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15. The disciples

15-3 The Weakness Of The Disciples

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:

14 :2 " If it were not so" - implying they doubted
" If I go...I will come again" - using logic to answer their implied doubt.
:5 " We know not whither Thou goest"
:7 " If ye had known me"

" Have I been so long with you, and yet hast thou not known me?"

:10,11 " Believest thou?...believe me"
:14 " If ye shall ask..."
:15 " If ye love me...if ye loved me, ye would rejoice...if a man love me" (v.28,23)
15 :4

" Abide in more can ye, except ye abide in me...without me ye can do nothing...if ye abide in me"

:9,14,15 " Continue are my friends, if ye...I have called you friends" - implying 'But you've got to live up to it'.
:17 " These things I command you" - emphatic, desperate warning
:20 " Remember the word"
16 :1

" That ye should not be offended"

:5 " None of you asketh me, Whither goest Thou?" - implying Jesus was disappointed that they hadn't. " Sorrow hath filled your heart" (v.6) seems a similar rebuke.
:24 " Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name; ask..."
:31 " Do ye now believe? (said almost sarcastically) shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone" - cp. Joshua and Moses questioning Israel whether their commitment was really what they claimed, and warning that after their death they would soon fall away.

Limited Faith And Understanding

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. 9:55)

- 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. 10:24)

- 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; Jn. 14:27).

- 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 this point.


(1)               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).

(2)               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: Fortress, 1970).