Jesus and the Disciples

Perhaps you will find this odd, but, one of my favorite stories about Jesus is found in Matthew 15, where, responding to Peters’ request for an explanation of a parable, Jesus says: “Are you still so dull?”1Matthew 15:1-16. The parallel passage is in Mark 7:1-18, where Mark makes it clear Peter asked on behalf of all the disciples. The parallel passage also contains the same Greek word (asunetoi) translated as “dull” in the New International Version (NIV). It makes me laugh every time I read it.

There are more passages that describe the disciples’ cluelessness—including two in which Jesus again confronts the disciples about their lack of understanding.2For example, Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 4:1-20, 6:45-52, 9:30-32; Luke 18:31-34; John 12:12-16, 16:17-18, 20:1-9 And there are other people who also don’t understand Jesus at times, including Jesus’ parents, Nicodemus, and the crowd.3See Luke 2:41-50; John 3:1-10, John 8:12-30, 10:1-21 But none of those passages use the Greek word translated in the New International Version as “dull.”4While other translations are more generous and translate the Greek word asunetoi as “without understanding” (e.g., KJV and ESV), the connotation of the English word “dull” is certainly within the semantic range of asunetoi. Of this passage, Calvin says: “As the disciples betray excessive ignorance, Christ justly reproves and upbraids them for being still void of understanding, and yet does not fail to act as their teacher,” Calvin, John, “Matthew XV,” in Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol 1, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XVI (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, Reprinted 2003) 259. See also Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida, et. al., Editors, “asunetos” in Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Second Edition (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 386, 32:49, where Louw and Nida include the following in their assessment of “asunetos”: “pertaining to a lack of capacity for insight and understanding.…from a lack of the proper use of mental capacity.” See also Carson, D. A., “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8, General Editor: Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 351. See also “asunetos” in Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979) 118c. See also “asunetos” in An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon Founded Upon The Seventh Edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 127a.

I love this passage—and find it funny—because I feel at home with the disciples. I especially relate to Peter who so often seems to fall into trouble.5For example, Matthew 14:23-31, 16:21-23, 26:69-75; Luke 9:28-35; John 18:1-11; Galatians 2:11-14 And I empathize with the disciples’ dilemma since I sometimes need help understanding God’s Word. So, if I were there, and Peter had not asked Jesus for an explanation, I would have done so.

It’s also amusing to think that Jesus, who is omniscient,6Jesus has both a human nature and a divine nature, and both exist together (known as the “hypostatic union”). In Jesus, the two natures are undivided so Jesus has “one unified personality.” The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology defines the hypostatic union this way: “In the incarnation of the Son of God, a human nature was inseparably united forever with the divine nature in the one person of Jesus Christ, yet with the two natures remaining distinct, whole, and unchanged, without mixture or confusion so that the one person, Jesus Christ, is truly God and truly man” (Blaising, Craig A., “Hypostatic Union,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 540). As such, when Philippians 2:5-8 says of Jesus that he “emptied himself” (ESV, NASB), referred to as “kenosis,” it cannot mean that Jesus divested himself of his divinity since he is a unified personality and his two natures cannot be divided. Examples of Jesus displaying his divine attributes include Jesus’ use of his omniscience in several passages including John 1:48; Matthew 16:21, 24:1-35 (though verse 36 is an enigma), Matthew 26:31-34, Luke 5:22, 6:8, and John 21:17-19. Jesus also chose to reveal his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-3). While it is true that Jesus gave up “the status and privilege that was his in heaven,” and it is true that he did not allow others to see him in his glory all the time, it is not true that he gave up his divinity or divine attributes (Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 551). See also Colossians 2:9. and who chose uneducated fisherman to be among his disciples, would be surprised at the disciples’ learning curve. Though commentators vary in their opinion of Jesus’ response to the disciples,7D.A. Carson believes Jesus was “shocked” at the disciples’ “failure to understand” Carson, D. A., “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8, General Editor: Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 351. John MacArthur suggests that “It was not so much that the disciples did not understand what Jesus meant as that they found it hard to accept” and that Jesus responded to the disciples with “a tone of grief” MacArthur, John, “Matthew 8-15,” in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 463. H. A. Ironside sees Jesus as “gently reproving Peter for his lack of understanding” Ironside, H. A., Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1948), 192. he was surely serving as their teacher with his pointed comment.8Those who have spent time in higher education likely have had teachers who have challenged and prodded them on in similar ways. Jesus likely knew the things he was saying were astonishing to his audience.9Barclay, William, The Gospel of Matthew, in The Daily Bible Study Series, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 118. So perhaps he was communicating that the disciples should have gotten the message since they spent more time with him and were privileged to receive his teaching in more personalized settings.10Wessel, Walter W., “Mark,” in The Expositors Bible Commentary, Volume 8, General Editor: Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 680.

In Jesus’ interactions with the disciples, he’s always honest, and he doesn’t hesitate to correct them. He spends time with them, traveling, eating, and doing ministry together. He’s their teacher and their friend.11Matthew 11:1, 20:17-19; Mark 4:38, 8:31, 9:33-40, 10:35; Luke 11:1; John 15:15, 21:1-5 Both his position and his close relationship with the disciples give him license to suggest they are a bit dull—and to demonstrate empathy towards them.

Jesus and Others

Jesus displays the same clarity and honesty with others. He speaks harshly to self-righteous hypocrites,12For example, Matthew 23:1-36; Luke 11:37-54 yet is gracious to those who come to him with honest questions.13See Mark 10:17-22; Luke 13:22-30; John 3:1-21, 4:1-26 And he’s gentle with repentant sinners.14For example, Luke 7:36-50, 19:1-10; John 8:1-11

Two classes of people to whom Jesus shows special care are women and children. I love how tenderly Jesus treats the woman caught in adultery, the woman who touches his cloak in order to be healed, and Martha and Mary on a variety of occasions.15See Mark 5:25-34; Luke 10:38-42; John 8:1-11, 11:17-44, 12:1-8

Jesus is also gentle and welcoming to the children. When the disciples try to bar the children from coming to Jesus for a blessing, Jesus becomes “indignant” and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”16Mark 10:13-16

Though Scripture doesn’t tell us much about the family into which Jesus was born, we do know his earthly father was a “righteous” and honorable man, his mother was “highly favored” by God, and he had younger brothers and sisters.17See Matthew 1:18-25, 24-25, 12:46-47, 13:53-57; Luke 1:26-38; John 2:12 It’s possible that Jesus’ empathy and compassion towards others was shaped, in part, by his experiences in his family.18His brother, James, is the one who reminds us that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.…” (James 1:27a). James also advocates the same active empathy (i.e., compassion), when he encourages us to demonstrate our faith in practical ways by addressing the physical needs of others (James 2:14-18).

Jesus and Us

Though we see God loving, hearing, and caring for people in the pages of the Old Testament,19For example, Genesis 16:7-14,  21:1-21; Exodus 2:23-25; Judges 3:7-9, 12-15; 10:1-16; 1 Kings 17:1-24, 19:1-9; Psalms 4:3, 10:17, 17:6, 18:6, 34:1-22, 15, 17, 66:16-20, 145:17-19; Daniel 3:1-30, 6:1-28 there’s something special about that fact that Jesus took on flesh. He’s intimately acquainted with the human condition, not just because he made us, but because he became one of us.20See John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 2:14-18 This is known is the “Incarnation,” which is “the act whereby the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, without ceasing to be what he is, God the Son, took into union with himself what he before that act did not possess, a human nature,” (Reymond, Robert L., “Incarnation,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 555-556). See Luke 1:26-38, 2:8-20; John 1:1-14; and 1 John 1:1-3.

Jesus wasn’t a pretend human—one who only took on the appearance of flesh.21The idea that Jesus only appeared to be human is the heresy of Docetism, which “regarded the sufferings and the human aspects of Christ as imaginary or apparent instead of being part of a real incarnation,” Borchert, Gerald L., “Docetism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 326. Even in his resurrected state, Jesus assured the disciples that he was not a ghost, but that he had “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:36-39). Instead, he was born just like us—though without sin.22For example, 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5 He had a human body and mind. And Luke 2:52 tells us that Jesus grew “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”23Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 532-533.

Hebrews 4:4-16 tells us we can approach God with confidence “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” because Jesus is able to empathize with us.24Though the NIV says Jesus is able to “empathize” with us, the actual Greek word is sumpatheo, translated in the KJV and ESV as “sympathize.” The simple definition is: “sympathize with, have or show sympathy with,” Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979) 779a. Jesus’ sympathy “is not a sympathetic understanding which condones everything…but a fellow-feeling which derives from full acquaintance with the seriousness of the situation,” Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Editors, “sumpathes, sumpatheo,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 5, Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), 935-936. Both “empathy” and “sympathy” can be used to describe how one person may have the ability to “share” or “enter into” another’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings” Agnes, Michael, Editor, “Empathy” and “Sympathy” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (Cleveland: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005), 466, 1450. Because he was “tempted in every way, just as we are,” he is well acquainted with our weaknesses. Jesus suffered in many ways while on earth, and he knows firsthand the temptations that accompany such suffering.

In the pages of Scripture, we see that Jesus knows what it’s like:

  • to be an alien in a foreign land25See John 1:1-14, 8:23; Philippians 2:5-8
  • to be tempted to the limit26See Matthew 4:1-11
  • to be rejected by people in his hometown27See Luke 4:14-30
  • to be rejected by his family28See John 7:1-5
  • to be called crazy29See Mark 3:21
  • to be homeless30See Matthew 8:20
  • to be persecuted31See Matthew 2:13, 26:3-4; Mark 11:18; Luke 13:31; John 5:16-18; 7:1
  • to be weary, hungry, and thirsty32See Matthew 4:2; John 4:4-8, 19:28
  • to be angry33See Mark 3:5; John 2:12-17
  • to weep34See Luke 19:41; John 11:35
  • to be used35See John 6:22-27
  • to be dismissed by leaders36See Matthew 9:32-34, 12:22-24, 27:11-20; Mark 14:53-65; John 1:10-11
  • to be misunderstood37See John 6:25-66
  • to lose a loved one38See Matthew 14:1-24; John 11:1-37, 19:25-27. Though Scripture does not discuss Joseph after the family’s visit to the Temple when Jesus was twelve, scholars believe that Joseph, Mary’s husband, likely passed away before Jesus went to the cross. See Lockyer, Herbert, All the Men of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 203-204.
  • to need the help of others39See Matthew 4:11; Luke 22:43
  • to sorrow, grieve, and suffer oppression and affliction40See Isaiah 53:1-12; Matthew 26:38
  • to be betrayed and deserted by friends41See Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:43-50
  • to be mocked42See Matthew 27:27-31; Luke 23:35-36
  • to be physically abused43See Matthew 27:30-31
  • to be wounded for the sins of others44See Isaiah 53:4-5, 12; Romans 4:25; 1 Peter 2:24
  • to feel abandoned by his Father45See Matthew 27:46
  • to forgive others before they have asked for forgiveness46See Luke 23:33-34
  • to serve others to the point of death47See Romans 4:25, 5:6-8; Philippians 2:5-8; 1 Thessalonians 5:10

Millard Erickson says that “Jesus can truly sympathize with and intercede for us. He has experienced all that we might undergo. When we are hungry, weary, lonely, he fully understands, for he has gone through it all himself (Heb. 4:15).”48Erickson, Millard J., Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 721.

We and Others

What does the empathy of Jesus mean for my relationships with others? Since John says, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did,”49See 1 John 2:6. James Montgomery Boice says, “The incarnation is Jesus becoming like us so that we might become like him.” Boice, James Montgomery, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 1173. I think it means I’m called to empathize with my fellow humans. It’s one way I can follow Jesus’ command to love others the way he loves us.50See John 13:34 It’s also a way to love my neighbor as myself.51See Luke 10:25-37 What does this look like in everyday life?

First, in the true sense of empathy, Jesus entered into the sorrows of others during his time on earth. We see this in his interaction with the widow of Nain whose only son died. When Jesus saw the funeral procession, “his heart went out to her.”52Luke 7:11-15 We also see the empathy of Jesus extended to the blind men on the road by Jericho. When Jesus heard them calling out to him for mercy, he “had compassion on them.”53Matthew 20:29-34 And when the man with leprosy fell on his knees before Jesus and begged for healing, Jesus was “filled with compassion.”54Mark 1:40-42

But notice Jesus didn’t just experience emotion. In all these cases, Jesus’ empathy motivated him to compassionate action,55In Matthew 20:34,  Mark 1:41, 6:34 and 8:2, the English word “compassion” in the NIV is the Greek word “splanchnizomai,” which means “have pity, feel sympathy with or for someone,” Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979) 762d. However, though compassion is similar to empathy in that “tender feelings” are involved, compassion results in action. For example, God not only empathizes/sympathizes with us, but, in compassion for the humans he created, God also “effected not merely a temporal, but a spiritual and eternal deliverance, giving up His own Son to the death of the cross in order to save us from the worst bondage of sin with its consequences…” Walker, W. L., “Compassion,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 1, General Editor: Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 755. James Montgomery Boice says that compassion is the “emotion most frequently attributed to Christ” and that it is “his expression of deep love when confronted by the desperate need of fallen man and women,” Boice, James Montgomery, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised Edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 282. and he responded to the distress of others by actively helping them. We can follow his example by addressing the needs of others, providing comfort, and offering grace and forgiveness, just like Jesus.

Addressing Needs

The gospel accounts show how Jesus often provided for people’s needs. Twice, when people came to him for teaching, he taught them and fed them a meal.56See Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-10 In both instances, Scripture says Jesus’ actions were based on his compassion for the people—after all, he knew what it was like to be away from home and hungry.57Matthew 4:1-2 When the host of a wedding celebration ran out of wine, Jesus provided “choice wine” for the guests.58John 2:1-10 And even in the midst of the agony of the cross, perhaps empathizing with the pain and loneliness of her imminent loss, Jesus provided for the ongoing care of his mother, Mary.59See John 19:25-27. Barclay, William, The Gospel of John, in The Daily Bible Study Series, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 257.

However, once, when people brought their friend to Jesus for physical healing, he first addressed the man’s spiritual need by forgiving his sins.60Matthew 9:1-2 Regardless of the presenting problems in a person’s life, what he or she needs above all else, is Jesus. If people don’t know Jesus, they need his mercy and saving grace. If they do know him, they need wisdom, guidance, and the power to obey.

We, too, can provide for others’ material and spiritual needs. Scripture encourages us to care for the needs of widows and orphans, to share what we have with others, and to make disciples and to teach them to obey Jesus.61See Matthew 28:16-20; 1 John 3:16-18; Acts 6:1-6; James 1:27; Hebrews 13:16 And when Jesus returns, he will be looking for those who have provided for the needs of others—as unto Christ.62Matthew 25:31-46

Providing Comfort

When the disciples were troubled about Jesus’ reminder of his impending departure, he provided words of comfort.63See John 13:31-14:14 When Martha and Mary came to Jesus in their anguish over their brother’s death, Jesus’ response was to provide comfort and to grieve with the sisters.64See John 11:17-35 Jesus even left words of comfort for us in his prayer, and he promised to be with us “always, to the very end of the age.”65See Matthew 28:20; John 17:20-26

Scripture is clear on this matter: we are to comfort others, just as God has provided comfort to us. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 we read,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

The words for “comfort” in this passage are all derived from the Greek word paraklesis, which, in this context, means “comfort, consolation.”66Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, “paraklesis” in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979) 618b. The comfort provided is multifaceted. First, believers are able to find comfort in their present condition of salvation, which affords them a “fellowship of comfort” both with other believers and with God. Second, believers have hope not only for their present circumstances but also for future deliverance from all the troubles of this world. And third, the comfort spoken of here is one that includes both words and actions.67Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Editors, “parakaleo, paraklesis” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 5, Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), 798. So, we can comfort others with our presence, with reminders of God’s presence and care, with reminders of what awaits us in heaven, with Scripture’s body of wisdom and strategy for trouble and sorrow, and with practical and helpful actions.

Offering Grace and Forgiveness

Another of my favorite stories about Peter has two parts. The first part occurs in the courtyard of the high priest after Jesus is arrested. Here, Peter suffers an epic failure by denying three times that he knows Jesus. At the moment of the third denial, Jesus looks “straight at Peter.” Based on Jesus’ character and relationship with Peter, I imagine his look to be one of incredible sadness mingled with love—and Peter is undone. Scripture says, Peter “went outside and wept bitterly.”68See Luke 22:54-62

Part two of the story occurs after Jesus’ resurrection when Jesus shows up on a beach by the Sea of Tiberias.69John 21:1-19 And while Jesus’ inference about the dullness of the disciples makes me laugh, his acts of kindness here make me weep. Despite Peter’s failure, Jesus knows what it’s like to be rejected and he doesn’t reject Peter. Instead, he calls him friend. Jesus knows what it’s like to be weary and hungry, and he helps Peter catch some fish and then cooks him breakfast. And Jesus knows what it’s like to have people not believe in him, and he reinstates Peter and commissions him to do what he was called to do—shepherd Jesus’ sheep. What relief, joy, and hope Peter must have felt.

Jesus has the same active empathy for us. Whether we’re merely dull at times—or we totally fail—like Peter, Jesus doesn’t kick us out of his Kingdom. Instead, he looks on us with incredible sadness and love. In compassion, he offers grace and forgiveness. He continues to teach us. He invites us to declare our love for him. And he continues to offer us opportunities to serve him. Without a doubt, we have a God of surpassing grace who is not only able to empathize with our weaknesses but who acts compassionately on our behalf. Let us, therefore, go and do likewise.

NOTE: Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

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