Jesus knows his disciples (or why we don’t need to be cynical)

One of the things that I love about John’s gospel is this repeated refrain: Jesus knows who are his. Jesus knows our hearts better than we do. And because he knows our hearts, he knows who and what we love. He knows who are his people and who are not.

I was reminded of this again as I taught through John 6:59-71 at my church. This passage serves as the climax of a massive confrontation between Jesus, the Jewish religious leaders, and even those who claimed to be his disciples. People followed him for many different reasons:

  • Some followed because he was gaining a reputation
  • Others because of the miraculous signs he performed
  • And at least few because they possessed some kind of genuine faith

But they didn’t always understand him. In some cases, they found his teaching offensive. Jesus wasn’t afraid to poke at proverbial bears (see John 6:25–58). He consistently confronted their self-righteousness and outward religiosity. But he wasn’t being offensive for the sake of being offensive. Jesus wasn’t a shock jock. Jesus’s words offended people because they needed to understand what it meant to be a disciple.

There are “disciples” and disciples

When Jesus confronted the disciples in the synagogue at Capernaum (John 6:59), he went right for the heart, as a loving shepherd would. And in his confrontation, he wanted them to see that are “disciples”—and then there are disciples.

A disciple, in the broadest sense, is a student; a follower of a teacher or philosopher. Over his ministry, many began to follow Jesus as they heard his teaching and saw his signs and wonders. They said they were his disciples. And this was true, at least to some extent. But that doesn’t mean they understood who they were following. Some undoubtedly saw Jesus as another powerful teacher. Others believed him to be a great and powerful prophet. Maybe even the Messiah, even if they didn’t know what that meant.

But when he talked about “ascending to where he was before” (John 6:62), hinting at what was to yet to come what was yet to come in his death, resurrection, and ascension? To say that only the Spirit gives life—that it is not the result of human effort or ingenuity? That, despite our hardwired pursuit of self-righteousness, salvation comes from outside us (John 6:63)?

For a certain kind of disciple, this is too much. When Jesus challenges the deepest parts of them, and convictions that they may not even realize they have, they cannot abide. And so they walk away and follow him no longer. It may shock us. But it does not surprise Jesus, because he knows how are his. And he knows that some who claim to be disciples do not believe—and some are devils (John 6:64; 70).

That last implication weighs heavily on my heart and mind, especially as I look at the increasing division among evangelicals, and ongoing turmoil in the SBC.1

When disciples fall away

If what Jesus said is true, that there are both true and false disciples, we shouldn’t be surprised when people walk away from the faith. It is tragic when we see this happen, without question. I’ve been a Christian 18 years now, which, compared to some reading this, may not be that long a time.

But in those 18 years, I’ve seen people I cared about who professed faith, and seemed to be genuine in doing so, only to walk away the cost of following Jesus became to great, or when their faith stopped “working” the way they expected.

  • Some did it overtly, in the sense that they openly renounced Jesus.
  • Others did it more subtly, gradually drifting away from the faith altogether.

And when it happens—every time it happens—even in the times when you can see that it will happen—it is heartbreaking. And it should be. We should never become so calloused that the news of someone we know or respect abandoning the faith doesn’t cause us to weep. And if we do, then we should be deeply troubled.

When disciples are actually devils

We should also not be surprised when apparently faithful gospel ministers are revealed to be anything but. When they are revealed to be devils:

  • Abusers and predators
  • Opportunists
  • Those who stir up foolish controversies
  • Lovers of money
  • The power hungry and pugnacious
  • The overt false teachers and those who make what they think are subtle additions to the gospel2

These are the sort of whom Jesus said it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and jump into the sea than to face what awaits them on the day of judgment (Matthew 18:6).

Should we be heartbroken? Yes, without question. Angry? Yep. But we also have to be careful. Because in our anger, we do not want to sin. There is a time to name evil and call out its perpetrators. We must stand up for victims and those who have been betrayed. And there are some within the SBC—and beyond—who are undoubtedly worthy of the title of devil. Who check all the boxes on the list above, but are given platforms, power, and influence nonetheless. That should anger us. If it doesn’t, we should worry. But if our anger leads us to sin—to repay evil with evil—then we should also worry.

Don’t let cynicism overshadow humility and hope

The reality that not all disciples are truly disciples can tempt us toward cynicism. That’s a natural response. But it’s not why Jesus tells us this. He reveals this truth for the same reason that he repeatedly says that he knows who are his: to encourage us to be humble, and to give us hope.

Humility encourages us to pray earnestly for ourselves, one another, and for those that we recognize may not truly be disciples. We want those people to repent and trust Jesus. For Jesus to bring conviction of sin and new life through genuine faith in him. Even for some of those who may well be devils—while they have life and breath, they have the opportunity to repent. And we should pray for that, even as we aim to prevent them from doing more harm.

And that also leads to the hope we have. If Jesus knows who are his, it means he knows who are his. And so we can be confident that even as some walk away, others will follow Jesus until the end. And that if Jesus knows who are his, more will believe. We might fail. We will fall short. But Jesus never does. He knows who are his—and he will not lose any who belong to him, ever.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

  1. For those wondering why I care about the SBC, I used to work for one of the convention’s entities, and my church is nominally affiliated, though we largely keep to ourselves.[]
  2. Their additions are rarely subtle.[]

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.