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The Suffering God and His Pursuit of Thomas (John 20:19-31)

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Doubting Thomas

The 2007 American post-apocalyptic thriller movie, I Am Legend, set in New York City tells the story of how after a virus that was originally created to cure cancer went horribly wrong creating nocturnal hostile mutant beings. Immune to the virus, Neville was one of the last few humans in New York. He works to develop a cure for others while defending himself against the hostile mutants. One night he is rescued by a pair of immune humans, Anna, and a young boy, Ethan. At night they hide in their house in utter terror of these dark creatures. Imagine Neville huddling Anna and Ethan together against the kitchen cupboard in panicked terror every night as they hear the inhuman screeching outside and the pounding on their door and fenestration attempting to break-in. The creatures know Neville and his friends are about.

2000 years ago, the story is very different, but the panicked terror experienced by the disciples is uncanny considering the movie I have just described. It is the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ corpse is nowhere to be found. There are rumours that Jesus is alive. But the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders are out and about looking for the “tomb raiders”, whom they believe to be Jesus’ disciples.

Put yourself in the story and imagine with me how these scenes in John 20:19-31 might have unfolded. It is the first day of the Jewish week, Sunday. People are out there looking for you and your friends, and when they find you, they will surely send you for Roman crucifixion for having undermined Jewish and Roman authority. All of you sit there huddled together behind closed doors with a flickering candle, saying muffled prayers hoping no one will discover you. The room is charged with terror, but you also feel terrible loss, despite stories among yourselves that Jesus has risen. Your most dear friend who had given healing and comfort to the marginalized was tortured and executed 3 days ago. He endured unspeakable suffering. He was innocent — spotless. There has been much sadness in the last few days. While there is a flicker of hope, if such stories of the resurrection are to be trusted, for now, we live in isolation in moments of silent dread for fear of being found.

Suddenly we gasp…

A strange man approaches. We look at each other – ‘Wasn’t the door looked?!’ He removes his hood and with a warm smile whispers, ‘Peace be with you’, proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven has now dawned and that we now share in the peace of reconciliation and life of God[1]. That smile, that voice we knew all too well. It was Jesus. Fear fled our weary faces and joy overwhelmed us—we could not speak for we huddled there with lumps in our throats trying to fight back the tears. Oh, how he turned our grief to joy![2]

To be sure, Jesus crouches down and shows us his crucifixion wounds, ‘Look here and here’, he says. His scars offered us evidence of his suffering but also his victory over death[3]. ‘If only Thomas where here to share this with us’, we think to ourselves. Jesus reassures us again with his peace and begins to teach about forgiveness. How could it be that an innocent man, tortured and murdered just three days ago could teach about how to forgive?! It seemed Jesus’ mercy and compassion by no means dwindled, if anything, it was now ablaze without limit.

Jesus notices not all his disciples are there. No doubt Jesus knew what happened to Judas, but there was another missing. Like the lost sheep, he sought out the one, Thomas. And wishes to pay a special visit to him, so that he would not be left out, ‘I also want to show him that I am alive so that he can share in the joy and hope of the others’, Jesus thinks.

Later, Thomas hears from us that we had seen the Lord. Like a latecomer to a group of friends, Thomas wants in on the unusual event, he also wants to see and believe. Yet, while Thomas is hope-filled, he is understandably sceptical and unsure whether we truly saw Jesus of Nazareth (I don’t know about you, but I would not be too quick to believe in dead men walking and appearing out of nowhere. It’s not “doubting Thomas”, it’s more like “Thomas of common sense”)[4]. So, Thomas proclaims, ‘Unless I have the very same experience as you, I will not believe, I also want to put my finger where the nails were and my hand into his side’.

Jesus knows Thomas’ desire and that he had lost out the previous time he appeared the week before, so he sets out to meet Thomas. The same situation, still very much afraid of the Jewish authorities, we huddled again behind locked doors, and there the risen Christ gloriously appears.

After declaring his peace, he looks to his dear friend, Thomas, and repeats the same ritual he offered to the others, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side’. With a twinkle in his eye, Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Don’t doubt, believe, it is I’.

Horrified, Thomas steps back and murmurs, ὁ κύριός μου καὶ ὁ θεός μου, meaning, ‘My Lord and my God’, ‘You truly are the Lord God!’ Thomas is confronted with the indescribable beauty of his God in the crucifixion and resurrection, and the truth pierces his heart like a lightning bolt… His Majesty, the great God, the King of high heavens, was tortured, humiliated and murdered by mere mortals. ‘What kind of God are you that does this for such a hostile rebellious people?’ Thomas thinks to himself.

You can imagine, Jesus with a gentle nod, whispering, ‘Yes, now you have understood, Thomas. I came that I may share humanity’s pain and torment, I know what it means to be: rejected, humiliated, mocked…

to be forsaken by my closest friends,

to have people stare at my naked bloodied body,

to be tortured,

to be disfigured,

to experience unimaginable anguish of soul,

to suffocate in my own blood,

to bear the weight of the world’s sin, including your own,

to feel the chasm between God my father and I, when I cried out, “my God why have you forsaken me,”

to die a criminal’s death,

and to descend into outer darkness.

Thomas you and your friends have seen my wounds for yourself, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!’

In this narrative account with Thomas, we are reminded that Jesus shared in our suffering, and our pain far more than we could possibly imagine, including our present challenges with isolation, loneliness and uncertainty.

Jesus now calls you and I to believe that he is truly the Messiah the saviour of the cosmos, having overcome Satan, sin and death in the victory of his resurrection. And as he has shared in our suffering, Jesus now calls you and I, come what may, to trust him and to share in his exquisite life, his resurrected life!

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 647. [2] Carson, 647. [3] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 572. [4] Cf. Carson, John, 656.


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