Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Sermons on Biblical Characters, by Rev. Clovis G. Chappell, D.D. (published 1930).
“Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.” Did you notice the name of this man who was missing? Who was it when the little company met after the crucifixion that was not there? There was a man expected who failed to come. Who was this man? When the little company gathered in the upper room behind shut doors there was one chair that was vacant. Who should have occupied that chair?
Well, in the first place, it was not Judas. He was missing. He was not there, it is true, but he was not expected. Judas had already betrayed his Lord. Judas had already been whipped and scourged by his remorse of conscience clean out of the world. Judas had gone to his own place in the great Unseen Country. Judas was not there, but he was not expected to be there.
Who was the missing man? It was not Pilate. We no more expected Pilate than we expected Judas. Pilate had had his chance at Jesus. Pilate had had an opportunity of knowing, of befriending Him, of serving Him. But Pilate had allowed his own interests to get the better of his conscience. Pilate had chosen the friendship of Caesar and had spurned the friendship of the King Eternal. So we did not expect Pilate to be present in this little company of the friends of Jesus who met on the resurrection side of the cross. Who was the missing man? It was not Caiaphas. He, too, had stood in the presence of Jesus, but his envy had made him blind. And he shouted “Blasphemy!” so loud that he drowned the voice of his conscience and the gentle whisperings of the Spirit of God. No, it was not Caiaphas, nor any of the indifferent or hostile crowd that we miss in this meeting.
Then, who was this missing man? And we read the text again and we find his name was Thomas. That is a very familiar name. Oh, yes; we remember Thomas quite well. It was Thomas who was missing. Now, Thomas was expected, for he was a member of the little band of disciples. He was one of the Twelve. He belonged to the Inner Circle. His fellow Christians had a right therefore to expect him. Yet Thomas was not with them.
It is a sad day ever for any congregation when its own membership begin to absent themselves from its services. It is a sad day for any congregation when those who compose it can be counted on to be there at the social function, there at the place of business, but cannot be counted on when the interests of the Kingdom are at stake and when the Son of God goes forth to war. Believe me, no community ever loses respect for a congregation till that congregation loses respect for itself.
And did you notice when it was that Thomas was absent? “Thomas was not with them when Jesus came.” What an unfortunate time to be away! What a great calamity to have missed that service of all others! There was the little despondent, despairing company of ten meeting behind closed doors. They were sorrow-burdened and fear-filled. But Jesus came, and Thomas, the saddest and bitterest man of them all, was not there.
Of course he would have gone if he had had any idea what a wonderful service it was going to be. If he had even dreamed that Jesus would be there, of course he would not have missed it; but he expected the meeting to be a very dull affair. He felt confident that whoever else was there that there would be no Christ. He expected that Peter and James and John and the rest would meet there and talk of a glorious past that had gone forever. He would have said, “Yes, I know what they will say. They will tell how Jesus called them at the beginning. They will tell how they forsook all to follow Him. They will tell of the great dreams that they dreamed, of the high hopes that they cherished. They will tell of all the glad, radiant days that have ‘dropped into the sunset.’ But they will have nothing to say to relieve the bitterness of to-day or to fling a bow of hope upon the black skies of to-morrow. So I will not go to the meeting to-day.”
But the meeting was not dull. The meeting was not sad. The meeting was not a lament for a glory that was passed, for a glad day that had slipped behind them forever more. It was a service that thrilled with present joys. It was a meeting that made the future to glow with glorious possibilities. It was wonderful, because Jesus came. He came then, and He comes still. Wherever hungry hearts come together who yearn for Him and make Him welcome, there comes the blessed Christ to stand in the midst. And therefore I would not absent myself from the meeting together of the people of God. I would not because I want to be there when Jesus comes, when the King comes in to see the guests.
“Thomas was not with them when Jesus came.” I wonder why it was that Thomas was missing. I wonder how it came about that he, the neediest man among the apostles, was not there to receive the inspiration and the uplift that came from this service. Why was he not there?
It was not, I am sure, because he was indifferent. There are many to-day who have separated themselves from the services of the church, from the fellowship of the saints, because of a deadening indifference. They have become absorbed in a thousand other matters till they have become doubly uninterested in the things of the church and in the affairs of the Kingdom.
Thomas was not missing because he had found satisfaction elsewhere. Thomas was not satisfied. Thomas was not happy. I doubt if there was a sadder man in all Jerusalem than Thomas. I doubt if there was a more wretched man in the wide world at that time than was Thomas. Thomas had not turned aside from Jesus to satisfy his soul on husks. He had not left Christ because his needs had been met and his thirst satisfied at some other fountain.
Why was Thomas missing? He was missing because he had lost hope. He believed that Christ was dead. He believed that the cause for which he had stood was lost and lost forever more. He believed that right was forever defeated; that wrong was forever enthroned. Over his head was a blackened sky. For him there was not one single ray of light nor one single gleam of hope.
If I had met Thomas on the streets of Jerusalem on that day and said, “Thomas, I saw your friends going together to the Upper Room. Aren’t you going? Jesus might come while they are there,” Thomas would have answered, “No, I’m not going. Jesus will not be there. He is dead. Don’t you know if I thought I would see Him I would go? Don’t you know that I loved Him and love Him still better than life, but Jesus is dead. Dead! Dead!
“I was in the garden when Judas kissed Him. I saw them lead Him away. I saw the soldiers scourge Him. I saw Him crowned with the crown of thorns. I was out on Calvary when the black night came on at midday and I heard that wild, bitter cry. Oh! I will hear it forever more: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ I saw His head bowed and I saw the brute of a soldier thrust the spear into His side. Don’t talk to me about seeing Jesus again. Jesus is dead.”
The very bitterness of the sorrow of Thomas had driven him to despair. He found it hard to believe always. Here he found it impossible. Now, there are some folks who are sweetened by sorrow and made better. There are others that are made bitter and morose and despairful. I heard a man cry one day, an awful cry “Oh, I could curse God,” he said, “if I knew there was a God, for letting little Mary die!” For Thomas everything had collapsed. There was not a star in his sky. There was not a horizon in his life in which he might hope for a dawn. So that he, the neediest man of them all, was not there when Jesus came.
And now, will you see what he missed. Truly, the man was right who did not wonder what people suffered, but wondered at what they missed. And just see what this man Thomas missed by not being in the little meeting among the ten. First, he missed the privilege of seeing Jesus. He missed the privilege of seeing Him who had throttled Death and hell and the grave and had brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. He missed seeing Him, one vision of whose face would have changed his sobbing into singing and his night into marvelous day.
He missed seeing Jesus, and failing to see Him, he missed the glorious certainty of the after life. It is Christ, my friends, that makes Heaven and the eternal life sure for us. It is He who enables men to go down into the great silence without a doubt and without a fear. It is He who makes us absolutely confident that there is a Home of the Soul, that—
“There is a land of pure delight
Where saints immortal reign.”
Having seen Him once dead and alive forever more, we have no slightest doubt of the truth of His promise that, because He lives we shall live also.
By staying away that day Thomas missed the thrill of a great joy. Had he been there he might have seen the Lord. This is not a possibility in every service, possibly, but it ought to be. It is a possibility in every successful service. I heard of a preacher once who thought that what his congregation wanted was beautiful epigrams. He thought that they were more hungry for bejeweled verbiage than for the Bread of Life. He thought they were thirsting more for a stream of eloquence than for the Water of Life. But he was mistaken. And once he came into the pulpit to find a card lying before him on which was written this word: “Sir, we would know Jesus.”
At first it angered him a bit and then it made him think. And then it sent him to his knees. And then it sent him into the pulpit with a new message. And one day he came again into his pulpit to find a second card before him. Picking it up, he read these words: “Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.” Of course they were. Their gladness was the gladness of the ten that met in the Upper Room. Their gladness was the gladness that might have been experienced by Thomas. It was intended for him, for he was the saddest and most wretched man in Jerusalem. But Thomas was not there.
Thomas missed also the gift of peace. Jesus said to those present, “Peace be unto you.” And how Thomas needed that gift! Thomas was in a fever of restlessness and wretchedness. He was whipped by a veritable tempest of doubt and utter unbelief. And all the while he might have had the peace that passeth understanding. He might have had the vision of Him who stood then, and still stands, the central figure of the ages, saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Those present that day were blessed with the gift of peace. They had “fervor without fever.” They had motion without friction. But Thomas missed it because “he was not with them when Jesus came.”
The disciples who were there were re-commissioned that day. Jesus said to them, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” With His death everything seemed at an end. The great program that He had given them seemed to have lapsed forever. A man said a few years ago, “Life doesn’t seem worth living since I found that Christianity is not true.” It was so with these men. They were men without a goal. But Jesus came and recommissioned them, laid upon them again the high task of conquering the world. And Thomas missed that great blessing because he was not there.
Last of all, Jesus breathed upon them and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” These men were not only recommissioned. They received the Holy Ghost. “He breathed on them.” How close they came to Him that day! How their hearts were warmed! How their hopes were revived! “He breathed on them and said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” And poor Thomas missed also this benediction because he was not with them when Jesus came.
It may be that you were once active in the church. It may be that you were once a live and enthusiastic Christian. But little by little you have slipped back. You have moved to strange places. Your life has been thrown in great cities. And you have missed the fellowships of yesterday out of your life. It may be that to-day you are no longer found regularly among the worshipers in God’s House. You are missing something. Don’t deceive yourself. As the saints of God meet together Jesus still manifests Himself. And seeing Him, there comes to us a new joy and peace, a new sense of the purpose and worthfulness of life. Seeing Him there comes to us a new power for battle and for conquest.
But if we have missed Him, whatever else we have won, we have missed about all that is worth while. Oh, there is one thing of which I am absolutely sure, and that is that if I have Jesus, if His presence is a gladsome reality to my heart, nothing else matters much. But if I miss Him everything goes wrong and everything is disappointing. Darius is in the palace and Daniel in the den of lions, but there is restlessness and wretchedness in the palace and peace and joy in the lions’ den. It is the presence of God that makes the difference.
Thomas, because he missed receiving, also missed the privilege of giving. When the other disciples came from that meeting, how radiant were their faces! What a spring they had in their step! What joy bringers they were! What a marvelously thrilling story they had to tell! Freely had they received and freely did they give.
But Thomas. He had received nothing, therefore he had nothing to give. He was a disappointment to his Master. For a whole week he went doubting Him, mistrusting Him, when it was his privilege to have walked into His fellowship and been as sure of His reality and of His nearness as he was of his own existence.
In the second place, he missed the privilege of helping his fellow disciples. What an encouragement he might have been to them! How it would have strengthened the faith of those Christians who had not yet seen the vision of their risen Lord to have seen the light even upon the gloomy face of Thomas! But Thomas missed the privilege of giving. I cannot rob myself without robbing you. I cannot starve myself spiritually without helping to starve you. I cannot sin alone. If I do that which lowers my spiritual vitality, by that very act I help to lower yours also. “Thomas was not with them when Jesus came,” and he missed a double blessing, the privilege of receiving and the privilege of giving.
But Thomas, in spite of his failure, succeeded in the end. Tradition tells us that he died a martyr for his love and devotion to his Lord. How was he saved? How was he brought to the joy and usefulness that are born of certainty? Thomas, you know, was a doubter. A very thoroughgoing doubter he was. How then, in spite of his doubts, did he find his way into the fulness of the Light?
First, Thomas was not proud of his doubts. He did not look upon them as blessings or as treasures. There is a type of doubter to-day who does. I have heard men speak of “my doubts” as if they were very priceless things. But no man is of necessity the richer for his doubts. I know that doubt may become a doorway to a larger faith. Still, I repeat, no man is of necessity the richer for them. For instance, no man is the richer because of his social doubts. The man who does not believe in his fellow man is poor indeed. The man who has doubts about the inmates of his home suffers something of the pangs of hell. And the man who doubts God can hardly consider himself the possessor of a prize to be coveted. Thomas doubted, but he was not proud of his doubts.
Thomas was not only not proud of his doubts, but was thoroughly wretched on account of them. And being thoroughly wretched because of them, he was willing to be set right. He wanted to believe. It seems to me that any man would. Thomas was eager to be made sure that the Christ he loved was really alive. He yearned for certainty.
Thomas was not only willing, but Thomas was reasonable. When he sought to be sure of Jesus he put himself in the best possible position to learn the truth. When he wanted to be made sure of Christ he did not seek knowledge at the hands of the enemies of Christ. He did not ask information of those who were confessed strangers to Christ. So often we do. We get in the grip of doubt and straightway we turn from the fellowship of those who know the Lord to the fellowship of those who confessedly do not know Him. We read those books that strengthen our doubts rather than those that strengthen our faith. But Thomas was wiser.
“Thomas, we have seen the Lord.” That is what Peter and James and John and the rest said to Thomas after this wonderful service that Thomas missed. And what was the answer of this doubter? Did his face light up as he said, “I am glad to hear it”? Not a bit of it. He said, “Except I see in His hand the print of the nails and put my finger into the print of the nails and thrust my hand into His side I will not believe.” And what Thomas meant by this answer was simply this: “There is nothing that you can say or do that will make me believe at all. I simply cannot believe and cannot be made to believe that Jesus has risen.”
Now I do not think that his fellow disciples argued With him. Really it would have done no good. They simply left him to his own thoughts. And I fancy that those thoughts ran something after this fashion: “What they say is not true. They are mistaken. Of course they are. They must be. And yet they certainly believe in the truth of what they say. God grant that they are right. There is nothing that I would not give to know.”
Then what did this honest and earnest doubter do? Listen! “And after eight days again the disciples were within and Thomas with them.” Yes, Thomas is a doubter. But he is an honest and hungry-hearted doubter. He is willing to give himself every opportunity to know the truth. He says, “I will turn my face toward the east. Then if there is a dawn I will see it.” And what happened? The dawning came. The sun rose, “even the Son of righteousness with healing in His wings.” “Then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger and behold my hands, and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto Him, My Lord and my God.”
Thomas became absolutely certain. It is my firm conviction that that same certainty is your privilege and mine. I believe that Jesus spoke the simple truth when He said, “If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know.” However little you may believe at this present moment, if you will be loyal to what you do believe, if you will follow the light that you have, it will bring you into the brightness of the day.
You remember how Horace Bushnell, while a student at Yale, felt that he was in the way of a great revival that was sweeping through the University. He did not want to stand in the way of this revival and yet he was an unbeliever. He did not feel that he could come out on the side of Jesus Christ for he did not believe in Christ. “What then do you believe?” a voice within him seemed to ask. “I believe there is an absolute difference between right and wrong,” was the answer. “Have you ever put yourself on the side of the right to follow it regardless of consequences?” was the next question. “I have not,” was the answer, “but I will.” So Horace Bushnell kneeled there in his room and dedicated himself to the service of the right. And what was the result? After he had been a preacher of the Gospel in Hartford, Connecticut, for forty-seven years he said, “Better than I know any man in Hartford I know Jesus Christ.”
When I was a lad I was overtaken by darkness while some eight or ten miles from home. The night was intensely black, so much so that I lost my way absolutely. I found myself after some hours in a dense forest. I made up my mind to dismount from my horse and sleep on the ground, as I saw no chance of finding my way home.
But I had no sooner dismounted than the lightning began to flash and the thunder to roar and I was warned of an approaching storm. A little later the storm burst upon me. And I mounted and rode on through the dark, not knowing whither I went. At last, far past midnight, I saw a speck of light in the distance. That light did not look at all like a sunrise. It was as small as a needle point. And yet I followed it because it was all I could see on the black bosom of the darkness. A little later I found that that light was shining from a window in my own home. A little later still I found my anxious mother behind that light waiting for the home-coming of her boy.
Now, I did not have much light to begin with. It was pathetically meager. But as I followed it it led me home. Thomas had but little. Bushnell had but little. But they were willing to be true to the light that they had. And being true to it, they found the fullness of the light. For it was true then as it is true to-day, “if any man is willing to do His will, he shall know.”