It was the evening of the Resurrection Sunday. The apostles, fearing the Jews, had locked themselves up in a room (John 20:19a). They had good reasons to be afraid. Not only had their leader been crucified a couple days before; earlier that Sunday His body had gone missing and they were accused of stealing it (Matthew 28:11-15). So the disciples stuck together in hiding. All but one. Thomas was not with them (John 20:24).
Thomas is a fairly obscure character of whom we know only a little—mostly from the story of Lazarus’ resurrection in John 11. When Jesus decided to visit His dead friend two days after being called by his sisters, the disciples opposed Him going. They reminded Him that during His last trip to Judea the Jews had tried to stone Him (John 11:8). They wanted to keep Jesus safe and alive. Yet not all disciples opposed Jesus. Thomas supported Him. He even encouraged the others to join Him at the risk of their own lives: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16). Thomas, apparently, was not afraid of the Jews, or of dying with Jesus. Perhaps that is also why he wasn’t with the others when they hid that evening of the Resurrection Sunday. Or perhaps he was missing for other reasons. But he wasn’t with the rest.
Jesus showed up in the midst of the anxious disciples with a greeting of peace (John 20:19). Then, He displayed His hands and His side. When the disciples saw the signs in His hands and side, they rejoiced that they saw the Lord. As the report of this encounter reached Thomas, he refused to believe unless he could see what they had seen—Jesus’ side and hands (John 20:25). He wanted tangible proof too—something he could see and touch.
Fast-forward eight days. The disciples are again locked up. Thomas, perhaps in expectation of his own experience, is now with them. Jesus shows up again with the same peace greeting and bids Thomas to touch His hands and side, rebuking him gently for his conditional belief. Thomas recognizes Jesus and is the first of the disciples to declare His divinity. The dialogue and event end with Jesus blessing “those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:24).
In the context of this story, the blessing has usually been seen as part of Jesus’ rebuke towards Thomas, who is often set apart from the other disciples as “the unbelieving.” But the ten did not believe without seeing either. In fact, if we corroborate the four gospels’ accounts and string together the events of that Sunday chronologically, we discover that no one believed without seeing. Three times Jesus is recorded to have appeared to various people on the Resurrection Sunday, and none of these recognized Him or believed it was Him until He revealed Himself to them.
First, we learn that early in the morning Mary Magdalene and other women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus with the spices they had prepared Friday before sundown (Luke 23:56). They found the tomb empty, but were comforted by the appearance of angels who told them Jesus had risen. Mary also saw Jesus, Whom she was ready as ever to worship. These women were the first group of people to believe that Jesus had risen. None of them, however, believed based on a human eyewitness account. They believed because they had seen angels and Jesus.
When, as commanded, the women told the disciples that Jesus was alive, “their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:1-11). Peter and John, however, decided to give it a shot and check things out for themselves, so they rushed to the tomb. Peter went in first and found Jesus’ burial clothes folded in an empty tomb. John went in second and “he saw and believed” (John 20:8). Only when seeing the linen cloth and folded handkerchief did Peter and John believe—not that Jesus had resurrected, but that His body was no longer in the tomb. The two went each to their homes, but as the bribed soldiers’ lies spread, they later reunited in hiding from the Jews.
That same Resurrection Sunday, after revealing Himself to Mary, Jesus joined Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus for a walk infused with powerful biblical teachings. Towards the evening, the disciples invited Jesus to lodge with them. As He blessed, broke, and shared the bread with His pierced hands, the two recognized Him (Luke 24:13-31). Yet they also believed only when seeing. They too had displayed disbelief of other’s testimonies. Cleopas and his companion had been among the disciples who heard and refused to believe the women’s account (Luke 24:22-24). Only when Jesus revealed Himself to them did they believe He had resurrected. Jesus vanished immediately, and the two walked seven miles back to Jerusalem after having just arrived at Emmaus. At the end of their journey (more than half a marathon!), they found the disciples together and told them the entire story, including how Jesus had revealed Himself to them “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:34).
The second wave of eyewitnesses found the disciples still plagued by skepticism. They believed neither Mary when she shared the news (Mark 16:11) nor the two disciples returning from Emmaus (Mark 16:12-13). In fact, even as Jesus appeared to them, they continued to be afflicted with disbelief, feeling “terrified and frightened and suppos[ing] they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:37). Jesus dispelled their doubts through personal revelation, though not without rebuking them. “Why are you troubled?” He asked. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:38-39). Mark also recounts that when Jesus appeared to the disciples, He “rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen” (Mark 16:14). Only when seeing Jesus for themselves did the disciples believe.
Apparently, then, Thomas was not without company in his unbelief. None of the closest followers of Jesus believed those who personally witnessed Him or His angels after the resurrection. Contrary to the way John’s account is often understood, Thomas was not the exception. He was the rule. He reacted the same way everyone else did when human eyewitnesses shared the news of Jesus’ resurrection. With this understanding, the blessing of Jesus takes on new meaning and becomes powerfully relevant to us today.
When it comes to belief in an invisible God, skepticism is a not unnatural response. Yet a blessing is to be claimed by those who believe without seeing, by those who trust the accounts of eyewitnesses. The disciples were such eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus. They too shared with others, millions and millions of others, what they had seen with their eyes, heard with their ears, and felt with their hands, or what they accepted as true from reliable eyewitnesses. Like many who lived after Jesus’ ascension, we, today, are called to believe without seeing. We are called to believe the words of the eyewitnesses recorded in the Bible.
The blessing Jesus uttered in John 20:29b is the blessing of choosing faith over doubt. It is a blessing anyone is free to claim, a blessing that leads us to cherish the Scriptures by virtue of their divine origins, and, through them, know and receive the Savior who lowered Himself in tangible form in search of us. Believing in a higher power is no small thing, but believing in the God revealed through divinely inspired Scriptures is a unique transforming journey that turns evil-bent beings into ever more selfless creatures as we know more intimately and imitate more persistently our lovely and loving Creator.
“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29b). If you believe without seeing, you are BLESSED.