This is the time of year when many Christians in the United States travel to the Mediterranean for a tour of the lands of the Bible. One popular type of tour is a “footsteps of the apostle Paul” tour which aims to visit the places where Paul preached in the book of Acts. These tours typically stop at sites in Turkey, Greece, and Italy.
One tour that I have never heard offered is a “footsteps of the apostle Thomas” tour. Although Thomas’ travels are not recorded in the New Testament, Thomas is known to church historians as the most celebrated missionary of the original group of Twelve apostles. Few tourists, if any, would have the stomach to retrace the apostle Thomas’ footsteps from Jerusalem, through Syria, Iraq, and Iran, down the southwestern (Malabar) coast of India, and up the southeastern (Coromandel) coast of India, all the way to the city of Chennai (Madras), where Thomas was stoned to death for preaching the risen Christ. The places where Thomas traveled, preaching the gospel, are dangerous, foreign, and spiritually dark today, but so were they when Thomas originally traveled to them.
To an outside observer, Thomas might seem like the most unlikely of all the apostles to become a great missionary. Thomas began his apostolic career as a skeptic, a pessimist, and a doubter. He almost seemed hesitant as a follower of Jesus. In John 11:16, as Jesus set out for Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas made a comment that showed that he was predisposed to belief in the worst possible outcome, unless it could be absolutely proven otherwise. In that verse, John translates Thomas’ name (an Aramaic word) into Greek as “Twin” (Greek Didymus, like the English word dittography), which shows that he was so undistinguished among the Twelve that he was not even called by his real name. One Eastern church tradition remembers Thomas as “Judas Thomas”; since there were two other Judases among the Twelve, the disciples evidently decided to call one of the three by his nickname.
The best known vignette of Thomas in the Bible is in John 20, which occurs after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Although Jesus appeared to women at the tomb and to the majority of the disciples, Thomas was for some reason absent when Jesus made His appearances on that first Easter Sunday. In spite of the testimony of the other ten apostles, the women who were at the tomb, and the two disciples who were walking to Emmaus, Thomas famously pronounced himself unconvinced of Jesus’ resurrection. In John 20:24-25, Thomas insisted that he would not believe unless he could not only see Jesus, but could also physically put his finger into the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and put his hand into the mark of the spear on Jesus’ side. Everything about Thomas changed when Jesus appeared to him some eight days later and gave him just the opportunity he had asked for to verify absolutely that He had indeed risen from the dead (John 20:26-27), leading Thomas to confess on the spot that Jesus is Lord and God (John 20:28).
Thomas, once the greatest skeptic among the Twelve, became the most celebrated missionary of the group after having been persuaded beyond all doubt of the fact of the resurrection. After leaving Palestine, Thomas first preached the gospel in Syria, then left Roman territory to preach the gospel in the Parthian Empire (modern Iraq and Iran). Determined to press the gospel to the ends of the earth, Thomas proceeded to sail to the Malabar Coast of southwestern India, planting churches which remain to the present day. After establishing these churches, Thomas continued on around the southern tip of India, and was preaching the gospel in Hindu cities along India’s eastern coast until he was at last stoned to death near the city of Chennai (Madras). A monument remains to this day on a hill outside Chennai to mark the site of Thomas’ martyrdom, some 5,027 km (3,124 miles) from Jerusalem. The only explanation for Thomas’ unstoppable zeal and unshakeable faith after his skeptical start is an experience just like that described in the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John.
Thomas’ missionary efforts are a great testimony to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus, of which Thomas was a witness. But Thomas’ work is also a great challenge to the church, and a censure of the church. Why was there not one person in the second generation of Christians who was as driven as Thomas to take the gospel to the ends of the earth? Surely the entire world would have been evangelized in a hundred years with only a dozen Thomases in each generation. Why is it not until the 18th and 19th centuries that we finally read of Christians leaving Europe to take the gospel to unknown lands and unreached peoples? Although today there are indeed Christian missionaries and churches throughout the world (though not nearly enough), the church today all too often seems sluggish and halfhearted. If we really do believe that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, this truth should stimulate in us the same kind of all-out, lifelong dedication to the work of the Lord that that it stimulated in the apostle Thomas.