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15. The disciples

15.7 The Disciples And Imputed Righteousness

Although the Lord was very hard in some ways upon the twelve, accusing them of “no faith” etc, whenever He spoke about them to others or to His Father, He was so positive about them. This is a valuable window onto His current mediation for us.

The disciples were ordinary Jews who weren’t such righteous men; they didn’t wash before a meal, and the Pharisees criticized them. The Lord explained why this wasn’t so important; but the disciples still didn’t understand. And yet He justifies them to the Pharisees as if they did understand, and as if their non-observance of ritual washing was because of their great spiritual perception (Mt. 15:2,15,16). Surely the Lord imputed a righteousness to them which was not their own. Jesus had asked the disciples to be obedient to every jot and tittle of the teaching of the Scribes, because they “sit in Moses’ seat”. And yet when they are criticized for not doing what He’d asked them to do, for not washing hands before a meal, the Lord Jesus vigorously defends them by criticizing their critics as hypocrites (Mk. 7:2-8). Indeed, the Lord’s passion and anger with the critics comes out very clearly in the subsequent record of the incident; and it is the essence of that passion which He has for us in mediating for us. 

The Lord defended the non-observant Judaism of the twelve as being due to their joy that He, the bridegroom, was with them (Lk. 5:33,34). When they ‘ground corn’ on the Sabbath, the Lord defended them to their critics by saying that they were like David’s men eating the shewbread. Those guys were just walking through a cornfield rubbing ears together as their manner was, as they had done on many a sabbath day, but not realizing that this time there was some Scribe out with his binocular vision scrutinizing them. They surely weren’t doing it because their minds were on the incident of David’s men eating the shewbread. The Lord had asked them to obey the Scribes, who sat in Moses’ seat, over this kind of trivia. But He doesn’t rebuke them. Rather, He defends them to others, imputing far more spiritual perception to them than they had (Lk. 6:1-4).  

A Positive View

The Lord took a very positive view of his struggling, stuttering followers, especially in the run up to His death. His teaching had throughout emphasized the importance of the heart, and how thought and action are linked. Yet He appears to have made a temporary exception when He generously excused His disciples’ sleeping in Gethsemane: “The spirit [mind] truly is ready, but the flesh is weak” (Mk. 14:38). The theoretical willingness of the mind does not usually excuse fleshly weakness, according to the Lord’s teaching. It seems to me that this statement of His, which for me gets harder to interpret the more one ponders it, is simply the Lord’s generous, justifying impulse towards His weak followers. And He was feeling like this towards them at the very time when, in symbol and in essence, they had condemned themselves. For He ‘comes’ to them, finds them asleep, like the sleepy virgins in His recent parable, they were dumbfounded and unable to answer Him, just as the rejected will be at judgment day, and then they fled, as the rejected likewise will (Mk. 14:40,41,51). If these were His generous feelings for them, then…what comfort it is to know we follow the same Lord.  

The world would not perceive (Mk. 4:12); but they did, or so the Lord told them. And hence His distress that they did not perceive (Mk. 7:18; 8:17); and yet He said that blessed were their ears and minds, because they understood what had been hidden from so many.  

He taught that unless a man was willing to carry his cross and forsake all that he had, he couldn’t be His disciple (Lk. 14:27). And He called them His disciples, even though they clearly didn’t perceive the real nature of the cross, nor did they actually leave all that they had but retained some things. The disciples were told to sell what they had (Lk. 12:22,32,33); but it seems they kept their fishing business(1). 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 (Lk. 18:28) appears somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, the parable of the unjust steward being specifically directed at the disciples (Lk. 15:1 cp. 16:1,9), it could appear that they had a special problem with lower-middle-class petty materialism (Lk. 16:9). Likewise Lk. 6 is spoken specially to the disciples, and it has much to say about materialism. 

The Lord’s grace to His men is reflected in Mark’s record of how the twelve were confused by the Lord’s parables. He responds that He speaks in parables so that “them that are without” would not understand; but His followers would, He implies, “know the mystery of the Kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables”. And yet it’s immediately apparent that the disciples were equally confused by the parables. We sense the Lord’s frustration with this: “Know ye not this parable? How then will ye know all parables?”- i.e. ‘If you don’t understand this parable, it means you won’t understand any of them, which makes you equal with the crowd of those outside of Me, whom I’m seeking to leave confused’. And we note how straight away Mark notes, perhaps in sadness and yet marvel at the Lord’s grace: “But without a parable spake he not unto them [the disciples]: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples” (Mk. 4:10-13,34). Mark, or Peter writing through Mark, could look back in wonder. They the supposed disciples, learners, of the Lord Jesus had been as dumb as the crowd; but by grace alone the Lord had privately explained the parables to them. And our understanding of true Bible teaching is likewise a gift of grace, when we are every bit as obtuse as the people in darkness who surround us.

The very human perspective of the disciples is almost predictably brought out by their response to the Lord’s question to them about where to get bread to feed the hungry crowd. “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient” was Philip’s response (Jn. 6:7). Andrew’s comment that they had five loaves and two fishes surely carried the undertone that ‘…and that’s not even enough for us, let alone them- we’re starving too, you know!’. The disciples wanted the crowd sent away, to those who sold food, so that they might buy for themselves (Mt. 14:15). As the Lord’s extended commentary upon their reactions throughout John 6 indicates, these responses were human and selfish. And yet- and here is a fine insight into His grace and positive thinking about His men- He puts their very words and attitudes into the mouth of the wise virgins at the very moment of their acceptance at the day of judgment: “The wise answered [the foolish virgins] saying, Not so, lest there be not enough [s.w. “not sufficient”, Jn. 6:7] for us and you; but got ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves” (Mt. 25:9). Clearly the Lord framed that parable in the very words, terms and attitudes of His selfish disciples. He counted even their weakness as positive, and thus showed His desire to accept them in the last day in spite of it. Another reading of the connection would be that the Lord foresaw how even in the final moment of acceptance into His Kingdom, right on the very eve of judgment day, His people would still be as hopelessly limited in outlook and spiritually self-centred as the disciples were that day with the multitude. Whatever way we want to read this undoubted connection of ideas, we have a window into a grace so amazing it almost literally takes our breath away.

The Upper Room Discourse

The closer one gets to the crucifixion, the more the Gospels seem to record the Lord imputing righteousness to the disciples- as if He sensed the wonderful imputation of righteousness to us which He was going to achieve there: 

- When they put their clothes on the colt and started mistakenly proclaiming Jesus as the triumphal Messiah entering Jerusalem to begin His political Kingdom, the Lord doesn’t rebuke their misunderstanding. Instead, He defends them to the critical Pharisees (Lk. 19:35-37,40). 

- The Lord’s teaching about the cross was “hid from them” (Lk. 9:45), much to the Lord’s distress. And yet in prayer to the Father, He rejoices that these things are not hid from them (Lk. 10:21,23). This is a picture of the Lord’s present mediation for us in prayer. 

- He told them that His Father cleansed every branch which bore fruit, so that it might bear yet more fruit. And "Already ye are clean[sed]" (Jn. 15:2,3 RV). He perceived them has having borne fruit already, when in many ways it might seem that they hadn't even started.

- He told Pilate: “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews” (Jn. 18:36). But His servants just had tried to fight, to this very end!  

- Consider Jn. 16:27,30-32:

Jesus: “You…have believed that I came out from God”

Disciples: “[Yes], we believe that thou camest forth from God”

Jesus: “Do ye now believe? Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, when ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone”.

Although they didn’t really believe, He said that they did. He wasn’t so in love with them that He was blind to their failures. But He was all the same so positive about their practically non-existent faith. And what’s more, He goes on to tell the Father His positive perspective on their faith: “They…have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me” (Jn. 17:8). But the Lord had only just been telling the disciples that they didn’t really believe that He had come out from God…! Yet He counted them as if they did, and reflected this to the Father in prayer. And this is surely how the Lord intercedes for us today.  

- The Lord's High Priestly prayer of intercession in John 17 [so called because of the way He speaks of 'sanctifying Himself'] reveals how positive He felt about the disciples- even though He knew and foretold that they were about to betray Him, deny Him and leave Him alone in His hour of greatest human need. His grace towards them here is quite profound. He describes them to His Father as those who "have kept your word" (Jn. 17:6)- referring to His own parable of the good ground, those who keep the word and bring forth fruit with patience (Lk. 8:15). Again, He tells His Father about them: "They have believed that You did send me" (Jn. 17:8). But He had just upbraided them for their unbelief in Him (Jn. 16:31), and would do so again in a few days time (Mk. 16:14). Yet He presents His weak followers to the Father as so much better than they really were; and this is the same Lord who mediates for us today. Likewise, the Lord assures the Father that they were not "of the [Jewish] world" (Jn. 17:14,16), even though as we have shown in these studies, they were deeply influenced by the Jewish world around them. Perhaps the Lord looked ahead to the day when they would be spiritually stronger, and yet He presents the immature disciples to the Father from the perspective of how He hoped they would one day be. Thus He says that He has already "sent them into the world" (Jn. 17:18)- but this was only done by Him in its fullness after His resurrection. He speaks of how He was glorified in them before the [Jewish] world (Jn. 17:10)- when He knew Peter was about to deny Him and shame His whole cause and mission. But surely the Lord looked ahead to the hope He had in Peter and all of them, that they would go out into the world and glorify Him. Indeed, the whole prayer of Jn. 17 reveals how the Lord presented them to the Father as men who in many ways they simply were not. When they say “We believe…that thou camest forth from God”, He comments: “Do ye now believe?” and predicts their scattering. Yet in prayer to the Father, He says that they did believe “Surely…that I came out from thee” (Jn. 17:8,25). Their faith was anything but “sure”. Likewise, we have shown above that they failed to really perceive His death, and thus failed to perceive the essence of Him. In the face of this tragedy, this frustration and pain, the Lord could calmly tell the Father: “I am glorified in them” (Jn. 17:10)- in they who understood so little, indeed who refused to understand. Even worse, the Lord had just been telling them that they didn’t really love Him fully (Jn. 14:15,23,28). And yet He speaks to the Father of them as if they are so committed to Him. 

- Likewise with their understanding; the Lord imputed more to them than they really had. The Last Supper discourse showed clearly enough that they didn't understand or " know" (Jn. 14:7,9; 16:5,18). Yet in the Lord's prayer of Jn. 17, He uses the perfect tense of the verb 'to know' when He says " Now they have come to know..." . It's almost as if He increasingly imputed things to them which were not yet so, as increasingly He faced up to the reality and implications of His death for them. 

- Another example of positivism in the last discourse is to be found in Jn. 15:15, where the Lord says He no longer calls them servants with Him as their Lord, but rather does He see them as friends. He has just reminded them that they call Him Lord, and rightly so, and therefore His washing of their feet was what they must do (Jn. 13:13). Earlier, He had rebuked them for calling Him “Lord” but not doing what He said (Lk. 6:46- this is in a speech directed at the disciples- Lk. 6:20,27.40). And yet He told others that His disciples did His word (Lk. 8:21). He was so positive about them to others, even though they did not do the consequences of calling Him Lord [e.g. washing each others’ feet- instead, they argued who was to be the greatest]. Perhaps when the Lord says that He will no longer relate to them as a Lord, with them as His servants, but rather simply as their friend, He is tacitly recognizing their failure, and preparing Himself to die for them as their friend rather than as their Master. And yet, as the Divine economy worked it all out, it was exactly through that death that they exalted Him as Lord and Master as they should have done previously. 

The Lord’s comment to the disciples that if they loved him, then they would ‘keep his word’ (Jn. 14:15,21,23) implies their love was at best imperfect. Their keeping of His word and loving Him was certainly under question in Jn. 15:10. And yet He confidently represents them to the Father as those who had kept His word (Jn. 17:6). His comment that “I am glorified in them” (Jn. 17:10) was evidently said in hope and faith that they would glorify Him- for before His death He “was not yet glorified” (Jn. 7:39). Indeed, Jn. 12:16 suggests that the disciples only “glorified” Him after the resurrection, once they remembered and understood His words and actions properly. It was through “bearing much fruit” that the disciples would glorify Him (Jn. 15:8)- and they evidently hadn’t started doing that. Indeed, when Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, the Father was indeed glorified in Jesus- but not through the disciples, who ran away in denial of their Lord (Jn. 12:28; 13:31). And yet the Lord Jesus confidently asserts to His Father, to God Almighty, that He was glorified in the disciples (Jn. 17:10). Repeatedly, the Lord made the point that His men were “not of the world” (Jn. 17:16). But He Himself made the point that if His Kingdom- i.e. the people under His Kingship- were of this world, then they would fight for Him (Jn. 18:36). And that is exactly what they tried to do in Gethsemane! They acted then as if they were indeed “of this world” by trying to fight for Jesus physically. And yet the Lord saw through to their inner spirit, and presented this to the Father as being actually not of this world. The disciples didn’t “know” the things the Lord spoke to them about His origin and purpose- they only “knew” them after the resurrection (Lk. 18:34; Jn. 10:6; 12:16; 13:7). Jn. 14:7,9 is plain: “If you had known me…yet have you not known me”, He tells the disciples. And yet He uses just that same Greek word in telling the Father that His men did “know” Him and His word (Jn. 17:7,8,25). He had faith and hope in their future maturity- they didn’t then “know”, but they did in the future (Jn. 12:16; 13:7). The Lord had hope that “In that day you shall know” (Jn. 14:20). For there was no absolute guarantee that the eleven would come to “know” Him and His word, seeing they had freewill- Jesus had faith they would, and He expressed that faith and Hope to the Father so positively.

The discourse in the upper room was intended by the Lord " to prevent your faith from being shaken" or, literally, 'scandalized' (Jn. 16:1). And yet He uses the same word to predict how " This night you will all be scandalized because of me" (Mt. 26:31). He knew they would stumble, or be 'scandalized'. Yet He hoped against hoped that they would not be; so positive was His hope of them. And exactly because He was like this, the pain of their desertion and stumbling would have been so much the greater. And the Lord who is the same today as yesterday goes through just the same with us, hour by hour. 

The Lord’s exalted view of the disciples is reflected in how He washed their feet. To wash the feet of guests was more menial than we might imagine. It was normal to provide water for the guest to wash his own feet. The Midrash Mekilta on Ex. 21:2 taught that a Jewish slave should never be required to wash his Master’s feet. But as a sign of extreme devotion and respect, some disciples of the most respected rabbis would wash their feet. Yet the Lord Jesus, having reminded them that He was indeed their Lord and Master, does this to them. And according to Lk. 12:37, He will do this again to us in His Kingdom, in that He will then tie a cloth around Him and come forth and serve us. It would seem the Lord was referring back to this prophecy when He tied a cloth around Him and washed the disciples’ feet. This was how highly He thought of them; and that incident was an enacted prophecy of the attitude He will have to us, whom the 12 symbolize, even in the glory of His Kingdom. He surely totally redefined the nature of Lordship and respect.  

Indeed, the whole of the Lord’s last discourse to the twelve reflects His positive view of them- at the very time when their commitment to Him was in some ways at its lowest ebb. For they all forsook Him in His hour of need. He comments that they are filled with sorrow because of their misunderstanding about His departure from them. But He goes on to liken this sorrow to the sorrow of a woman in labour, who forgets that sorrow as soon as her child is born (Jn. 16:6, 20-22). In the analogy, the travailing woman is the disciples, and the new born child is the resurrected Jesus. For “then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord”. Their ‘sorrow’ was thereby interpreted by the Lord as their longing and striving towards His resurrection. But this is a very positive way of interpreting their sorrow. Their sorrow was based on their misunderstanding (Jn. 16:6). Yet the Lord saw that deep underneath that sorrow, even though they didn’t perceive it themselves, they were actually yearning for His resurrection. This was partly due to His penetration of their psychology, but it also reflects the simple fact that He certainly counted them as more spiritual than they actually were. He tells them to “ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full”, having just defined their future joy as the joy of seeing Him risen from the dead (Jn. 16:24,22). But did they ask to see His resurrection? Not as far as we know; for He upbraids them with their slowness to believe His predictions of resurrection. But despite all that, He said that they would have that joy which would come from asking to see Him risen from the dead. They didn’t ask for this, but they would still have the joy. Why? Because He perceived them to have ‘asked’ for what they didn’t actually ask for in so many words. He read their basic inner yearning for Him as a prayer for His resurrection, even though they were far from understanding that He would ever rise again once dead. It’s rather like God saying that the righteous remnant in Jerusalem had shaken their head at the Assyrian invaders and laughed at them in faith- when this was certainly not the case on the surface (Is. 37:22). And this Lord is our Lord today, interpreting our innermost, unarticulated desires as prayers to the Father (Rom. 8:26,27).  

The Lord seems to have imputed their future maturity to them at a time when they still didn’t have it. ‘You know where I go’, He told them (Jn. 14:4,5)- when, as they themselves responded, they didn’t. He said that they knew the Spirit of Truth, whereas the Jewish world didn’t (Jn. 14:17)- because “in that day ye shall know…” (Jn. 14:20). And this approach will help us with our immature and frustrating brethren; we need to impute to them that spiritual maturity to which we must believe they will rise.  

Most clearly of all perhaps, they slept in Gethsemane, despite being asked to stay awake and encourage the Lord in His hour of need (Lk. 22:45). Yet He thanks them for being those who continued with them in His temptations (Lk. 22:27). When the Jews agreed at a council to kill Him, the Lord went to be alone with the twelve (Jn. 11:53,54). He took such comfort from them even though they did not or would not understand the reality of His upcoming death. He, like us, could only take such comfort from His brethren if He viewed them positively.  

It is significant that the Lord’s positivism about the disciples grew as He came nearer to the cross- and as they increasingly failed to perceive the clear prophecies which He had given about it. His increasing positivism was not, therefore, because they were developing spiritually. Indeed, the discourse in the upper room seems to indicate how tragically little they understood, and how their faith basically collapsed with the crucifixion. The source of the Lord’s positivism was therefore His growing appreciation of what the cross would achieve. He perceived, as Paul later was to explain so clearly, that through His death, His righteousness would be imputed to all His stumbling people.


Reflect on a Gospel parallel to see the huge importance of being a disciple of Jesus. In Mt. 10:38 the Lord says that whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow after Him, “is not worthy of me”. In Lk. 14:27 we have the same words, but concluded with “… the same cannot be my disciple”. To be a disciple of the Lord is to be worthy of Him. To seek to walk as He walked, to follow behind Him, is to be worthy of Him. The important thing is to follow, for all our stumblings, but at least to be in the way behind Him.


(1) Not all the disciples were dirt poor. Their fishing business employed hired servants. The parable about “one of you” having a servant ploughing and preparing his food was spoken to the twelve (Lk. 17:1,7).