WHY WOULD THE APOSTLE THOMAS, who moments before had refused to accept the other apostles’ witness to Christ’s resurrection, suddenly proclaim that Jesus is “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28)? This question has been discussed since the Gospel of John was written.
A Multiple Choice question on the words of St Thomas when he saw the risen Christ might look something like this:
What St Thomas meant was:
A – A simple exclamation (like OMG).
B – That Jesus was God (the Father).
C – That Jesus was the Son of the Father
D – That Jesus was a god
Each of these answers has been offered by serious authors to explain the meaning of Thomas’ words. By themselves, this phrase could mean any of these things; in the context of John’s Gospel and the Church of its day, however, the answer becomes clearer.
St John’s Gospel, the only one to contain this narrative, is the last of the canonical Gospels to be written. In its final form it dates to the end of the first century ad, and manuscript fragments dating to c. ad 125 still exist. The author’s purpose in writing this Gospel is clearly stated in John 20:30, 31: “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.”
The aim of John’s Gospel, then, is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ, the Son of God. In line with this aim, Thomas’ words here are not presented as an ordinary exclamation, but as an act of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. This rules out Answer A, above.
We are left, however, with another question: What might John have meant by calling Jesus “the Son of God”? This was not an unusual title for the Messiah – or for other important figures. It did not necessarily mean, however, what we mean by it. It was often a way of saying that the Messiah (or King or High Priest) was especially beloved or set apart by God.
When we look at the beginning of John’s Gospel, however, we see that John has a higher vision of Christ as Son of God. The Gospel begins with this famous passage: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:11-4, 14, 18). John describes the eternal Word of God, His only-begotten Son, as having become flesh and dwelt among us. He is clearly depicting the Lord Jesus as divine, eternally existing, and uniquely in the bosom of His Father.
We find similar statements in St Paul who describes the genealogy of Christ in this way:“…from them [the Israelites], according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen”(Romans. 9:5) . From the time of the Apostles and Evangelists, Christians recognized Jesus as the unique and divine Son of God. John expressed this belief more firmly and unequivocally that other Scriptural authors.
St Jerome (c. 347-420) taught that John wrote when those who denied the unique person of the Lord were gaining a hearing in the Church. “Gospels” were being written, purporting to contain the “secret” wisdom of Jesus, which resembled Egyptian philosophy rather than the Word of God. John’s work is a clear rejection of these other “Gospels.”
The Witness of Secular Society
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, 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 the Christians worship Him instead of the gods of Greece. For them He is clearly divine.
While Jesus never said, “I am God.” He did say things that would lead us to believe and understand that He is God. It would take the next several centuries for all the local Churches to express clearly how the one God could have a Son, how that Son was like the Father and be 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 describing 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.”
Subsequent councils, which discussed how Christ is God and Man, did not receive universal acceptance. This resulted in the break between the Greek and Latin Churches on one hand and the other Eastern Churches (Armenians, Copts, etc.) on the other. It is only in the modern era that Agreed Statements on Christology between these Churches have acknowledged a unity of faith in their different expressions.
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 ongoing faith: You are my Lord and my God”
How great is Your immense mercy, O Lover of Mankind! You endured being struck by the law-transgressors, being touched by an Apostle, and being examined by the impious. How were You made man? How were You crucified, O You, the only sinless One? Teach us to cry out to You with Thomas, “My Lord and my God, glory to You!”
(Apostikhon of Vespers