Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study.
Each month we’ve featured a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot. This month, however, we are continuing with our emphasis on filling in some background information. Rather than moving right into some of the Apocryphal New Testament books, we are planning to spend a few months looking at the early church, trying to get a better sense for what life was like in the first century for Jesus and his disciples and Paul.
Last month we focused on the life and times of Jesus. This month we will be looking at some of the issues the disciples faced. What was it like for them in their work, in following Jesus, in establishing the church after he ascended?
If you want to read about the books of the Bible we’ve already covered, you can find an overview in our archives. The Bible Time-Line is another quick reference for locating individuals or specific books.
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The Life and Times of the Disciples
There is no doubt that from the moment Jesus invite them to “follow me,” the disciples’ lives are forever transformed. After answering Jesus’ call, the Bible says the disciples were “with Jesus.” But what does that mean? Does it mean they were with him constantly – from the very beginning of his ministry to its end?
Scholars don’t really know. We can study what it meant to be a disciple in the first century and compare Jesus’ disciples with other disciples of the time. But it’s hard to get a handle on what life was actually like for them based on what the Gospels say.
What is a Disciple?
There were lots of disciples during the first century. Theword disciple really just means “to learn.” In Jesus’ time, the word is used to describe someone who is committed to the teachings of a great philosopher, a religious person, or just a good thinker.
In the first century, most learned rabbis have followers or disciples, as does John the Baptist. In religious circles, the prime motive is to study the oral and written Torah, which is referred to as the “tradition of the elders.” Pharisees who were well versed in these matters often had students, though only in an informal way sincea structured classroom setting with a prescribed curriculum didn’t exist.
From the Gospels, we know that some of John the Baptist’s disciples choose to follow Jesus (John 1:35-42). Others, however, continue to “follow John” long after his arrest. John’s disciples bury him upon his death and remain active in Acts (18:25-26; 19:1-7). Not surprisingly, there is even a little tension between the followers of Jesus and John (Matt. 9:14).
Discipleship in the New Testament (though the actual word “discipleship” is never used) usually means learning from a teacher. In most cases, the student would ask the teacher for the honor of studying under him. Yet, all the gospels agree that Jesus initiates the relationship with his disciples – calling them to follow him. There are no other known examples of a teacher inviting or commanding someone to follow him.
So, for Jesus’ disciples, being a disciple seems to mean a lot more than just studying with their teacher. They “follow” Jesus, not just geographically from place to place, but also figuratively, in the sense that they learn from him with the intention of carrying on his ministry after he is gone. So, the idea is to be like Jesus – to follow the path of life that he lays out.
Leaving Your Family
Behind Since Jesus leaves his vocation and his home, we might assume that his disciples also leave their vocations and homes. Jesus seems to have no family responsibilities and neither do his disciples – at least none that we hear about.
We also hear very little about the disciples’ families. Early in his carrer Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, but there is no further mention of the family. Indeed, at one point the disciples declare that they have left all to follow Jesus (Matt 19:27). Jesus replies that everyone who has left his home and family to follow him will receive “an hundredfold” what he has given up, plus everlasting life.
This was all done with one eye to the future, of course. The day would come when the disciples would become “apostles” – those who would be sent out. Jesus will send them out to continue to preach the good news and to heal the sick. It is not intended to be a political movement; people are not urged to political action, but are urged to “repent” (change their lives) for “the kingdom of God is at hand.”
The Disciples’ Role
Each Gospel has a unique approach to the disciples. In Luke, they play a very secondhand role. They speak only a handful of times and their comments are rather inane. They fare somewhat better in Matthew and John, but they are still relegated to secondary status. In Mark, they have a more active role, but there they are oftentimes quite clueless. Mark depicts them as people who are with Jesus, but who don’t have any inkling about what is really going on.
Imagine, though, what it must have been like for them to be with Jesus – no doubt it is a bit overwhelming much of the time. Day after day they listen to their teacher use words and discuss concepts they have a hard time understanding. When Jesus talks in parables, they often struggle to understand the meaning and need additional explanations. They watched him heal with a simple word or a touch. When three of them see Jesus transfigured, they quickly suggest ways to stay up on that mountaintop forever, not fully understanding what they just witnessed.
At one point in his ministry, Jesus sends them out into the countryside, two by two, to heal and to cast out demons. They came back with glowing reports, saying, “Even the demons submit to us in your name.” But shortly thereafter, they were unable to drive a demon out of a young boy.
Most of us would give anything to know what they were thinking during the more extraordinary moments. Maybe they were included in the crowds that were always amazed. Or perhaps they were afraid or in awe, like they were when Jesus calms a storm or walks on the water. They may have asked themselves, “Who is this?”
Yet, when Jesus asks them who they think he is and they answer correctly that he is the Christ, they have little understanding of what that really means. When Jesus adds that he will be killed, they yell at him for saying such a thing. Clearly, being the Christ had a much different meaning for them. In Mark’s gospel, each of Jesus’ three predictions about his final days is followed by the disciples arguing over which of them is the greatest and most deserves a place of honor.
An Interesting and Exciting Life Breaking the Rules
Life with Jesus must have been very exciting. In one very real sense it was like breaking the rules and getting away with it! When they were with him, they didn’t have to adhere to strict religious codes. This drove the Pharisees and other religious leaders to distraction when the disciples walk through fields gleaning grain on a Sabbath, or when they don’t wash properly, or when the skip fasting.
The disciples were also protective of their teacher. On one occasion, the disciples try to stop someone from using Jesus’ name to heal because he wasn’t one of them. They felt only Jesus’ students should heal in his name. They also weren’t too keen on having people bring their little children to Jesus. Perhaps they thought the children would be distracting or beneath the dignity of their great teacher.
Final Days Together
During their last evening together, when Jesus says that one of them will betray him, they each say, “Surely not I.” When he says they will all fall away, Peter brags that he will be the exception. But when Jesus needs help to carry his cross, the job falls to a complete stranger. None of them even step forward to bury his body. Only the women visit his tomb after he is buried. When the women told the disciples that the tomb was empty, the disciples are the ones who don’t believe it. In fact, Peter and John race to the empty tomb and wonder what it all means.
Afterwards when Jesus appears to the disciples while they were hiding in a locked room out of fear of the Jews, they tremble and think they are seeing a ghost,. Later on, they go back to their nets and spend a night trying in vain to catch fish. When they see Jesus on the shore, they are afraid once more.
In general, Jesus’ disciples certainly appear in the Gospels, but often they don’t have much understanding about what Jesus is saying or doing, nor do they have much insight into their own future.
It is very likely that these accounts really do reflect their original behavior and, by default, highlight the great change that occurred within them on the Day of Pentecost following Jesus’ ascension. Next month, we will examine that event, and try to understand how it came to be that these ragtag fishermen became the leaders of the Christian church.