That our Lord would entrust the execution (and to an extent, the very success) of His mission to fallible, sinful men is perhaps one of the most shocking things in all of Holy Scripture. You see, our Lord’s personal mission was in one sense very narrow: He was to become a man (while of course remaining fully the eternal, Almighty God), live a perfect life in obedience to God’s holy Law, die as a substitute for sinners, rise bodily from the dead to prove the Father accepted His sacrifice and as a down payment of His people’s own resurrection, and ascend back into heaven in that same glorified physical body to rule and reign until He appears in glory. The foundation of world redemption pivoted upon what happened for three years in Galilee two thousand years ago, and even more narrowly over three days in the spring of AD 30.
But the full outworking and execution of all of its implications and effects would in large part be the Spirit-empowered responsibility of the body our Lord left behind on earth—the church, the foundation stones of which are thirteen men who were personally commissioned by our Lord to usher in the new covenant age.
These men, along with the Jewish people whose hearts were won to the Messiah through their ministry, are the believing Jews to which Gentile Christians are united in one new man, the apostolic church (Eph. 2:11-22), thus providing continuity to what God was doing for national Israel in its covenants and promises while also providing discontinuity as a distinct body within the one people of God. So important are these men to the body of Christ that continuing in the “apostles’ doctrine” is a mark of regeneration (Acts 2:47); they are the foundation upon which the church is built, for their writings and ministries reveal the person and work of the Lord Jesus to us (Eph. 2:20), and their names will be on the foundations of the capital city of the redeemed earth, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14). This is a grand and glorious calling, and a humbling responsibility. Of course, without question these men were what they were (and did what they did) only because of who Jesus is and who He shaped them to be!
Today, we will begin looking at the calling of these men and the beginning of their ministries as the Lord’s anointed, personally chosen emissaries.
A. The Context (v. 13a)
Recall that the last weeks (months?) have been busy and stressful for our Lord. He has faced repeated attacks by the unbelieving Pharisees, who hate Him and His threat to their autonomous, prideful, legalistic religion. He has cast out many demons, and doubtless His righteous soul was vexed by sensing their evil and ungodliness and the sadness of their rebellion. Most grievously, the people were largely not interested in the message He proclaimed and the kingdom He freely offered them. They were too self-focused, too concerned about their circumstances (however much the Lord really did care about those things and fix many of them, they weren’t His ultimate priority), too invested in the fallen world around them to have their hearts drawn to the heavenly things of which He spoke.
This is into the second year of our Lord’s public ministry. The cross and resurrection surround Him; they are the goal to which He is heading. It is time now to call men to Himself to carry on His mission when His foundational work is complete. In the context of all these pressures, the Lord removes Himself to a mountain in Galilee, where Luke tells us He spent the entire night in prayer to the Father (Luke 6:12). Slipping away for extended times of devotion and intercession was not unusual for Jesus (e.g., Mark 1:35, 6:46; Luke 5:16). This is somewhat striking to us, as we understand Jesus was and is eternal, sovereign God. What need has He to pray? But we forget that Jesus was thoroughly and truly man, and in His incarnation He deliberately did not rely on His personal divine attributes and power, but on that of the Holy Spirit given without measure. Jesus had no sin which prevented Him from knowing, loving and doing the will of His Father, yet He spent hours in private communion with Him. How much more do we sinners need these extended times of fellowship with our Father?! Prayer was a priority for Jesus, so He could receive everything He needed from His Father to carry out His will.
After a night of toiling in intercession, the Lord calls His disciples to Himself. This is an important note: “Disciples” here refers to all those who followed our Lord, not only the twelve. While a few likely did not savingly know Him (at least Judas didn’t), the rest of the group was made up of saved, surrendered people, though obviously at different levels of commitment and maturity. We do not know how many there were—maybe several hundred at the absolute most (the number will grow to at least 500 by the time of our Lord’s ascension into heaven). It is out of this larger group of disciples that the Lord calls the twelve. Out of those committed to learning from Him, serving Him, and fulfilling His purposes, He calls twelve for a specialized, unique task. It is to that we now turn.
B. The Call (v. 13b)
The text says Jesus “summoned” the group (likely referring to the entire group of disciples). He took the initiative. It was His sovereign pleasure. He chose them; they did not choose Him (cf. John 15:16). Luke’s word refers to a personal selecting out of a larger group.
This is most interesting. For in Jesus’ day, students chose their rabbi—they attached themselves to the man they felt could teach them best and help them. Rabbis did not choose students! But our Lord chooses His. He chooses the mass of disciples and then He chooses His apostles from among them. Our Lord will spend the next years pouring Himself into the twelve in a unique way, equipping, refining, and maturing them for new covenant ministry.
One interesting note is why the Lord chose twelve apostles. The answer is likely that it was intended as a judgment upon the Jewish leadership, who oversaw the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus, as sovereign Messiah, is rejecting the corrupt and ungodly leadership of the Pharisees and is picking His own representatives, who will relate on His behalf to both the church and national Israel in the future (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:39-40—note that this kingdom has present and future aspects). The true, anointed king is exercising His authority over His world to unleash His new covenant agenda through the pens and ministries of these ordinary men, both now and in that final day.
C. The Commission (vv. 14-15)
“Appointed” is lit. “made.” We do not know what, if anything, the Lord said to these men, if He laid His hands on them, or anything else. We just know by His sovereign choice He installed these ordinary men into this glorious office. The Greek word for “apostle” is often said to mean “sent one.” That is not exactly true; that idea comes from conflating the verb form with the noun. The Greek idea of “apostle” is not primarily on the sending, but on the fact that this person is a personally chosen representative of another, standing in that person’s stead and having the legal right to act with their authority on their behalf. So, when Paul or someone else says they are an “apostle of Jesus Christ,” the idea is not primarily that the Lord Jesus has sent them (though He indeed has!), but that they have the full, divine right to represent Jesus and dispense His mind and will to His people and the world. Jesus has appointed men to act in His stead and on His behalf in His physical absence between the advents, and as such we are divinely compelled to listen to these men through what they have written for us in the Word of God.
From this point on, Mark will primarily use the term “disciples” to refer not to the larger group of believers, but to the twelve, who are the students of the Lord Jesus in an intimate and unique way.
There are probably also overtones of creation here: Jesus, the new Adam, names (!) the first foundational members of the New Humanity. Jesus is its head, and the apostles are the foundation. From here the body will grow until it numbers many millions and fills the whole earth, a radiant bride for the heavenly king, the queen of the new earth.
The Lord had two stated purposes for calling these men. First, the text says “that they might be with Him.” Jesus chose the men for a more personal, intimate, close-up relationship with Himself than the rest of the disciples enjoyed. This is because He wanted to train them to carry on His work, and for that they needed unhindered access to Him. They needed to bathe in His thinking, His priorities, His passions, see how He spent His days, watch His enjoyment of the Father and His creation. They needed life on life discipleship. Of course, Jesus had no flaws of which to speak, and they needed to see that, too—to be reminded that the sinless, flawless One was all that mattered, and they were what they were only because of the same power that enabled Jesus to be a sinless lover of the Father.
Second, He chose them that He might send them out to preach and cast out demons. In other words, they were to clear the way for the arrival of the kingdom! They were to proclaim the truth of who Jesus was and what He would do, culminating in His glorious earthly kingdom, sent by the divine and conquering king with a divine message. And, they were to have Christ’s authority to root out evil from His world, as a signpost to the authority that had broken into that world. The insurgents in His world had to be dealt with. After the Lord is gone, these men will carry on His mission by doing what He did with His authority.
The apostles are now with our Lord awaiting the resurrection. Our task is to carry on their mission, the same one they received from Him: proclaim the truth and make war on Hell in light of our Lord’s present authority and coming kingdom. Have you surrendered yourself to this task, aligning yourself with the glorious regime that will one day dominate the universe? O that we would be faithful until the day we see Jesus Christ!