The relationship between faith and doubt has exercised the best of Christian minds. We can trace this tension back to the very origins of Christianity. Jesus faces the strange admixture of worship and uncertainty several times in the response of his disciples to his actions. It is possible — might we even say normal – to worship the Lord Jesus with an obedience mixed with uncertainty and hesitation.
Although there are several words used in the New Testament to express the concept of doubt (diakrinō and dialogismos), we will focus on the verb distazō, which occurs in the New Testament only at Matthew 14:31 and 28:17.
The verb distazō has the basic sense of uncertainty that arises from trying to choose between two options. It carries connotations of hesitation about a course of action or can mean to doubt or waver. Plato and Aristotle both use it to express the idea of doubt. Several centuries later the Hellenistic-Jewish author of the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates (c. 130 BC) describes how in response to the provision of seventy-two scholars to translate the Hebrew Pentateuch into Greek, Ptolemy Philadelphus produces several gifts for the Temple in Jerusalem. One of these gifts is a new table for the showbread. The king wanted “to increase the proportions fivefold, but…doubted (distazein) whether such a table might be useless for priestly ministrations.” In this context we discern the sense of the verb as hesitation about acting in a certain way because the implications of that act were unknown or perceived to be unfortunate.
Towards the end of the first century A.D. Josephus wrote his Jewish War. In Book II he recounts the life of Herod the Tetrarch, who ruled Galilee during Jesus’ ministry. The Roman emperor Gaius appointed Agrippa king over the former tetrarchy of the deceased Philip. When Herod the Tetrarch heard this, he became envious. Herodias, Herod’s wife, spurred him on, according to Josephus, by saying “Now that he [Gaius] has made a king of Agrippa, a mere commoner,…surely he could not hesitate (distaseien) to confer the same title on a tetrarch.” Unfortunately, Gaius responded quite differently and banished Herod to Spain, where he died. Here again the sense of hesitation is clear, but applied to a different set of circumstances.
This verb also conveys a sense of doubt, hesitation and uncertainty in writings by Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus. Plutarch in one of his essays gives advice to a person who feels a headache coming on. Such a person “hesitates [distazonta] about bathing and taking food, [but] a friend will try to hold him back.” Diodorus Siculus, an historian living in the first century B.C., described the war between the cities of Syracuse and Carthage. When Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general sought to deceive the magistrates of Syracuse into surrendering the city, “the magistrates,…being in doubt [distazontes], watched closely that there might be no disorder, but they sent the envoys [from Carthage] away at once.”
In Matthew 14:22-33 Jesus, after the feeding of the five thousand, sends his disciples in a boat across the Sea of Galilee, during the night, while he went into the mountain to pray. Early in the morning Jesus came walking across the water. When Peter and the other apostles saw him, they think, “It’s a ghost!” (v.26). But Jesus speaks and encourages them. Peter, to prove it is Jesus, asked the figure to let Peter come to him on the water. Peter climbed out of the boat and began to walk across the water, until the disturbance of the wind and water made him afraid and he started to sink. He cried out to Jesus for rescue. Jesus did and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt (edistasas)?” (v.31)
In response to this mysterious appearance of Jesus and his command to get out of the boat, Peter obeyed. However, the thrashing wind and sea produced fear. He discovered himself doing what humanly was impossible – walking on water – until fear began to dissolve his faith. According to Jesus’ analysis it is Peter’s lack of faith, arising from his doubtful uncertainty, that causes him to sink. That is the only variable in this picture that has altered. While Jesus is critical of Peter, he does not abandon him, but saves him, grasping him. They both climb back into the boat. This must imply that Peter kept walking on the water, held secure by Jesus, until he was safely in the boat. Peter’s faith in Jesus led him into a bold, obedient response to Jesus’ command. The turbulence of the storm, however, shakes his confidence and he wavers. Yet, Peter does reach Jesus. Peter has faith, but it is ‘small’, and without Jesus’ intervention could be overwhelmed by the circumstances of the moment.
The second occurrence of distazō is found in Matthew 28:17. Jesus again came in mysterious circumstances to meet his disciples. It was after the resurrection and the Eleven had returned to Galilee. As they assembled on the mountain according to Jesus’ directions, “they saw him”(v.17). Matthew described their response with two verbs – “they worshipped him, but some/they doubted/were uncertain/hesitated (edistasan).” Plainly the Eleven are the subject. Whether all or some of the Eleven ‘doubted’ is unclear. What is more intriguing is the relationship between worship and doubt/uncertainty/hesitation. Apart from 4:9 where the devil is tempting Jesus to worship him, either Jesus or Yahweh is the object of worship in Matthew’s Gospel. Homage and worship are linked together. Plainly the Eleven, seeing Jesus resurrected, could not help themselves. They had to worship. Such a response is normal when human beings encounter a theophany.
It is possible that the last part of v. 17 (“they doubted”) should be linked with v. 18 rather than v. 17. This would lead to the following translation of vs. 17-18:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go and when they saw him, they worshipped. Now they doubted and when Jesus approached, he spoke to them saying,…
But what nuance should we give to the verb distazw here? Can they be doubting that it is really Jesus? Possibly. We discover the same struggle among the Eleven in Luke 24:38. As they were receiving the report from the two people who met the resurrected Jesus on the Emmaeus road, Luke tells us that Jesus “stood in their midst” and begins to converse. They are agitated and “doubts (dialogismoi) rise” in their minds. In the following verse Luke says that Jesus urged them to take various steps to assure themselves that he truly was the crucified Jesus. So considerable uncertainty seems to be present among the Eleven as they come to terms with the reality of the Jesus resurrected. In the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel Jesus also scolds the Eleven for failing to believe the witnesses of his resurrection.
In the course of Matthew’s Gospel, 28:17 records the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to the Eleven. So perhaps Matthew is summarizing a variety of responses to the risen Jesus that the Eleven expressed during several resurrection appearances. Regardless of how we might reconstruct these events, Matthew affirms that when Jesus appeared in his resurrection glory to the Eleven, it created agitated uncertainty. Apparently the Eleven knew God was doing something, but some or all of them were quite uncertain as to the meaning or implications of Jesus’ resurrection. While they had seen Jesus raise people from the dead several times, they knew this event was of a different order. They had followed Jesus during his ministry, but what would it mean to follow the resurrected Jesus?
It may well be that Jesus speaks “The Great Commission” in order to deal with their uncertainty and unpack the significance of his resurrection. He emphasizes his universal, complete and unsurpassed authority; he tells them what their mission will be – making disciples of all nations – and how to do this; finally he assures them that we goes with them on this mission – for as long as it takes and wherever it may lead them.
- When Jesus calls you to follow him, what doubts/uncertainties filled your heart and mind? How does Jesus enable you to cope with them?
- Are worship of the Lord Jesus and uncertainty as to the implications of his presence and mission compatible? Does this happen in your life? In the life of the people in the church of which you are a part? Is this normal for the Christian experience? Why?
- What promises does Jesus give that enable us to work through the uncertainties we feel as we worship and respond obediently to Jesus’ commission in our lives? Can we trust him to keep his word?
- 1. We get a sense of how Greek speakers understood this word when we discern that a common name for the subjunctive mood, the mood of uncertainty, was distaktikē. A.T. Robertson calls the subjunctive the “mood of doubtful statement” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1934): 927.
- 2. Aristeas to Philocrates, edited and translated by Moses Hadas (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1973):123. When Josephus (Antiquities 12:61) repeats this story, paraphrasing the original account, he says that the Ptolemy wanted “to construct one as much as five times as large as the one there, but was afraid [phobeisthai] that it might be of no use in the temple ministrations….”
- 3. Josephus, Jewish War, II, 182.
- 4. Moralia 62a.
- 5. Diodorus Siculus 20.15.3.
- 6. Diodorus Siculus 20.15.3.