Luke 6:12-16 “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: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”
We learn from this chapter that our Lord was traveling all over Galilee in his desire for everyone to hear his message. The crowds were following him everywhere but their size had to be limited by the distance his own human voice could carry. He was not going to be able to reach all the villages of the province, let alone the population of Jerusalem, in the short span of three years, and that was another reason why Jesus has to appoint and train men. He has to authorize them to speak, and work, as they traveled in his name. What we have in the verses of our text is the beginning of a new fledgling organisation which would serve the kingdom of God under Jesus and for Jesus. In other words, this is the beginning of the church in its simplest form. We often compare Wesley and Whitefield at the levels of their theologies and their personalities, but we also are impressed by Wesley’s ability to organise his converts, a gift which Whitefield did not have. Christ is establishing a structure for his own message to go out and out into the world. The twelve men he chose were going to be his support team of witnesses, apprentices, travelling companions, assistants, poor relief workers, exorcists, heralds, physicians, baptizers, teachers and preachers.
1. IN PRAYER BY HIMSELF JESUS CHOSE THE TWELVE.
“Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray” (v.12). This 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 desperately important occasions when he needed to go somewhere alone to pray. Although all his life was prayer in terms of frequently turning to his Father with thanks and questions, there were also set times when he needed to meet God and spread a great issue before him, and look at it in his presence from very angle.
For what did Jesus pray on such occasions? We are told almost nothing. The only exceptions are the prayers at the end of his life, such as John chapter 17, the so-called high-priestly prayer, and Gethsemane, where in both cases we are told the content of his intercession. They are enough of a guide to help us answer the question as to what he prayed for at other times. Our Lord was under pressure; he needed a fresh touch of assurance, mental poise, assessment, new strength, illumination, guidance and so on. He was about to announce his choice of twelve apostles and he needed wisdom in that selection. In the lives of us all there must be special times when we draw near to God. Our work is mechanical, our witness is ineffectual and 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. The N.I.V. translates it “praying to God”, but it is literally ‘prayer of God’, 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 – as if he were a sentry on duty – so much as a communion of divine fellowship in which all the disciples were considered one by one, presented to the Father, evaluated and examined in God’s presence. It was in that process that 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 with them confidently the next day. Our text says, that “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles” (v.13).
So here is the great example of Christ. If ever there was a person whom we might think didn’t need to pray for any length of time about anything 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’m coping. I had my anointing at the baptism. I’m working things out. I’ve had my eyes on these boys going on for a year; I’ve got a pretty good idea of what they are like.” I am saying that there was nothing like that. If even Jesus, before a great decision, needed to go apart and cry to God for help, then certainly we do. Don’t we evangelical Christians suffer from an over-dependence on our feelings, a trust in our hunches, a self-confidence in our grasp of things, an over-rated sense of fittedness to have weighed up all the factors and come to the right conclusions? Don’t Christians make terrible mistakes and many people get hurt? This must be the case or there wouldn’t be the disasters that litter the Christian testimony. What errors men and women make about such matters as the towns they move to, the churches they choose, the ministries they sit under, the life partners they marry, the relationships they get involved in. We are thinking of asking a girl out and we’ve scarcely prayed at all before that momentous step. We are contemplating a course at a university and we have failed to think and speak in the presence of God about it. We are taking up a career, or applying for a job – crucial decisions – and we are relying on our instincts. A momentum will thereafter develop; we will become like a cog in a machine, not men with our hands on the driving wheel. Have we prayed about these things? There is scarcely any decision we make in life which is not momentous, and we dare not neglect asking God to guide us, to close the door if it is not his will, to open the door if it is. To bring wise counsels into our life and enlighten our understanding. “Choose for me, Lord,” we pray while thinking and inquiring and studying as much as we can to come to the wisest decision. Then you must trust God. He does not play games with us when we earnestly want his will. Of course there will be problems with whatever decision we take in life, but he will be with us in the problems.
2. THE CHOICE OF THE TWELVE WAS CHRIST’S ALONE.
He prayed alone, and then he called apart those whom he wanted to be apostles, appointing those twelve men. He had not earlier said to any of them what 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, and the appointment of these twelve was only at his initiative. There was no vote, no ballot, no running for office, no pieces of paper dropped in a pot, no casting lots. There was no discussion at all; Christ appointed the twelve. There is some emphasis in the gospels on this sovereign choice; 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).
Jesus’ authority could also be seen in the new names that he gave them. Simon is renamed ‘Peter’ the ‘Rock.’ James and John are to be known as ‘Boanerges’, fiery, thunderous preachers. The act of naming was important in those Mediterranean cultures. At the very beginning Adam was given authority to name the animals. He set them in order in the created world. So the last Adam 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 together result in new name and new vocation being displayed.
More than that he chose exactly twelve men. What a revolutionary statement for his day. People in Galilee would have said to one another, “Do you know he has chosen a group of twelve men to support him?” “Twelve . . . How about that?” 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 actually going to do it. These apostles 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. About half a dozen times in this gospel Luke is going to refer to ‘the Twelve.’
More than that, Jesus himself designated them by the title ‘apostles’(v.14). This is the first time the word appears in Luke’s gospel. 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 and commissioned. They go only in a representative capacity, like the American ambassador speaks to the Prime Minister or our Queen. He represents his president to them. The basic word ‘apostle’ 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 those sent by God are men with a mission, possessing the authority of the one who commissioned them. The concept was well-known in Jesus’ day. The rabbis would send one particular rabbi to sort out a local dispute in a synagogue somewhere in the Mediterranean basin and he had all the authority of Jerusalem behind him. Remember how Saul of Tarsus was sent to Damascus by the chief priests with their authority behind him to arrest men and women.
So if you gladly 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 was happening when he began his ministry in Israel to the world. You can understand the importance of some accurate record being made of important events. If acts of great bravery are done and no one records the fact then the world will not be awestruck. If wonderful truths and mighty works of the Spirit are wrought, but nobody ever 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 had ever been kept of those words and deeds? Then the world would have profited nothing.
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.
I read of 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; it is inaccurate and untrue. So it is with Christianity. We may not impose upon it our own definition and call it “a religion of universal love and peace,” or “the brotherhood of man” and claim that that is ‘Christianity.’ The apostles chosen by Christ won’t permit such folly. They are the ones who define what Christianity is, not anyone who came after them; not anyone alive today. You may be foolish enough to make up your own religion. Then invent your own name for it, and call it, say, ‘Scientology.’ Don’t call it Christianity. The Twelve alone have been given authority by Christ to tell us what the teachings of Christ are.
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 in them and his own work. The organ that unites them is the Spirit of truth. There is no competition between them, no rivalry and no difference of understanding or emphasis. The Spirit will never get restless and say, “Well, that is enough about Jesus, now let’s talk about me!” He doesn’t talk about himself. He always speaks of Christ and he glorifies him. So preachers should keep talk about themselves to the minimum. You see the implications of that for ourselves? We know the presence of the Holy Spirit in a meeting not when preachers announce he is there, or by heightened feelings but by the way your minds are made to centre upon the Son of God. Then the Spirit of God is there. So I am saying that you cannot separate the words of the apostles in the New Testament from the words of the Holy Spirit. If Luke or Peter or John or Paul wrote it then it was because the Holy Spirit of Jesus had given it. You cannot separate the accomplishment of Christ’s redemption from the proclamation of his redemption made by the apostles. The proclamation of redemption was not left to chance, to human traditions, or to the hope that someone or other would finally jot some of it down, but to the prayerful choice and appointment by Christ of these twelve men.
The last century and a half has witnessed many attempts to erect a wall of separation between Jesus and Paul. For example, the American Tony Campolo calls himself a ‘red letter Christian.’ Red letter Christians, he says, hold the same theological commitments as do other evangelicals, but they are the ones who take the words of Jesus especially seriously. So they claim that they end up being more concerned than other Christians for the poor, the hungry, and those at war. Don Carson describes that whole attitude as ‘rubbish.’ It is yet one more futile exercise in trying to find some noble way of blessing your own preferred beliefs. This division between Jesus and the apostles can be seen at a popular level in the movie The Da Vinci Code. But Jesus never inserted a few inches of distance between himself and his apostles, a smidgeon of deniability, just in case. Rather, he told them, “If they receive you and your words they are receiving me.”
3. THE TWELVE WERE THE FOUNDATION OF THE CHURCH.
They are the foundation of the church. So every new generation comes into the world knowing nothing, and as children grow up they are to be grounded in what the apostles have told us concerning what Jesus Christ said and did. There is a pointed warning of Jude in his little 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 Luke said” (with all the authority of Paul behind him). The sure ground on which we build our lives and marriages and challenge our society 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 coming and 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 may build only 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, the Vatican, 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 apostles 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.
4. THE TWELVE WERE SUCH A VARIED GATHERING OF MEN.
The twelve apostles are listed name by name four times in the New Testament. This is Luke’s list: “Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” What can we say? Let me say four things:
i] They were a diverse group.Of course they are twelve males, and twelve Jewish males at that, and all from Galilee to boot, northerners, the lot of them! 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 another called Judas son of another James. Others like John we know a great deal about. Peter was impetuous, and Thomas had an explosion of doubt. There is Matthew a tax-collector who used to work for the Roman occupying power, and there is Simon the Zealot who used to agitate 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, no master and slave giving to some special privileges and refusing them to others. In this kingdom men would not be allowed to get closer to God than women. Both could run equally close 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 considered 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 disappeared from the scene and left no mark in history whatsoever. Let’s say one day you bumped into four young men, Bartholomew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot and Judas son of James. “Who are they?” you said to your friend. “Apostles of the Jesus of Nazareth,” he replied. “Naaah. You’re having me on. Who are they?” “They really are his apostles,” he said again. Amazing! You expected them to all look like Charlton Heston with voices like Richard Burton.They are men unmentioned in the letters or in any activity in the Acts of the Apostles. We are conditioned to think of church leaders in terms of ‘fame’ and ‘personality’, men who get carried around on chairs, but God works by very different standards. This is the same God who chose those quiet elderly people whose names we barely knew whom we saw in church every Sunday when we were growing up, until one day they stopped attending, becoming too feeble, and then we learn that Mr. Anon. had died. There were apostles like that, an old man named Mr. Bartholomew 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 have been supermen, who never feared, faltered or failed, whose lives would have been 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 insignificant in the eyes of the chief priests and King Herod, but amongst 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 every personal detail about many apostles. It was Christ who was their fascination, and their sole desire was to tell what they know about him.
iv] The apostles included the choice of Christ “Judas Iscariot who became a traitor” (v.16). On that somber note the list ends. Didn’t Jesus 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, to hear the Sermon on the Mount, to see him raise Lazarus from the dead, to walk on the sea 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 in hell evangelists, bishops and preachers.
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.
I appreciate Douglas Milne’s closing observations on Jesus’ choice of the twelve, and I will end on this note: “Jesus builds his church from people of different temperaments and backgrounds. Jesus unites people who otherwise would be enemies. Jesus calls unexpected and unlikely people to carry out his mission. Jesus transforms people in the course of serving him. Jesus equips those he calls to serve him. Jesus brings out the best in those who serve with him. Jesus allows for false individuals among those who claim to serve him” (Douglas Milne, Let’s Study Luke, pp.81&82, Banner of Truth, 2005).
18th May 2008 GEOFF THOMAS