Dr. John B. MacDonald
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What do you think of this?

In the very last scene of Matthew’s gospel we read:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16-17 NIV – emphasis added)

Every time I read this I wonder about the juxtaposition of worship and doubt.

How can a person doubt and worship at the same time?  

Denial

A natural reaction is to say worship and doubt cannot co-exist. There are two basic attempts to explain away this tension.

One attempt is to say there were two different groups of people: a group that worshipped and a group that doubted.

Neither the Greek nor the English text allows this.

There was only one group, the eleven disciples. The eleven worshipped Jesus, but some of the eleven doubted.

A second attempt is to say there were two different times: at one time the eleven worshipped and at another time some of the eleven doubted.

Again, neither the Greek nor the English text allows this. The grammar requires us to conclude the worship and the doubt took place at the same time.

How do we understand this tension between worship and doubt?

Here are a couple of insights.  

Worship

First, is Matthew’s word worship.

Here, worship translates the Greek word proskuneō which our English translations also render as bow down or prostrate. We first encounter this word in Matthew when the wise men, or magi, come to worship the young child, Jesus (Matthew 2:2, 8, 11).

The Greek word is based on kuneō meaning “to kiss.” It designates the Ancient Near Eastern custom of bowing down before a person, such as a deified king, and kissing his feet or the hem of his garment to “express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure.”[1]  

For Matthew, worship is a term that expresses complete dependence on, and submission to, the Lord Jesus Christ.  

Doubt

Second, is the word doubt.

The word doubt is a rendering of the Greek word distazō. The only other time this word is used in the Bible is during a storm on the Sea of Galilee (click here for the text of Matthew 14:22-33).

As Jesus approaches the storm-tossed boat, Peter speaks:

"Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water."

"Come," he said. 

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me! 

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt (distazō)?" (14:28-31)

Did you note how Jesus relates doubt (distazō) and little faith? He says “little faith” not “no faith.” 

This word doubt (distazō) is best understood in the sense of “hesitate” or “waver.”

The Greek word for little faith” is linked with worry (6:30), fear (8:26; 14:30), and lack of understanding or discernment (16:8).  

Between worship and doubt

Following Jesus is a life lived in the tension between worship and doubt.

On one hand, we are drawn to Jesus in adoration, obedience, submission, and dependence.

On the other hand, we experience hesitance, worry, fear, lack of understanding or discernment, and more.

Despite this tension, we continue to follow Jesus. 

Three examples 

We’ve just watched Peter as he walks toward Jesus on the Sea – worship. But he becomes afraid and begins to sink – doubt. When they’re safely in the boat they worship.

Peter makes an astonishing statement about Jesus: “You are the Christ the Son of the living God” (16:16) – worship. A moment later he takes Jesus aside and “began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!’” (16:22) – doubt

At the “last supper,” Jesus tells the disciples of his impending crucifixion and says that the disciples will abandon him. Peter declares “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (26:35) – worship. And yet, within hours, he swears three times that he doesn’t know Jesus (26:69-74) – doubt

Is that the end of Peter?

What about us? 

If you’re a follower of Jesus, are you any different than Peter? 

I’m not. 

Do you, with the best of intentions, say or commit or do something because of Jesus – worship? And a short time later, because of worry, fear, or lack of understanding, do you act as you’ve never known Jesus – doubt?

We grow as a disciple in the place of tension between worship and doubt. Like a toddler, we take our first hesitant steps. We fall – sometimes we get hurt. Then we get up again. Eventually, we learn to walk – and then run. There’s always more: learning, doing, growing. 

Frederick Buechner says “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” There’s truth in that.

Peter never forgot that he walked on water for a moment – it marked his life, stretched his threshold of fear, and expanded his understanding of who he was, and who Jesus is. Eventually, Peter was even martyred in the name of Jesus.

And so it is with you and me.

We worship. Then we run into our worries, or our fears, or the limits of our understanding of God’s ways – and we doubt. He speaks a word of rebuke or encouragement; he reaches out a hand for us to grab as we sink.

We begin to worship again in an ever-expanding wonder of life in Christ.

So, as a follower of Jesus, live with expectancy and joy in that place of growth between worship and doubt. 

Click here to listen to this as a podcast   

FORWARD TO Living Between Attraction and Fear                  

[1]              W. Bauer, F. W. Danker, and others, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed.

Photo Credit: John B Lombardo via Compfight cc

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