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John 20:28 has Thomas saying

"My Lord and my God!"

For Trinitarians, this line is fairly straightforward - Thomas is recognizing that Jesus is not just Lord but also God.

How do Biblical Unitarians understand this line, in particular in terms of how context can inform our reading of this line?

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  • Is this a self-question? – Spirit Realm Investigator May 9 at 18:26
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    Perhaps in the context of extensive Bible themes throughout its pages, and particularly in cross-reference with Isaiah 9:6 "he will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace"... the text makes its interpretation pretty straightforward. I personally look forward to hearing the Unitarian answer to this! It will be a lottery somewhere between idolatry and a mere man saving the world from all sin (which cannot logically answer Satan's charge against God in Heaven) – Adam May 9 at 19:22
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    Actually Trinity and incarnation are not entirely distinct concepts at all. There is a reason they go together in this topic. If the question were redundant, a Unitarian would be able to provide a workable answer here and knock it on the head. The lack of one at this point suggests Unitarians cannot meet that goal and therefore don't know! – Adam May 10 at 9:41
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    @ Lucian the reason for the combining of the two is that unless one understands the incarnation (God became man) one cannot understand the Trinity. It causes the confusion, how can a man be omnipotent/Mighty/Creator! These two concepts cannot be separated in this way as they are reliant on each other for a logical interpretation of the divinity of Christ, as identified by the prophet Isaiah (9:6) 800 years before Jesus was born, and in explaining the charge made against God himself and the reality of the plan of salvation in answering Satans charge! God had to humble Himself and pay the price – Adam May 10 at 22:52
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    The bottom line is, Satan made the charge against God that he is unfair, selfish, seeking only for Himself. He made claim (in Job) that Job only glorified God because God bought him off with health, wealth, and possessions. This essentially is the same charge Satan made against God in Heaven before the fall. The only way God could truly show the rest of the universe Satan is wrong was to humble himself, become a man, and take the punishment upon himself for the transgression of the law (ie the wages of sin is death) God created us, it is Gods fault we sin, so He alone is to blame! – Adam May 10 at 22:59
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Thomas’ exclamation at John 20:28 “My Lord and my God!” is the culmination of a major theme in the Gospel of John. Initially, I viewed this as problematic from a unitarian perspective, something of a question mark – now I view it as central to understanding John’s message correctly. Instead of detracting from a unitarian interpretation of John, it buttresses it, once understood in the larger context of John’s Gospel and in particular John 14, which is the previous time Jesus speaks with Thomas in John’s Gospel.

This answer won’t focus on the grammar of the phrase, but a few notes on grammar are in order. The phrase itself could refer to one thing or two things – it is ambiguous. It would unambiguously refer to one thing if it were “My Lord and God.” If John had wanted to unambiguously apply both epithets to Jesus, he could have done so that way (as in John 20:17 – “the Father of you and Father of me”). But neither of these considerations are decisive. One response to this ambiguity is to point to how Thomas’ exclamation is said ‘to him’, i.e., to Jesus, so one could argue that both ought to apply to Jesus as they are both directed towards Jesus. Although this isn’t conclusive either, it is a good point – the comments are indeed directed towards Jesus and so logically it seems they should apply towards him. In this I am in agreement with some Trinitarians, but it doesn’t work out the way many Trinitarians think it does. More on this later.

Option 1.

Thomas is saying Jesus is Thomas’ Lord and Thomas’ God. This is the standard Trinitarian interpretation, and perhaps the most common interpretation of the phrase nowadays. If you think Jesus is claiming to be God in the Gospel of John, this makes sense as a culmination of that theme, this time going from one extreme of doubt to the other of conviction not just that Jesus is alive, or the Christ and the Son of God, but God himself – although of course Thomas wouldn’t have the Trinitarian language to express this more precisely as “God the Son.”

This is problematic, however, when you start to note how many times Jesus is distinguished from God in the Gospel of John. John 8:40 says it very clearly.

a man, sent by God”

The examples here could be multiplied many times, but a few more will suffice here to drive home the point.

John 5

“I do nothing of my own”

Could God really do nothing on his own? Much of John 5 which features an extended response by Jesus clarifying his relationship with the Father, shows a clear asymmetry between the Son and the Father – the Son is the representative, messenger, and has been delegated authority. These all point towards the Son not claiming to be God, but rather (logically enough!) the Son of God and the Messiah. ‘The Son of God’ was simply a term in common use at the time to single out the Messiah, and is routinely coupled with it (ex., Nathanael in John 1, Peter at Matthew 16:16, and Caiaphas at Matthew 26:63, Mark 14:61). The Gospels clarify that this term ‘the Son of God’ is given by God because Mary will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit (“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David [i.e., be King]. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”” Luke 1:31-35).

Similarly, Jesus distinguishes between himself and God at John 17:3

“And this is eternal life. That they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

where the context makes clear that the ‘you’ is the Father.

Similarly, John 20:31, just after Thomas’ exclamation, gives John’s summary of the most important points from his Gospel.

“But these [i.e., signs] 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.”

What are the important points? That Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. (Note the pairing again – these are closely related in the minds of ancient Jews, as they are in Psalm 2.) No mention of Jesus being God. This is strange, if indeed Thomas’ exclamation was intended to convey that Jesus is not just the Messiah and the Son of God, but God himself.

Obviously, Option 1. is not compatible with Biblical Unitarianism, but is included here to contrast the options that follow. The rest, however, are.

Option 2.

Thomas is expressing surprise. The expression is perhaps similar to saying “Oh my God!” This sounds natural to contemporary English speaking ears, who hear those sorts of mild oaths all the time – but it becomes problematic when transposed to ancient Jewish society, where carelessly uttering God’s name would almost certainly be frowned upon – if not viewed as blasphemous or a violation of a commandment (“Thou shalt not take the Lord your God’s name in vain”). Furthermore, Thomas is making his exclamation to Jesus (“Thomas said to him”), whereas an expression of surprise is generally not most naturally understood as being said to someone.

Option 3.

Thomas is simply mistaken. He thinks Jesus is God, but he’s wrong. You can point to various people being wrong in the Gospel of John as precedent here, including Thomas (John 14). Indeed, a major theme in the Gospel of John is that people are confused about what Jesus is saying and who he is. However, this seems odd coming a) near the very end of John’s Gospel, and b) without correction from Jesus. You might think that the Gospel writer would clarify this error if it were indeed an error of Thomas’. Instead, Jesus seems to approve of Thomas’ exclamation, chiding him only for taking so long to believe.

Option 4.

Thomas called Jesus a ‘god’, not ‘God’. So the phrase would be translated “My Lord and my god,” or more literally “The Lord of me and the god of me.” (With many passages referring to God or a god, context is required in the Greek to know which is which. Ancient Greek did not make a distinction in capitalization.) The commentary to the Revised English Version (a Biblical Unitarian translation) explores Option 4. at length here (and also discusses Option 5. in brief).

This idea of Thomas saying ‘god’ here has the precedent of Jesus himself referring to the gods of Psalm 82 and comparing himself to them in John 10, and has Old Testament precedent in the application of ‘god’ to Moses (Ex.) and judges (Psalm 82), among other things, and it would represent a development of Thomas’ views concerning Jesus and so make sense as a development of a theme within John’s Gospel re Jesus’ identity. However, it is not clear how likely Thomas – an observant monotheistic Jew – would be to use the word ‘god’ to describe Jesus – even with Jesus’ own comparison and Old Testament verses. Also, John does not then go on to note Jesus is a god in his summary at John 20:31, unless you take the Christ and the Son of God to be equivalent to calling Jesus a god. So this shares a problem with Option 1.

This perhaps would be the best option for a Biblical Unitarian – if not for Option 5.

Option 5.

This is the option I will present at length here. As Biblical Unitarian Anthony Buzzard summarizes it in his commentary on John 20:28 (The One God, the Father, One Man Messiah Translation: New Testament with Commentary, footnote 741)

“Finally seeing what he had earlier in ch. 14 missed, that in seeing Jesus you see God the Father in action and word. This of course does not mean that Jesus is the Father! No son is his own father! Thomas certainly did not think that the creed of Israel and Jesus (Mk. 12:29) was suddenly destroyed! John 17:3 defines the Father as “the only one who is true GOD.” John wrote his whole book to prove that Jesus is the Messiah (20:31).”

Buzzard summarizes it well, but a more detailed analysis is in order. (Also see Brother Kel’s commentary here, which has inspired some of the work below.)

The immediate context of Thomas’ exclamation is seeing and more generally having first-hand sensory evidence for the resurrected Jesus, and believing that Jesus is alive. At John 20:18,

“Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”[.]”

Then the disciples at John 20:25 similarly.

“So the other disciples told [Thomas], “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.”

Believe what? The immediate issue is belief in whether Jesus has resurrected, i.e., is alive. Thomas seems to think the other disciples saw a ghost or perhaps someone else, despite their testimonies (cf. Luke 24:36-43 “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”).

After appearing to the disciples again, John 20:27 specifically addresses Thomas who wasn’t there the first time.

“Then [Jesus] 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.

Seeing Jesus’ wounds and touching them will put to rest any idea that Jesus is a ghost or someone else.

Then Thomas 20:28-29

“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.”

Again, believe what? The immediate issue is that Jesus resurrected. But is this the extent of belief involved? After all, Lazarus was resurrected, as was Jairus’ daughter. Why was Jesus’ still being alive so important? The answer is given in the next two lines, John 20:30-31.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these [i.e., signs] 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.”

Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate sign that he is, indeed, the Messiah (compare “no sign will be given to [this generation] except the sign of the prophet Jonah,” i.e., Jesus’ resurrection, Matthew 12:38-41). The whole purpose of John’s Gospel is not to demonstrate that Jesus is God, but that Jesus is (contrary to what many people at the time were saying) the Messiah.

But why does Thomas say “My Lord and my God!”, seemingly going beyond Jesus being the Messiah and the Son of God and calling Jesus instead God Himself?

Having established what the immediate context is about (that Jesus is alive, therefore has resurrected, therefore is the Messiah and the Son of God), we can now move to the larger context of this exchange in John, which gives us the straightforward reason. The larger most relevant context is John 14, which is also the same part of John where Thomas previously speaks to Jesus. Indeed, John 20:28 is a development of John 14. The greatest and final sign of Jesus’ Messiahship is that he has resurrected as he said he would. John 14:18-20

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

‘On that day’. Which day? The day the disciples see him, because he is still alive despite being crucified. What will happen ‘on that day’? The disciples will know that Jesus is in his Father.

John 14:20 here also nicely clarifies the idea that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in Jesus. Similarly, the disciples are in Jesus and Jesus in them. Just as Jesus’ co-inherence with God does not make Jesus God, the disciples’ co-inherence with Jesus does not make them Jesus.

Now let’s move a bit further back in John 14 to Thomas’ interaction with Jesus, John 14:5-7.

“Thomas said to [Jesus], “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way [to the Father], and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Then Philip picks up the exchange (John 14:8-10).

“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. After resurrection, Thomas sees Jesus and exclaims “My Lord and my God!” Thomas is stating his belief in what Jesus is saying here at John 14. Thomas has seen Jesus, and therefore has seen the Father, i.e., God.

That Jesus understands just the Father to be God is made clear repeatedly throughout John, perhaps most straightforwardly at John 17:3 which was quoted in assessing Option 1. above, “And this is eternal life. That they may know you [i.e., the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Why is seeing Jesus seeing God? Because Jesus is the Messiah, as John makes clear in his statement of the purpose of his Gospel at John 20:31 – the messenger, representative, and one with delegated authority from God, who co-inheres with God (as the disciples will co-inhere with Jesus) and therefore says what God tells him to say and does what God tells him to do. Co-inherence is about a deep and abiding spiritual connection with God or Jesus, not identity.

Much more can be said about passages from John which inform Thomas’ exclamation, but the basic point is that John 20:28 must be read in context. The context strongly points toward Jesus claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of God, not God. The character development of Thomas, from John 14 to John 20, gives us the key to understanding Thomas’ exclamation. Now he sees Jesus’ true identity for the first time, and therefore sees his Lord, i.e., Jesus, and his God, i.e., the Father, because he now knows that Jesus co-inheres with the Father and is, indeed, the Messiah and the Son of God who does and says what the Father, i.e., God wants him to do or say.

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  • FWIW, Trinitarians find no objection in your supposed objections re: Option 1. Rather, all you show is the Trinitarian teaching that the persons of the Father and the Son are not the same. Option 4 has an obvious problem with the First Commandment. Also, thank you for pointing out that Option 2 is problematic. (I think there is some perhaps-unnecessary meandering in Option 5, but otherwise, +1.) – Matthew May 19 at 1:39
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I don't use the phrase "Biblical Unitarian," but I'll try to give a biblical answer all the same:

John 20:28 has Thomas saying

"My Lord and my God!"

For Trinitarians, this line is fairly straightforward - Thomas is recognizing that Jesus is not just Lord but also God.

We should understand the mindset that Thomas was in. Thomas, having been told that Jesus had returned from the dead, refused to believe:

John 20:25
25The other disciples therefore said to him, "We have seen the Lord." So he said to them, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe."
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

Eight days later, however, Jesus appeared before Thomas, together with the other ten remaining apostles:

John 20:26-27
26And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, "Peace to you!” 27Then He said to Thomas, "Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

Upon seeing Jesus, Thomas is recorded as saying the words, "My Lord and my God:"

John 20:28
28And Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!"
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

There are several questions that should be considered:

  1. Was Thomas teaching or being taught?

  2. Was Thomas' statement something to be regarded as doctrine or as a mere interjection of shock and surprise?

  3. When John wrote these things, did he intend for the reader to conclude that Jesus is God?

John ends the chapter by answering the last question, stating that he wanted the reader's main takeaway to be that Jesus is the Son of God:

John 20:31
31but 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.
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

Furthermore, John writes earlier in the same chapter that, upon first appearing to Mary Magdalene, Jesus instructs her to go and tell the apostles that He is ascending to the Father, calling Him, "My God and your God," indicating that Jesus intended for them to understand that their God, even Thomas' God, is not Jesus, but the Father:

John 20:17-18
17Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’" 18Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

This doctrine, of course, would have been nothing new to apostles like Thomas, as John writes a few chapters earlier that Jesus introduced the Father as the only true God:

John 17:1, 3
1Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You,
3And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

If Thomas understood this, this would suggest that his statement was merely an interjection of shock and surprise, similar to phrases like "Di Immortales!" and "Di Omnes!" which were used by startled Romans around that time. The issue documented in Chapter 20 was not if Thomas believed that Jesus was God, but if he believed that Jesus was alive.

However, for the sake of argument, let's say for a moment that Thomas really did believe that Jesus was His God, and this is a possibility. While Jesus' nature is not the focus of John's account, Luke, on the other hand, mentions that when Jesus appeared before Thomas and the remaining ten apostles, they believed Jesus to be a spirit:

Luke 24:33, 36-37
33So they rose up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together,
36Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, "Peace to you.” 37But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit.
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

Thomas and the other apostles regarded God as a spirit:

John 4:24
24God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
(The Holy Bible: King James Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962.)

It could then be said that in Luke's account, the apostles, not just Thomas, believed that Jesus was God. Jesus, however, quickly corrects their thinking by showing them that He is different from a spirit:

Luke 24:38-39
38And He said to them, "Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have."
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

Thus, if Thomas did genuinely mistake Jesus for God, in Luke's account of those events, Jesus is shown to correct such thinking, and in John's account, it is clear that only the Father is God, with Jesus being His Son.

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    Many would consider the expression "[oh] my God" blasphemous. Moreover, while modern readers certainly know the expression, can you cite any evidence that this was used as an expression of surprise circa 50 BC? – Matthew May 10 at 21:56
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    @Matthew: It would be its only recorded use as an expression of bewilderment in the whole Scripture, including the Apocrypha. :-) – Lucian May 10 at 22:17
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    The clear and UNambiguous statements throughout the NT regarding Jesus nature and life (being mortal) allows the rational reader to instantly understand that one comment from Thomas does NOT undo all that has been said previously. To think or demand otherwise is quite odd. +1 – user47952 May 10 at 23:00
  • @Adam Fascinating explanation, now if you would please show me where in the Bible it says any of that. – carsonfel May 11 at 11:22
  • @carsonfel "The doubting disciple knew that none of his companions had seen Jesus for a week. They could not have told the Master of his unbelief. He recognized the One before him as his Lord. He had no desire for further proof. His heart leaped for joy, and he cast himself at the feet of Jesus crying, "My Lord and my God."ellenwhite.info/books/… – Adam May 11 at 11:33

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