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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? May 9, 2021 at 18:26
  • 2
    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, 2021 at 19:22
  • 1
    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, 2021 at 9:41
  • 1
    @ 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, 2021 at 22:52
  • 1
    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, 2021 at 22:59

5 Answers 5

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Thomas, after a few years of being with Jesus most days and nights, talking, sharing, teaching, reading perhaps and retelling stories of miracles, ages past, and adding a new dimension that pointed to ages future.

The man Jesus, the son of God, had called Thomas to be one of the 12! Thomas, like many of us, answered the call, the invitation, to be with Jesus, to trust him, to believe him, to follow him to some amazing, and, some dark, dark places. Like us, he had no concept of what his 'yes' would entail or lead to - what it would do to his life - forever on.

Jesus tried to explain, again and again in many ways, but they all had huge gaps in their understanding and belief. (remember they went fishing after Jesus died, as that was one of the only things they knew was true right then in their bewildered and troubled state John 21:3)

Jesus told them these truths - they heard his words, but understood not yet what they meant;

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. John 14:1

v5 Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how do we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.

v7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him

v10 The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father abiding in me does His works

16:32 I am not alone, because the Father is with me

20:24 "But Thomas,...said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

No one has seen the Father. But in Jesus, who is the image, the likeness, the form of God, they slowly began to understand who God was. In Jesus, they got to KNOW God by knowing Jesus. From John 14:7, to 'see', means to know - to understand, to believe, to trust! Not see with the eyes - but know with the heart and soul - to sense the same spirit from God working in them, and in Jesus also!

When Jesus was made alive with a new spirit life (1 Pet 3:18) - now the pieces started to fit, the words make more sense! This Jesus, who said he was the son of God (wow!), who said he and the Father were ONE! (not one substance or something, but one in purpose and spirit John 17:11,22), and Jesus said they should be 'one with him' as he was with the Father.

Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

There is nothing incorrect with Thomas' exclamation. He is perfectly correct - so long as we understand what he meant, and not draw our own conclusions.

Thomas went from NOT believing to believing. In what? He believed in God. But not yet in the one God had sent, he didn't trust who Jesus said he was. Thomas needed a sign. He got two signs to help and enable his belief in Jesus, his Lord and deepen his understanding of God.

(Jesus) said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, and no sign will be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Matt 12:39

Thomas began to believe two distinct truths.

  1. he finally, fully accepted Jesus as his Lord!
  2. he saw his God in the resurrected Christ Jesus - just as Jesus had been telling them.

No, Thomas didn’t literally see God, he saw Jesus who had always been showing them the Father. He now understood the depth and significance of Jesus’ words. Thomas was finally grasping that the Father God was revealed IN Jesus and that Jesus fully represented God - not that Jesus WAS God.

God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself 2Cor 5:19

And echoing Job's monumental discovery,

My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Job 42:5

Thomas saw afresh the God who sent Jesus to show them who the Father was.

And Jesus cried out and said, “The one believing in me, does not believe in me, but in the One having sent me. 45 And the one beholding me, beholds the One having sent me. John 12:44-

49For I did not speak from myself, but the Father Himself, having sent me, gave me a commandment, what I should say and what I should speak. 50And I know that His commandment is eternal life. Therefore, what I speak, as the Father has said to me, so I speak.”

Jesus is not the main focus here - he never was! He always pointed to his God who gave him all he needed to represent Him - his words, actions and authority. So Thomas, on seeing this risen Jesus - finally began to believe! From NOT believing (20:24, unless he saw the scars)

We can see that Thomas knew from Jesus' words that his God and Jesus could not be the same person. Jesus is speaking to Thomas specifically. Thomas already expressed doubt in Jesus' words (John 20:25) unless I put my fingers in his hand etc. Jesus had prepared Thomas for his awakening after he sees Jesus was raised from the dead. (Did Thomas think Jesus raised himself? That's not what Jesus had been teaching them, John 11:23-)

As if Thomas would expect his GOD, Yahweh, to have nail holes in his hands! Let alone die on a cross and be dead for 3 days!

From this scriptural basis, carefully preserved for us, we do not have to draw impulsive conclusions from one verse alone.

Thomas addressed two persons - His Lord Jesus, and his God Yahweh whom Jesus perfectly represented.

Jesus *said to him, “Because you have seen me, have you now believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Jesus has not corrected Thomas regarding the 'my God' declaration. He has expressed joy at Thomas getting what he had said all along - if you see me you have seen the Father -

the one beholding me, beholds the One having sent me. John 12:44

"Blessed are they who believe" without seeing the signs that Thomas saw. He saw his Lord and in his Lord, he also saw the God who sent his Lord!

Not only did Thomas see his God through Jesus, he finally accepted his Lord Jesus too!

+++++++++++++++++++

We could mistake what Thomas meant. We might construe it to mean Jesus IS God - as many have done. But to do so is to ignore the repetitive and consistent statements from Jesus who said that he was;

  • 'a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God' John 8:40

  • who could do nothing of himself - no words, no miracles, unless the Father did it through him - giving Jesus the authority to do God's bidding.

  • a Lamb sent to die (and was raised by his Father and God)

  • exalted to the heavens to be with the Father (appointed heir of all things Heb 1:2)

We can ignore the statements from the Apostles about Jesus having a God;

1 Pet 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7, Eph 1:3, Col 1:3, 2 Cor 1:3, 11:31, Rom 15:6, Acts 2:36

Phil 2:9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above all names

John 20:17 I ascend to my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.

The Apostles clearly understood and taught that Jesus was certainly NOT God, but the glorious son OF God, expressed consistently by the extensive and inspired narrative.

Even when Jesus is ascended at God's right hand, he still refers to God as 'my God', Rev 1:5-6, 3:2, 12.

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  • Well Done. I will be marking this as a favorite.
    – User 14
    Nov 11, 2021 at 13:21
  • +1 Great exposition of something similar to what I put forward as Option 5 in my answer. Nov 11, 2021 at 19:55
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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, 2021 at 1:39
  • " Rather, all you show is the Trinitarian teaching that the persons of the Father and the Son are not the same." Sure. But Trinitarians have to then implicitly paraphrase various verses so that, for ex., God -> God the Father. Nov 19, 2021 at 21:20
  • Perhaps option 5 is where divine simplicity comes into play. May 25 at 11:25
  • @MikeBorden Can you say more? May 25 at 16:58
  • Not in comments. May 26 at 11:43
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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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  • 3
    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, 2021 at 21:56
  • 1
    @Matthew: It would be its only recorded use as an expression of bewilderment in the whole Scripture, including the Apocrypha. :-)
    – Lucian
    May 10, 2021 at 22:17
  • 2
    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
    – steveowen
    May 10, 2021 at 23:00
  • 1
    @DJClayworth Jesus rebukes Thomas in v29 for not believing that He had returned from the dead, which isn't relevant to the question of Jesus' nature. Luke's account, however, picks up the issue.
    – carsonfel
    May 11, 2021 at 17:26
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    @MikeBorden There's a reason, Mike, why the word used in Matt. 14:26 for "spirit" is "phantasma," and why in Luke 24:37 the word for "spirit" is "pneuma." God is "pneuma." This is no accident.
    – carsonfel
    May 12, 2021 at 13:15
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In John 20:28, Jesus became god to Thomas in the same sense in which Moses was god to Pharaoh. Exodus 7:1 ASV

Jehovah said unto Moses, See, I have made thee as God to Pharaoh; and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.

Consider too Jesus' recognition of Psalm 82:6 where judges are called gods in John 10:34.

John 10:34 ASV

Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, ye are gods?

Thus, Jesus' use of god in John 10:34 as a title of men of authority indicates that the word god was not limited to its absolute sense as it is used for the Supreme God as we use it today.

In the same chapter of John, Jesus told his disciples that he (Jesus) was ascending to his God and their God John 20:17.

John 20:17 ASV

Jesus saith to her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended unto the Father: but go unto my brethren, and say to them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.

In John 20:27

Jesus told Thomas to stick his hand into the side of Jesus.

John 20:27 ASV

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and see my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and put it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

If we consider these verses, how could Jesus be God in the same sense of his statement in John 4:24, Luke 24:39, John 17:3, and John 20:17?

John 4:24 ASV

God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Luke 24:39 YLT

see my hands and my feet, that I am he; handle me and see, because a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me having.

John 17:3 ASV

And this is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.

Thomas' statement in John 20:28 could not be taken to mean that he meant Jesus was the Supreme God because he knew that Jesus prayed to and worship the only true God. John 17:3

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  • 1
    +1 Great context added to Thomas' statement. Reading this made me think about how Option 4. and Option 5. I give in my answer can be quite similar. If by 'god' one means 'the icon of God', then when seeing Jesus, one sees God, because Jesus is the icon of God. Nov 19, 2021 at 17:26
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After God resurrected Jesus, He appeared to His disciples, but Thomas was not with them. When they told Thomas that Jesus is alive, he did not believe. But, a few days later, Jesus again appeared to them and this time Thomas was with them. When He saw Jesus, and when Jesus showed him His wounds, he exclaimed with great joy: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Jesus did not correct Thomas.

CLEAREST PROOF

Elsewhere, the New Testament has a very high view of Christ. For example, Jesus always existed (Rev 1:17; John 1:1-2; 1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17) in the form of God and with equality with God (Phil 2:6), and God made and maintains all things through His Son (Heb 1:2-3). However, in the view of some, John 20:28 is the clearest proof of Christ's deity.

THOMAS DID NOT SAY, JESUS IS GOD.

In contrast, the first purpose of this article is to show that 'Jesus is God' cannot be the right interpretation of John 20:28.

A STRICT MONOTHEIST

Firstly, Thomas, like all Jews, was a strict monotheist (cf. Deut 6:4). It would have required a huge amount of persuasion to convince the disciples otherwise, namely that Jesus is God.

WHAT JESUS TAUGHT

Secondly, Jesus never attempted to change the views of the disciples in this regard. Jesus never taught that He is God. On the contrary, He always made a clear distinction between Himself and God (e.g., John 17:3).

And when the Jews accused Him: "You ... make Yourself out to be God," Jesus immediately corrected them: "I said, I am the Son of God" (John 10:36). "Son of God" is a synonym for the title "Christ," a Greek word that means “the anointed one,” or “the chosen one” (cf. John 1:49; 11:27; 20:31; Matt 26:63).

So, if Jesus during the preceding three years never attempted to teach His disciples that He is the Most High, how on earth could Thomas have thought that He is?

THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT

Thirdly, in the immediate context of John 20, we can see that the disciples, at that time, did not understand Jesus to be God. For example:

  • A few days before His death Jesus addressed His Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3).
  • The day after He died, the disciples described Him as “a prophet … the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).
  • A few days before Jesus appeared to Thomas, He referred to the Father as His God (John 20:17).
  • Just three verses after Thomas’ exclamation, John, summarizing his gospel, identified Jesus not as God but as "the Christ, the Son of God" (John 20:31).

WHAT THE DISCIPLES TAUGHT

Fourthly, we also see what the disciples believed in what they taught afterward. A few weeks after John 20:28, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and preached as recorded in the Book of Acts. If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their constant and main message. But they not even once proclaimed Jesus as God. On the contrary, they consistently made a clear distinction between God and Jesus (e.g., Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15, 26). If it is true that John 20:28 teaches the deity of Jesus, why didn’t the apostles preach it even once in the book of Acts?

WHAT PAUL TAUGHT

Fifthly, what the disciples believed in this regard is also reflected in Paul's letters. He is the most important writer of the New Testament and wrote decades after Thomas met Jesus. Paul never taught (at least explicitly) that Jesus is God. On the contrary, Paul continued to make a distinction between God and Jesus (e.g., Rom 10:9; 1 Tim 5:21; 1 Cor 11:3). Paul did describe Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), through whom God made all things (Col 1:16), in whom “all the fullness of Deity dwells” (Col 2:9), who “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6). Nevertheless, it is important to understand that all these statements make a distinction between Jesus and God, meaning that Jesus is NOT God.

THE HIGH VIEW

Lastly, we must also remember that the high view of Christ, which we find, for example, in John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:15-17, and Hebrews 1:2-3, was revealed by the Holy Spirit, particularly to John and Paul, decades after the events of John 20:28. Consequently, at the time of John 20:28, Thomas and the disciples did not yet understand who Jesus really is. They had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal.

CONCLUSION

For the three years or more before John 20:28, Jesus taught His disciples but He never taught them that He is God. Neither did the disciples, after Thomas said this, teach that Jesus is God. Therefore, Thomas could not have said that Jesus is God.

Remember, Thomas doubted that Jesus was alive. In other words, he thought of Jesus as a mortal being. It is simply unsound logic to argue that, just by seeing Jesus alive, his view of Christ immediately jumped from being a mortal man to being the immortal God.

WHAT DID THOMAS MEAN?

This second part discusses what Thomas could have meant to say. The following possible meanings are discussed below:

  1. The basic meaning of the Greek word theos is an immortal being with supernatural powers – such as the Greek gods. Since Thomas described Jesus as “my theos” after he saw that Jesus is alive, Thomas could have described Jesus as such.

  2. Jesus referred to people “to whom the word of God came” as theos ("gods" - John 10:35). Since the Father did send Jesus and gave Him His message (e.g., John 8:16, 26), Thomas could have described Jesus as such.

  3. The word theos can also be used in a qualitative sense, namely as "Godlike" (cf. Col 1:15; Heb 1:3).

  4. When theos is preceded by ho (the), it almost always refers to the supreme Divinity. (There are exceptions. For example, Satan is also referred to as ho theos in 2 Cor 4:4.) In the Greek of John 20:28, Thomas did not merely say theos; he said ho theos. Therefore, another possibility is that Thomas used theos to refer to the Father. In other words, Thomas, in the extreme joy of the moment, cried out something like, “Oh my Lord (Jesus) and oh my God (the Father).” In that way, Thomas exclaimed “my God” as praise directed at God, the Father, for raising Jesus. Since ho theos usually refers to the Father, it probably also has that meaning in John 20:28.

CONCLUSION

As shown in the first part of this article, it is not possible that Thomas could have thought that Jesus is God. In the second part, a number of alternative possible meanings have been considered. Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine exactly what Thomas meant. But two things should be clear:

  • Thomas did not say that Jesus is God.
  • There are several other valid interpretations of the phrase.

This is a summary. See the full article for a further discussion.

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  • +1 Very good summary of contextual considerations. May 25 at 16:54
  • the high view of Christ, which we find, for example, in John 1:1-2 BU do not consider that this verse refers to 'Christ'. The Christ is the logos become flesh (v14) - which happened when Jesus was conceived/born. Trinitarians like to conflate this to read, 'in the beginning was Jesus', which is without any merit whatsoever and denies the inspired text. Generally a good explanation tho.
    – steveowen
    May 26 at 6:50
  • Further, Jesus has not always existed - he began with Mary according to the Gospels. This revelation requires no interpretation - all the other texts mentioned do require considerable imagination to make them fit the 'Jesus always existed' idea. This is BU 101.
    – steveowen
    May 26 at 6:55
  • @steveowen Steve, I added references to the passages which say that God created all things THROUGH His Son. By implication, "all things" include time. Therefore, the Son existed for all time.
    – Andries
    May 27 at 10:38
  • I'm sorry Andries, you are not reading the text. John 1:1 does not mention a son or Jesus. The Q calls for a BU response which your answer is not with your interpretation of the scriptures re. Jesus and is not contextual or exegetical but from a traditional reading.
    – steveowen
    May 27 at 11:01

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