Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell
In Matthew 28:17, we read that sincere disciples of Jesus Christ may concurrently serve yet hesitate: “When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted.” The eleven, gathered where Jesus called, somehow indicated the confused contents of their hearts. Upon seeing their resurrected Lord, they worshiped Him, and they doubted.
They worshiped. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to review the riches of European art at the National Gallery in London. One Renaissance artist captured the wondrous intensity of emotion probably experienced by the apostles upon seeing the resurrected Jesus. The apostles’ eyes seem to reflect a flood as the truth of Christ’s previous claims swept over them. And Christ thrusts the hand of Thomas into His side.
The gospels tell us that Jesus foretold his betrayal, trial, and execution. Though horrible, such a prophecy was believable. But the other aspect of Jesus’ prophecy—that he would arise from the dead—was inconceivable to the disciples. Peter even rebuked Christ for speaking of these things (Matt. 16:21-23). And now, here He was, before their very eyes and beheld by their very hands.
And the truths of Christ’s claims were now vindicated in His resurrection. He is indeed a prophet who speaks God’s Word. He is indeed a priest who reconciles sinners with God through His atoning death. He is indeed a king who has power to rule. And Thomas, we are told, went from verbal disbelief to proclaiming that Jesus is “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). And so, the disciples were compelled by faith to worship.
But they also doubted. The Greek distazo here has been the subject of some debate. Was it a mild hesitation or a deeper level of doubt? Did all of them worship while some among them doubted, or did all worship while expressing some doubt? Were the eleven the only disciples present or were there others, too? Perhaps the best conclusion is that the eleven disciples both worshiped and doubted at some level and with some differential.
Like the man begging Jesus for the spiritual freedom of his son, we too sometimes mix doubt with faith: “Lord, I believe, help me with my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). The disciples—the very apostles from whose writings we learn the faith today—were described by Christ as having “little faith” (Matt. 17:20). In the New Testament, faith is not only immediate and justifying, but progressive and sanctifying.
If we who are Christians are honest, we will admit that our faith, though real and salvific, is yet being perfected. Moreover, some Christians and churches will simply be further along than others in certain ways. Christians typically worship but hesitate, some with greater or lesser fidelity. Sometimes, hesitation is expressed in half-hearted obedience. Other times, it is indicated by an unwillingness to believe all that God in His Word proclaims.
This is the cause of much dissension between churches. There is often hesitation on the part of one group of sincere Christians in direct opposition to the faithfulness of another group. This does not always cast doubt upon their salvation (though it might) but may reflect incomplete fidelity to Christ in discipleship.
For instance, Presbyterians refuse to obey Jesus Christ in an orderly manner and “baptize” (actually, just bathe) their babies. Paedobaptists may be sincere Christians but they doubt Christ’s command and hesitate to institute it correctly, thereby deceiving their own children. Again, Pentecostals and some Charismatics may refuse to judge their profound experiences according to the clear teaching of God’s Word by hesitating to reject unbiblical doctrines. Yet again, many ecumenists typically refuse to discern the body of Christ and out of well-meant but misplaced sentimentality doubt they should discipline Christians who institute practices not in accord with Scripture. And as for us Southern Baptists, we should honestly admit that we have fallen off of late in our efforts to display complete obedience to the Great Commission.
Christians who sincerely worship may do so hesitantly or doubtfully. Those who are more advanced in the faith are therefore compelled by love patiently yet with conviction and fortitude to call their brothers and sisters in Christ out of half-hearted obedience and into entire discipleship by both word and deed, through their instruction and their example. Correcting an errant Christian should be done only from Scripture and with a gentle and humble heart, recognizing that all of us are subject to error (Gal. 6:1-3).
The sincere worship of the disciples was tainted by the presence of some doubt. Disciples need one another for the purpose of accountability and discipline, and Jesus Christ has established the local church precisely for this purpose. The visible local church is entered through baptism, manifested in the continuing practice of the Lord’s Supper, maintained through the redemptive application of church discipline, and grown through the common proclamation of the Word. Jesus Christ specifically established the local church and builds it through the instruments that he gave to her. She would do well not to ignore nor to alter nor to declare “non-essential” or “tertiary” His commands.
When Christians focus upon unbiblical institutions and means, they introduce novelties that may detract from Christ’s design. When they go so far as to overturn the divine order through anti-biblical hierarchies and synods, they pervert our Lord’s design and undermine His purpose. In response to your last question, David, let me be clear that I have no difficulty with para-church organizations, as long as they constantly remember that they are merely dispensable servants to those divinely-ordained bodies known as the local churches. Executive agencies, mission boards, and seminaries must serve the local churches, and when they destabilize or detract from those Christ-ordained institutions, they need to be reformed or suspended.
PS Please pardon my delayed response to your last letter, but I have been distracted with other responsibilities.
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers