Doubting Thomas: Spiritual Discernment

Many come claiming to preach the word of truth, but there is only one Word made flesh!

John 20:19-31 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

—–

Today I want to talk to you about Spiritual Discernment. 

The other day, my wife and I were doing what we often find ourselves doing: following our toddler daughter around as she explored the yard. There’s a whole lot of, “don’t touch that,” and “stay away from there,” and “keep where I can see you.” But the thing we say the most is, “don’t eat that!” 

From infancy, our Isla has been accustomed to picking herbs and berries and all sorts of deliciousness out of our garden. But I suspect she never quite learned the difference between the garden and the rest of the yard, since my wife isn’t just a gardener — she’s a forager too, and Isla has watched her pick at random yard leaves and berries and grasses for a snack. Isla’s favorite foraged snack is a patch of lemon sorrel just outside the walls of the garden. It is tasty and tart, but it sure looks a lot like the rest of the lawn. I don’t think Isla’s learned just yet how to identify the difference. 

So the other day, as we watched Isla explore, we caught her putting some random lawn growth into her mouth. We found ourselves saying yet again, “don’t eat that!” Katie goes over, and explains, “You have to let mama test it first,” and mama takes the little leaf and rips it open to take a whiff. She explained that ripping it open releases the aromatic oils in the plant, and if you know your plant smells, you’ll be able to identify the plant.  

“I’m checking to see if it’s oregano,” she said, taking a whiff. “It’s not.” 

I got curious and asked, “Can you tell from the smell if it’s poisonous?”  

She said, “No, I can only tell from the smell if I recognize it or not. If you don’t recognize the aroma, you don’t eat it.” 

So it is for the aroma of Christ. He said, “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you’ll have no life in you.” Well, you better want to eat that body and drink that blood then. But you better be smart about it. You might want to ask, “How do I know that it’s His body I’m eating, His blood I’m drinking?” 

It needs to pass the smell test! 

** 

Let me break this down so it doesn’t only seem like we’re talking cannibalism here. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving meal of Communion, he said of the bread, “This is my body, broken for you.” His body was the perfect sacrificial offering for sins, the lamb without spot. He said of the wine, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood.” His blood was the blood which sealed the covenant, the blood of the lamb, and by this blood come the remission of sins, since “by the law almost all things are purged with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.” (Heb. 9:22) 

So what it means to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ is to enter into the new covenant, into the intimate relationship, that Christ’s broken body and spilled blood prepared for us. And we enter into that new covenant by faith, by believing the good news. Simple as pie, right? 

Not so fast. What if I told you, the “good news” is Christ never died – he only appeared to die, but God actually raptured him away to heaven instead? That’s what the Quran teaches.  

Or what if I told you that Jesus of Nazareth suffered and died on the cross, but the Spirit of Christ that was in Him didn’t, because it was separate? That’s what the Gnostics say. They say, Jesus was an average man until the Spirit came to dwell within him – or possess him! — when he was baptized in the Jordan, and he died an average man when the Spirit left him on the cross. The 2nd century “Gospel of Phillip” says that when Jesus of Nazareth cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was speaking of the Spirit of Christ abandoning him and returning to heaven. 

“The Second Treatise of the Great Seth” puts these words in the mouth of the Heavenly Being its author called Christ: “As for me, they saw me and punished me, but someone else…drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They were striking me with a scourge, but someone else… bore the cross on his shoulder. Someone else wore the crown of thorns. But I was on high, poking fun at all the excesses of the rulers and the fruit of their error and conceit. I was laughing at their ignorance.” 

Christ laughed at their ignorance, because he had special, secret gnosis, or knowledge – and folks, the good news is, you too can get this special secret knowledge if you just follow me and let me teach it to you.  

I’m being facetious, of course. Pretty different gospel though, right? 

What do you think? Does it make a difference whether Jesus of Nazareth was just a body possessed by the heavenly Christ? Is it still good news? The Gnostics thought so. They taught that it was the spiritual Christ who is our teacher and Savior – not Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus himself was not special, especially since the Jewish tradition that foretold him was from a lower understanding of God – according to them.  

To them, Jesus, the descendant of David, was really just a convenient historical personage for this spiritual being to possess, this “Cosmic Christ” — to trick people into listening since he was the so-called “King of the Jews” — but the real mission of the “Cosmic Christ” was to teach people the “good news” that embodied human life in the flesh is lowly, meaningless and vain; while only the spiritual life, in the higher realms where Christ came from, is of real value.  

And the way to attain it was not belief in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, since the human Jesus’ death was meaningless, but enlightenment — knowledge of the higher realms through meditation and cult initiation into the spiritual “Cosmic Christ” — this was the real “good news”. This was the real “salvation”. 

Now this might sound strange and archaic to some, and these are indeed very ancient teachings – heresies, actually. But some listening might recognize them immediately as cutting-edge, commonplace, modern New Age teachings. I myself dabbled in them in college. “Jesus was an avatar of the Cosmic Christ in the Jewish culture; the God of the Old Testament isn’t truly God, just what the lowly, unevolved Jews of ages past thought God was (catch the antisemitism?); Jesus teaches the same worldview as all other avatars of the Cosmic Christ in every other culture; there are avatars of the Cosmic Christ in our world today, and they can initiate you into the real secret wisdom Jesus revealed only to his elite followers but hid from the ignorant pedestrians,” — and the pitch usually ends with, “I am just such an avatar, and I can initiate you – if you come follow me.”  

Usually, there’s an address where you can send your checks. 

The 20th century was rife with such people and such teachings, going mainstream in the 60’s onward. The 21st century is shaping up even more so. Think about the Beatles going to India to see Maharishi, and turning tail to run when he made a pass at their wives! But he taught the same things the Gnostics did. This stuff is still going on, on this Island too, to varying degrees. My point here is not to name names. My point is to point out how relevant this is to our own time, to our own spiritual discernment, since we are about to see how the first Christians dealt with it when it first started in their time.  

Because it’s a good question: what difference does Easter make – that Jesus of Nazareth had to die and then rise? Why did John make a point to tell us about Doubting Thomas, touching Christ’s bodily wounds, when all the other evangelists had already told us about the resurrection? 

*** 

Now when we look at the story of Doubting Thomas, what do we usually take to be the moral? “Blessed is the one who has believed without seeing.” And this is truly a blessing. 

But John told this story for a reason.  

Tradition tells us that John wrote this Gospel long after the other three were written – while the first three were written within a decade of Christ’s ministry, in the 40’s, John wrote his Gospel sometime in the 90’s. The world had changed drastically by then. Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote while the Temple still stood, and while the Law of Moses was still administered by its priesthood. But John wrote after the Temple fell, and after the Levitical priesthood had been destroyed, and after there was no one left to administer the Law of Moses anymore, or ever again. 

John wrote his three Epistles and his Revelation just before the war that destroyed the Temple, the priesthood, and that ended the age of Moses. In his Epistles, he was very concerned about the heresies that had crept into the churches back then. He gives the following guidance to help discern what is orthodox and what is heterodox: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you will know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and which is already in the world at this time.” 

See how invested John is in teaching the church spiritual discernment. And here is the key to spiritual discernment, in his time: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God!” What connection does this have to the story of Doubting Thomas? Or the story of the fall of the Temple in A.D. 70? Why draw these all together? 

Because when John wrote his Epistles, he was teaching spiritual discernment to a church whose overwhelming heresy was the antichrist heresy – specifically, those who were running around calling themselves Christs, but were not. The sense of the word antichrist is the same way we use the word “anti-hero” — someone who claims to be, or wants to be, a hero, but isn’t — or someone whom others claim to be a hero, but isn’t. As a lover of Outlaw Country, I can tell you that the whole genre is built on the archetype of the antihero. And in the time of John’s Epistles, there were many anti-christsas he said: “You have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.” 

And he’s referring to Jesus’ prediction in Luke 21:8: “Watch out that you are not deceived — for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time’” — the last hour — “‘is near.’ Do not follow them!”  

So friends – our Church history shows us that all those men claiming to be Messiah, the Anointed King of Israel, in the 1st century, led the revolts that came to be Jerusalem’s downfall. Jesus and John were saying, don’t follow Eleazar the High Priest; don’t follow Dositehos the Samaritan; don’t follow the ten Zealot rulers appointed at the start of the Jewish revolt – these were all false messiahs, false leaders over the people of Israel — antichrists. And they all went to their destruction when Jerusalem was surrounded by armies and incinerated, turned into a literal lake of fire, streets filled with blood as if it were wine that God himself had trod out on the winepress of his wrath. 

But — twenty or so years later, the dust is settled. John writes his Gospel. He’s still invested in showing us spiritual discernment – but what do we have to look out for now? In John 20, he brings our attention to Thomas. Why? 

Ever heard of the Gospel of Thomas? 

The Gospel of Thomas is considered the earliest of the Gnostic Christian texts. The Gnostics really weren’t established until the 2nd century, but the first generation of Gnostics responsible for the Gospel of Thomas wrote in John’s day – they wrote what they wrote, but they dishonestly wrote it in Thomas’ name.  

John knew these folks were going to cause problems for future Christians in the void created by the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age of Moses. John knew these guys were no good. There was a certain Gnostic named Cerinthus whom John once ran into at a bath-house in Ephesus, after John was freed from exile in Patmos, and John said, “Let’s get out of here before God brings this whole bath-house down over this wicked man’s head!” 

Clever John wrote the story of Doubting Thomas to address folks like Cerinthus who dishonestly wrote heresies in the name of the disciples. John really had no need other to write another gospel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke were thorough enough – but they were written before the fall of the Temple, when the warnings against antichrists were sufficient. But now a new heresy was arising, with heretics writing Gospels in the name of Thomas, Phillip, and more, and John felt compelled to fill the void caused by the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, and set a few things straight! 

Now, the Gnostics all believed that the God of Moses was a counterfeit, and that the Old Testament was all lies. They taught, as I said earlier, that Christ was an even higher spiritual being that came, possessed Jesus of Nazareth, and taught secret spiritual wisdom that could only be transmitted via initiation. And they even presumed to write in the name of the Apostle Thomas! John knew this was hogwash. 

So in John 20, the Apostle is taking Thomas back. He’s saying, “No — Thomas would have never taught that Christ didn’t come in the flesh, because Thomas was the one who tested the spirit by touching Christ’s risen flesh with his own hands.” Far from scolding Thomas for not believing without seeing, John is saying – Thomas practiced spiritual discernment. Thomas asked the fundamental question: “Did this Christ come in the flesh?” The answer is, absolutely He did. 

*** 

Now, we ask ourselves after this deep Biblical dive, what does this matter to us? 

First, John knew that the mooring of the Law of Moses was basically gone by the time he wrote his Gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke, they wrote to a people who still lived under the Law, the Temple, its Priesthood – the mooring of that tradition was still strong. But John wrote two whole decades after all that had been taken away.  

John knew that this everlasting Kingdom of God was going to be filled with people for ages to come who would understand the Law of Moses less and less, and he knew that teachers like Cerinthus were just the beginning. John knew how tempting it would be for men and women who fall in love with Christ, to look at the God of the Old Testament and say, that God is not for me – but without the Old Testament, it’s impossible to understand that Christ is both God and man. 

Who appeared to Abraham in the tent? God, in Christ. Who appeared to Moses in the bush? God, in Christ. Who was the rock while Israel in the desert? God, in Christ. Scripture is clear – Christ pre-existed, and God appeared to the Patriarchs in his form. This is precisely who the man Jesus claimed to be – you cannot remove the Old Testament from the equation without doing violence to Jesus’ teaching. 

Second, if Christ was only spirit, and not man, then we really don’t have any hope. Sure, it’s comforting to think that the Cosmic Christ in-dwelt Jesus of Nazareth to teach us that the Cosmic Christ is one with all people, spiritually speaking – but the byproduct of that teaching is that it’s only the spiritual Cosmic Christ that matters but our bodies and our world are of no importance. 

To put it another way, denying that Christ came and died in the flesh is to deny that God so loved the world that he sent His only Son to die for us. And that is the problem. That is just a bald-faced, infernal lie. 

John’s Gospel, front to back, is concerned with helping people understand one thing, and it’s the thing that he said in the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” 

If you want the Word only, and not the Word made flesh, then you’ve missed the good news. There is a massive chasm between these two. If you want the Word only, then you’re reaching for heaven from a world that God does not love. But if you believe in the Word made flesh, then you know that God so loves the world – and by faith, you receive the promise of this love, which is your freedom in the truth, and your salvation. 

The difference is love – but the difference is night and day. Ironically, those folks who want the spiritual Word only, who are Gnostics and claim they “know”, they don’t know – this is what John means when he says, “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness knows it not.” 

I challenge you to do this work of spiritual discernment. The world, and the Christian world too, seems to be full of ideas, of theology, philosophy, of ideology, – but is the root of these ideas that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son”? Or is it that this world is unlovable, and God would never be willing to let His own Son suffer and die for it? 

When we look around at our neighbors, do we love them with the love of God, who “so loved the world” – or do we distrust them; do we expect the worst; do we act as if God would never let His Son die for them?  

Do we love them with the love that God loves us with, the love that lets – God loves us, so he lets us use our free will – or are we more likely to tell our neighbors what to do and how to act? This pandemic is a great test of our love in this way. 

The difference is love, and the difference is great. We as Christians are meant to be a spiritual Israel unto the world – so our love must be the love that lets, otherwise we will be like spiritual Egypt, a force for enslavement and limitation and control. God never commended Israel for judgment, but for mercy – but He did judge Israel on account of its kings who were tyrannical, and on account of its people who were vindictive and evil, who were “angry with their brother” — they were liable for murder, is what Christ taught.  

The aroma of Christ is sweeter than that. His love is infinitely more tender than that. 

Let’s remember what John 20 tells us about those who discern the aroma of the risen Christ: he breathes on them, and He says, “Peace be with you,” gives them the Holy Spirit, and commands them to forgive sin. May it be so with you. 

Let us pray, then, that in our hearts we may be faithful to the risen Christ who came in the flesh – and let us not be ashamed to practice spiritual discernment, when we are unable to believe without seeing: but like Thomas, let us reach out to touch Christ, to touch his wounds – his body is just like those plants my wife split open, to see what aroma arose so she could know what it was – let’s reach out to touch the wounds of Christ, and behold how he was broken and his flesh ripped open for us, that we may discern the aroma of Christ — love –, and that we may see the suffering he was willing to undergo for us, that we might come to know God’s love in greater and greater ways. Amen. 

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