The Confession of Thomas

THE SUNDAY AFTER PASCHA is informally called Thomas Sunday because of the Gospel read on this day, Jn 20:19-31. Many people assume this means that Thomas Sunday is the feast of St Thomas. In fact, St Thomas is remembered in the Byzantine calendar on October 6. What we remember today is rather St Thomas’ confession of faith upon seeing the risen Christ, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).

The meaning of this event is spelled out for us by the Lord in the following verse: “Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (v.29). And if we did not see the implications of that statement for ourselves, the Gospel concludes this passage by saying, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (vv. 30, 31).

Thomas’ Confession

In our culture the exclamation “My Lord and my God!” sounds like a rather banal exclamation of surprise. Sadly, we are used to hearing casually “Oh, God!” or even the Holy Name, “Jesus Christ!” taken in vain. Yet, in first-century Judea – and among many Orthodox Jews today – saying the name of God even in prayer would be considered presumptuous. Since the third century BC Jews have refrained from using the name of God even when reading the Torah. Only the high priest was permitted to read the name of God as written in the Torah, and only on Yom Kippur. Many Jews today simply say HaShem (the Name) when reading such passages or referring to God.

Claiming to be the Son of God was blasphemy in the eyes of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council of elders in Jerusalem. The Gospel indicates that Jesus was condemned to death precisely for making this claim. “And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said… Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?’ They answered and said, ‘He is deserving of death’” (Matthew 26:63-65).

Claiming to see Christ in glory caused the death of the first martyr, St Stephen, as well. Brought before the Sanhedrin he spoke of God’s mercy toward Israel, and the elders listed. But then he said, “‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:56-58).

Clearly Thomas’ exclamation is presented in the Gospel as an act of faith in Jesus as Lord.

The Apostles’ Teaching

From the beginning, the Apostles taught that Jesus, risen from the dead, was Messiah and Lord. Believers were taught to make this their act of Christian faith: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). They ascribed to Christ the title Lord (Kyrios in Greek) which was used in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, as the equivalent of God’s un-pronounceable name. To call Jesus Lord meant that you were calling Him God: precisely the confession of Thomas.

In the Roman world of the Apostles’ day, Lord was the title of the Emperor: the one who governed the lives of all his subjects. To call Jesus Lord was perceived by many as treason and caused the persecution of many, especially since the Christians often insisted that Jesus alone was Lord. The Roman world had many gods and goddesses; they could easily find room for one more. To claim, as we continue to do in our Liturgy, that only “one is holy, one is Lord: Jesus Christ” was another matter.

For a believer to claim that Jesus was Lord also meant that he or she was committed to Jesus’ way of life. The usual way of doing things in society was now subject to a new criterion for believers: the Gospel of Christ. This was perceived as unpatriotic by many Romans, to use a contemporary term. Christians didn’t give undivided allegiance to Rome – they had another Lord and another way of life.

Today in many societies Christians are perceived as second-class citizens because they do not follow the dominant culture. This was always true in Islam but is increasingly so in the secular west as well. In Great Britain, for example, Labour Party leader Andy Burnham has pledged to compel all faith schools to teach about gay “rights,” saying he has “no support” for religious schools who argue that it may conflict with their teachings. The consequence for Christians today is that we may be more frequently forced to choose between following the secular values of the state and its culture or the godly values of the Gospel. Choose your Lord. Jesus’ contemporaries in the wider society did not write about Him. They gradually began writing about His followers and thereby showed us what the first Christians believed about Him. From ad 111-113 Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. He wrote to Emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians, whose gatherings he described in part like this: “They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christus as to a god…” (Epistles book 10, letter 96). As a pagan, Pliny was used to the many gods and goddesses venerated in Roman religion as so he described the Christians as reverencing Christ as “a god.” The Christians would never have said it quite like that, but Pliny is nonetheless witnessing that Christians considered Christ as divine.

A similar witness from the pagan world is Lucian of Samosata (c. ad 115-c. 200), a popular satirist in the Greek world of Asia Minor, who frequently lampooned the gods and public figures of his world as well as those who revere them. In his Passing of Peregrinus, 11 he notes that “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. …it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, deny the gods of Greece and worship the crucified sage and live after his laws.”

While Lucian does not call Jesus “a god,” he testifies that Christians worship Him instead of the gods of Greece. For them, He is clearly divine. While Jesus never said, “I am God.” All the things He did and said convinced the Apostles that He is God.

It would take the next two centuries for the Church, in response to numerous heresies, to define clearly how the Son of God was equal to the Father, and was, at the same time, both God and Man. At the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325), the description of Christ which we find in the Creed became the universal way of professing the truth of the Lord Jesus: “the Only-begotten Son of God, Light from Light, true God from true God – begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

While Thomas the Apostle may not have been able to articulate the Nicene definition of Christ, the Holy Spirit speaking through him gave us the words to express the Church’s perennial faith in Christ: “You are my Lord and my God”