A Dark Reflection
How often did the first followers of Jesus misunderstand his message?
How often did they not believe, even when they had good reasons to believe? Quite often, as a matter of fact…
- At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus visited the Temple, where he cleansed its precincts of vendors—along with their tables, money, and merchandise. He told his disciples that his Father’s house had become a den of thieves; and he said to the authorities, “Destroy this temple, and I will build it again in three days.” (John 2:13-19). It was three to four years later, after his resurrection, that his disciples finally grasped his meaning: he was speaking of his own body (vv. 21,22).
- Jesus told his friends, more than a few times, that he would suffer much from the priests and the Pharisees, that he would be killed, and that he would be raised from the dead on the third day (Matt 16:21; 17:23; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; etc.). But the gospel writers said that “the disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.” (Luke 18:34), and also, “they were afraid to ask him about it.” (Luke 9:45).
- When Jesus talked about his friend Lazarus “falling asleep” his disciples interpreted that to mean natural sleep, when Lazarus had actually died (John 11).
- When Jesus deliberately arranged to enter Jerusalem upon a donkey, his disciples were puzzled. “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him” (John 12:16).
- At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that “one of you is going to betray me.” (John 13:21). They were “at a loss to know which of them he meant.” (v. 22). Except for the disciple whom Jesus loved, (vv. 25,26), they did not know who the traitor was until Judas arrived in Gethsemane.
- When Jesus told them, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” (John 16:16), his disciples asked one another, “What does he mean by saying that?” (v. 17).
- On the morning of Christ’s resurrection, some women went to the tomb, where an angel told them that Jesus was risen. Immediately after this encounter, the women actually met Jesus, who in turn sent them to tell his brothers to go to Galilee, where he would find them. When this happened, they worshiped him, “but some doubted.” (Matt 28:17).
- When Mary Magdalene first saw the open tomb, she thought that someone had taken away the body (John 20:1,2). And then, after she met the risen Jesus, she went to tell the others, but “they did not believe it.” (Mark 16:9-11; Luke 24:11). A little later Jesus appeared to the eleven and rebuked them for their refusal to believe those who had seen him (Mark 16:14).
- At first, when they found the tomb empty, John and Peter “still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9).
- Thomas did not believe in the resurrection at first because he had not seen the risen Jesus face to face (John 20:24-25); it was a week before Jesus revealed himself to Thomas (vv. 26-29).
- Even after the disciples had accepted the fact of Jesus’ resurrection, they expected him to restore the kingdom to Israel immediately (Acts 1:6).
How little they knew!
In the gospels, the disciples of Jesus confessed time after time how little they knew. This simple observation can teach us a valuable lesson. When Jesus acted, they misunderstood his actions. When he spoke, they misinterpreted his words. When they had evidence of his resurrection, they doubted. Time after time, individually and collectively, they fell far short of the rank of a believer. At times, they seemed to show themselves more unbelieving than believing.
However, Jesus did not give up on them, even when they seemed to have given up on him and to have forgotten his prophecies about himself. And his patience with them finally paid off.
The disciples did have one thing going for them, one redeeming feature, we might say. They knew they had failed to meet their Master’s expectations in the category of believing. And their frank recognition of their shortcomings set them on the way to greater enlightenment. Knowing they did not know—everything, or anything remotely approaching everything—set the stage for them to learn more and more as time went by. Thankfully, Jesus gave them the time.
How much do we know?
It is true. Our understanding now, looking back, surpasses their understanding then. The disciples who followed Jesus had to figure it all out as they went along, and so they often understood very little at the time. On the other hand, we have the benefit of their experiences, and the chance to learn something from their mistakes. But we must never use their experiences to make ourselves feel superior to them.
Perhaps we should also acknowledge how little we know, even at this moment—how little we know of Jesus’ preaching and message, never mind his as-yet-unfulfilled Bible prophecies. We ought to admit, with real humility, that we are very much like those first disciples, and there are many things we do not fully understand—things which, like the Apostle Paul, we only see “through a glass, darkly…” (1 Cor 13:12, KJV)—that is, “a poor reflection as in a mirror.” (NIV).
If the Apostle Paul could suggest how little he knew about some matters (“I know in part!” (1 Cor 13:12)), then why can’t we recognize our own deficiencies? We should remind ourselves that, even while we know many things about the Bible, there are many more things we do not know yet. Pride in our Bible knowledge—compared to the knowledge of others—may bring a brief moment of satisfaction, but in the long run, it can be harmful. The same pride can blind our eyes and close our minds to learning more of God’s word.
While we hold faithfully to our basic beliefs, we should keep open minds about what we do not know for sure. This is how we continue to learn, by searching the Bible daily with eager minds (Acts 17:11). Even now, we may see in “a dark reflection,” but as the angels, we should “long to look into these things,” that is, “the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” (1 Pet 1:11-12). There is always something more to learn.
(Austin Leander, TX)