Sermon September 22: Apostles and Disciples

One of the things that Mark has been telling us about Jesus in these opening chapters of his gospel that we haven’t yet discussed is Jesus’s recruitment of people to share in preaching the gospel. Jesus began doing this at the same time He began His public ministry. In 1.15 Jesus began preaching, saying repent, and believe in the gospel, and in 1.16 He saw Simon and Andrew… and said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately after that He calls James and John, and they leave their fishing for fish career behind and follow Jesus. In 2.14 He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed Him. These brief scenes of Jesus recruiting people to help spread the gospel raise the whole issue of Christian discipleship, and we need to consider it very carefully.

You sometimes hear it said that ‘Jesus came not to preach the Gospel, but to die that there might be a Gospel to preach’. I think, on reflection, that both the gospel as written by Mark and the others, and our own common sense, show us that this cannot be true. Jesus died to save us from the consequences of sin, but His death only becomes effective for that purpose when we put our faith in Him, when we rely on His gift of His life for our salvation. And we cannot put our faith in Him if we have never been told about Him. Without His death, we could not be restored to fellowship with God, but without the information about His saving death, we would never have been able to put our faith in Him and make His death effective for our own salvation. Mark has shown us already how important preaching the gospel was to Jesus—until the time appointed for His death came, it was His highest priority. And in these passages I have just quoted, He is taking care that this part of His work will continue even after His death and resurrection. He came not only to die for us, but to arrange that we should know He had died for us and know how we can benefit from His self-sacrifice. That meant, and still means, recruiting people who will tell others about what Jesus has done, and Mark’s gospel goes out of its way to show Jesus calling, organising, teaching and training people to do just that.

First, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew and James and John—two sets of brothers—to be full time colleagues in His ministry. They are to leave their current career, fishing, leave their homes, even, and go with Jesus. The only thing He says about His plans for them are that they will become fishers of men. No particular word is used for them at this time; Mark simply refers to them as ‘those with’ Jesus (1.36). Soon afterwards He calls Levi; this time with no explanation, just ‘follow me’. It’s at this time that the people following Him are called disciples. The word Mark actually used was ‘mathetes’, a Greek word which means someone who learns, a student. The Latin for that is ‘disciple’, but it just means ‘student’. Somebody learning. We’ve seen several references to Jesus teaching in Mark (1.22, 27) and there will be plenty more as we go on; those who are learning from Jesus’s teaching are what our translation calls disciples. In the passage that begins in 4.10, it’s clear that He was carefully making sure they understood His teaching, especially the parables which were such a marked feature of the way He taught. He did not speak to [the people] without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. We’ll look at the parables more closely next week, but for now we just see how they were part of Jesus’s ‘course’ for the disciples.

2.15 tells us that there were many who followed Him, many disciples learning from His teaching. He had enough of them that before long He was able to pick a small group who could share His teaching task. In 3.13 Jesus selected some of His disciples—those whom He desired—and he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. The word apostle is the Greek for ‘someone sent’, or ‘messenger’. His purpose with these twelve appears to be to train them as well as teach them, to train them for the work of telling people what Jesus had done, and the work of casting out demons, conquering evil.

So they are ‘with Him’ as He reiterates His authority over evil in 3.22–30, as He preaches the parable of the sower who sows the Word of God in 4.1–25, the parables of the Kingdom of God in 4.26–34, as He teaches the importance and power of faith in 4.35–41 and 5.21–43, and casts out another evil spirit in 5.1–20. Then in 6.7 He sends them out on their first ‘mission’, and 6.12 they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. In 6.30 they return and report their experience to Jesus, and He tells them they should get some quiet and rest for a while.

Now this business about the rôle of the apostles, the disciples and the rest of the followers of Christ has been subject to a great deal of elaboration for which there is little or no authority in Scripture. In fact, Scripture shows that those called to share Christ’s preaching work were tempted to claim a special status even during His earthly ministry, and He has to correct them as part of His training of them. In chapter 9, Mark tells us that the disciples argued with one another about who was important who was not. Mark is clear that it was the disciples, all those learning from Jesus, who were involved in this argument, but he is also clear that it was to the twelve that Jesus said, after He heard about it, If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. It looks as though the twelve were claiming to be more important, since it is to them that Jesus addresses his rebuke. But they continue to be tempted in this way, because in chapter 10 James and John, two of the four whom Jesus had called at the very beginning of His ministry, ask Him for a special sign of their importance, and Jesus rebukes them, and calls all twelve together and tells them it’s those who rule over the nations who lord it over others… But it shall not be so among you… whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. And He points out that He, the Son of God, has never claimed authority over his fellow human beings: For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. But we know from Paul’s letters that even after Jesus’s resurrection that there were divisions among the apostles about their relative importance, and we know from the history of the church that in later centuries those who thought of themselves as the successors of the apostles claimed an authority over their fellow-Christians that cannot be described as servanthood no matter what title is given to it, and by the fourth century this authority was backed by all the power of the state, and continued to be in some places even in modern times. And even in places like the US, where the state refuses to support such claims, they are still made in every denomination, and they are still a violation of Christ’s direct teaching.

Mark goes out of his way to make sure that no Christian can be bamboozled by claims of special authority like this. In 6.52 he says that disciples— although 6.30 suggests that it is the twelve he is talking about—can have hearts hardened just like the scribes and the Pharisees, and he describes many occasions when all the disciples misunderstand what Jesus is trying to teach them. Do you not yet understand? he asks in 8.21, and in 9.18 they are unable to heal someone, and it’s an open question as to whether Jesus is referring to the disciples or the sick people when He says O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? In 10.13 the disciples get it wrong about whether or not children should be allowed in Jesus’s presence, and He is indignant with them, and tells them they should be more like children themselves. And later one of the twelve will betray Jesus, and another deny all knowledge of Him in the witch-hunt that follows. And in chapter 8 Peter, about whom the most exaggerated claims would be made in later centuries, is described as blessed insofar as He understands and accepts Jesus’s teaching, and as Satan himself insofar as he resists it. No one in the church, then or now, has special power because of who they are or whose title they have or claim to have inherited, but every Christian has the power of the Holy Spirit when they conform themselves to the word of God.

And Jesus’s teaching is given to the whole world. He doesn’t teach only the disciples, He teaches everybody who will listen because everyone needs salvation. The disciples are those who first saw the value of Jesus’s teaching, and their job is to help everyone else see it and learn from it. Every one is called by Jesus to be a disciple, to learn from Him. Everyone who learns from Him is expected to play his or her part in the proclamation of the gospel, too: in 5.19f, Jesus tells someone whose demons He has cast out Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you. And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And this was said in the presence of the disciples, ‘they’ in 5.1, by the way, so that they might be under no illusions that witnessing to Christ required a special ‘insider’ status. All Christians are apostles, because all are sent: some are sent to distant parts of the world where no one has heard of Jesus, some are sent to their friends and family who have heard of Jesus all their lives but never followed Him.

The New Testament has much more to say about discipleship, but there isn’t time to go into the subject much further this morning. Let me just add this: notice that Jesus calls and sends people in ways that make the best use of their abilities and experience. He calls who make their living as fishermen, and tells them He wants them to be fishers of men. He called the fishermen to use their fishing skills, but to fish for something more important than cod, or trout or whatever it was they caught. Jesus promoted the fishermen, He gave them a better job in the same business. They had skills already, and He gave them a job to do for Him that used the skills they had learned doing the job for someone else. As you acquire skill and experience here at the University, Jesus will call you to use that skill and experience for His purposes as well as to support yourselves. He may send you to some distant land, He may just send you home to your friends and family, but He will send you to someone who needs to learn what Jesus has to teach. We don’t know what particular qualifications all Jesus’s various disciples had for their work, but his words in 5.19 show one qualification that we all have in relation to some people: friendship. Most people will listen to their friends about things they won’t listen to from anyone else, which is why the man whose demons were expelled was sent to his friends: they could see what Jesus had done for him, and because he was a friend they were willing to listen when he told them it was Jesus who had made the difference. There are people who will listen when we tell them it is Jesus who has made the difference for us. We are being taught by God’s word how to tell them, and being called by God’s word to take that job seriously.

2 responses to this post.

  1. This is a very inspiring sermon, “inspiring” in the sense that it “gives breath” in its treatment of the Gospel as Jesus shared and taught it to his disciples, correcting their human tendency to make hierarchies with some more important than others, then applying it through history–and bringing it to us today where ever we are on our faith journey.


  2. Posted by David Simon on January 14, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Excellent! Blessed by the Holy Spirit Himself!


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