Was it his grief, or his doubting, greater than the grief and doubt of the rest of the disciples?
After His Resurrection and before His Ascension into heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ made a series of appearances to His disciples for the purpose of strengthening their faith, consoling and edifying them. How the disciples in general and St. Thomas in particular reacted and responded to those appearances is the interest of this article. The first glorious post Resurrection appearance occurred on Resurrection Sunday to Mary Magdalene; after which she excitedly sought out the grieving and mourning disciples to tell them of the Lord Jesus Christ’s appearance to her. However, they did not believe her at all. “And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe” (Mark 16:11). St. John and St. Peter displayed their collective doubt by going to the Lord Jesus Christ’s tomb themselves for concrete evidence; only to discover its emptiness. It was then that their grieving lack of faith began to slowly transform into a wondering realization after the apostles had actually seen with their own eyes the empty tomb and the burial clothes and face cloth inside the tomb. The Holy Scripture records that they saw and THEN they believed…
“Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed” (John 20:6-8).
That very same evening of the discovery of the empty tomb, the Lord Jesus Christ suddenly appeared to ten of the apostles who were locked up inside a room in a Biblically undisclosed place (speculated by some Biblical scholars to be the Upper Room in Jerusalem). They might have locked themselves up seeking comfort in each other out of the deep sorrow they all must have felt following the horrific crucifixion and earthly loss of the Lord Jesus Christ; and possibly sharing the guilt mixed with grief for not having all of them being bold enough to stand beside the Master; but fled leaving Him to undergo all the pain and all the deserting. Added to that was the biblically documented fact that they had been afraid of the Jews. All the disciples were present except one, St. Thomas.
“Peace be with you,” the Lord Jesus Christ greeted His disciples as He stood in the midst of them. Then, “He showed them His Hands and His side” (John 20:20). Even before they had a chance to glance in the direction of His wounds, He greeted them and THEN showed them His Holy Wounds. The Lord Jesus Christ had to again say, “Peace to you!” So great was their amazement; perhaps so little their faith; so intense their grieving and mourning that even after having seen His wounds, a second greeting was required (John 20:19-24). In astonishment and awe, the ten disciples saw and were edified.
When St. Thomas the Apostle had heard about the appearance of the Lord; in much the same manner of little faith, disbelief and denial came upon him. In spite of all the evidences manifest in the testimony from all ten disciples whom he had been in continuous company with, his personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ being of the inner most circle of disciples, and despite presumably having heard about Judas Iscariot’s suicide, St. Thomas doubt was certainly strongly spoken aloud in his saying, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
After eight days, all the eleven apostles, Thomas included, were again inside assembled together; perhaps discussing the hot issue of the Lords appearance to them trying to convince Thomas of its unbeatable reality; when another post Resurrection appearance took place. With the doors closed, the Lord Jesus Christ stood in the midst of them and said, “Peace to you!” (John 20:26). Was it specifically for St. Thomas’ sake? Did the Lord Jesus Christ love St. Thomas enough to come back exclusively for his sake in order to eliminate his disbelief in the Glorious Resurrection?
Following His greeting, the Lord specifically addressed St. Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). What an invitation from the Lord, is that of allowing St. Thomas to touch His Holy wounds…the wounds that took from Him His earthly breath of life. He was not only allowing but inviting St. Thomas to touch Him.
Who was St. Thomas; and what was the nature of the fabric from which his defying, challenging words were woven that had deserved the immediate and exclusive response of our Lord Jesus Christ? Was this “unseen” lack of faith actually any different than that of the others chosen by the Lord Jesus Christ?
What we do know for sure is this: We do know that St. Thomas was a very committed disciple willing to stand up and face threatening conditions; and if necessary give his own life for the Lord (John 11:15). Surely, the disciples shortcomings stood conspicuous in some aspects. However, when the Lord Jesus Christ desired to go to Bethany to see the sick Lazarus, St. Thomas could only see stoning and disaster lying ahead. Yet he was determined to go along with the Lord Jesus Christ, even if it had meant his own life, there is no chance for “doubting” this at all.
Going with the Lord Jesus Christ to Bethany could have been easy for someone who had not known that the Jews wanted to stone the Lord, yet for someone who actually had known and yet did not want to go back to Jerusalem was quite exceptional and unique to St. Thomas. After all Lazarus was the Lords friend not his… Perhaps St. Thomas initial thinking was that it was better to go and die with the Lord Jesus Christ than to be left behind and separated from Him. We do not know; but it has been conjectured by some Holy Bible scholars that St. Thomas’ great devotion to the Lord may have been equivalent to that of St. John the Beloved. It took real courage and love on St. Thomas side to venture with the Lord to Bethany. In fact, the disciples courage was so strong that it might have prompted the other disciples to go along which they actually did.
For St. Thomas, dying with the Lord Jesus Christ must have certainly been the better choice than separation; because in another scenario, out of fear of separation, he had said, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Perhaps it was his simple way of saying, “if You go Lord, how are we ever going to find the way to You?” Was this as if saying anxiously, “Lord I need to know the way in worry of not being able to bear separation from the One, I had spent many years learning from and traveling beside”?
Perhaps it was his stubbornness of character in not wanting to let the Lord Jesus Christ die without him; perhaps his inability to believe such a miracle, or perhaps it was simply his inability to explore the great loss he must have felt for a loved one having been crucified so unmercifully. We do not know. We do not know the mood of someone so devoted to the Lord; whose worst fear had now been realizedthat of separation from the Lord, his God. However, we do know that history has recorded his epithet as “Doubting Thomas”.
The special invitation to St. Thomas to touch His Holy wounds was an honor granted to none of His other holy disciples during the Lord’s first appearance in their midst. Had they been offered such a great invitation, would they have welcomed it? Why was St. Thomas favored with such an exquisite invitation? Was it because St. Thomas’ disbelief was greater than that of the rest of the disciples? Or, was it because he had witnessed less resurrection appearances than the others and hence the doubt?
Even though St. Thomas had said adamantly that he must “see and touch” in order to believe, there are many accounts as to whether St. Thomas did actually touch the wounds of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Bible does not document whether the wounds were physically touched. It does state, “Thomas because you have seen Me, you have believed…” (John 20:29).
“Seest thou that his doubt proceeded from unbelief? But it was before he had received the Spirit; after that, it was no longer so, but for the future, they were perfected” (St. John Chrysostom’s Homily LXXXVII on the Holy Gospel according to St. John).
“What is seen gives knowledge not faith” a Homily by Pope Gregory the Great, (Patron’s Saints Index, St Thomas the Apostle, p.4).
“He saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched; but by the means of what he saw and touched, he now put far away from him every doubt, and believed the other. ‘The Lord Jesus said to him, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed.’ He saith not, Thou hast touched Me, but, ‘Thou hast seen Me,’ because sight is a kind of general sense. For sight is also habitually named in connection with the other four senses…Hence here the Lord Himself says ‘Reach hither thy finger and behold My hands:’ and what else does He mean but touch and see? And yet he had no eyes in his finger. Whether therefore it was by looking or also by touching, ‘Because thou hast seen Me,’ He says, ‘thou hast believed.’ Although it may be affirmed that the disciple dared not so to touch, when He offered Himself for the purpose; for it was not written, and Thomas touched Him” (St. Augustine’s Tractate CXXI lectures on the Holy Gospel according to St. John).
The main point of this Resurrection encounter is St. Thomas response to the Lord Jesus Christs invitation; thus accepting the Resurrected Lord, exclaiming, “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28). Then the Lord Jesus Christ said, “…Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
This acceptance had been of a great impetus to St. Thomas’ asceticism and celibacy during his missionary life. Six centuries passed and Pope Gregory the Great wrote, “Thomas’ lack of faith did more for our faith than did the faith of the disciples who believed.”
Tradition alludes to the fact that St. Thomas was martyred by a sharp spear; a martyrdom befitting him whose faith came of age after he had seen the wound by the spear in the Lord Jesus Christ’s side; befitting an apostle whose earthly greatness is only exceeded by the lesson, his personal shortcomings taught each of us and who is now with the One he did not want to be separated from.
All the disciples started out by being slow to believe. So, what had set St. Thomas apart? Was it his absence at the first appearance? Was it his outspoken proclamation requiring the visual and physical evidence of seeing and touching His wounds? Or…was it the overwhelming immensity and intensity of his grief that surpassed that of the rest of the disciples’?
Let us pray that we may be counted among those who “have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
— His Grace Bishop Youssef
Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States