Dealing with Doubt

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

John 20:24-31 | April 26 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
April 26
Dealing with Doubt | John 20:24-31
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

O Father of all good gifts, give us now ears to hear Your Word, minds to understand, eyes to see the truth, hearts to believe. We pray this in the strong name of Jesus Christ, our risen and coming King. Amen.

We come this morning to John chapter 20; hopefully you will have a Bible somewhere nearby and can follow along as we read John chapter 20, verses 24 through the end of the chapter.

“Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.'”

“Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'”

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.”

Many of us know this story about doubting Thomas. It looks to be a story about doubt, and it is, but more importantly it is a story about change. In verse 27, Jesus gives Thomas a command: “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” And that’s what he does. He changes. He goes from doubt to faith. There’s a progression that happens with Thomas in this passage and John records the story here for a reason. And the story is not here first of all to celebrate Thomas and say “are you a doubting Thomas?” and “what an amazing story” and put his finger in His hands and his hand into His side and Thomas doubted and he believed, good for Thomas.

No, the point here is not so much that Thomas believed, but that we, too, ought to believe. That’s why we have following this story a kind of climax of the entire book before we get to chapter 21, which is a sort of epilogue. We have the story of Thomas and then the purpose statement in verses 30 through 31, “Jesus did many other signs” like this one with Thomas, and he believed and Jesus did these signs not for Thomas, but for you. For those in the original audience who would have been reading or hearing this book, but now for us, who have not seen but yet can believe.

Now we’re going to end back with us, but we have to start with Thomas. Here’s the progression we see in Thomas in these verses. And I do have to just correct one thing that Dr. Kruger said in his sermon, it was a great sermon last Sunday evening, but he said that he was, had found these alliterations, but Pastor Kevin does not usually do alliteration. Well, that was very kind, but I often do, and they sometimes come together, sometimes they don’t, and we do have three S’s this morning. But I think you’ll see that they fit.

Thomas moves from a skeptical man to a saved man to a sign for other men, men and women.

So from a skeptical man to a saved man to a sign for other men.

Let’s go with the first point. Thomas at the beginning is a skeptical man.

In his book Scandalous, D.A. Carson has a chapter on this episode. It’s an excellent chapter and an excellent book, and in it he talks about several different kinds of skepticism or doubt. Not all skepticism, not all doubt, is the same. And wherever you are watching this, you may have your own doubt. Perhaps in the past, in the future, or right now in the present, perhaps doubt, skepticism, you haven’t even dared to mention to the people around you in the room, or you have barely even wanted to mention to yourself.

Sometimes, Carson says, there is doubt that is rooted in ignorance, simply haven’t heard something, you haven’t been taught, you don’t know what answers there are to certain questions. Other doubt is the result of moral choice. Someone like Aldous Huxley, who decided the world was meaningless because he admitted it served his desires and the desires of his friends for liberation and sexual freedom, what they thought was sexual freedom. So they decided “we’re going to be agnostics” or “we’re going to doubt, we’re going to make up a moral system and a religious system that fits the way we want to live.”

Other times doubt is a function of maturation. It’s very natural, in fact, some ways healthy that you may be as a young person coming to grips with what you’ve been taught your whole life. Do I really believe this? And there’s a season of wondering and doubt.

Doubt can be the result of thousands of little choices. You may not wake up and say “I’m going to doubt my faith,” but you choose to overwork, you choose to neglect your family, you choose to shut your ears to those who warn you against your trajectory, you choose to have an affair, you choose not to repent, and then you choose to conclude that you never really believed this religious stuff anyway and it can’t be true. That was a product of dozens and hundreds of little choices.

Carson says sometimes doubt is very much a somatic symptom. That is, it’s tied in with our bodies, and it can be a result of not taking care of yourself. If you don’t rest and you don’t sleep and you don’t exercise, you can come to a sort of exhaustion which leads to cynicism and cynicism is a very close relative to doubt.

Doubt can come through a painful crisis. You lose a loved one, suffer abuse, you’re cheated on, there’s a war, there’s an accident, there’s a global pandemic. These sort of crises, sometimes they lead people closer to God, you hear those stories, we’ve never been closer, it’s making me call out to God and realize all the things I took for granted, and other times we move in just the opposite direction, how could God do this?

And so we must remember for ourselves and for others, not all doubt is the same.

Carson goes on to explain that the situation with Thomas is another kind of doubt or skepticism. His is the doubt that comes from stupendous, religious disappointment.

Have you ever experienced this? Seen this? Maybe a beloved pastor, famous preacher, somebody just that meant so much to you flames out, or a parent that you or a grandparent, a mentor, who then takes a complete wrong turn later in life. An evangelist, someone who claims to have been doing great things turns out to be a charlatan, or shacking up with one of his fans. It can happen to young people sometimes, who get really fired up. You see it; I would see it with college students often. Really passionate about some new way to do church, or some new way to do community, and they’re excited and it’s genuine and they’ve convinced themselves no one’s ever thought of this and they are going to do something that no one has ever done before and they’re going to have real community and they’re going to have real church, and then after about three months they’re fighting, and after six months they’re squabbling to the point of breaking up, and a year in they realize, oh, forget this, and it leads to an out of control, overbearing mess which produces doubt.

Sometimes doubt is the result of our perception. We think we’ve had profound religious disappointment and we’ve experienced that, but we have to be honest – our perceptions are not always reality. Now, yes, the church disappoints people. Yes, pastors fail. Yes, there are profound disappointments. But sometimes it’s, it’s us, not the church, not the institution. Our feelings are not infallible. Our memories are not infallible. We could be mistaken in how we understand our own lives and our own experiences.

But of course, Thomas is in the middle of his profound religious disappointment, and it is real, disappointment happens, and that’s what Thomas is struggling with. Think about it – he followed Jesus for three years, ate with this man, traveled with this man. You get to know someone when you are, they probably went home for different seasons, but you’re on a three year road trip. Just think of how much you go to know your roommates in college over those three, four, five, six, some super-senior years, how much you really get to know people and you love them and you see the best and the worst about them.

Well, Thomas has no worst to see about Jesus, only best. This is the man he was following, the man he had left things for, and now this man is dead. And not just that, but He wasn’t supposed to die. Must not have been the man that we all thought He was, and there’s profound disappointment.

Now, I’m, I’m not a world-class anything when it comes to sports, or even a local-class anything, but I follow a lot of sports and ever since I was a kid I’ve, even though I was not big into cycling, I loved to follow the Tour de France, and so I was mesmerized like everyone around the world was when, when Lance Armstrong, coming back from cancer, was winning tour after tour in such impressive fashion. It was amazing. I admit I was a fan. And I remember at some point, years ago, before the whole story broke about Lance Armstrong, a friend of mine who was into sports journalism said, and this is when some of the news about baseball and steroids was coming out, he said “I’ll tell you from everything I know and everything I’ve heard, I’ll tell you somebody who no one thinks is clean, and that’s Lance Armstrong. Just, just wait,” he said. And I thought he was probably right and I really, really wanted him to be wrong. And he seemed so believable to stand up and give bold-faced lies and so many people, and it’s not to, you know, throw him under the bus, but, you know, he has to deal with the Lord and his own conscience and his own life that he’s living now, but it’s to say there was a profound disappointment. Not just from sports fans, but from a whole community of cancer patients and folks that he was a profound inspiration for, had given money.

What do you do when you’re disappointed? Well, you take that sort of disappointment that we’ve all felt, in sports heroes or mentors and leaders, and you multiply it by a thousand and that’s what Thomas is feeling. I mean, just try to put yourself in his shoes: I thought this was the one, I saw miracles, I saw Him cast out demons, I saw Him walk on water, He calmed the storm, He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and we spread out cloaks and palm branches and we sang hallelujah, hosanna, we confessed He was the Christ, and He sure looked like it. It was all adding up.

Maybe Thomas thought, “You know, I was scared when He got arrested, I was nervous when Pilate took Him, but even when He was on the cross, I thought maybe He’s up to His old tricks and He was going to call angels, or call down Elisha, or call down fire upon those who crucified Him, I thought for sure something would happen, and the sky got dark and the earth quaked and the temple curtain was torn in two and He died. He’s dead. Jesus is dead.”

Thomas must have thought to himself, “He was no messiah. What were we thinking? How embarrassing! We all said You are the Christ. And so excuse me, excuse me if I don’t just jump in on your resurrection bandwagon. I am not going to be fooled again.” That’s what Thomas is thinking.

Now we don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples. It says that he was not there, verse 24, when Jesus came, that is, when Jesus came on Easter Sunday evening. We can speculate. Was he too afraid to meet with them? Was he too busy? Maybe he was too sad. Maybe this is indicative of Thomas, his whole world was crashing around him, he said “no, I just need to be by myself.” We don’t know, but for whatever reason he wasn’t there. And so when they come up in verse 25 and say, “We have seen the Lord,” he’s not buying it. He wants proof.

Now sometimes Thomas is given a bad rap, that he’s there and he says “No, you gotta show me, I want, I want side, I want nail marks. Give me proof.” But you have to remember, this is what the disciples received, verse 20: “He showed them His hands and His side.” It may that we’re not getting the entire conversation, we’re just getting snippets of it here that the disciples said “He’s alive,” and one of the disciples chimed in said, “yeah, we’ve put our, we’ve seen His hand and His side where He was crucified, where He was pierced through,” and Thomas says “I’m not going to believe unless I see it with my own two eyes.” He wants what they had.

Now notice he doesn’t say there is nothing you could ever say to convince me. See, there are doubters and then there are people who are simply defiant, antagonists. No, Thomas is a skeptic. He’s not convinced – he wants evidence. He’s not going to believe just because all of his friends are believing. But he’s still looking. And this is important. For any of you out there, sometimes we convince ourselves, “Well, I’m really just a seeker and a searcher and I don’t settle for any pat answers and I’m just on this quest and this journey.” Okay, maybe. But for all of you who have convinced yourselves you’re just seeking, are you really open to finding?

Thomas was doubting, for sure. But he said if I see it, I’ll believe it. If there is nothing that could ever change your mind, or ever bring you to faith, or ever lead you to give the church another chance, then you’re not an agnostic, you’re not a doubter, you’re an unbeliever. You’ve made up your mind. That’s what the Bible says, and sometimes we just need to be honest with ourselves: Now, there is nothing anyone can ever say or do or show me or I can ever read in the Bible that will ever convince me to believe in Jesus. You’ve made up your mind. Now God has a way to still get through, but note, that’s not Thomas. He doubts, he’s a skeptic, but he hasn’t closed the door on faith. He’s looking for something. He’s honest, he’s searching, even if at the beginning here he’s a skeptic. That’s step one.

Step two, or state two. He goes very quickly now from a skeptical man to a saved man. We read in verse 26, “Eight days later,” those eight days later probably inclusive of that first date so that we’re back on a Sunday, the disciples gathering again for a kind of nascent worship service, perhaps, after the resurrection, inside, doors locked, fearful again, Jesus once again passes through. Thomas is with them.

Now it’s important here to note Thomas is with them, so he hasn’t ditched them, they haven’t ditched him. Maybe you have a close friend who’s going through a season of doubt, skepticism. Don’t drop him, don’t drop her. Maybe you’re the one, and your three buddies are on fire for the Lord and you’re not really sure about this anymore. Don’t leave them. Show up. Thomas is still there. He hadn’t run away, and they hadn’t pushed him away. See, he’s doubtful but he’s in a position where his doubts could be answered.

Jesus enters, and this time, with divine omniscience, He knows exactly what Thomas has said, exactly what Thomas is looking for, and so He looks him square in the eye, I imagine, and says, “Thomas, put your finger right here, right here in the nail marks. Give me your hand. Right here, right here in the side, right here where the spear went in and the blood and the water gushed out. Put your hand right here.” And he does.

And you hear Thomas’ response. It’s one of the most amazing responses in all the Bible. Verse 28. He doesn’t say, “You’re alive!” He says, “My Lord and my God!” He went from doubt to declaration in a heartbeat. It’s one of the boldest, clearest statements of Christ’s divinity anywhere in the Bible. Somebody knocks on your door and says, “No, no, no. Jesus was the first created being. He was like God. He was a Son of God, but He really wasn’t fully God.” And somebody wants to get to you in the greed of John chapter 1 and you don’t know any Greek. Well, go to chapter 20. Thomas calls him “my God.”

Why this explosion of faith? Well, you imagine he’s been stewing on this for a week, maybe going back and forth in his mind what to think, what his friends have said and what he saw from Jesus, but his disappointment and he is trying to make sense of what’s right and wrong and what do I do with the last three years of my life?

Have you ever wrestled with faith like that? Have you ever been in the spot where Thomas is? Maybe you’re in the middle of it right now or someone you love and you’re praying for is. And the pendulum swings can be very violent. You’re not resting in some middle ground. You’re not sure where to land. And you’re swinging from this is everything I’ve always wanted to I can’t possibly believe this anymore. And in one sense it’s good that you don’t want to be resting in some safe, easy place, that you realize you’ve be all in or all out with Jesus.

Thomas realized that. No, no, no, He’s a fraud and He’s dead or He’s my Lord and He’s my God. And so he has, when he sees the wounds and Christ in person, an explosion of faith.

Perhaps he was remembering what he had seen and heard in previous occasions. There are two other mentions of Thomas in the gospel of John. Just look at them real quickly. One is back in John 11, verse 16, at the death of Lazarus: “So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, let us also go that we may die with Him.” Because Jesus had said “let us go to him, let us go to Lazarus.” So Thomas maybe in that moment is realizing, “Okay, I didn’t think he was going to raise Lazarus, I thought we were going to go die with Him. I was wrong about Lazarus; could I be wrong about Jesus? ”

And the other time that Thomas is mentioned is in John 14, verse 5: “Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?'” That’s where Jesus says, famously, “I am the way.” He said that seeing Him is seeing the Father, and Thomas is scratching his head, saying “I don’t know how we get there.”

Two times that we have Thomas in John’s Gospel and two times he ventures out in a moment of boldness, and he gets it wrong. Sometimes that’s why you doubt. You know, you’ve been embarrassed twice already. “We’re going to go to die with Lazarus,” and then a few days later, “Oh, Lazarus lives. I got that one wrong.” “Um, I’m going to the Father.” “Well, we don’t know the way you’re going.” “I am the way.” And then He dies. “Well, I got that one wrong.” It maybe makes Thomas a little gun-shy, a little jittery. “No, no, no. I’m not going to take this step of faith one more time and get this wrong.”

But now, he can’t not believe. All this ruminating, remembering, finally bursts, explodes, on the side of faith. “My Lord and my God.” What a difference the resurrection makes. “You’re Lord, Messiah, King, Ruler, Judge, and you’re God, one with the Father just like You said. You told me that in seeing You we would see the Father, and now I know it, I believe it.”

And isn’t it striking that John’s Gospel, the bookends here. Think of chapter 21 as an epilogue, that chapter 1 then chapter 20 ends with some of the Gospel’s clearest declaration of the divinity of Christ. John 1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And then the bookend of that is Thomas’ declaration, just what we saw in the majestic prologue: “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas has gone from a waffler to a worshiper. From a skeptical man to a surprised man, to a saved man. And then last, let’s see from a skeptical man to a saved man, and now to a sign to other men, to men and women.

Let me explain what I mean. The story ends in an unexpected way. It’s not how Hollywood would have probably written the script. Thomas makes the profession, he says “My Lord and my God” and then Jesus should respond and say “My child, my disciple” and they should give a great big hug and the disciples gather around and maybe they sing A Friend’s a Friend Forever and they, you know, they, and then they put Thomas on his shoulders and then maybe Jesus gives him little noogies and a little, you know, bear hug, and then ahh, what a happy ending.

That’s not how it goes. Jesus fires back with a question: “Have you believed because you have seen Me?” Verse 29. “Blessed are those who have not seen Me and yet believe.” I mean, Jesus asks the question: Have you, do you believe in Me because of what you’ve seen? The obvious answer is “Uh, yeah. I didn’t believe a minute ago, and then I just put my finger in Your nail-marked hands and my hand in Your spear-pierced side, yeah, I believe.”

But Jesus has a bigger point to make. If the story ended, if the Gospel ended with Thomas believing, the whole room rejoicing, going out on a great victory parade, we’d be moved for a second, and then we’d think, “Oh, wait a minute. But I haven’t seen that. Huh. Well, good for Thomas, but I’ve never seen the resurrected Christ. I’ve never put my finger in His hand. Yeah, maybe I’m right to doubt. Thomas doubted and he got the best proof imaginable. So maybe I shouldn’t believe.”

Do you see how if the story ended like we might think, it would actually be much worse for us, and it would mitigate the point that Jesus is trying to make. Jesus says, “Yes, I know, you’ve believed because you’ve seen.” And He’s not criticizing Thomas for that, praise the Lord. But then He needs to say another word, “Blessed are those,” because He anticipates He’s not going to be here forever. In fact, He’s not going to be here much longer. He’s going to ascend to heaven, He’s going to send the Spirit, and John is recording this because everyone who’s, virtually everyone who’s probably hearing this Gospel story, they were not eyewitnesses. They didn’t see.

So Jesus says, very wisely, and John records very shrewdly, by the Holy Spirit, “Blessed are those who don’t see what you see.” That’s every single one of us, in this room, in your room. We haven’t seen it. But Jesus says “Blessed are you when you believe, even though you haven’t seen, because you believe on the testimony of those who have.”

That’s what Jesus is doing. Looking ahead to the time, very soon after this event, when faith in Him would not be based on first-hand encounters with Jesus. It would be based on the Spirit-given testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ.

But Jesus does not promise that you’re going to get to put your hand in His side. He doesn’t promise that you will get to shake His hand. In fact, He says you won’t. I mean, Jesus, it was a resurrected body, it was transformed, but it’s a body nonetheless, and for Jesus to be with all His people in a body He needs to go to heaven so He can send the Spirit. He said that several times – it’s better that I go away because then the Holy Spirit, another comforter, can come and be with you. It won’t be limited to one time, one place.

So faith now comes by hearing. Thomas is the transition point between sight and testimony. Thomas saw, and Jesus said that’s great, blessed are those for the next millennia to come who won’t see but they’ll hear.

In chapter 20 Jesus appears to Mary, then to the disciples, then to Thomas, and they all believed because they saw. But now their testimony of seeing will be the sign for our believing. That’s why we move right from the story of Thomas into the purpose of this book – Jesus did many other signs. Okay, I can’t even tell you all the signs that He did, but these are written so you may believe, because there’s coming a time when you won’t see the signs, you won’t have first-hand account of these signs, but you will believe upon the evidence of those who saw them.

The Bible calls us to faith. It does not call us to a silly irrational faith; that’s not what faith is. We are supposed to conclude from the New Testament that there are many good reasons for believing in the resurrection. This isn’t just a, you know, some gold plates dropped out of heaven and said “here, go believe.” This is based on good evidence – He appeared to Peter, He appeared to the disciples, He appeared to more than 500 people at one time, He appeared to Paul. This did not happen in a corner, Paul says in Acts. This wasn’t just, this wasn’t one person’s dream they had, it wasn’t one person who just came from the mountain or had some ecstatic experience and said “you’re never going to believe what happened to me” and everyone says “you’re right, we don’t believe what happened to you.” No, this happened to people in numbers, in large numbers, in public, and you have all the signs of the miracles that have been recorded, passed down by eyewitnesses.

And the story of doubting Thomas is another one of those signs, and it’s not the sort of story that you would make up, if you’re the disciples, that one of your band of brothers here, who’s so skeptical he couldn’t believe until he could put his hand into Jesus’ side.

So I said at the beginning that this story is about change even more than it’s about doubt. Thomas moved from a doubting skeptic to a man worshiping and saved to a sign of the veracity of the resurrection itself. That’s the progression, and at the heart of it is that move from no faith to faith. Jesus gave him a command in verse 27: Do not disbelieve, but believe. And I just wonder, surely this has to be landing on somebody in some room, in some kitchen, somewhere, listening to this live or sometime after this, who says “that’s me, I’m on the side and I don’t believe.” And Jesus says to you, “Do not disbelieve, believe. Have faith.” He’s not telling you muster up the willpower, He’s saying “Can you trust this book? Can you trust this evidence? Can you trust that this is exactly what I said I would do? That I would die, that I would be raised, that I would go to heaven, that I’d send the Spirit. He would come upon the disciples, He would empower them and equip them and lead them into all truth and inspire them to write down these things. Don’t disbelieve.”

The Bible shows us that doubt is real, even for followers of Jesus. Jude 22 tells us have mercy on those who doubt. So on the one hand doubt’s not an unforgivable sin. Doubt is for many reasons, have mercy on those who doubt. And on the other hand, the Bible we must recognize never applauds doubt. Sometimes you get people, even Christians, who talk that way and it sounds so spiritual. You know, “you know, I really, I doubt, that Jesus loves that I’m doubting and I’m a skeptic and that’s how raw and authentic and real.” Oh, come on. That’s garbage. Have mercy on those who doubt. We don’t celebrate doubt.

There’s all sorts of things we don’t understand, we get that. But we like to wax eloquent about the beauty and authenticity and the value of doubt, but Jesus does not want you to stay there. When Jude says “have mercy on those who doubt,” that’s a good word of grace to anyone who’s struggling, skeptical at the moment. But the fact that it says “have mercy” rather than “throw a parade for” means let’s, let’s help this person not to stay there.

You know what’s true, Jesus says to Thomas, and He is saying to some of you. You’ve heard it before. There have been signs, there have been wonders. You know it, you were taught it. It’s been written down that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.

And let’s note what faith means here, because there may be a whole bunch of you watching this who say, “Yep, check that off, I believe Jesus, yep, God, got it. Yep, resurrected. Yep, got it.”

But don’t miss the personal pronouns. Twice Thomas uses the word “My Lord, My God” because there are a lot of people and a lot of churches who have no problem saying “Yep, Jesus is Lord. Yep, got that, believe it, got it. Jesus is God. Sure, yep, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Is He your Lord? Is He your God? Can you claim Him? Does He claim you? Are you, is there anything in your life that would lead people to conclude not just that Jesus is Lord and God, but He’s Lord of your life and the God over your life? Are we living out what we profess? Would anyone think from our habits, our speech, our desires, our hearts, that Jesus has risen from the dead and that He’s Lord and God, and your Lord and your God?

Jesus wants you to hear and He wants you to believe. Do not disbelieve, but believe.

Let’s pray. Gracious heavenly Father, we give thanks for this, Your Holy Word, which leads us to Your Holy Son, and we pray that You would give us the gift of faith to believe. Have mercy on anyone listening to this with doubt, honest doubts, real struggles, real honest hurts, questions. May we be patient, kind, tender, gentle. We pray, Lord, that You would lead us to safer ground, to firmer ground. Show us Christ and may we hear of this Christ and convince us. May we know, like sheep hearing His voice, that He is Lord and He is God. We pray in His name. Amen.