Monday, April 25, 2016

From Unbelief to Belief (John 20:24-31)


We worship and serve a risen Lord! Death could not hold Him down and on Easter Sunday, He triumphed over the tomb! In fact, as Christians we do not celebrate Easter once every year, but once every week, for our Sunday worship services commemorate Sunday as the day in which Christ defeated death for Himself and for all who follow Him by faith! In a sense, every day for the Christian is both Christmas and Easter, for every day we live in perpetual celebration that our God stepped into this world as one of us, and took our sins upon Himself and bore them under the outpouring of divine wrath to save us through His death and resurrection! He who has power over sin and death has the power to, not only grant us eternal life beyond the grave, but to transform our lives here and now. In this very chapter of Scripture, verses 11-18, we saw how the Risen Jesus transformed Mary Madgalene from despair to delight. In verses 19-23, we saw how He transformed the disciples from fear to joy. And here in our text today, we see Him do it again, as the Risen Christ transforms Thomas from unbelief to belief.

Thomas is one of the most well known disciples of Jesus, primarily due to this one incident. Aside from this, the information we have in the Bible about Thomas is quite scant. In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we find only his name mentioned when the disciples are listed. In John we find more glimpses of him as a follower of Christ. In Chapter 11, when Jesus goes to Bethany following the death of Lazarus, knowing that the leaders of the Jews were intent on killing Jesus, it was Thomas who said, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” The only other time we encounter him is in the upper room on the night of Jesus’ betrayal in John 14. As Jesus prepares His disciples for His imminent departure, He tells them, “You know the way where I am going.” It was Thomas who spoke what every other disciple was likely thinking: “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” So, we find in these passages that Thomas is brutally honest, if pessimistic, but also a deeply committed follower of Jesus who is willing to face death with Him if need be. But it is this passage in John 20 that so often defines the man. From this text we have come to know him by his rather unflattering nickname: “Doubting Thomas.”

If we take Thomas’s earlier appearances in John’s Gospel, we find him acting true to his nature in this passage. It is not that he is a perpetual doubter. He is brutally honest, if a tinge pessimistic. He knows that Jesus has died, and based on all previous knowledge he has to work from, dead people tend to stay that way. He had seen Jesus raise others from the dead, and even heard Jesus say that He would rise from the dead. But, like the others, he did not understand what Jesus was talking about, and therefore did not expect a resurrection. And in the cases where Jesus had raised others from the dead, it seemed to Thomas that Jesus had a distinct advantage in those cases. He was alive! But what can a dead man do to help himself out of his predicament? Thomas had committed his life to Jesus before, and had been disillusioned and disappointed by His death. Now that reports are swirling around that Jesus is really alive, Thomas makes it clear that he is not willing to be duped by gullibly believing something he finds absolutely unbelievable. Is he doubting? Not really. It is more like he has fallen into skeptical unbelief, and now finds himself refusing to believe what all the rest of his friends have so easily believed.

This is a dangerous place to find oneself. Thomas, who had been a devout believer in the Lord Jesus, finds himself losing his grip on belief and sliding into unbelief. We have seen it happen to many we have known, and some of us may admit to experiencing it ourselves. So the issue is painfully relevant for us all as we wrestle with belief and unbelief, and as we help others do the same. As we observe how the Risen Lord Jesus transforms Thomas from unbelief to belief, we are not merely doing so as students of biblical history. We are personally invested in this transformation, for we may find ourselves or others whom we care about it in need of this transformation as well. Therefore, let us dive into our text and explore how the Risen Jesus transforms one of his followers from unbelief to belief.

I. The Necessity of Christian Fellowship (vv24-26)

Small causes can have large effects. There is a scientific theory called “the butterfly effect” which is based on a metaphor that says a butterfly flapping its wings in West Africa can set wind currents moving in such a way that a hurricane can develop affecting the East Coast of the United States. That may not be the case in meteorology, but it is certainly the case in much of life. The slide from belief to unbelief does not happen in an instant. It is the result of numerous decisions, some of which seem insignificant, but accumulate over time to create dramatic results. Take for example, a simple decision to not attend church next Sunday. Certainly, there may be good reasons for not attending, and we don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But, what if you knew that attending church next Sunday would affect the course of your entire week? What if an hour spent with fellow believers under the teaching of the Word of God would enable you to better face the circumstances that would arise in your life over the days that followed? I suggest to you that this is exactly the situation in which Thomas found himself as our text begins.

A week before the events of our text, the disciples were gathered together in a locked room, cowering in fear that the same authorities who had murdered Jesus would move upon His followers next. But, for reasons unknown to us, Thomas was not present at that gathering. John says in verse 24, “Thomas … was not with them.” Of course, we know what happened on that Sunday evening. The Lord Jesus miraculously came into the locked room and transformed the disciples there from fear to joy by His appearance and His words. Thomas, as a result of his decision to not be present with them, did not experience that. Already disillusioned by the death of the One in whom he had placed all of his faith and hope, Thomas withdrew from the fellowship of other followers of Jesus. He didn’t get to see the Risen Jesus on that night. He didn’t get to celebrate with the others the victory of Jesus over sin and death. And he didn’t believe them when they told him what had happened. So, a week of his life was wasted battling his own tormented soul in unbelief and doubt. And it wasn’t until he was gathered back with the other believers on the following Sunday that the fog of unbelief began to lift.

Friends, it is not for no reason that the writer of Hebrews admonishes us to not forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:25). There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians. We need one another. We need this gathering together on a regular basis. Everything in this world is waging war against us and our common faith in the Lord Jesus. Even our own deceitful hearts and minds are susceptible to paralyzing doubts and unbelief. We need to come together on a regular basis to encourage and be encouraged by one another and to again have the promises of God poured out into our souls from His Word. People will say, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” This is only half-way true. You certainly do not have to come to a church building to become a Christian. But once you have become a follower of Jesus, you become part of His church, and as such, there is a great need for us to gather together with other believers in fellowship, worship, and service. You never know but that one Sunday that you decide to slack off, it could be the beginning of an avalanche of bad decisions that lead down a slippery slope. It could be the one Sunday when you would have been equipped and encouraged to face the battles of the week ahead in the strength of the Lord. Thomas found out the hard way, and we need to learn from his example. The way out from unbelief to belief begins with the ongoing need for Christian fellowship in our lives.

II. The Necessity of Honest Skepticism (v25)

I can remember it like it was yesterday – though it was about nine years ago. I was at Tate Street Coffee Shop talking to some young people about the Bible, and as I got up to leave, another young man asked me to sit down with him. He said he had overheard our conversation, and he had one question for me. He said, “What evidence can you give me that would make me believe in God or in Jesus?” I said, “Well, we could spend hours talking about various evidences, but before we do, let me know what you would consider sufficient evidence.” He looked puzzled, so I said, “What would I have to prove to you in order for you to believe?” He said, “I don’t think there is anything you can say to convince me to believe.” I said, “OK, have a good night,” and I stood up to walk away. He said, “Are you just going to walk away?” I said, “Well sure. Listen, I could give you literally hundreds of evidences, but you have already said you aren’t willing to believe on the basis of any evidence, so why should I waste my time? Besides that, Jesus said that no one comes to Him unless the Father is drawing them, so if He isn’t drawing you, you aren’t going to come even with the best evidence, and if He is, you will come with or without evidence.” We had a little more exchange before parting ways, as I promised to pray for him.

That young man in the coffee shop that night was not like Thomas. His mind was already made up, and he refused to believe on the basis of any evidence whatsoever. He was a dishonest skeptic. Under the pretense of wanting evidence, he really just wanted an argument. But that is not how we find Thomas. It is not that Thomas is unwilling to believe at all. He is willing to believe, but he is honest about his skepticism and the conditions on which he will believe. Disillusioned by the death of the One he believed in, he wants to be sure to avoid being gullible to fall for something that may have been a hallucination or subjective spiritual experience of his friends.

Thomas says, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Now, listen, these are the words of an honest skeptic. He is not asking for his own special manifestation of the miraculous. I used to do that when I was an unbeliever and Christians would try to witness to me. I would say, “If God wants me to believe in Him, tell Him to make that tree fall down over there.” I said that kind of think like God owed me some special revelation, or like I was so important that I deserved my own private message from God. But that is not what Thomas is saying. What he is asking for is specifically tied to the faith that he has already placed in Jesus in the past. He wants to be certain that this One whom his friends are claiming to have seen alive after death is really the same Jesus in Whom he had trusted. Jesus had a unique set of death wounds. He should have scars in His hands from the nails, and a wound in His side from the spear. If He doesn’t have those marks on His body, then He is not the same Jesus in whom Thomas had believed. Is he skeptical? Yes, and frankly most of us would be, and should be, if someone claimed that one of our friends who had died was suddenly alive again! But Thomas was honest about his skepticism and unbelief. He wanted to make sure that this Jesus whom they claimed was alive was the same Jesus that he knew had died.

Friends, if you are here today and not a believer in Christ, let me ask you: are you honest about your unbelief? Are you willing to say, “It would take THIS to make me believe?”, whatever THIS might be. Is your skepticism actually a determined refusal to believe, or is it a hesitance that wants to be sure you aren’t being carried away by myths and fairy tales? God hasn’t called us to believe the unbelievable or to be gullible. There are good and sound reasons that warrant us to believe that this Jesus who died has, in fact, risen again and is alive and able to transform lives today. So, if you are willing to believe, but yet unconvinced, why not just be honest about it and say what it is that you need to persuade you to believe?

Here is a reality that may be comforting or unsettling to you. God already knows. Notice that when Thomas uttered his skepticism, Jesus was not physically present with the disciples. That conversation took place sometime in the week following the Sunday appearance of the Lord to the rest of the disciples and the Sunday that followed. But on that following Sunday, when they were all together, including Thomas, Jesus came again into their presence in spite of their locked doors. Again Jesus greeted them with a word of peace, and notice what He immediately says to Thomas in verse 27: “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” He already knew the words of Thomas’s mouth and the meditations of his heart, and He met him with a ready response to Thomas’s honest confession of doubt and unbelief. Notice that there is no hint of condemnation or judgment in any of Jesus’ words to Thomas. “A bruised reed He will not break and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish” (Isa 42:3). In tender mercy, He meets Thomas where he is and satisfies the questions of his heart and mind.  

Friends, the road from unbelief to belief requires us to be honest about our unbelief and doubt. Jesus already knows, so there is no sense in hiding it behind some pretense of intellectualism or rationality. I am not here suggesting that you can demand your own miracles and expect to receive them. What I am suggesting is that those things are rarely what are holding a person back from faith. Fear, guilt, shame, pride, disappointment, disillusionment, pain, hurt, regret – things like this are far more often the hindrances. Sometimes there is an honest and unanswered question. Bring those matters into the gathering of God’s people as Thomas did. Bring them to the Christ who lives and already knows. Bring them before the open pages of His word. Can you expect that Jesus will come and invite you to touch His wounds? No, but you can expect to find that you are not the first to hold those reservations, and that there is information and evidence available if you have a willingness to believe. He will not turn you away or condemn you for asking honest questions. If Jesus is who we claim Him to be, then He is big enough to handle your questions. Through His Word and through His people, Jesus will meet you in the honest confession of your doubts and unbelief and assure you that the One who died is the One who lives again, and He ever lives to save you if you will trust in Him.

This brings us to the next point …

III. The Necessity of Personal Confession (v28) 

The third commandment is one of the most commonly understood laws God has given to humanity. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes his name in vain.” To take the name of the Lord in vain is to use His name in an empty or meaningless way. It is for this reason that I almost cannot bear to watch reality television programs. Take any number of “home makeover” shows for example. At the end of the show, there has been this spectacular renovation to the home, and they bring in the homeowner, and almost invariably the first words out of their mouths are always the same: “Oh my God!” I just cringe when I hear that. People do not realize the severity with which God deals with such flippant handling of His matchless name! We think of how people use the name of Jesus or God as an exclamation or stand-in for profanity, or how people use God’s name in conjunction with a profanity. We abbreviate for decorum, “G.D.” I was on the golf course once with a guy who kept saying that over and over again. At one point he caught himself and said, “I’m sorry, preacher, I shouldn’t say that in front of you.” I said, “Well, it is not me you have to worry about, because God always hears you, and He is the one who says He will not leave you unpunished for taking His name in vain.” That guy never wanted to play golf with me again, and I can’t figure out why!

Well, I bring all this up because this is how some people approach Thomas’s response to Jesus in verse 28. When Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!”, there are those who claim that this is just an exclamation, you know, like they say on the home makeover shows. There are actually two reasons why this simply cannot be. First, as a devout Jew, Thomas would have had the Commandments instilled in him from birth. It is simply unfathomable to think than any self-respecting Jew of the first century would handle God’s name in this way. This is the culture which refused to utter the divine name YHWH when they encountered it in their Scriptures, and which even altered the spelling of it in the Masoretic text of Hebrew Scripture to ensure that they did not take God’s name in vain. Would we dare suggest that Thomas, upon seeing the Risen Jesus face-to-face, would have immediately used the name of the Lord God in such a blasphemous way? And if he had, is it imaginable that the God who said He would not leave such a one unpunished, this same God who had become flesh in Jesus Christ and stood before Thomas, could have just let that slide without a word of rebuke or correction?

No, Thomas was not using the Lord’s name in vain. He was making a personal confession of faith in this Risen Jesus and declaring Him to be Lord and God. But he was not merely declaring Him to be Lord and God, as if that were not enough; he was declaring that this Risen Jesus was HIS Lord and HIS God. In the transformation from unbelief to belief, it is not sufficient to merely recognize that Jesus is a divine being – that He is Lord and God. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” Mere intellectual knowledge that God exists, or that Jesus is God, will not save anyone. A volitional commitment to Christ by faith is what is called for. And that is what Thomas does here. That Christ is his God is a personal confession of faith. That Christ is his Lord is a personal commitment to live by faith in Him.

A personal commitment and confession is necessary because there is no such thing as an impersonal one. No one else can believe for you. The Bible says that those who believe upon Christ receive the right to be called the sons of God. God only has adopted children; He does not have grandchildren. The other disciples had come to believe upon the Risen Christ already, but they could not believe for Thomas. Thomas had to believe for himself. And the same is true for each of us. Your parents, grandparents, or friends cannot believe for you, and you cannot for them. Each of us must come to that moment of decision in which we declare for ourselves that Jesus is my Lord and my God!  We must make a choice that Jesus is the God whom we worship, and the Lord whom we serve.

Thus, it would seem, we have come to the end of the transformation from unbelief to belief. It was so for Thomas, anyway. But there is a final word of Jesus that we must deal with here, which applies specifically to us in a way that did not apply to Thomas so long ago.

IV. The Necessity of God’s Word (vv30-31)

We may find this passage utterly irrelevant to ourselves today on the basis that we do not expect to have a physical, bodily encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus to confirm all our doubts and push us off the fence of belief and unbelief. But, Jesus speaks here specifically to those who would come to know Him by faith following His ascension into heaven. He tells Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Contrary to popular belief on this passage, these words are not intended to be a rebuke to Thomas. He is in fact affirming that Thomas has believed on the basis of what he has seen. The old saying is “seeing is believing,” and Thomas has seen and believed! That is a good thing, and Jesus does not condemn him here for believing on the basis of what he has seen. But in addition to affirming the faith of Thomas, Jesus goes on to promise a blessing to those who would come later, who would believe without seeing. This blessing applies to you and me and countless others who have come to Christ by faith since the time at which He ascended into heaven.

How does believing happen in an era without the opportunity of seeing? Is it blind faith? Is it a gullible leap into a dark chasm hoping to find something solid on which to land? By no means! The Bible never calls us to that kind of faith. Our faith is anchored in something real and reliable: the Word of God. Notice how immediately following the words of Jesus here in verse 29, John says, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.” Our curiosity is raised: “Ooh! I wonder what those were?” They aren’t recorded for us. Not in John, not in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or Acts. John will say in the next chapter, “There are many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). But John tells us here in verse 31 that these – the things which Jesus said and did that he did record for us – “have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

You say, “I need to see signs in order to believe, just like Thomas did.” John says, as he writes under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, “No you don’t. What I have written is enough for you to believe.” We see, as it were, with our ears. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing (not seeing), and hearing by the Word of Christ.” The Bible is God’s message to us all. He has inspired it, and as we read it with open minds and hearts, He presents Himself to us. Through the written Word, He invites us, as it were, to examine the wounds that He bore for our sins and to behold Him in resurrected victory over our sin and death. Every word beckons us to turn to Him in faith and trust and recognize Jesus Christ by faith as “my Lord,” and “my God.” The blessing that is promised us is life in His name. It is a life that death itself cannot destroy, and to which no other way of living here and now can compare. It is life abundant and life eternal, and it is only found through His matchless name. Wherever you are today on the journey from unbelief to belief, God’s word stands written, inviting whosoever will to cast themselves on the mercy of Jesus – the One who died for you and rose again for you; the One whose wounds are the assurance of your peace with God. And that word is enough for the Risen Lord Jesus to transform you from unbelief to belief!

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