The Gospel-Centered Teaching of Pastor Colin Smith
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April 20, 2014

People struggle to believe

That may be where you are this morning. You have come to church for Easter. You participate in the service, singing these songs, but you are not sure that you believe it.

People struggle to believe. There’s nothing new or strange about that, and if you struggle to believe, it may help you to know that others shared the same struggle even in the time of Jesus.

All four of the Gospel writers record the struggles that individual people had believing in the resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew tells us, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:16-17).

Mark records the visit of the women to the tomb on Easter morning. The tomb was empty, except for an angelic figure who announced: “He has risen; he is not here” (Mark 16:6). Then Mark records, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).  

By the way, these are striking testimonies to the authenticity of the Gospels. The Gospel writers recorded what actually happened. If these writers had felt the freedom to select what fit their message, they would never have included the detail that some people had doubted.

If the Gospel writers had felt the freedom to invent, they’d have said, “All the disciples believed immediately.” But they recorded history. They wrote events as they took place and, faithful to what happened, they recorded the struggle to believe, even on the first Easter morning.

Luke, the painstaking historian, who begins his Gospel by stating his purpose: To write an “orderly account” of the “things that have been accomplished” from the evidence of “eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:1-4). All of this is important to him throughout the entire Gospel.

At the end of his Gospel, Luke records the story of two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. Jesus describes them as “slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25). If the first disciples to whom Jesus appeared were slow of heart to believe, it should come as no surprise that many of us may struggle to believe as well.

Then John tells us this marvelous story of Thomas. “Doubting” Thomas is the man in the inner circle of the twelve who struggled to believe. I am so glad that this story is in the Bible. If you are a person who struggles to believe, I am so glad that you are here today.

The message today is about the love of Christ for those who struggle to believe. I want you to see and feel the love of Christ reaching out to you today, especially if you struggle to believe.

Please open your Bible at John 20. Jesus had appeared to ten disciples on the evening of the first day of the week. He came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).

Then Jesus showed them his hands and his side, and said again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:20-22).

Thomas was not there. When Thomas meets up with them, the ten disciples are full of joy. It becomes evident that something happened to them. And whatever has happened to them, it has not happened to him.

So, Thomas says, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).

Why Do People Struggle to Believe?

Let me suggest three reasons, all of them were true for Thomas, and they are the experience of many people today.

THOMAS HAD SEEN AND EXPERIENCED:

  1. Indescribable evil

Crucifixion was a horrendous event. What would it have been to see this happen right there in front of you? And what would it be like to see this happen to someone you love?

Many people struggle to believe because of the appalling evil in the world.

The awful experiences of evil in two world wars caused many to struggle with faith and others to abandon it altogether.

There will be folks in the sanctuary today who would say, “If you had seen what I have seen; if you had experienced what I have experienced, you would understand why I struggle to believe.”

How can I believe in a God who is good, in the light of what I have seen?

How can I believe in a God who is in control, in the light of what I have experienced?

THOMAS HAD SEEN AND EXPERIENCED:

  1. Massive disappointment

For other people, the struggle to believe arises from massive disappointment. This too was true of Thomas.

Thomas left everything to follow Jesus. He had extended himself to serve Christ for three years. He had high hopes, along with the other disciples, that Jesus would lead them into great things. And this was a massive disappointment when all of that ended on Good Friday. How can God be good and in control when he lets this happen?

Massive disappointment is a second reason why many people struggle to believe. Maybe this is where you are—the loss of a job, the loss of your health, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a great venture, or the collapse of a once vibrant ministry. Where is God in that?

THOMAS HAD SEEN AND EXPERIENCED:

  1. Growing isolation

We’re not told why Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared on that first Sunday. He was there the following week, but it seems that Thomas was on an increasingly lonely path.

Thomas doesn’t feel at ease with Jesus’ friends. But he doesn’t belong with Jesus’ enemies either. They hate Christ, but Thomas loves him. He is caught in a kind of no man’s land: He is not at home in the church and he’s not really at home in the world. Where does he actually belong?

The Resurrection of Jesus Speaks Directly

To Our Struggles with Faith

 

  1. Indescribable evil
    If it were not for the resurrection, what could we say about the evil in the world? Darkness and injustice would remain unanswered at the heart of the universe forever.

But the Bible says that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

  1. Massive disappointment

If it were not for the resurrection, what could we say to the person for whom life in this world has brought massive disappointment? It is only through the resurrection that we have anything to say.

Justice will be called to account. What are you going to say to an innocent person has spent 25 years in prison and it cannot be recovered? If it were not for the resurrection, what could you say?

The apostle Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

  1. Growing loneliness

The risen Christ—what is he doing now? He is gathering a great company of people from every generation in history and from every nation on the planet—people who love him, trust him, and who will enjoy him forever.

His invitation is open to all people. He is inviting you to be part of it—a community that will in every way far exceed any community that has ever existed in the history of the world.

How Christ Shows His Love
For People Who Struggle to Believe

Here is the most striking thing to me in the Easter story this year: Thomas said, “I will never believe” (John 20:25). “Not unless I see those nail prints with my own eyes. No, I’m not even going to trust my eyes! Not unless I place my finger into the nail marks. No, I won’t even trust that! Not unless I place my hand into his side. I will never believe.

Perhaps you’ve said this. Jesus might easily have said, “Too bad for you, Thomas. That’s not what I am looking for in my disciples. I’m looking for people of strong faith. And if that’s not you, Thomas, then I’ll see you on judgment day.

It’s striking to me that Jesus did not say this, or anything remotely like it! Christ appears to Thomas, and leads him to faith. That’s why I have called this message “The Love of Christ For People Who Struggle to Believe.” I could have called it “The Love of Christ For People Who Say ‘I Will Never Believe,’” because that’s what Thomas said.

This is good news for every person who has weak faith today. Christ loves people with weak faith. This is good news for every person who struggles to believe today. Christ loves people who struggle to believe. This is good news for the person who has said, “I will never believe.” Christ loves people who have said, “I will never believe.”

John records how Christ led Thomas to faith. Christ is able to lead you to faith, and I want you to see how he does it.

HOW CHRIST SHOWS HIS LOVE:

  1. Surprising experience

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” John 20:26

I say this was “surprising” because no one was expecting it—certainly not Thomas! After he had said, “I will not believe,” the risen Christ (in whom Thomas had said he would not believe) came to him!

The same thing happened on the road to Emmaus. Christ drew near to two disciples who were struggling with faith. At first they did not even know that it was Jesus, but the Son of God came to them, spoke to them, and their hearts burned within them.

This is how Jesus shows his love to a person struggling to believe: He draws near, and in some way, you experience his presence. It can happen through a friend, or a family member, or through a worship service like this. At first you are not even sure you know who Christ is, but you become aware that he is there and he is reaching out to you.

The first word Jesus speaks to Thomas is “Peace.” Three times you find this—in verses 19, 21, and 26: “Peace be with you!” It’s not, “Now some people are struggling to believe. We have some sorting out to do.”

No! Christ shows his love by drawing near to the person who struggles to believe. When he comes near, he says, “Peace be with you! Don’t run away! I haven’t come to condemn you. I’ve come to lead you to faith!”

My prayer is that you’ll experience this today. Some of you have seen indescribable evil, or you’ve experienced massive disappointment. Some of you don’t really belong in the world, and you don’t feel you belong in the church either. You find yourself on a path of growing isolation.

You have struggled with faith. You have not felt that you could believe.

But today Jesus Christ is reaching out to you in love.

HOW CHRIST SHOWS HIS LOVE:

  1. Compelling Evidence

“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.”  John 20:27

Now the first thing that strikes me here is that Jesus knew what Thomas had said, “I will never believe… Unless I see in his hands the marks of the nails, and place my finger into the marks of the nails, and place my hand into his side” (John 20:25).

Christ was not there when Thomas said this. But Jesus knew what Thomas said. And Jesus knows everything you’ve said. He knows everything you’ve felt. He even knows what you’ve thought: “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4). He is the unseen listener to every conversation.

Jesus knew what Thomas had said, and so it is very striking that when he appears, Christ does not write Thomas off. Christ does not say, “Well Thomas, you’ve made your position quite clear. Please pack your bags.

I no longer want you as my disciple.”

No! Christ’s words are quite different: “Thomas, you said you would not believe unless there was overwhelming evidence. Very well—here it is: Put your finger here, and see my hands. Put out your hand and place it in my side.” Christian faith is not a blind leap in the dark. It is a reasoned trust in a risen Savior, based on compelling evidence.

What does this look like for us? Thomas saw the hands and the side of Jesus. None of us have had that opportunity, so what does the compelling evidence look like for us?

Notice what Jesus says next to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Yes, but how is that going to happen? How is faith going to come to those like us who have not seen? “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

The compelling evidence on which you can take a reasoned step of faith in Jesus Christ does not come by personal resurrection experiences for each of us. It comes through the evidence provided in the Gospels: “These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.” This is how you touch the evidence of who Jesus is.

Here is how Christ shows his love to people who struggle to believe: He comes alongside in what may be a surprising experience, and you become aware that he is pressing into your life, making himself known.

 

You find yourself looking into the Bible, wanting to discover who he is, and as you read through the Gospels, you find compelling evidence that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing this, you have life in his name.

The Word of God is compelling to the awakened heart. You begin to see something that you did not see before. Why? Because he has been awakening faith in you.

HOW CHRIST SHOWS HIS LOVE:

  1. Life-changing command

“Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  John 20:27

To me, this is the most wonderful thing of all: Jesus knew everything about Thomas. He knew what Thomas had said in secret. He knew all about his unbelief.

Yet, Jesus still wants Thomas to be his disciple. Jesus still wants Thomas to have life in his name. So Jesus calls Thomas to faith: “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27)!

“In the light of your experience and in the light of the evidence, I call on you to stop doubting and believe. I want you as my disciple, Thomas.” What else was there for Thomas to do than to fall on his knees and confess Jesus as his Lord and his God?

Has Anyone Ever Pursued You?

What has been an experience in your life, in which someone has come after you and simply would not give up and let go? Has anyone ever pursued you like this?

Maybe it happened at some point in your career. You were headhunted. Someone targeted you as being the person they wanted, and they were ready to pay you generously in order to have you join them.

Maybe you are gifted in some sport and different colleges wanted to have you on their team. They came after you. They offered you a scholarship.  They wanted you!

Maybe it happened in a romantic relationship. I spotted my wife, Karen, on the first weekend we both arrived as freshmen at college. It took two years, but I hung in there and just kept pursuing… and it was worth it!

When has someone pursued you? Christ pursued Thomas, who struggled to believe, and at one point said he would never believe. Christ did not give up on him, but reached out in love to win him and lead him to faith.

Thomas must have thought, “After all that I’ve said, and all my struggles with doubt, you still want me to be your disciple? That’s amazing!” Yes! That’s grace! And that is what Jesus Christ offers you today.

The Son of God reaches out to you in love today. He wants you to be his disciple. After all that he suffered to redeem sinners, it matters to him that you should become his disciple.

Jesus Christ draws near to you today. He lays before you the evidence, through his Word, on which you can venture a reasoned trust in him. He calls you! Now stop doubting and believe!

As you hear the voice of this Savior who loves you, what else is there for you to do than to say to him, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

 

 


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