Christianity 201

May 5, 2020

Lessons from a List: The Twelve Disciples

I’m told that there are gifted preachers who make the genealogies relevant and engaging. We often rush through those, but they are part of God-inspired scripture and full of applications we can miss.

Last night I couldn’t sleep. I often recite the names of the books of the Bible, but this time around I was compiling lists of the twelve students of Rabbi Jesus and mentally rearranging them into various sub-categories.

I say ‘students’ or ‘apprentices’ in order to skip over the semantics of ‘disciple’ versus ‘apostle.’ There were actually many disciples beyond these twelve.

NIV.Mark3.14 He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

NIV.Luke 6.13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

While I don’t like putting people in boxes, let’s look closer at the list:

Inner Circle (Peter, James and John) – In this group of three we see a leadership position assumed by Peter, possibly because of his age and marital status, but also the intimacy of the relationship between Jesus and John. To function, the church needs core leadership, and even a core-within-a-core.

Brothers (James and John; Andrew and Peter) – No one hates nepotism more than I, but the history of the church, religious organizations, and perhaps even your local church is filled with family histories. Sometimes subsequent generations lack the zeal of those previous, and even within generations, some siblings are more attuned to the purpose, or perhaps carve out a different world. Is not the entire Bible story arc a story which begins with God’s loving promises to Abraham’s family?

Gospel Authors (John and Matthew) – Asked to name the disciples, many an outsider to Christianity will say, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” But only two of the gospels were written by disciples and only three disciples contributed to our modern day Bibles, the other being Peter whose two epistles appear near the end of the New Testament. This however does not preclude that Peter and the others contributed information to Mark’s account and Luke’s account. In an age where print-on-demand is commonplace and everybody has a book to sell on their website, it’s interesting that those closest to the action — the twelve students of Jesus — didn’t pursue publishing; or at the very least, in terms of Luke 1:1 (where we’re told that many wrote accounts) their writing didn’t make the final canon of scripture.

Unlikely Choices (Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot) – I am sure there were cries of, “What is he doing here?” or “What are they doing here.” The inclusion of Matthew (a sellout to the Roman tax farming system) and Simon (a political activist) would pave the way for the Apostle Paul (a persecutor of Christians), and pave the way for the inclusion of Gentile believers (gasp!). Sometimes we have difficulty accepting that those who have genuinely met Jesus and decided to follow Him are actually capable of leaving their former life behind.

Disappointments in the Later Chapters (Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, Thomas’ doubt) – Much has been written about Peter and Judas, but as I compiled this, I thought it strange that Thomas is not usually listed in their category. One website described him as “naturally cynical” and skepticism is a still a disease in our day. Why wasn’t he there when the others were gathered and Jesus appeared? My guess is that he was out shopping around his resumé looking for another job. Despite the familiarity of the Peter and Judas narratives, it’s worth noting that elsewhere in scripture there is an emphasis on finishing well. (See this comparison from II Kings in a very early edition of this devotional.) After years with Jesus, how could Judas betray and Peter disavow himself of any connection? Or how could Thomas not be satisfied with the testimony of the other ten disciples? Also, Thomas makes a particular proof requirement of the risen Christ that has sparked many discussions about the nature of Christ’s glorified body and the nature of ours in the age to come.

People with the Same Name (James and James, Simon and Simon (Peter), Judas and Judas) – In a world where people stand out and stake their individual identity it’s often difficult for people to be in a school classroom where there are four Jennifers and five Jasons (among the most popular names in the 1980s.) I include this here because, well, you know who you are! Also, it’s no wonder that the other Judas is often listed as Thaddeus; I would have done the same!

Those Outside the Spotlight (Phillip, Nathanael (Bartholomew), the other James, the other Simon, the other Judas) – You probably know the reference to “Judas, not Iscariot,” and perhaps have heard a sermon that referenced Nathanael as a man of integrity (NLT) in whom there was “no guile.” (KJV). But the list of twelve is rounded out by some whose contributions are minimal. And how would you like to remembered in history as “James the Lesser” or “James the Less?” (Debate continues as to whether or not this was the brother of Jesus who wrote the Book of James. My understanding is that he was not but was the son of Alphaeus.) Nonetheless, these men also were taught by Jesus and served alongside the others, and like ten of the twelve, tradition is that they died martyr’s deaths for their adherence to the Christ story.

Not Listed – In this list we find the family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, the other Mary, the other other Mary (a popular name, they must have been Catholic), Clopas, John Mark (who was quite young at this point) and the two nominated to replace Judas. On the latter event we’re told:

NIV.Acts.1.21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” 23 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.

Despite verse 21, one website dared to suggest Matthias had not been a witness to the life of Christ, but the text speaks otherwise. That did however make me think of Paul, whose Damascus Road experience is in the minds of many readers, a direct encounter with Christ. He describes himself as a man abnormally born, which is not a statement of physiology, but that he was simply elsewhere when the controversial Rabbi was teaching and performing miracles in Capernaum or Bethsaida or Sychar or Bethany. Check out our look at his life from a few days ago.

Then there were the perhaps secret followers such as Nicodemus (aka Nick at Nite) and Joseph, who in offering to bury the body of Christ in his tomb was acting as a type of patron of which there might have been many.

…So where do you fit in this list? As a disciple of Jesus, where would your profile land? Perhaps you’re in a unique category not listed here or perhaps God is waiting to use you in a category that hasn’t been invented yet!


For more on the twelve, check out this article from October 2019.

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