The Great Commission necessitates honest confession, including doubts.
Recently I read through Matthew’s Gospel for my devotions. I have often been struck by the emphasis on “God with us” in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 1:23 and Matthew 28:20 bookend the gospel with their emphasis on God with us at Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:23) and Jesus being with us always—to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20):
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20b).
What struck me in reading Matthew’s Gospel, including Matthew 28, this time around is how Jesus is with us even in our failures, slowness of heart, and doubts.
Perhaps the greatest struggle for Jesus’ disciples is coming to terms with Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Jesus is very straightforward with his disciples about the cross. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus predicts four times that he will undergo horrible suffering and death (Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19, 26:1-2). These predictions signify that the cross is not simply a dramatic and traumatic event in Jesus’ life, but the cause of Jesus’ coming into the world. Jesus came to save people from their sins: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21; ESV). Jesus brings salvation through the cross.
At the occasion of the first prediction, Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him he will never undergo suffering and death at the hands of his adversaries. In turn, Jesus rebukes Peter for standing in his way as a stumbling block in fulfilling God’s purpose for him (Matthew 16:21-23). What is perhaps most striking is that this incident follows on the heels of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 16:16). Based on Jesus’ life, words and miraculous actions in conjunction with divine inspiration, Peter comes to the realization that Jesus is the Christ, but he cannot fully come to terms until after the resurrection (perhaps not until Pentecost) that Jesus’ messianic work entails the centrality of the cross.
We find in Matthew 28 that even before the resurrected Jesus, some of Jesus’ eleven disciples doubted. They doubted even while gathering to worship him (Matthew 28:17). One might find the acknowledgment of their doubt problematic and anticlimactic to the telling of Jesus’ story in Matthew’s Gospel. Even more striking is that the acknowledgment of such doubt immediately precedes Jesus’ declaration of the Great Commission. Here’s the text:
Now 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. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20; ESV).
The Gospel writers do not hide the disciples’ failures, like Peter’s rebuke, or the disciples’ struggles, such as their doubts. Consider also Thomas’ doubt in John chapter 20:24-25: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (ESV). I love Caravaggio’s painting shown above in which we find Jesus taking Thomas’ hand so that he can place it inside his wound. Jesus is not threatened by the doubt of Thomas who is devoted to truth. Jesus initiates the encounter. He welcomes Thomas’ honest engagement!
If I were one of the disciples responsible for writing the gospel accounts, I might have glossed over their (our) failures as well as struggles with such things as doubt. I might have made us look superhuman, or semi-divine. How striking and refreshing that the gospel writers do not hide these warts and wrinkles, but present them in living color.
Such acknowledgment on the gospel writers’ part only highlights all the more that God is with us in Jesus—not just in the good times, but also in the bad times. Jesus’ presence and his communion with his disciples through the ages through the Spirit is what ultimately serves as the power behind the Great Commission, not the potency of our confession. In fact, our honest confession, including our struggle with doubts, serves to humanize and personalize the good news to people, as well as highlight how great the story is that God is indeed with us in Jesus: God with us, Immanuel! So, let’s be honest with our failures, struggles and doubts when we share the good news. The Great Commission necessitates honest confession.