Disciples on Trial

by Susan R. Garrett

Susan R. Garrett is professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Her book The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel has just been published by Eerdmans (1998).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 15, 1998, pp. 396-399. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Mark’s portrayal of the Twelve as abysmal failures before Christ’s resurrection serves to magnify and commend God’s amazing grace and power. Mark phrases the Good News in terms of the empowering of believers that takes place in single-minded prayer.

In Mark’s Gospel the disciples are as much a hindrance as a help to Jesus. They do not understand Jesus’ words or support him in his mission. Repeatedly Jesus rebukes them for their inability to see and comprehend and for their hardness of heart. But when the disciples misunderstand Jesus and in other ways fail him, they are doing more than simply trying his patience. Rather, the disciples are serving as agents of testing. As ones who "think the things of humans," rather than the things of God, they cannot comprehend that the straight and narrow path lying before Jesus must necessarily end at the cross. And so they act in ways that threaten to lead Jesus astray.

Mark depicts this straight "path" or "way" of Jesus as lined with temptations or tests, from its beginning in the wilderness to its climactic end on Golgotha. By the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark shows us how Jesus endured all his tests. Jesus refused to turn aside from the path when Peter rebuked him for prophesying that he must suffer. He refused to abandon his course when religious authorities tested him with guileful questions and later had him tried in judicial courts. He refused to curse God even in the extreme hour when he hung, forsaken, on the cross. By his endurance Jesus showed himself to be the perfect sacrifice, able to atone for human sin and to tear the veil that obstructs people’s vision and keeps them from seeing Christ clearly.

But for the duration of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the disciples fail to understand the message that he and they must suffer. Peter and the other disciples test Jesus because their minds have first been blinded by sin, or perhaps Mark would say, by Satan. Indeed, the Twelve are like the blind man whose two-stage healing Mark recounts in chapter eight. After Jesus first laid on his hands, the blind man could see people, but said that "they look like trees, walking." So also, in the course of his earthly ministry Jesus partially succeeds in opening Peter’s eyes: at Caesarea Philippi, Peter can see that Jesus is the Christ, but his vision is still blurred. He and the others do not yet see that Jesus is to be a suffering messiah. That is why Peter rebukes Jesus, and why they all continue to put Jesus to the test.

How could Mark get away with portraying the Twelve in such a bad light? Were not the 12 disciples revered church leaders in Mark’s own day? Would not Mark’s readers have admired the disciples, and taken offense at his harsh depiction—much as some Christians took offense at the negative portrait of Jesus in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ?

One of the most provocative explanations for Mark’s negative portrayal of the disciples was offered by Theodore Weeden in the 1960s. Weeden argued that there was a controversy in Mark’s community over Christ’s nature. Mark’s Gospel reflects these two contrasting views of Christ’s nature—a "Christology of glory," or what Weeden called a "divine man Christology," represented by the Twelve; and a Christology centered on the cross, represented by Jesus. The Twelve are portrayed as they are, Weeden argued, because Mark wants to make clear that the "divine man Christology" is wrong inasmuch as it has no place for a suffering, crucified messiah. Weeden’s theory was once quite influential, but is now rejected by most scholars. It is implausible that Mark would have expected his readers to view Peter and the other disciples as heretics, especially if the disciples had already come to be revered as leaders in the church.

In more recent years, some scholars have suggested that Mark portrays the Twelve as, in Elizabeth Malbon’s phrase, "fallible followers." Malbon contends that Mark deliberately portrays the disciples as flawed, but not as complete failures. They are people who do their best to follow Jesus, but who fall short. Malbon and like-minded scholars argue that this nuanced, balanced portrayal would have been encouraging to Mark’s readers, who could identify with the disciples precisely because they were less than perfect. Readers would be prompted to imitate the achievements of the disciples and to avoid their failures. I think that this reading is slightly closer to the target. Indeed, there are some positive aspects to Mark’s portrayal of the Twelve: for example, Mark depicts them as having left everything to follow Jesus, as wanting to be single-minded in their discipleship. And yet, on balance, Mark’s portrait is harsher than Malbon and others allow. Mark portrays the Twelve as failing to live out their commitment to act single-mindedlly. Moreover, some of their more striking failures occur at the end of the narrative. In Paul Achtemeier’s words, "If there is any progression in the picture Mark paints of the disciples, it appears to be from bad to worse.

In my own reading, Mark’s depiction of the Twelve is negative but serves a positive purpose. By portraying them as blind and inconstant during Jesus’ earthly ministry, Mark seeks to show that their positive—perhaps even heroic—stature and accomplishments already known to his readers were entirely postresurrection developments. Only after Easter would the disciples be given full sight and brought to single-minded faith. The portrayal of Jesus’ disciples as abysmal failures before Christ’s resurrection serves to magnify and commend the amazing grace and power of God. "I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see." Our God, Mark teaches, not only moves mountains but also opens blind eyes, softens hard hearts, and changes infidelity to unswerving devotion. "Might not such transforming power be available also to me?" the reader asks. "Might it not transform me, too, from one who is fearful, double-minded and in danger of deserting the Lord’s way, to one who faithfully endures in time of trial?"

Several passages in Mark hint that the disciples, who fled from Jesus at his arrest, would return to see and follow him after the resurrection. To give just one example, in Mark 14:27-28 Jesus quotes from Zechariah to prophesy the scattering of the Twelve, but simultaneously he looks ahead to their regathering: "And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written, "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered." But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee’" Jesus’ statement is a prophesy of reconciliation: he will "go before them," which implies that they will "follow" him in the way.

When modern critical scholars read Mark, they ask, "Why did Mark portray the disciples in such a bad light?" But Mark’s earliest readers would have focused not on Mark’s literary strategies but on the events depicted in the narrative. They would have asked something like this: "What could it mean that the disciples whom we know as great leaders once acted so shamefully?" And the answer to that question would have been obvious: God had opened the eyes of the disciples, and had transformed them from ones who misunderstood and tested Jesus into worthy servants, even fearless leaders.

Thus, the traditions about the failure of the Twelve in the time before Jesus’ death and resurrection functioned much like the traditions about Paul as persecutor of the church prior to his conversion. In Galatians Paul reports that, when churches received word of his "turning," they were moved to praise God. The churches in Judea heard it told that "the one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me." God’s power and grace must be very great indeed to reverse one as dead set on destruction as Paul! So also, God’s power and grace must be very great indeed to change people as fickle and blind as the Twelve into fearless leaders of the church!

We do not know very much about the first readers of Mark. We cannot identify even the Gospel’s place of origin or its date of composition with any certainty. But though we cannot securely locate Mark’s Gospel in space and time, we can say some things about how Mark assessed his readers’ pastoral needs. Mark viewed his readers as disciples on trial. Like Jesus, the readers of Mark are tested and tempted in many ways. But whereas Jesus had to face such tests alone, his followers are empowered by Christ to endure.

Mark 13 is the evangelist’s most direct address to his readers, for here Jesus prophesies concerning events that are "about to be accomplished"—that is, events to take place in the period after his crucifixion and resurrection. This is the era in which Mark’s first readers lived and, indeed, in which we ourselves live. Many ancient Jews and Christians believed that eschatological "woes" or "birth pangs" would precede the day of resurrection and final judgment. In Mark 13 Jesus foretells wars, earthquakes and famines, and identifies these as "the beginning of the birth pangs." That is, the prophesied events signal the painful advent of the new age, which comes about even as the powers of the old age struggle to prevent it.

Jesus warns that eschatological testing will take a variety of forms. First, there will be betrayals. Just as Jesus was "betrayed" or "given over" to the hands of sinners for testing, so Mark’s readers will be "betrayed or given over" to councils, beaten in synagogues, and called to give testimony before governors and kings. They will be "betrayed" or "given over" to death not only by their enemies, but even by their fathers and children. Second, false Christs and false prophets will appear, to "lead many astray." These deceivers will promise deliverance and perform signs and wonders so as to trick people into abandoning their faith in Jesus. Third, there will be trials or temptations even for those who enjoy relative peace and stability. Jesus speaks about this last sort of trial in his concluding parable in chapter 13, about a man who goes on a journey, having put his servants in charge and commanded his doorkeeper to "watch" or to "keep awake." At all times the doorkeeper must be on guard, for he knows not when the master will return. The parable suggests that Mark’s readers are in danger of failing to "watch," of falling asleep. Perhaps they are threatened by "the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things," which Jesus elsewhere warns may choke out the seed before it matures.

Jesus’ first disciples failed their tests of fidelity to him because of their habit of thinking the things of humans rather than the things of God. "Thinking the things of humans doesn’t mean that one has no idea what God desires; all too often, one knows God’s will but refuses to give up one’s own vision of the future, if giving it up means that one must suffer or deprive oneself. Thus Peter vows that he will die with Jesus rather than betray him; yet, in the critical moment in the courtyard of the high priest, he finds that he cannot carry out his intention. So it is all too often for us in moments of trial: we know the way of God, but a path of our own choosing has impressed itself on our minds. We become trapped in what the ancients called double-mindedness, or the condition of the "divided soul." We vacillate, we waver, we are uncertain and ambivalent, torn between our intention to do God’s will and our intention to pursue our own desires.

Mark insists that all who follow Jesus on the "way of the Lord" will be put to the test. They will be tested by great affliction or by powerful seducers who do signs and wonders to lead them astray. Or they will be tested by the soporific routines of daily existence and by fleshly desires. Whatever the form of the tests we face, Mark tells us, we must remain vigilant and pray, for if we are double-minded we shall fail the tests and so be unprepared to greet the master and be vindicated before him when he comes. Mark uses the disciples’ failure to "keep awake" in Gethsemane as a case in point. Despite their best intentions, the disciples did not remain vigilant and prayed "not to enter into testing," but were asleep when the Lord returned. Later they failed their tests of fidelity. But Mark would have us know that we are far better off than the disciples were, for we do indeed have the power to "see and understand." We possess what, for the duration of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the disciples did not possess: a knowledge of Jesus which neither Satan nor sin can obscure. We need not be seduced or coerced into abandoning our vigilance. Hence when the master returns he will find us watchful and sober, strengthened by prayer, walking as children of light and of the day.

We shall indeed be put to the test, but we need not fear, Mark tells us, for Jesus has changed forever the context in which testing occurs. Because of his endurance of his own testing, Jesus could and did offer himself as the perfect sacrifice to God, thereby rendering the cult in the Jerusalem temple obsolete. Henceforth the appropriate "offerings" of the righteous will be prayers made in the gathered community of believers, rather than sacrifices made in the temple. Moreover, God has accepted Jesus’ self-offering as sufficient to atone for human sin; those who follow Jesus have therefore been "ransomed" from wrathful punishment by the just God. They can be confident that they are destined for salvation. Finally, because Satan was unable to lead Jesus astray, the authority that Satan gained when Jesus was "given over" into sinners’ hands has been taken back. Jesus regained his life, and gained also the power to heal all who follow him: henceforth, Satan will be unable to blind Jesus’ followers, and so will be much less able to lead them astray. The person whose eyes have been opened sees that the weak flesh, with its passions and desires, belongs to the realm of the perishing and is the site of satanic assault and domination. Thus, the one who sees has been freed from Satan’s control and is able to follow Jesus in single-minded devotion to God’s will. He or she is able to "think the things of God."

Mark indicates that in the wake of the temple’s destruction, the community of those who pray will be the "house of prayer for all nations," the new temple to be raised up by Jesus. Thus, the way in which believers should offer up their praises and sacrifices to God has been forever changed. Single-minded prayer is the hallmark of this new community, the temple built of living stones. But how might Mark and his readers have understood this notion of "single-minded prayer"? How did one go about praying in such a manner, and what were the consequences of such prayer for daily life? When the fig tree that Jesus had cursed withered, Jesus said to the disciples,

"Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."

Jesus promises that faithful prayer will be answered, but his promise is qualified: those who pray must not doubt in their hearts. This notion that "doubt" is sinful may strike modern readers as ridiculous or even offensive. "How can we stop ourselves from doubting?" we ask. But ancient Christians and Jews understood "doubt" somewhat differently than we do. For them, the problem of doubt was more a question of alliance or commitment than of intellect. As Oscar Seitz remarks, "When the double-minded [that is, the doubting] person approaches God in prayer he wavers or hesitates; his heart is in need of purification because his motives are mixed; his mind is not wholly turned to God because of his desire for other things, especially the wealth and pleasures of the world."

Thus, when Jesus exhorts the disciples to "have faith in God," he is exhorting them to have single-minded faith. The temple cult will be displaced by a community not caught in the snare of double-mindedness, of moral ambivalence, but able to pray with genuine devotion that God’s will be done, however painful or great might be the sacrifice required. But how does one get single-minded faith? By what means can one ensure that one will not doubt or be double-minded in one’s heart?

When Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, he found with the disciples a man who had brought his demoniac son to be healed. At Jesus’ command, the man explained the boy’s symptoms and beseeched Jesus for help. Jesus responded, "’If you are able!—All things are possible for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!.’" The man’s cry is a request for healing of his double-mindedness—of his doubt. The incident suggests that the way to achieve single-minded faith is to ask for it in prayer. Such prayers will not cause all our intellectual questions to disappear. But they will enable us to commit ourselves single-mindedly to following Christ. Jesus empowers us to persevere even when seductive or afflicting forces beset us. The temptation or trial may not disappear, but, strengthened by Jesus through prayer, we know that we shall endure.

Jesus promises us that because we devote ourselves fully to God, with no fraction of the self wavering in this commitment, we can trust God to support us in times of trial. Because our eyes are open to the dangers on every side, we will not so easily be led astray. But Jesus’ promises come at a steep price. The price is our entire selves, which must be given up for God: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

When we "deny the self," we commit ourselves to following God’s will, wherever it may lead. Jesus demonstrates such self-denying commitment in Gethsemane, when he prays his twofold prayer: "And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’"

One remarkable feature of this prayer is that it combines a plea that God take away the testing with submission to God’s will. Jesus earnestly requests that God save him from the agony that lies ahead, and he is fully convinced that God can do so. But at the same time, he submits himself to the will of God. Here his endurance, his single-mindedness, is not the absence of a desire for his own prospering, conceived in human terms—on the contrary, with every fiber of his being Jesus wants to live! Rather, Jesus’ single-mindedness is his deliberate laying aside of his own vision for himself in favor of God’s vision for him. For Mark, this prayer in Gethsemane is a model of how "disciples on trial" ought to pray.

There are enormous consequences when we pray such a prayer. The accounts of the withering of the fig tree and of the healing of the man’s son show that there are no limits to what God can do, or to what believers can request. Our God is not inclined only to small miracles! In particular, we can and should pray that we might avoid testing. But we also must anticipate that the Lord may not will to "take away the cup." God may answer such a prayer not by removing the trial, but by giving us the strength to endure it. The price of Jesus’ promise is steep, but so also is the reward, for when we lose our lives for Jesus and for the gospel, we have Jesus’ assurance that we will gain life back again.

How are we being put to the test? Is an experience of rejection, or suffering, or deprivation leading us to give up the word of life that we once received with joy? Are our concerns about money, success in school, health, release from addiction, job security, status and recognition, family or relationships choking out the word of God which has been planted in our hearts? Are we gripped by passions such as anger, grief or lust which block us from following Jesus?

The Good News of Mark’s Gospel is that we do not have to replicate Jesus’ faithfulness in time of trial by the sheer force of our own will. We do not have to face satanic tests bereft of divine power. For Jesus has changed our situation forever. Mark phrases the Good News in terms of the empowering of believers that takes place in prayer. The Christian community is empowered to engage in single-minded prayer—that is, prayer that cannot be derailed by fear, or grief, or persecution, or deceptive powers at work in the world. Because Jesus has atoned for human sin, and undermined the very powers that seek to separate humans from God, all things are possible when we come to God in prayer.