Faith Requires a Personal Encounter

We have a hard time believing on the basis of someone else’s experience.

Depositphotos Image ID: 22520023 Copyright: Iurii

This is a prologue to a previously published piece, Room for Doubters & Skeptics. In that original piece, I explored the fact that Jesus invited, embraced and nurtured doubters and skeptics, even in his inner circle of followers. We see this in the accounts of Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew) and Thomas (who we call “Doubting Thomas).

We meet Nathanael early on when Philip introduces him to Jesus. Nathanael was skeptical. Thomas we get to know in more detail in the middle of his time with Jesus and at the end. Even at the end of his time with Jesus, Thomas still doubted.

The stories of these two men leave us with a few important takeaways. First, honest doubt was no issue for Jesus, and should be no issue for us. This was the point of the initial piece that to which I linked above. In this piece we will see the importance of asking the critical questions and being genuinely interested in the answers. There are answers, but, more importantly, the answers lie in more than bare facts and reason; genuine faith requires a personal encounter.

Whether God exists is the most important question we can ask. Whether God exists, or not, is (or should be) the foundation for everything we do and everything we think about the world. On this point, we are either hot or cold. Lukewarm is the same as being cold because it means we haven’t’ cared or been thoughtful enough to be interested in the question.

There is no such thing as a follower of God who doesn’t seek him. There is a difference between intellectual ascent and faith (commitment) to God. Someone famously said that even Satan believes in God. Nathanael and Thomas provide us an example of the importance of persistence in getting answers to the questions that arise from our doubt and skepticism.

We meet Nathanael when Philip approaches him:

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’”[1]

Nathanael’s first response was skepticism. Philip responded by simply inviting him to, “Come and see.” In spite of his doubts, Nathanael went. Though he didn’t believe, he knew the significance of Philip’s claim. As a Jew, this is what they had been waiting hundreds of year for.

In a recent sermon as the church we attend, the pastor observed, “We have a hard time believing on the basis of someone else’s experience.” I would add that we have a hard time believing on the basis of someone else’s thinking as well. The only way to test these things is to check them out yourself.

Nathaniel went to check out Jesus for himself. When he encountered Jesus, Jesus recognized Nathanael for having “no deceit”. Nathanael was a straight shooter. He was an honest skeptic. He didn’t have an agenda. He really wanted to know the truth, whatever it may be.

This is key. Have you ever met a person with lots of questions who wasn’t really interested in any answers? Nathanael wasn’t like that. What he knew of Jesus (that he was from Nazareth) didn’t square with what he knew about the Messiah that had been predicted (who was to come from the line of David and the City of David – Bethlehem), but he was willing to look into it.

When Nathaniel went to meet with Jesus, he hadn’t even introduced himself, and Jesus already knew him. Jesus described who he was, described intimate details of Nathanael that he couldn’t have known without knowing his inner thoughts. On the basis of this personal encounter, Nathanael believed and became a follower of Jesus.

Thomas was a harder nut. Though he had been following Jesus for some time, and though he was part of the inner circle of followers, Thomas was less than convinced. When Jesus learned that his friend, Lazarus, was dying, Jesus determined to go to him in Judea, though the leaders in Judea sought to stone him to death when he last visited. The disciples tried to discourage Jesus, but he would not be deterred. To this Thomas responded by saying, basically, “Oh great! We’ll go too and die with you!”[2]

Thomas was Mr. Negative, but he continued to follow Jesus. He was still among the inner circle of Jesus followers when Jesus died on the cross. We aren’t told, though, where Thomas was when Jesus appeared to all the other disciples in the flesh, risen from the dead. Perhaps, Thomas had given up at that point and was off by himself. We don’t know. We pick up the story with the disciples telling Thomas about it:

“Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, 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 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.’

“Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, 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; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, 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 believed.’”[3]

Just as with Nathanael, way back in the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, Jesus addressed Thomas by identifying information Jesus could not have known without knowing his inner thoughts. He addressed Thomas’s doubt head on, without judgment or condemnation, but with all the proof Thomas needed. “Put you hand in my side. Go ahead Thomas. It’s ok.”

I am sure that the bare description of the event doesn’t give it justice.  It might be easy to miss the time frame. “Eight days later” they were all together, including Thomas. He was skeptical, but he was still there. If he had gone away, he would have never encountered the living Jesus. He wouldn’t never have gotten the proof he was looking for.

The apostles, too, couldn’t have known whether Jesus would ever be with them again at that point. They might have even started doubting themselves. But they did not disassociate with Thomas, and Thomas had not left them.

Thomas might have been wondering, if what they said was true, why would Jesus have left him out? They had a personal experience with Jesus, but he didn’t. It’s not fair!

When Jesus spoke to Thomas, he spoke to the things that Thomas thought and said out of Jesus’s presence. Jesus addressed his inner thoughts. At that point, Thomas called Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas was finally changed by a personal encounter with Jesus. Though he knew Jesus and spent years with him, he didn’t believe until Jesus finally provided him the proof he needed.

It’s important to note that Jesus never rejected Thomas in all that time. When Thomas insisted on putting his hands in Jesus’s side before he would believe, Jesus didn’t scold him or condemn him; he simply invited him to do what he requested.

I think it is safe to say that Thomas didn’t stop seeking the truth, in spite of his deep skepticism. He continued to follow Jesus and continued to participate as one of the inner circle of followers. Thomas may not have been present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, but he was still hanging around. Though he was skeptical, Thomas continued to meet with the disciples though he had not seen Jesus himself.

Though Thomas doubted, he didn’t give up on the possibility that Jesus could be who he said he was. He was willing to be wrong. Maybe he wanted to be wrong. At least, when he had the proof he needed, he was willing to commit to it.

In fact, we learn from Eusebius, who lived in the 3rd Century, that Thomas traveled all the way to India preaching the Gospel and died there a martyr. Marco Polo, the explorer, reported meeting a group of Christians in India who identified the tomb of Thomas on the east coast of India in the 13th Century. The personal encounter with Jesus in which Thomas got the proof he was looking for changed his life. We are no different. Real faith requires a personal encounter.


[1] John 1:45-51

[2] John 11:5-16 (“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.’ After saying these things, he said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “’et us also go, that we may die with him.’”)

[3] John 20:24-29

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