In the four Gospel accounts, it is apparent that the selection, training and spiritual development of the followers of the Lord take up quite a proportion of the available space. In addition, the reactions of those who listened but were apathetic, non-committed, or even hostile, are given a great deal of attention. It thus becomes obvious that, in any consideration of the Lord as Teacher, a study of His pupils and even casual hearers is of importance.
Such being the case, it is very surprising that comparatively little thought has been given to the Lord’s listeners, and particularly to the close-knit band of men who continued with the Lord in His temptations, His trials and His triumph.
Before continuing a study of individuals and groups who are presented as hearers or followers of the Saviour, we might profitably enquire into the reasons for the selection and training of the twelve.
Four purposes for the choice of the twelve disciples present themselves. In the first place, they constituted a connection between the twelve tribes under the old covenant and the chosen people of the new Israel of God. Secondly, the Lord chose companions with whom He would have communion and fellowship while He tabernacled upon earth. In the third instance, their continuing work would serve to give credence and consolidation when He had returned to the Father. Lastly, their successes, their failures and their transformation would serve as a challenge to all those who have sought to follow Him ever since.
Our first consideration, namely that the disciples occupy a very special and indeed unique position in the church, is probably a new conception to many readers. The passage in Matthew 19. 27-30 is generally taken as applying to the millennial age. Similarly, the allusion in Revelation 21. 14, is seen in a highly figurative sense. However, in the comparable passage in Luke 22. 24-30, the words “I appoint unto you a kingdom” have a reference to a new covenant, and this concept is again mentioned in 22. 20, Galatians chapters 3-4, and Hebrews chapters 7-10. It is admitted that there are difficulties in interpretation, but the choice of the twelve was such an important one for the Lord. The immense importance which He as the Son of God placed upon their commission and His charge to be faithful merit more reflection on our part.
The advent of the Messiah, the inauguration of a new covenant, did not mean the forgetting or abandonment of the twelve tribal patriarchs of old. However, the twelve disciples, appointed as “pillars”, Gal. 2. 9, had a special role to play as companions and helpers of the Lord on earth. The Saviour was always in close and constant communion with His Father, but when here below, He also desired earthly friends and companions. John the Baptist was a lonely, solitary man, but the Lord possessed that most perfect, complete and generously warm disposition. Just as the first Adam before his fall in the garden was provided with an earthly companion and solace, so the last Adam as sinless, spotless, undefiled, separate from sinners, sought friends and comforters. God is not a solitary, lonely, non-communicating Being, else He would never have created, redeemed or restored mankind.
The role of the disciples in gaining consolidation and in giving credence to the continuing work of the Saviour following His return to heaven is not always sufficiently realized. Twenty centuries later, the situation is hard to envisage. A tremendous task awaited the infant church; heretical voices were being raised, but there were “pillars” raised by God. The Acts of the Apostles underlines this point, as do the Pastoral Epistles. Acts 15 gives us a fleeting picture of the importance given to the “apostles and elders”. Soon, in the history of the Church, their work was to fade and to be forgotten. The written Word of God soon became available as a guide for thought and action under the guidance of the Spirit. However, eternity will reveal yet more “Acts of the Apostles” regarding those of the twelve for whom history has so many blank pages.
Lastly, all those who have ever followed the Saviour have been in some way His “disciples”. “Ye are my disciples”, He said, “if ye have love one to another”, John 13. 35. We feebly follow Him, and His perfect example leads us on. It is when we fall, however, and become conscious of our human weaknesses, that we see some reflection of ourselves in the disciples of old. There is, then, a great deal of reassurance and comfort for us when we realize that He sought a wandering Simon Peter, He transformed the sons of thunder, and strengthened a doubting Thomas. Without the Gospel records, we should know none of these incidents to refresh our souls, helping us to keep close to Him.
Education has changed in so many ways with the passing of the years, so that its ideals, aims and methods are even now undergoing constant revision and alteration. Some factors are changeless, however. Pupils’ characters and abilities change very little. Their problems and weaknesses, their loveable characteristics, always remain. Thus we still have the remedial children, the maladjusted, the handicapped, the gifted, the isolates, the average children and, sometimes, the truants.
In the time of the Lord, there were those who regarded themselves as above and beyond instruction. Strangely, the “withdrawals” were not outcasts or drop-outs of society. Instead, it was the scribes and Pharisees who remained aloof and icily unmoved by the new Teacher. They called Him “Rabbi” from afar, but His teaching was not for them. He called upon them to “de-school” and “unlearn”, and one or two of them obeyed. Joseph and Nicodemus carried a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds in weight, and bore His body to a virgin tomb hewn in a rock, John 19. 38-42.
The publicans and sinners formed a different category of pupil. Spiritually illiterate and excluded from normal society, they received special attention from the Lord. For them, He instituted a peripatetic system of teaching, with a syllabus designed to produce immediate results. Levi, once a busy publican, became a well-known follower of the Lord.
The large numbers of physically handicapped merited a special section and part of the Lord’s time. They appeared to be so helpless and ineducable, that many people entirely neglected them. The Saviour, who knew that one day His own visage would be marred more than any man’s and His form more than the sons of men, was moved to compassion when He saw them. The blind, the deaf, the lame, the paralyzed and deformed, all found relief in Him.
The maladjusted were not the easiest category to integrate. The man who called himself “Legion”, however, was a conspicuous success. To see him sitting, clothed, and in his right mind, was a sight even the Saviour’s greatest critics should have applauded.
Mention must be made of the gifted pupils. There was one, an unnamed rich young ruler, who came to the Saviour in sincerity. It is related that the Lord, looking on him, loved him. Unfortunately, the entrance fees proved to be too high, and this man remained aloof and lost.
The three outstanding pupils of the Lord were, by common consent, Peter, James and John. Each was considered to have a brilliant future.
James the son of Zebedee was a witness of the transfiguration, the raising of Jarius’ daughter and the coming back to life of Lazarus. His mother asked that he might sit alongside the Lord when He came to reign. The executioner’s sword terminated his young life before his wonderful gifts could be much used for the Lord on earth.
John, the brother of James, was a most remarkable man. Although he later became a most gentle and loving character, there are signs in the Gospel accounts that by disposition John was rather a strong and impulsive man. A careful reading of Luke 9. 49, 54, together with Mark 9. 38 and 10. 35-41, will show that John was vehement, impetuous, intolerant and ambitious. His censorious spirit would have called down instant judgment upon a Samaritan village and would leave no place for those not entirely in agreement with him. But the Saviour loved him, and it was this love and the scenes at the cross (e.g. John 19. 26, 27) and at the tomb which changed John and made him lovable and kind.
The career of Simon son of Jonas in the school of Christ is a comfort to many. Self-reliant, confident, bold and venturesome at first, he experienced failure and defeat when these were least expected. The failure was all the more significant, because it was so precipitate and widely-known. In addition, by common consent, Simon Peter was the foremost of the disciples.
It has been said that Simon felt “more than any others the chill of the closed grave”, because he had no time to seek the Lord’s forgiveness for his denial and cursings. 1 Corinthians 15. 5, however, tells us that the Saviour appeared to Cephas, but what passed between them is a secret which even Peter has not divulged.
Judas Iscariot remains the great enigma. He was the treasurer of the group and above suspicion, but for a handful of silver coins he betrayed his Lord and committed suicide in the bitterness of his soul. The Saviour’s comment was, “it had been good for that man if he had not been born”.
These and many others were pupils privileged to listen to the Saviour, and possibly we can identify with some of them. Are we making the most of our opportunities to sit at His feet and learn of Him?