Thomas the Apostle -- December 21

  • Psalm 26
  • Habakkuk 2:1-4
  • Hebrews 10:35-11:1
  • John 20:24-29

    Thomas is best known as the doubter, who according to the Fourth Evangelist was absent during the first appearance of the risen Lord to the Twelve. He said he would believe if, and only if, he could place his fingers into the wounds from the crucifixion. (Here's good evidence that nails were used, rather than cords as is sometimes claimed.)

    Thomas got his opportunity, and called Jesus "My Lord and my God!" After the Ascension, Thomas must have been among the Twelve remaining in Jerusalem. Legend eventually has him bringing the gospel to India. This might even be true. Early-modern missionaries found Christians in Malabar, using the Syrian rite and claiming to have Thomas as their founder.

    John 11:6 and 20:24 calls Thomas "Didymus" (twin). Eusebius says his first name was Judas. The spurious "Gospel of Thomas" calls him Judas Didymus (DID-ooh-moss, "Twin") Thomas, and "Thomas" (ta'owm) in Hebrew means "twin". The word is used for Jacob and Esau, and in the Song of Songs. What became of the apostle's twin? We don't know. Especially if they were identical twins, having the same genetic code, it's a reminder that it's not your genetic code that makes you a unique individual.

    John 11:16 also quotes Thomas as asking the other disciples to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to die with him. John 14:5 tells us that it was Thomas's question ("Lord, we don't know where you are going, how can we know the road?") that prompted Christ to say, "I am the way (road, hodos, compare the "odometer" of your car), the truth, and the life."

    Psalm 26 was probably chosen for Thomas because of the first verse. The speaker has walked with integrity, and because he had faith (batach, baw-TAKH) he did not stumble (the Hebrew is slipped, slid) while he walked. "Batach" covers a range of meanings including "trust", "confidence", and even "carelessness", significant in a psalm about not slipping and falling on the road of life. Psalm 26:2 invites God to examine the speaker's heart and kidneys (where the feelings were supposed to be.) Thomas, on invitation, examined Jesus's hands and side.

    Thomas talks about not even knowing the road, yet he managed to follow Jesus with trust, in spite of his initial doubts after the Resurrection. Doubting Thomas is given a psalm that celebrates possessing the faith that one needs

    Habakkuk 2:4 is the celebrated passage, "The righteous (tsaddiyq, tsad_DEEK) shall live by faith" ('emuwnah, em-ooh-NAW). "Faith" here means firmness, fidelity, steadfastness, rather than consent to particular doctrines or confidence in a particular supernatural event. We can say that Thomas showed steadfastness and faithfulness to Jesus in following Him, though he did not know the road. Habakkuk is talking about a delay in the fulfillment of a prophecy, and the following verses refer to the ruin of a tyrant whose appetite had been as boundless as Sheol (the grave or the underworld).

    The passage from Hebrews urges the early Christians not to throw away their confidence (parresian, par-ray-SEE-ahn; the word covers a range from "boldness in speech" through "cheerful courage" through "self-confident demeanor). Again, the author is talking about the delay in the fulfillment of the promise of Christ's second coming. The author quotes Habakkuk's "The just shall live by faith", and follows it with a reference to those who shrink back (hypostole, hoop-awss-toe-LAY, cowardly retreat) to destruction (apoleian, ap-OH-lay-ahn, waste, damnation, destruction, compare Apollyon). Instead, Christians have faith (pistis) for the saving (peripoiesin, peh-ree-POY-ay-seen, meaning "obtain as a possession") of their own psyches (the word in Greek). The passage seems to be less about assent to a particular doctrine being a condition of happiness in the afterlife, and more about keeping your own self-confidence and self-composure as a Christian.

    Hebrews 11:1 is the the famous description of faith (pistis, PEESS-teess). It is the assurance (hypostasis, hoop-OHSS-tahss-ees) of things-hoped-for (elpizomenon, ell-pee-zoe-MEN-oan). It is the evidence of things when we do not have actual experience ("things unseen", see below). There's a lot here. It seems to me that Biblical faith isn't Mark Twain's idea of pretending to believe "what you know ain't so", or William James's leap -- a decision in the absence of evidence. The New Testament describes signs of the Kingdom, including supernatural marvels that would give people confidence in Christ's victory over sin and death. (Keep your eyes open today as well -- maybe you'll decide the supernatural signs continue to this day, or perhaps the changes in those who choose to follow Christ is sign enough for you!) "Hebrews" isn't about blind allegiance to a doctrine or an organization, and it's unfortunate that today's secularists (including many scientists) don't understand this. Contrary to what somebody else has told you, we scientists do not talk about "proof" in science, only the best evidence for our best working hypotheses that enable us to predict the results of our experiments and actions. The Hebrews passage is not anti-scientific, but mirrors the methods of genuine science, and of life. On my first skydive, I knew how the parachute worked, I knew I would have a great time, and I saw everybody else doing nicely. But it was still faith that enabled me to jump out the door of the airplane. Again, in real life and in scripture, faith is not about assent to doctrines in the absence of evidence. The thrust of Hebrews seems to be that faith helps you in this life.

    "We have seen the Lord" is heorakamen (heh-oh-ROCK-ah-men), and "because you have seen Me" is heorakas (heh-OH-rock-ahss) both forms of "horao". Translated "see", it apparently means "saw and realized the importance of...". Among several New Testament words for "see", this one is cognate to "Eureka!", or "I have found it!", which is actually used as heurekamen (heh-ooh-RAKE-ah-men) by Andrew to Peter ("We have found the Messiah!"). Andrew's word means "I was looking, and..." or "Even though I wasn't looking, I saw..."; "found" seems like the right word.

    Thomas said, "Unless I see (eido) the nail-prints in his hands...". Eido has the meaning of "examine". By contrast, "seen" in Hebrews 11:1 uses "blepso", ordinary seeing. pragmaton elegchocs ou blepomenon (prahg-MAH-tone ELL-egg-chahss ow blep-aw-MENN-own), "of things, the proof not being seen."

    Again, Thomas's and Jesus's words (as rendered by the Fourth Evangelist) for "believe" in 20:25 and 29 are derivatives of "pistis", faith. The Fourth Evangelist's broad strokes paint Thomas as a Christian who is ready to serve without demanding all the answers. He makes me think of other good people who do not yet know what Christ has done and is doing for them.

    Those who believe in Jesus on the testimony of others are blessed. But thankfully we never hear, "Cursed are those who doubt honestly." Thomas is not rebuked, and he is also blessed. Yet he had enough faith to offer to die simply for love of Jesus, and to stay in Jerusalem under dangerous conditions when everything seemed to be lost. And when it was time for Thomas to see, he believed.

    The lesson must be that each of us has sufficient faith to do whatever we're called to do. Rather than sitting and fretting about our own insufficiency or lack of faith, we can go about living as Christians with what we already have.

    There's more here too. Jesus met each person as an individual and addressed his or her particular needs and inadequacies. After Thomas, Jesus made Himself known directly to Paul, when Paul thought they hated each other. And history is full of bad people who have become good upon meeting Jesus, and good people who have suddenly been shown and acknowledged who they were already serving.

    Now, I find the testimony of others to the fact of the Resurrection more persuasive than Thomas did. And I'll do what I can to share this with others. But the world is full of good folks who, like Doubting Thomas, do not yet believe in the Resurrection, at least consciously. When I fail as an evangelist, I can trust that Jesus, in the end, will show the other person what I could not.

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