19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
I think many of us feel the gap between ourselves and Jesus’ original followers most keenly at Easter. If only we had been there and seen the resurrected Jesus! Our faith would be so much stronger than it is! We’d know for sure everything we need to know!
It’s part of the literary genius of John that he has written us into his gospel at just this point. Through the character of Thomas he addresses just this “gap” between those who did and did not experience the risen One “up-close-and-personal” (so to speak).
You see, Thomas missed the original appearance of the risen Jesus. When he heard about it, he blew a gasket. We usually pan him for his doubt as if his problem was about knowledge of truth. I think that misses John’s point.
He uses this story to address this problem of the supposed gap between the first-hand experience of eye-witnesses and that of everyone else (that means us!). Thomas, it seems to me, is pouting not doubting! He missed the first-hand meeting all the others had experienced and unless he had such an experience to, he wasn’t going to believe! This made him feel like a second-class citizen among the disciples. He is that gap in person. How Jesus deals with him is John’s answer to this issue.
And what Jesus does is a double dose of grace. He does give Thomas the first-hand experience he demanded. Thomas was one of the twelve, after all. Jesus doesn’t want him to feel excluded and different from the others. So he appears again to the group when Thomas is present and deals with him personally.
But in that he missed the original appearance to the disciples, he is, as I have mentioned, a perfect foil for addressing the problem of those who, like us, were not privy to such an experience. This is why he says to Thomas immediately after his appearance to him, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Thomas was in a unique position. He got an appearance because he was one of the twelve. But he shouldn’t have believed that lack of such experience made him inferior in any way or his faith less vital or second-hand because it came through the witness of the others. Apparently Jesus does not consider this gap we feel so keenly to be a big problem. The witness of those who were there is just as good. Indeed, such testimony is the means by which Jesus keeps on seeking and speaking to people across the centuries and millennia.
That’s why John can say of his own gospel: “Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. "But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.” John’s account of Jesus, and by extension the other gospels and the rest of the Bible, mediate God’s own word of call and claim on our lives. In them we meet the risen One just as surely and profoundly as did his followers that first Easter day. It is through these words that belief is generated and we experience “life,” the very goal for which we were created and have been redeemed by Jesus!
The word of scripture leaps the gap of historical distance. We are not disadvantaged by not having been there in the flesh. We have the word that bears the Word of God (John 1:1). And that, that is more than enough! Thanks be to God.