Unbelief

The day after Jesus’ mountaintop transfiguration experience, he and his three disciples, James, John, and Peter returned to find the remaining disciples in the midst of a conflict with the Jewish scribes and a man whose son was demon possessed. The man told Jesus he had asked his disciples to cast out the demon, but they couldn’t do it (Luke 9:40). The implication being that it was impossible for his disciples to perform such a miracle. Jesus’ response to the man indicated that the reason the healing didn’t take place was not because his disciples lacked the ability, but because of the man’s unbelief (Luke 9:41). Jesus told the man, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9:23). In other words, Jesus was telling this man that he had to have faith, reliance upon Jesus for salvation, in order for his son to be healed.

Jesus himself was limited by the unbelief of the people he was ministering to in his hometown of Nazareth. The people rejected Jesus because they knew him as the son of Joseph and Mary. It says in Matthew 13:54-58:

And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. And he did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

It appears that even some of Jesus’ own disciples didn’t believe he was their Messiah. After casting the demon out of the man’s son, it says in Matthew 17:19-20:

Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place: and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

Apparently, the amount of faith it takes to receive salvation is miniscule compared to the power that one receives as a result of having it. The Greek word Jesus used when he told his disciples they needed to have “faith” was pistis, which means persuasion (4102). “It is related to God with the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, the provider and bestower of eternal salvation through Christ.” One of the reasons some of Jesus’ disciples may not have believed in him at this time was because their faith was being blocked by Satan. After he had explained to them the necessity of faith, Jesus told his disciples “Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men. But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying” (Luke 9:44-45).

 

Misunderstanding

After his lesson about the bread of life (John 6:22-59), many of Jesus’ disciples “went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66), probably due to a misunderstanding of what he meant by eating his flesh and drinking his blood in order to have eternal life. From a physical standpoint, what Jesus said made absolutely no sense. It was only from a spiritual perspective that his teaching was understandable. Jesus’ concluding statement more than likely left the crowd of people gathered around him perplexed and dismayed by the possibility that they could receive eternal life through an act of cannibalism. Jesus said, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by my Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever” (John 6:56-58).

Jesus’ reference to the manna that was eaten while the Israelites wandered in the desert was probably a clue to the type of spiritual food he was prepared to give his followers. Manna was an unknown substance that appeared out of nowhere every morning except on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:15). The Hebrew word translated manna, man (mawn) literally means “a whatness” (4478). In other words, there was no name for it. The terms flesh and blood are what we typically use to refer to a real or live person. Someone might say of a movie star, “I saw him in the flesh,” meaning, I saw him offscreen or as he is in his normal day to day existence. The expression “flesh and blood” is also used to refer to someone in your family, especially someone who is related by blood rather than marriage. Therefore, Jesus’ portrayal of himself as the bread of life must have had something to do with having a spiritual connection or relationship with God while living on earth.

In order to further illustrate his point, Jesus said, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you that believe not” (John 6:63-64). The Greek word translated quickeneth, zoopoieo (dzo-op-oy-eh’-o) means to revitalize or to make alive again (2227). Later, Jesus asked his twelve apostles privately if they wanted to go away, or in essence, distance themselves from his unorthodox teaching. “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69). Peter’s response showed that he was willing to believe what Jesus said, even if there was still some misunderstanding about it. In other words, like the manna the Israelites ate in the desert, Peter didn’t need to know what “the bread of life” was in order to benefit from it. He believed Jesus was who he said he was and was able to do what he said he could, give Peter eternal life.

 

Sheep in the midst of wolves

Jesus used the metaphor of sheep to describe God’s chosen people who had wandered away from him in their search for pleasure among the pagan nations that surrounded Israel. Jesus sent out his twelve apostles like laborers in a field and instructed them, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). In depicting God’s people as lost sheep, Jesus portrayed them as vulnerable, fearful creatures that were unable to find their own way back home again. There was no judgment or harsh criticism in Jesus’ viewpoint of the situation, only a concerned attitude toward the people that were voluntarily living their lives separated from the God that wanted to save them. The Greek word translated lost, apollumi means to destroy fully (622) and is therefore, referring to a spiritual condition rather than a physical one. What Jesus was implying was that the Israelites were on their way to hell and needed to be rescued from Satan’s grip on them.

Before he sent them out, Jesus told his twelve apostles, “Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In comparing the Israelites’ spiritual enemies to wolves, Jesus was suggesting that they would be difficult to detect among God’s children. One of the advantages wolves have over their prey is they can sneak into a flock undetected because they are about the same size and color as sheep. Jesus’ reversal of the roles, sheep in the midst of wolves, meant that he wanted his disciples to infiltrate the enemy’s camp, like a sheep walking into a pack of wolves, and work against them without being detected. Jesus’ instruction to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” meant that he didn’t want any harm to come to the lost sheep of Israel that were being held captive by the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees that dominated the religious culture at that time.

Jesus warned his disciples of the danger they would face in taking his gospel into enemy territory, but also encouraged them to act fearlessly, because God would protect them (Matthew 10:31). Focusing particularly on the Pharisees who had accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Matthew 12:24), Jesus said, “Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid that shall not be known” (Matthew 10:26). In other words, the teaching of the Pharisees would be exposed as false doctrine by the truth of the gospel. All the disciples had to do was tell God’s people the truth and they would realize on their own that the Pharisees had been lying to them. Likening God’s word to a sword, (Matthew 10:34), Jesus explained that telling people the truth would result in spiritual warfare, but conflict was necessary for the kingdom of heaven to be established on earth. He said, “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:35-36).

The other side

The original word used to refer to God’s people, “Hebrew” was an ethnic term that referred to “a diverse mixture of nomadic wanderers or at least those who appeared to have at one time been nomadic” (5680).  The term Hebrew or Eberite is derived from the word ‘eber (ay’-ber). “When speaking of rivers or seas, ‘eber means the ‘edge or side opposite the speaker’ or ‘the other side'” (5676). The word ‘eber is derived from the Hebrew word abar (aw-bar’) which means “to cross over” (5674). This word can be found throughout the Old Testament of the Bible in conjunction with major events that occurred in the lives of Abraham’s descendants, primarily before they settled in the Promised Land. The Hebrew word abar communicated the idea of transgression, or crossing over the boundary of right and entering the forbidden land of wrong. An example of this was when Jacob “crossed over” the Euphrates to escape Laban (Genesis 31:21).

After concluding his detailed teaching about the kingdom of heaven (Mark 4:1-34), Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us pass over unto the other side” (Mark 4:35). Upon reaching the opposite shore of the sea of Galilee, Jesus was met by a man possessed by a demonic spirit who referred to himself as Legion. This seems to suggest that the territory known as the Decapolis was associated with sinful behavior and may have been considered off-limits to people that were obedient to God’s commandments. If so, the fact that Jesus directed his disciples to go to this god-forsaken location seems to suggest that he wanted them to see what was going on there. Most likely, the reason for their visit to the country of the Gadarenes was so that Jesus’ disciples could see him exercise his authority over Satan’s army because, like their ancestors,’ his disciples would have to conquer these enemies in order to occupy the Promised Land, a.k.a. the kingdom of heaven.

While their ship was crossing the sea, it says in Mark 4:37, “there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.” In spite of the sudden violent gust of wind and the torrential rains that accompanied it, Mark indicated in his account of the incident that Jesus was asleep on a pillow in the hinder part of the ship (Mark 4:38). Jesus’ disciples had to physically arouse him from his peaceful slumber and then, in a panic asked him, “Master, carest thou not that we perish” (Mark 4:38). The Greek word translated perish, apollumi doesn’t refer to death, but what is often associated with death; ruin, the loss of well-being. In other words, the disciples were suggesting that Satan could ruin their trip in order to stop them from doing damage to his kingdom. After rebuking the wind and telling the sea to be still, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that you have no faith” (Mark 4:40). His point being that they hadn’t even made it to the other side yet, and his disciples were ready to concede to their enemy.

Discipleship

During his ministry on earth, Jesus centered his attention on the spiritual needs of God’s people; and for those who chose to become his disciples, he conducted a three-year apprenticeship program that focused on their membership in God’s kingdom. When the multitudes began to throng about him, Jesus looked for ways to discourage people from following him, rather than seeking to increase the number people that listened to him teach. An example of this can be found in Matthew 8:18 where it says, “Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side.” The other side Jesus commanded his disciples to go to was the southern coast of the sea of Galilee. It was there, in the region of Gadara, that Jesus cast out the Legion from a demon-possessed man (Luke 8:33). Gadara was located in the portion of the Roman Empire known as the Decapolis. The Decapolis was a league of ten free cities characterized by high Greek culture (note on Matthew 4:25). Jesus’ motivation for taking his disciples to such a place may have been to expose them to the harsh reality of satanic worship that was taking place within the borders of the Promised Land.

As he was preparing to enter the ship to sail to the region of Gadara, Jesus was approached by a scribe, a professional writer of the Mosaic Law, who wanted to go with him on his trip. Their short interaction is recorded in Matthew 8:19-20, where it says, “And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee withersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath no where to lay his head.” It is evident in Jesus’ response that he was trying to discourage the man from joining his entourage. Jesus’ image as an important person that people wanted to get close to was probably the main reason he had to constantly be on the move. This meant that his disciples rarely saw their families and were not afforded the luxury of sleeping in their own beds. The message Jesus was conveying to the scribe was that discipleship involved very difficult work that would require a huge sacrifice and not many were fit for the task.

Along with the hardship of being away from loved ones, and sometimes not even having enough time to eat, Jesus expected his disciples to give up all of their earthly responsibilities in order to focus their full attention on preaching the gospel. When one of his disciples asked to be excused from the trip to Gadara so he could attend to his father’s burial, Jesus responded, “let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). Meaning, I have more important work for you to do. The spiritual work Jesus engaged in while he was on earth was not something to be taken lightly. During the brief time that he actively ministered to the Jews, Jesus probably spent less time sleeping than most people would think is humanly possible. What Jesus was looking for in the twelve disciples that became his inner circle of confidants and close companions during his three-year ministry was a willingness to leave everything in order to eat, sleep, and breathe with the creator of the universe. There was no middle ground, no half-hearted commitments. It was all or nothing in Jesus’ work of proclaiming the kingdom of heaven.

True or false

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus described several ways of differentiating between true and false believers. Because there were so many hypocrites among the Jews that worshipped in God’s temple, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that God did not accept false or insincere worship. He told them plainly, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). In particular, the scribes and Pharisees were known for their pious acts of worship and having a condemning attitude toward those that didn’t follow the traditions of their elders. Therefore, Jesus told his disciples, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1-2).

For the most part, Jesus’ followers were aware that life as a Christian was not meant to easy, but there was still probably a lot of confusion about what was expected of someone that was a true believer in Christ. Jesus emphasized the importance of prayer and assured his disciples that God’s children could expect to receive good things from their heavenly Father. He told them, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth: and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). The point Jesus was trying to make was that the attitude of a person’s heart was critical to their success when it came to the petitions they made of God.

Perhaps, the two most essential components of Jesus’ instructions to his followers was the need for perseverance and a requirement for an intentional effort to be made to please God in the believer’s pursuit of happiness. Jesus said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). The contrast between a strait, or narrow gate, and a broad gate was intended to show Jesus’ disciples that the choice to follow him was not an easy choice to make. In order to be true disciples of Christ, there had to be a realization that the only way they could have a meaningful spiritual life was to give up the pursuit of physical satisfaction.

Secret service

Jesus didn’t mean for the life of a Christian to be complicated or difficult to figure out. There were really only three things involved in maintaining a right relationship with God: giving, praying, and fasting. For each of these activities, there was expected to be a reward or you could even say payment from God in return. Jesus made it clear that there would be no spiritual reward given for activities that were done publicly. With regards to giving to the poor, Jesus said, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). One of the reasons Jesus cautioned his followers against doing these things publicly was because there were many hypocrites in the synagogues that were making a show of their supposed good works (Matthew 6:2). Instead of making a big deal out of it, Jesus said, “But when thou doest thine alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:3-4).

At the core of Jesus’ teaching was the conflict between an individual’s public and private life. Often times, the person that made a spectacle of giving to the poor was privately committing sins against God. Jesus referred to these people as hypocrites. The Greek word translated hypocrites, hupokrites (hoop-ok-ree-tace´) means “an actor under an assumed character (stage player)” (5273). There was a lack of authenticity in their behavior. Hupokrites is derived from the word hupokrinomai (hoop-ok-rin´-om-ahee) which goes even farther to say that such a person had decided to speak or act under a false part, there was a conscious decision to pretend to be something that one was not (5271). Jesus instructed his disciples:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:5-6).

The Greek word translated secret, kruptos (kroop-tos´) refers to something that is concealed or private (2927), but at the root of this word is the idea of an intentional effort to hide something or cover it up, to keep it a secret (2928). Rather than making a show of their good behavior, Jesus was telling his followers to do everything they could to keep it from being found out. The primary reason for this, Jesus said, was because God sees what we do in secret (Matthew 6:6). God is hidden from our view; we are not aware of his activities. He is constantly doing good things on our behalf and he wants us to do the same.

Blessedness

Blessedness, the state of being blessed with divine favor, was the original state of the world when Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden (Genesis 1:22). After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the land was cursed (Genesis 3:17), but it wasn’t until Cain killed his brother Abel that a person was cursed by God (Genesis 4:11). When Abraham was called by God to leave his country and his family behind and go to a land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1), God told Abraham, “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). For 2000 years, the world revolved around Abraham and his descendants, also known as the Israelites or Jews, but when Jesus entered the world, he turned that world upside down. One of the most important messages Jesus delivered to his disciples is referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount” (note on Matthew 5:1-7:29). Jesus began his teaching with something called the “Beautitudes” or be attitudes. These declarations of blessedness were intended to show Jesus’ disciples that happiness was more than an emotion that was dependent on their outward circumstances. Jesus’ used a Greek word, makarios to refer “to the ultimate well-being and distinctive spiritual joy of those who share in the salvation of the kingdom of God” (note on Matthew 5:3).

Jesus used the word markarios nine times in his opening statement to a crowd described as “the multitudes” (Matthew 5:1). It is likely there were more than 5,000 people, perhaps as many as 25,000 people, listening in when Jesus preached his sermon on the mount. Jesus’ startling statements were received with amazement, or as we might say today, the people were completely blown away by what he said. Jesus began with this declaration, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus contrasted the person that lived a life focused on spiritual things in this world as a beggar, or someone that was poverty stricken, and royalty in heaven. His intention was most likely to illustrate that the two realms in which we exist, the physical and spiritual, are opposites of each other. What we think makes sense for us to do to take care of our needs in the physical realm might actually lead to spiritual poverty and vice versa. Unlike the free pass that the Israelites received, Jesus taught that entering into God’s kingdom meant that you must live a completely different kind of life than what made sense in the physical realm. Jesus stated, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). The Greek word translated persecuted, dioko means to flee or to drive away (1377). In other words, Jesus was saying that his followers should expect to be outcasts of society.

The family of God

Jesus was rarely alone during the three years he was involved in his ministry on earth. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus called certain men to join him in his work. Some of his encounters with these men are recorded (John 1:35-51) and some are not. Jesus acumulated a total of twelve disciples or apostles, as they were later known. Mark 3:13-19 contains a complete list of their names. It says:

And he goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would: and they came to him. And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils: and Simon he surnamed Peter; and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; (and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:) and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alpheus, and Thaddeus, and Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him.

From this passage of scripture, we know three things about the men Jesus chose as his Apostles. First, they were all called. The Greek word translated called, proskaleomai means to summon or invite (4341). Each of the twelve men that served with Jesus during his ministry on earth came to be with him of their own volition. It was a voluntary choice they made to give up thier former ways of life and to devote themselves to doing God’s will. Second, the twelve men Jesus chose were ordained. Today, we might think of someone that is ordained as someone in the ministry. That is not at all what the Greek word that is translated ordained meant in Jesus’ time. Poieo (poy – eh’ – o) means to make or do “and is used of the bringing forth of fruit” (4160). What was happening when Jesus ordained the twelve “that they should be with him” (Mark 3:14) was forming of an organization. Jesus chose these particular twelve men in order to optimize the harvesting of souls that would take place as a result of their election. The special privilege each of these men received as a result of their membership in Jesus’ organization was the “power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils” (Mark 3:15).

Jesus identified his spiritual organization with a family by likening his followers to family members and started distancing himself from those that were opposed to God’s kingdom because of the negative impact they were having on his work. Jesus’ relatives thought he must be insane and the scribes suggested he was possessed by the prince of devils, Beelzebub (Mark 3:21-22). In order to make it clear that his allegiance belonged to God’s family, rather than his own, Jesus denied his own mother access to his camp. It says in Mark 3:31-35:

There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

Follow me

At the start of his ministry, Jesus chose several men to accompany him as he traveled preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. It seems likely that the first two men that followed Jesus were Andrew and John. It is recorded in John 1:35-37 that these men were originally disciples of John the Baptist, but began to follow Jesus after John declared him to be the Messiah. After spending only one night with Jesus, Andrew was convinced that he was who he claimed to be and invited his brother to become Jesus’ disciple also. John 1:40-42 states, “One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found Messias, which is being interpreted, the Christ. And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: Thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.”

Matthew’s account of Andrew and Peter’s calling focused on the forsaking of their work as fisherman. He said, “And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he said unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him” (Matthew 4:18-20). The Greek word translated followed, akoloutheo is used as a particle of union and refers to a road. Akoloutheo is properly translated as “to be in the same way with” or to accompany on a road. In other words, Andrew and Peter went with Jesus on his road trip. Matthew went on to say that Jesus also called James and his brother John, “And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him” (Matthew 4:22). Matthew, who was a tax collector, later recorded his own calling by Jesus, and said of himself, “he arose, and followed him” (Matthew 9:9).

Jesus’ calling of Philip and Nathanael didn’t focus on the forsaking of their occupations, but merely showed that they were available and interested in God’s kingdom. The only thing John told us about Phillip was that he was from Bethsaida, the same city where Andrew and Peter lived (John 1:44). After Jesus said to him “Follow me” (John 1:43), it says in John 1:45-47, “Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Jesus comment was intended to show that Nathanael’s skepticism was appropriate and that his followers needed spiritual discernment in order to identify him as their Messiah. After this revelation, Nathanael proclaimed, “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel” (John 1:49).