Doubt and Hesitation

This coming Sunday is the Solemnity of the Ascension. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Many English translations offer “but some doubted.”  Unfortunately the word “some” does not appear in the Greek text.  The only two valid translations are “they worshiped, but they doubted (hesitated)” or “they worshiped and they doubted (hesitated).”  It is hard to avoid the simple statement of the text: those who worship are also those who doubt.

Mark Allan Powell writes about this verse in his book, Loving Jesus [121].

… I want to note that the word some is not actually found in the Greek Bible. Why is it in the English version? Well, Matthew uses a particular construction here that allows translators to think that the word some could be implied. He also uses that construction in seventeen other instances, though no one ever seems to think the word is implied in those cases. It could be implied here, but why would it be? I asked a Bible translator that question one time and got the following response: “The verse wouldn’t make sense otherwise. No one can worship and doubt at the same time.” I invited this fellow to visit a Lutheran church. We do it all the time.

However, this verse is understood, it illustrates that the separation of the wheat and weeds has not yet occurred (13:39, 40). Both worshipers and doubters are present in the community and/or in individuals.

It is also to be noted that whether worshipers and doubters are two groups of people, or a description of the whole group, Jesus gives the Great Commission to them all – to the worshipers and doubters alike.

The word translated “doubt” (distazo) is a verbal form of dis = twice, double. It is not “disbelieving” (apisteuo) so much as wavering between two (or more) strong possibilities. We might say, “to have second thoughts.” Its only other occurrence in the NT is Mt 14:31, where Jesus after saving Peter from sinking, criticizes him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter, seeing Jesus and himself walk on water, knows that it is possible to do that; but Peter also knows the strong possibility that people sink in water. He wavers. He walks on water and he sinks into the water. After they get into the boat, the wind ceases, and then 14:33 states: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’“ (The Greek for “worship” in 14:33 is the same word in 28:17).  The two times that the disciples doubt Jesus, they also worship him.

Powell [123]writes more about this:

I think that worship is the essence of spirituality. But worship … can sometimes be superficial. In Matthew 15, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they worship God with their lips while their hearts are far from God. The Pharisees, of course, are often the fall guys in this Gospel and they seem to stay in trouble the whole time. Still, say what you will about the Pharisees — the one thing they never do is doubt. They are always certain about everything. They are the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” people of the Bible. It never occurs to them that they might have overlooked something or misunderstood something. As a result, they are often wrong, but they are never in doubt.

By contrast, disciples of Jesus worship and doubt at the same time — and Jesus doesn’t call their worship superficial. It might be going too far to say that doubt is a good thing, but I do note that Jesus never rebukes anyone for it. I am tempted to believe that, just as fear seasons joy, so doubt seasons worship. Joy without fear becomes shallow, and worship without doubt can be self-assured and superficial. Fear and doubt are not good things in themselves, but they do keep us grounded in reality.

Eugene Boring (502-3) says this about the verse: “Whatever the nature of the resurrection event, it did not generate perfect faith even in those who experienced it firsthand. It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshiping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.”  We are commissioned even if we don’t fully comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity or if we are unable to understand the Creed or even if we waver in our own faith.

We should note that in response to their ‘doubt/hesitation’ Jesus came and spoke to them in reassurance (just as he did in 17:7, the only other place where Matthew uses the verb ‘come’ of Jesus).

Image credit: Jesus’ ascension to Heaven depicted by John Singleton Copley in Ascension (1775) Public Domain

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