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We all know what it's like to be a student. Even the brainiest of all Shmoopers can recognize that it's often a pretty humbling experience. Why?
Think about it. Being a motivated and engaged student means accepting that we aren't as knowledgeable as our teachers. That means we need their help if we want to become the types of people we hope to be. But feeling dependent and at times, well, stupid, isn't natural or enjoyable for anyone.
Luke's Jesus more or less says as much: "a disciple is not above the teacher." But Jesus hopes that the student who is "fully qualified" or "well-equipped" will at least be "like the teacher" (6:40). But it's a process. It takes time. And no one demonstrates that better than our favorite bumbling disciples.
So who are these guys?
First, they're definitely earnest learners. After all, they drop everything (5:11, 28; 18:28) in order to follow this miracle-working man named Jesus and take in his profound and challenging lectures on ethics, religion, theology, and biblical interpretation. Not an easy feat, right?
Jesus selects twelve of them in particular to form his inner circle. They're kind of like his honor students (6:12-16), and they have pretty incredible early success as healers and exorcists when Jesus sends them out on their own (9:1-6).
The other disciples (9:57-62; 23:49; 24:9, 33) consist of both men and women (8:1-3; 10:38-42; 23:49). Along with the core twelve, they're the target-audience for a significant amount of Jesus's instruction (6:17; 11:1; 12:1, 4, 8, 22; 16:1; 17:1, 22). So these guys and gals are the students, but because of them, the readers of Luke's gospel turn into students, too. Fancy.
Before we start knocking them for their not-the-sharpest-tool-in-the-shed tendencies, let's get one thing straight. The disciples absolutely develop as characters throughout Luke's gospel.
Okay, now that the disclaimer is out there—what is wrong with these dudes?
Well, they're like us, that's what.
Jesus knew everything at the age of twelve (2:41-52)—all we knew was that *N Sync was the best band ever. (Turns out we were right, but that's just luck.) And like us, the disciples can't understand everything. In fact, they are unable to comprehend one of the most essential facts about Jesus. You know, the whole messiah thing.
No matter how many times Jesus tells them that his destiny is to experience rejection, suffer, and then be raised from the dead, they can't get it through their thick heads:
But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. (18:34; also, see 9:45)
The problem? The disciples can't graduate until they pass this course.
Here Jesus is, talking of rejection and affliction and warning his students that similar challenges will be coming their way (9:22-27; 9:44-45), and they go off and start to fight over which of them should be valedictorian. Jesus isn't psyched about this fiasco, so he tells them, "the least among all of you is the greatest" (9:48). Translation: be humble and you'll do great.
But even after thirteen chapters, the disciples still haven't learned this crucial lesson. This time, Jesus is speaking cryptically about his last taste of food, his last swig of wine, and his upcoming betrayal (22:14-23). But instead of freaking out, the betrayal buzz provokes the disciples to once again argue over who deserves to be crowned homecoming king. Jesus has to remind them again—pretty stinkin' late in the game—that "the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves" (22:26). Get with the program, people.
The disciples just don't get that (a) the Messiah must suffer, and (b) the youngest, the least, and the servant are the ones that count most in God's kingdom. And guess what? That means more miscalculations.
When Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the disciples are expecting God's kingdom to arrive immediately (19:11, 37-38; 24:21). They think that redemption, freedom, and the whole shebang belong to Israel the moment Jesus sets foot in Jerusalem, even though Jesus himself has told them of the suffering and rejection (both his and theirs) that will happen first. Are they just in denial?
In the end, this means that the disciples are terribly unprepared for what actually happens to Jesus in Jerusalem. Judas, one of the twelve honor students, rats Jesus out to the religious leaders. Peter is the only one who follows Jesus upon his arrest, and even he ends up denying that he knows the guy (22:54-62). That's pretty bad, right? Jesus sure thinks so:
"Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels." (9:26)
So are these guys in apocalyptic trouble?
Don't worry too much about these guys, though. After all, their teacher is the Son of God, according to Luke. And like all persistent and eager, and humble learners, the disciples come around in the end.
Not only are they better able to understand this suffering Messiah business after the fact, but it is none other than the resurrected Jesus who explains it to them. He walks the eleven—sorry, Judas, your fault—and others step-by-step through the scriptures, demonstrating how the writings of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms all foretold that everything would go down this way (24:25-32, 44-46).
The disciples have finally come full circle from the ignorance of 9:45 and 18:34. In the course of the story, they have learned a very difficult lesson: that God's purpose for Jesus is achieved in a backwards sort of way through suffering and rejection. That's right—they finally understand divine irony. Sometimes things that seem like failures from the human point of view are actually complete successes for God.
Next time you're studying for an exam, remember, it took quite a bit of effort and sadness for the disciples to get to this level of insight. But in the very last verses of Luke's gospel, they hold their diplomas, and their teacher is making some big promises about what's in store for them (24:47-49). Want to see how they fare? Check out the book of Acts, and see what happens in their post-grad years.