It’s one of my favourite paintings, and as far as I know one of the best known of Caravaggio’s many masterpieces: Doubting Thomas. Jesus is revealing the wound in His side, with an expression of patient endurance, with perhaps a tinge of pain. Thomas has his forefinger in the wound, with a look of utter astonishment painted with perfect realism on his face, while two other disciples look on. Caravaggio captures with extraordinary skill the moment of belief, when Thomas is forced to believe against all his better knowledge what the other disciples had already told him: Jesus really is alive. But he would carry forever the title of Doubting Thomas, because it is more blessed to believe when you haven’t seen, yet he only believed when he saw.
But as I have often said, the epithet ‘Doubting’ is not really fair on Thomas. It makes it sound like he is somehow inferior to the other disciples, a lesser apostle, perhaps even a deficient sort of man. There are those good people who believe without seeing, and then there are the thomases who need evidence. When in reality he wasn’t Doubting Thomas but Everyman Thomas. He really believed, as we really believe, that seeing is believing. That, if in doubt, you need to verify what you hear with the other four senses.
Now, this may be a sound principle in some situations, but it makes for very poor theologians—and under that heading, I include all who claim to know anything about God. Indeed, the very misery of mankind for which Christ died and rose again began with seeing as the instrument of believing. God had said to Adam that he may eat of every tree in the garden, but on the day that he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would surely die. But because the snake promised Eve that her eyes would be opened by the eating, Eve looked at the tree and she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate”.
The world came into being by the Word. Sin came into the world through seeing. And the world has been desiring to see ever since. Because their ears were shut to the word of God, people used to make idols, graven images, of their imaginings in order to see their gods. And when at length it has become evident to increasing numbers of such people that such gods are absurd, rather than listen out for the voice of their Creator, they cast their eyes on other visible, tangible gods. Anything but the audible truth, the voice of the Good Shepherd.
And this terrible desire to look and see has taken a terrible grip on the Church, too. Especially since the Roman empire made Christianity into the official religion of the state in the fourth century, much of the Church has been gripped by the idolatry of size and prestige: that somehow the Church ought to be numerous and have influence over the affairs of wider society.
Now of course every Christian desires that as many as possible come to faith, and that all people live according to God’s commandments. Indeed, Scripture makes it very clear that God Himself desires these things above all things. However, size and prestige are not things God has called the Church or her members to focus on. Jesus did not send the apostles into all the world to make a large church and to exercise much influence. He sent them to make disciples by baptising all nations and teaching them to keep all that He had commanded them. The end result may look similar: many disciples in all nations, and much obedience to God’s word, but the two processes are very different indeed.
To illustrate the difference, the Holy Spirit has given us the account of Thomas’ conversion from unbelief to belief.
Thomas would not believe in the resurrection because, unlike the other surviving disciples, he had not seen Jesus. However, his unbelief was not unique. The other disciples hadn’t believed before they saw, either. Peter and John heard the report of the women, but rather than rejoice, they ran to the tomb to verify the report, and then were left puzzled until they saw Jesus in the flesh. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus had heard the report of Jesus’ resurrection, but were left in sadness and bewilderment until they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread. On the night of the first Easter Sunday, when Jesus entered the upper room, John tells us pointedly that Jesus first showed the disciples His hands and His side. “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Then, but not before. It was Thomas’ bad luck not to be there at the time and so to remain in unbelief a little longer than the others. Just as the others hadn’t believed until they saw, neither did Thomas.
Or did he? Much as I love Caravaggio’s depiction of Thomas’ moment of faith, it seems that the artist indulged in a little artistic licence at the disciple’s expense. John tells us that Thomas would not believe unless he placed his hands in Jesus’ wounds. We hear of Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to place his hand in the wounds in His hands and side. But rather than accepting Jesus’ invitation and stretching out his hand as Caravaggio would have us think, Thomas only speaks. He makes the most powerful confession of faith of all the witnesses of the resurrection: “My Lord and my God! ” He may have been the last to believe in Jesus, but he is the first to call Him by His proper title. But not only does Thomas recognise who Jesus is in Himself, but He recognises who Jesus is for him: “My Lord and my God.”
But what was it that elicited Thomas’ confession of faith in his Lord and God? No doubt the sight of Jesus had much to do with it. Seeing Jesus, Thomas ceased disbelieving the reports of the resurrection. But seeing alone doesn’t explain his sudden faith. The normal reaction to seeing a man you have seen dead and buried isn’t joy but fear, not faith but dismay.
This is why is such folly when people claim that if only they could see God, they would believe. If only Jesus appeared to them, they would commit to Him. If an unbeliever sees God, he will not come away a believer but either dead or out of his mind. It’s a terrible thing when a sinner comes face to face with the living God. Even while Jesus before His death and resurrection, when Jesus lifted the veil a little on His glory by walking on water or calming the storm, the eye-witnesses reacted in the same way every time: they were filled with fear.
No, it isn’t the mere vision of Jesus that gave Thomas faith and filled his heart with joy, just as it hadn’t been the mere vision of Jesus that had made the other ten glad the previous Sunday: it was the voice of Jesus addressing them. The very reason they had been unbelievers all along was that they had navigated by sight. They had seen the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. They had seen the end of what they had hoped for. And having seen, they had believed what they saw—death and despair.
True, they had seen the wonders and signs that Jesus had performed, but seeing Jesus’ power had either frightened them or merely encouraged their mistaken belief in the visible coming of God’s kingdom. They had seen so much that they had failed to hear.
No, seeing hadn’t been very helpful to them, because their eyes had stopped their ears. But now, having had their false hopes and mistaken beliefs stripped away by the cross of Jesus, they were able to believe in Him because they heard His voice. They recognised the risen Jesus and began to understand who He really was: not only Jesus of Nazareth, the great prophet and healer, but Jesus, their Lord and their God, the conqueror of death itself.
Such faith is the privilege of the ears only. So far from our eyes having the right to veto what our ears hear, our eyes are allowed to see only what our ears have told them. Ezekiel saw dry bones, nothing but death beyond redemption. But the Lord commanded him to speak to the bones. The prophet ignored what he saw, obeyed what he heard, and spoke; and through these words of God, life returned to that which was beyond resuscitation. Israel was dead through its sin, yet God spoke it alive.
In the same way, Jesus spoke life into the visibly dead daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain and even putrefied Lazarus, whose death was evident to noses as well as eyes. Jesus spoke the wind and the waves into submission, the demons into flight, sight to blind eyes, hearing to deaf ears, strength to palsied limbs. Hearing him, the dead came to life, nature did as He bid it, demons fled, all manner of sickness and weakness gave way.
Even today, to plain eyes, Jesus is the man of sorrows: the puzzling rabbi whose lofty ideas may inspire but will never succeed in this world. The Messiah whose disciples are still pitied and ridiculed and scorned in equal measure as they were once in Palestine. The Lord of a church that has its moments but whose time seems to be hopelessly in the past, or among the poor and under-educated of the third world and some brave or foolish hangers-on left in the West.
But when the voice of Jesus speaks, everything changes. Water and blood become instruments of the Spirit of God; the harassed little flock becomes the victorious world-beater; the valley of the shadow of death becomes the vestibule of God’s everlasting kingdom. Death becomes life, sorrow becomes joy, doubt becomes faith.
All because Jesus lives, and living, He speaks. As the Father once spoke the world into existence through His Son, so the Son now speaks what He has received from the Father into the ears of God’s elect—and through the ears, into their hearts. Hearing the voice of Jesus, water becomes the washing of new birth; bread and wine become the life-giving, risen body and blood of Jesus; the sinner becomes righteous; the enemy of God becomes the beloved child; the unbeliever becomes a believer. And believing, he sees everything anew.
Some may call it blind faith, but it is in fact its very opposite: hearing the voice of Jesus, your eyes are opened and for the first time you will see Him as He is—and seeing Him as He is, everything else is also restored. What was put out of place in the garden by the disobedient use of the eyes is being restored through the death and resurrection of Christ. By dying, He brought to an end the power of sin and death, and through His resurrection, He began the work of new creation where everything will once more be beautiful to behold.
That new creation is here amongst us, in the very smallness and unsightliness of our gathering. It is in the new life that He has created by the washing of new birth in you. It is in the food of the new creation that He is about to place on this altar before us. And it is in the voice of Jesus that He is speaking to you here and now: “blessed are you who have not seen yet have believed! ”
Like newborn infants, then, long for the pure spiritual milk of the Word that is powerful to sustain you. Open your mouth and Jesus will fill it, and with honey from the rock of His pierced side He will satisfy you, until at the last He will bring us into His kingdom where our eyes will be fully restored and we will behold Him with our own eyes for all eternity.
In the name of ✠ Jesus.