Updated: Apr 24, 2020
There were a lot of people that followed Jesus, though some seem to stand out from the rest. They are the ones Jesus not only called, but sent out. These twelve become bearers of the good news of Jesus and the coming kingdom.
When I was researching my novel, Dividing Sword, I needed to dig into these men that weave their way through Beth and Reuben's story. Church tradition gives details of the twelve apostles' ministry, travel, deaths (generally gruesome), and places of burial. I read a fascinating book that attempted to trace the apostles' lives, but most of it was from sources outside the Bible. I'm not saying these traditions or their sources aren't trustworthy, but for those who are skeptical, I was curious to know how much information do we get directly from the Bible about the twelve men Jesus called and sent out.
What made Jesus chose these twelve in particular?
That is the million-dollar question I wish I had an answer for. Scriptures don't really tell us, but we can see from their actions and words in the gospels that it wasn't because these twelve had it all together! The book of Acts describes at least two of the twelve as "uneducated and untrained" (Acts 4:13). They seem like fairly average men, but with an above-average yearning to actively pursue the Messiah.
Jesus didn't choose them lightly, however. We see in Luke 6:12 that right before he chose the twelve, Jesus spent the whole night in prayer.
Who made up the twelve?
Perhaps for the same reason given in Mark 6:7, the apostles are listed in Matthew in groups of two:
“The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:1-4)
In Mark this is how they are listed:
“And He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter, and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means, 'Sons of Thunder'), and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Him. (Mark 3:16-19)
Then in Luke:
“And when day came, He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and John; and Philip and Bartholomew; and Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon who was called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:13-16)
John does not give us a list.
Acts give us this list of the eleven:
“When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.” (Acts 1:13)
There are a couple of things I notice from these lists, from both their similarities and their differences:
Simon Peter is always named first.
I wonder what this says about how Peter was regarded. It does seem as if Peter is given a level of leadership by Jesus himself in John 21:15-17—though this emotional scene is about more than leadership. Several of the other apostles are only mentioned in passing, but Peter's mistakes and successes feature in the gospel accounts, and in the book of Acts we see Peter take a leading role after the day of Pentecost. The first twelve chapters of Acts focus fairly heavily on his actions in the early church.
Nicknames were a thing in Jesus' circle!
We see Jesus gives Simon the name Peter (Rocky), and the brothers James and John get the nickname the “sons of thunder!” What personality traits do you imagine from this colorful nickname?
It isn't uncommon in the scriptures for people to be given new names, such as Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. In the first century, it also seems common for Jewish people to have a Hebrew name and a Greek name, and perhaps even an Aramaic name too! I talked about Bible names in a previous newsletter, and here are some of the names I referenced:
Peter is a Greek name, and he's also called Simon, which is Hebrew, and Cephas, which is Aramaic. (Matthew 4:18; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:18)
Matthew might also be called Levi. (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14)
Joseph is also called Barsabbas and Justus (Acts 1:23)
Saul decides to change his name to Paul. (Acts 13:9)
This also explains why when we look at the lists of apostles, at first glance we seem to have a discrepancy.
We have Thaddaeus and Judas son of James taking turns being on the list. The simplest explanation is that Thaddaeus was another name for Judas.
Judas Iscariot is always mentioned as a traitor. Whatever good he may have done during Jesus' ministry is completely overshadowed by his betrayal. He is almost always called “Iscariot”, which might refer to a place, a family name, or affiliation to a group. The jury is still out on that one. Usually, with a family name, you would have a “son of” (bar or ben), so I lean towards a place, the same way we have Mary Magdalene.
Matthew is not always called “the tax-collector”, but Simon is always called “the Zealot”, perhaps to distinguish him from Simon Peter. While I'm sure all of the apostles were important, some are definitely mentioned more than others. (This is my best count, but there may be errors!)
Peter, 156 times, plus a dozen or so references as simply Simon and 8 times as Cephas!
James, son of Zebedee 21
John, son of Zebedee, 41
Matthew, 5, plus perhaps 3 times as Levi
James son of Alphaeus, 4
Thaddeus/Judas son of James, 4
Simon the Zealot, 4
Judas Iscariot, 11
So, what drew these men to Jesus?
We don't get the “calling” story for each of the apostles, but these are the ones we do have:
In Matthew, we have the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John in 4:18-22, and the calling of Matthew in 9:9.
In Mark, we have Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John in 1:16-20, and Levi (Matthew) in 2:14.
In Luke, we have the calling of Simon Peter, James, and John in Luke 5:1-11 The call of Levi (Matthew) in 5:27-28.
In John, we have the calling of Andrew, an unnamed disciple, Peter, and Philip (and Nathaniel) in 1:35-44.
We are often amazed to read how the disciples chased after Jesus immediately, dropping everything and following Jesus.
Did they abandon home, livelihood, and family for a stranger they had just met? It's more likely that they knew of Jesus' ministry and had heard him speak. (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:14-44) This call to “Follow Me” is not a blind summons, romantic as that would be, it is a call to intrigued and convicted men to step forward as devoted disciples.
What happens to the apostles after Jesus calls them?
We get a window into the incredible years they spent with Jesus through the gospels, though I imagine each of the twelve could fill volumes with the amazing things they witnessed. What they saw changed them, and after only three years of active discipleship, Jesus leaves these men (minus Judas Iscariot) in charge of the church. That's pretty mind-blowing! Here we have Peter, who had recently deserted Jesus at the moment of his death, who was so confused after Jesus' resurrection that he went back to his fishing boat, now, only a few weeks later, he's standing up on the day of Pentecost and proclaiming a Risen Lord with a powerful sermon! If that isn't proof of the power of the Holy Spirit, I don't know what is!
The filling of the Holy Spirit ushers in a new and exciting era for these devoted followers of Jesus.
In the book of Acts we see the apostles (and the other disciples) speaking in other languages (2:4), make a lame man walk (3:6-7; 9:34), boldly preaching despite harsh resistance (4:31), just the touch of Peter's shadow could heal (5:15), miraculous escapes from prison (5:19; 12:5-10; 16:25-26), they were able to rejoice after flogging (5:41), receive visions (7:55, 10:10-16), drive out evil unclean spirits, heal the lame and the paralyzed (8:7), they have the ability to pass on the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (8:18), travel mysteriously through the Spirit (8:39), raise Tabitha from the dead (9:40), suffer poisonous snake bite without harm (Acts 28:5), plus many more signs and wonders!
When Jesus left the disciples on that hilltop after his ascension in Luke 24, I'm sure they had a feeling like everything was ending, that it was all over. How could they go on without Jesus?
Then, with the arrival of the Spirit, they discover things are definitely not over, they are just beginning! It helps me to understand John 16:7 a little better, when Jesus says,
"But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you . . . But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth ..." (John 16:7 and 13)
All of these miracles that the apostles perform are not simply to dazzle, they are confirmation that something big has happened, and that something happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Something that makes a difference in the lives of everyone on this earth.
And that was the message that the apostles continued to share, to live by, and to die by.
Judas Iscariot was the first of the twelve to die, we see it recorded in Acts 1:18. He does not have an honorable death at all.
The only other death of one of the twelve we have recorded in the Bible is James, one of the sons of Zebedee, in Acts 12:2.
While the Bible does not tell us how the other apostles died, the church traditions record the other dying by various brutalities for refusing to turn from their faith: torture, crucifixion, beheading, stoning, being thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, stabbings, and other grisly fates.
The only one given a long life is the apostle John, who is sent away to exile on the island of Patmos and writes the book of Revelation. (Revelation 1:9)
What a testament to their belief in Jesus Christ!
I have sometimes felt like the book of Acts ends in a cliffhanger.
Paul is under house arrest, the church is being persecuted, the apostles are challenged at every turn, and yet the fates of these men and women of the early church are left unanswered. We follow Paul's exciting journey with bated breath, just to be left without resolution. That sort of ending would not fly in a modern novel or history book! Perhaps the author died before Paul's fate was decided, or perhaps his audience knew the fate of Paul as recent history, and so he didn't see the need to record common knowledge. Whatever the reason, Acts does not share the fate of the apostles or Paul with us.
I wonder if the story trails off this way because it's still being written.
Like the close of Luke, once again we think we've come to an ending, yet we find ourselves at a beginning. At the final chapter of Acts, men and women were still charging bravely into the world proclaiming a crucified and risen Christ, and churches were sprouting up all over the known world. I think the last line of Acts is a call for us to take up the story,
"...preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered."
It's an invitation to join this good work. After all, we can hardly write "the end" on the workings of the Holy Spirit, can we?