March 21, 2016

According to the Gospels, Jesus invited his disciples to "come, follow me" without any explanation of who he was or what they would gain by doing so. Amazingly, they accepted the invitation.

The Twelve spent an extended period of time with Jesus - anywhere from one to three years - having left their families and jobs behind. They got to know him better than anyone. Even so, Jesus remained a puzzle to them.

Over time, it appears the Twelve developed a belief that Jesus was the longed-for messiah as well as a distorted belief of what it meant to be the messiah.

Jesus, however, never once publicly claimed to be the messiah. When others said he was the messiah, he did everything to discourage the idea as well as to discourage those who did recognize his messiahship from passing on the information.

Still, Jesus was crucified because the authorities believed he was a false messiah and a rebel against Roman authority. Only Pilate could order execution by crucifixion, a punishment that was reserved for those deemed to be a threat to Roman rule. Jesus was so condemned.

Despite all Jesus said, his disciples had no inkling of what it might mean for the messiah to suffer and die.

Despite all Jesus said, his disciples had no inkling of what it might mean for the messiah to suffer and die.

Although there were different ideas in the Jewish community at Jesus' time of what it meant to be the messiah, the most common was that the messiah would be a warrior king who would vanquish the enemies of Israel and restore the Davidic kingship.

Jesus did not fit that mould. He preached loving one's enemies, not conquering them, as well as that the first will be last and the last, first. He offered no strategy for taking worldly power or for what to do with it if such power was acquired.

Still, the disciples saw a lot. They saw Jesus feed the 5,000 with just a few fish and loaves of bread. That surely would have recalled the manna God fed the Israelites in the desert and been a premonition of the messianic banquet.

The people who witnessed that miracle had no doubt as to its meaning: "They began to say, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,'" and they tried to forcibly make him king (John 6.14-15).

The disciples also listened to Jesus speak of God's kingdom, and of destroying and rebuilding the Temple. They witnessed many healings, exorcisms and miracles that demonstrated Jesus' authority over the forces of nature. Even Jesus' calling together of 12 apostles was a sign of messiahship.

Further, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on or about the same day that Pilate and a procession of soldiers, who were to reinforce the Roman garrison during Passover, marched into the city from the other direction. The two arrivals would have provided a stark contrast between Jesus' way of humility and Pilate's overwhelming imperial power.

"Who is this man?" the disciples must have asked themselves.


But when Jesus asked them, "Who do you say that I am?" only Peter had an answer: "You are the messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16.15-16).

It was then that Jesus began to speak of the cross.

Mark's Gospel shows the disciples as clueless about Jesus' message of the cross. James and John came to him and asked, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." Jesus tells them point blank, "You do not know what you are asking" (10.37-38).

They didn't, for when the crucifixion came, they were nowhere to be found, having failed to understand any of what Jesus said regarding his need to suffer and die.

Jesus sometimes referred to himself as the Son of Man or, rather, the son of man. Is this a title or simply an acknowledgement of his human frailty? It may be both but is surely the latter.

Still, it resonates with the prophet Daniel's apocalyptic vision: "Behold, with the clouds of heaven, there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him" (7.13, RSV).


Perhaps Jesus' references to himself as son of man were meant to indicate both his humanity and his claim to be the one who fulfilled God's purposes for Israel and who brought the kingdom to its consummation in a way no one had anticipated.

The apostles had no idea of what they were getting into when they accepted Jesus' invitation to follow him. Given the prevailing expectations of the messiah, it is not surprising that, prior to the resurrection, they failed to comprehend the full nature of Jesus' mission.

Nevertheless, their pre-resurrection experiences bore fruit when, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, they went out to bring the Good News of God's kingdom to the world. By then, they understood both the cross and their own mission.

(James Dunn's book Jesus Remembered was especially helpful in writing this article.)