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15. The disciples

15.5 The Disciples And Judaism

The disciples were evidently still under the influence of Judaism and the religious world around them, and this background died hard for them. “Why say the scribes…?”, they reasoned (Mk. 9:11), implying that their view was of at least equal if not greater weight when compared with that of the Lord Jesus [as they also did in Mt. 17:9,10]. He had to specifically warn them against the Scribes in Lk. 20:45,46; He had to specifically tell them not to address the Rabbis as ‘father’ (Mt. 23:8,9), implying they had too much respect for them. Although the disciples marvelled at His miracles at the time He did them, they seem to have doubted at times whether He was really that super-human. When He said “Let us go up to Judaea again”, they respond like He is crazy: “Goest thou [you singular] there again?”, they respond. They feared the Jews would kill Him, even though they had seen Him walk through the Nazareth crowd who tried to throw Him over a cliff (Jn. 11:7,8). The Lord encouraged them that the teaching which He was giving them would enable them to be like the Scribes, but bringing out great treasures from the riches of their understanding (Mt. 13:51,52). This was a great challenge of course to illiterate men, who had been groomed in a worldview of respecting your religious elders. Equality let alone superiority to them was a shocking and radical concept. “Let them alone…” was a hard thing for them to hear (Mt. 15:14). They were amazed at His teaching that a rich man could hardly enter His Kingdom (Mt. 19:25- all three synoptic records have this incident)- presumably because they were under the impression that the rich were rich because they were blessed by God and were righteous. They were worried that the Pharisees were not happy with the Lord’s teaching (Mt. 15:12). He had to warn them above all of the danger of the influence [yeast] of the Pharisees (Lk. 12:1). And yet they still misunderstood Him- they thought He was talking about literal bread (Mk. 8:15,16). The message of Christ crucified was “hid” from them (Lk. 9:45; 18:34)- and Paul surely alludes to this when he says that this message is hid by the veil of Judaism from those who are lost (2 Cor. 4:3). The way the disciples speak of the Scribes as if they have such a valid theological position reflects their upbringing and respect for the ruling elite of the synagogue (Mt. 17:10), with whom the Lord was at such total variance. They were concerned that the Pharisees had been offended by the Lord’s words (Mt. 15:12). The disciples repeat the Pharisees' question about when the end will come- in almost the same words. They were clearly influenced by them (Lk. 17:20 cp. Mk. 13:4).  

The Lord rebuked the disciples for 'forbidding' John's disciples and the little ones to come to Him (Mt. 19:14; Mk. 9:38); and yet He uses the same word to describe how the lawyers hindered [s.w. 'forbad'] people to enter the Kingdom. There's a very clear parallel here between the disciples and their Jewish teachers who had so influenced their thinking. But they finally got there- for Peter insisted that Gentiles should not be forbidden [s.w. 'hinder'] baptism (Acts 10:47); and he uses the same word again when he says that now, he will not "withstand [s.w. 'hinder'] God in hindering people to come to Him (Acts 11:17). The awfulness of the disciples' attitude is brought out by the use of the word in 1 Thess. 2:16, where Paul says that the way the Jews 'forbad' or hindered the preaching of the Gospel was cause for the wrath of God to come upon them "to the uppermost". And the disciples initially followed their Jewish elders in this kind of behaviour. In passing, there is a sober warning here to those who would likewise 'forbid' baptism to those who sincerely seek it.

When Jesus returned from the Mount of Transfiguration, He found that the disciples had failed to do a cure because of their lack of faith. He describes them as [part of] a “faithless generation” (Lk. 9:40,41), again indicating how the disciples were all too influenced by Judaism, the “generation” or world around them. The disciples and Judaism / the Jewish world are paralleled in Jn. 7:3,4: “Let your disciples see your work…shew yourself to the world”. 

The Lord Jesus has to say the same words to the Jews as He does to the disciples: 


To the Jews

To the disciples

“I am to be with you only a little longer”

Jn. 7:33

Jn. 13:33

“You will look for me”

Jn. 7:34; 8:21

Jn. 13:33

“Where I am going, you cannot come”

Jn. 7:34; 8:21

Jn. 13:33

And there are parables which one Gospel describes as spoken to the Jews, and another Gospel states were spoken to the disciples. Just as the Lord's synagogue-influenced brothers wanted Him to show Himself openly to the world (Jn. 7:4), so did the disciples (Jn. 14:22). There was that hankering for Him to openly display Himself as the Messiah which Judaism had created within its own mind. The Lord recognized the influence of the synagogue upon them when He said that He spoke to them in parables, and would later speak to them plainly (Jn. 16:25)- when He had earlier spoken to the Jewish world in parables rather than plainly, because they did not understand (Mk. 4:34). And yet they got there in the end. He spoke to them in the end " plain words" (parresia), and this word is the watchword of the disciples' own witness to the world (Acts 2:29; 4:13,29,31; 28:31). They spoke " plainly" (parresia) to the world, without parables, because they reflected to the world the nature of their understanding of their Lord. However, during His ministry, it would appear that the Lord treated them as if they were still in the Jewish world. When they asked Him why He spoke to the people in parables, He replies by explaining why He spoke to them in parables; and He drives the point home that it is to those “outside” that He speaks in parables (Mk. 4:11).  

The twelve evidently saw Jesus of Nazareth as a Rabbi, their special, lovable, somewhat mystic teacher at whose feet they sat. But the disciples saw Jesus within the frames of Judaism. " What does this mean? He tells us..." (Jn. 16:17) is similar to a familiar Rabbinic formula. But of course Jesus was far more than a Rabbi, and He laboured to change their perceptions. For example, He stresses many times that He chose them to be His disciples (especially Jn. 15:16-19)- whereas in Judaism, it was always disciples who chose a Rabbi: "Jesus chose the disciples, but the students of the rabbis almost always chose a teacher" (1). The words of the Lord Jesus were the words which He had 'heard' from the Father. But this doesn't mean that He was a mere fax machine, relaying literal words which the Father whispered in His ear to a listening world. When the disciples finally grasped something of the real measure of Jesus, they gasped: " You do not even need that a person ask you questions!" (Jn. 16:30). They had previously treated Jesus as a Rabbi, of whom questions were asked by his disciples and then cleverly answered by him. They finally perceived that here was more than a Jewish Rabbi. They came to that conclusion, they imply, not by asking Him questions comprised of words and hearing the cleverly ordered words that comprised His answers. The words He spoke and manifested were of an altogether higher quality and nature. Here was none other than the Son of God, the Word made flesh. 

And yet although the twelve called Jesus ‘Rabbi’, they didn’t respect Him initially as the only Rabbi. Because the disciples were too influenced by Judaism. The Lord has to remind the disciples to call no man their rabbi or 'father' on earth, i.e. in the land, of Israel (Mt. 23:8,9). 'Father' was a common title for the rabbis, who referred to their disciples as their 'sons'. The disciples clearly respected the apostate rabbis far more than He wanted them to. 

When the disciples first encounter Jesus, they heap upon Him the Messianic titles of Judaism: Rabbi, Messiah, the one described in the Law and prophets, Son of God, King of Israel (Jn. 1:35-51). And yet the other Gospels bring out how Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Son of God is in fact due to a special revelation from the Father, and was somehow a seminal point of faith and comprehension which Peter had reached (Mt. 16:16,17). Surely the point of the apparent contradiction is to show that over time, the disciples started to put meaning into words; the Jewish terms and titles which they had once so effortlessly used, they came to use with real appreciation. We have shown elsewhere that a mature appreciation of the name and titles of the Father and Son is indeed a mark of spiritual maturity.

The record of the disciples' murmuring in John 6 reflects how influenced they were by the Jews around them. "The Jews then murmured at him", and the Lord rebukes them: "Murmur not among yourselves". But then we read of how "Jesus knew in himself that his disciples were murmuring" (Jn. 6:40,43,61). And again, remember that these gospel records were written by the repentant disciples, and they were using the example of their own weakness in order to appeal to others. The disciples appeared to share Judaism's idea that Moses never sinned. When the Lord challenges them to find food for the crowd in the desert, they quote Moses' hasty words: "Whence shall I have flesh to give unto all this people?"; and note Moses almost mocks God by saying that all the fish of the sea wouldn't be enough to feed the people (Num. 11:13,22). Faced with the same need for bread and fish, the disciples justified their lack of faith by quoting Moses, apparently unwilling to accept that Moses' words at that time were not of faith. The way everything worked out, they doubtless learnt that Moses, like them, was of imperfect faith and spirituality.

The Disciples And John The Baptist

The disciples wanted to bring fire down as Elijah had done, to consume their opponents. The Lord replies that His spirit is different; they didn’t know His Spirit, without which, Paul says, “we are none of his”. And yet still He patiently bore with them. However, He also says that He has come to send fire on the earth at the last day (Lk. 12:49)- an evident reference to Elijah. We could read the Lord’s treatment of the disciples’ request as saying ‘The time to act like Elijah will come- but it’s not now’. Likewise His comment that He came to bring division rather than peace: “Think ye that I am come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division” (Lk. 12:51). Elijah was renowned as the prophet who would turn the fathers to the children and bring peace in the land (Mal. 4:6; Ecclus. 48:10). The Lord may be saying: ‘You think, like some of the Jews, that I am a re-incarnation of John the Baptist, the Elijah prophet. I’m not. I’m the Messiah Himself. My spirit is different’. In that very context, the Lord stressed that He had a baptism to undergo, rather than to dispense to others as had John (Lk. 12:50). Perhaps the immaturity of the disciples was so great that they, former disciples of John, somehow believed that Jesus had turned into a re-incarnation of John. In this case, they would have been caught up in the surrounding world’s view of Jesus- for there was much speculation that Jesus was John the Baptist redivivus. The way John in his gospel labours the point that John the Baptist “was not that light”, i.e. Messiah (Jn. 1:8), perhaps is John’s recognition that finally, they got it right. You can imagine him preaching in those early days: ‘After John’s death we thought at times that Jesus was some sort of reincarnation of John. But Peter got it right, and now, I’m just making it clear also what the truth was. He wasn’t John the Baptist redivivus as so many thought. We were caught up a bit in that thinking; but we were wrong’.


(1) J.H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 1988) p. 16.