The shock, confusion and disbelief experienced by Jesus’ shattered disciples immediately after His death on the Cross must have been immeasurable. Drawing from our own human experience we can only imagine the questions that went through their minds and the sense of utter despair they must have felt.
Imagine, if you can, Nathanael¹, poignantly recalling his first encounter with Jesus, who had seen him worshiping beneath a fig tree (Jn. 1:47,48); or Peter, silently remembering his own revelation that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:16); or John, replaying in his mind those anguished hours of witnessing Jesus’ execution on a Roman Cross (Jn. 19:26). And all of the others reliving in memory their own unique history with this Man who had now seemingly been taken from them forever.
For over three years they had lived, ate, slept and journeyed beside Him, up close and personal. Their expectations of what the future looked like with Him as their leader were exciting and thrilling. A new Kingdom was coming! How was it then, that they were now here in absolute crisis, grieving, fearful and feeling abandoned, suddenly bereft of this extraordinary God become Man who had given purpose to each of their lives?
It is easy for us, looking back from the vantage point of two thousand plus years, to object that Jesus had tried to prepare them for His imminent death (Luke 9:44-45). But to His disciples at that point in time this was a catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude. Having lived so close to Jesus in the flesh how could there possibly be any future even worth contemplating? How could they live without Him? How could they rise from the unimaginable depths of the lowest point any of them had ever experienced?
Thankfully we know the rest of the story. We know these same disciples would all go on to bear living witness to the risen Christ, turning the world upside down with their words and their exploits, all in the Name and in the abiding Presence of the One they now so dismally mourned.
But without that initial crisis point, and their vital transition from knowing Christ in the flesh to knowing Him in the Spirit, the early church would not have been established or grown to the extent we know it did.
Even though we have known Christ by the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. (2 Cor. 5:16b)
That transition from flesh knowledge of Christ to Spirit knowledge of Christ was not an easy path for any of them. Though Jesus had told them He must depart in order for the Holy Spirit to come to them (Jn. 16:7), we know they stumbled to grasp the new dynamic of relating to Christ as a spiritual being. Thomas needed to see and feel the wounds in Jesus’ body (Jn. 20:25). And they all struggled to lay down their own ideas about an imminent earthly kingdom (Acts 1:6).
From here on in they would know Him in flesh no longer, but would be ushered into a far greater knowledge of Him in the Spirit. Only through the Spirit of God could fellowship with God the Father and God the Son now be experienced and maintained. But this they did not, could not, initially understand. It would take a new kind of relationship with the risen Jesus for them to move forward – a spiritual relationship.
This transition is one that every disciple of Jesus Christ must experience. Each one of us receives the gospel, believes, is born again of the Spirit, and determines to follow Christ. But no matter the manner of our conversion – whether it is dramatic or quietly beautiful – our first days spent with Christ are ‘after the flesh’ – that is, after our own flesh. This is because we have not yet grown up as spiritual beings. We are babies in the faith, just as those early disciples were, filled with zeal and bravado and ready, we think, to follow Christ anywhere, share Him anywhere and fight for Him anywhere.
But we are still thinking and acting in the flesh, and the only remedy for the flesh is the Cross, just as Peter, John, Nathanael, Thomas, and the others had to discover. Each of us must be brought to a point of crisis, where the truth that there is absolutely nothing we can do in the flesh that is pleasing to God, or that will accomplish His will, is worked deeply into us. Until we experience this Cross/crisis point we are unable to transition from living life in the carnality of our flesh to living and walking in the Spirit of God. We may consider ourselves the most righteous Christian on the planet for all our good works and commandment keeping, while in reality we are merely in love with a religion about Christ rather than Jesus Christ Himself.
The Cross is the separation point between religious life in the flesh and abundant life in the Spirit.
For this reason we also…do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. (Col. 1:9)
We must grow up into spiritual understanding, as opposed to carnal understanding. We can see this with the disciples. The Cross was their point of crisis, for it was the catalyst for the crucifixion of their own flesh. They had known Jesus only in the flesh, not simply in His own fleshly/earthly life, but through their own flesh natures. Their transition from flesh to Spirit began suddenly, amid confusion, pain and questioning, hiding away in fear with no vision, no leadership (for Peter had failed), and no apparent way forward.
The very same disciples we see wrestling to understand their new situation immediately after Christ’s crucifixion had to grow up spiritually to know Him not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. John, who witnessed first-hand the nails and thorns pressed into Jesus body and His final moments on the Cross, later wrote to the believers:
And as for you, the anointing which you received from Him remains in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you remain in Him. (1 Jn 2:27)
And Peter, who once rebuked Jesus for even suggesting He must lay down His life, wrote:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you as though some strange thing happened to you… (1 Peter 4:12)
Suffering is part of the discipleship journey, but failing to grow up spiritually, remaining in the flesh, will cause unnecessary suffering for anyone claiming to be a disciple of Christ. Growing up to knowing Christ after the Spirit, developing ears to hear what the Spirit is saying, are hallmarks of a mature and faithful Bride. The Cross is central to that process.
And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)
Learning what it is to have ears to hear the Spirit is absolutely vital for the Bride in the days we are living in. Over and again Jesus followed His teaching by these words: “let them hear”. Elsewhere, the book of Revelation clearly identifies those who have developed ears to hear with overcomers (Rev. 2 to 3)
That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of Spirit is spirit. The two never mix. If we have started off our discipleship journey relating to Christ through our flesh (and we all do), we must sooner or later grow into knowing Him through the Spirit. And it nearly always takes a crisis, the application of the Cross in some form to our lives, to start to bring about that transition process within us. This is not about exercising spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, prophesying or evangelising. This is about walking – moving forward – with Christ in the Spirit.
If we live in the Spirit. (Gal. 5:25) let us also walk in the Spirit. (Gal. 5:25)
Every true disciple must come to that point of crisis, where our flesh, all it desires and all it works for, is shown up for what it is – utterly useless and hopeless. And after that initial crisis the process may continue again and again as we learn to walk more and more deeply in the Spirit.
We live in and by the Spirit, but walking in the Spirit takes a growing ability to hear with spiritual ears what the Spirit is saying and doing. In other words, we are spiritually alive only by the the indwelling Spirit of God through Christ in us, but to grow we must also learn to walk with Him, that is, to hear Him in the dynamic of the Spirit and follow accordingly (Gal. 5:25).
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
¹ Also known as Bartholomew
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2021 and beyond. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.