Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.
– Matthew 28:16-17
Slipped into the final chapter of Matthew is this curious statement ‘but some doubted’. Even curiouser is that this is the 11 disciples Matthew is talking about – not a big crowd (as I had first imagined this scene before reading a little more carefully!)
I checked what this might mean in some other translations. It seems another way of putting it is that ‘some hesitated’ or some ‘held back’ from fully worshipping Jesus. I guess that’s what the word ‘doubt’ means. If you doubt a bridge can take your weight, you hold back from putting your full weight on it in one go and tentatively put one foot out, pressing it down lightly to test it.
Jesus leaves the disciples (ascends to heaven) 40 days after his resurrection. The 11 disciples have had 6 weeks with the risen Christ. That’s hardly long enough to have worked through the crushing grief of Jesus’ execution and then the ecstasy of the empty tomb and then the realisation that God’s plan, as Jesus is now teaching, is nothing like they thought it would be. I know I would still be reeling.
I guess our first thought when we hear the word ‘doubt’ in relation to the disciples is of Thomas. Matthew doesn’t name here who doubted but he says ‘some’ – that’s definitely more than 2. I wonder if it might have included Peter? Peter has broken down and Jesus has restored him (in one of the most moving scenes in the gospels on the beach in Galilee). Once before Peter had promised “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Matthew 26:33) and he failed to keep that promise. Perhaps here on the mountain with Jesus Peter is more aware of his frailties, he’s got it wrong before – perhaps he’s wrong again?
Notice how Jesus makes no reference to the doubters – despite the fact that it must have been quite obvious who was holding back. Notice also that Matthew includes the statement ‘but some doubted’. If he had fabricated the gospel why would he have included such a statement about the future fathers of the church?
Jesus always has room for doubters.
He heals the child of a doubting father after he honestly says “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And of course there’s Thomas!
In this scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is giving what many Christians call ‘the great commission’ to his followers – the big task to share the good news throughout the world. And he is giving it to a group of hesitant almost-believers!
Very few of us are ever 100% sure about things we do and decisions we make. It almost impossible to have that level of certainty about anything in life.
That’s what brings me to share the other lesson I’ve learned reading Matthew’s gospel this Lent. I have pointed out that a lot of Jesus’ strongest words are reserved for the ‘religious’. Basically people who believe they are 100% right about their faith and how to live by its law. Jesus points out how wrong they are quoting this scripture:
‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’
Jesus wants us to be unsure – not unsure of Him but unsure of ourselves. He needs us to be aware of our inability to comprehend God, our inadequacy before him:
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Perhaps that is why he chose no ‘properly trained’ men to be his disciples but uneducated fishermen.
I am reading a book by Kester Brewin at the moment. In the middle of a blank page at the front of the book are these words (brackets his):
[I might be wrong]
What a healthy attitude to have! I’d like to try and adopt this as a motto (I can hear my family laughing now as I’m notorious for always thinking I’m right!)
In other words, don’t be so sure of yourself! Be sure of God but don’t put your view of God or understanding of God on the same level as the actual Truth of God – therein lies the error of the Pharisees.
You can witness this folly on both sides of the current debates between the New Atheists (like Dawkins and Hitchens) and Fundamentalist Christians. Both are too sure of their position. I wonder what Jesus would have made of their debates?
I would advocate for Christians a healthy agnosticism in our own ability to understand God along with a healthy dose of faith in the God revealed to us in scripture and by the Holy Spirit*.
I think this is where the disciples were at as they stood on that mountain. It’s a good place to be.
Don’t worry, I haven’t lost my faith! I believe in God as wholeheartedly as is possible. I believe in God as much as I believe in the love of my husband. However, when we got married, neither of us were 100% sure about the commitment we were making. No one ever is – if they say they are then they’re deluded. But we were both sure enough to make vows about it. We can’t prove our love for each other to other people but we know it’s real. It’s the same for my belief in God, in Jesus’ death for me and in his resurrection. I know it’s real.