Anyone who has had a ministry of discipleship knows that it is not easy. Not everyone who starts out wanting to be discipled stays with the program. People sometimes find it too difficult and settle for a less rigorous faith. Some get distracted by temptations. Others drift off into strange theologies. Are we the problem? Are we not discipling well? Perhaps not, but even Jesus did not have an easy time preparing his disciples to lead the church after his ascension to heaven. Not all those who began to follow him continued following him. When he went to the cross he was not at all certain that his disciples were ready for what lay ahead.
The night he was arrested, Jesus went off to pray and asked Peter, James, and John to come with him. He asked them to pray while he went away to pray by himself. Three times he came back to find them sleeping.
Jesus knew what was coming and he was anxious about how the disciples would react. He wanted them to be prepared but they seemed unable to prepare themselves. You can hear the disappointment and anxiety in his voice when he came back to find them asleep. (Matthew 26:40) “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?”
Why did Jesus have disciples? If his mission was to go to the cross and die for mankind, he could have done that without disciples. Why did Jesus choose twelve men from all those who followed him to be his most intimate relationships?
John the Baptist had disciples who followed him. Jesus may have been one of those. But after his baptism, when Jesus heard God say, (Matthew 3:17) “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” Jesus went into the wilderness to pray and contemplate what this meant. It was after this that Jesus began to gather disciples to follow him. Jesus began to understand what his mission on earth was and needed to gather men and women who would work with him to build the kingdom of God.
As Jesus became aware that his time on earth was coming to an end, his sense of urgency increased. He needed to prepare the disciples to take the fledgling church and lead it.
Jesus called men to follow him and used the rabbinic method of instruction. A rabbi would minister, while his disciples watched; then they would minister with him watching. Next, they went out on short missions, reporting back for further instruction and correction from the master. After repeating this process for years, if the rabbi was convinced his disciples were formed in his way of life, he released his students to become rabbis and teach others by the same process.
This is what Jesus did with his disciples for three years. They heard him teach. They watched him heal the sick, cleanse lepers, cast out demons from the possessed. They watched him walk on water and raise people from the dead. And then Jesus began to involve them in what he was doing. They prayed for healing for people. They prayed to cast demons out of those who were possessed. One of the places you see this is that when Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, the other disciples prayed for deliverance for a young boy who was possessed.
The disciples watched Jesus and then tried to do what he did.
John Wimber talks about his experience with Tennessee Walkers, a breed of horse with a wonderful gait that makes it very comfortable to ride. In addition to the pony my grandmother gave me when I was eight years old, my father bought a Tennessee Walker for me and my sisters. Because the horse had a ginger color, we called him Ginger and many times I rode Ginger bareback, without a saddle. When I rode the horses of friends of mine, I was amazed at how uncomfortable it was to ride them when they trotted. When Ginger trotted it was a gentle, comfortable gait. I loved the feel of his power, his heat and sweat against my bare legs when I rode.
In the early years of my upbringing, I often visited a horse farm in Illinois where my grandfather worked. He trained Tennessee walking horses. Tennessee walkers have a remarkable high-strutting gait, different from any other horse in the world. One day, I was with him while he worked on a horse with a problem gait. His solution was to hitch a pacer – a horse with the correct gait – to the horse with the problem and let them walk together. After a few days, the problem horse’s gait became consistent, just like the pacer’s. My grandfather explained that when a horse cannot do its job, if you connect it to one that can, soon both do the job correctly.
This is a great illustration of discipleship. You walk alongside someone and learn from them what to do.
The disciples watched and imitated doing what Jesus did. The gospels record several times that the disciples asked Jesus questions about what he had done or what he had taught when they were alone with him afterwards.
After Jesus cast out a demon from the young boy his disciples had prayed for when he was on the Mount of Transfiguration, they asked him why they had not been able to do this. (Mark 9:28–29)
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
After Jesus taught the Parable of the Sower, (Matthew 13:10) “The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’” and then Jesus explained to them what the parable meant.
They heard him teach. They watched him perform miracles. They watched him cast out demons. They had some success themselves when they tried to do what they had seen Jesus do. And then Jesus sent the twelve disciples out in pairs to do what they had been doing with Jesus, but now doing these things by themselves while Jesus supported them from a distance. (Luke 9:1–6)
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. 3 He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. 5 If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.
Jesus demonstrated how to minister to people while they watched. Then Jesus watched while they ministered to people. And finally they ministered while Jesus supported them from a distance. This is a great discipleship process. They had the best teacher possible and yet they were still agonizingly slow to understand.
Jesus performed a great miracle, taking five loaves of bread and two fish and multiplying that into enough food for five thousand men, not counting the women and children. And to make the point that this was a great miracle, there were twelve baskets of food left over. It wasn’t that each person took a crumb of bread. They ate until they could eat no more and there was more left over than they had started with.
And what happened after that? They set off to cross the lake by boat and the disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them to eat. (Matthew 16:5–12) (NLT)
“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
7 At this they began to argue with each other because they hadn’t brought any bread. 8 Jesus knew what they were saying, so he said, “You have so little faith! Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread? 9 Don’t you understand even yet? Don’t you remember the 5,000 I fed with five loaves, and the baskets of leftovers you picked up? 10 Or the 4,000 I fed with seven loaves, and the large baskets of leftovers you picked up? 11 Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread? So again I say, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ ”
You can hear the exasperation in Jesus’ voice. He was clearly frustrated with them.
In the NIV Jesus tells them, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?” “You of little faith,” seems to be a nickname Jesus had for his disciples.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, (Matthew 6:30)
If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
When Jesus was walking on water and called the disciples to come to him, Peter stepped out and, amazingly, actually walked on water himself, until he recognized what he was doing and began struggling under the surface of the water. (Matthew 14:31)
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
On another occasion, Jesus was sailing with his disciples across the Sea of Galilee when a storm came. Jesus was exhausted. (Luke 8:23–25)
As they sailed, [Jesus] fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.
24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.
When Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration and discovered that his disciples had not been able to deliver the young boy from demons, he burst out with this expression of his frustration, (Luke 9:41)
“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?”
His disciples of little faith did not have difficulty jockeying for position. Jesus taught about the importance of being a servant leader. He demonstrated to the disciples what it was like to be a servant leader. And what did the disciples do? They struggled for power. James and John, along with their mother who acted as their agent, came to Jesus and said, (Mark 10:35–45) “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
They must have heard Jesus say that they should ask God for whatever you want. But what they wanted was not wisdom, like Solomon asked. They asked to be put in positions of power in Jesus’ kingdom. When the other ten heard about this they became indignant with James and John and Jesus had to teach them once again,
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
There were some bright moments. (Matthew 16:13–20)
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
This was a shining moment but then, right after this, we read about Jesus rebuking Peter. (Matthew 16:21–23)
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
It seems clear to me that Jesus was often frustrated by how slow the disciples were to understand what he was telling them, by their lack of faith, by their lust for earthly power.
But I do not hold this against them. I see the same things too well in myself.
We are not easy people to disciple. We lack faith. God provides for us in some situation and then the next week or month when we face another crisis, we forget how God provided for us in the past and worry about the current crisis.
I have had fifty years of walking with Jesus, seeing how Jesus provided me with what I need. I graduated from seminary with very little debt. Annie and I got married and unexpectedly had a baby nine months later. This happened while Annie was finishing her last year of university and I did not have a regular job. I did some carpentry. I shoveled snow during a blizzard. I did whatever I could to earn some money. We had very little money that year, sometimes just a few cents to our name, and yet over the years God provided. We managed to pay for our daughters’ university education (this is an enormous expense in the US, as much as buying a house). I sold my business and did not know what was going to happen next and ended up coming to Rabat to be pastor of RIC, which turned out to be the best years of my life.
It is amazing to see how God provided for us and yet I am worried and anxious about returning to the US and having to find a house to buy, cars to buy, appliances to buy. I am anxious about what I will do, where we will find a church community, and on and on.
Jesus has not had an easier time discipling me than he did with the disciples.
I’ve talked a lot about the frustrations Jesus experienced with his disciples. Let me talk about his joy and delight with how the disciples grew in faith and in their ability to minister as Jesus did.
In Luke 10:1–24 Jesus sent a larger number of disciples out on a mission trip. He sent thirty-six pairs of disciples to the towns and places where he was about to go. He gave them instructions about how to enter a town, who to seek out, how to live when they were there. He told them, “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” He made it clear that they were ministering in his name.
When they returned they were bubbling over with excitement.
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
Jesus used their excitement as a teaching moment.
He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
This is a great lesson and we need to remember this for ourselves. But what was Jesus feeling when he saw them come back with all their excitement?
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
Jesus was full of joy through the Holy Spirit. Jesus was beaming with joy. He could not keep a smile off his face. He was laughing with joy as the disciples told their stories.
I think Jesus was feeling relieved. The disciples were growing in faith. Perhaps they would be ready to lead the church after he ascended. I think Jesus was joyful to the point of tears as he saw the fruit of his ministry ripening.
But then at the end as Jesus agonized in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, he saw the three disciples closest to him, Peter, James, and John, fail him. He wanted their support. He needed their support, but in his time of extreme need, they failed him and slept. During the Last Supper Jesus had already predicted that they were going to fail him in this coming crisis, but would they recover?
“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:
“ ‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”
30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”
31 But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same.
Would they recover from this? That was the burning question.
They were so bold, so determined. Peter was so positive he would not fall away. But they all ran away when the time came and Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, just as Jesus had told him.
Peter had been the brash, bold leader of the disciples, always the first to speak and the first to act. And now he was crushed with the weight of his betrayal of Jesus. He had spoken out so boldly at the meal and then, just a few hours later, he had failed. How could he ever face the other disciples? His face was in the dirt and he could not lift it up.
Disciples fail. As followers of Jesus we stumble, we say things we wish we had not said. We do things we wish we had not done. We fail to do what we know we should do. We begin with such high expectations for ourselves and then when we fail we are crushed. Why does Jesus put up with us? Isn’t Jesus as tired with our inability to follow him as we are with ourselves?
But here is the beauty of our relationship with Jesus. We may feel we are lost. We may feel we have lost favor with Jesus and we might as well give up, but because Jesus loves us so passionately, there is always another chance.
In John’s account of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Peter we see Peter’s reinstatement as leader of the disciples.
Peter was crushed, humiliated, shamed by his betrayal of Jesus. But he managed to gather with the other disciples anyway. It must have been difficult for him to face the other disciples but he did not give up. The other disciples were shamed as well. They had all deserted Jesus. They were filled with guilt and regret.
Peter mourned with the other disciples on Saturday. And then, on Sunday morning when Mary told them the tomb was empty, he and John raced to the tomb. Jesus appeared to the women. He appeared to the disciples in the room where they were meeting. Guilt, grief, and shame were overcome by joy.
But for Peter there was still a hanging question, had he lost his ability, his right, to lead? John wrote a literary gospel so it is always difficult to figure out the chronology of what he writes. But at some point after Jesus resurrected, Jesus met with Peter. (John 21:15–19)
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
What was Jesus feeling in this conversation with Peter? Jesus had lost Judas, a disciple he had chosen to follow him, a disciple who had an intimate relationship with him, a disciple he had sent out on mission trips. When Judas and the disciple paired with him returned from their mission trips they were jumping with joy for what they had experienced. Judas had prayed for healing and people were healed. Judas had cast out demons from those who were possessed.
Even after Judas betrayed Jesus, he could have come back to the disciples with his shame and been restored to leadership in the church, just as Peter was restored to leadership.
I think Jesus grieved the loss of Judas and was delighted to see that Peter had persevered.
In my last months in Rabat I find myself thinking back to the many people who have passed through the RIC community. So many wonderful people have been part of RIC over the years. I suspect Jesus also spent time thinking back over the people he had encountered over the past three years.
When Jesus taught the Parable of the Sower, I think this was a very personal parable for him. His teaching and example was seed sown on different soils. He sowed seed on the path. He spoke words of life and demonstrated the truth of what he said with compassionate miracles, but the Pharisees and teachers of the Law did not receive them. (At least most of them did not receive them. Later there were Pharisees and teachers of the Law who did become followers of Jesus.)
Jesus sowed seed, words of life, on rocky ground. There were those who followed Jesus but John tells us that after Jesus taught about being the bread of life many of his disciples said, (John 6:60) “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” And then John tells us, (John 6:66) “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
Jesus sowed seed among thorns. The rich young ruler ran to Jesus and fell to his knees. He was enthusiastic about the teaching and miracles of Jesus and wanted to follow him. But when Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he went away full of sadness.
I think Jesus grieved for these people who had heard the good news of the kingdom of God and rejected it for one reason or another.
But he also rejoiced for the seed he had sown that had resulted in the disciples who followed him and who persevered through difficulties. He spent forty days with these disciples and then ascended into heaven, leaving the mission of preaching the kingdom of God in their hands.
After Pentecost, the disciples burst out into the world. Peter preached a sermon and about three thousand new followers of Jesus came into the kingdom. How do you think Jesus felt as he watched Peter preach? I think there was celebration in heaven for the new believers who came into the kingdom and celebration to see the power and passion of Peter as he preached the good news of Jesus.
When Peter and John walked past the man born lame and healed him in the name of Jesus, which resulted in Peter preaching the good news of Jesus in the Temple, how do you think Jesus felt? Again, there was rejoicing in heaven for the new citizens in the kingdom of God and rejoicing to see Peter and John use their gifts in such a powerful way.
Peter came a long way from being a bold, brash leader. He fell hard but rose from his shame to be a bold leader, not so much full of himself as he had been, but full of the Holy Spirit. He led the early church into the expansion of the church from Jerusalem, to Samaria, to the Gentile world.
Peter was not a perfect disciple and neither are we perfect disciples. What is most important is not whether we make mistakes or not, but that we persevere, come back to Jesus, and try again.
Jesus knows we are not perfect and he delights when we take steps in the right direction. We may share our faith with someone and stumble to find the right words to say. But then the next time we share our faith we find ourselves able to communicate more clearly what Jesus means to us. We keep taking steps and Jesus and the angels in heaven cheer us on.
We keep holding on to our faith in Jesus, in good times and in difficult times. We hold on through disappointment, through doubts, through grief and tragedy, and we grow in faith as we hold on. Jesus delights in our perseverance. He delights in the growth that takes place in us.
When parents watch their child take his or her first steps, how do they react? Are they frustrated the child is not going fast enough to win a gold medal in a race? No. They are filled with delight to see their child making such wonderful progress.
We may be frustrated that we don’t do as well as we should, but Jesus delights in our moving forward. Jesus delights as he watches us progress from baby steps, to walking, to running, to racing.
When we stumble and fall, Jesus encourages us to get up and keep on trying.
Jesus does not need perfect disciples. If he did, none of us would qualify. Jesus needs disciples who are so in love with him that they persevere no matter what.
In John 6 when many of the followers of Jesus turned back and no longer followed him, Jesus asked his inner circle of twelve disciples, (John 6:66–68)
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
That is a response that warmed the heart of Jesus. Our perseverance in following Jesus no matter what warms the heart of Jesus.
Seeing the delight, the encouragement, the patience of Jesus with imperfect disciples like myself makes me fall deeper in love with him.