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Disciples in Distress

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Now, more than in any other epoch, the church needs to reorient her understanding of doubt. James K. A. Smith has noted that in our modern age, “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting.” And so, rather than running from doubt, we must respond to Jesus’ call in the midst of our hesitation. We must see doubt as a temporary companion on the way to intimacy with our Savior.

Numerous stories in Scripture illustrate this paradigm, but none more shocking than the one in Matthew 28:16, 17: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

The first time I took notice of the last clause, it bewildered me. I was studying to give a devotion on Jesus’ Great Commission to the disciples. I tried to answer one question: When Jesus gave the command to “Go, and make disciples of all nations,” why did the Eleven go, but I, and those I know, struggle to move? I wanted to say that after the disciples spent three years with Jesus, after they observed all His miracles and viewed Him in a resurrected body, Jesus sent out a fully committed group of missionaries. Then it hit me: “some doubted.” Yet Jesus still promptly commanded them to “Go.”

This disquieted me. I wanted an excuse for my lack of response to Jesus’ last command.
I wanted to believe that in order to be used by God, you had to be purged of all doubt. You had to surrender your life, with nothing wavering, before He would ever send you. If this were so, then I could focus on my private relationship with God and perfect it before responding to His call. I found the complete opposite. The doubters were sent. This means that you and I are sent too.

“They doubted”

Years later, I returned to Matthew 28:16, 17, and the astonishment of Jesus’ command increased for me. Although, as Donald A. Hagner explains, it could be reasoned from the grammar of this passage that “some doubted” refers to just a few of the disciples. And some theologians have even claimed that those who doubted were not among the Eleven who worshipped. The truth is, both of these perspectives fail to deal with the way the story unfolds in Matthew 28.

To begin with, only the Eleven are mentioned as coming to the mountain. So inventing some unmentioned skeptics who happened to be there is difficult to justify. Furthermore, when the verse says, “but some doubted,” Hagner argues that an equally appropriate translation is “but they doubted.” In support of this, consider how the passage treats disciples as one unit: All eleven disciples came, they all worshipped, they all doubted, and they were all sent out. Jesus did not encourage a few doubters in the group before sending them. He addressed them all with one command. We doubt, and Jesus sends us anyway.

Doubt in Matthew

This Greek word for doubt is used only two times in the New Testament, and both are in Matthew. After Peter sinks into the Sea of Galilee trying to walk on water, Jesus picks Him up. Before entering the boat, while Jesus is still supporting him on the choppy waves, He asks, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).

Doubt is given pictural expression in Peter’s wavering in fear over the strong winds. As Hagner notes in his commentary on Matthew, “The doubt here amounts to hesitation, indecision, . . . and perhaps uncertainty.” Although Peter doubts, he is the only one to answer Jesus’ command to “not be afraid” (v. 27). He is the only one to say, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (v. 28). Peter has faith, and he has doubt. He oscillates in the two while choosing to move toward Jesus. Because of this, he is the only one who is lifted into the arms of Christ over the waters. Peter gets to stand with Christ. The rest remain in the boat of purely natural comfort and miss the intimate comfort of being carried on the waves by Jesus.

When we come to Matthew 28, this story, related by the unique doubt, should be in our minds. In the same way that Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (14:27), He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). In the same way that Jesus told Peter, “Come” (14:29), He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19, 20a). And in the same way that He is ready to lift Peter out of the sea, He says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v. 20b). Jesus is ready to support us on the waters in a moment of intimacy.

Doubt is not something that keeps the disciples from following Jesus. The opposite point is made. Jesus tells Peter to “Come” when he is not even certain whether the figure on the water is his Lord. And Jesus tells the Eleven to “Go” while they worship and doubt.

Going in doubt

As a lifelong doubter, I have always empathized with and envied damsels in distress. In every Superman movie, Lois Lane is terrified of the plane crashing, the volcano erupting, or the bomb exploding. She wonders whether her Superman will rescue her. I, too, wonder whether Jesus will rescue me from my constant mistakes. Every time Lois is swept out of danger into the arms of her helper, I swoon. I envy such a concrete demonstration of love from the One who loves me and gave His life for me.

My reasoning in the last sentence sounds confused, doesn’t it? How could I wish for a greater demonstration of love than the cross of Christ or a greater manifestation of rescue than His resurrection? But I do, and I think the Eleven did too. They still had doubts. They still wavered in their worship. They needed to know that Jesus would be there for them every time they were in distress.

When Peter looked at the waves, he became frightened that he could not stand against them. When the disciples saw the resurrected Jesus, doubt arose in them when they looked at the cross-shaped road ahead of them. As followers of Jesus, would they sink into death? Would the rulers and powers of this world treat them as they had treated their Lord?

Notice that Jesus addresses no such concerns in Matthew 28:16-20. He says that all authority is given to Him. But the text also implies that they will have to teach and model a life of obedience to God even to death. Jesus’ comforting words are “I will be with you always.”

In this last sentence, Jesus draws the disciples to exit every natural security they have and receive His support in the trouble ahead. He commands them to go with their only comfort, that He will be with them as they do so. Jesus’ assurance to His disciples is that He will hold them in His arms through every situation.

Moving to intimacy

Being held by Jesus is the reason to follow His command to “Go.” The disciples could not be motivated by power; their Savior was just crucified by the powerful. They could not be motivated by safety; their Lord just died. They could not be motivated by prosperity; Jesus was just tortured. The reason given to follow the Great Command is to be held by the Great Commander.

The author of Hebrews offers us the same reason: “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . .” (12:1b, 2a). We must look to Jesus not just as our example, though He is certainly that, but also as our source of motivation. If you want to be held, then run to His arms. This means racing directly to the crosses you must bear, and there discovering that He is lifting you up.

A common phrase is to “set yourself up for success.” But Matthew 28 compels the opposite. Answer Jesus’ call where you are wavering most, so that when you fail, He will pick you up.

As doubters, we all want to be held by our Savior. So when He says, “Go” or “Come,” we need to move. We are not ready. We will fail. We still waver with our companion doubt even as we worship. Jesus knows this. Still, He sends us out into the world as His disciples in distress. Behold, He is with us always.

Jonathon Hicks
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Jonathon Hicks and his wife, Danielle, serve the Lodi, CA, Church of God (Seventh Day) congregation, who has taught him much and given incalculable support. He is seeking to love those he has the privilege of speaking to week after week.