The disciples' persistent failure to grasp our Lord's teaching must have
been a great source of trial and frustration for Him. Despite His warnings
about His coming sufferings, the disciples failed to comprehend this;
perhaps partly due to Jesus Himself fluctuating between talking of his
death in both literal and then figurative terms. In His time of greatest
need of encouragement He found them sadly lacking in any real degree of
spirituality beyond a fanatic allegiance to Him. And yet He graciously
thanked them for continuing with Him in His temptations, even though they
fell asleep (Lk. 22:28). We can under-estimate how sensitive He is to
our feeble spirituality, and how even the basic will to be loyal, no matter
how much we fail in practice, means so much to Him. Yet their lack of
comprehension must have been especially tragic, since one of the reasons
for the gift of the disciples was to help Jesus through the pain of His
ministry, and this was to culminate in the cross. After the Jews' first
council of war against Christ, He prayed for strength and was answered
by being given the twelve (Lk. 6:11-13). No doubt He found the soldiers'
mocking him because of Peter's weeping and weakness (Lk. 22:62,63) especially
hard to take (Mk. 14:69 implies the courtyard conversation was also about
the disciples). Likewise their angry “Carest thou not that we perish?”
(Mk. 4:38). His whole life and death were because He did so care
that they would not perish (Jn. 3:16). It’s so reminiscent of a child’s
total, if temporary, misunderstanding and lack of appreciation of the
parent’s love and self-sacrifice.
The Lord's goodbye address in Jn. 14-16 has many connections with those
of Moses and Joshua, in which they expressed fear that after their death
there would be a mass falling away within Israel, and their guise of spirituality
would give way due to their lack of a real word-based faith. This further
indicates the weakness of the disciples. Our Lord's speech was shot through
with doubt of the twelve and recognition of the weakness of the disciples,
which needs tabulating to show its full force:
On their own admission in the Gospel records, the understanding of the
disciples was pitiful. Not only did they not really listen to the Lord’s
words, the words of the Only Begotten Son of God, but they retained many
misconceptions from the world around them which did not accept Him. Here
are a few brief examples:
- They failed to see after two miracles relating to bread, that literal
bread was not so significant to the Lord (Mk. 8:19-21)
- Twice they wanted to turn away those who wished to come to Jesus,
and whom He wished to accept (Mt. 14:15; 15:23). As with the two miracles
of bread, the second incident was giving them the opportunity to learn
the lesson from the first incident- and yet they failed. Likewise they
“forbad” John’s disciples just as they wrongly “forbad” the little children
to come to Him (Lk. 9:50).
- When we read that “there cometh one from the ruler of the synagogue’s
house, saying to him, Thy daughter is dead, trouble not the Master”
(Lk. 8:49), we naturally ask: who was this “one” who came with
this message? In the Gospels, it is often the disciples who term Jesus
“the Master”. The implication is that it was they who thought that Jesus
wouldn’t have the power to raise the dead, perhaps connecting with their
own studied lack of faith in His resurrection later.
- They tried to do miracles without even praying about it (Mk. 9:29)
- They knew not what manner of spirit the Lord had given them (Lk.
- Jn. 1:38 records how the disciples were asked: “What seek ye?”, and
they reply: “Where dwellest thou?”. Remember that this is John, one
of them, recording their response. It’s as if he’s pointing out how
inappropriate was their response to Jesus; rather like the record of
Peter wanting to build a tent for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so they stay
a bit longer. They had responded inappropriately- and yet they
urged their hearers and readers to respond appropriately.
- When the Lord taught them about His death, they always seem to have
started arguing amongst themselves; the tremendous significance of what
He was saying was evidently lost on them (Mk. 9:31-34; 10:34-38).
- They were amazed that it was hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom
- Mk. 11:14,21,22 imply that Peter was amazed that something the Lord
had predicted about the fig tree had actually come true.
- After their failure of faith on the lake, they describe themselves
as the men who were in the ship- as if they felt unworthy to call themselves
disciples of the Lord (Mt. 14:33). Yet remember that these records were
written or spoken by them in their preaching of the Gospel,
and recounting their own experiences.
- “Your unbelief” (Mt. 17:20). “Ye of little faith” (Lk. 12:22,28);
they had “no faith” (Mk. 4:40). “Where is your faith?” (Lk. 8:25). They
asked for their faith to be increased (Lk. 17:5). Luke records that
the Centurion had more faith than the disciples (Lk. 7:9).
- The disciples were told to sell what they had (Lk. 12:22,32,33);
but it seems they kept their fishing business. After having asked them
this, the Lord again had to speak to them about forsaking all that they
had (Lk. 14:33). Their claim to have left literally all and followed
Him (Lk. 18:28) appears somewhat exaggerated. To follow Him meant taking
up a cross (Lk. 14:27).
- Lk. 10:20 implies that their elation at being able to pull off miracles
was wrong, or at best immature; rather should they have rejoiced that
their names were written in Heaven.
- Mt. 19:9.10 records how they thought that the Lord’s policy of no
divorce except for “fornication” meant that marriage was “not good”.
And yet the Genesis record clearly states that it was “not good” for
a man to be unmarried. Matthew in his own [over-ruled] word choice seems
to be commenting how they were out of step with the spirit of Genesis.
- They so often feared (Lk. 8:25; 9:34,45; Mk. 4:40; 6:50; 10:32);
despite the Lord repeatedly telling them not to be afraid (Lk. 12:4,32;
- They were preaching the words of the Gospels in response to their
Lord’s command to go preach. Yet Jn. 4:35,38 records them recognizing
that they didn’t appreciate how great the harvest was, and indeed the
harvest was spoilt because of the weakness of the disciples.
- Their records bring out their own fickleness. After having been awed
by the Lord’s stilling of the storm, they are soon almost mocking Him
for asking who had touched Him, when hundreds of the jostling crowd
had touched Him (Lk. 8:25 cp. 45).
- They ask the Lord to send the multitude away (Mk. 6:36), whereas
Jesus had taught by word and example, that whoever came to Him He would
not turn away (Jn. 6:37), and had just shown that He did not ‘send away’
the demons from the sick man, because the man had asked for them not
to be sent [far] away (Mk. 5:10).
- Jn. 6:15-17 implies they got tired of waiting for the Lord Jesus
to return from prayer, and so they pushed off home to Capernaum, leaving
Him alone. Yet by grace He came after them on the lake, to their salvation.
-They interrupted a parable, clearly not understanding it (Lk. 19:25).
Yet the Lord said that His parables were only not understood by the
unbelieving Jewish world.
- Even much of the spirituality and understanding which they appeared
to have was in fact only of a surface level. He complains that none
of them ask Him “Whither goest thou?” (Jn. 16;5)- even though they had
just asked Him those very words (Jn. 13:36). They said the words, but
not from a heart of true understanding. It's an epitome of the weakness
of the disciples.
- It was the disciples
who called Jesus ‘Master’. When we read that “there cometh one
from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, Thy daughter
is dead: trouble not the Master” (Lk. 8:49), we are presumably
intended by Luke to understand this messenger as actually a disciple.
Again, the record is emphasizing how limited was the disciples’
vision and faith in Jesus.
- The Lord had to tell
the disciples after the resurrection to “Break your fast” (Jn.
21:12 RV). Despite the Lord having appeared to them as recorded
in John 20, they were fasting for the dead. No wonder the Lord
urged them to break that fast. But the point is made, by John
himself, as to how terribly slow they were to believe in His resurrection.
- Luke records that the
Lord sent out 72 preachers (Lk. 10:1)(1). The Jews
understood that there were 72 nations in the world, based on the
LXX of Gen. 10. Surely Luke’s point is that they went only to
the Jews, thus highlighting the gap between the disciples’ understanding
at the time, and the Lord’s further reaching intention of a mission
to the Gentiles.
- When you think about
it, the record in Mt. 19:9 is not at all to the disciples’ credit.
They state that if you can’t divorce, it’s better not to marry.
But Matthew records the Lord explaining that the standard for
God’s people is the one man: one woman for life which we find
in Genesis. And yet Matthew also records how the disciples totally
failed to appreciate that at the time, by making the comment that
marriage was a bad idea if there could be no divorce.
- It’s easy to
misinterpret Jn. 16:16: “A little while and ye behold me no more…
ye shall see me”. Elsewhere in John, beholding or seeing the Son
doesn’t refer to physically seeing Him, but rather to understanding
and believing in Him (Jn. 1:14,29,36,50; 6:40; 12:21; 14:9,19;
17:24 etc.). The Lord surely meant: ‘Soon, you will no longer
see / understand / believe me… but, in the end, you will
understand / believe in me’. And John, the author or speaker of
this Gospel record, was one of those being referred to. So he,
and all the disciples, would’ve been appealing to people to see
/ understand / believe in Jesus, whilst openly telling them that
they themselves had once lost that understanding / belief which
they once had, even though they regained it later.
- The crowds that
followed the Lord didn’t understand His parables; in fact,
He spoke in parables so that they wouldn’t understand, as
He intended His teaching only to be grasped by the disciples (Mk.
7:17,18). Therefore, in that very context, it is significant to
read of the Lord’s frustration and disappointment when the
disciples likewise didn’t understand the parables. And the
record goes on to show that in fact it was a regular occurrence,
that they like the crowds didn’t understand the parables,
and the Lord had to explain to them later. So the disciples, contrary
to the Lord’s high hopes of them, were no better than the
crowds. They too ‘didn’t get it’; and Mark’s
[i.e. Peter’s] record of the Gospel therefore brings out
the point that they too, the ones now preaching to the crowds,
only got the understanding they did of the Lord by an undeserved
grace. This is the kind of humility we need in our teaching of
others, especially when it involves correcting their lack of understanding
on a point.
It was popular in the first century for religions to ‘re-publish’
the teachings of their leader in story form, along with some pious
biography of the founder and his initial followers. To this was
added a condensation of the teacher’s sayings into some fixed
code that was binding upon the religion(2). The Gospels
are in that sense in a similar genre- but they are radically different,
because they show the initial followers to be so human,
and hardly pious; and they present no fixed moral code distilled
from the Lord’s teachings. Rather they present simply a Man, a
personality, which is to be the pattern for His followers.
Both Matthew and Mark record how the people mocked Jesus over
His comment that if the temple were destroyed, He would rebuild
it in three days (Mt. 27:40; Mk. 15:29). This had also been an
issue at the Lord's trial (Mt. 26:60). Yet John records that when
the Lord actually said those words, the disciples didn't believe
those words and actually forgot them until the time of the resurrection
(Jn. 2:22). The implications of that are tragic. The Lord's critics
remembered His words more than His disciples did. And as He stood
there in the awful loneliness of His trial, and hung there in
the desolation of crucifixion, and heard those taunts based around
His earlier words... He would've known that His own men had forgotten
those words and likewise disbelieved them. No wonder after the
resurrection He raised the matter with them. My point in this
context is that John's comment in Jn. 2:22 about the fact the
disciples forgot those words until after the resurrection... is
actually a conscious recognition by the disciples of their own
tragic weakness in understanding and support of their Lord. And
it is within their own preaching of the Gospel that they make
72 rather than 70 appears to be the best reading of the
texts here. For justification of it, see K. Aland, M. Black, B.M.
Metzger, A. Wikgren eds., The Greek New Testament (Stuttgart:
United Bible Societies, 1983).
M. Hadas & M. Smith, Heroes and Gods: Spiritual
Biographies In Antiquity (New York: Harper & Row, 1965);
C.W. Votaw, The Gospels And Contemporary Biographies (Philadephia: