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The Apostles' Doubt

The Apostles' Doubt

In the middle of Matthew's report of an appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples, he states, "When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted" (28:17).

Reading this as a middle class American in post-Enlightenment Western civilization in the 21st century, I assume that the doubt of some of the disciples means that they were not yet convinced that Jesus' resurrection was real.  I make this assumption because I bring to my reading of the text the question that bothers many modern people:  How is it possible that resurrection from the dead could happen given our worldview and our understanding of the nature of the universe?

But, what is our question is an anachronism, i.e. a projection of our concerns as 21st century people with a particular worldview upon a text written in the 1st century when people had a different worldview and, therefore, different questions?  What if the doubt Matthew mentions is about something completely different?

While it is true that people in the 1st century were as astonished by the news of Jesus' resurrection as we are (although they would not pose the same particular questions we might pose), and that one general purpose of the appearances of Jesus was to convince his disciples that he had indeed been raised from the dead, a more careful reading of this particular text indicates that the disciples' doubt was not about the reality of Jesus' resurrection or that the one standing before them was real and alive.  (Let the reader beware I am proposing an unconventional interpretation of Matthew 28:17 which I have never encountered in the commentaries of ancient or modern scholars.  I may be wrong, but I offer my view for your consideration.)

Consider the contexts of the comment by Matthew.

For one thing, look again at the sentence in which it is stated that "some doubted."  The comment is made after Matthew has reported that "they worshiped him."  Surely the "some" who doubted were also a part of the "they" who worshiped him.  If the ones who doubted were among those who bowed down before Jesus in worship (a gesture analogous to bowing before Caesar), then isn't it improbable that their doubt was about the reality of his resurrection and presence?

Then consider the larger context of the meaning of Matthew 28:16-20.  This passage is rightly called "the Great Commission."  The risen Jesus appears to his disciples to commission them to be his apostles who will go make disciples of all nations, baptize, and teach what he had commanded.  The doubt of some of the apostles is not about the reality of Jesus' resurrection, but about the mission he gives to them.  (While Matthew describes Jesus' commission to the apostles after he records their doubt, the context of the statement makes clear that the whole meaning of this appearance was about the commission which Jesus is giving to the apostles.  The mission he is giving to them is a confirmation of the mission he had already taught them during his ministry and for which he died.  The only difference between his giving them the mission at this time and his teaching them about this mission in his words and actions during his ministry is that his resurrection was God's stamp of approval on Jesus' teaching.  At any rate, one would hardly expect Matthew to mention the apostles' doubt after Matthew has written about the Lord's commission, for he would not want to end this passage and his whole Gospel with the words:  "but some doubted.")

The Creator's resurrection of Jesus was the vindication of Jesus and his version of the story of Israel.  Jesus' whole career consisted of telling the story of Israel in a new way.  Jesus believed that Israel is the community called by God to be the light to the nations.  He also believed that God's purpose for Israel would be thwarted if Israel persisted in its nationalistic dream of military revolt against Rome, and if it persisted in its path of being an ethnic people centered around the Temple in Jerusalem.  Indeed, he predicted that Jerusalem would be conquered and that the Temple would be destroyed.  If this happened, then Israel would be kaput.  Even if a diaspora of Jews survived to continue their life as an ethnic people centered around the Torah, this would still be a failure of Israel to fulfill its mission to the world and to the Gentile nations.  In order to redeem God's purpose for Israel, Jesus offered himself as the Messiah who represented the true Israel and who would gather a remnant around himself as his disciples and send them into the world.

Against Jesus' telling of the story of Israel were the Shammaite Pharisees, the dominant Pharisee party, who were determined to maintain the purity of Israel by strict adherence to the Torah and to seek a means to rebell against Rome as the Maccabees had done against an earlier regime.  Also standing against Jesus were the chief priest and his party who jealously guarded the institution of the Temple.  Jesus was handed over to the pagan authority to be crucified because his entrenched opponents rejected his alternative vision for Israel and his claim to renew Israel around himself and his agenda.  Jesus rejected their view of Israel, and he summoned the Jews to recover the original meaning of Israel and to renew Israel's mission for the future after centuries of developments which had led to dead ends as far as God's purpose was concerned.

When Jesus commissioned his apostles, he was not telling them something he had not told them before, but now he had been vindicated by the God of Israel, and it was time for his apostles to implement his agenda for Israel.  Yet consider the situation of the apostles themselves.  Here was a little crew of powerless people being asked to carry out Jesus' extraordinary agenda of a mission to the whole world!  Yes, Jesus was raised from the dead and declared Messiah and Lord; but, at that moment, Jerusalem was the same place and the Temple was still standing, and paganism prevailed everywhere under the protection of the powerful emperors of the world.  The task given to the apostles seemed, frankly, incredible and impossible.  That is why I believe that the doubt of some of them was not about the reality of Jesus' resurrection (that is our question), but about the feasibility of carring out the mission Jesus was giving them (that was their question).  Of course, to doubt Jesus' agenda would be to doubt him, for the whole purpose of his career was to renew Israel and to restart its mission around himself as the Messiah.

We are in a similiar situation as disciples today.  We worship Jesus, but do we doubt the mission he gives us?  We face a world whose worldview is resistant to the Gospel, which attempts to squeeze God's church into the mold of a private "religion" which dare not challenge the culture or nation-state, and which, often rightfully, keeps its distance from the church because of the church's own historic compromises by failing to live according to Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  Our task as personal disciples and as the church as a whole is to become the Israel Jesus reconstituted and to do the tasks he gives us.  His agenda is daunting, and it is no wonder that we might doubt that we can take it on.  At the most personal and local levels, many of us laity and clergy sometimes think that our calling is just too impossible to accomplish, and our congregation's mission is too high to attain.  Yet the church is resilient and capable of doing the impossible because our Lord is risen and is with us always until the end of the age.  If there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that being Jesus' disciples on this side of old Christendom is a new adventure.