When it comes to Jesus, can doubt be a good thing?
No one wants to be seen looking bad. Instead, show us in our best light, right? Seriously. If someone is going to talk about us, we wanna look GOOD.
That is what should have happened at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples, who followed their leader’s instructions and met the resurrected Jesus on a mountaintop, should have looked good right there at the tail end of this gospel. This is, after all, the end of Matthew, the happy ever after part, the challenge and the assurance.
And all does go well with how the final four verses of this gospel ends with one teeny, tiny exception. Just before Jesus gives the Great Commission, we have this: “When they saw him [on the mountaintop], they worshipped him—but some of them doubted (Matthew 28:17).”
Wait, what happened to them looking good, or confident?
Sure, Thomas had some issues with the d-word, but he had yet to see the resurrected Jesus when he held his reservations (John 20:24-29). But this guffaw?
It is unclear who the gospel writer is referring to with the pronoun ‘they’ in verse 17. Many believe this appearance on the mountaintop is where Jesus appeared to “over five hundred of his followers” (1 Corinthians 15:6). It is possible that Jesus’ appearance in the Galilean hillside was to over five hundred, yet no indication of this crowd appears in Matthew’s text. Sure, Matthew could have left out information about the size of the crowd and simply focused on the disciples.
This is what is unquestionable. He didn’t leave out the word doubt.
The word ‘doubt’ in Greek does not convey the connotation we have today. In Greek, the word means hesitation, or it gives the impression of someone saying something like, “Pinch me, I’m dreaming!”
Yet here’s the thing. The disciples knew Jesus. They had been called by, dined with, slept near and had been firsthand witnesses to their teacher’s miracles. So why the hesitation, the hold back?
I think Matthew wisely uses verse 17 because what he says about the disciples is true for us—in the face of the divine, we can be unsure, insecure, shaky, uncertain, baffled or overwhelmed. Recall Peter’s actions when with James and John he saw Jesus transformed as he stood between Moses and Elijah. With befuddlement, Peter wanted to immediately build a temple—an “oops” move.
Doubt can be a tool in our faith formation because it helps us articulate what we do and do not know, where we stand firm and where God calls us to literally take a leap of faith. Appreciate this moment with Jesus and the disciples because it shows our human nature in its indecisiveness or uncertainty. Sometimes we do look through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12) what will be clear one day. We just don’t understand.
By no means is doubt grounds for stopping, shrugging, or turning away because what happens next in this gospel is that, despite some doubting disciples, Jesus came toward them (verse 18). Even in their “lostness,” he made his way toward them.
This is important because Jesus still comes to us, too. No matter where we’ve been in our thoughts, or in our doubts, Jesus makes his way toward us.
For more on the subject of doubt as it relates to faith, click here to read a daily devotional on the subject from Pastor Richard L. Floyd.
This blog first appeared in The Susquehanna County Independent on August 28, 2018.