Unlike some of the other disciples, we don’t really have the exact details of Thomas’ early life and his calling. The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) only record Thomas as being part of the list of those called to be part of the 12 men Jesus called to leave their lives behind and follow him. The only detail we know from Thomas is that he was a twin (John 11:16). It’s likely that, like the other disciples, except for Judas, he was from the Galilee region.
But while we don’t hear much from Thomas in most of the Gospels, we can see him there as Jesus commissions the 12 and sends them out to preach the good news of the kingdom. We can observe him in the ship, watching Jesus walk on the water. We can envision his stunned silence when Jesus calms a raging sea or makes the lame walk or raises dead people from the grave. His hands were full of food when Jesus took a little boy’s lunch that day on the hillside and fed his people in the wilderness.
We do know that Thomas left everything to follow this itinerant rabbi. Something in Jesus compelled this young man to abandon his livelihood and risk his entire life on Jesus. When others left or faded away, Thomas was one of the few who stayed. When Judas slipped out of the Upper Room, Thomas was still there, hearing Jesus’ haunting and prophetic words about his arrest, death, and resurrection. He listened, likely with bewilderment, as Jesus taught about a new future he was creating, a Spirit-fueled movement that would be built on the foundation of these 11 ordinary men. Thomas cringed when Jesus prophesied Judas’ betrayal, wondering, like the others, if he had the seed of disloyalty in his own heart. He heard the footsteps of the soldiers as they came for Jesus. He saw the images of a bloody Jesus. He experienced the loss and separation of the One who had called him friend.
Thomas, the brave
This is what Thomas saw. So while “doubting” has become the favorite adjective for Thomas, we must first know him as a brave follower of Jesus, who risked it all.
Only the Gospel of John gives us any words from Thomas, and though they are few, they are profound and give us insight into his character. In John 11, Jesus was in a small town on the other side of the Jordan from Judea, near the place where John the Baptist began his ministry of baptism. Word got back to them that one of Jesus’ dearest friends, Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, was dying. Lazarus was in Bethany, a four-day journey away, so it was imperative for Jesus to go back and see his friend. Strangely, Jesus didn’t rush back but instead lingered for two more days. He reassured the disciples that Lazarus was not merely dead, but sleeping. He was referring, they wouldn’t know at the time, of his ability to raise Lazarus physically from the dead. His desire in waiting was for Lazarus to be so dead, four days dead, that nobody could doubt the miracle of his resurrection. Jesus purpose in returning to Bethany was not just to raise his friend, but to raise faith in those who witnessed the miracle, including the disciples.
But there were also other worries about going back toward Judea. The anger of Jesus’ enemies among the religious leaders was rising, and there were plots to take Jesus and possibly kill him. Jesus’ growing movement and his claims to be the Son of God, the Savior of the world, so incensed them that they had tried to seize him (John 10:38-39). They had just slipped away across the Jordan river to this hideaway where they’d be safe. So the disciples were understandably nervous. They weighed the risks, discussing a trip back into the hot zone. Of course they loved their friend Lazarus, but if he was already dead, was it worth going back and risking Jesus’ death and their own? You can hear them carefully weighing the pros and cons.
Jesus is determined to go, to show the world a glimpse of his resurrection power, a porthole into the new creation. And so Thomas, after hearing and perhaps participating in this heated deliberation, is the first one to volunteer to go with Jesus. “Let’s go too so that we may die with him (John 1116).” It’s kind of a macabre response, perhaps giving us insight into Thomas’ more pessimistic personality. It seems Thomas was the one always counting the cost, weighing the facts, looking for certainty when others like Peter were guided by the more emotional and subjective compass of the heart. And Thomas didn’t understand all that he even said. Thomas or any of the other disciples couldn’t really go with Jesus to die. To pay for the sins of the world, Jesus had to go alone to the garden, alone to the cross, alone to the grave.
And yet in a sense, Thomas understood the call Jesus gives every disciple to come and die with him. Because he went alone, we too can take up our cross and we can die with him. Paul would later say that he was “crucified with Christ” and “no longer lives” so that the life of Christ can be lived through him (Gal. 2:2).
This is a bold statement. Thomas seems like the silent one, who carefully weighs and thinks before coming to a conclusion and yet when he speaks, it is a profound statement of courage and loyalty. “Let’s go die with Jesus” could be a life verse, the call of everyone who sees and believes Jesus.
Which is why, I think, if we only think of Thomas as “doubting” we miss out on Thomas altogether. Before he was “Doubting Thomas” he was “Brave Thomas”, willing to put it all on the line for the one he loved.
Adapted and reprinted with permission from The Characters of Easter, “Chapter Six: The Doubter – Thomas,” Moody Press, 2021.