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Easter Hesitation and Pentecostal Hope

I grew up hearing the story of Easter from before I knew how to talk, but I only noticed Matthew 28:16-17 when I was a teenager: “Now [after Jesus’ resurrection] the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted” (RSV). What did it mean, I wondered with a sense of shock and scandal, that some of Jesus’ followers who saw with their own eyes that he was alive … doubted?

It was Philip Yancey’s book The Jesus I Never Knew that first drew my attention to this unsettling moment in the post-Easter appearances of Jesus. Yancey provided what I now know is a common way to understand this “doubt”:

[T]he Gospels portray Jesus’ followers themselves as the ones most leery of rumors about a risen Jesus. One disciple especially, “doubting Thomas,” has gained the reputation as a skeptic, but in truth all the disciples showed a lack of faith. None of them believed the wild report the women brought back from the empty tomb; “nonsense,” they called it. Even after Jesus appeared to them in person, says Matthew, “some doubted.” The eleven, whom Jesus had to rebuke for a stubborn refusal to believe, can hardly be called gullible.

One could, as Yancey seems to do, spin this Matthean moment for apologetic purposes. By refusing easy comfort, the doubting disciples demand more solid proofs, thereby fortifying the faith of us who believe in their wake, in the absence of the firsthand encounter they had. Alternatively, one could use Matthew’s brief narrative to underscore the ultimate insufficiency of “eyewitness testimony”: if even those who saw the risen Jesus on a mountainside in Galilee could struggle to believe, then we too can breathe a bit easier, knowing that when we doubt, we’re in good company and no worse off than the first generation of Christian believers.

If we look more carefully at Matthew’s Greek text, however, the meaning of the disciples’ doubt becomes less clear. The RSV passage makes it sound as if the disciples are divided into two groups: those who worshiped Jesus, and those (others) who doubted. But, as Walter Moberly points out in The Bible, Theology, and Faith, the Greek syntax does not favor this interpretation. It’s likelier that the subject of the two verbs — worshiped and doubted — is the same group and that it is the entire company of those who meet Jesus on the mountain. This explains why the updated edition of the NRSV differs from the RSV: “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted.” All those who worshiped also doubted, and vice versa.

Moberly proposes one further tweak, though. He asks whether doubted is the best way to render the verb distazo in English, since in the one other place in Matthew’s Gospel where it appears (14:31), it suggests a certain flailing or uncertainty, rather than skepticism. So Moberly translates 28:17: “when [the disciples] saw [Jesus] they reverently prostrated themselves. But they were hesitant.”

But why would the disciples, in the presence of the risen Christ, be hesitant or uncertain? Centuries of Christian tradition have blunted our ability to appreciate the sheer strangeness and shock of one faithful Jew being raised from the dead in advance of the hoped-for general resurrection of all the dead at the culmination of history. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries, schooled in the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel, were eagerly anticipating the latter; none were expecting the former. And so the earliest witnesses of the risen Jesus were confused about what it should mean for them, what it obliged them to say or do. Should they go back to their fishing and hunker down in Galilee for a few more weeks or months (surely not years?) until Jesus returned unambiguously to establish his kingship? Or … what, exactly? Given the bizarreness of Easter morning, just what was the appropriate response?

Maybe this hesitation can help us better understand the assurance, joy, and boldness that came with the end of Jesus’ resurrection appearances and the arrival of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. If seeing Jesus alive brought a kind of happy but hesitant hope, it was what happened next that solidified the disciples’ faith and galvanized their missionary proclamation. With the presence of the Spirit, it now became unmistakably clear that Jesus had been raised and exalted not for some arcane purpose but precisely so that he could be present in a newly empowering, comforting way. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus said before his return to his Father. “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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And, according to Luke, that is exactly what happened ten days later: Jesus’ hesitant followers did remember — with palpable signs and wonders — that he would be with them, and they did begin to go out from Jerusalem to baptize new converts and make disciples.

Some forms of hesitation and doubt will always be with us, but surging underneath them is the Spirit-given confidence that Jesus’ risen life really is for our salvation — and not for ours only but for the whole world’s.

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