I have a death in Christ to die;
And must I wait till science give
All doubts a full reply?
Nay, rather while the sea of doubt
There is no record of the beginning of the friendship of Jesus and Thomas. We do not know when Thomas became a disciple, nor what first drew him to Jesus. Did a friend bring him? Did he learn of the new rabbi through the fame of him that went everywhere, and then come to him without solicitation? Did he hear him speak one day, and find himself drawn to him by the power of his gracious words? Or did Jesus seek him out in his home or at his work, and call him to be a follower?
We do not know. The manner of his coming is veiled in obscurity. The first mention of his name is in the list of the Twelve. As the apostles were chosen from the much larger company of those who were already disciples, Thomas must have been a follower of Jesus before he was an apostle. He and Jesus had been friends for some time, and there is evidence that the friendship was a very close and tender one. Even in the scant material available for the making up of the story, we find evidence in Thomas of strong loyalty and unwavering devotion, and in Jesus of marvellous patience and gentleness toward his disciple.
We have in the New Testament many wonderfully lifelike portraits. Occurring again and again, they are always easily recognizable. In every mention of Peter, for example, the man is indubitably the same. He is always active, speaking or acting; not always wisely, but in every case characteristically, -- impetuous, self-confident, rash, yet ever warm-hearted. We would know him unmistakably in every incident in which he appears, even if his name were not given. John, too, whenever we see him, is always the same, -- reverent, quiet, affectionate, trustful, the disciple of love. Andrew appears only a few times, but in each of these cases he is engaged in the same way, -- bringing some one to Jesus. Mary of Bethany comes into the story on only three occasions; but always we see her in the same attitude, -- at Jesus' feet, -- while Martha is ever active in her serving.
The character of Thomas also is sketched in a very striking way. There are but three incidents in which this apostle appears; but in all of these the portrait is the same, and is so clear that even Peter's character is scarcely better known than that of Thomas. He always looks at the dark side. We think of him as the doubter; but his doubt is not of the flippant kind which reveals lack of reverence, ofttimes ignorance and lack of earnest thought; it is rather a constitutional tendency to question, and to wait for proof which would satisfy the senses, than a disposition to deny the facts of Christianity. Thomas was ready to believe, glad to believe, when the proof was sufficient to convince him. Then all the while he was ardently a true and devoted friend of Jesus, attached to him, and ready to follow him even to death.
The first incident in which Thomas appears is in connection with the death of Lazarus. Jesus had now gone beyond the Jordan with his disciples. The Jews had sought to kill him; and he escaped from their hands, and went away for safety. When news of the sickness of Lazarus came, Jesus waited two days, and then said to his disciples, "Let us go into Judea again." The disciples reminded him of the hatred of the Jews, and of their recent attempts to kill him. They thought that he ought not to venture back again into the danger, even for the sake of carrying comfort to the sorrowing Bethany household. Jesus answered with a little parable about one's security while walking during the day. The meaning of the parable was that he had not yet reached the end of his day, and therefore could safely continue the work which had been given him to do. Every man doing God's will is immortal till the work is done. Jesus then announced to his disciples that Lazarus was dead, and that he was going to waken him.
It is at this point that Thomas appears. He said to his fellow-disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." He looked only at the dark side. He took it for granted that if Jesus returned to Judea he would be killed. He forgot for the time the divine power of Jesus, and the divine protection which sheltered him while he was doing the Father's will. He failed to understand the words Jesus had just spoken about his security until the hours of his day were finished. He remembered only the bitterness which the Jews had shown toward Jesus, and their determination to destroy his life. He had no hope that if Jesus returned they would not carry out their wicked purpose. There was no blue in the sky for him. He saw only darkness.
Thomas represents a class of good people who are found in every community. They see only the sad side of life. No stars shine through their cypress-trees. In the time of danger they forget that there are divine refuges into which they may flee and be safe. They know the promises, and often quote them to others; but when trouble comes upon them, all these words of God fade out of their minds. In sorrow they fail to receive any true and substantial comfort from the Scriptures. Hope dies in their hearts when the shadows gather about them. They yield to discouragement, and the darkness blots out every star in their sky. Whatever the trouble may be that comes into their life, they see the trouble only, and fail to perceive the bright light in the cloud.
This habit of mind adds much to life's hardness. Every burden is heavier because of the sad heart that beats under it. Every pain is keener because of the dispiriting which it brings with it. Every sorrow is made darker by the hopelessness with which it is endured. Every care is magnified, and the sweetness of every pleasure is lessened, by this pessimistic tendency. The beauty of the world loses half its charm in the eyes which see all things in the hue of despondent feeling. Slightest fears become terrors, and smallest trials grow into great misfortunes. Our heart makes our world for us; and if the heart be without hope and cheer, the world is always dark. We find in life just what we have the capacity to find. One who is color-blind sees no loveliness in nature. One who has no music in his soul hears no harmonies anywhere. When fear sits regnant on the throne, life is full of alarms.
On the other hand, if the heart be full of hope, every joy is doubled, and half of every trouble vanishes. There are sorrows, but they are comforted. There are bitter cups, but the bitterness is sweetened. There are heavy burdens, but the songful spirit lightens them. There are dangers, but cheerful courage robs them of terror. All the world is brighter when the light of hope shines within.
But we have read only half the story of the fear of Thomas. He saw only danger in the Master's return to Judea. "The Jews will kill him; he will go back to certain death," he said. But Thomas would not forsake Jesus, though he was going straight to martyrdom. "Let us also go, that we may die with him." Thus, mingled with his fear, was a noble and heroic love for Jesus. The hopelessness of Thomas as he thought of Jesus going to Bethany makes his devotion and his cleaving to him all the braver and nobler. He was sure it was a walk to death, but he faltered not in his loyalty.
This is a noble spirit in Thomas, which we would do well to emulate. It is the true soldier spirit. Its devotion to Christ is absolute, and its following unconditional. It has only one motive, -- love; and one rule, -- obedience. It is not influenced by any question of consequences; but though it be to certain death, it hesitates not. This is the kind of discipleship which the Master demands. He who loves father or mother more than him is not worthy of him. He who hates not his own life cannot be his disciple. A follower of Jesus must be ready and willing to follow him to his cross. Thomas proved his friendship for his Master by a noble heroism. It is the highest test of courage to go forward unfalteringly in the way of duty when one sees only personal loss and sacrifice as the result. The soldier who trembles, and whose face whitens from constitutional physical fear, and who yet marches steadily into the battle, is braver far than the soldier who without a tremor presses into the engagement.
The second time at which Thomas appears is in the upper room, after the Holy Supper had been eaten. Jesus had spoken of the Father's house, and had said that he was going away to prepare a place for his disciples, and that then he would come again to receive them unto himself. Thomas could not understand the Master's meaning, and said, "Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?" He would not say he believed until he saw for himself. That is all that his question in the upper room meant -- he wished the Master to make the great teaching a little plainer. It were well if more Christians insisted on finding the ground of their faith, the reasons why they are Christians. Their faith would then be stronger, and less easily shaken. When trouble comes, or any testing, it would continue firm and unmoved, because it rests on the rock of divine truth.
The last incident in the story of Thomas is after the resurrection. The first evening the apostles met in the upper room to talk over the strange things which had occurred that day. For some reason Thomas was not at this meeting. We may infer that his melancholy temperament led him to absent himself. He had loved Jesus deeply, and his sorrow was very great. There had been rumors all day of Christ's resurrection, but Thomas put no confidence in these. Perhaps his despondent disposition made him unsocial, and kept him from meeting with the other apostles, even to weep with them.
That evening Jesus entered through the closed doors, and stood in the midst of the disciples, and greeted them as he had done so often before, "Peace be unto you!" They told Thomas afterwards that they had seen the Lord. But he refused to believe them; that is, he doubted the reality of what they thought they had seen. He said that they had been deceived; and he asserted that he must not only see for himself, but must have the opportunity of subjecting the evidence to the severest test. He must see the print of the nails, and must also be permitted to put his finger into the place.
It is instructive to think of what this doubting disposition of Thomas cost him. First, it kept him from the meeting of the disciples that evening, when all the others came together. He shut himself up with his gloom and sadness. His grief was hopeless, and he would not seek comfort. The consequence was, that when Jesus entered the room, and showed himself to his friends, Thomas missed the revealing which gave them such unspeakable gladness. From that hour their sorrow was changed to joy; but for the whole of another week Thomas remained in the darkness in which the crucifixion had infolded him.
Doubt is always costly. It shuts out heavenly comfort. There are many Christian people who, especially in the first shock of sorrow, have an experience similar to that of Thomas. They shut themselves up with their grief, and refuse to accept the comfort of the gospel of Christ. They turn away their ears from the voices of love which speak to them out of the Bible, and will not receive the divine consolations. The light shines all about them; but they close doors and windows, and keep it from entering the darkened chamber where they sit. The music of peace floats on the air in sweet, entrancing strains, but no gentle note finds its way to their hearts.
Too many Christian mourners fail to find comfort in their sorrow. They believe the great truths of Christianity, that Jesus died for them and rose again; but their faith fails them for the time in the hour of sorest distress. Meanwhile they walk in darkness as Thomas did. On the other hand, those who accept, and let into their hearts the great truths of Christ's resurrection and the immortal life in Christ, feel the pain of parting no less sorely, but they find abundant consolation in the hope of eternal life for those whom they have lost for a time.
We have an illustration of the deep, tender, patient, and wise friendship of Jesus for Thomas in the way he treated this doubt of his apostle. He did not say that if Thomas could not believe the witness of the apostles to his resurrection he must remain in the darkness which his unbelief had made for him. He treated his doubt with exceeding gentleness, as a skilful physician would deal with a dangerous wound. He was in no haste. A full week passed before he did anything. During those days the sad heart had time to react, to recover something of its self-poise. Thomas still persisted in his refusal to believe, but when a week had gone he found his way with the others to their meeting. Perhaps their belief in the Lord's resurrection made such a change in them, so brightened and transformed them, that Thomas grew less positive in his unbelief as he saw them day after day. At least he was ready now to be convinced. He wanted to believe.
That night Jesus came again into the room, the doors being shut, and standing in the midst of his friends, breathed again upon them his benediction of peace. Then he turned to Thomas; and holding out his hands, with the print of the nails in them, he asked him to put the evidences of his resurrection to the very tests he had said he must make before he could believe. Now Thomas was convinced. He did not make the tests he had insisted that he must make. There was no need for it. To look into the face of Jesus, to hear his voice, and to see the prints of the nails in his hands, was evidence enough even for Thomas. All his doubts were swept away. Falling at the Master's feet, he exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!"
Thus the gentleness of Jesus in dealing with his doubts saved Thomas from being an unbeliever. It is a great thing to have a wise and faithful friend when one is passing through an experience of doubt. Many persons are only confirmed in their scepticism by the well-meant but unwise efforts that are made to convince them of the truth concerning which they doubt. It is not argument that they need, but the patience of love, which waits in silence till the right time comes for words, and which then speaks but little. Thomas was convinced, not by words, but by seeing the proofs of Christ's love in the prints of the nails.
We may be glad now that Thomas was hard to convince of the truth of Christ's resurrection. It makes the proofs more indubitable to us that one even of the apostles refused at first to believe, and yet at length was led into triumphant faith. If all the apostles had believed easily, there would have been no comfort in the gospel for those who find it hard to believe, and yet who sincerely want to believe. The fact that one doubted, and even refused to accept the witness of his fellow-apostles, and then at length was led into clear, strong faith, forever teaches that doubt is not hopeless. Ofttimes it may be but a process in the development of faith.
The story of Thomas shows, too, that there may be honest doubt. While he doubted, he yet loved; perhaps no other one of the apostles loved Jesus more than did Thomas. He never made any such bold confession as Peter did, but neither did he ever deny Christ. Thomas has been a comfort to many because he has shown them that they can be true Christians, true lovers of Christ, and yet not be able to boast of their assurance of faith.
No doubt faith is better than questioning, but there may be honest questioning which yet is intensely loyal to Christ. Questioning, too, which is eager to find the truth and rest on the rock, may be better than easy believing, that takes no pains to know the reason of the hope it cherishes, and lightly recites the noble articles of a creed it has never seriously studied. Tennyson, in "In Memoriam," tells the story of a faith that grew strong through its doubting.
You say, but with no touch of scorn,
I know not: one indeed I knew
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
He fought his doubts and gathered strength;
To find a stronger faith his own;
But in the darkness and the cloud,
That which saved Thomas was his deep, strong friendship for Christ. "The characteristic of Thomas," says Ian Maclaren, "is not that he doubted, -- that were an easy passport to religion, -- but that he doubted and loved. His doubt was the measure of his love; his doubt was swallowed up in love." If friendship for Christ be loyal and true, we need not look upon questioning as disloyalty; it may be but love finding the way up the rugged mountain-side to the sunlit summit of a glorious faith. There is a scepticism whose face is toward wintriness and death; but there is a doubt which is looking toward the sun and toward all blessedness.
Thomas teaches us that one may look on the dark side and yet be a Christian, an ardent lover of Jesus, ready to die for him. But we must admit that this is not the best way to live. No one would say that Thomas was the ideal among the apostles, that his character was the most beautiful, his life the noblest and the best. Faith is better than doubt, and confidence better than questioning. It is better to be a sunny Christian, rejoicing, songful, happy, than a sad, gloomy, despondent Christian. It makes one's own life sweeter and more beautiful. Then it makes others happier. A gloomy Christian casts dark shadows wherever he goes; a sunny Christian is a benediction to every life he touches.