Mark 3:13-19 “Jesus went up on a mountain and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve – designating them apostles – that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to whom he gave the name Boanerges which means Sons of Thunder); Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”
Mark, the reporter-historian and evangelist, tells us that sick people from far beyond Galilee were pressing in to meet the Lord Jesus. They were many more men and women than he had time to deal with personally. Vast multitudes wanted to hear Jesus, but there are limitations on the effectiveness of open air preaching. The human voice can be heard only within a certain distance of the speaker. John Wesley’s voice was sharp and penetrating, but it couldn’t be heard the length of a football pitch away, and many on the fringes of the crowds coming to hear Christ must have been further away than that. There were increasing demands being made on the Lord to let everybody in Galilee experience his power, and know his message.
One source of the pressure came from a strange source, from demons who were clamouring to reveal the identity of Jesus, as “the Holy One of God” (1:25), “the Son of God” (3:11), but Jesus could not permit them to speak (1:25, 1:34, 3:11). They were not the appointed means of others hearing about him. They could not bear witness to the Holy One of God, and the Lord knew that others must now be given that authority. God’s way was through called and trained men. The Lord’s desire was that everybody should hear his message, and so he has to delegate, authorising other men to speak, and work and travel in his name. What we have here is the beginning of a fledgling organisation which will work under Jesus and for Jesus. In other words, this is the beginning of the church in its simplest form. Christ is establishing a structure for his own ministry reaching out into the world. The twelve men he chose were going to be his support group of witnesses, apprentices, travelling companions, assistants, poor relief workers, exorcists, heralds, physicians, baptizers, teachers and preachers.
1. ON A MOUNTAIN AND IN PRAYER HE CHOSE THE APOSTLES.
“Jesus went up on a mountainside” (v.13): he had been at the bottom of the mountain at the side of the lake, but now he removes himself from that scene entirely. He has to get away from the crowds constantly pushing forward to touch him. He is a man tempted in all points as we are, harassed by the shouts for attention and pleas for healing from hundreds of people. As a man of flesh and blood prone to weariness and weakness he would have been destroyed if he had stayed in that crucible a day longer. He must leave the throng and get away for a while for his spiritual batteries to be recharged. But Jesus would have had another reason for getting away. He is setting up a new organisation of revolutionary significance, and if the Herodians, for example, had known this they would have been very alarmed. The choosing of the twelve and their commissioning is not done under the eyes of the multitudes by the lake but on the mountainside with just his disciples to hear him.
Again he went to the mountain silence to pray. The mountain is often the place of revelation. Luke’s account of this scene lays particular emphasis on that: “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles” (Lk. 6:12). Mark has already referred to an early morning of prayer: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (1:35). Actually, Luke’s account is the only example we have in the New Testament of Jesus continuing all night in prayer. That was not normally how he spent his nights. He slept – as every other son of Adam sleeps, but there were special occasions when he needed to go somewhere alone to pray. Although all his life was prayer in terms of conscious communion with his Father, there were also times when he needed to meet with his Father in prayer. He had so much to do, but he needed to pray. No matter how busy he was or how close he walked with God there were special times of prayer which he maintained.
For what did Jesus pray on such occasions? We are told almost nothing about this. The only exceptions are the prayers at the end, John 17 and Gethsemane, when we are told the content of his intercession. But they are enough of a guide to help us answer the question as to what he prayed for at other times. The Lord was under pressure; he needed a fresh touch of power, mental poise, new strength, illumination, guidance . . . He was going to choose twelve apostles and he needed wisdom in that selection. In all our lives there must be times when we draw near to God. Our work is mechanical, our witness is ineffectual, our words are powerless unless our lives are lived in an ethos of prayer.
So Luke reminds us that the choice of the Twelve was a decision fraught with such immense importance that Jesus needed solemn counsel from the Father. Luke has a simple phrase which he uses to describe Jesus’ intercession; it is ‘praying to God’, literally ‘prayer of God’, and it is a phrase used only by Luke, and just on this occasion in the entire Bible. It was in this ‘prayer of God’ that Christ spent the night. In other words the emphasis was not on the night-long vigil so much as a praying of divine fellowship. There was an earnest concentration of heart and mind which was divinely sustained throughout the night. In that communion all the disciples were considered one by one, presented to the Father, judged and examined in God’s presence, and in that process the Twelve were finally chosen. The help of the Holy Spirit was needed to make this choice. Twelve names were finally fastened on his heart and mind and he went forth that next morning, and our text says, that he “called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve – designating them apostles” (vv. 13&14).
So here is the great example of Christ. If ever there was a person whom we might think didn’t need to pray you would judge it would be Jesus, with no sins to confess and no break in moment by moment fellowship with God. He was the incarnation of the wisdom and power of God. You would think he could say to God, “It’s OK, I can cope. I can make up my own mind.” Yet if even Jesus, before making such a great decision, needed to go apart and cry to God for help, then certainly we do. How can we with our uninformed insight, and our own self-confidence in our own grasp of things, our own over-rated sense of fittedness to weigh up all the factors, come to any wise decision if we are ignoring asking God for advice?
So after prayer he called those whom he wanted and he appointed the twelve. He had not said to these men as he was to say to some in Gethsemane, “Come apart with me and pray with me. Watch with me for an hour.” The intercession was his alone.
2. THE CHOICE OF THE TWELVE WAS CHRIST’S ALONE.
The summons of the disciples was at his initiative alone, and the choice of the twelve was his exclusively. There was no vote, no ballot, no running for office, no pieces of paper dropped in a pot. Christ appointed the twelve, Mark tells us. There is considerable emphasis on this fact in the gospels. Jesus says such things as, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve?” (Jn. 6:70): “You did not choose me, but I chose and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (Jn. 15:16); “but I have chosen you out of the world” (Jn. 15:19). You have the comment of Luke at the beginning of the book of Acts that Jesus had given “instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen” (Acts 1:2).
His authority was also seen in the new names he gives them. Simon is renamed ‘Peter.’ James and John are to be known as ‘Boanerges’, fiery, thunderous preachers. The act of naming was important in those Mediterranean cultures. From the very beginning Adam was given authority to name the animals. he set them in order in the created world. So Jesus shows his authority in renaming the three leading apostles. Their new names are appellations of promise. It will be after Pentecost that the leadership of Son and Spirit will result in new name and new vocation being united.
More than that he chose exactly twelve men. What a revolutionary statement for his day it would have been when people said to one another, “Do you know he has chosen a group of twelve men to support him”? How many Members of Parliament are there in London? You don’t know. How many members are there in the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff? You don’t know. The numbers are insignificant, yet as Tom Wright points out, “Every Jew knew that there were twelve tribes in Israel – or, at least, that there had been. These twelve corresponded, more or less, to the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob, whose stories are told in the book of Genesis. Ten of the tribes had been lost seven centuries earlier when the Assyrians invaded and carried them off. But the prophets spoke of a coming restoration, and a great many Jews were longing for it. The time would come, they believed, when their God would turn everything around and make them a great nation once again. So when Jesus called twelve of his followers and gave them special status and commission, nobody who heard of it could miss what he was doing. He was saying, more clearly than any words could have done: this isn’t simply a great healing mission. This isn’t even a time of spiritual renewal. This is the restoration we’ve all been waiting for” (Tom Wright, “Mark For Everyone,” SPCK, London, 2001, p.34). In choosing twelve Jesus was saying that he was going to build a new Israel! Out of the old was going to come the new, and he was going to do it! They are going to be the foundation of the reconstituted people of God an embryonic new Israel. Jesus is going to make a new covenant with them. In fact, no less than ten times in this gospel Mark is going to refer to ‘the Twelve.’
More than that, Jesus himself designated them by the title ‘apostles’ (v.14). They had all been his disciples but Jesus created out of the wider circle a group of twelve men who henceforth formed a definite unit and to these alone he gave the name ‘apostles.’ The word means authorised people who have been sent. They go as representatives. The basic word is found in the Greek Old Testament seven hundred times. Think of Jehovah speaking to Isaiah and saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isa. 6:8). So the sent ones are on a special mission; they have a charge and commission given by the one who sends them. They have all the authority of the one who commissioned them behind them. The concept was well-known in Jesus’ day. The rabbis would send a fellow rabbi to sort out a local dispute in a synagogue in the Mediterranean basin somewhere and he had all their authority behind him. Remember how Saul of Tarsus was sent to Damascus by the Jerusalem Sanhedrin with its authority behind him.
So if you received an apostle you were also accepting the one who sent him, and so Jesus can later say to these men, “he who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me” (Matt. 10:40). Again he says to them, “as the Father sent me, even so send I you” (Jn. 20:21). So the Twelve were uniquely empowered to represent Christ. He chose them and entrusted his message to them. They are Christ’s instruments. Through them he transmits and communicates what happened to the world. You can understand the importance of a record. If acts of great bravery are done and no one records the fact then the world will not applaud. If wonderful truths and mighty works of the Spirit are wrought, but nobody every speaks of them or writes them down then they might just as well never have happened. What if the Son of God had been born, preached the Sermon on the Mount, stilled the storms, healed the sick, was himself raised from the dead and yet no record was every kept of these words and deeds? Then the world could never profit. So here Jesus is establishing the formal authority for the church, that what was done and said might be transmitted and communicated to the whole world. That was too important a task to be left to some callow volunteers. That was the reason he climbed this mountain, and spent a whole night in prayer, and himself chose by the Holy Spirit these twelve men. All the future of the gospel world-wide for two thousand years was going to derive its content and be measured whether it was true or not by the teaching of these twelve men. They became the bearers of divine revelation. They became the instruments of revelation. They became part of our salvation. The sending of the Twelve is a redemptive act of God. Remember the great contrast the author of the Hebrews makes? He says that in the Old Testament the word that came to the people of God was spoken and authenticated by angels, while in the New Testament the word spoken by Jesus Christ was authenticated by the apostles who heard our Lord’s message. So their word is a revealed word, a word from the throne of heaven, a God-breathed word, a word which is Spirit and truth, given once and for all time, the word to which the whole world is bound and by which it will be judged. The word of the apostles is absolutely crucial for our knowledge of what the Christian actually is.
There was a law passed in Indiana, USA, in 1897 which gave a new definition of pi. It declared that from now on pi was going to be considered as 3.2 and not the universal 3.14159 etc. So engineers tried to work with that new definition and the result was a total disaster. Buildings collapsed and bridges did not meet in the middle. There was chaos: 3.2 cannot work. So it is with Christianity. We may not redefine it as ‘a religion of universal love and peace’, or ‘the brotherhood of man’. The apostles will not let us do that and call it Christianity. They alone have been given authority by Christ to tell us what the teachings of Christ are. Modernism cannot work. It closes down churches everywhere. In other words, here I am dealing with a great error of our age. It is called ‘Relativism.’ It is the denial of an absolute standard of truth. It is the claim that everyone has to work out his own truth because that is all we have. That view grew in momentum throughout the 20th century. For example in March, 1961 the American artist, the late Jon Schuler, wrote a letter from his home at Mallaig in the West Highlands of Scotland to his friend Ben Heller. He expressed his philosophy of relativism in these words: “We live in different worlds; we have different fantasies, different logic. Your truths are absolute and beautiful to you, and mine are absolute and beautiful to me.” Imagine for a moment the chief rabbi in Berlin in 1940 writing such sentiments to Adolph Hitler. Immediately the wickedness of the observation can be seen. “This is my ‘truth’ and so I will gas and incinerate 6 million Jews,” Hitler is saying. Merciless genocide in the name of ‘truth.’ If everything is true nothing is true. Your grasp of what is true or false, right or wrong does matter. People today are stumbling around in relativistic darkness until some favoured individuals amongst them meet the Christ who said, “I am the truth,” and, “My apostles will be guided into all truth.”
To lead them into the truth the apostles were given the Holy Spirit in a special measure. He was to enable them to do their job. Jesus told them that the Spirit of truth would teach them all things, and “bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (Jn. 14:26) . . . “he will guide you into all truth . . . and he will show you things to come” (Jn. 16:13-15). Do you understand what Jesus is doing? He is underlining the oneness of the work of the Spirit and his own work. There is no competition between them, no rivalry and no difference of understanding or emphasis. The Spirit will not even think, “Well, that is enough about Jesus, now let’s talk about me!” He never talks about himself. He always talks about Christ and he glorifies him. So preachers should not talk about themselves. So you know the Holy Spirit is present in a meeting not when preachers announce he is there but by the way your minds are centred on the Son of God. So you cannot separate the words of the apostles in the New Testament from the words of the Holy Spirit. If Paul or Peter or John or Matthew wrote it then it was because the Holy Spirit had given it. You cannot separate the accomplishment of Christ’s redemption from the proclamation of redemption made by the apostles. The proclamation of redemption was not left to chance, nor to human traditions, nor to the hope that someone would write some of it down, nor to gifted preachers, but to the choice and appointment by Christ of these twelve men.
3. THE TWELVE WERE THE FOUNDATION OF THE CHURCH.
They are the foundation of the church. So every new generation is born, and children grow up, and they are to be grounded in what the apostles have told us what Jesus Christ said and did. There is a little warning of Jude in his letter; he says in the seventeenth verse, “But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus foretold.” That’s what we have to say to one another, and what I say to you week by week – “remember, this is what Mark said” (with all the authority of Simon Peter behind him) and “remember, this is what the apostle Paul said.” That sure ground is the writing of the apostles. Paul tells the Ephesians that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the chief corner-stone” (Ephs. 2:20). In the book of Revelation you have that wonderful picture of the church compared to a city coming down from heaven. In other words, the origin of the salvation of every one of us lies in God from heaven working in our lives. The Saviour and the life-giving Spirit have come down from heaven and have redeemed us. So the church is compared to a holy city with twelve gates and twelve angels at the gates, and we are told, “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:14). Every congregation everywhere for two thousand years can only build on what the apostles have said. Not the apostles plus sacred traditions, not the apostles plus the book of Mormon, not the apostles plus the assured results of modern criticism, just the apostles themselves. They are the foundation gift of God once and for all given.
Almost five hundred years ago Martin Luther had to show the Roman church that it had moved off the apostolic foundation and was collapsing. It had brought in all manner of props to hold it up – the papacy, indulgences, the doctrine of the mass, an order of priests, purgatory, confession and the elevation of Mary’s place in redemption. Because it had abandoned its foundation it needed all those buttresses to keep it standing. To have a chronological succession of bishops, each one putting his hands on the head of the next man and pleading that this succession goes back to the apostles, is simply whistling in the dark if the teaching of the apostles is not proclaimed by each preacher to each rising generation.
So apostle have been given to the church by God, and there is no need for more of them because the Twelve failed to withhold nothing that any Christian could possibly need. What they have given us can make the people of God perfect and thoroughly equip us for every single good work. They are the foundation gift to the church.
Let me illustrate their role like this. Imagine a great skyscraper being erected and so they want to lay a hyper-strong foundation. So those cement trucks trundle in one day with their revolving containers and they pour out a foundation for the mighty building, and then the next day they come again and they pour out another layer on top of that, and then the next day they bring a third layer, and then a fourth and fifth and so on. Twelve ‘foundations’ they lay in this way. Is that going to be strong enough? Will that support the highest and tallest skyscraper men have ever tried to build? Will twelve foundations be strong enough? Of course they will be, you say, more than enough. So here are the elect people of God, spoken of by the Lord to Abraham in an early expression of the covenant of grace. They will be a company of people vast and innumerable, and all of them standing firm, because the church has to last for at least two thousand years, and all of this multitude are built on the testimony of the apostles. What a mighty foundation! Jesus was speaking of them when he told the story of the wise man who built his house upon the rock, and though the storms blew that house stood firm. The foundation on which he built his life was the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ given to the church by the apostles..
No more apostles are needed because there was no defect or omission in what the apostles said. No more apostles are possible because Christ appointed just twelve. One of the qualifications of an apostle was that he must be with Christ and see him raised from the dead. Remember how the early church appoints an apostle to fill the place of Judas and how they say that he must be someone who has been with Christ from the beginning and then they add, “one of these must become a witness of his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). He must have seen the Lord risen from the dead. Remember how the apostle Paul emphasised that he had been called to be an apostle: “Paul, an apostle (not from men, neither through men, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father . . .” (Gals 1:1). Though he has other men with him when he writes a letter he never calls them ‘apostles’ they are ‘brothers.’ Of course there are other men who are called ‘sent ones’, men commissioned on an evangelistic and pastoral errand by a congregation and so ‘missionaries’ or ‘apostles’ with a lower case ‘a’ – sent ones – but not one of them is a member of the Twelve as Paul is. He can say, “am I not an apostle? have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (I Cor. 9:1). Didn’t Jesus appear unto him as one born out of due time, as the last apostle? So we have no need of laying a foundation for a new religion as the cults have all done. We need to build on the foundation which the apostles have given to us.
Dr Lloyd-Jones in his sermon on Ephesians 4:11, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” makes these observations: “By definition this office of apostle was clearly an extraordinary and a temporary office. It is impossible that it should continue, were it merely for this fact, that no man has seen the risen Lord with the naked eye, or could possibly have claimed to see him in that manner, since the apostle Paul. Some have claimed to have seen visions, but visions belong to an entirely different category. Paul did not see a vision on the road to Damascus, he actually saw the Lord Christ” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Christian Unity,” Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1980, p.1186). Nothing he wrote and spoke about in the remaining years of his life indicated he ever altered his conviction on that matter. The apostles were temporary, extraordinary foundation gifts, with certain functions which were only meant to be used for a certain period and which since have disappeared. This gift has ceased being given to the church.
Once you say that then you are a cessationist. That is my conviction, but I don’t like that phrase. It implies impoverishment or the ceasing of the flow of the Spirit in his life giving and illuminating powers. I don’t believe that. I’m a ‘got-it-allist’! A ‘completist’! All that we need to make us Christ-like and perfect Almighty God has given us in the Bible. Every week we meet in the presence of this miraculous and divine book that has come to us from the prophets and apostles. It is the Word of God. It has saving and sanctifying power, and we are lost without it. So Paul tells Timothy to preach the Word and teach the Word, because that is why God has given it to us, not that we should admire it, but obey and love it. I was talking to a patient in the cancer ward in the local hospital recently and he told me how his daughter gave him a little cross and he also has a copy of the Bible and that he goes to sleep each night with the cross in one hand and the Bible in the other, and that he has faith. When he wakes up there they both are in his hands. I said to him, I hope kindly, that the Bible has not been given to us to hold. It is not a charm. It has been given to us that we read it and obey and adore. It is given to us that we can discover in it the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
4. THE APOSTLES WERE TO BE WITH CHRIST AND WORK FOR HIM.
“that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (vv. 14&15). There were three reasons why Jesus chose them:
i] He chose them to be with him. You can learn so much just from being with someone, working with him, listening to his teaching, seeing how he responds to various pressures and personalities. The twelve were going to watch Christ every day for a few years. They were going to be his apprentices and in the privilege of many breakfasts and suppers and sermons and healings and debates and weddings and funerals they were going to be greatly privileged students. When he is welcomed into a household then they are welcomed there too. When he is rejected there is no way that they are going to knock the back door and wheedle their way in. Wherever he has no place to lay his head they share in a night under the stars. In the privacy of intimate daily fellowship with him they would learn to be his ambassadors and spokesmen in the world. These gospels come out of all of that. That is why we believe their every word. He had told them to love the truth, and write just what is accurate. “Don’t exaggerate; there is no need. Don’t embellish; you will get it wrong. Just tell is as you heard and saw it,” they were told by their Lord. He would not train them in vain. He was the greatest teacher the world has seen, and he would make it his business to tell them in darkness what afterwards they would speak in the daylight, and he would speak quietly to them in the silence of the upper room or in a garden what later they would preach from the housetops. So they were to be with him to learn from him.
But they were also with him because he wasn’t an odd lonely outsider. Instinctively he desired the companionship of others; he rejoiced in their friendship. “He loved them, taught them, and grieved over their faults. We can even say that Jesus ‘needed’ them, just because he was truly and fully human – and to be truly and fully human means to be made for friendship. It is never good for man always to be alone (Gen. 2:18) (Sinclair Ferguson, “Let’s Study Mark”, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1999, p.42). I appreciate it when ministers are amongst the last to leave the church after the services on Sundays and in the midweek meeting and are available for people to approach. If they have questions, if they want to arrange a meeting etc. then that is the time. It is not good for a minister to disappear right after the meetings. The congregation need to see that he is accessible.
Stuart Olyott has a book of three talks on “Ministering Like the Master” that I heard him give at the Leicester Banner of Truth ministers’ conference a few years ago (Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 2003). he asks, “How many times have you witnessed the following scenario? Jack Jones of modest roots has come from total obscurity to train for the ministry. When his period of study is over he is duly ordained and begins his first pastorate. At this moment a great change comes over him: Jack Jones from Nowhere in the county of Nothingness begins to behave as if he were a member of a superior caste who has little in common with the lesser mortals who surround him. Have you ever heard ministers talk of church members as if they themselves were not church members? The message they send out is, ‘Church members are one sort of species, but we ministers belong to another.’ This is not the way of Christ. He puts no distance between himself and sinners. In fact, he does exactly the opposite. Having lived among them for so long, ad having been declared not be one of them, he puts himself among them again and openly identifies with them” (Olyott, op cit, p.67). How quickly should we identify with our fellow Christians and choose them as our friends and delight to be in their company. Distance from them is not an option; closeness to them is not enough. We identify with the congregation – think of the great apostolic pronoun ‘we’ as they stand in solidarity with the entire congregation to whom they are writing and they say that these truths are ‘our’ comforts and the warnings of the gospel are also to ‘us’. So the Lord Jesus needed to belong to a group of men.
ii] He chose them to “send them out to preach.” He did not tell them of a new ritual with vestments to wear and alters to erect. Their mission was to take the growingly familiar themes which they had heard from him and preach them to people all over Galilee. The King of God’s kingdom had come and men were sinners who needed to repent, especially in the light of his presence. His signs confirmed that he was the Holy One of God. They stated these truths as he did. They illustrated them, as he did, and then they applied them to their hearers.
iii] He gave them authority to drive out demons. Christ declared war on the kingdom of darkness. There was no possibility of a truce or a surrender. Until the end of the age there was going to be a state of warfare between the seed of the woman and the serpent. The Saviour had come to destroy the works of the devil, and he gave to these men authority to cast our demons and to overthrow the reign of the god of this world.
5. THE APOSTLES THEMSELVES WERE A DIVERSE GROUP OF MEN.
The twelve apostles are listed four times in the New Testament. This is Mark’s list: “Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder); Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him” (vv.16-19).
i] They were a diverse group. Of course they are twelve males, and twelve Jewish males at that, and all from Galilee to boot! Not one woman and not one sophisticate from Jerusalem. All of them were young men. No diversity there, you think. Yet they are very diverse men. Four of their names are Semitic in origin, and two are distinctively Greek – as becomes Galilee of the Gentiles. Some of them have the same names, two called James and two called Jude. Some we know absolutely nothing about, like one of those named James, and Thaddaeus. Others like John we know a great deal about. Peter was impetuous, and Thomas was a doubter. There is Matthew a tax-collector working for the Roman occupying power, and there is Simon the Zealot working for the overthrow of the Roman power. The tax-gatherer and the tax-hater both in the Twelve. The unpatriotic Jew who degraded himself by becoming a servant of the alien ruler, and the Jewish patriot who chafed under foreign yoke and who sighed for emancipation. The Lord Jesus chose them both. In the church of the future those distinctions would be over. Simon the Zealot would be hated by the Jews for preaching a false Messiah, and the Romans would be threatening Matthew for preaching another Lord than Caesar and each would be praying for the other. In the church of Jesus Christ there would be no Greek and Roman, master and slave giving to some special privileges and refusing them to others. Men would not be allowed to get closer to God than women. Both could run equally near to God and look into his face and cry, “Abba! Father!” All that matters is that you had Christ as your hope and foundation and plea with God. So they were a diverse group.
ii] They would have been an insignificant group in the estimation of King Herod, and the Sanhedrin, and the spies of the Pharisees and the Roman Emperor. When people were asked who were Christ’s henchmen the answer would have been, “A bunch of nobodies.” None was wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” ( I Cor. 1:26-29). Here were twelve country folk, men of no social consequence, with no connections, unlearned men, that is, they had not attended the rabbinical schools. Jesus wasn’t influenced at all by wealth or refinement.
But more than that, some of these apostles were genuinely men of very modest gifts, who quickly disappear from the scene and leave no mark in history whatsoever. They are not mentioned in the letters or in the Acts of the Apostles. We are conditioned to think in terms of ‘fame’ and ‘personality’ but God works by very different standards. This is the same God who chose those quiet elderly people whose names we never knew whom we saw in church every Sunday when we were growing up, until one day they stopped attending, becoming too feeble, and we learn that Mrs Anon had died. There were apostles like that, an old man named Mr. Thaddaeus attending a Galilean church in the year 70 and little children were told that the quiet old man in the corner seat on Sundays was an apostle chosen by Christ. “Naaah!” they protested. Yes, indeed. Christians expect the apostles all to be supermen, who never fear, falter or fail, whose lives would be a catalogue of prayers answered and triumphs achieved, never in trouble as other men, no clouds ever darkening their horizons, and tranquil smiles never leaving their faces – not someone like that quiet old man getting old and feeble in the corner seat – “Him? An apostle?” They were an insignificant group, and within them an inner core of utter anonymity. Their charisma was not in themselves at all but in the Lord who called and gifted them. What an encouragement to an ordinary little congregation like ourselves.
iii] They contained some utterly brilliant men who ranked amongst the great thinkers of human history. There is the apostle John who wrote a book and three short letters which contain some of the most sublime concepts men have ever written, thoughts that are astonishing in their freshness and unsurpassable in their glory. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made.” That is how fisherman John, a son of thunder, begins his gospel. William Shakespeare never said anything as staggeringly sublime as that.
Then there is this other giant, the apostle Peter. Ted Donnelly has written a superb book about him called, “Peter: Eyewitness of his Majesty” (Banner of Truth, 1998). He says, “The Gospels are full of Peter. No other disciple is mentioned as often, or has so much to say. No one confesses Christ so boldly or argues with him so persistently. Peter is commended more highly than his companions, and apart from Judas, rebuked more stingingly. He is a jumble of contradictions – confused and clear-sighted, exasperating and loveable, boastful and humble, cowardly and courageous. Above all, he comes across as an intensely human figure. Of all the Twelve, his personality is most vividly drawn, so that he stands out from the others, a focus of our attention. We feel that we know Peter and can identify with him in both his strengths and his weaknesses. This is precisely what God wants us to do. For Peter is not portrayed in such detail simply because he was destined for future leadership. He is a living, breathing example of what it means to follow Christ. He is a prototype of discipleship. We can learn from his mistakes and try to imitate his virtues” (Edward Donnelly, “Peter: Eyewitness of His Majesty,” Banner of Truth, 1998, p.8).
Two eminent men out of twelve is a good proportion. Think of a seminary staff, and if you have two outstanding professors then that is a rare, privileged and blessed seminary. The gospel writers do not satisfy our curiosity about these apostles. They are not afflicted with biographic mania. “The Twelve Apostles” is not their theme, and so they never thought twice about withholding any details at all about half of them. It was Christ who was their fascination, and their sole desire was to tell what they know about him.
iv] Christ chose “Judas Iscariot who betrayed him” (v.19). Didn’t he know Judas’ character? Of course. John tells us “Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him” (Jn.6:64). Yet he called Judas to follow him, listen to the Sermon on the Mount, to see him raise Lazarus from the dead, walk on the waters and be in his spotless loving company for three years. What an awesome warning to us all, that we can have the greatest Christian privileges and yet end up hating Jesus Christ. We can be personally drawn by Christ, eat and drink with him, taste something of the Word of God and the power of the world to come . . . and yet be lost. Privileges alone have never saved anyone. Judas was called by Christ to be an apostle and yet Judas was lost. Office alone has no saving merit. There will be evangelists, bishops and popes in hell.
Christ took such a group of men as these. What majesty, what drawing power, wisdom and matchless love that he gathered around him these diverse men of opposite backgrounds and temperaments and made them his apostles and the foundation of a church of similar diverse people.
9th March 2003 GEOFF THOMAS