Not long after Jesus began His earthly ministry and as the crowds following Him began to grow, He called out twelve men and designated them as apostles. From our view, there was nothing extraordinary about these men. Some have described these men as extraordinary in their ordinariness. They were not selected because of their social status, education, religious, or political connections. They were simply ordinary people, just like us.
Our Lord knew the wealth of raw materials possessed by each of these men. He knew what they could become. Except for Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him, they learned to turn their lives over to Him.
That is the overall message for us. We can do extraordinary things for the Master as we learn to turn our lives over to Him. Each of us has been gifted by God to turn what we might think of as ordinary into the extraordinary. The extraordinary things we do involve showing Jesus to others and helping them enter into a relationship with Him. That is a critical task for us as disciples. And just like these men, we learn that the power is not in us, but in God and seen through us as we each turn more and more of our lives over to Him.
In Acts 2:42-47 we see the early actions of the church just after it had been established on Pentecost Sunday. Of special note is the statement in verse 42:
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching…"
We continue today to dedicate our lives to our Lord and apply the apostles' teachings. In this series of lessons, we are going to look at these men. We will look at their strengths and weaknesses and what we can learn from each.
In this first lesson we will learn:
- The difference between an apostle and a disciple
- Selecting the twelve
- What the apostles had to overcome
The Difference Between Disciple and Apostle
In the gospels the term "disciple" is used to describe both followers of Christ in general and the twelve apostles specifically. A disciple is a common term for someone that is a learner, pupil, student or follower of a specific teacher. It is also used to demonstrate agreement and acceptance of the teacher as leader. Disciples would attach themselves to a teacher, even travel with this teacher for a while. Some of the disciples of Jesus traveled with Him in the region where He was teaching for a time. Others, like the apostles, traveled with Him continually.
Jesus was certainly not the first to have disciples. Discipleship was a common education model of the time. The value in this educational model is that it lends itself to learning by experience. This is where the master, Jesus in this case, was able to apply real-world examples and experiences to help the disciples achieve deeper understanding. Evidence of this is in how Jesus would bring in examples from nature (Matthew 6:25-34) and the many parables where He drew from life experiences and common knowledge to teach deeper truths.
In Matthew 28:18-20, in what is called the "great commission," Jesus told the apostles, and us by extension, to make other disciples (followers) for Him. Our efforts result in disciples, or followers for Christ, not for ourselves.
The word Apostle, on the other hand, means "the sent out" or "the sent ones." An apostle is an official representative speaking with the authority on behalf of the one who sent him. Jesus provided these men with knowledge, additional power, and authority to fulfill their role.
Today, each of us can (must) become a disciple of Jesus, but we cannot become His apostle. These initial twelve, and later Matthias and Paul, were the only ones appointed to this role. There were some people at that time and there are some today who claim to be apostles in the same context. They should heed Paul's warnings:
"For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. It is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds."
- II Corinthians 11:13-15
How Jesus Selected the Twelve Apostles
We read the details of how Jesus prepared Himself and selected the Twelve in Mark 3:13 and Luke 6:12. Luke begins with the expression, "In these days." This is like Paul's expression from Galatians 4:4, "But when the fullness of time had come…." This clearly indicates events were on our Lord's timeline and fully under His control. Scholars estimate this occurred approximately two years before His crucifixion so there was a time of Jesus teaching a larger group of disciples and then His focus on the Twelve who would serve as apostles as His ministry progressed.
Luke 6:12 records that Jesus isolated Himself with a prayer to God. Imagine that time for moment. Here is Jesus, the Son of God, praying to the Father, and no doubt in the presence of the Holy Spirit. This would have been a special time seeking the wisdom and assurance through this "inter-Trinitarian communion". This should remind us clearly of our Lord's prayer in John 17 as He prepares Himself for His torture and death (see also Matthew 26:36-44). In this prayer Jesus prays for the apostles specifically, and us as well.
As we see in the record of the calling of the apostles in the gospels (not including John), after a night of prayer Jesus called His disciples together as a group. From that larger group He selects the twelve and names them as apostles. He had already offered some of the men a personal invitation to follow Him, but up to this point, they were just a part of the larger group of disciples.
It is a good question to ask why Jesus selected twelve. What is significant about that number? Most scholars see this number as symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel that formed the Jewish nation. It further can symbolize God's new kingdom. Later, as the disciples were waiting for the arrival of the Holy Spirit following the ascension of Jesus, they recognized the importance of this number as they selected Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:12-26).
Similarities and Differences
The apostles are listed in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but not in John. John gives us details about the activities and events involving many of the apostles. The apostles are also listed in Acts but obviously do not include Judas Iscariot since he had already taken his life following his betrayal of Jesus.
The listings of the apostles are arranged in three groups of four and in descending order, apparently based on their level of closeness with Jesus. The listing seems to reflect the details, or lack of details of their lives during the ministry of Jesus. This is not to say any were ineffective or insignificant, but reflects the way the gospel writers chose to portray them.
Note also that several of the apostles were known by different names depending on how they are portrayed in the gospels. We will examine this more closely as we review each apostle individually.
Group one lists Peter first and includes Andrew, James, and John. They are among the first disciples Jesus called (John 1:35-42) and were with Him at key times. They seem to be the only group with common denominators: two sets of brothers who were all fishermen. There are indicators that some of the other apostles were also fishermen and may have had some familial connections, although Scripture does not clearly show this. Peter, James, and John form an even closer inner circle and were with Jesus at major events such as the Transfiguration and as Jesus prayed at Gethsemane.
Group two has Philip first and includes Bartholomew (named Nathanael in John), Matthew, and Thomas.
Group three is led by James the son of Alphaeus and includes Simon the Zealot; Judas, son of James, and Judas Iscariot. This group, except for Judas Iscariot, is hardly ever mentioned in Scripture. Judas Iscariot always appears last and is identified in some way as the traitor.
We also see significant personality characteristics and occupational differences among the disciples. For example, Matthew was a tax collector, despised by the Jews and Simon was a Zealot, committed to killing Romans and anyone representing them, such as Matthew. Peter was brash, outspoken, and aggressive while John and Andrew spoke little. To restate a significant point about them, these men were not among the elite in their society.
There were no religious or community leaders among them. Some were completely obscure. Some were despised and feared. Some were common workmen struggling to survive. All together, they were ordinary men with the raw materials to serve Jesus, and through Him, change humanity forever.
What is important is not what they were but what they would become. They would become instruments for our Lord accomplishing the extraordinary because they followed the Master as they learned to put Him forward rather than self. That is the lesson for us. In selecting these men from the common, ordinary citizens of the day, Jesus is reflecting His methodology. He taught what was unexpected and dispelled "conventional wisdom". His apostles were perceived as common, unqualified, and unworthy men (Acts 4:13). These men rose to the height of usefulness and effectiveness because they turned their lives over to Jesus.
As Jesus selected the Twelve, He delegated His power and authority to them to be able to cast out demons, heal, and proclaim the message of the Messiah's arrival. He selected them, taught them, and then sent them out (Matthew 10:1 and following).
Although Jesus taught many different groups at times, we see that as His ministry continued, and as He approached His ascension to heaven, He increased His focus on the Twelve to prepare them for their role of carrying the gospel to the world.
"I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
What the Apostles Had to Overcome
We stated that these men were ordinary people with no specified attributes. They did, however, possess the raw materials that would help them in their role. They also had much to overcome, and much to unlearn. In doing so, they teach us lessons that we can use in our spiritual journey today.
They lacked spiritual understanding
The disciples saw what they had been taught to see. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) Jesus used the expression, "You have heard that is was said…but I say.…" This was done to point out misunderstandings of God's word and intent. John records that after he and Peter viewed the empty tomb, even they did not understand the Scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead (John 20:9). To overcome this lack of spiritual understanding, Jesus kept teaching them, even after his resurrection and up to the moment of His ascension.
We also lack spiritual understanding at times and may have been taught an incomplete truth or misunderstanding of God's word. Like the apostles, we can learn truth. We have the teachings of Jesus dutifully recorded in the gospels that we learn from thorough study, meditation and prayer. And like the first-century Christians, we have the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42) and other writers of the New Testament to guide us.
They lacked humility
At times, the apostles were focused entirely on self in their lack of spiritual maturity. They even argued over who should be first or greatest in the Kingdom while standing in the presence of the Son of God.
Jesus overcame this by teaching and demonstrating humility, even to giving His life for them. He continually taught them humility throughout His ministry. This critical characteristic was even at the heart of His lesson on service on the night of His arrest as He washed their feet. We learn from this that our usefulness to God begins with our humble acceptance of His will and continues as we grow spiritually.
They lacked faith
On several occasions, Jesus said to the apostles, "Oh you of little faith." Jesus kept teaching them and doing miracles to not only show His deity but to increase their faith (John 20:30-31). We must wonder if at later times as they looked upon a flower or observed birds going about their lives, they reflected on or recalled the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps they reflected on His words as they traveled through a storm, climbed a mountain, or saw a tree along the seashore (Matthew 8:26; 17:20; Luke 17:6).
From the teachings and example of Jesus, we learn that faith is the foundation of our relationship with God. As the Hebrews writer states:
"Without faith, it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."
- Hebrews 11:6
They lacked commitment
Although the apostles remained with Jesus when many of the disciples turned from following him (John 6:66), they would later abandon Him. After Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples as a group fled in fear. Only Peter and John followed, but from a distance. This was after strong statements of their recognition of Jesus as the Son of God, King of Israel, and claims that they would follow Him even to death. The most memorable moment of their failure is Peter denying Jesus three times, even swearing he did not know Him (Luke 22:54-62).
Jesus overcomes this by teaching, forgiving and praying for them (John 17:6-19). We all experience periods when our commitment wanes. We return to the teachings of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament to strengthen our faith and sustain our commitment.
They lacked power
We have already noted that these men were ordinary men. On their own, they were weak and helpless. They craved power but misunderstood what true power was and how God wanted them to obtain and use it. Jesus gave them power as His representatives (Matthew 10:1) and later sent the Holy Spirit to empower them on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2) as promised. They progressed from arguing about being the greatest in the Kingdom to gaining and using power to show Jesus to the world. They would recognize that it was God's power working through them and not their own.
This is an important lesson for us. As we mature spiritually, we seek God's power working in us and continue to grow in our faith and dedication to our Lord. As we are successful in our efforts, we continue to give praise and glory to God.
How the Apostles Died
Scripture only records the actual death of James (Acts 12:1-2) and Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:5). In John 21:18-19, John records a statement by Jesus that is believed to indicate Peter would die by crucifixion. However, it is not specifically stated in Scripture how or when he died. In John 21:20-23, Jesus makes a statement regarding John indicating he would live a longer life, as we know he did.
Secular, (or non-Biblical history) including the writings of various early Christians, gives us several accounts of how the apostles died. Some of these accounts conflict with one another, bordering on the mythological, and are discounted. Each following chapter addresses some of these traditions and legends. Please remember, as noted, scripture is silent on many of the actions and death of the apostles. The information provided is not necessarily factual.
Perhaps we are asking the question about how they died in the wrong way. It was not their deaths that mattered, but their lives. The correct answer to the question of how they died is this, except Judas Iscariot, these men died faithful to the Lord they came to love, even more than their lives. Their lives and deaths serve as examples of faithfulness for us.
We may wonder why Jesus bothered. The answer is because God loves us and is committed to our salvation through Jesus (John 3:16-17; I John 3:16). We also know that it is through God's power and not our own that He is glorified.
We see these men making the transition from ordinary to extraordinary, unremarkable to remarkable with a clear mission to teach Jesus to all the world. Their transition and success were not from anything they did of themselves, but from what they allowed God to do through them. This was the key to their success; they allowed God to work through them. They did this by doing God's will.
The same happens today. We can do remarkable things for God not through miracles and wonders as the apostles did, and not for ourselves, but by allowing God to work through us as obedient and faithful servants, doing His will and bringing glory to Him. This is a capability we all have that can grow.
As we see in these men, God is more interested in what we can become rather than who and what we are. What He wants is for us to become like His Son, Jesus Christ. Becoming more Christlike begins with our obedient response of faith as we repent and are baptized (Acts 2:38) and continues as we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18).
Hopefully, as we progress through this study and grow to become like Jesus, we will give God the glory in all things.
- What is the difference between a disciple of Christ and an apostle?
- What is significant about Jesus praying before selecting the twelve disciples?
- What is significant about Jesus selecting twelve apostles?
- What authority did the apostles have and how does that impact us today? (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18)
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?