17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
The bowed before him. The Greek word ‘worship’ means, more literally, to bend the knee. It is the act of falling to the ground in submission before the one to whom your life belongs.
“They bowed before him, but some doubted.” I have been trying to understand the Greek construction of this sentence, for it looks to me that it says something more like “They bowed before him, though they hesitated.” There are only three Greek words in the second half of this sentence: ‘but’ or ‘now’, a disjunctive conjunction; the 3rd person plural article ‘the’, ‘the’ somethings (the subject is absent); and the 3rd person plural aorist, ‘they doubted.’ (The aorist means a simple action in the past “they doubted”, rather than an ongoing action, “they were doubting”.) I know that we often leave out words in a sentence that the hearer fills in, so the article identifies a subject that is unspoken but understood – hence the translation ‘some’. But is it ‘some’ or should it be ‘they’, the disciples?
And ‘doubt’ doesn’t seem to be quite the right word, either. Doubt for us is a dispute about facts. But the fact is that Jesus is before them and they are on their faces. There is no disputing this fact. The Greek word translated ‘doubt’ is more like hesitancy, confusion, uncertainty. It is used in scripture only twice, both by Matthew: here, and when Peter, walking upon the water, sees the waves and wind and begins to sink. This is not our modern sense of doubt. This is not skepticism. This is not an intellectual problem whether they are really seeing Jesus. It is that uncertainty of being confronted with the new and unexpected. It’s that struggle to understand. “What’s going on?” “What does this mean?”
In the presence of the risen Jesus, the future has suddenly shifted. The hope of a Jerusalem theocracy was lost with the crucifixion. But, if Jesus was vindicated by God, if he has been raised from the dead, what now? Is the general resurrection underway? What is happening? What does this mean for us? – and these are certainly questions that must have befallen them all, not just some.
Matthew doesn’t spend any time on this doubt. Jesus doesn’t rebuke them as he rebuked Peter on the sea when he asked his sinking disciple “Why did you doubt?” (A sentence that also makes more sense if Jesus asked, “Why did you hesitate?”) On this mountain, the risen Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge their confusion; he just gets on with the assignment. “What does this mean?” This means all authority has been given to Jesus. It means his followers have a mission to teach the nations. Our uncertainty is answered by a command: “Go, therefore…” There is a world that needs to know the way of its true Lord.
But our hesitancy is also met with a promise: “I am with you always, until the end of the age,” though the Greek word isn’t really ‘end’, but the completion of this age, the finishing of God’s work, the coming together of all things under the reign of God’s spirit. We the confused, we the uncertain, we the struggling to comprehend all that God is doing, we have a promise: until the consummation of this age, until the age to come breaks forth into the full light of day – Jesus is with us. We dwell with him and in him. We live already in the day that is coming.
And baptizing and teaching, we gather others into the joyous light of that dawn.