Last week, we began a study of the demonstration of Jesus’ authority in choosing His twelve apostles—those foundation stones of His household-kingdom and the human means of extending His mission after His return to heaven. Today, we look at the men themselves.
Because we began this passage last week, I will jump right in with the concluding point.
D. The Chosen Apostles Themselves (vv. 16-19)
What a world of information can be contained in four verses! Surely every verse of Scripture is inspired and profitable for the Spirit-filled believer, and these are no exception. This section, along with the other three lists of the apostles in the NT (Luke 6, Matthew 10, and Acts 1), gives interesting insights into who these men were and the position to which the Lord called them.
They are always organized with the same three subgroups of four: (1) Peter, Andrew, James and John; (2) Philip, Bartholomew/Nathaniel, Matthew, Thomas; (3) James, Jude Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas. While the listing of each subgroup differs, the first man in each is always the same, indicating that Peter, Philip, and James the Less likely had leadership influence and responsibility over their subgroup. Notably, the lists also appear to be organized according to which group had the most intimacy and access to the Lord; any close reading of the gospels will show that Peter, James, and John comprised our Lord’s absolute inner circle, with the other groups enjoying less access and intimacy, though still much more than the wider group of disciples that followed the Lord. Finally, it is noteworthy to look at what they all have in common. All are men, given that the Bible clearly teaches male headship in the home and the church. All are Jewish, for Gentile Christians are grafted into the promises and covenants made with the nation Israel. All are from Galilee, with the exception of Judas. And all are eyewitnesses of our Lord’s ministry from His baptism to His ascension (again, excepting Judas).
In addition to the three original apostles who penned eight New Testament books, Paul wrote thirteen, meaning that twenty-one of twenty-seven NT books were written by apostles directly commissioned by the Lord. James and Jude were half-brothers of the Lord to whom He appeared after His resurrection; Luke was Paul’s traveling companion and personal physician and wrote under his guidance; Mark’s gospel was written based upon Peter’s memoirs and authority; and while we aren’t exactly sure who wrote Hebrews (recently, strong cases have been made for Jude, Luke, or even Paul), he was either an apostle or wrote under the direction of one, as that is the pattern with all of the NT books. Clearly, apostleship is a major factor in the growth, health, and foundation-laying of the church, as these men are the chosen earthly representatives of the Lord Jesus, bearing His authority and mind to His people and the world!
Now, we’ll take a brief look at the men themselves.
Peter. Peter first met Jesus in John 1:41-42 at the behest of his brother Andrew. Both men were followers of John the Baptist and lived in Capernaum, where his home became the headquarters of the Lord’s ministry. He, Andrew, Philip, and probably James and John were from Bethsaida, a small city in Galilee that later won the Lord’s condemnation for rejecting Him as Messiah (Matthew 11:21). Fishermen by trade—likely the heirs of their family’s private business—Peter left everything behind to follow the Lord. He eventually would be the leader of the apostles and a key leader of the early church (though not, as the Catholic Church has claimed, the first pope). Of note is that “Peter” is not his birth name, nor is it really a name at all. In his day, petros was the Greek word for a rock. His birth name was Simon, son of Jonah. Because the Lord nicknamed him Rock, obviously as an allusion to what He wanted Peter to become and do, it is very common for the Lord to call him Simon when he is not acting as a man built upon the Foundation that is Christ, but is instead a carnal, fleshly, vacillating man who easily gives in to unbelief and the pull of his flesh. Once the Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, Peter became a bold, unwavering, uncompromising man who provided faithful and energetic leadership to the early church, especially through his epistles. Tradition tells us both he and his wife were martyred—Peter by being crucified upside down so as not to die in the same manner as his holy and exalted Lord.
James and John. Sons of Zebedee, they too were fishermen when our Lord called them to fulltime ministry and service. Nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” for their impetuous and volatile personalities (rooted in an equal mix of holy zeal and immature pride), our Lord shaped them into examples of maturity and balance. James proved to be enough of a threat to the world system that he was martyred early on in the book of Acts (his manner of execution being reserved for those who advocated following another god—an interesting take on what the early church proclaimed about the deity of the Lord Jesus!). John, while still remaining a strong personality, was used greatly by the Lord to write some of the most prominent and enduring contributions to the NT canon, and was privileged with seeing the consummation of the Lord’s kingdom plan, in fulfillment of so many OT prophecies, as he was exiled on the isle of Patmos for his decades of faithful service to the Lord.
Andrew. The brother of Peter, Andrew has a reasonable amount of exposure in the gospels, particularly as a man who brings people and situations to Jesus. He is the human reason Peter met the Lord as his Savior; he is the one who brought the loaves and fishes to Jesus for the feeding of the 5,000; with Philip, he brings the Greeks to Jesus in John 12, anticipating the global expansion of the gospel. We do not hear of Andrew beyond his appearances in the gospels, but we can be confident he continued to connect people and situations with the authoritative power of Christ. Tradition reports he was executed after winning a Roman governor’s wife to faith in Christ.
Philip. He is only mentioned here in Mark; all of his other mentions in the New Testament are in John’s gospel. He likely grew up with Peter, Andrew, James, and John, as all are from Bethsaida. He is also depicted as being close to Nathaniel (they are always mentioned together), and in fact he is the one who brought Nathaniel to meet Jesus in John 1. Notably, Philip’s question about Jesus’ relationship to the Father in the Upper Room (John 14:10-12) elicits one of the most lovely and profound statements of our Lord’s deity in all of the gospels. While some of his actions in the gospels reveal a procedure-oriented personality that struggled with faith in the Lord’s provision, tradition tells us the Lord shaped him to be an effective and vocal minister of the gospel, who was only martyred after he had converted multitudes in Asia Minor to Christ.
Nathaniel. Called “Bartholomew” (“Son of Tolmai”) the Synoptics but “Nathaniel” (God has given”) in John, this man was one of the first converts to Christ. He was a godly Old Testament saint who was a follower of John the Baptist along with several other apostles. In this, he appears to typify the kind of men the Lord chose—men who loved the Old Testament, trusted God, and were eager for the coming of Messiah. While he demonstrates fleshly prejudice in condemning Nazareth, his promptness in surrendering to Jesus on the spot denotes a tender heart that was consecrated to the Lord—a fact Christ enthusiastically affirms (John 1:47). Church history tells us he carried the gospel faithfully to India and Armenia, and was martyred for the life of faithfulness he began when he first beheld God in flesh.
Matthew. The infamous tax collector, Matthew was given his new name by the Lord at his conversion. He went on to write the gospel that bears his name. He enjoyed a long and fruitful ministry to his fellow Jews in Israel and abroad before being martyred (likely by being burned alive).
Thomas. Perhaps unfairly called “Doubting Thomas” for the way he initially responded to the Lord’s resurrection, Thomas yet demonstrated uncompromised, pure faith in the Lord’s person and deity when he beheld Him. The gospels portray him as a man who struggled with negativity and pessimism but who deeply loved Jesus. Reliable tradition indicates he had a thriving ministry in India (an evangelical movement here has roots traceable to the beginning of the church age), until he was thrust through with a spear and reunited with his Lord.
James the Less. Very little is known of this man, though based on who his father’s relatives were, we know many of his immediate family members also followed Jesus and were prominent in the early church. James is a good example of the reality that the apostles were not who they were because of what they did or their pedigree but because of the power of Christ. James is proof ordinary, unknown people can be chosen by the Lord to accomplish great things.
Jude Thaddaeus. Likely a man with a tender, childlike heart (“Thaddaeus” carries that idea), Jude demonstrates a sweet, gracious humility in his lone recorded interaction with the Lord (John 14:21-23). Tradition records he took the gospel to Edessa, a royal city of Mesopotamia, and miraculously healed its king. He was eventually beaten to death for his faith.
Simon. A Jew zealous for his religion and for the overthrow of the Roman regime chosen by the Prince of Peace?! Jesus chooses unlikely people for His purposes! He would have viewed Matthew—that traitorous puppet of Rome—as his mortal enemy, but here they are, serving the Messiah together by faith. Tradition tells us Simon carried the gospel to Gentiles in the British Isles and was martyred.
Judas. This infamous, ugly soul betrayed Jesus for the price of a dead slave. He was such a good faker that when Jesus announced that one of the twelve would betray him, the other apostles sooner questioned themselves than him! We have every reason to believe Judas preached, worked miracles, and ministered alongside the other eleven. Yet he did so with an ugly, unconsecrated, selfish, brutal, godless heart. He followed Jesus for the wrong reasons (political and financial gain), used Him for his own selfish pleasures, and sold Him out when Jesus did not deliver what he wanted. Disgraced and remorseful, but not repentant, Judas took his own life by hanging, his body slipping from the tree and bursting open.
What do we learn from this admittedly brief survey of these men? Most fundamentally, we learn that the Lord chooses to use ordinary, frail, fallen, normal people for His grandest purposes—quite simply because there are no other people to choose! How wonderful that despite our sins and shortcomings, what enables us and makes us useable is not ultimately what we possess, but who and what Jesus is. For this is His plan, centered upon His glory. Have you surrendered yourself to Him, trusting Him to accomplish with and through you what only He can? May we all be increasingly faithful to Him as we await His soon return!