The Twelve Apostles: Matthew 10:2-4
Today, we are living in a world that is rapidly changing. We have seen revolutionary moral changes in a single generation. We are looking at a culture that is changing so fast that one generation may not even be able to identify with the next. We are changing from a culture that not too long ago asked for tolerance of alternative lifestyles to one that now excludes anyone who does not favor such lifestyles. We are changing from a culture that not too long ago broadly identified itself with the Christian worldview to one that is increasingly hostile and antagonistic to Christianity. We are changing from a culture that once found its roots in the thinking of Plato and Paul to one that now finds its roots in the thinking of Nietzsche.
And in such a context, one must ask: what must the church do and say to such a culture? Or can the church even do anything in light of the current onslaught?
In light of such questions and the current predicament, we do well to consider just the situation that existed when our Lord ordained the 12 apostles. It was not a Christian world. And even though the Jewish faith had planted synagogues throughout the Roman Empire, it wasn’t a world that favored the morality of Moses, either. The first century world was a pagan world, a world that lived in almost complete spiritual darkness. It was a world that didn’t value human life. Unwanted infants were often exposed to the elements and left to die. And though they didn’t watch movies that were R-rated for violence, they did go to the coliseums to watch gladiators kill each other. Though it was a religious world, the religions that flourished in those days were corrupt and wicked. The deities that were worshipped gave license to the worst sort of behavior.
And there was nothing that made it look like this would ever change. First century Judea lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire, in the middle of the 200-year period of Roman greatness and world influence called the Pax Romana. There was no chance to democratically change any institution. There was no chance for any type of top-down change that is often advocated these days.
Moreover, the philosophical climate was totally unsuited for the rise of the new church that Jesus was building. The Christian church is fundamentally based upon the teaching that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and that three days later he rose from the dead. But the Greek and Roman philosophers that dominated first-century thought didn’t think much of resurrection of any kind. The body was a trap to be rid of. And the Jewish philosophers didn’t think much of a crucified Messiah. That’s why Paul reminded the Corinthian believers that “we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23). The Jews hated the gospel and the Greeks laughed at it.
In other words, the world that Jesus and the apostles faced was a lot like the world we are facing today. Though we are right to bemoan the fact that our culture is slipping further and further into paganism, one thing we can be encouraged in: we are not facing a situation that the church has never faced before. We are in some sense going back to the way things started. And we know that the church not only survived in such a climate, it flourished. And the words of Jesus about his church are still true: “The gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).
Of course, there are other lessons that history can teach us about the church that are not so flattering. We know that the church very early on took a course that eventually landed it in full-blown sacramentalism. The church became like the world it conquered. And so history teaches us that the church often needs correcting. We are thankful for reformations and revivals. And the one thing that stands out in every genuine revival and what stands out in the sixteenth century Reformation is that the church is always purified when it returns to the word of God. Sola Scriptura was the foundation of the Reformation, and it needs to remain the watch-word of the church. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee” (Ps. 119:11). And so, as we consider our own predicament in the 21st century, and we ask the question of how the church in the West is to face an increasingly hostile environment, the first thing we need to do is to go to the Scriptures.
And we can learn a lot about how the Lord intended his church to function and operate in a hostile environment by looking at what the Scripture says about the men he choose to lead his church. You can tell what a football team can do (or can’t do) by looking at its players. You can tell the direction a democracy is going by looking at those who are elected to office. Even so, we can see something of what our Lord intended for the church by looking at those he chose to lead it and to serve as its foundational figures (cf. Eph. 2:20). To that end, I want to consider with you this morning these twelve men, the twelve apostles. There are five things I want to note about them.
First of all, they were twelve. Now I’m not into numerology and trying to discover hidden meaning behind every number in the Bible. Some people may ponder why David chose five stones, but I think that falls under the category of “foolish questions” (2 Tim.2:23). However, sometimes it’s obvious that a number has meaning, and this is such a place. Why did Jesus choose twelve apostles? It’s not because that’s all he had to pick from because Luke tells us that Jesus sent out seventy disciples to preach. It is because Jesus is making the point that he is instituting the new covenant people of God with these twelve men, just as God instituted the old covenant people of God in the twelve tribes of Israel. The church is the new Israel. Jesus makes this clear in his words in Matthew 19:28: “And Jesus said unto them [the apostles], Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of the Israel.” Here we see the unmistakable connection between the 12 apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel.
What this tells us is that the church is something special. What God said of Israel in the OT can be said in an even more real way of the church: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). The church is not a humanly-devised and promoted organization. It is God’s new society upon the earth. To be a part of the church is to be a part of something special. The church is the visible manifestation of God’s family and people upon the earth. It is through the church that God reaches the world. The church is the “church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
In the OT, God’s name was made known through Israel. His plan of redemption was worked out in the context of Israel. It is for this reason that Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). Even so, in the present time, God is working out his plan through the church. “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Eph. 3:21). Do we value the church? Are we seeking to promote God’s glory in the same way he is: “in the church”?
Second, they were men. I have begun reading again in the OT book of 1 Chronicles. And you know how it begins. Names – lots of them. And you have to wonder: why all the names? There are probably multiple reasons, but I think one of the reasons is to show us that we are reading history about real people. The Chronicles of the kings of Israel is not like the Chronicles of Narnia. The former is about real people, living in our world, doing real things. Even so, one of the things that this list of the apostle’s names shows us is that they were men.
They were just like us. These are not superheroes, like Superman or Batman. And we need to be reminded of that, because over time important people in the church tend to become spiritual superheroes. We call them “saints” as if that were a term for a special person among believers, forgetting that every believer is a saint (Eph. 1:2). And that is not healthy. If we have that mentality, we are going to tend to think that nothing they did or said could ever apply to us. This is why James writes in his epistle that Elijah “was a man subject to like passions as we are” (Jam. 5:17). Why would he say this? Because you are not going to copy Elijah’s prayer life if you think Elijah was in a category all by himself. But he wasn’t, and that’s why Elijah’s prayer life is an example of the prayer life of any righteous person who prays effectual, fervent prayers (v. 16).
Now it is true that in one sense the apostles were in a category all by themselves. But it was not because of who or what they were. They weren’t unique; it was their office that was unique. Apart from their office, they were no different from any other person.
Third, they were ordinary. They were not only men, but they were common and unspectacular in every sense of the term – they were not great in any worldly sense. They were not highly educated, and they were not professional theologians. They lacked influence and worldly power. When we look at the list, we notice that, first of all, most of the disciples evidently were from Galilee. We know that Peter, Andrew, John and James were, because they earned their living off the Sea of Galilee as fishermen and we are told that Peter and Andrew lived in Capernaum. Matthew was a tax-collector in Capernaum, so he too was a Galilean. Philip is said to have his home in Bethsaida, Peter’s original home (Jn. 1:44). Furthermore, it is often thought that Bartholomew (or “Son of Tolmai”) is another name for Nathanael of Cana in Galilee (Jn. 21:2). We can’t be so certain about this, but it is still almost certain that he was from Galilee since Philip obviously knew him so well. There are three reasons why people think Bartholomew is Nathanael: (1) because in all four lists of the apostles, Philip and Bartholomew are together, indicating that they were probably companions; (2) Philip was in fact Nathanael’s friend, since he brought him to Jesus; (3) in John’s gospel, Nathanael is associated with the apostles (Jn. 21:1,ff). Of the remaining apostles we can’t be as sure, but certainly over half of the apostles were originally from Galilee.
This is significant because people from Galilee were looked down upon by the religious and cultural elites in Jerusalem. If Jesus had intended to impress the nation with his disciples, he would have looked elsewhere for those who would bear his message. But he didn’t. God loves to use the common, ordinary believer to bear witness to his name. In fact, this is the normal way he operates, as Paul makes clear: “For ye see your calling brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise: and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Cor. 1:26-29).
Now that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t sometimes use people with remarkable talents and abilities (think of the apostle Paul!). He does. Nor is this an excuse to not develop our own talents and abilities. We should. However, like the apostles, the fact of the matter is that all of us are people of limited abilities. That is true of everyone. One person’s limit may be different from another’s but we are all limited, finite beings. And at some point, we are going to realize that some tasks are bigger than us. But that is okay. Think about the role the apostles were meant to play – build the church! How were they going to do that? But they did it because our Lord called them to do it. Even so, God blesses us with grace to fulfill his will in this world, no matter how daunting the task may seem to be. Our success is not a function of our own talents. It’s a function of God’s call on our life and obedience to that call. Yes, the apostles were ordinary people. But they followed Jesus when he called them, and that’s what made them successful in their ministry and life.
Fourth, they were different. What I mean by this is that they were different from each other. Fishermen and tax-collectors probably don’t have that much in common. John and James were called the “sons of thunder” (Mk. 3:17), probably because of their forceful behavior on occasions (at one point they asked Jesus if they could call down fire on a town because the townspeople didn’t want Jesus to pass through, Luke 9:54). On the other hand, you have guys like Andrew and Philip who were quietly committed to bringing others to Jesus (cf. John 1:40-45). There was Peter who was quick to confess Jesus, whereas Thomas was doubtful. Others, like Simon the Zealot [“Canaanite” should be translated “Cananaean” and is an Aramaic word for “zealot”, see Luke 6:15. The Zealots were a political party devoted to insuring the purity of the law was observed in Jewish society.] were probably very politically motivated, whereas others probably weren’t. These were a bunch of different guys.
Moreover, when you look at the lists in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, you will notice that “in each list there are groups of four, each group headed by Peter, Philip, and James the son of Alphaeus respectively.”1 In other words, it looks very much like that 12 were organized into smaller groups of four. This is speculation, but it could be that part of this organization lay in the fact that people with similar abilities and temperaments naturally gravitate toward each other. If so, this is another indicator that here you have a group of men who were not all the same.
This is an important point, because in our day despite what is said about individualism, the fact of the matter is that most people want to fit in and be like everyone else. And sometimes, the church becomes like that. We want everyone to be like us, and we are uncomfortable around people who are not like us. As a church, we need to resist this type of attitude. We need to be comfortable with people who are different from us. The fact of the matter is that if Christ has called us to himself, then that should be enough. That is all the unity we need. Unity is not found in common vocations or common hobbies or common interests as much as it should be found in a common faith in Christ. If we cannot find unity in him and friendship one with another in him, then we know little about what it means to be a part of the family of God (cf. Eph. 4:1-6).
Christ began his church with ordinary men who were very different from each other. This is the way he still does it. The church is still filled with common, ordinary people who love and care and pray for and minister to each other for no other reason than because they love Jesus together.
Finally, they were together. Though it is true that Jesus had a special, inner group of disciples in Peter, John, and James, the fact of the matter is that Jesus spent time with his disciples as a group. I’m sure that he had one-on-one time with each. But what comes through in the gospels is this picture of Jesus with all his disciples, teaching them together. He ordained them together, he ministered with together, and he taught them together. And even when he sent them out, he never sent them out alone. They always went at least in pairs (cf. Mk. 6:7).
And of course the purpose of our Lord ordaining the Twelve was to build his church, to gather in the lost sheep, first of the house of Israel, and then of the Gentiles. Jesus through them is building a community. And in building a community, our Lord starts with community – the fellowship of the apostles. In other words, our Lord had no interest in setting up the disciples to be islands unto themselves. They learned with one another and they helped one another in the work from the very beginning. In the Special Forces, I am told that one of the things they foster is this sense of community. When you go into the battlefield, you need to know that your teammates have your back. I was told of one Navy Seal who became so good that he lost this sense of dependence upon the team, and the Seals kicked him out of the teams for a time until he got his head screwed on straight again and was clear about this essential element of interdependence.
Again, this is so important for our day. I think one of the dangers a Christian faces is this danger of self- sufficiency, the belief that I can handle it on my own. But Jesus didn’t create a church so you and I could avoid it. It created it so we would be a part of it. He created it so we could “exhort one another daily” (Heb. 3:13), so that we could “consider one another to provoke unto love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb. 9:24-25). It one of the things that our Lord has put in place for our perseverance in the faith, and we ought to take advantage of it.
Look, if it was necessary for the Twelve, how much more it is for you and me?
Now, what does all this tell us about how the church should face its current mission in the world? How we to look at all that is so depressing and discouraging around us? Three things, in closing. First of all, the fact that the church is God’s new society in the world ought to encourage us that we are not alone and that God will never allow his church to fail. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be a Christian in the fifth century when Rome was sacked by the barbarians. It must have seemed as if civilization was being overturned. The West slipped into the Dark Ages. And yet the church emerged on the other end in the Reformation. The church, like the Bible, is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. We must not let our hearts become burdened with worry. The God of the church is still in control.
Second, we need to remember that God is not limited by our limitations. Our limitations may be very real, and in many ways crippling. But our God loves to use cripples to herald his name in this world. The apostle Paul may be bound but the word of God is not bound, not even by our own mistakes and problems.
Third, we need to stick together. Benjamin Franklin is said to have remarked during the heady days of 1776, “Brethren, we must either hang together or we shall surely hang separately.” The church bears witness when believers live out Christian life in community. Unless the church does this, how is it going to show the world there is something different?
Thank God that he instituted the church. Thank God that he calls ordinary people into his service. But above all, we thank God that he does more than this: he calls sinners, rebels. He calls people like Saul of Tarsus and changes him into Paul the apostle. We thank God for his redemptive grace through Christ and the church that is the visible manifestation of the redemptive grace and love.
1 D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), p. 237.