The Inner Three…Stooges

I wonder if Peter, James, and John were in the spotlight so much not because Jesus saw in them the most potential, but the least. It’s not like they had many flattering lines or proved to have been particularly insightful. Even Peter’s great confession is relativized when Jesus pointed out that his idea of who Jesus should be came from Satan himself. And if James and John weren’t awkwardly calling down fire from heaven, they were asking for to be seated at the right and left of Jesus in his glory–of course, they envisioned Jesus on a throne in all his glory, but Jesus envisioned himself on a cross. We shouldn’t, then, be surprised by the response: Indeed, “You know not what you ask!” (Mk. 10).

Maybe the term “inner circle,” is misleading given its sense of endearment. When I read the Synoptics, especially (that Triad doesn’t really show up in John), it seems to me that Jesus brings this trio closest to him perhaps because they are the furthest away. And if so, maybe the three years with these three stooges is as much a model of evangelism than it is discipleship–an unfortunate dichotomy in our language today–which may undermine our fast-food models of evangelism. This will only interest the few who are interested in discipleship/evangelism models (in which this trio always gets brought up), but I wonder if it would change anything if we read about this trio and Jesus’ perspective of them through that lens (which seems to me to be truer to the text) and then considered “models” (for lack of a better word).

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One thought on “The Inner Three…Stooges

  1. A helpful discussion followed.

    Jeremy Spainhour *Peter’s idea of who the messiah should be, that is.
    9 February at 11:07 via mobile · Like

    Camille Vetters Huh, thats really interesting to think about.
    9 February at 11:20 · Like

    Dan Wyllys A good point, and it does fit better with Jesus’ desire to go first to the least, but I don’t know that the text gives us any sense that any of the other 12 showed any more insight or potential, does it?. They don’t have many lines by themselves, but of the ones they do, the ones that come to my mind are along the lines of Thomas doubting, Nathanael being disgusted at the notion of a Christ from Nazareth…
    9 February at 11:23 · Like

    David Stewart I am constantly amazed at how the Gospel got spread, based on all the faults of the disciples. Brett and I always comment that Jesus must look at us and say, this is what I have to work with? It’s a wonder what He can do with the little that we give and the faults that we have.
    9 February at 11:37 · Unlike · 2

    Sue Mendelson Nice. And I think we’re all more like them than we like to think—-which is really why they’re highlighted. Like them, we persist in elevating the wrong thing/people Ha!
    9 February at 11:49 · Unlike · 1

    Abe Zimmerman Its an interesting thought to consider with the inner-circle. Yet, I think Jesus spent more time with them because he saw there was huge potential hidden in them. By spending additional time with them as a mentor/discipler he was better able to shape/influence who they would become. So, I don’t believe we would get the Peter of Acts if he wasn’t in the inner-circle.
    9 February at 16:37 · Edited · Like

    Janice Pierce Spainhour Yep, I think he probably looked at them all and must have thought….”You have got to be kidding…” and yet left the commission for them/us to go into all the world….Evidently we don’t have to have it all together. As far as the inner circle, maybe they were singled out (sort of like problem children in school, to sit near teacher’s desk.) Hmmm…..that messes up my thinking.
    9 February at 14:07 · Like · 1

    Jeremy Spainhour Yeah, David, on either my soberest or most pessimistic days, it occurs to me that God’s mission is carried out not because or even through but in spite of his people.
    9 February at 15:51 · Edited · Like · 1

    Jeremy Spainhour Sue and Mom, I’m with y’all. I love to read the Old Testament and scoff at the Israelites, the New Testament and make fun of the disciples, but then I read Paul and he says, “You have no excuse, O man…who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Rom. 2:1). Indeed, I do practice the very same things, and, consistent with my speculation, perhaps that’s why Jesus brings the biggest screw ups into focus. None of us could walk away from the Gospel and think, “Well, I could never be as holy as Peter, James, or John…I guess Jesus loves me less!”
    9 February at 14:33 · Edited · Like

    Jeremy Spainhour Dan and Abe, I’ll try to address your comments as one. Pressing the issue about the others is pressing into much silence, indeed. But the point doesn’t depend on the rest of the disciples being saints. At the end of the day, we have three who are depressingly far from Jesus’ vision of a disciple whom Jesus persistently brings near, and these three, brought into intense proximity and even more intense dialogue with Jesus, seem to show less and less promise as the story progresses, while Jesus seems to show more and more (thank God our relationship with Christ depends on his faithfulness, not ours, so that in them it becomes painfully but freeing-ly clear that being sinful and being lovable are not mutually exclusive!).

    However, it stands to reason that these needed more attention / were more dangerous (?) than the others, because what the text gives us in them is three antiheroes–stubborn, insistent loudmouths–whose desperate but determined words seemed but a spreading of the very leaven Jesus warned about, and who function more than anything to show us what a disciple should avoid thinking/saying/doing, rather than the converse–do they not?! (cf. Mk. 8, where the warning about leaven of the Pharisees comes almost immediately before Peter’s confession, interrupted only by the half-blind man who orients us to Peter’s “half-blindness”–Peter had leaven in his eyes, no doubt). And as it should be, because if discipleship is about transformation and Jesus comes to transform the worst of us (thank God he does!), then perhaps we should expect the Gospels to give us a story of what it looks like, the time and sacrifice required, to mold a hard-hearted Rock, such as Peter, into a follower.
    9 February at 14:53 · Like

    Jeremy Spainhour Now, a word on Nathanael and Thomas (applicable to Dan and Abe).

    I must say that Nathanael and Thomas seem perhaps most exemplary of all the disciples. For Nathanael’s part, his question did not prevent Jesus in the next verse from declaring publicly of him, “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”, nor did it prevent him from declaring, two verses later, perhaps the second most explicit and insightful confession of Jesus’ identity in all the Gospels, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!”—and this in his first conversation with Jesus, still in the first chapter of John. If Jesus followed the model of investing in those with the most potential, it seems like Nathanael would have been a good candidate. But perhaps Jesus had less of a need to spend so much time with Nathanael compared to the others. (Of course, the Fourth Gospel’s perspective of the disciples is much more optimistic than the Synoptics, but Nathanael is not given any lines in them and he disappears after this scene in John, so we are left with Jesus’ positive evaluation of Nathanael, and Nathanael’s accurate identification of Jesus.)

    And I suppose Nathanael’s confession is second in insightfulness and explicitness only to none other than Thomas, in his profound, daring words, “My Lord, and my God!”—the only one to ever call Jesus’ “God” to his face—which is only compounded by Thomas’s lone willingness to put his life on the line for Jesus (see footnote 1—it got too long!). I’m not sure that identifying Thomas’ faith is any harder than identifying his doubt, upon close examination of the texts. When I look at the Thomas texts, it seems to me that the goal of the Fourth Gospel and perhaps the goal of Jesus is not to bring Thomas to a faith like the other disciples’ (or ours for that matter) but to bring the other disciples, and to bring us, to a faith like Thomas’s, where the crucified and risen Jesus transcends all mere human categories, so that the wounds the disciples’ Lord was so intent to show them, as he declared peace over them, would be understood as the wounds of God, and only in seeing the wounds of God could they truly understand the peace they now had with God, peace which, as we now know, needed to be discovered in those wounds. It may be helpful to spell this out a little more.

    When Jesus first appears to the fearful disciples behind locked doors, he desired to show him specifically his wounds (“Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Jn. 20). This is followed by the story of Thomas, who is seeking precisely what Jesus is desiring to show, which is then followed by Jesus returning to the disciples apparently just for Thomas’s sake…or perhaps for all the disciples’ and readers’ sake, if he may through Thomas bring us into a deeper revelation. So the text of John 20 gives us a crucified and risen “Lord and God” who desires to show his wounds to his disciples, disciples who, in the text at least, do not even acknowledge his wounds, and then Thomas who seeks precisely what Jesus intends to show. Do we not have in Thomas the most specific and profound real-time revelation of God in the entire Bible, and therefore perhaps too something exemplary in Thomas?! Jesus has always had the cross in his vision, and any talk of his death or the disciples’ death was invariably met with protest, except for in the character of Thomas (cf., again, Jn. 11). The Thomas narrative orients us to the coming discussion that the rest of the New Testament will spell out for us, the peace of the ultimate plan of human-divine reconciliation, so that “In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). In seeking the wounds of his risen Lord and crucified God, Thomas was, inadvertently or not, seeking aright the most supreme revelation of the God whose mission in salvation history is to reconcile himself to his rebellious world. And with Thomas’ hand in Jesus’ side, we have the most supreme, and the most graphic, picture of that reconciliation, and what it cost. It should come to no surprise that John then, leaving Thomas’ hand buried in Jesus’ side, moves immediately to his purpose statement—“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples…but these are written so that you (the reader!) may [come to?] believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing, you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:30-31)—which complements Jesus’ purpose statement (according to John’s narrative), that “those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave them the right/power to become children of God…” (Jn. 1:12). So, even if only literarily (and should we really try to get beyond the text?!), Thomas’s character is used, in my opinion, more strategically than any other to bring us deep into the revelation of who God is in the crucified and risen Lord.

    1. “Let us go that we may die with him!” Jn. 11; cf. the resurrection narratives, where he is the only one who is not in hiding “for fear of [apparently the same crowd as in Jn. 11]”, the reckless one who was apparently alone among the disciples in his willingness to lose his own life for Jesus’ sake, and perhaps, then, the most qualified to be called a disciple, a title which Jesus declared (to Peter’s dismay) would require the loss of one’s own life for Jesus’ sake.
    9 February at 14:54 · Like

    Matt Allhands makes sense to me
    9 February at 15:07 · Like

    Jeremy Spainhour TO ALL THE DISCIPLES’ CREDIT–and we should consider this in some depth–despite all their misgivings, ultimately the disciples still exist as disciples, believing their way into the ‘sonship’ John spoke of (Jn. 1:12)–only one of the twelve becomes the son of perdition. Yes, they are disciples, while so many others in the Gospel narratives never breach the category of ‘the crowd’, and still some who were once disciples even turn away and stop following him with no indication of restoration (Jn. 8ff). The baseline qualifier seems to be that that the disciple persist in a relationship with Jesus, continuing following him, even when he or she screws up (no matter how bad), and through our wavering companions who meander behind Jesus, as uniformly as a herd of cats, we can rest assured that Jesus will never turn us away, as long as we there to not be turned away. Of course, this following-as-baseline-qualifier has to be rethought in light of the post-cross/resurrection Church age reality of our relationship with the invisible Christ through His Word and in the Spirit. The call of discipleship is still a cross-bearing call that we daily struggle to accept, and our temptation is somewhat different than the original twelve’s. While they desperately wanted Jesus to deny his cross so that they could deny their own, we desperately want claim Jesus’ cross so that we can deny our own. The twelve were Jewish enough to know that whatever happened to the Messiah would, in some way, have to happen to them, whereas we tend to think that because Jesus’ suffered for the world, we wouldn’t have to (fn. 1). I suppose we have confused the substitutionary work of Jesus as being the substitutionary way of Jesus. But Jesus did not die instead of us. He died with us, indeed, for us. And after the resurrection, unfortunately or not, he did not amend the call of ‘any who would come after him’. As I once heard David Mercadante say, it still remains: “Jesus tells us to take up our cross, not our resurrection.”
    9 February at 15:50 · Like · 1

    Jeremy Spainhour Oops. Here’s the footnote for that:

    1. cf. Yoder’s comments on the Constantinization of the Church which is, at worst, a wholesale marriage (or perhaps affair) between Church and State and, at least, the Church’s seeking—and never failing to find!—a political ally. The day of Constantine’s Christian Empire marked a terribly confusing transition, given the cross-bearing call of the Church, because it was the first time in Church history when it was harder to NOT be a Christian than it was to be a Christian. This, Yoder suggests, can all began “when Christians began to think they could make sense of what it means to be Christians without the Jews.” So in that very important sense we could learn much from, for example, James’ and John’s desire to sit at Jesus’ right and left, because though they were not ready at that point to accept where Jesus was headed, they at least knew that they would have to head in the same direction. Christ’s followers must rely on him for his substitutionary work. But as soon we begin to confuse his substitutionary work for a substitutionary way, we cease to be followers. And if there is any doubt that the language of “following” applies in the post-ascension world, the world where Christ is no longer physical in his messianic body (though he is physical in the his Church body), John 21 is there for rebuke to the twelve (well…actually eleven at this point) and to us. Peter had gone back to his old vocation and the others followed him (is this not the great assumption of the post-ascension Church age—that we can stop following and get on with charting our own paths!). But to clear the murky waters of their and our convenient doubts about the relevance of thinking we must still follow this invisible Jesus, Jesus appears one last time and repeats, “Follow me!”…not once, but twice. In fact, the last two words uttered by Jesus in the John’s Gospel were words addressed to an ever-distracted-and-out-of-focus-Peter, “You follow me!” (Jn. 21:22).
    9 February at 15:50 · Like

    Dave Currie Grateful for your willingness to rethink assumptions and norms and drill deeper into the intent and implications of the text itself. Thank you.
    9 February at 17:36 · Unlike · 2

    Dan Wyllys Good points re
    9 February at 18:07 · Like

    Dan Wyllys Woops. Good points re: Jesus’ positive assessments of Thomas and Nathanael. I wouldn’t agree with Abe’s position that Jesus saw some huge potential hidden in them that wasn’t in the rest. My point was whether or not you’d be justified in arguing in the other direction as Abe apparently would given that it is, as you mentioned, mostly silence which surrounds the other disciples in the text. Their prominence, even with all their obvious flaws, could lead one to argue for their potential as easily as their lack thereof. Unless it can be demonstrated that they were indeed “further away” than the rest, it seems like the best and most honest explanation we would be able to give would be something along the lines of Romans 9:13 (“Jacob I loved, but Esau I have hated”) and 11:33-36 (“…how unsearchable his judgments…”), though obviously in a different sense. But you seemed to have indeed demonstrated a difference in their presentation than at least these two others. So at this point I’d have to say it does seem to me that what you are putting forth here has more support in the text than the idea that they have more-or even equal-potential. Thanks.
    9 February at 18:23 · Unlike · 1

    Jeremy Spainhour Abe and Dan, this last response applies to both of you, but I want to use something Abe said as the springboard. You wrote, “I don’t believe we would get the Peter of Acts if he wasn’t in the inner-circle.” Keep in mind that even the Peter of Acts, born out of the inner-circle of the Gospels, still found creative ways of walking his own way, which is why Paul, of all people, had to rebuke him to his face (Gal. 2). Paul was not only not part of the three-man circle, not of the twelve-man circle, not of the 70-person circle of Luke 10, not of the 120-person circle of Acts 1, not even of the 3,000-person circle that was borne out of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. Rather, the man who would become the most influential leader in Church history was the very man who sought to eliminate the 3000, the 120, the 70, the 12, the 3, ultimately attempting to eliminate their nucleus. And, again, I’m thankful it is so, because if the Peter of Acts is who he is because of his experience as the Peter of the Gospels, because his flickering potential was fanned into a great flame, then those of us who begin not in the inner-circle but like Paul, in whom “nothing good dwells” (Rom. 7:18), who find not even a pilot light upon introspection…well…we lose hope. We lose hope for ourselves and for others like us.

    But how hopeful it is to know that the Paul of Acts began as the Saul of Acts, so that we can give up the vain pursuit of self-realization and declare, with Paul, “But by the grace of God I am what I am!” (1 Cor. 15:10a). Then, when we consider any work we do accomplish for the Gospel, we will not declare therefore that “Our potential was not in vain!” but simply that “[God’s] grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10b), while in the same breath declaring the infinite incongruence between the potential of a man and the call of God (cf. 1 Cor. 15:9).

    Perhaps the real variable that seems to determine the greatest leaders in the New Testament is not so much the depth of their potential as it is the depth of their sin. So at the very top we have two men who had to humbly work their way through many titles before grace lowered them into leadership, Simon called Satan (Mk. 8; Mt. 16), and Paul called sinner-in-chief (1 Tim. 1:15). And it is not because, in the end, more sin actually correlates to more potential, but rather because more sin, when forgiven, correlates to a deeper realization of grace, which perhaps correlates with a deeper response of love. This is the lesson of the parable of the two debtors, which was addressed to a Pharisee—curiously called Simon—who had condemned “the woman of the city…a sinner” (Lk. 7:36ff). It is the lesson that the one forgiven much loves much, which is not to suggest that the way to cultivate love is to cultivate sin (God forbid it!—cf. Rom. 6:1). It’s not that we all have to become that woman, to increase our debt, but to recognize that we all are that woman. What mattered in the parable was not that “one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty” but that they both(!) “could not pay” (Lk. 7:41-42).

    Whatever is taken away from this discussion about discipleship, I think two things are clear, one about disciples, one about discipling: (1) no matter how far a person is beyond the circle, no one is beyond hope, and any potential or advantage one might have can be measured only in proportion to his or her ability to better recognize and thus appreciate the ‘proportion’ of grace they have received. Our debts may vary and some may be closer to God than others, but they are only closer to God in the way some waves are closer than others to the moon. Contact requires the same for every wave, for every person. The moon and the Son have to fall from the heavens. So the debtor unable to pay 50 denarii is, if anything, at a disadvantage to the one unable to pay 500, since the only thing the forgiving landowner is after is their love. If there is a disadvantage for the one with the greater debt it his inability to believe the landowner when he tells him his debt has been paid, that he is free. One compares himself to the other and feels better about himself; one compares himself to the other and feels worse; one becomes growingly optimistic about himself; one becomes growingly cynical; one finds a false hope that can’t save him; one loses the true hope that can. The two debtors are the two primal sins from which every other emerges: pride and unbelief. Pride needs no forgiveness. Unbelief thinks there is none. This should at least relativize those we ‘target’ for discipleship and should call into scrutiny those discipleship models that endorse investing a disproportionate amount in those in whom the most potential can be identified. We’d be better of identifying vulnerabilities than potentialities, because the former will help us deconstruct the thing blocking a person from the love of God. So if we want to discover the potential of one’s influence, we have to begin by identifying their aversion to love, which is all that God desires. Besides, any lasting influence the Gospel has on a person will be the influence of the Holy Spirit. We cultivate love by proclaiming the Gospel. God pours love into our hearts (Rom. 5). Then its up to him cultivates influence. So we thus determine not to know multiplication strategies but “Christ crucified,” and nothing more (1 Cor. 1:23).

    (2) No matter what we do to fan a person’s ‘potential’, great or small, we must be careful not to fan his ego. So before we start helping anyone identify his gifts and calling with our the “spiritual gift inventories,” we have to work at laying a firm foundation of the Gospel until human sinfulness and God’s grace find no shadow of turning in his mind and heart, so that even the most successful among us can stand proudly at the bottom of the sewers of our potential in the rags of our righteousness and declare with the second most influential man the world has ever known, “For I am the least of the [insert calling], unworthy to be called [anything] because [insert sinfulness]. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
    10 February at 00:06 · Edited · Like · 1

    Jeremy Spainhour P.S. [I’m not so oblivious to miss the fact that, by this point, I’m likely talking to myself, but if anyone is still reading…] This reflection and its responses were more for me than anyone else. I’m thinking through the current ministry model at FAC and I just want to bring it under the authority of Scripture and allow to call the entire model, from its theology to its practice, into question. Whether in truth or in error, it is indeed now thoroughly in question. Thanks to all for engaging me in this discussion.
    9 February at 20:53 · Like · 1

    Dan Wyllys Better to talk to yourself than give up on saying anything at all
    9 February at 23:38 · Like

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