Jesus chooses twelve men from among His disciples to be apostles. The men He chooses are in some cases expected and in others surprising. The varying personalities, lifestyles, and professions show God’s sovereignty and mercy and act as a preview of a kingdom where there will be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal 3:28), only forgiven disciples. There are differences, limitations, and even traitorous sin in the group that would seem to threaten its effectiveness, but it’s a group that will change the world and form the foundation of a church that will last until Jesus comes again (Eph 2:20).
It’s notable what Jesus does before He chooses the twelve. The decision is so momentous and vital to His ministry that He spends all night in prayer before He makes it. These twelve men will be His instruments in spreading the gospel to the world after He goes back to the Father. It’s vitally important that He choose wisely. Thus, He spends all night in prayer asking for the Father’s help. He needs wisdom and guidance to select the right ones.
This really gives us something to think about. Jesus is the perfect Son of God. He might not be omniscient during His time on earth (Matt 24:36), but He’s certainly not limited in the same way as a typical man. And since He’s sinless, His decisions aren’t tainted by selfishness or pride. His vision and reasoning are divine. That being the case, what are the chances He’s going to make a bad choice? Does He really need that much help? He apparently thinks so. He spends an ENTIRE NIGHT communing with the Father to make sure He gets it right. He doesn’t decide until He spends HOURS in prayer. So, if someone who isn’t fallible needs that much prayer, what does it mean for us? Do we have the same perspective on our own need for divine guidance and wisdom? Can we even imagine spending that much time in concentrated prayer? Jesus sets a devastating example of how we should approach momentous events in our own lives.
We don’t know how many disciples are with Jesus (hopefully more than 13 or 14 from a hurt feelings perspective), but He decides to choose twelve who will be set apart as apostles (messengers – ones who are sent). The number twelve is not random, as it corresponds to the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus will later say the disciples will sit on twelve thrones and judge the tribes of Israel (22:30). The choice here seems to signify that a new people of God are being ushered in. God’s chosen people will be those who believe in the Son, regardless of whether or not they’re of Abraham.
It’s interesting to consider who Jesus chooses in light of who He doesn’t. If before the Messiah came someone would’ve predicted who would be His closest followers and appointed messengers, it’s likely they would have guessed the Pharisees. They’re the religious elite and presumably the most qualified to carry on the ministry of the Messiah. Yet, amazingly, they’re the ones who reject Jesus and want to destroy Him. So that leaves common men like these disciples. Unlike the Pharisees, these twelve have devoted their lives to Him. And that means Jesus chooses faithfulness and obedience over credentials. That said, it’s still amazing that these men who are so flawed and so unremarkable (and, in some cases, so confused) are the ones Jesus chooses to spread the gospel after He ascends to the Father. It shows that God doesn’t need the best and the brightest (He has all the strength and wisdom He needs); He needs obedient hearts willing to faithfully serve.
The Twelve Apostles
- Named first in all lists of the disciples (Matt 10:1-4, Mk 3:16-19, Acts 1:13). Matthew even calls him The first. This shows Peter is the leader of the disciples. He regularly speaks for the group (Matt 16:13-23, 19:23-27). He will walk on water with Jesus. He will be the one – along with John – that Mary Magdalene comes to tell about the empty tomb (Jn 20:1-2)
- His name is Simon, but Jesus renames him Peter (Jn 1:43)
- Along with Andrew and John, Peter was probably a disciple of John the Baptist before following Jesus (Jn 1:35-42)
- Peter and his brother Andrew are fishermen from Bethsaida (Jn 1:44) who now live in Capernaum.
- Peter is a partner with Andrew, James, and John in fishing (5:10), and the business is successful enough to have employees (Mk 1:19-20).
- Peter is married and has a house in Capernaum that acts as Jesus’ home base (Matt 8:14).
- Leaving a successful business and property and family in Capernaum makes his question to Jesus about leaving everything more meaningful (Matt 19:27).
- Is part of the inner group (along with James and John) that will witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mk. 5:35-43), have private time with Jesus on the Mount of Olives (Mk 13:3), witness the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8), and be with Jesus in Gethsemane (Matt 26:37).
- His role as leader of the disciples and among the inner group make his denial of Jesus during Jesus’ trial even more shocking and tragic.
- He will be the first to go to the Gentiles with the gospel (Acts 10).
- Tradition holds that he’s crucified by the Romans (as Jesus foretells – Jn 21:18-19). He insists on being hung upside down as he is not worthy to be crucified as Jesus was.
- Mostly known for being Peter’s brother.
- Interestingly, he is not a member of the inner circle, although he will be on the Mount of Olives with Peter, James, and John for private teaching (Mk 13:3). It’s interesting to consider if he ever feels left out by being the only member of the original four who’s not in the inner circle.
- He was a disciple of John the Baptist before following Jesus (Jn 1:35-42).
- Andrew will bring the boy with the loaves and fish to Jesus for feeding the 5000 (Jn 6:8-9).
- Most likely the older brother of John since he’s always mentioned first.
- Not much known about him apart from his brother.
- He will be the first apostolic martyr (Acts 12:2) when Herod has him put to death with a sword.
- He and his brother James are known as the “Sons of Thunder” (Mk 3:17) – apparently because of their temperament. At one point they ask Jesus if they can call down fire and consume a city in Samaria because it doesn’t give them lodging (Lk 9:51-56).
- John was most likely a disciple of John the Baptist before following Jesus (Jn 1:35-42).
- John’s mother will ask Jesus if he and James can sit on Jesus’ right and left in heaven (Matt 20:20-23). The other disciples will not be happy about this (Matt 20:24-28).
- Many believe that James’ and John’s mother is Salome and is one of the women who support Jesus’ ministry (Matt 27:55-56, Luke 8:3), and who watch the crucifixion from a distance – or near the cross (Mk 15:40, Jn 15:25). Some believe Salome is Mary’s (the mother of Jesus) sister (Jn 15:25). If this is true, James and John are actually Jesus’ cousins. It would make sense that Salome has the means to support the ministry based on her family’s successful fishing business. Salome is also one of the women who find the empty tomb (Mk 16:1-8).
- The financial standing of the family may account for John being allowed in the house of the high priest during Jesus’ trial (Jn 18:15-16), as well as the only disciple next to the cross (Jn 19:26-27).
- John is known as the disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2). His was apparently a special relationship with Jesus.
- He will take Mary – the mother of Jesus – into his care after Jesus’ death (Jn 19:25-27).
- Most likely has a close friendship with Peter. They seem to form the inner circle of the inner circle. Jesus sends them to prepare the Passover meal on the night He’s betrayed (Lk 22:7-13). They follow Jesus to the High Priest’s house for His trial (Jn 18:15-16). They are the first disciples to see the empty tomb (Jn 20:1-9). They preach in Jerusalem and are the first to be arrested (Acts 3:1-4:21). They are sent by the elders in Jerusalem to bestow the Holy Spirit on Samaritan believers (Acts 8:14-15).
- Tradition holds that he ministers for many years into his old age in Ephesus.
- Tertullian writes that John is eventually banished to Patmos (where he writes Revelation) after being plunged into boiling oil in Rome and suffering nothing from it.
- His apocalyptic vision could be the fulfillment of Christ’s words in Matt 16:28 that some of the disciples will not see death until they see Jesus coming again.
- Like Peter and Andrew, he is from Bethsaida (Jn 1:44).
- John 1 seems to imply that he was a disciple of John the Baptist and left him to follow Jesus.
- He introduced Nathanael (Bartholomew) to Jesus (Jn 1:45).
- He introduces Greek-speaking Jews to Jesus (Jn 12:20-22).
- He is not the same Philip as in Acts 8.
- Tradition holds that he’s crucified in Hierapolis after enabling the conversion of the proconsul’s wife through a miraculous healing and his preaching. This enrages the proconsul, and he has Philip, Bartholomew, and Mariamme (Philip’s sister) all tortured. Philip and Bartholomew are then crucified upside down, and Philip preaches from his cross. As a result of Philip’s preaching, the crowd releases Bartholomew but Philip insists on staying on the cross and dying.
- Many believe Bartholomew and Nathanael to be the same person. Nathanael is only mentioned in John where he is introduced to Jesus by Philip. In all the other gospels – where Nathanael is not mentioned – Philip and Bartholomew are always grouped together. It is not uncommon at this time to have two names.
- Nathanael is from Cana (Jn 21:2). [The fact that the verse identifies him and groups him with Peter, Thomas, James, and John makes it seem that he’s an apostle. On the other hand, since the verse identifies only his hometown and seems to assume information about the others is already known, it could imply that he is NOT among the twelve.]
- Jesus convinces Nathanael of His divinity by telling Nathanael that He had seen him at the fig tree (a place of personal worship – meaning that Jesus was in fact the object of Nathanael’s worship) (Jn 1:48).
- Jesus says of Nathanael (before he’s even spoken) – Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! (Jn 1:47).
- Nathanael is among the disciples who Jesus appears to after His resurrection while they are fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:1-14).
- According to some traditions, Bartholomew’s original name was Jesus, which causes him to adopt a new name.
- Tradition holds that he takes Christianity to Armenia and is martyred in what today is Baku, Azerbaijan. He is flayed and then crucified upside down (the second time he is put on a cross if tradition regarding Philip is true).
- Michelangelo, in his painting Last Judgment, shows Bartholomew holding his skin draped over his arm.
- Also known as Levi (5:27)
- His father is Alphaeus, the same name as James’ father. This is likely coincidental as nothing is said about the two being related.
- He is a tax collector called from his work in Capernaum (5:27)
- Most likely a wealthy man – definitely gives up a lot to follow Jesus.
- Hosted Jesus after his conversion which appalled the Pharisees (5:29-32).
- Even with his background in financial record-keeping, he is not the treasurer for the disciples. That job goes to Judas Iscariot. Perhaps even after leaving his prior life it is hard for the disciples to trust him?
- Jesus choosing Matthew to be an apostle likely shocks everyone both inside and outside of the group of disciples.
- Legend holds that he ministers in Ethiopia where he raises the king’s daughter from the dead and by so doing converts the whole country.
- Also known as Didymus which means “twin” (Jn 11:16).
- After vainly trying to convince Jesus not to go to Jerusalem because of the danger, Thomas will say to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (Jn 11:16).
- Known primarily for doubting the resurrection of Jesus and demanding proof (Jn 20:24-29).
- Tradition holds that he evangelizes India where he dies by being speared.
- He is considered the patron saint of builders. This is because of a legend that he offers to build a palace for an Indian king that will last forever. The king gives him money, which Thomas gives to the poor. Asked to show his progress, Thomas explains that the palace he builds is in heaven, not on earth.
James the son of Alphaeus
- Alphaeus is from the same Hebrew root as Clopas – so some hold that James is the same man as James the Less whose mother is Mary, wife of Clopas (Matt 27:55-56, Mk 15:40, Jn 19:25).
- Tradition holds that he is martyred in Egypt by crucifixion and his body sawed to pieces.
Simon the Zealot
- It’s not clear what “Zealot” means as part of Simon’s name. Zealots become a political movement after the time of Christ. They will be instrumental in the revolt against Rome which ends with Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD. Most think Simon is called Zealot because of his background before joining the disciples. If so, it is reasonable to assume he is part of the extreme right wing of the Pharisees, zealous for the law and religious traditions. This means that he completely changes his life when he follows Jesus with His rejection of the traditions of the Pharisees and His disinterest in any kind of political movement.
- It is amazing that Jesus calls Simon and Matthew into the same group. A zealous, anti-Roman Jew and a Roman-employed tax collector commissioned by the same teacher. Simon’s old friends are likely appalled. This alone shows the incredible transforming effect of Jesus’ teaching. All followers of Jesus are new creatures.
- The Orthodox Church holds that Simon is the groom at the wedding in Cana (Jn 2:1).
- He is said to be crucified either in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Britain.
Judas of James/Thaddaeus
- Matthew and Mark both list Thaddaeus in their list of the twelve (Mk 3:16-19). Luke, in his lists in Luke and Acts (1:13), uses instead the name Judas of James (of James may mean either ‘son of’ or ‘brother of’). John refers to “Judas, not Iscariot” in 14:22.
- The author of the book of Jude identifies himself as Jude, the brother of James. Some think this is the same person as the apostle.
- Some think that his full name is Judas Thaddaeus and that Matthew and Mark use only his second name to distinguish him from Iscariot.
- “Iscariot” probably means “man of Kerioth” (two villages in southern Israel of that name). Could also mean “the dyer” – referring to his occupation – or “the redhead.” His father Simon also uses the same suffix (Jn 6:71).
- Judas is thought to be the only disciple from outside of Galilee.
- He is the keeper of the purse and steals from it (Jn 12:4-6). This is enormously revealing as to his view of Jesus. If he truly believes Jesus is who He says He is, then presumably he’d never think to steal from the treasury. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to steal from the Son of God and assume you can get away with it. That he does steal means he never buys Jesus’ divinity even with firsthand knowledge of all the miracles and the teaching (not to mention being given the power to heal and cast out demons himself – Matt 10:1). It’s a staggering commentary on the unredeemed heart – he stays skeptical even after seeing Jesus in action for three years.
- As noted about Matthew – it’s interesting that Judas is appointed the money-keeper when Matthew’s background is financial recordkeeping. This could mean that Judas was successful in some area of finance before he followed Jesus.
Why does Jesus choose Judas?
Jesus clearly knows who and what Judas is when He chooses him as an apostle (Jn 6:64). The gospels leave no doubt that Jesus chooses him fully knowing what Judas will do. What’s hard to understand is why. Why choose Judas? Most explanations revolve around Old Testament prophecy. The scriptures prophesy that the Messiah will be betrayed (Ps 41:9), so Jesus chooses Judas to fulfill scripture. That satisfies the question on one level, but it doesn’t explain why God uses a betrayer at all. Why have one of the apostles betray Jesus instead of using other means to have Jesus arrested? Couldn’t God have arranged things such that no one had to be a traitor? Isn’t it unmerciful to have someone like Judas set apart for eternal damnation?
Ultimately, there’s no way to definitively answer these questions, but there are certain truths we can glean from the Judas story that may get us close. Perhaps God uses Judas as an example and warning for believers. Consider the following:
- Judas proves the truth of Jesus’ concluding words in the Sermon on the Mount about religious pretense versus belief. Toward the end of the sermon, Jesus says, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt 7:21-23). This is Judas to a tee. He’s given the power to do the things Jesus refers to, yet he never fully believes in the One who gives him that power. He follows Jesus for three years, he sees the miracles, he performs miracles, he hears all the teaching, yet he’s never truly a disciple. Jesus ultimately doesn’t know him because he practices lawlessness. Judas acts as a warning to any Jesus follower that we must examine ourselves to make sure of our calling and make sure our lives bear the fruit that proves our redemption.
- Judas shows what a deceived heart is capable of. This goes along with #1, but it’s telling that Judas decides to betray Jesus shortly after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. That’s worth pondering. He watches Jesus raise someone from the dead – someone who’d been dead for days – and then decides he’s had enough and offers to sell Jesus out (and this after witnessing all that Jesus does over THREE YEARS and also being granted the power to perform miracles himself). There is nothing we can’t rationalize in our own lives and there’s no truth that’s so great that we can’t ignore it in a push to serve or justify ourselves. The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jer 17:9). We must diligently examine ourselves and have a healthy respect for our ability to self-deceive.
- Judas shows the power of the Enemy when unchecked by the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that Satan enters Judas before he betrays Jesus (22:3). There’s a warning here as humans are defenseless against the power of the Enemy unless they face him and his temptations in the strength of the Holy Spirit. The Enemy has too much power, too much evil wisdom, too much experience for man to face him alone. Even for believers, it shows that a renewed mind born of active prayer is a vital defense against the daily onslaught of temptation.
- Judas shows the danger of loving the world. Judas is appointed treasurer of the apostles and steals from the treasury. He sells out the Messiah for money. While not stated explicitly in the gospels, it seems that he decides to betray Jesus when he realizes Jesus will not become a political messiah and thus there will be no glory or power for the disciples. Judas has no vision beyond this life and wants only what the world offers, and that love of the world leads him to one of the most horrific sins in world history. This is another reminder for believers. When we have an unrenewed mind that leads us into a lifestyle that ignores the kingdom of God, ignores eternity, and longs only for the rewards of this life, we are capable of staggering spiritual blindness and horrible decisions. We must continually set our minds on things above and walk by faith, not by sight.
- Judas shows that God’s sovereignty doesn’t remove man’s responsibility. Judas is an instrument in God’s plan for Jesus to die. In that sense, one could argue that he’s not responsible for what he does. Jesus addresses this very thought, however, when He says, “For the Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Mk 14:21). Yes, it’s in God’s plan that Judas betray Jesus so Jesus can die and save the world (Jn 13:18). But God’s plan doesn’t make Judas an innocent tool. Judas himself recognizes his guilt when he says to the priests after Jesus is arrested, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matt 27:4). Judas is meant to be the means of Jesus’ execution, but his sin is horrific and he’s damned for it because it’s his responsibility.
- Judas shows that it’s hard to know a man’s heart, and tares are oftentimes difficult to distinguish from wheat. It’s interesting that when Jesus tells the disciples at the last supper that one of them will betray Him, they have no idea who the betrayer could be (Jn 13:21-22). That means that Judas does nothing in his three years with the disciples to show what he really is, what he really believes, and what he’s capable of (presumably they find out about his stealing from the treasury later). He’s intimately involved with a small group of twelve men for three years and they completely miss who he is. It shows that we must be careful when assuming we know another’s heart. It also shows that there are people in the Christian community who look, act, and talk the part but who aren’t believers. We must encourage one another, hold one another accountable, and rehearse the gospel amongst ourselves to ensure we serve sincerely with a pure heart.
- Judas shows that sin never derails the plans of God. What Judas does is truly evil, yet it’s used by God to enable the redemption of the world. Man’s evil plans, actions, and devices never exist beyond the sovereignty of God. The worst sins can’t alter God’s will, and God’s omniscience and omnipotence encompass even the worst of actions. This should reassure us as we live in a world seemingly gone mad in its resistance to everything godly, and should encourage us personally when we consider our own sin (not to excuse it, but to minister to us in our regret). Joseph sums this up perfectly when he says to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Gen 50:20). God is bigger than man’s sin.
None of these seven items fully answers the question of why God uses a man to betray Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders instead of turning Him over to them by another means. But seeing Judas as an object lesson for living in a fallen world certainly gets us part of the way. It’s a tragic story with a wonderful ending, and it shows we serve a God bigger than we can understand and bigger than any evil we face in the world.