The Disciples of Jesus Then and Now (Part I)

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Looking at his disciples, he [Jesus] said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”

(Luke 6:20–23 NIV)

The verses above make up a part of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain and they can be compared to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew 5–7. Though some of the material in these two gospel accounts is similar, there are important differences to be noted as well. To illustrate, Matthew lists nine beatitudes or blessing statements (“Blessed are . . .”) but Luke has only four. Again, Luke has four woe statements (“Woe to you . . .”), which are not a part of our text but follow it, but Matthew has none. We have not included these four woe statements from Luke as a part of our text simply because their theological and ethical content reveal very clearly that in this material Jesus had shifted his audience. That is, he was no longer addressing his disciples directly, which is our major concern here, but a much larger population (“a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon,” Luke 6:17) that included within it both false prophets as well as the sinfully self-satisfied.

In terms of the first beatitude found in Luke, Jesus looked directly at his disciples and exclaimed, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Matthew expresses this beatitude in a different way from Luke’s account as follows: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3, emphasis mine). At first glance, in a comparison of these texts, it may appear that they are teaching different things: Luke is evidently focused on the material, maintenance needs of the poor, while Matthew considers poverty more broadly (and people can be poor in all sorts of ways) in terms of one’s spirit. This difference, however, should not be overblown.

It must be borne in mind, once again, the audience that Jesus addressed in Luke’s text. He was speaking, after all, to his disciples who were poor. These were not just any people; they were indeed special, set apart. Jesus was not teaching about poverty, broadly speaking, but of the poverty that characterized the lives of those who believed in and were obedient to him. This additional element makes a world of difference. Clearly, in this setting, both physical poverty and a lively faith were in the mix, two things and not just one. When that is the case, Jesus affirmed that such physical want, as difficult as it may be, cannot undo or overthrow the overwhelming reality of being blessed, despite one’s poverty. When the most important value of all is in place—when we let God be God in our lives—blessing cannot be stopped. It’s simply impossible.

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Another implication of this pungent teaching found in Luke is that being a genuine, faithful disciple of Jesus may not lead to the fulfillment of all our material needs. Many believers may yet be lacking in some areas of their lives: “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” To be sure, being disciplined for many will lead to a better life but, clearly, not for all. Why is this so? It’s because the causes of poverty are complex and go far beyond the personal dimensions of life and entail factors that escape individual or even family control. Jesus fully understood this. Think of the great harm, then, that is done to the poor when poverty is viewed simply as the curse of God.

All of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record not only that Jesus was well aware that he would suffer many things at the hand of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and would in the end be killed, but also that he taught his disciples about all of this very clearly. Nothing of this darkness, this evil, was hidden from them. Moreover, the fourth beatitude of our current text in Luke reveals the hatred that would be directed against the disciples of Jesus: “Blessed are you when people hate you . . . because of the Son of Man.” Compare this with a different account found in Matthew in which Jesus taught his followers: “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (10:22a). The Gospel of John, however, displays the reason for such hatred directed against both the Master and his disciples: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (15:18–19).

Granted, the topic of hatred is both an uncomfortable and a difficult one. As a consequence, many of us would like to move on quickly. To hear the voice of hatred, and to consider painfully what it actually means, is like listening to a very loud crying baby. We just want it to stop. However, if we become so inattentive, for fear of discomfort, in terms of reckoning what hatred in fact is, then we will never understand what Jesus had to confront throughout much of his ministry and what all of his disciples, past and present, would inevitably face. What’s more, if we fail in grappling with hatred forthrightly, then we will not understand the height, breadth, and the depth of the gospel correctly. Indeed, the gospel or the good news is not only the greatest story ever told, or that could ever be told, but it is also the utmost celebration of the love of God as well as the universal love of neighbor imaginable. We will make that case in greater detail in the chapters ahead. For now, however, our focus must be and will remain on the exact opposite of the gospel: hatred.

The word hate in our text, in this fourth beatitude, conveys two key ideas. First of all, hatred is made up of a strong dislike or an intense aversion to a person or peoples. For example, there may be people in our own families, communities, or broader society, who because of their values and the way they live their lives, evoke a strong, negative response from us in the form of a well-seated aversion. Notice it is precisely because we find that our own good values are being threatened by others that a strong dislike to them may arise and possibly take root in our hearts. Odd as this may seem, some people are poised to go down the highway of hatred, not fully aware of the evil that they will eventually embrace, simply because their focus is always on the good they seek to preserve in the face of threats, real or imagined, coming from the other. What they neglect to consider, however, in this heedless descent, is the real harm they are willing to do to their neighbor—all to preserve the values they hold dear. This is what the beginning of moral and spiritual blindness looks like.

The second element that causes hatred to arise is malice or ill will. Not only do some people have a strong aversion in their hearts toward others, but they also go well beyond this to wish misfortune or outright evil upon them. That’s precisely what malice or ill will is. It’s a necessary element for hatred to arise. Moral and spiritual blindness is compounded here, and people can actively engage in self-deception with respect to the evil that they will do or intend to do. Since the hated other is a threat to the values of the community—perhaps even a religious community (think of the hatred directed at Jesus by religious leaders)—then one is justified, indeed even entitled, to bring great harm to the one so despised. Put another way, hatred always contains elements of lying and self-deception. People may even be so deceived that they believe they are actually doing the very will of God!

We are not trying to suggest that some members of the Christian community are not subject to the same kind of misgivings and deceits that have played out among the Jewish religious leadership of the first century. Unfortunately, the Christian faith can be perverted as well. It can go horribly wrong by taking on a much-diminished narrative, a substitute story, one that masquerades as the gospel, championed by false prophets, and that departs in significant ways from the universal love of neighbor. Jesus warned his disciples about this at several points in his ministry.

To get at this unfortunate reality we are compelled, for the sake of truthfulness and honesty, to make a distinction between nominal and even hypocritical Christians and true disciples of Jesus Christ. Let’s be clear: the two are neither to be confused nor mistaken for each other. This is where the naïve may stumble or be outright misled. In terms of nominal Christians, the Christian faith may become just another tribe. Do we really love Jesus, or do we love “X”? Fill in the blanks here (denomination, economic status, cultural or social power, ethnicity, race, etc.). Take your pick. Such a greatly diminished “faith” may prove to be attractive to some, for it can offer enticing measures of meaning, purpose, and social power as an ongoing reward. And some will take enormous delight in being so distinguished from others as Jesus had warned (see Luke 18:11).

When this corruption of the Christian faith has occurred—when lesser meanings are mistaken for ultimate ones, and empowered by strong social forces, by a heady appeal to numbers—language may be taken up by the self-righteous in public forums as an avenging sword whereby they employ insults, demeaning epithets, and even engage in character assassination for those who are judged to be “the other,” those beyond their limited circles of meaning. In doing so, the self-righteous thereby become guilty of the very evil that Jesus warned against in the fourth beatitude: employing insults and rejecting the names of others as evil. And nominal Christians and hypocrites may find themselves in the end railing against the very disciples of Christ—those who have remained faithful to the Master, the Holy One who transcends them in goodness, power, and glory.

All of this troubled public discourse spoken by the less-than-faithful cannot be justified by any appeal to justice. Indeed, such language has no defense. Instead, it has all the markings of deep aversion and animated ill will which is none other than the grammar of hatred. Are we surprised by this? Then let us ask ourselves some very frank questions: How is such language edifying? How does it show our love for God and our neighbor? How does it even reflect the golden rule? Does such language ever seek reconciliation, or does it glory in condemnation and division? In short, what person, Christian or not, would like to be subject to the kind of verbal attacks that have now become the staples on Christian websites or in public forums?

In the eighteenth century, John Wesley, being the good pastoral leader that he was, cautioned the church precisely against this great evil in his pointed sermon, “The Cure of Evil Speaking.” We will do well to heed the counsels of this sermon, especially today, given all the many venues for self-expression now available to us. In our own twenty-first century, in the midst of a growing information and data revolution, it must be brought to mind that some people are unfortunately digging their own graves with their keystrokes.

Cultural conceptions of Jesus today present a man who is virtually unrecognizable. He is not known, above all, for whom he loves or how he loves. In contrast to this misconfiguration, the Jesus of the Gospels is far more beautiful, and loves more broadly and deeply, than many have imagined. The humble, suffering love of Jesus is uncanny, radiantly beautiful, and in the end transformative. There is nothing like it across the religious landscape or current ideological offerings.

In this engaging work—Jesus the Stranger: The Man from Galilee and the Light of the World—Ken Collins invites the reader to see Jesus in a new way. One that focuses on his humanity, especially in terms of his suffering, rejection, and ostracism by numerous oppositional characters and groups drawn from the pages of the Gospels. From hometown folk to family members, from religious leaders to those who will ultimately seek his death, what emerges from this new vista is a more humane and approachable Jesus, one who can commiserate with the pain and sorrow of our own lives and one who can offer rich and abundant healing, the healing of holy love. Get it from our store here.

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  • Christian or non-Christian readers
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  • Book clubs or Sunday School classes
  • Lenten groups preparing for Easter

In these pages you’ll:

  • Discover a portrait of Jesus in the biblical Gospels you may have hardly known
  • Become acquainted with the profound opposition and suffering of Jesus and the ways his love conquered it all
  • Be both challenged and encouraged by the holy love of God at work in the person of Jesus

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Dr. Kenneth J. Collins is professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies. Joining Asbury Seminary’s faculty in 1995 as professor of church history, Dr. Collins has lectured and taught throughout the world on the theology of John Wesley.

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