The Surprising Transformation of the Disciples of Jesus

Jesus’ disciples were not at their best at the end of his life. They were fearful, uneasy, and uncertain about the future.

And yet, at the end of the Gospels, these same men were ready to take on the world. How can we explain this difference?

The Disciples Before

For most of the last chapter of Luke, the disciples were not exactly full of faith.

When the women who visited the tomb told the apostles what they had seen, the men did not believe them—it sounded like an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). Peter was curious, but he didn’t have much company when searched out the evidence (Luke 24:12, John 20:8).

The two disciples on the road to Emmaeus were intrigued by the women’s report (Luke 24:22), but they had lost hope in Jesus as the Redeemer of Israel (Luke 24:21). His death was unexpected and disheartening.

When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they thought he was a spirit (Luke 24:37). They were full of fears and doubts (Luke 24:38). Even after Jesus showed them his hands and feet and invited them to touch his wounds, they weren’t convinced it was him (Luke 24:41).

The Disciples After

The end of Luke 24 stands in stark contrast to its beginning.

The disciples witnessed Jesus’ ascension, worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Luke 24:51–52). They were continually in the temple praising God (Luke 24:53).

The fact that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy is itself an act of faith. In Luke, Jesus spent the first part of his ministry teaching and healing in Galilee, but then “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

Things unraveled quickly after Jesus and his companions arrived in Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tried, and killed. The religious and governmental leaders who were responsible were largely still present in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday; this would have made the city a terrifying place for Jesus’ followers.

Yet Jerusalem was to be the launching place for the proclamation of the gospel to all the nations (Luke 24:47). Jesus told his disciples to stay in the city until they received power for this mission (Luke 24:49). The fact that they faced staying in a dangerous place with “great joy” shows the magnitude of their transformation.

So, what caused the change?

The Elements of Change

As we observe the text of Luke 24, we notice three ingredients that kindled the disciples’ growth.

The Word of God

Jesus’ followers did not understand the Scriptures. Consequently, they did not grasp who he was nor did they expect him to suffer, die, and rise.

At the tomb, the angels reminded the women that Jesus had told them that he “must” die and rise (Luke 24:6–8).

Jesus told the Emmaeus-bound disciples that they were foolish and slow to believe what the prophets had spoken (Luke 24:25). He explained that it was “necessary” for the Christ to die and then enter glory (Luke 24:26). He then taught them about himself through all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27).

When Jesus appeared to the disciples, he reminded them that everything in the Law, Prophets, and Psalms “must” be fulfilled (Luke 24:44). He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45).

God’s word is the central corrective element in this passage. Jesus, the angels, and Luke all point to the Scriptures for a proper understanding about the Messiah. That understanding brought transformation.

Jesus

The disciples heard rumors of Jesus’ resurrection, but they were changed when they finally saw him.

After the two traveling disciples recognized Jesus at a meal, they felt conviction like heartburn when they reflected on his Scripture lesson for them (Luke 24:32). They returned to the eleven with the ground-breaking news (Luke 24:33), and when they arrived, the others were convinced of the resurrection because Jesus had also appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34).

When Jesus “stood among” the disciples, they weren’t convinced it was him (Luke 24:36–37). But Jesus invited them to touch and see. He showed them his hands and feet. He ate with them (Luke 24:39–43). Thus convincing the disciples that he was not a spirit and that he was, in fact, Jesus, he gave them supernatural understanding of the Scriptures (Luke 24:45).

Finally, the disciples went with Jesus to Bethany for his ascension (Luke 24:50). He blessed them as they watched him depart (Luke 24:51).

The disciples had experienced a traumatic stretch of days. At the center of their disappointment was the death of their leader and their loss of hope. Spending time with and learning from Jesus between his resurrection and ascension had a powerful effect.

A Mission and a Promise

When Jesus visited the disciples, he didn’t only give them instruction and fellowship, he gave them a purpose for the future.

When explaining the Scriptures, Jesus said “it is written” that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). And the disciples were not just messengers but “witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).

Jesus gave the disciples a promise to accompany their mission.

And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:49)

The disciples had a great task in front of them, but there was a mighty helper on the way.

Main Point and Application

Luke had at least one main point in writing the last chapter of his Gospel: An encounter with the resurrected Jesus will transform disciples and prepare them for a joyful mission.

We can start to apply this powerful truth by praying. Let’s pray for these encounters—for ourselves and others.

And as you brainstorm ways to bring yourself and your neighbors into contact with the risen Christ, remember that he is powerfully present in the Bible and with his people.

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The Right-Now Blessings of the Kingdom of God

Christians have a sure hope of heaven. Because Jesus has paid for our sin and we have received his righteousness, we are children of God who will be with our Father forever.

That’s wonderful! But, some might ask, what’s in it for me now?

Though most Christians don’t ask this question in polite company, many have wondered. Aren’t there some tangible, present-time benefits of being a Christian? Or must we wait entirely for heaven?

We Have Left Our Home

Jesus addresses this matter with his disciples on the heels of his interaction with the rich ruler in Luke 18. The ruler wants to do something to inherit eternal life, and Jesus pokes his finger where it hurts.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)

The ruler leaves in grief because he is so wealthy, and Jesus notes how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of prosperous Christians, however, because “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

Peter then says, “See, we have left our homes and followed you” (Luke 18:28). Peter must be thinking back to Jesus’s words in verse 22. We have done what the ruler did not. What does that mean for us?

Jesus’ reply is stunning.

And he said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29–30)

There is eternal life to come, but the blessings of the kingdom of God start now. And those blessings are abundant.

Blessings in this Time

We can almost hear the gears turning in Peter’s head. What is it that we receive now?

Jesus is not talking about wealth. That wouldn’t make sense in the context of leaving house and family, and it doesn’t fit after the warning about material riches.

There are probably hundreds of gifts we could discuss, but let’s focus on three.

The Freedom from the Grip of Idols

If an idol is anything (even a good thing) that occupies a commanding place in one’s heart, then the ruler made an idol of his wealth. Jesus told him to sell everything—not because this is a universal command to all believers, but because Jesus wanted the ruler to confront his idol. Sadly, the ruler was devoted to his riches.

When we follow Jesus, we start down the path of freedom from our idols. Jesus calls us to this freedom and gives us the power to make this freedom happen.

To determine the idols that occupy our hearts, we must ask ourselves: Where do I turn for refuge, safety, comfort, or escape? What brings me hope or causes me despair? It could be family, reputation, achievement, politics, or work. It might be a dozen other things.

If you’ve identified one or more idols here, don’t despair. It simply means that you are a human being. Jesus is eager to help idolatrous humans like us!

The Church

In the first century, a disciple who left his family (Luke 18:29) was leaving virtually all of his friends and contacts. With a few exceptions, he probably didn’t know any other disciples, but he was so compelled by Jesus that it didn’t matter.

We may lose family and acquaintances when we follow Christ, but we gain so much more. Christians who have joined a healthy, local church know the joy of belonging to a new family (Matt 12:46–50).

The people in the church are our brothers and sisters (Rom 8:29). They care for us; they help us with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; they share a mission and a vision with us. In prayer, in gathering around the Scriptures, they point us toward the most important things in life—loving God and loving our neighbors.

The Presence of God

The disciples walked the same roads as Jesus. This was its own blessing—they learned from and were cared for by the Son of God! This is the very gift Jesus wanted to give the ruler in Luke 18.

And this gift is just as present for us. We have the Holy Spirit, and Jesus said that in some ways we have it better than his first-century followers.

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

The presence of God—lost in the garden of Eden, accessible to a select few in the tabernacle and temple, described and promised in the psalms and prophets—is a real, glorious gift for Christians right now.

Not Just in the Age to Come

The best earthly blessings resonate with us because they offer a foretaste of heaven. Freedom from sin, the fellowship of believers, the presence of God—we long to have these gifts in full!

But the good news of this passage is that leaving everything to follow Jesus has benefits now. These present-time blessings strengthen us, encourage us, and develop our affections for eternity.

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The Transforming Power of the Crucifixion

Until this year, I didn’t dwell much on Jesus’s crucifixion. Who would hang out at the gloomy execution when the empty tomb is right around the corner?

My categories were far too simple. I thought of the resurrection as the event where all of the good stuff happened, where all of the change took place, where the gospel reached its climax and hope bloomed. But through a closer study of the crucifixion itself, I’ve seen just how transforming that grisly, dark event can be.

The Criminal

In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus was crucified between two criminals (Luke 23:32–33). And while the salvation of the second criminal is a rather famous story, Matthew tells us that both men, along with many others, were hurling abuse at Jesus (Matthew 27:44).

So, what happened? What made the second man rebuke his partner in crime, confess his sin and Jesus’s innocence, and cry out for deliverance to Jesus as his king (Luke 23:40–42)? Certainly God changes hearts, but what means did he use for this dying man?

There was just a parenthesis of time. Yet Luke wrote the answer bold, with exclamation points. What changed this man was Jesus, dying on the cross.

The criminal watched Jesus submit to the humiliation of the cross. He saw the added disgrace of his near-nakedness (Luke 23:34). He heard the sneering of the rulers, the mockery of the soldiers, and the taunting of his fellow criminal (Luke 23:35–39). And he observed Jesus suffer all of this without defending himself or lashing out.

Above everything else, what likely captured this criminal’s heart was the love of Jesus. There is hardly another explanation for Jesus’s posture in his last hours. In love’s chief display, Jesus prayed one of the most shocking prayers in the Bible.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

Jesus had been betrayed by a close friend and denied by another. He had endured baseless accusations and a trial in which he was declared innocent. He had submitted when a cowardly ruler gave in to a mob, demanding Jesus be killed.

He felt nails driven through his flesh. He knew the excruciating pain that would last until the end. He heard all the scorn and the mockery and the insults.

And yet, as he hung dying, he asked his father to forgive them. They didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t grasp who he was. Please forgive them!

Jesus’s love broke through the second criminal’s hard heart. He knew it must all be true—all the teaching and rumors and questions about Jesus—because he saw Jesus extend love in the face of hate. And Jesus received that criminal with one of the world’s greatest promises: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

But the criminal wasn’t the only one changed by the crucifixion.

The Centurion

We don’t have much back story on the centurion. Did he join the soldiers in their mockery (Luke 23:36)? Was he a proud Roman who delighted in punishing this likely rebel? Or did he carry out his duties with indifference, just part of the job?

We may not know where he started, but we know where he ended up.

Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47)

The centurion witnessed three hours of darkness (Luke 23:44–45) and an earthquake (Matthew 27:51). He also saw Jesus take his last breath after crying out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

How did this lead to the centurion knowing Jesus was innocent? How did this lead to praise for God?

No one but an innocent man would gladly, with a great cry of relief, entrust his soul to God. Anyone with even a hint of sin—and even a glimmer of an understanding of God’s justice—would tremble in their final moments. But Jesus was innocent, and he knew that God would soon vindicate his unjust death through resurrection.

Why did the centurion praise God? Again, we don’t have many details. But it’s possible the centurion was on day-long guard duty. He may have witnessed Jesus’s interaction with the criminal and all that came before it.

When the criminal proclaimed Jesus’s innocence and asked Jesus to remember him, perhaps the centurion wanted to believe. And then Jesus’s final cry and the signs of God’s judgment (darkness and earthquake) convinced him.

If Jesus was innocent, everything was upside down. The mob was wrong. Everything Jesus taught was true. So in that moment, the centurion didn’t weep in regret. He praised God, because God’s innocent son welcomed and died for sinners.

What About You?

We often want to read past Luke 23 (the trial and crucifixion) to Luke 24 (the resurrection). We want to get to the good stuff. And we should!

But there is earth-shaking, curtain-tearing power in the crucifixion—the son of God killed for sinners, an act of unthinkable, glorious love. We should all pause a little longer at the cross to consider the horrible scene.

Let’s not stay silent, though. Consider Jesus’s compassion and, like the criminal, run repentant to your Savior. Consider Jesus’s innocence and, with the centurion, cry out with praise to God.


Note: some of these ideas were fleshed out in conversation with my Home Fellowship Group on April 19, 2020. So it’s possible I’ve—ahem—borrowed some ideas here.

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Jesus Did Not Come to Bring Peace on Earth

It’s too late for this year. But if you’re looking for a Bible verse for next year’s Christmas card, I have a suggestion.

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)

Your card is sure to be a hit, though it may get you disinvited from some parties.

What About the Angels?

In seriousness, this passage in Luke 12 raises some difficult questions. We’re used to reading and singing about “peace on earth” at Christmas. And for good reason!

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13–14)

As we read closely, we see that the angels were praising God and praying as well. They both sought and heralded peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. So, the angels weren’t declaring an immediate, universal peace with the arrival of Jesus, but they were calling for a peace among his people.

Because the birth of Jesus was a definitive, declarative step in the victory of God, and because this victory brings believers peace with God, peace among God’s people is possible. We can rest in our acceptance by God, our common adopted status as his sons and daughters. We can stop tearing each other down and start building each other up. We can love each other as brothers and sisters.

Not Now But Later

I read that portion of Luke 12 and I think, Why not, Jesus?

Why didn’t Jesus come to bring peace on earth? There’s a deep part of me—maybe it’s within everyone—that cries out for true peace on earth. Now.

But Jesus came to bring division.

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49–53)

Jesus’s “baptism”—likely his crucifixion—will kindle a fire. That fire will bring division based on allegiance and worship, and these fault lines will shoot through households and families.

Sons and daughters of the king will necessarily divide from those outside the kingdom. We love and work and sing and pray and plead for our neighbors, but eventually everyone’s heart follows their treasure.

But among God’s children, there should not be such division: “Peace among those with whom God is pleased.” Though peace will come imperfectly, it should come.

In this aspect as in many others, the church points ahead. We have God’s presence with us now, but we will have it fully in the age to come. We understand dimly now as we look forward to crystal clarity. And we aim now for the peace that will one day extend in all directions, forever.

No Peace for Jesus

We long for that future day without death or pain or any sign of the curse (Rev 22:3). It is coming as surely as the sun rises. But it comes at a cost. We will have peace because Jesus had none.

During his earthly ministry, life for Jesus was chaotic. He had nowhere to stay, no one who understood him, and a growing crowd of accusers. His life ended with betrayal, loneliness, pain, and disgrace.

But most peace comes through conflict. The peace that Jesus secured for us came through the anguish of the cross. God the Father focused his wrath against Jesus, who stood in our place. We can have peace now in part, and we can look forward to perfect peace, because Jesus knew no peace on earth.

Christmas Cheer

The reason for Jesus’s birth doesn’t lend itself to foil-stamped greeting cards. The Incarnation wasn’t about warmly-lit, soft-focused images to make people feel cozy.

But it was about love. It was about peace.

Remember Jesus’s purpose this season. He came to bring peace within the church, division with the world, and a sure hope that sustains us until he returns.

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