kingdom. Number three, we can be certain of our own resurrection because Christ was resurrected. Death is not the end. Number four, the divine power that brought Jesus back to life is now available to us to bring our spiritually dead selves back to life. And number five, the resurrection is the basis of the church’s witness to the world.
In John 20:18 when Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus, she didn’t recognize Jesus at first. Her grief had blinded her. She couldn’t see him because she didn’t expect to see him. Then he spoke her name and immediately she recognized him. Imagine the love that flooded her heart when she heard her savior call her name. Jesus is near to you. He’s calling your name. Can you, like Mary, regard him as your Lord? So often, we don’t recognize him. We don’t hear him.
Thomas did not idolize his doubts. He expressed his doubts fully and had them answered completely. Doubt was only his way of responding, not his way of life. We can doubt without having to live a doubting way of life. Doubt encourages rethinking. Its purpose if more to sharpen the mind than to change it. It can be used to pose the question, get an answer, and push for a decision. Doubt was never meant to be a permanent condition. It’s sort of like and icy field between belief and unbelief. It’s one foot lifted, poised to step forward or backwards. There’s no motion until the foot comes down.
ILLUS: Spraining my ankle.
When you experience doubt, take encouragement from Tom. He didn’t stay in his doubt. He didn’t’ stay in the ring. He allowed Jesus to bring victory to his doubt and to bring belief and faith to his life.
Take encouragement that countless other followers have struggled with doubt. The answers God gave them may help you to move from doubt to decision. Silent doubts rarely find answers.
Thomas wanted Christ’s physical presence. But God’s plan is wiser. He has not limited himself in one physical body. He wants to be present at all times. Even now he is present with you in the Holy Spirit. You can talk to him. You can find his words to you in the pages of the Bible. He can be as real to you as he was to Thomas.
John wrote his book to show Jesus is the Son of God. He clearly and systematically presented the evidence for Jesus’ claims. And when evidence is presented in the courtroom, those who hear it must make a choice. Those who read the gospel of John must also make a choice. Is Jesus the Son of God or isn’t he? We are the jury. The evidence has been clearly presented. We must decide.
Somewhere along in your life you’ll be faced with making a choice. You’re not going to have all the information you’d like, but you’ll still need to make that decision. If you always wait until you have all the information, you may never make a choice. Thomas had all kinds of information. He had far more information than we have; yet, because he sought that little bit extra, it almost ruined his relationship with Christ. We have to choose to believe. We have to decide that we believe God actually can do things in our lives. We accept it that we can’t fully understand it, but we believe in him.
Jesus healed a boy who had an evil spirit. The boy’s father brought him to Jesus and said, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“If you can?” said Jesus. “Anything is possible for him who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”
When the father pled “help me overcome my unbelief” he was using the same word that described Thomas’ lack of faith – apistos. But this time, this man is admitting his weakness. He wasn’t saying he will not believe in Jesus. He just admitted he was having a problem. But in spite of the struggle with unbelief he said, “I’m making a conscious decision to believe. I believe. Help my unbelief.”
In the gospel, John has traced the development of unbelief which culminated in Jesus’ enemies crucifying him. Conversely, John also traced the disciples’ development of faith, which was now climaxed in Thomas. The disciples were affirming Christ’s resurrection to Thomas, but he remained unconvinced. He was a skeptical guy, confronted by the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.