In a well-known passage from Matthew’s Gospel about one of Christ’s resurrection appearances, the passage read at the baptismal service, we find the following words: “The eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted” (Mt. 28:16f). A number of questions rush to the fore: who are these “they” who saw and worshiped Him? And why did “some doubt”? And moreover, what does all this mean?
Obviously the “they” cannot simply refer to “the eleven”, for by this time they had already all seen Him and worshiped Him without doubting. (Even the initial scepticism of Thomas had by now been overcome; see Jn. 20:26f for the account of earlier meetings with the risen Christ in Judea, before this meeting in Galilee.) I would suggest that the “they” referred to here is the large crowd referred to by St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:6. In this part of his letter to the Corinthians Paul is arguing for the truth of Christ’s bodily resurrection, and adducing as proof the existence of many people who had seen Him after He rose from the dead. He appeared first to Cephas (i.e. Peter), then to the Twelve. “After that” (Paul writes) He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now” and could therefore confirm what Paul says. Early on, even in our Lord’s ministry, Christ told His disciples that after He had been raised from the dead “I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (Mk. 14:28). The angel at the empty tomb reminded the myrrh-bearing disciples of this as well: “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you’” (Mk. 16:7).
Why Galilee? Because Judea down south was too “hot”, too dangerous for the disciples of Jesus. As the Twelve reminded their Lord when He first spoke of leaving the safety of Galilee to visit (as they thought) ailing Lazarus in Judea, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” (Jn. 11:8) In other words, “Let’s not.” They had just barely escaped stoning in Judea, and they would go there again at the risk of their lives. Christ’s crucifixion there shortly afterward seemed to confirm these fears, and the folly of leaving the safety of Galilee. No wonder after Christ’s arrest and crucifixion they had “the doors locked for fear of the Jews” (Jn. 20:19). Because of this hostile environment where Christ’s disciples were hunted, any large reunion of the risen Lord with His own had to take place far from this dangerous region of Judea, back in northern Galilee.
It was there, I suggest, that the five hundred alluded to by St. Paul met with the risen Christ. When they met Him, they “worshiped” (i.e. prostrated before Him), supposing Him to their Lord. “But some doubted”. Why the doubt? Here we come to an unexpected feature of the New Testament accounts of the resurrection appearances.
If one were simply making up these tales and inventing them out of whole cloth, one would of course make them as emotionally satisfying as possible. One would write of the disciples’ instant recognition of Jesus, of them falling into His arms, of joyous and tumultuous reunions, of singing, and of flowing champagne (or the Near Eastern equivalent). One would perhaps have Christ appear to Pontius Pilate, or to the high priest, or to other members of the Sanhedrin, scolding them with a divine “I told you so”. But we find none of this. Instead we consistently read of the apostles having trouble recognizing Him even upon meeting Him. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus fail to recognize Him, and only do so at the breaking of the bread (Lk. 24:16, 30-31). Mary Magdalene upon first seeing Him by the empty tomb takes Him for the gardener (Jn. 20:14-15). The apostles, meeting him for the third time by the Sea of Tiberias find His features somewhat altered: “None of them dared to question Him, ‘Who are You?’, knowing that it was the Lord” (Jn. 21:12).
It was the same in this account in Mt. 28:16f. It seems that the resurrection form of Christ was subtly changed, so that He did not look identical to the way He looked before. His body language was the same, so that the way He “took bread and blessed and broke and gave it to them” at a meal could open their eyes (Lk. 24:30). His voice carried the same warmth, so that Mary could recognize Him when He called her by name (Jn. 20:16). And the wounds of shame He endured on the cross were still there as an infallible proof of His identity (Lk. 24:39-40, Jn 20:27). But His countenance was somewhat altered.
This is not would we would have expected—especially in someone making up a satisfying ending to the story. Its presence in the Gospel stories therefore confirms its authenticity—the Gospel writers included it, perplexing as it was, precisely because they were not making things up, but rather relating what actually happened. Facts are stubborn things, and the Evangelists recorded them simply because they wanted to be factual and accurate, apart from whether or not they added to an emotionally satisfying ending.
I believe therefore that Matthew’s recounting that “some doubted” in his account is a mark of this historical reliability and authenticity. And we must further note what happens after they doubt. “Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…’” (Mt. 28:18-19). That is, I believe that Matthew is here telling us that Christ’s approach and His words overcame their doubt. Just as the initial doubts and non-recognition of Mary Magdalene and the others were resolved by their meeting with Christ, so here. Their doubts were melted when He spoke with them.
This is, I believe, the meaning of this story for us today. When we were made His disciples in baptism, we also were given the task of confronting the doubts of the world around us. Many people still doubt that Jesus is alive, and that He arose triumphantly on the third day. We are called to resolve these doubts by our words—that is, by the words and life which come from deep within our hearts. The Lord said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34)—or (as Martin Luther once translated it), “What fills the heart overflows the mouth”. God calls to live transfigured lives, lives full of righteousness, and love, and praise to God. When these things fill our hearts, they will indeed overflow through our mouths, and it is through witnessing this overflow that the world may at length come to put away their doubts regarding Jesus. The Lord said it Himself: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:25).
All the world has heard that Jesus has risen from the dead. Some disbelieve. Some reject it. Some doubt. Our task is to live in such a way so as to adorn with the Gospel with credibility and help the doubters overcome their doubts. As one person said, “I will believe in the Redeemer when the Christians look a lot more redeemed.” Fair enough. That is our challenge: to live as those redeemed from sin, guilt, death and fear, to love each other and all the world. That is the only way that doubt can be overcome, and that we can make disciples of all nations.