When the risen Jesus appeared to his gathered disciples on the first Easter evening, the Apostle Thomas was not present (John 20.19-24). They later told him they had seen Jesus. Thomas said he wouldn’t believe it unless he saw Jesus himself (v. 25).
One week later the risen Jesus appeared again to his gathered disciples, with Thomas present. Jesus then showed his nail prints to Thomas, spoke to him about his unbelief, and Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God” (John 20.28).
Christians have believed that by making this confession, Thomas called Jesus “God.” And nearly all conservative, New Testament (NT) scholars agree and claim it is the strongest biblical evidence that Jesus is God. Most historical critical scholars believe this was the author’s intent but that this confession by Thomas was not historical and therefore it is fiction.
Christians as well as both types of scholars have erred regarding the meaning of Thomas’ confession. We must accept that Thomas said that. But what did he mean? No other NT character calls Jesus “God,” which would depart from Jewish monotheism. Plus, John records two other occasions when Jesus’ antagonists accused him of making himself out to be God, and both times he then denied it (John 5.18-47; 10.30-37).
People have exceedingly misunderstood Thomas’ words “my God.” Their interpretation that Thomas therein called Jesus “my God” ignores this gospel’s context, which unlocks the meaning of Thomas’ confession.
For instance, John records that the risen Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene a week prior to this Thomas incident. He told her, “go to My brethren, and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’” (John 20.17). So, the risen Jesus called the Father “My God.” But how can Jesus be God if he has a God? Indeed, John would not have meant that Thomas called Jesus “my God” when this author had just recorded that Jesus called the Father “My God.”
Moreover, only one verse after Thomas’ confession John concludes his gospel by writing, “Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed … but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20.30-31). This statement would be anti-climactic following Thomas’ confession if he therein called Jesus “my God.” That is, it would be far greater to proclaim that Jesus is God than that he is the Son of God. But calling Jesus “the Son of God” does not mean he is God.
The key to understanding Thomas’ confession “my God” is found in the conversation John reports Jesus had with his apostles Thomas and Philip at the Last Supper, only ten days prior. Jesus told them he would soon go to “My Father’s house” (John 14.2). He meant his heavenly ascension which would soon follow his impending death and resurrection. Then John adds,
4 “And you know the way where I am going.” 5 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. 7 If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” 8 Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own initiative; but the Father abiding in Me does his works. 11 Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me.”
Jesus’ words, “the Father is in Me,” must have left a strong impression on Thomas. Indeed, these words are the key to correctly understand what doubting Thomas later meant when he said to Jesus, “my God.” When Thomas said that, he was acknowledging what Jesus had taught him ten days prior, that God the Father is in Jesus.
Jesus had taught the same thing many days earlier. He had said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30). His Jewish opponents misunderstood him and were about to stone him for saying that. They accused him of “blasphemy,” saying, “You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (v. 33). Jesus implicitly denied this and explained this oneness as “the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (v. 38). Scholars call this concept the Mutual Indwelling.
Some ill-taught Christians get confused about Jesus’ words in John 14.9—“He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” They think he therein claimed to be the Father, which is quite wrong. In the third century, Sabellius taught that Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit are all one person, and the Catholic Church rightly declared it heretical. Jesus and NT writers constantly distinguished the Father and Jesus as two separate individuals, that is persons.
The Johannine Jesus taught something similar to this Mutual Indwelling on other occasions. For example, when he attended a feast at Jerusalem, “Jesus cried out and said, ‘He who believes in Me does not believe in Me, but in Him who sent Me. And he who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me’” (John 12.44-45). Again, Jesus was talking about God the Father. In fact, the Father sending the Son is the most prominent theme in the Gospel of John, occurring 40 times.
This indwelling of God in Christ, and God sending Christ, reflects the concept of agency. In antiquity, especially in the business world and among Jews, a principal would select someone to represent him as his agent. It was common knowledge that a man’s son usually proved to be the best candidate as his agent. So, with the son as agent, dealing with a man’s son was akin to dealing with the man himself, as if the father was in his son.
The Johannine Jesus taught this concept of agency in various ways concerning himself and God his Father. Jesus often said that the Father had given him his words and deeds (John 12.49; 14.10, 24; 17.8). And he said of the Father, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (7.16-17). Notice he distinguishes himself from God, that is, the Father. Another time Jesus said, “I have come in My Father’s name,” and he then called the Father “the one and only God” (5.43-44). This is similar to what the Johannine Jesus later prayed to the Father, saying, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (17.3).
To rightly understand Jesus in the Gospel of John, Agent Christology can hardly be over-emphasized. It is the corrective to misinterpreting several Johannine texts in which Jesus is wrongly identified as God by (1) him claiming to be God or (2) him as God becoming a man (incarnation).
Moreover, in John’s gospel Agent Christology, also called Sending Christology, is the primary focus of saving faith for believers (John 16.27-30; 17.8). As God’s supreme agent, the Johannine Jesus functioned as God without actually being God.
(In my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ (2008), I devote 17 pages to explaining Thomas’ words “my God” in John 20.28 and cite 38 scholars. In using John 14.9, 11 as key to understanding Thomas’ confession, I regard this as the pinnacle of my research in this book. It is a God-in-Christ interpretation of Thomas’ words “my God” rather than the traditional Christ-is-God interpretation of them. Buy this book at servetustheevangelical.com. And see our website christiansforonegod.com.)