I recently preached on John 20:24-29, "Our Need for Signs." Please check out the video!
Alright, with a show of hands, how many of you struggle with doubt (doubt that you’ll keep or find a job; that you’ll be able to pay your mortgage this month; that your kids will grow up healthy; that your 401k is still going to be there in 15 years)? How many of you doubt God’s existence or God’s promises? How many of you struggle to believe who Jesus is? How many of you can relate to the video clip we just watched? Well, you’re in good company, because not only do I struggle with doubt, but so did one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas.
Today, we’re going to be looking at the exchange between Jesus and Thomas in John 20:24-29. The message I want us to take away from this text today, is that in the midst of our doubt, Jesus invites us to move from our unbelief to belief. And whether you’ve been a Jesus-follower for 3 days or 3 decades, the message is still the same. Jesus extends this same invitation to everyone.
Before jumping into the text though, I want to share a brief story with you. Like I said, I struggle with doubt just like Thomas did. I even call myself doubting Thomasina.
So, the summer after my senior year of college, I spent 2 months in Cairo, Egypt working with Sudanese refugees. I’d gone to Urbana, which was this giant missions conference for college students the December before, and while there, I felt convicted to go serve on the mission field. However, the second day I was in Cairo, that conviction from Urbana was nowhere to be found. I remember standing on a street corner in the middle of Cairo with my friend Allison, trying to speak broken Arabic to a taxi driver who had no idea what we were saying, and who was clearly trying to swindle us, and I was thinking, “Lord, I made a giant mistake. Is there any way you can send me back home?”
Well, that didn’t happen. I ended up spending the whole 2 months in Cairo; however, throughout my time there, my faith really struggled. I was witnessing tremendous sadness and poverty. I was hearing stories from the Sudanese about the death, rape, displacement they’d experienced in their country. And though I’d been a believer for 4 years at this point, I’d witnessed God moving in my life, yet this experience really rocked my belief in God’s goodness, his promises, and even his existence.
I remember being on the rooftop of our apartment complex one night (it’s like 120 degrees in Cairo in the summer and we didn’t have air conditioning, and the roof was the coolest spot to be) and I was praying with my friend Allison. And I remember looking up at the sky, because I really sense God’s presence in the stars, but the air in Cairo was so terrible (if you can believe it, it’s WAY worse than Fresno, we’re talking black-booger-status), that I couldn’t see the stars. But in that moment, I specifically remember God saying to me, “You’ve heard the testimony of the Sudanese. They’ve shared about how my Son, Jesus, has transformed their lives, and brought healing from the death, rape, and destruction they’ve experienced. Don’t you believe in WHO I AM? Do you believe what I can do? And I remember saying, “No Lord, I don’t. I don’t recognize you. I don’t believe. I need more proof.”
So, fast forward a couple of days. I get to the school that I was teaching at, and was just about to teach an English class to a group of Sudanese children, when all of a sudden the room started spinning, I could feel the color drain from my face, and that constricted throat sensation, and I was like, “Oh no, I’m going to throw up right now.” And I remember Peter, the Sudanese teacher, looked at me and said, “Jessica, you look terrible. You need to go home.” And I was like, “Thanks Peter, yes, I do.”
So, I’m on the 3rd story of this school, and there are no elevators, and I remember flying down the stairs as fast as I could, but on the 2nd flight, I was like, “this is happening. Lord, I cannot make it to the holes outside, I pray that even though I’ve never seen a closet or a normal, Western toilet, that you would not let me embarrass myself on the stairs here.” And, literally I took a couple more steps, and there was this door. Like the door to Narnia. And I opened it, and it was a janitor’s closet, with a toilet inside. I’ll spare you the details.
So, I made it back to the apartment without incident, however, over the next two days, I couldn’t keep anything down. I couldn’t even keep water down. And I was so dehydrated that the group decided they needed to take me to the hospital to start an IV. I was completely resistant though, and just thought, “No, I’m not going to the hospital. I might be dying, but it’s probably safer and more sterile here than there.” But, the group leader told me very point blank, “Well, then we need to pray for a miracle. Otherwise, you’re going to the hospital.”
Truthfully, neither of these options sounded appealing. I grew up in a medical family, and so much of my faith at that point, was in modern medicine and science, and so I just remember thinking, “Alright Lord, I’ll believe it when I see it.” So, the entire group prayed for me, and within hours, I was able to keep liquids down. And the next day, I was even able to eat.
In the midst of that experience and divine sign, God invited me to move from my unbelief to belief. And he spoke the same words he did on the rooftop just several nights prior. He asked me again, “Do you believe WHO I AM? Do you believe in what I can do?” And I said, “Yes Lord, I do.”
Exegesis: John 20:24-29
With that story in mind, I’d like us to turn to John 20:24-29. If you have your Bibles, please pull them out, if not, feel free to look up at the screen. As I read, I want you to keep tabs on how many times the word believe (or a form of the word believe) appears in the text.
Read John 20:24-29 (NRSV)
How many times does the word believe, or a form of the word believe, appear? 4x
I want to point out that within 6 verses, John, the author, uses the word, believe 4x, and in the whole Gospel, he uses it 109x, which is more than any other Gospel in the New Testament. This is an indication to John’s audience, and to us, that this is a big theme for him.
And this word, believe, means to be persuaded of, to be convinced of, to place confidence in, to acknowledge a fact or event, and specifically when we look at the New Testament, belief is recognizing that Jesus was raised from the dead and that he is the Messiah. From this definition, I want to point out, that belief is sometimes a process. It doesn’t always happen overnight, nor is it something we’re called to do without sufficient evidence.
I also want to let you know that the word we typically translate as doubt, which we see in verse 27 here, is best translated as unbelief, unfaithful, faithless, or without trust in God, even when God’s revealed himself to us. As we’ll see in a moment, this was Thomas’ struggle. He didn’t believe in who God was revealing himself to be in the Person of Jesus.
Just like I shared my story about moving from unbelief to belief, I now want to share Thomas’ own journey from unbelief to belief.
We first meet Thomas in John 11:16. In this particular chapter, he misunderstands that Jesus is going to raise Lazarus from the dead. The exchange between Thomas and Jesus is very brief, yet from it, we see that Thomas is in a place of unbelief. He not only thinks that Lazarus is going to die (he doesn’t believe that Jesus is actually going to raise him from the dead), but he also thinks that Jesus and the disciples (including himself) are going to die as well, because Jesus has already created several riots and Thomas fears another one in going to the specific town they’re going to. Thomas fails to see that Lazarus’ resurrection is a foreshadowing of Jesus’. And despite Jesus’ own explanation that he’s doing this, that he’s raising Lazarus so that the disciples might “believe” (v. 15), Thomas is in a place of unbelief. Jesus provides sufficient evidence for Thomas to believe, he raises Lazarus. And truthfully, after Lazarus’ resurrection, the text doesn’t tell us whether or not Thomas comes to believe. It’s silent. And, perhaps Thomas does come to believe, but not for long, because when we…
Fast forward a couple chapters to John 14:5 (the same chapter that Brian talked about last week), Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And for those of you who were here last week, how does Jesus respond? Do you remember from Brian’s sermon? Jesus responds directly to Thomas (v. 6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It isn’t quite clicking for Thomas yet that the Way is Jesus; Thomas is thinking that it’s literal road to Jerusalem. He doesn’t understand that as the Way, and the truth, Jesus offers life through his death and resurrection. Again, despite Jesus’ saying these things so that Thomas and the disciples might believe, despite Jesus giving sufficient evidence in his words, Thomas is in a place of unbelief.
By the time we get to chapter 20, the text we’re in today, Thomas has been following Jesus for 3 years. He’s been in Jesus’ inner circle, he’s heard Jesus’ teachings, he’s witnessed his miracles, he’s heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection, and yet, we still find him in a place of unbelief.
If we look at the text that we just read, in verse 25, the other disciples tell Thomas, “Hey, we’ve seen the risen Lord.” Jesus had just appeared to them, and they were super excited and wanting to share the good news with Thomas. However, Thomas responds, “Um, I think you’ve probably just seen a ghost, because people don’t resurrect from the dead. So, yeah, I’m not going to believe you until I see AND feel, his wounds.” Thomas rejects the disciples’ testimony. He’s in a place of unbelief.
But this is the cool thing about this text. Jesus makes another appearance. He specifically comes to Thomas and offers evidence to help Thomas move from unbelief to belief. He offers his hands. He offers his sides. He reveals himself, he offers himself. Just like on the cross, he offers his body once again to prove to Thomas who he is.
Jesus isn’t discouraged by Thomas’ unbelief, rather, he confronts it directly. Jesus calls Thomas out, yet, he doesn’t just chastise him, or condemn him for his unbelief, nor, does he say, “Believe because I told you so!” Rather, he invites Thomas to believe based off of the evidence he’s just presented. He invites Thomas to believe after the encounter he’s just had.
When we look at Thomas’ story, we see that he strikes out several times. However, after Jesus’ invitation, he hits a grand slam. In verse 28, Thomas proclaims Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” This is the climax of John’s Gospel. Doubting Thomas’ confession is the climax of John’s Gospel. Everything from chapter 1 builds to this confession of faith. John opens his Gospel with “and the Word was God” and he ends his Gospel with Thomas’ epiphany, with Thomas’ understanding that this is in fact who Jesus is. Jesus is the Word. Jesus is God in the flesh. In this moment, Thomas realizes that God has overcome death; that he’s offered salvation in his Son’s death and resurrection; and that Jesus is the Messiah; that he is who he’s been saying he is throughout the whole Gospel. And the irony of this is that: this highpoint, this giant moment in the Gospel, is given to someone who was in unbelief.
Thomas’ failure to believe emphasizes Jesus’ ability to meet us where we’re at. Thomas wanted his own personal encounter with the risen Jesus, and he got it. If you read the text closely, it doesn’t say that Thomas actually touched Jesus. Seeing alone was sufficient evidence to compel Thomas to proclaim Jesus’ deity. Thomas’ encounter with Jesus, and Jesus’ invitation to believe, was sufficient evidence for Thomas to surrender his unbelief.
Before bringing this home, I want to show you another minute of the video we watched earlier. The clip we’re about to watch show’s God’s perspective and response to our doubt.
I think what we just saw in the video nicely captures Jesus’ exchange with Thomas. In offering himself, Jesus confronts Thomas’ unbelief, and challenges him to doubt his doubts. He doesn’t call Thomas to a blind faith. He doesn’t tell him, “Hey, just believe,” but rather, “believe based off of what I’ve just revealed to you. Believe based off of who I’ve just revealed myself to be. I have just revealed myself to be God in the flesh, who has conquered death.”
I believe that Jesus is extending the same invitation to us this morning. He wants to confront our unbelief. He wants to challenge us to doubt our doubts. He’s inviting us to move from unbelief to belief, and is encouraging us to arrive at the same conclusion as Thomas did—to call him “My Lord and my God!”
I’ll be the first to admit that accepting this invitation is really hard. Doubting our doubts, moving from unbelief to belief sometimes feels impossible. And truthfully, for me, I move in and out of belief. Yes, God proved himself in healing me in Cairo, and yet, I’ve doubted hundreds of times since that experience 12 years ago.
But, if you remember from just a couple of minutes ago, what was the definition of believe? Definition: to be persuaded of, to be convinced of, to place confidence in, to acknowledge a fact or event.
If we look at Thomas, coming to belief was a process for him. Thomas misunderstood Jesus throughout the Gospel. He didn’t instantly believe the testimony of the other disciples. He didn’t believe the good news until he had a personal encounter with Jesus.
Thomas also required evidence to believe. John doesn’t necessarily paint Thomas in the greatest light. He doesn’t approve of Thomas’ demand for evidence. And this is the tension of the text we’re looking. Though John, and Jesus, don’t necessarily approve of Thomas’ demand, Jesus still gives him a sign—he gives him the evidence of his resurrected body, and this propels Thomas to belief.
Unlike Thomas though, we don’t have access to Jesus’ resurrected body. We don’t have that level of evidence. However, nor did John’s original 1st century audience. Like us, right now, here at Valley Friends, John was writing to a group of people that hadn’t seen the risen Jesus. They didn’t have access to his risen body. And, like us, John was writing to people who were struggling to believe. They were living under the cruelty of the Roman Empire, they were stressed out about their lives, they were struggling to believe that Jesus actually did the things he did, said the things he said, and that God made good on his promise to resurrect him from the grave. This is why John even takes the time to write the Gospel. Thomas and the other disciples were there, they walked with Jesus, they saw his risen body, but the group of believers John’s writing to, didn’t have that same experience. Neither do we. This is why John records Jesus’ response in verse 29, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
And, this is why Jesus’ words in verse 29 were so meaningful to John’s audience and to us.
We may not have access to Jesus’ risen body, however, we do have access to John’s Gospel. Through it, we have access to Jesus’ miracles, teachings, life, death, and resurrection. And like Thomas, we have access to the disciples’ testimony about Jesus. John has recorded it for us.
We even have peoples’ testimony present day. I guarantee that all of you sitting here today, are here because you either came to believe based off of your parents’ testimonies, a friend’s testimony, a coworkers’ testimony, or some random rollerblading street evangelist’s testimony about their encounter with Jesus.
John, and Jesus, are telling us, that all of the above is sufficient evidence for us to move from unbelief to belief. We may not have Jesus’ actual body, yet, we have the written word about him, and, we also encounter him through the Holy Spirit. We’re able to come to belief, to know Jesus, to confess our faith in Jesus, because of the Holy Spirit. We may not always have access to tangible, visible, miraculous signs, like I did when I was deathly dehydrated in Cairo, yet, John, and Jesus, still encourage us to believe whether signs are visible or not.
When Jesus calls us blessed for believing without seeing, he’s not saying we’re better or more worthy than Thomas. He’s saying that seeing and not seeing are both genuine ways to come to belief. That both seeing and not seeing the risen Lord can lead to miraculous confessions. That Jesus as the Word, and John’s words about Jesus, are sufficient evidence to propel us from unbelief to belief.
Whether you’re currently in a different belief system and exploring Jesus for the first time; whether you’re in the midst of losing your job and doubting God’s provision; whether you’re doubting that your marriage is going to work out; whether you’re doubting your ability to overcome addiction; whether you’re doubting your ability to change or someone else’s ability to change; whether you’re just like Thomas, a devout follower of Jesus, but are still unsure of who he’s claiming to be; I invite you to accept Jesus’ invitation to move from unbelief to belief. I encourage you to start doubting your doubts, and to remember that the prescription for doubting our doubts begins with looking at the evidence. It starts with pausing and reflecting on who God has revealed himself to be, how he has proven himself true.
Just as Jesus met Thomas in his unbelief, I believe that Jesus will meet you as well; that he will make himself known to you; and that he will give you sufficient evidence of who he is to make that final step to proclaim him, “My Lord and my God!”
Let’s bow our heads.
With our eyes closed, I want to take a moment for you to accept Jesus’ invitation to doubt your doubts, and move from unbelief to belief.
Several weeks ago, before service, Brian challenged us to ask God for just one thing. For God to reveal himself in just one way. And I’m going to ask you to do the same right now.
Like Thomas, if you’re in a place of unbelief, and desire to move to belief, I ask that you raise your hand so I can pray for you.
Like Thomas, if you’re desiring a personal encounter with Jesus, I pray that you would feel bold enough to ask for it by raising your hand.
If Jesus is inviting you to make a decision to know and follow him, and like Thomas, to proclaim him as Lord and God, I invite you to raise your hand.
Jesus, I thank you for these people who have raised their hands this morning; for those who want to move from unbelief to belief; for those who want a personal encounter with you in order to believe; and for those who want to claim you as Lord and God. I pray you would bless them for their boldness and courage, and that like Thomas, you would meet them where they’re at.
We thank you that you weren’t scared or limited by Thomas’ unbelief, and that you’re not scared or limited by ours. May we recognize that who John has revealed you to be, is sufficient evidence for us to believe. May we also recognize, that like Thomas, belief can absolutely spring from doubt, though sometimes, it’s a process.
Jesus, we want to be believe, we want to be faithful, we want to trust in who you are. Help us in our unbelief.