When you read the Gospels carefully, you discover some great insights concerning the audience to whom Jesus speaks. There are four types of audiences addressed in Jesus’s ministry: (a) His opponents, (b) the crowds, (c) the disciples, (d) the Apostles. I want to briefly explore the final three audiences and reflect on why this matters.
Jesus’s very first disciples were “taken” from John the Baptizer’s group of disciples; Andrew (and probably John), then Andrew recruited his brother, Simon Peter. Soon after, Jesus called someone else from the same hometown as Andrew: Philip, who then brought his brother, Nathaniel (John 1:35-48). We see in these, and with others, Jesus used a network of relationships that already existed (e.g., brothers: Andrew and Simon Peter, John and James), business partners (Peter and Andrew fished together with James and John, Lk 5:10), while the others almost certainly would have known each other because they lived in the same towns (Capernaum and Bethsaida).
This group is given different lists (i.e., the names don’t line up perfectly), but that’s another story. These men, to varying degrees, quit their jobs and greatly diminished their family responsibilities in order to be with Jesus “full-time.” They ate with him, slept near him, listened intently and memorized His teachings, saw Him perform miracles, and learned how to be a person who had completely submitted to the Kingdom of God. A disciple is a student, learner, or even better translated, “adherent or apprentice.” They went “all in.” While these men were certainly Jesus’s disciples, Jesus gave them a special name and job description: “Apostles” (Mark 3:14). This term is Greek, meaning, “emissary; one who is sent out with full authority.” That is, this group was the earliest group that Jesus trained and “sent out” to preach the arrival of God’s reign, and to enact the signs that the Kingdom of God had come through healings and exorcisms (e.g., Matt. 10; 28:19-20; Luke 10). Further, they would function as the main leaders of the next group of people, the “disciples” that followed Jesus. We shouldn’t picture the Apostles as Jesus’s best friends (they might have been, but the text doesn’t say that). Instead, we should see them as Jesus’s very first apprentices who were to lead the other disciples to be Jesus’s apprentices, and on and on the generations would go. Moreover, their special job description didn’t bring a pay raise, increased social status, or special decoder ring. They were to lead all of Jesus’s disciples as servants (e.g., Mark 10:45; Luke 22:24-30; John 13:1-17), knowing that their leadership was the way of the cross, a life of utter denial.
Thus, we have the main leaders, the main apprentices of Jesus, the Apostles. He deliberately called twelve men because it was symbolic: just as God, the Father, had constituted the “twelve tribes of Israel” centuries earlier, Jesus was creating a “new Israel” under His instruction and authority. This is why this group is often referred to as “the twelve” (throughout the Gospels; Acts 6:2). The “Twelve” led this group of disciples during Jesus’s earthly ministry and after His resurrection (e.g., Acts 6:2). In the early church, the highest form of authority besides a prophet/ess, was an Apostle (e.g., Eph. 2:20; 4:11).
Jesus and His Apostles traveled throughout the regions of Palestine, taught of God’s rule, and performed various “signs” of God’s rule. Because of this, many people believed that Jesus was, indeed, the expected Messiah and “Son of Man” figure spoken of Daniel 7:13-14. They would become a disciple. The disciples were those who obeyed Jesus’s call to follow; they rejected their former life-styles and committed themselves to Jesus’s teachings of God’s rule; they made Jesus their Master (e.g., Mark 1:16-20; 3:13-15; 4:10; 8:34-38; Matt 8:19, 21; Luke 5:1-11). They could travel with Jesus wherever He went, though some disciples would have only literally followed Him around when He came to their hometown, like those in Bethany or Jerusalem (e.g., Luke 6:17; 10:1; Jn. 6:60). This group of disciples included both women and men, which was unheard of in Judaism of the time: Jewish women were never allowed to study under a rabbi. In fact, it was women who supported Jesus’ ministry financially (Luke 8:1-3; 23:49, 55; 24:13, 18, 33)! Jesus’s disciples also included common folk (e.g., Luke 6:13), tax collectors (e.g., Luke 19:1-10), scribes (i.e., people who were paid to read and write legal documents, Matt. 8:18-21), and even religious leaders (Matt. 27:57; John 19:38-42). We should picture this group of disciples to be around 20-50, depending on the time and region where Jesus was.
Now, some of these disciples were very excited about Jesus’s “miracles” (though they’re not called that in the Gospels, but “power acts” or “signs”) and what Jesus taught (e.g., John 2:23-25). Yet, His message was highly offensive to some of these disciples. Jesus offended people when Jesus demanded that all people must “eat His flesh and drink His blood” (e.g., John 6:52-66); when Jesus told certain parables (e.g., Matt 13, which climaxes in 13:57; Mark 6:3); when Jesus implied that even though He’s the Messiah, Jesus doesn’t/won’t always rescue people, even His cousin, John the Baptizer (Matt 11:2-6); when Jesus said that those who claim to “be free” just because of their Jewish heritage are mistaken (John 8:31-40). And there are multiple times what Jesus said would have been terribly offensive to people (for various reasons), like when Jesus demanded absolute allegiance to Him above family responsibilities (Matt 8:18-22; a really big deal in Judaism!); or when Jesus demanded that a rich person give up his wealth (Mark 10:17-22; a sign that God had “blessed” a person in Judaism). One might cite other examples. And because of His message, several of those who first considered themselves disciples ended up abandoning Jesus. This is why Jesus explained to His Apostles why such a thing occurs (read Mark 4:3-20).
“The Crowds or Multitudes”
Think of the crowds as the “sea” where Jesus and His disciples “fished” (Mark 1:17). Jesus’s main target of His teachings was “the crowds.” He was trying to “convert” them into His movement. They are the common folk who would have been working nearby when Jesus was teaching, or might even have a meal with Jesus. They might have heard of His teachings or “power acts” from relatives or friends (e.g., Mark 3:7-9). They were neutral, but curious. Jesus felt great sympathy for them, and often took care of their physical and spiritual needs (e.g., Matt. 9:35-36; Mark 6; 8). However, we should never think that because Jesus had sympathy for them that He didn’t think the crowds were “basically OK.” No. Jesus thought that, in general, people in His time were wicked, sinful people (e.g., Mark 2:17; 8:38; 9:19; Matt. 12:45). This is precisely why He travelled around Palestine preaching His message of God’s rule being accomplished and experienced by complete devotion to Him. Modern conceptions of Jesus tend to make Jesus a mild-mannered “hippie” who taught about love and peace and “good morals,” and he wanted people to reach their full potential. Nonsense.
Of course, a crowd that is elated that Jesus has arrived (e.g., Mark 11:1-11) can turn into a mob (Mark 15:8-15). Why? Because those in “the crowd” have no allegiance to Jesus. They might be a fan of Jesus, but have not heeded His call to “follow Him” at all costs. Crowds can be swayed. Give them what they want, and they like you. The crowds like the fireworks: seeing “power acts” and seeing demons come out of a person is sensational. They like Jesus’s fish and bread. But, they don’t go “all in.” They refuse to “deny their wills” to follow Jesus (Mark 8:34).
I’ve been working in ministry for nearly twenty-three years. No matter the church or denomination, I find it amazingly similar in this regard: each church has people who fit into these categories. Most disturbingly, there is always a significant portion of people that would fit into the first-century “crowd.” They’re a “fan” of Jesus, they’re intrigued in “religion.” They say things like, “I believe in God,” and they try “to be a good person.” They might even “go to church” often. It’s just that Jesus never once asked people to be His fan, or believe in God, or “go to church,” or to be a “good person.” He demanded everything. He wants all of us. There is no middle ground. Reflect carefully: where are you? Which group best describes your life, heart, and mind?
“Well, who in the world does Jesus think He is? Who thinks that He can demand my whole self?” That’s exactly what His first audience thought too (e.g., Mark 1:27; 4:41; Luke 7:49). And this is still the question worth pondering. I’m convinced that when you grasp who Jesus really is, the only logical response is to bow down and surrender everything. And, until that happens, you’re not His disciple, which means you’re not “saved” (e.g., John 10:9; Acts 2:40-41, 47). You’re still stuck in the sinful crowd. That’s sad. It’s why Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). Jesus doesn’t want anyone to face judgement without hope. He wants you to be “ransomed” from your sinful self (Mark 10:45).
Praise God there’s still time! I encourage you: read the Gospels and come to grips with who He is. It’ll be worth it.
For the Kingdom,