Conflict Between Jesus and the Disciples in Mark

The following is a paper submitted to Dr. Joshua W. Jipp in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course NT 6211, Synoptic Gospels and Johannine Literature, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, October, 2014.

Conflict between Jesus and the disciples is a prevalent theme in Mark’s gospel. But why does Mark repeatedly highlight this conflict? What is its significance? What purpose does it serve in Mark’s message and presentation of Jesus? This paper will seek to answer these questions by tracing the theme of conflict through three narrative sections, noting its development and rhetorical significance at each stage.

Galilean Ministry (1:14-8:21)

A lack of understanding among the disciples characterizes the conflict between Jesus and the disciples during Jesus’ Galilean ministry. At their first appearance, the disciples are committed and eager to follow Jesus. Upon being called by Jesus, they abruptly leave their current situation and follow him (1:17-20; 2:14).[1] Accompanying Jesus on his ministry tour, they are exposed to Jesus as a miracle worker and teacher. They even serve as an extension of his ministry (6:12-13; cf. 3:15).

However, lack of understanding soon spoils their positive portrayal. In a storm at sea, they demonstrate a sense of desperate aggravation with Jesus’ inactivity (4:38). Having rebuked the sea, Jesus rebukes their disbelief and fear (4:40). Unable to comprehend the identity of this man, they marvel in terror (4:41). When Jesus, upon healing a woman with a chronic discharge, asks, “Who touched my garments?” the disciples fail to understand Jesus, not realizing that through such contact “power had gone out from Him” (5:30-31). Before the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples are completely oblivious to Jesus’ ability to provide food miraculously (6:30-44). And prior to Jesus second miraculous feeding of a multitude (8:1-10), the disciples declare with extreme irony, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” (8:4), making the audience want to answer, “The same way Jesus did it the first time!” The disciples react to Jesus’ walking on the water with terror, hard-heartedness, and astonishment (6:45-52). They are particularly unable to understand the significance of Jesus’ feeding miracles (6:52; 8:18-21). They fail to understand Jesus’ teaching (8:16-21) as well as his parables (7:17-18). Alluding to Jesus’ earlier calls, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (4:9, 23), the disciples are unable hear (8:18; cf. 4:24-25). In short, throughout this stage in the narrative, the disciples fail to grasp Jesus’ identity (cf. 8:29).

In comparison with other character-groups’ disposition to Jesus, the disciples’ response appears complicated and conflicted. In contrast to the religious leaders, who are always portrayed as opposing, testing, accusing, and plotting against Jesus (2:6-8; 16, 18, 24; 3:2, 6, 22, 30; 8:11; see also Herod [6:14-16] and Jesus’ family [3:21]), the disciples are committed followers. Yet the disciples’ understanding of Jesus appears deficient compared to the response of many minor characters who demonstrate great faith (1:40; 2:4-5; 5:22-23, 25-28, 34, 36, 7:25-29). The disciple’s response to Jesus shares the most in common with that of the crowds who seek after Jesus (1:37, 45; 7:32) and yet frequently react to him with puzzled astonishment (1:22, 27; 2:12; 6:2-3; 7:36), fear (5:14-17), and unbelief (5:40; 6:6). The disciples’ response to Jesus at this stage, generally positive but lacking a solid grasp of his identity, is problematic.

The parable of the soils (4:1-20) serves a very significant narrative function. It provides a theological framework for interpreting the various responses to Jesus, not only those of the crowds and religious leaders, but also, and of particular significance for this paper, that of the disciples. The parable prompts the question, “What kind of soil are the disciples?” The middle section (4:10-12) seems to suggest that the disciples are in fact good soil (4:8, 20). They receive Jesus’ message, evidenced by their being among those seeking further clarification about the parable (4:10; cf. 4:34) and Jesus’ statement that the secrets of the kingdom are given to them (4:11). However, the audience realizes that to draw a definitive conclusion at this stage in the narrative is premature. Enough material has been presented to make the audience somewhat uncertain about the disciples’ response. Already the audience knows of Judas’ eventual betrayal (3:19). What “soil” does that make him? The audience is held in suspense. The disciples have responded with eagerness (1:18, 20; 2:14); but will this response prove to be short-lived—soil without depth (4:5-6, 16-17)?

In summary, at this point in the narrative, the nature of the disciples’ response to Jesus is one of wonder (4:41), astonishment (6:51), fear (4:40-41; 5:31; 6:49-50), unbelief (4:40),[2] lack of understanding (5:31; 6:35-37, 52; 8:4, 17), lack of perception (8:17-18), and hard heartedness (6:52; 8:17), all concerning Jesus’ identity. The rhetorical effect of this conflict is to prompt the audience to pause and wrestle with the identity of Jesus as well. As the audience encounters Jesus along with the disciples, they echo the disciples’ question, “Who is this man?” (4:41).

The Way (8:22-10:52)

At this point in the narrative, the disciples have progressed from a state of lack of understanding to a state of misunderstanding. Peter’s identification of Jesus as the messiah is correct (8:29), but the disciples’ understanding of what that messiahship entails is not. During this stage of the narrative, comprised of Jesus’ final ministry with his disciples leading up to Jerusalem, the disciples will begin to apprehend the nature of Jesus’ messiahship.

This section begins and ends with the healing of blind men (8:22-26; 10:46-52), two enacted parables inciting Mark’s sight motif and illustrating the disciples’ level of understanding. Although having eyes, the disciples originally did not see (8:18). Now they see (8:29); but like the blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26), initially they do so unclearly (8:24). As Jesus’ healing of this man took two stages, so the disciples will need to take a “second look” at this messiah. At the end of this section, Jesus heals Bartimaeus’ blindness instantaneously (10:46-52). Likewise, by the end of this narrative-stage, the disciples will see Jesus’ messiahship much more clearly.

At three points in the narrative, Jesus predicts his passion and subsequent resurrection (8:31; 9:30-31; 10:32-34; cf. 9:10), the disciples misunderstand (8:32-33; 9:32-34; 10:35-37), and Jesus provides correction (8:34-9:1; 9:35-50; 10:38-45). The disciples’ understanding of the messiah lacks a category for suffering (8:32). They do not understand the nature of his path to glory (9:2-13). Jesus assesses this view as Satanic—opposition to the cross is Satanic opposition to his messianic mission—and characteristic of mind set on the things of man rather than the things of God (8:33).

Since those who would be Jesus’ disciples must follow in his footsteps, these misunderstanding regarding the nature of Jesus’ messiahship flow into misunderstandings regarding the nature of discipleship. Therefore, as Jesus takes up his cross, so too must his disciples (8:34-9:1; 10:38-39). Just as “the Son of man came not to be serve but to serve” (10:45), so those who are greatest in the kingdom, rather than seeking and lording authority over others (9:33-34; 10:33-37), are to be the most servant-like (9:35-37; 10:42-45). The disciples must also learn a lesson on prayer and belief (9:14-29), that the messianic community is not exclusive (9:38-41), especially with regards to children (9:36-37; 10:13-16; cf. 9:42), and that entrance into the kingdom is impossibly difficult, especially for the rich (9:42-50; 10:17-31).

In summary, this narrative stage centers on the nature of both Jesus’ messiahship as well as the discipleship of those who would follow him. As the disciples transition from misunderstanding to understanding, so too does the audience. The conflict between Jesus and his disciples in this section serves to clarify for the audience who Jesus is and what it means for them to follow him.

Jerusalem (11:1-16:8)

Having progressed from a lack of understanding to misunderstand to a relative level of true understanding, the disciples’ response to Jesus in this final section is characterized by understanding without follow through. The disciples have now come to a better understanding of who Jesus is and what it means for them to follow him; but they are unsuccessful in doing so.

The disciples have come to grips with Jesus’ impending death and are even committed to dying with him if need be (14:31). But just as Jesus predicts (14:27), the disciples flee at Jesus’ arrest (14:50). And, except for Peter’s threefold denial (14:66-72), this is the last appearance of the disciples in the narrative.[3] They are absent at Jesus’ death and leave on a rather sad note.

Prior to their exit, the disciples also continue to exemplify significant discipleship defects. Three times the disciples fall asleep rather than keep watch and pray with Jesus (14:32-42). Three times Peter denies Jesus (14:54, 66-72), contradicting Peter’s resolution (14:29) but corresponding with Jesus’ predication (14:30). Judas actually betrays Jesus (14:10-11, 18-21, 41-45)! And when the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus for burial (14:1-3), some of the disciples rebuke her (14:4-5), seemingly implying that they still haven’t fully grasped Jesus’ impending death (14:6-9).

At this stage in the narrative, the audience returns to the question posed earlier by the parable of the soils (4:1-20), “What kind of soil are the disciples?” At the close of the narrative, with the disciples having abandoned Jesus at his death (cf. “when tribulation or persecution arises”; 4:17), the audience may suspect the disciples are better identified as the soil lacking depth (vv.5-6, 16-17). With an unresolved ending, the audience is left in suspense—what kind of “soil” will the disciples prove to be?[4] And what does one make of Judas who, beyond just deserting Jesus, actually betrayed him for money (3:19; 14:10-11, 18-21, 41-45; cf. 4:7, 18-19)?

Furthermore, Jesus’ female disciples fail to follow through as well. In the final scene of the book, they visit Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16:1-2). Upon discovering the empty tomb and being instructed by the young man (i.e., an angel) to deliver the message of Jesus’ resurrection to the twelve that they might reconvene with him in Galilee (16:3-7; cf. 14:28), the women, like the disciples and many other characters throughout the story, merely respond with fearful astonishment (16:8). They do nothing. Thus, the narrative ends unresolved.

This lack of closure has the effect of putting the onus on the audience to fulfill the task of delivering the message of Jesus’ resurrection. The unresolved nature of the narrative exhorts the audience to provide its proper ending. The twelve disciples have fled and now the women have not acted. The narrative asks the audience, “Will you carry forth the message that ‘he has rise’ (16:6-7); or will withdraw in fearful astonishment (16:8)?”

This paper has examined the significance of the frequent theme of conflict between Jesus and the disciples in Mark’s gospel. In the Galilean ministry (1:14-8:21), the conflict prompts one to consider Jesus’ messianic identity. In “the way” section (8:22-10:52), the conflict serves as a venue to present the nature of Jesus’ messiahship and discipleship. And finally, in Jerusalem (11:1-16:8), the conflict stresses the need for disciples to persevere and faithfully carry forth the gospel message. In summary, this theme of conflict functions as a pedagogical tool for presenting the identity of Jesus and the nature of discipleship.


[1] Mark uses εὐθύς to characterize the disciples’ response to Jesus, fitting his prevalent use of εὐθύς throughout the gospel.

[2] Notice fear is linked to unbelief in 5:36, implying fear is a barrier to belief.

[3] The earliest and most reliable manuscripts lack 16:9-20.

[4] Jesus foretells that the disciples will suffer on his behalf (10:38-39; 13:9-13) and that he will meet them in Galilee (14:28), which provides the audience with some sense of relief concerning the disciples’ destiny. However, within the limits of the narrative itself, their outcome remains uncertain (cf. 13:13).