Biblical Studies (NT)/III. THE TWELVE APOSTLES
III. The Twelve Apostles
Jesus Selects the Twelve
Those who followed Jesus during his lifetime are referred to as his disciples. The word apostles refers to the twelve individuals whom Jesus chose from among his disciples for positions of leadership. Luke writes that Jesus “called his disciples to him, and from them he chose twelve whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and also Judas Iscariot who became a traitor” (Lk 6:13-16). Complete lists of the apostles can be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. There are slight variations in the names and in the order, but they are usually understood to refer to the same twelve individuals. Later on, Judas was replaced by Matthias (see Lesson 6: The Birth of the Church). A few details about each of the original twelve apostles follows, in the order that Luke lists them.
Peter, whose birth name was Simon, stands out among the Twelve because he has such an important role in the New Testament, both as a major character in the gospels and Acts, and as the author of the epistles which bear his name. Before his conversion, he worked with his brother Andrew as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. He was a married man (Mk 1:30) who frequently took his wife along with him on his missionary travels (1 Cor 9:5). He was brought to Jesus by his brother Andrew, who told him, “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41). John writes, “When Jesus looked at him, he said, ‘You are Simon, the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated, A Stone)” (Jn 1:42). From this point forward, Simon was known in Aramaic as Cephas, or in Greek, Peter.
When Jesus began his Galilean ministry, Peter, with Andrew his brother, became the first of the disciples to be called into full-time service. “Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’” (Mk 1:17). In all the lists of the twelve, Peter is mentioned first, which probably indicates that he was considered the leader in the absence of Jesus. Peter, along with James and John, was a member of Jesus’ “inner circle,” and as such witnessed some of the most astounding events in Jesus’ life.
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus, after hearing who the people were saying he was, turned to his disciples and said, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15). Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), to which Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:17-19).
Nevertheless, Peter was only human, and there were times when he stumbled. It is this very human and fallible side to his nature which endears him to many people. One example is when Jesus warned the disciples of his coming crucifixion and Peter presumed to say, “Far be it from you, Lord; this shall not happen to you!” (Mt 16:22). Rather than rebuking Peter directly, Jesus said, “Get behind Me, Satan! you are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Mt 16:23).
The most dramatic incident which illustrates Peter’s humanness occurred after Jesus had been arrested and brought before the high priest. Outside in the courtyard, Peter was accused of being with Jesus three times, and each time he denied that he even knew him. This occurred only hours after the Last Supper, where Peter had insisted that he would die rather than deny his Lord. Matthew writes, “Peter remembered the words of Jesus who had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Mt 26:75).
After Jesus had ascended to heaven, however, Peter seemed fearless as he traveled the country preaching the Gospel. On one occasion, when he was arrested for performing a miracle of healing, he was brought before the high priest and the elders for questioning. He boldly proclaimed to them: “Let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man stands here before you whole. This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’” (Acts 4:10 11). Peter is reported to have performed many miracles: “They brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them” (Acts 5:15). However, the high priest and the elders, becoming jealous, seized Peter and the other apostles and put them in jail, “but at night an angel of the Lord opened the doors and brought them out” (Acts 5:19).
The most dramatic of Peter’s recorded miracles was in the town of Joppa on the coast, where a disciple, a woman named Dorcas, had died and he raised her to life: “It became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:42). While in Joppa, Peter also had a vision which at first he did not understand, but which proved to be a major turning point in the direction of the church. Peter understood his vision to be an instruction from God telling him that he must now take the Gospel to non-Jewish people. Up until this point, Christianity was still a Jewish sect, and the Gospel had only been preached among the Jews.
In about 44 A.D., King Herod Agrippa I began to persecute the church because he saw that it was pleasing to the Jewish leaders, and again Peter was locked up. According to Acts, an angel came to the prison and “struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, ‘Arise quickly!’ And his chains fell off his hands” (Acts 12:7). Not much is known of Peter from this time. It is thought that he labored in Rome about the time that Paul was imprisoned there in 66 A.D. and that he wrote his two epistles from there. With the church coming to be centered more and more around Ephesus in the middle of the first century, it is probable that he spent time there and in the other churches of Asia Minor to whom his epistles are addressed.
According to tradition, Peter fled from Rome in about 67 A.D. to avoid martyrdom during the persecution of the church by Emperor Nero. As he was journeying away from the city on the Appian Way, he had a vision of Jesus. Peter inquired of him: “Quo vadis?” – Latin for “Where are you going?” (Hence, this account of Peter’s vision and subsequent death is known as the Quo Vadis tradition.) Jesus replied that he was going to Jerusalem to be crucified again. This reply made Peter ashamed that he had not stood his ground for the Gospel and he returned to Rome where he was arrested and executed. At his request, he was crucified head downward, deeming himself unworthy to die as Jesus had. Thus, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy (Jn 21:18-19), Peter died a martyr’s death.
Andrew was Peter’s brother, and they were natives of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee. As fishermen, they worked in partnership with the brothers James and John (Lk 5:10), also destined to be apostles. Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before he met Jesus. When John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:36), Andrew immediately decided to follow him, and the first thing he did was to go to Peter and tell him straightforwardly, “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41).
Initially, Andrew continued to make his living at fishing. He did not follow Jesus full-time until later on, when Jesus called him, along with Peter, James and John, one day when they were busy fishing. Matthew describes the calling of Andrew: “Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men’. Then they immediately left their nets and followed him” (Mt 4:18-20).
In the miraculous “feeding of the five thousand,” Andrew was the apostle who brought Jesus’ attention to the small boy who had the loaves and fishes. Later on, he brought the request for an interview from some Greeks who wished to see Jesus, but Jesus would not see them because he knew the time of his crucifixion was close. Finally, Andrew is seen praying with the Twelve in Jerusalem after the Ascension. The New Testament tells us no more about him. According to tradition, he died a martyr’s death by being crucified in Achaia (in southern Greece) on an X-shaped cross, thereafter known as a St. Andrew’s Cross.
Like Andrew and Peter, the brothers James and John also had a fishing business at Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee. The family was apparently quite affluent. It was possible to make a good profit by salting the fish and transporting it to inland towns, and this is probably where their wealth came from. Certain passages in the Bible have raised the possibility that James and John might have been cousins of Jesus, but this cannot be verified.
James was called to full-time ministry together with John, and immediately following fellow fishermen Peter and Andrew. He was one of the three so-called “inner circle” apostles, and although he is not as famous as John and Peter, he was privileged to be in Jesus’ company with them at times when others were forbidden. When Jesus was slighted, he apparently took it very personally, for when Jesus was refused hospitality by a Samaritan village, James said along with his brother, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Lk 9:54). Jesus rebuked them, saying, “The Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them” (Lk 9:56).
James is also mentioned in connection with a request to sit with his brother John at Jesus’ left and right hands when Jesus came into his "glory" (Mk 10:37), a request which was supported by their mother. This is often thought of as an arrogant and selfish request, and the other disciples were indignant when they heard it, but their motivation might have been sincere. Either way, Jesus did not rebuke them, but gently informed them, “To sit on my right hand and on my left is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared” (Mk 10:40).
James was the first of the apostles to be martyred, and the only one whose death is mentioned in the New Testament. His death is recorded in Acts, and took place in 41 A.D. in a persecution of Christians by King Herod Agrippa I (grandson of Herod the Great who killed the babies in Bethlehem). Luke writes, “Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:1-2).
Matthew describes the calling of John in this way: “Going on from there, he [i.e. Jesus] saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. And he called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him” (Mt 4:21 22). On the face of it, being a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee sounds like a fairly humble occupation. Yet apparently, John was a man of some means, for in Mark’s account of his calling, we learn that the family had employees. He writes, “Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and went after him” (Mk 1:20). John also had a house in Jerusalem, for in his own gospel, we are told that after the crucifixion, he took Jesus’ mother Mary to “his own home” (Jn 19:27). Furthermore, he was personally acquainted with the most important man in Judaism: the high priest. It was John’s influence that caused Peter to be allowed into the high priest’s courtyard when Jesus was being questioned before the crucifixion. Referring to himself in this passage as “that other disciple,” he wrote, “Peter stood at the door outside. Then that other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to her who kept the door, and brought Peter in” (Jn 18:16).
It is thought that John remained in Jerusalem for some years after Jesus' death and resurrection, before eventually moving to Ephesus, which in the second half of the first century came to be a major center of Christianity. Some time around 90 A.D., he was banished to the isle of Patmos during a persecution of Christians by the emperor Domitian. This had arisen over the refusal of Christians to obey Domitian’s command that he be worshiped as a god. John will already have been an old man by this time, probably in his eighties or nineties.
Jesus gave John and his brother, James, the nickname, “Sons of Thunder,” which may have implied a fiery, passionate nature. John suggests in his gospel that even among the three inner circle disciples, he had a special place, for he refers to himself five times as the disciple “whom Jesus loved.” John is believed to have outlived all of the other apostles.
Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Philip was a native of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee. He was one of the earliest disciples, for he received his calling from Jesus the day after they did. He was also responsible for introducing another of the apostles, Bartholomew, to Jesus. He is mentioned in connection with the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus asks him, “‘Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?’ But this he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little’” (Jn 6:5-7). Again, he is shown in discourse with Jesus shortly before the crucifixion. “Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it will be sufficient for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father, so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (Jn 14:8-9).
Finally, Philip is listed among the apostles and disciples who were praying in the upper room after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. According to tradition, he died in Hierapolis in the Roman province of Asia (today in western Turkey) after spending his life in Christian ministry. He is said to have had two daughters who remained celibate throughout their lives, in order that they too might give themselves completely to a life of service.
Bartholomew and Nathanael have been accepted throughout church history as one and the same. The early church historians used the names interchangeably, and the occurrences of the two names in the New Testament seem to indicate that both names refer to the same person. It is likely that Bartholomew was his last name (bar means son of). When Philip found Jesus, the first thing he did was to seek out Bartholomew and tell him plainly that he had found a man from Nazareth, who was the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Bartholomew responded with the famous question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). There is no way to know if he was really prejudiced or if he was merely being humorous. Either way, he was open-minded enough to go and see for himself.
Upon his arrival, he received a great compliment from Jesus, who greeted him with these words: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (Jn 1:47). Bartholomew was naturally surprised that Jesus seemed to know him, but his surprise turned to amazement when Jesus informed him that he had seen him sitting under the fig tree just a few minutes earlier, something Jesus could not have known by any natural means. Bartholomew was so impressed that he said that Jesus must be the Son of God. Jesus replied, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. Truly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:50-51). Tradition says that Bartholomew suffered a ghastly death in Armenia where he was skinned alive for preaching the Gospel.
Unfortunately, we know very little about Matthew. In the gospels of Mark and Luke, he is referred to as Levi. Mark describes his calling in this way: “As [Jesus] passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he arose and followed him” (Mk 2:14). Matthew was with Jesus from the early days of his ministry and was therefore a witness to most of the events he describes in his gospel. The things which he did not see himself were witnessed by others with whom he had an intimate acquaintance. By his own admission, he was a tax collector, for in his list of the twelve apostles, he describes himself as “Matthew, the tax collector” (Mt 10:3). Tax collectors were generally despised, for not only did they collect money for the occupying power, they were usually dishonest, charging more tax than was legally required in order to boost their own income. Nothing definite is known of Matthew’s later life, but he is believed to have preached in Palestine and its neighboring areas.
Thomas appears mostly in John’s gospel. His intense loyalty was displayed when he saw that Jesus had made up his mind to go to Jerusalem, even though Jesus knew the Jewish leaders were seeking an opportunity to kill him. Thomas said to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). It is almost as though this comment was recorded in the Bible as a tribute to Thomas, and as a vindication of the “doubting Thomas” label which he was later to receive.
When Jesus told his disciples that he was leaving them and going to the Father, he reassured them that they need not worry because they also knew the way to the Father. Thomas, however, was confused and said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5). Jesus’ reply has become one of the most famous statements in the Bible: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6).
Thomas was not with the other apostles when Jesus first appeared to them after the Resurrection. When they told him that he had risen from the dead and that they had seen him, he replied, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25). As a result, the phrase doubting Thomas has become a byword for a skeptical person. Eight days later, Jesus came to the apostles again, and this time, Thomas was with them. Jesus, knowing what Thomas had said, told him to come to him and place his hands in his wounds, but seeing was quite enough for Thomas, who in his astonishment simply exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29).
Thomas was with the disciples when Jesus appeared to them, a short time later, at the Sea of Galilee. They had gone fishing, but had not caught anything. Then a man on the shore told them to cast their net on the other side, whereupon the catch was so big that they were not able to draw it in. Realizing then that the man was Jesus, they came ashore and had breakfast with him.
Finally, Thomas is mentioned in the list of disciples who were gathered together in the upper room in Jerusalem after Jesus ascended to heaven, and we hear no more of him in the New Testament. He is thought to have taken the gospel message to India, where he made many converts and eventually suffered martyrdom. There is still a church in India today which traces its roots to Thomas’ ministry.
James, Son of Alphaeus
Not much is known about James, the son of Alphaeus. Matthew is also referred to as a son of Alphaeus, so it may be that they were brothers. Some people have suggested that he might be the same individual referred to in Mark as James the Less (Mk 15:40). Regardless, the story that has been handed down through history says that he was stoned to death in Jerusalem for preaching the Gospel.
Simon the Zealot
This Simon is not nearly as well-known as that other Simon who was renamed Peter by Jesus, and there is not much information about him. The epithet given him in the Bible, “the Zealot,” tells us that before he became a disciple, he was one of a band of fiercely patriotic Jews who were dedicated to removing the Roman occupiers from their land by any means necessary, even violence. This movement culminated in a Jewish rebellion which led the Romans to destroy both Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. Simon is believed to have preached in Persia later on, where he was eventually martyred.
Matthias (Hebrew transliteration: Mattityahu; Koine Greek: Μαθθίας; died c. 80 AD) was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, the apostle chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot following Judas' betrayal of Jesus and his subsequent death. His calling as an apostle is unique, in that his appointment was not made personally by Jesus, who had already ascended into heaven, and it was also made before the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the early Church.
For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take. 21 Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. 23 And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, 25 That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. 26 And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
Judas Iscariot is something of an enigma. Many people have puzzled over the question, “What kind of a man would betray Jesus?” Was he bad or just misguided? We can only speculate. We cannot learn much from the details of his life, for they are very sketchy. Based on his last name, it appears that either he or his family was from the town of Kerioth in Judah, which means that he was also of the tribe of Judah. This makes him unique among the apostles, as all of the others, as far as we know, were Galileans and probably from other Israelite tribes. He was the treasurer for Jesus and the disciples, a fact which adds to the mystery of his motivation, for if he had merely been motivated by money, he must have had ample opportunity to steal from their funds. John mentioned that Judas stole from the money bag regularly in John 12:6 "He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it." Showing that greed had already corrupted Judas Iscariot.
The mystery is further complicated by the terrible remorse which he felt after the deed was done. He may not have realized that his actions would lead to Jesus being sentenced to death. Matthew writes, “Judas, [Jesus’] betrayer, seeing that [Jesus] had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself” (Mt 27:3-5). Judas, therefore, has the unenviable position of having gone down in history as the one who betrayed the Messiah, yet the few details we have of him indicate that he was a man whose was nature was torn between good and evil.
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