Entering the Crucible of Unbelief: Jesus and Our Doubt

Sermon by David Felker on March 25, 2018

John 20:24-29

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Please turn with me in your Bibles to John chapter 20. John chapter 20. The passage is on page 907 in the church Bible in front of you. And before we jump in and read, something to consider. We have been in a mini-series on Sunday nights these last few weeks looking at Entering Into the Crucible of Unbelief. And we’ve said that we all have things that keep us from coming to Jesus. And so tonight, we’re in John chapter 20. We’re looking at Jesus and our doubt.


Well her name was Annie. She was just a child, ten years old. Her father, Charles, was kneeling beside her bed. Charles had lost his wife, Emma, years before. Emma had been a devout Christian, but this was much harder for Charles. He hadn’t been able to work. His research, his papers on hold, because he was there. He was there day after day after day at Annie’s bed, listening to his little girl laboring to breathe. And he said, he said later that this incident, this incident pushed him over the edge of grief. It was to shape his life, it was to shape his thought, more than any other event. His name – Charles Darwin. You see, it wasn’t first his science, it wasn’t first his science that undermined his faith in God. It was first his experience. It was first his experience that undermined his faith in God. It was personal for him. It’s always personal.


And each of us carries into this room tonight very personal questions. “Are you even there, God? Can I trust You, God? Why would You just take her away like that? And do You even answer my prayers?” I think we know what it’s like to doubt. We know what it’s like to have questions because of tears, because of confusion, because of shattered dreams. We know what it’s like to doubt. And that’s why I am so fond of John chapter 20. That’s why I’m so fond of Thomas. And that’s who I want to talk to you about tonight. Because even at that first Easter, even at that first Easter, there was someone who found the story hard to swallow. And so our million dollar question tonight – “How does God treat doubters like Thomas?” and “How does God treat doubters like us?” And I am so grateful that this story is in the Bible. I’m so grateful that Thomas’ doubts are here for us to see; his real confusion, his real heart, his real questions. I am so grateful that they’re here for us, but more than that, more than that I’m grateful for the way Jesus responds. I’m grateful for the gentleness with which Jesus responds to Thomas’ doubts and the patience that He provides for Thomas, the peace that He gives to Thomas in this true and beautiful story – John chapter 20.


So let’s pray before we jump in and read. Let’s pray.


Our great God and heavenly Father, we are here tonight, some of us honestly and sincerely want to believe, but we doubt that this prayer is being heard by anyone. And so help us tonight to cling to this simple truth. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, they are weak, Father, we are weak tonight, but You are strong. And so would You show us that now? We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.


John chapter 20, beginning in verse 24:


“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.’”


Amen. This is God’s Word.


Tonight, we’re going to look at Jesus and our doubt and here’s what I want to do. First, we’re going to do an analysis of John chapter 20. We’re simply going to look at the story. And so what is the story of John chapter 20, first. Then second, we’ll look at the road. We’ll look at the road John 20 provides for us through our doubt. If you’re here and you are doubting tonight, there’s no blue pill, there’s no quick fix, but there’s a road. There’s a road through doubt. We’re going to see the road John 20 provides for us through our doubts.


The Story

And so first, what is happening here? What is the story of John chapter 20? Let’s look together at the text; a couple of things. Beginning in chapter 20, Jesus, we see this, He’s been crucified, buried. We see at the beginning of chapter 20, resurrected. We see then that He’s appeared to His disciples and His friends. And sometime in the week following Jesus’ resurrection, this conversation between Thomas and the other disciples takes place. Verse 25, “The disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the marks of the nails and place my finger into the marks of the nails and place my hand in his side, I will never believe.’” And so there's a lot riding on Jesus' appearance to Thomas. At first glance, it appears that if Jesus doesn't show up, Thomas will never believe. That's what he says. He says, "I will never believe." Now, of course it's possible that Thomas could come to believe the same way that you and I believe – to believe without seeing. But we'll never know. But one thing is certain. If Thomas hadn't seen, if he hadn't seen a resurrected Jesus, he would have never been an apostle. We see this in Acts chapter 1 verse 22 and we see this in the first three verses of 1 John chapter 1. That to be an apostle is to be a witness to the resurrection. 


Okay, let’s keep going. Another thing here, these verses are the verses that sparked Thomas’ nickname. As far as we know, the apostles didn’t have nicknames. John was known as the disciple whom Jesus loved. Simon got a brand-new name – Peter. But Thomas had two. Thomas is the exception. He had two nicknames. The first one we see here. He’s known at Thomas Didymus, the Twin. That’s got to be hard on your ego; just, you’re a twin. You’re known simply as “the Twin.” We’re not sure what the other twin’s name is. We think it’s Eddie. That’s just a joke! We don’t know his name! But his second nickname – Doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas, which has become so much a part of our lexicon these days that anyone these days that’s skeptical about anything is in danger of being called “Doubting Thomas.” I’m so thankful that John goes out of his way to remind us, verse 24, that Thomas was “one of the twelve.” So Thomas was one of the twelve, which means that he followed Jesus for three years. He had seen Jesus. He had heard Jesus. In fact, this is fascinating to me, in John chapter 11, in John chapter 11, Thomas, Thomas said, “Let’s go die with Jesus.” You know who they were going to see when they said that? They were going to see a resurrection. So this is Thomas in chapter 11 – “Let’s go die with Jesus” – and he sees a resurrection. He sees Jesus raise His friend, Lazarus, from the dead. He sees Jesus defeat death. And then Thomas, in chapter 20, “Unless I can place my hand in his side, I will never believe.”


Universality of Doubt

And, maybe it's just me, if I were an actor and had to read into Thomas' voice – what tone? You know, if you were an actor and you're given this line – you know, what's the tone? “Unless I can place my hand in his side, I’ll never believe. I’ll never believe.” I think that’s anger. Or maybe disappointment. And that resonates with me. That’s familiar to me. If that’s not you, that’s someone you know. Doubt is universal. Maybe you’re here tonight and you doubt your faith. “I don’t have the right kind of faith. I don’t have enough faith.” And so you’re questioning the quality or the quantity of your faith. Or maybe you’re doubting because you don’t see change in your life and so you would say, “Well, I’m not changing. I’m not growing. I’m still stuck in the same addictions, in the same patterns. I still have the same loves that are killing me. This can’t be true.” Or maybe, maybe you doubt because, like Charles Darwin, you doubt because of suffering in your life. Doubt often accompanies periods of suffering. And so whatever your story, you might hide your doubts, you might stuff them, but we all have them. Doubt is universal. Doubting Thomas – “Unless I can place my hand in his side, I will never believe.”


Balanced View of Doubt

I want you to see that the Bible is so balanced when it comes to doubt. It doesn’t, on the one hand, it doesn’t praise or prize doubt. It doesn’t praise or prize doubt as the hallmark of intellectual integrity like our culture does. So, on the one hand, the Bible doesn't praise doubt. But, on the other hand, it doesn't demonize doubt as the church can be prone to do. The skeleton in the closet of faith. The Bible is honest, refreshingly honest, about how prevalent doubt can be even among the faithful. And so in Matthew chapter 11, John the Baptist – the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, the forerunner of Jesus, the one created by God to announce the coming of Jesus – the Scriptures say that John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb when he first came into Jesus’ presence. The first time he lays eyes on Jesus he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He later says, “I’m unworthy to untie his sandals.” John the Baptist baptized Jesus. I’m a preacher. I’ve baptized some cool kids. This the pastoral trump card. John the Baptist baptized Jesus! And in Matthew chapter 11, Jesus says of John the Baptist, Matthew chapter 11, verse 11, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of woman there has arisen no one greater.” No one greater than John the Baptist. That’s quite an endorsement. The greatest born of woman, Jesus says.


John the Baptist’s Doubt

But chapter 11 opens with John sitting in prison. Listen to what he says just a few verses before verse 11. This is Matthew chapter 11 verse 3. John the Baptist, he’s in prison and he says to Jesus’ disciples, verse 3, “Go and ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one? Are you the one, or shall we look for another?’” And so he’s looking out the bars of his prison cell and he says – this is John the Baptist – “Go to Jesus and ask him, ‘Are you the one?’” And Jesus, I mean this is amazing, after all of that – he leapt in his mother’s womb, he saw Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” – after all of that, Jesus doesn’t scold him, Jesus doesn’t shame him. He doesn’t say, “After all that you’ve seen!” Jesus says to the disciples, “Go tell John, go tell John what you see and what you hear.” And so doubt, from the greatest born of woman.


Jesus Gives What Thomas Needs

And so if that’s how you feel this evening, you are in great company, even the greatest. “Unless I can place my hand in his side I will never believe.” That seems about right to me. I think we feel, each of us feels some kinship to Thomas. And if you read the text carefully, we actually don’t know if Thomas took Jesus up on His offer and touched Jesus’ hands and side. We don’t know. But what we do know is that Jesus appears in their midst and gives to Thomas what he needs. And He addresses Thomas precisely where his doubts are. And He says to Thomas, verse 27, “Put your finger here. See My hands? Put out your hands and place it in My side.” And so Jesus’ response is so telling about how the Bible views doubt. Jesus doesn’t come and shame him. Jesus doesn’t come and scold Him. Jesus doesn’t come and condemn him. Jesus doesn’t come and bring the hammer. Jesus comes and says, “Peace.” And He undoes the top of His robe and He moves His arm out of the way and He says, “See My scars. Don’t disbelieve, but believe.”


Greatest Doubter becomes Greatest Believer

And here's why Thomas' nickname, "Doubting Thomas," is so utterly undeserved. You see, throughout the gospel of John, Jesus regularly, Jesus repeatedly says extraordinary things about Himself. Back in chapter 8, He said, "If you have seen me, if you have seen me, you have seen God." In chapter 14, He says, "If you know me, you know the Father." And so Jesus plainly, Jesus regularly, Jesus repeatedly claimed to be God. Thomas is one of the only ones in the gospel of John to call Jesus, “God.” If you look in verse 28 you notice Thomas doesn’t just say, “Now that I see You, I believe that You are resurrected. Now that I see You, I see that You are correct. You are God.” In verse 28, he says these necessary, these beautiful pronouns, these necessary pronouns for us. He says, “My Lord, My Lord and My God!” One commentator said that is “the highest statement of belief in the gospels.” That’s the highest statement of belief in the gospels. And so Thomas, chapter 11, “Let’s go die with Him,” chapter 20, “Unless I place my hand in his side, I will never believe,” Thomas was a conflicted man. And so are we. We are conflicted men and women. Thomas was a conflicted man. Thomas was a conflicted man but he was a man of real faith. “My Lord and My God!” So that’s the story of John chapter 20. The greatest doubter, Doubting Thomas, the greatest doubter becomes the greatest believer – the highest statement of belief in the gospels. That’s the story of John chapter 20. That’s the first thing.


The Road Through Doubt

Second, I want you to see that there is a road here. There is a road through doubt. If you’re here tonight and you feel abandoned and you feel alone and you feel afraid and you feel like Thomas, “I don’t buy this,” you’re abandoned, alone, and afraid and you don’t buy this, what do you do tonight? John chapter 20 provides a road through doubt. A couple of things here. First of all, look again in verse 25. The ESV simply says, “The other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” Now I am not a Greek scholar, but I can look things up. And when I look this up I find that the verb tense is not the past tense; it’s not simply saying, “They told him.” It’s past-progressive. It’s “They kept on telling him. They kept on telling him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” And so Thomas had questions about God but he didn’t give up on God. Instead, he brought those questions, he brought his doubt into the presence of God’s people.


Keep Coming

You know if you’re like me, it feels dirty to doubt in church. It feels like it lacks integrity or it lacks character to show up when you’re cold or to show up when you’re in a funk. That feels dirty. And it feels like you’re playing a game or pretending. But we, like Thomas, need to be in the presence of God’s people, experiencing the means of grace – His Word, His sacraments, His people – even as we doubt. Even as we doubt. Church is the best place to doubt. And this is the reason why. Because of the conflict. Church is the best place to doubt because of the conflict. You come and you sing and you listen and you pray to the God that we cannot see. We cannot see God. And we wonder, we cannot see His face and we wonder about the goodness of that face. “Is that a good face?” And we come and we sing and we listen and we pray and we hold on and we feel the collision in our heart.


Here’s the collision – “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Doubt, we need to come to the church, church is the best place to doubt because of that collision – “I believe. Help my unbelief.” And you hold on and you keep holding on because the effectiveness of the means of grace in your life and in your heart, the effectiveness of His Word and His sacraments, the effectiveness of His means of grace in your life do not depend on the level of certainty that you have. The effectiveness of them do not depend on your level of certainty. And so you hold on and you keep holding on because God shows up and God works in the places where He has promised to show up and to work. And so you come and you keep coming. Doubters welcome. That’s the first thing we need to see on this road. The other disciples told him, they kept on telling him, “We have seen the Lord.”


God’s Patience in Our Doubt

The second thing we need to see, we need to see how patient God has been with us in our doubt. How patient God has been with us in our doubt. Did you notice verse 26, when Jesus shows up and He comes into their midst, He doesn’t say, “Hello.” You know, He doesn’t say what I would say as the middle child, He doesn’t say, “I told you!” Right? He doesn’t say that. What does He say? He comes in and He says, “Peace.” He says, “Shalom. Wholeness.” And how did Jesus know, then, what Thomas had been saying? Had the disciples told Jesus? Had they said, “Jesus, he’s been saying unless he sees You, unless he touches you…” Maybe. Maybe that’s what happened. A lot of people say not. A lot of people say that’s unlikely. Either way, Thomas is amazed here because he’s exposed. Thomas is exposed. Jesus knows every bit of confusion. Jesus knows every bit of anxiety. Jesus knows all the questions. Jesus has heard his doubts. Jesus has felt his fears. And here He is.


And so do you see the patience and the character of Jesus Christ? Jesus knows your doubts and He meets you where you are with His peace. Jesus knows your doubts and He meets you where you are with His peace. Will you see Jesus tonight? Will you look to Him? Will you see the patience and the peace that He provides for His people? Here in John chapter 20, Thomas sees this in Jesus, it melts his heart, and so we need to come and we need to keep coming. We need to see the patience of Jesus.


Need to Reach

And then third and last of all, and I think most important, you need to reach. You need to feel for the wounded hand of Jesus. You need to reach and feel for His wounded hands. If you have ever been in a dark space, a cave or a room, and the terrain in front of you is very unfamiliar, perhaps dangerous, you do not know what’s ahead of you, it’s dark, and you are afraid. And when you’re in the dark, what do you instinctively do? You reach. And you pray that there will be someone in front of you that you trust that will take your hand and guide you. I don’t know if you’ve ever prayed that prayer in the midst of your doubt. You know, “I feel abandoned. I feel alone. I feel in the dark. I don’t know the way forward.” What do you do? You reach for the wounded hands of Jesus. Doubt is a serious thing. It’s so serious that Jesus descended into that darkness. God judges Himself on the cross in our place in Christ. That’s where God shows us His face. The God we cannot see – we wonder sometimes about the goodness of that face. Is it a good face? We wonder about that face. “How can I know, God, that it’s a good face?” You look to Calvary. You look to the cross. When you doubt, when you can’t see, when you’re in the dark, you always look there. That is God’s face – Jesus. And you reach, you reach for His wounded hands.


Jesus says, verse 27, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Will you believe tonight? If you’re here tonight and you would say, “I kind of do believe and I kind of don’t. I’ve tried to walk this road. I’m holding on. I’m coming and I keep coming. I’m trying to see the patience of Jesus with me in my doubts. I’m trying to reach for Jesus, but I kind of believe and I kind of don’t and I don’t know if it’s been enough” – how do you know if it’s been enough? Let me close with this.


I pick up almost every year an old book written many years ago by Horatius Bonar called, The Everlasting Righteousness. And let me just kind of set the stage for what’s going on in this section. He says: What would you say to an Israelite – if you’re standing there, thousands of years ago, and you’re ready to sacrifice your lamb and you see an Israelite go and do all of the necessary things to atone for his sin. And so he brings the sacrifice, he puts his hand on it, he sacrifices it, he gives it to the priest, the priest puts it on the altar – What would you say if you saw that Israelite going home and questioning? Going home saying, “I don’t know if I did it right? I don’t know if I touched it right? I don’t know if I cut it right?” I mean, just worried and doubting about his performance of the sacrifice. And this is what he says. “What should we have said to the Israelite who should puzzle himself with questions as to the right mode of laying his hands on the head of the victim, and who should refuse to take any comfort from the sacrifice because he was not sure whether he had laid them right – on the proper place, in the right direction, with adequate pressure, or in the best attitude – should we not have told him that his own actions concerning the lamb were not the lamb? And yet, he was speaking as if they were. Should we not have told him that the lamb was everything and his touch was nothing as to virtue or merit? Should we not have told him to be of good cheer?”


The point for him to settle was not, “Was my touch right or wrong, light or heavy?” The point for us to settle tonight is not, “Was my touch right or wrong, light or heavy?” but “Was it the touch of the right Lamb?” The Lamb appointed by God for the taking away of sin. Will you say tonight, “My Lord and my God”? You know I’m restless. Sometimes my heart gets restless and I know yours does too. And I need to hear Jesus say, over and over and over again, “Peace. Peace. Doubt no more. Only believe.”


And “Amen” means, “It is true.” And Amen. Let’s pray together.


Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief. Convince us and may our confidence rest tonight on the faithfulness of Jesus. Give us confidence to work through our doubts knowing that You will not reject us but that You will show us Your wounds and grant us peace. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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