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15. The disciples

15-4 The Disciples' Immaturity

The Lord pointed out to the disciples how the extreme generosity of the widow, giving the two pennies of her business capital, her "living", to the Lord, was worth far more than the ostentatious giving of the wealthy Jewish leadership (Mk. 12:44); but the next incident recorded by Mark is the disciples marvelling at the ostentatious buildings of the temple, and the Lord explaining that all this needed to be thrown down (Mk. 13:1,2). Even after the acted parable of the feet washing, there was still a strife amongst them about who should be greatest. They’d clearly not grasped the Lord’s teaching and example about not worrying about what place we take at a dinner (Lk. 22:24). Indeed, their mental block in understanding His clear prophecies about His death is almost incredible. Here above all we see the disciples' immaturity. Peter even smites Malchus in order to stop the Lord having to drink the cup of suffering; Peter was willing to die so that the Lord didn’t have to die… (Jn. 18:10,11). It appears there was a total haze over their memory at times. Jn. 12:16 says that they only remembered [not even ‘understood’] the triumphal entry after the resurrection- as if they were so insensitive and imperceptive that these things were all just a haze to them (Jn. 16:4). This lack of understanding about His death was all the more tragic when we realize that the crucified Jesus was the essence of Jesus. To know Him crucified was and is to know Him. When men asked “We would see Jesus”, He responded by giving a prophecy of His death  (Jn. 12:21)- just as the broken bread is Him; His death is the essence of Him. He continues by saying that if a man lost his life for Him, then that man would be with Jesus where He is. Those who want to know where Jesus is, to see Him, have to die His death (Jn. 12:25,26). The fact they did not appreciate His death meant, therefore, that they didn’t really appreciate Him. And they so openly stress this in their Gospels. If, as we have discussed elsewhere, Mark is really Peter’s Gospel, it is surely significant that Mark especially emphasizes how Peter especially didn’t understand the need for Jesus to suffer crucifixion (Mk. 8:17-21,27-33; 9:6,32; 14:37). Showing the chinks in our own armour is surely the way to be a credible warrior for the Gospel.  

The disciples' immaturity and disbelief in the news of the resurrection is maybe the clearest and most tragic example. Their unbelief is so stressed. Even earlier, they had failed to understand His comment that Lazarus ‘slept’ (Jn. 11:12,13). They failed to see that the Lord was implying a resurrection; their minds were too much on the literal and immediate. The news of His resurrection was treated by them as the “idle tales” of a mentally deranged woman (Lk. 24:11). Lk. 24:17,21-24 shows how they were depressed because the Lord’s body was missing, and the women had this crazy idea that He’d risen; and worst of all, it was now the third day since His death, when the body would have clearly decomposed. The very third day that He had predicted His resurrection should have been the time of their highest hopes! And yet it was the nadir of their faith in Him! Note also that it was a shameful thing for a Jew not to believe the Old Testament prophecies. Yet Jn. 2:22 records plainly that they, as Jews, didn’t believe neither the Old Testament prophecies of resurrection nor the Lord’s own predictions. They shared the general Jewish blindness to their own scriptures (Jn. 2:20).  

The Lord “upbraided” the disciples for their immaturity and unbelief concerning His cross and resurrection (Mk. 16:14). The Greek word is always used in a very severe context of ‘reviling’ (Mt. 5:11; 11:20; 27:44; Rom. 15:3; 1 Tim. 4:10); it’s a tough and abusive word. It appears out of place when applied to the Lord. Yet what it indicates is that the Lord was so angry with them for not believing the witness of the women. Discounting people’s experience of Jesus merely on account of their gender or background was so angering to the Lord. And He’s the same today.  

We could sum all this up by saying that almost every time the disciples are mentioned- i.e. when they mention themselves in the Gospel records they wrote- it is in a negative context 

Even John the Baptist, whose teaching had prepared most of the twelve to accept Jesus, seems to have not been altogether clear about what we might consider fundamental things. He speaks of Jesus as “the one to come”, a commonly understood description of the Elijah prophet, based on the phrase being used about him in Mal. 3:1- and not of Messiah Himself. Thus John the Baptist anticipated that this “one to come”, his cousin Jesus, would be a refining fire (Mt. 3:12)- which is exactly Malachi’s language about the Elijah prophet (Mal. 3:2; 4:1). This would explain why John the Baptist had apparent ‘doubts’ whilst in prison as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah. And it would also explain why the disciples expected Jesus to act like Elijah in Lk. 9:52-56. It was not until the baptism of Jesus that John the Baptist came to understand Jesus as the “one to come”; so the preparatory work which he had done with the disciples must have had what we would call a flimsy doctrinal basis. When Jesus called them to follow Him, and they so quickly obeyed, it is often assumed that John the Baptist had prepared them for this. But that preparation must at best have been very shallow and incomplete, given John’s own admission that he did not recognize Jesus for who He was until His baptism. Why, however, was John’s misunderstanding recorded in the Gospel records? Or the misunderstanding of his father Zacharias, that John was in fact the promised Messiah, “the prophet”, the one would bring forgiveness of sins and freedom from the Romans (Lk. 1:71-79)? Perhaps for the same reason as the language of demons is used, especially to describe the miracles at the beginning of the Lord’s ministry. He didn’t correct this. But over time it became evident that the sheer power of the Son of God meant that in practice, demons didn’t exist. Likewise, as the ministry of Jesus unfolds to us in the Gospel records, it becomes apparent that He was Son of God, the Messiah- and not merely an Elijah prophet. 

The disciples' immaturity and slowness to understand was evidently frustrating for the Lord. He used them to perform the miracle of feeding the 5,000, and followed this with the wonderful discourse recorded in Jn. 6 about the bread of life. He then led them into a situation where again they had to feed a multitude of 4,000, presumably to see if they had learnt the lessons of the previous miracle- and they made the same basic mistakes and lack of faith and perception. He then followed this up with a comment about being ware of the leaven of the Pharisees- and again they failed the test, assuming He was talking about literal yeast, and perhaps worrying that they had one load of leavened bread with them in the boat. They totally failed to grasp the basic point- that the Lord’s miracles were of such a magnitude that issues to do with physical bread were insignificant. He lamented the fact that their eyes were closed to His real meaning; and then sought to demonstrate their position by healing a blind man in two stages. Firstly, he was given partial sight, he saw men like trees. And then the Lord gave him full sight, and told him to tell nobody. He then draws a parallel between this man and the disciples, by telling them to tell nobody that He was the Christ. He wanted them to realize that they too were partially sighted in spiritual terms, seeing things in a blurred and grotesquely physical way, as the partially healed man saw men as trees. And then He goes on to tell them that although they were only physically, externally following Him- for He turned and spoke to them, telling Peter to truly walk behind Him and take up his cross. They did not really understand that to follow Him was to pick up a cross and voluntarily embark upon the ‘last walk’ of the crucified, as a way of life. This is how the record of Mk. 8 brings out His dealings with the twelve. Yet the parallel record in Mt. 16 records Him praising Peter for understanding that He was indeed the Christ, the Son of God. He was so enthusiastic about what little they did grasp. He revealed the fullness of the Father to them- and yet they didn’t understand even basic predictions and teachings which He gave them. And so that proposition becomes all the more awesome: He was so enthusiastic about what little they did grasp. 

In this context the Lord asks them how many baskets they had gathered up on the two occasions; and then asks them why they still don’t “understand” that issues to do with leaven and such physical, earthly rules are of no real moment. He doesn’t say ‘Remember how I fed all those people, on two occasions?’. No, He asks them whether they remember how many baskets of waste food they gathered up. It must have taken them several hours on each occasion to clear up after several thousand people had gorged themselves on the Lord’s bread, leaving crusts and half eaten loaves all over the place. Why were those people fed? Yes, because the Lord had compassion upon their basic human need. But more essentially, the incident occurred so that the disciples would have to go round clearing up the mess of the excess bread, and thereby reflect and understand. We learn from this that things can happen which affect the lives of thousands of people, all for the sake of twelve men and some women understanding and learning what God intends. All things truly are for our sakes. Political change can happen in nations purely for the sake of a handful of believers there, who may need to learn something. The Angels make huge things happen in geopolitics for our sakes. Yet we too can be so slow to learn.  

The Lord had repeatedly implied that He would be the greatest in the Kingdom, because He humbled Himself the most. When the disciples asked Him “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?” (Mt. 18:1), they therefore reflected a complete lack of appreciation of His greatness. The disciples' immaturity and squabbling amongst themselves had led them to forget the superlative greatness of the One who stood and sat and walked amongst them. And conversely, they had failed to allow His surpassing greatness to make all discussion about which of them was the greatest absolutely irrelevant. Thus their perception of His greatness, the extent of it, and the nature of it, only grew after His death.