There is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that can seem puzzling:
Meanwhile, the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted (Matt 28:16-17).
What is this doubt to which the text refers? It is all the more perplexing if we recall that this is not the first time the apostles had encountered the Risen Lord. There are almost a dozen other documented appearances (in Scripture) of Jesus to some or all of the disciples before this final one, which takes place just before His ascension. Why do they still doubt?
The Greek word translated as “doubted” sheds more light on the meaning: it is distázō, which more richly means to “waver” (from dís, (two) + stásis, (stance)). So, the Greek describes having two different stances or vacillating between two positions. Thus, the apostles are not necessarily being described as stubbornly doubting or refusing to believe. It is more likely that they are struggling to believe or understand.
But the question remains, why?
Perhaps we ought to remember that we have the advantage of two millennia of reflection on Christ’s resurrection. For the apostles, the resurrection challenged everything they knew and had experienced. There is a scene in Mark’s Gospel that points to this:
As they were coming down the mountain [of the Transfiguration], Jesus admonished them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this matter to themselves, questioning what it meant to rise from the dead (Mark 9:9-10).
It certainly helped that they had seen both Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain raised from the dead, but those were different; this was Jesus rising by His own power.
Further, the resurrection narratives indicate that there was something mysterious and supernatural in the manifestation of Jesus’ glorified body. Some don’t recognize Him at first. He is not a ghost or an apparition because they can touch Him, and He eats and drinks with them. However, He can appear and then disappear suddenly. So, He is among them, but sporadically and mysteriously.
Thus, there is something quite human in the apostles’ response. How does one get his mind and heart around so startling a mystery? Consider what questions must have been in the mind of each of them: Who is this? Is Jesus a ghost? No, because I can touch Him. It is clearly Jesus, but something seems different about Him. Am I really sure it’s Jesus? Am I dreaming? I can’t just go and see Him now on my own terms, as I did before, because He appears and disappears at will. What does all this mean for me? He keeps saying that He will send the Spirit, who will explain everything. When? How?
Thus, what we are reading is a portrait of quite human apostles, who are trying to process an astonishing event that was previously unimaginable. So remarkable is it that they vacillate, even after having seen Him. At one point, Peter even ponders returning to fishing (See John 21:3).
Jesus does not seem troubled by their “doubt” or wavering; He gives them the great commission anyway:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, go 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 all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20).
Jesus knows that their doubts will be clarified soon enough, when He sends the Holy Spirit to remind them of everything He said (John 14:26), glorify Him in their minds (John 16:14), and lead them to all truth (John 16:13).
Indeed, after Pentecost, the apostles are changed men; they show no wavering or doubt. As we make our way on our journey, the Holy Spirit confirms our faltering faith and makes it more steady, strong, and sure. It is for us to continue to grow and to allow the Holy Spirit to quicken our faith. It is crucial, for the great commission is still upon the Church.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Does It Mean When the Scriptures Say That the Apostles Worshiped the Risen Jesus but That Some Doubted?