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15. The disciples

15.8 The Preaching of The Twelve

In the very context of the Lord upbraiding them for their slowness to believe the Gospel of His death and resurrection, they were asked to go and teach others that he who didn’t believe this same message would be damned (Mk. 16:15,16). Their witness, as it is recorded in the Gospel records, is therefore shot through with recognition of their own weakness. They record how Peter their leader was described by the Lord as a “satan” (Mk. 8:33). They were good fishermen- yet their records show that never do they record themselves as catching a fish without their Lord’s help. In this they set a model for our witness; it must be shot through with a full recognition of our weakness, our own struggles to believe that which we invite others to believe. And the more real, the more credible. Not only did the Gospel writers portray their own weakness and slowness to believe; they write in such a way as to minimize their own personalities and presence. They don’t continually harp on about the fact they were really present. There are many incidents where evidently the disciples were with Jesus, yet the focus of the record is entirely upon Him, so awed were they by the magnitude of His personality, and so selfless were they (Lk. 8:27; 10:38-41; Jn. 11:15,20-57). They are appealing for others to believe on the basis that they are recounting the story of how they heard Jesus, and eventually, very slowly and falteringly, had also come to believe. Luke records how Peter, James, John and the parents of the dead girl entered the house where she was alone ; and then "they" laughed Jesus to scorn when He proclaimed she was merely asleep (Lk. 8:51,53). It's psychologically unlikely that the distraught, desparately hopeful parents would've ridiculed Jesus like this at that time. The reference is surely to the three disciples doing this. This is a profound recognition of the disciples' weakness- there, alone with Jesus and the distraught parents, they mocked Jesus' ability to resurrect the girl. And they have the profound humility to tell the world about that in their record of the Gospel.

The Conclusion Of The Gospels

The Gospel writers each conclude their message with some reference to their own incredible slowness to believe the very Gospel which they were now preaching to others. Between them, the preaching of the twelve makes it clear that they saw the risen Lord in Jerusalem, at least twice, were commissioned as preachers of that good news…and yet returned to Galilee in disbelief and resumed their previous occupations. And of course they recall their Lord’s rebuke of them for their slowness and blindness. Truly they were appealing to their hearers on the basis of their own humanity and weakness of faith. They weren’t painting themselves as immaculate, never doubting believers. They were so strongly portraying their humanity, knowing that they were appealing to men and women who were equally human and frail of faith.

John perhaps especially brings out their blindness at this time. He describes how they were fishing on the lake, having given up, it seems, their faith in Jesus, despite His appearances to them. Yet John describes that incident in language which evidently alludes to the account in Luke 5 of the Lord’s first call to them by the same lake, whilst they were fishing. Consider the similarities:

- They have fished all night but caught nothing

- The Lord tells them to cast their nets

- They obey and catch many fish

- The effect on the nets is mentioned

- Peter reacts emotionally, and in both records is called ‘Simon Peter’

- The presence of “the sons of Zebedee” is mentioned both times (Jn. 21:2; Lk. 5:10)

- Jesus is called ‘Lord’

- The same Greek words are used for climbing aboard, landing, the nets etc.

The point being that John is saying: ‘Durrr! We were so dumb, not to realize the similarities more quickly! Of course it was Jesus! But we were so, so pathetically slow to accept it. After the encounter by the lake in Lk. 5, Jesus made us fishers of men. But we refused to be, initially. So He had to re-commission us yet again after this second incident’. John uses the verb helkein to describe how they ‘drew’ the nets to land- the same word used elsewhere by him for people being ‘drawn’ to Jesus (Jn. 6:44; 12:32). He is recognizing that they had had to be re-taught the call to be fishers of men, because they had pushed off to Galilee in disbelief and disobedience to the great commission to go and catch men. Perhaps John records Peter being asked the same question “Lovest thou me?” three times, in order to show how terribly slow they all were to accept the teachings of the Lord which now they were asking others to accept.

Jn. 20:27 records the Lord’s challenge to Thomas: “Do not persist in your disbelief, but become a believer” (Gk.). And then He pronounces to Thomas: “You have [now] believed” (Jn. 20:29, Syriac text). It’s as if John is challenging his hearers and readers in the same way, and setting up his buddy ‘doubting Thomas’ as their pattern. John makes the point that Thomas didn’t initially believe the ‘preaching’ of the Gospel of the resurrection by the other disciples. When John records Thomas as saying “If I do not see…and put my finger…I will never believe” (Jn. 20:25), he is connecting back to the Lord’s very similar words: “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will never believe” (Jn. 4:48). It’s as if John is bringing out the weakness of faith in his friend Thomas, the struggle there was to believe, knowing it would elicit a chord in his hearers, thus building a bridge between the hearers and the preacher. And John goes on to record that there is a greater blessing for those who believe, not having seen the Lord, than there is for preachers like himself, who had believed because they had seen and touched the Lord (Jn. 20:29). It’s as if John shows the utmost humility before his audience, imputing to them greater faith than he had. And Peter does likewise, alluding here when he says that his readers love the Lord, although they [unlike he] had never seen Him (1 Pet. 1:8).

Each of the Gospel writers brings out this sense of inadequacy about themselves or the disciples, this self-criticism, in different ways. The preaching of the twleve disciples is really an admission of their own weaknesses. For example, John mentions that when he and Peter arrived at the tomb, he [John] “did not go in”, but Peter did, and therefore believed before he did (Jn. 20:5). We see here John’s gentle humility, and reflection in his own preaching of how he esteemed others better than himself, and of stronger faith. John says that “he saw and believed”, but goes straight on to say that he at that time did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead (Jn. 20:8,9). He surely means that he later believed, but not right then. Luke’s account of the rich man in the parable of Lk. 16 has several consciously-inserted connections with how he later describes the disciples:

Lk. 16

Lk. 24

Disbelief in the face of meeting the resurrected man (Lk. 16:31)

“They did not believe…slow of heart to believe” (Lk. 24:11,25,41)

Double mention of Moses and the prophets as proofs of resurrection (Lk. 16:29,31)

Ditto in Lk. 24:27,44

“Should rise from the dead” (Lk. 16:31)

“Should rise from the dead” (Lk. 24:46)

“They will repent” (Lk. 16:30)

Forgiveness of sins was to be preached because of Christ’s resurrection, as Luke brings out in Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20.

Thus the tragedy and foolishness of the rich man in the parable is seen by Luke as applying to the disciples in their disbelief of the resurrection. And yet the purpose of Luke’s Gospel, as all the Gospels, was to proclaim the need for belief in the resurrection.

The Lord had to comment that the harvest was great, but the labourers [i.e. the disciples] were few or weak [Lk. 10:2 Gk.]. And yet He delegated so much to them- authority, the power of miracles, the Gospel itself (Lk. 9:1-6), despite their weakness, and despite the fact much harvest was spoilt or not harvested by their weakness. They were His representatives to the world (Lk. 10:16)- and yet they still didn’t know how to pray (Lk. 11:1). We marvel at the way the Lord used them, and yet we end up realizing with a similar amazement that the same Lord has entrusted His Gospel to us, with all our weakness and dysfunction.

The Gospels are transcripts of the twelve disciples’ own preaching and obedience to the Lord’s commission for them to go into all the world and tell the news of what they had seen and heard of Him. Yet there is a theme in the Gospels, consciously included by the writers and speakers, of men being disobedient to the preaching commission which the Lord gave them. When some were told to say nothing, they went and told many others (Mk. 7:36). And as Acts makes clear, the disciples themselves were disobedient, initially, to the commission to go tell the Gentiles the good news of their salvation. Legion’s disobedience is especially instructive for us:

Mk. 5:19

Mk. 5:20

Go to thy house

He goes to the ten cities [Decapolis]

unto thy friends

He goes to strangers

tell them [Lk. 8:39 “show them”- by personal demonstration to individuals]

He “publishes

how great things

how great things

the Lord [i.e. God] hath done for thee

Jesus had done for him

and how he had mercy on thee.


The record of the commission given him and his obedience to it are clearly intended to be compared. The man went to strange cities, indeed he organized a whole preaching tour of ten cities- rather than going home and telling his immediate friends / family. And how true this is of us. It’s so much easier to embark upon a campaign to strangers, to do ‘mission work’, to ‘publish’ the Gospel loudly, rather than tell and show it to our immediate personal contacts. And we notice too how he omits to tell others of the Lord’s merciful grace to him personally. Rather does he speak only of the material, the literality of the healing. And he tells others what Jesus had done for him, rather than take the Lord Jesus’ invitation to perceive the bigger picture in all this- that this was the hand of God. One wonders whether the disciples were commenting upon their own sense of inadequacy in their initial personal witness.

“From whence shall we get bread here in the wilderness?” is how Peter / Mark recorded their question to the Lord (Mk. 8:4). But the wording is so very similar to the LXX of Ex. 16:3, where a faithless Israel asked the same of Moses; and Moses responded, as did the Lord, in providing bread from Heaven. Did the disciples actually say those words? Would they really have said the very words which Israel did in one of their lowest ebbs of faith and understanding? My suggestion is that they did indeed say something similar in essence, but Mark / Peter purposefully recorded it in terms which highlight the similarity with unbelieving Israel- to as it were emphasize how weak the disciples were at that point.

The Case Of Peter

The failure of Peter is effectively emphasized by the very structure of the Gospel accounts. John frames the interrogation of the Lord against the interrogation of Peter. The Lord peerlessly and bravely witnesses to the Truth, and is condemned to death for it; whilst Peter flunks the issue time and again to save his own skin. Whilst the Lord unflinchingly declares His identity before the High Priest, Peter is presented as doing anything to deny his identity as a disciple. Peter's denials are presented by the records as if in slow motion, for the reader to gaze upon in detail. Peter's denial " I am not" is placed by John in purposeful juxtaposition to the Lord's brave self-identification in Gethsemane: ego eimi, " I am" (Jn. 18:5,17). And yet this 'setting up' of the leader of the early church as a failure was done by the early church writers, ultimately inspired as they were! They were glorying in their weakness and their Lord's supremacy. They were standing up for their unity with Him by grace, but openly and pointedly proclaiming the vast mismatch between them and Him.