Publications: Articles - Biblical
Saint Thomas - The Apostle Full of Faith An Exegesis of John 20:24-31
In the last issue of VEMA, we began to examine the Bible reading, which is dedicated to the Sunday of St Thomas the apostle directly one week after Pascha. In this brief study, we saw that, far from being an 'unbeliever' as is commonly said, St Thomas was an apostle full of zeal, fervour and unwavering commitment to the Lord not only during Jesus' earthly life but also especially after the Resurrection. In this issue we continue our reflection on St Thomas, the apostle full of faith.
Unlike the other Gospel writers, St John the Evangelist wanted to emphasize, in quite some detail, the reaction of the apostles – particularly St Thomas – at the news that Christ had risen. In the case of Thomas the apostle, we discover that he wanted nothing less than to meet the risen Lord for himself. Indeed, this desire by Thomas to meet the Lord personally and not simply depend on somebody else's account is heightened by the Gospel writer in his description of the continued insistence of the disciples to convince Thomas of the Resurrection. In verse 25 we read: “So the other disciples told (elegon) him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put (balw) my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25). One can only imagine why the disciples continuously insisted in relating their encounter of the risen Jesus to Thomas. Most probably the reason lies in that Thomas would have unremittingly discarded their account, wanting instead to have his own personal meeting with the risen Lord. To be sure, eight days had to pass before Thomas would meet Jesus for himself. And in that time we learn that Thomas had been continuously subjected to the insistence of his fellow disciples’ testimony to having seen the Lord. It is the imperfect tense of the verb ‘told’ in Greek [elegon] which indicates a continuous action on the part of the disciples to convince Thomas. This repeated ‘telling’ however resulted in nothing since Thomas had to experience the personal presence of Jesus for himself.
Indeed Thomas’ response is very clear: he will only believe once he puts his fingers into Jesus’ side. In this case, we see that the Gospel writer used a very strong verb to describe this action - balw – where he could have used a softer verb, like ‘to place’ – tiqhmi. According to some Biblical scholars, the verb balw indicated the idea of energetic thrust. That is to say, it was not enough for this apostle to simple place his hands onto Jesus'''' side, but instead wanted to plunge his fingers into the marks of his side. As Archbishop Stylianos underlined, Thomas was not simply satisfied with simply seeing the risen Lord, as the other disciples had been, but wished to immerse himself fully, with fingers and hands, indeed with all his faculties, into Christ’s exposed wounds in order that he may relieve to some extent the humanity and fleshliness of Christ before confessing Him, as we shall see, as ‘Lord’ and ‘God’.
Jesus’ Invitation for Thomas to Touch Him.
And it happened, eight days later, when the disciples were assembled in the house again, Jesus is depicted appearing to them all, including Thomas this time. Furthermore we see Jesus following exactly the same procedure as he had done before: upon entering the house, He said: “Peace be with you!” And upon receiving the Lord’s peace, the apostle Thomas was immediately set free from any confusion since the peace and presence of the Lord was upon him. Immediately Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt (mhginou apistoß) but believe” (Jn 20:27). Even though Thomas was invited to put his fingers into the side of Christ, the evangelist does not indicate whether this was actually carried through. One would imagine that since Thomas had received the ‘peace’ of the Lord, he no longer would have had the need to touch the side of Jesus’ wounds.
It is highly significant, as Archbishop Stylianos again accurately noted, that when Christ invited Thomas to put his fingers into His side, he did not say for example: “do not be faithless [kaiv mhv eso apisto"]” but “do not become faithless”. This detail, usually overlooked by most biblical scholars is highly significant since it affirms once again the Evangelist's favourable portrait of the apostle Thomas. With the phrase in question, Jesus was saying: ‘do not change or develop into becoming a disbeliever; that is, do not turn out to be unfaithful’. On the contrary, the inference is: ‘remain faithful’. And so we can see that Jesus was simply protecting Thomas from an ensuing faithlessness and not one which already existed. This is important to note because many modern commentators see in the words of Jesus a rebuke which is to miss the point entirely. Still other scholars have seen in this appeal of Jesus a reference to all unbelievers in the Thomas community, using the figure of Thomas as a literary device. Rather, Jesus' words were an appeal to Thomas, and by extension to all believers, to remain firm in their faith.
Thomas’ Confession of Faith
Following his ultimate self-surrender, which came about as a response to God’s act of gratuitous self-disclosure, Thomas was led to proclaim ecstatically his unreserved acceptance in the risen Lord with the following confession: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). This constitutes the most climactic moment in the entire narrative since it discerns the true identity of Jesus as Theanthropos (the God-man) and therefore the completion of Thomas’ journey of faith. In the Old Testament the juxtaposition of ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ was often encountered as a reference to God. Therefore there is no question that in this confession there is the proclamation of the unity of Jesus with the Father. All that Jesus had said and done during His earthly life was suddenly seen from another transfigured and eschatological perspective by Thomas - the perspective which the three disciples had momentarily seen at Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
Furthermore, in proclaiming the risen Lord in terms of 'Lord' and 'God', St Thomas discerned Christ as the glorified Son of God in the Father's eternal kingdom to which all Christians look forward with eager expectation. In this way, far from simply being an utterance which acknowledged the presence of the risen Lord, Thomas’ confession expressed the very identity of Jesus as ‘one with His Father’ (Jn 10:30). In this proclamation we see the verification of what the opening words of the Gospel had announced, namely that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The apostle Thomas was able to discern that the one who had become a human person and dwelt on earth was the one “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).
Upon recognizing Jesus to be ‘God’, Thomas was able to dedicate himself entirely to Him. His total commitment to the risen Lord is betrayed in the predicate ‘my’ which leaves no doubt as to the extent of Thomas’ own personal faith. Indeed the ‘my’ is of vital importance as it betrays not only Thomas’ unwavering faith but also his untiring commitment to the Lord. On this issue, a modern commentator of the Gospel of St John, wrote: “my Lord and my God… confesses to the risen Jesus that he [Thomas] belongs to him as his willing subject; he adores him and henceforth will serve him as he deserves.” In this way, Thomas had fulfilled the words of Jesus who had invited all his followers to honour Him as they honour God: “so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father” (Jn 5:23). That Thomas had taken a most profound leap of faith is shown clearly in the fact that up to that point no body had made such a proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ. The one who was crucified but now alive would be worshipped in precisely the same manner as God the Father.
Jesus’ Universal Blessing of Believing Without Seeing
The risen Jesus ended His dialogue with Thomas with the following words: “have you believed [Thomas] because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29). These words are not to be understood as a judgement or reproach by Jesus to Thomas who had also believed by beholding the risen Lord just like the other disciples. The main purpose of the Evangelist throughout the entire Gospel was to lead his readers to a deepened faith in, and commitment to, Christ. And so, with these words, the Evangelist was inviting all to embrace the ‘Word made flesh’. Just as Christ was a permanent living reality for the Evangelist, so too, was St John concerned to lead others to the Risen Lord as well. Knowing already (ca 90AD) that ensuing generations would not have had any such extraordinary appearances of Christ, the Gospel found it appropriate to put the entire Thomas incident into perspective by reminding readers of the importance of believing without seeing. In this way, the Gospel wanted to emphasise that there was no reason why the ‘faith experience’ of all future generation could not match the faith of the apostles as a whole. In this way the Gospel writer affirmed an equally profound aspect of faith not based purely on sight.
At the end of this study the authentic personality of St Thomas has become clear. Far from being a disbeliever, St Thomas was the apostle responsible for offering all future Christians a most exalted portrait of Jesus Christ as 'Lord' and 'God'. Indeed it was St Thomas who was able to uncover the deepest identity of Jesus Christ, thereby affirming Jesus to be the very revelation of the life-giving mystery of God. In this way, he was able express most succinctly, in his confession of faith, the intention of the entire Gospel: namely that all have been called to believe that Jesus is not only the Messiah and the Son of God but also ‘God’, divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father. And in being divine, Jesus Christ continues to be the one who gives life to all those who believe in Him, and together with the Holy Spirit, who leads all to the Father.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible 29a (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1966), 1025.
2. Cf. Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, St Thomas and the Truth, 42.
3. Cf. Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, ‘St Thomas and the Truth’, Voice of Orthodoxy 11.5(1990): 42.
4. Murray wrote: “here [the Evangelist] adds a saying which is half rebuke and half appeal”. Georgy R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary 36 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 385.
5. Cf Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St John, vol.3, trans. David Smith and G.A. Kon (N.Y.: Crossroad, 1982), 332.
6. Cf Ps 35:23-24. Interestingly, there was also the cult of the Roman Emperor who was addressed as “dominus et deus noster [lord and our god]”. At the time of writing of the Fourth Gospel, the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96AD) wished to be addressed in this way. Consequently it may not seem at all unlikely that St John may have wanted Thomas’ confession to counter the claims to divinity of the Roman Emperor.
7. Eschatological is simply a word meaning the ‘end or future times’ which the Church claims that, with the resurrection of Christ, we are living already by way of foretaste.
8. Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, St Thomas and the Truth, 43. Incidentally Thomas’ personal confession of faith is similar to that of Mary Magdalene: “They have taken away my Lord” (Jn 20:13). Both use the predicate ‘my’ which show the person to whom they are totally dedicated.
9. George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 386.