Coming to believe: trusting

doubting-Thomas-Duccio“…do not be unbelieving, but believe.”  24 Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26 Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 

Although many translations include “doubt” in v. 27 — and thus lead to the phrase “Doubting Thomas,” that’s a problem. There is no Greek word for “doubt” in the verse. The phrase do not be unbelieving, but believe contrasts apistos and pistos — the only occurrence of both these words in John. Simply put, the word does not mean “doubt” and Greek does not lack the equivalent words: diakrinomai, dialogismos, distazō, dipsychos, aporeō, and aporia.  Lowe and Nida (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains) give three definitions for the adjective – pistos.

  • pertaining to trusting — one who trusts in, trusting
  • pertaining to being trusted — faithful, trustworthy, dependable, reliable
  • pertaining to being sure, with the implication of being fully trustworthy — sure

Thus apistos would be “not having trust or faith or certainty.”

Questioning God is an aspect of faith. If one is asking God questions or seeking answers from God, there is an intrinsic faith present.  To ask the question implies a fundamental trust that if an answer is given that it will be correct. Similar, to ask the question can point to a desire to be sure.  All this points to a “becoming” (a valid translation of the verb being used). Thomas seems to be at a crossroads in his life. What will he become? What adjective will describe him: trusting or not, faithful or not, certain or not?

Perhaps one might see this text in the light of William Barcley’s commentary on these verses:

There is more ultimate faith in the man who insists on being sure than the man who glibly repeats things which he has never thought out, and which he does not really believe. It is doubt like that which in the end arrives at certainty…. Thomas doubted in order to become sure; and when he did become sure, his surrender to certainty was complete. If a man fights his way through his doubts to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, he has attained to a certainty that the man who unthinkingly accepts can never reach.

Paul Tillich also notes (source unknown): “The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born.”

John Westerhoff III in his book Will Our Children Have Faith offers a model of becoming in faith that may shed some light on Thomas’ evolving faith (found in Brian Stoffregen’s text)

  • EXPERIENCED FAITH (preschool and early childhood) — imitating actions, e.g., a child praying the Lord’s Prayer without understanding the meaning of all the words — “This is what we This is how we act.”
  • AFFILIATIVE FAITH (childhood and early adolescent years) — belonging to a group, which still centers on imitating what the group does — “This is what we believe and do. This is our group/church.”
  • SEARCHING FAITH (late adolescence, young adult) — asking questions, “Is this what I believe?” Thomas is our example of this. He will not blindly accept what others have said, but needs to find certainty for himself. This stage of faith is adding the “head” to the “heart” of the earlier stages. This is a point at which many young adults drop-out as well as when many are recruited to causes and cults
  • OWNED FAITH (early adulthood) — this stage comes only through the searching stage. After exploring the question, “Is this what I believe?” one, hopefully, discovers a Christian answer that declares: “This is what I believe.”

The Thomas scene ends with an “owned faith” and a personal confession: “My Lord and my God” — a confession we don’t hear from any of the other disciples who did not go through the same questioning as Thomas. However, this is the strong, personal faith that one witnesses to and one is willing to die for.


Notes

20:24 Thomas, called Didymus:  lit. “be identical.” The Greek name is derived from the Aramaic name te’ômā’, “twin.”

20:25 Unless I see the nail marks: Thomas’ refusal to believe is expressed using the double negative (ou mē), showing he was adamant about this matter. The same double negative is used describing Peter’s refusal to allow Jesus to wash his feet (13:8). While it may appear that Thomas was unbelieving, more so that the other disciples upon receiving their first witness, this is not necessarily the case. Earlier references to Thomas reveal one who was dogged in his commitment to Jesus (11:16) and honest about his doubts (14:5). Thomas is the one who questions, and perhaps by his questioning comes to a deeper faith that the others.

20:26 the doors were locked…stood in their midst: This account points to a clear bodily resurrection against a docestic tendency to spiritualize the Resurrection. At the same time, the account points to a post-Resurrection body that differs from earthly life.

20:28 My Lord and my God: this forms a literary inclusion with the first verse of the gospel: “and the Word was God.”  A number of commentaries note that a possible origin of the confession “My Lord and my God” is derived from a contemporaneous expression: Dominus et Deus noster; “our lord and god”) used by Emperor Domitian for himself. Domitian was emperor when John is believed to have set his gospel in final written form.  It is possible that John is making things clear for who truly is “Lord and God.” And it is not Domitian, or anyone or anything else to whom/what we might give our allegiance.

Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) 506-7
  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29b in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 1018-61
  • Neal M. Flanagan, “John” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 1013-17
  • Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 373-81
  • Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 529-45
  • John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989) 256-64
  • Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 845-53

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
  • David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)

Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm

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