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Understanding Thomas

December 12, 2012

Doubting Thomas. So he is called. But what made him tick? Why did Thomas say the things he did?

Let’s start with his name. Is it really a name or a nickname? We are told that his name means “twin.” Does any parent name one of their twins “Twin?’ Sounds like a nickname to me. We are told that he was called Didymus in Greek, which also means twin.

How do you get the  nickname”the Twin.” I asked myself this question and concluded that the other twin was probably someone who was important or well-known: ” Isn’t that _____?” “No, that’s his twin.”

So, who was Thomas’s twin? Does the Bible tell us or at least give us a hint? I think so. In Matthew 10, Mark 3, and Luke 6 there are listings of the twelve disciples. Of particular interest is that  in both Mark and Luke we read this order: Matthew, Thomas and James the son of Alphaeus. This is interesting because Mark refers to Matthew as Levi, the son of Alphaeus. So Thomas is sandwiched between two sons of Alphaeus (in Matthew, Thomas is named immediately before Matthew: perhaps Matthew thought to honor his brother before himself).

We still haven’t identified which brother he was the twin of, but it would seem that it would be Matthew since he was well-known as the tax collector where he lived.

It must be tought to be an identical twin and yet be thought of as so much less important than your brother, on the one hand and to be hated by those who hated your brother for his occupation on the other. It was a no win proposition. It must have effected his attitudes.

It is a curious thing that only John tells us anything about Thomas. In fact, it seems that John goes out of his way to tell us about him. Perhaps, by the time that John wrote his gospel, Thomas had already gone to India, as far from Jerusalem as any of the disciples had gotten(roughly twice as distant as Paul had gone). There may even have been some interest from others, wanting to know from John something about this man who had gone so far away. Who was this man who no one had said much about up until now?

In our first encounter with Thomas,  John 11:16, Thomas is suggesting that they should all go to Jerusalem to die with Jesus. From Thomas’s point of view no good could come out of going to Jerusalem. It was plain to him that if Jesus went to Jerusalem, he would be killed there. Yet, he says to the others, let’s go there to die with Him.  On the one hand this was a rather negative assessment, true, nonetheless, but on the other hand, he is saying that life would not be worth the living without Jesus. The others must have agreed because they followed Jesus there.

In our second encounter, we find that Thomas is quite confused about what Jesus is trying to say. The others were just as much in the dark, but it is Thomas who asks the question we find in John 14:5. Once more he speaks for the group: we don’t know where you are going and how can we know the way? John tells us that Jesus says to Thomas, specifically, not the apostles as a whole, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except by me.” It will be very necessary for Thomas to hold on to this when he enters into the confused world of Hinduism later in life.

The next time we meet Thomas, we don’t even meet him at all. We are told that when Jesus appeared to the other apostles after his resurrection, Thomas  was not there. We are never told why. When he went into hiding like the other disciples, did he hide himself so well that the others could not find him? Was he too discouraged to join them? Had he left the city to stay with friends or relatives? We are never told.

But when Thomas is finally found and the other disciples tell him that they have seen Jesus resurrected from the dead, he refuses to believe it. But his doubts are not hard to understand. He had seen Jesus raise others from the dead, but how does a dead man raise himself? Even more to the point, how is it that Jesus appears to the other apostles and not to me? How is it that he appears to the women and not to me? How is it that he appears to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaeus, neither of whom were apostles, yet He did not show himself to me? All pretty hard to take for a man who no one ever bothered to call by his given name. “The Twin.” It was like saying, “The Nobody.” Would this Jesus he knew treat him as a nobody as well? No, it just didn’t make sense. He would not, he could not believe it.

Would you have believed it? None of us likes being left out and, in this case, Thomas was being asked to believe something beyond his imagination, as well.

When Thomas finally sees Jesus, Jesus tells him to touch his wounds to see that it is true, yet, we are not told that he did, but, rather, in a moment of imputed faith, he sees beyond his vision and declares, “My Lord and my God!”

Years ago, I thought that John had it in for Thomas. After all, he was not the only faithless disciple, but I have changed my mind.  John wants us to know that Jesus can deal with our doubts. He is not offended by them. Proof? In John 21, when John mentions the ones who go fishing with Peter, the very first name he mentions after Peter’s is Thomas. Two of the disciples he doesn’t even bother to mention. This is particularly significant since Thomas wasn’t even one of the fishermen that Jesus called. Interesting, isn’t it?


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