Thomas holds the distinction of being the only apostle whose name is usually prefaced with an adjective: Doubting Thomas. Of course, that phrase doesn’t appear in the Bible, but that’s how he’s frequently referred to in books, sermons, and other writings.
Like Bartholomew (aka Nathanael), the only details we know about Thomas, other than that he was an apostle, are found in John’s gospel account.
The first mention of Thomas (whose name literally means “twin”)1 in John’s gospel account comes in chapter eleven. Lazarus has just died, and Jesus tells His disciples (including Thomas), “Let’s return to Judea.” The disciples were not thrilled with this idea at all, since the Jews had tried to kill Him the last time they were there. But Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; I’m going to go wake him up.” That definitely confused the apostles, and so Jesus told them, “Lazarus is dead.”
It’s after this statement of Jesus that the apostles know Jesus is going back to Judea, and Thomas tells his fellow-disciples, “Let’s go so we might die with Him.” Though this expresses courage, extreme loyalty, and love for Jesus, it also shows a lack of understanding—some might even call it an expression of doubt. He was saying, “Let’s go with Him, ready to die with Him if need be.”2 But Thomas didn’t understand that Jesus had something more planned for Him and the other apostles. Thomas didn’t see the big picture that included Jesus arising from the grave (more on that later). He saw this return to Judea, it seems, as the final stand in the life of a great Rabbi who was being rejected by the Jewish people. But Thomas went with Him anyway.3
After arriving in Judea with Jesus, Thomas would have heard the mournful cries of Mary and Martha who each told Jesus, “If you would have been here, our brother wouldn’t have died!” With the idea of death and dying on his mind, Thomas might have felt sadness and been resigned to his own (so he thought) impending death. Certainly, he would have been curious when Jesus replied with the words, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one believing in me, though he were dead, yet he shall live. And the one living and believing in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”4 Thomas might have been thinking, I’m alive, and I believe in Jesus…maybe I won’t die after all.
Then, Thomas was present when Jesus prayed to the Father, saying that His prayer was so that the people might believe. Thomas then heard Jesus utter the words, “Lazarus, come forth!” and he watched as Lazarus came out, alive. He witnessed the power of Jesus to raise the dead after four days.5 It should have served as proof that Jesus could rise from the dead after just three days, yet Thomas doubted.
After the Lord’s Supper was instituted, and Judas left to betray Jesus, the Lord began to tell the apostles that His time was almost up.6 He told them that He was going to go, and that they would not be able to follow Him right then. Peter expressed confusion, saying, “Where are you going?” After Jesus said He was going to prepare a place for His followers, and that they knew the way, Thomas expressed confusion as well. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?”7
From this, we get an insight into Thomas’ character. Just like Peter, he had a difficult time grasping the concept that Jesus would be raised from the dead after his death. He was fiercely loyal to Jesus, ready to die with him, but he was stuck on thinking in mortal terms.
Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me.” Whether Thomas understood what Jesus meant at this point isn’t stated by John. But lest anyone wants to bad-mouth Thomas for his lack of understanding, take special note that Thomas was just one of three apostles who expressed their confusion in this instance (Philip being the third).8
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 John says he is called “Didymus,” which is the Greek word for “twin.” Several theories exist as to the importance of this name. Some assume it means he is a twin brother of one of the apostles, others that he is the twin brother of Jesus, others that he had a twin sister, and so on and so forth. More will be said on this matter in the “traditions” section of this chapter.
2 Thomas speaks in the subjunctive mood when he says this, showing a possibility. Thus, we might die with Him.
3 The text of John 11:16 could also be read as though Thomas is speaking about Lazarus: Let’s go so we might die with Lazarus. While grammatically this makes sense, it doesn’t make any logical sense. Can you truly picture Thomas telling the other apostles, “Let’s go to Judea so we can die with Lazarus”? See E.W. Hengstenberg’s discussion on this passage for a fuller discussion on who Thomas was willing to die with.
4 John 11:25-26.
5 John 11:41-45.
6 See John 13:26-33, especially note verse 33 and the phrase “yet a little while I am with you.”
7 John 14:1-5, especially verse 5.
8 See John 14:7-12.