Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Twelve Are Chosen

Posted by foryourfaith on March 3, 2010


Jesus was never a lonely prophet. Forming a community of people around him was fundamental to Jesus’ ministry. The Gospels portray him as being besieged by people of all kinds and continually teaching and ministering to their needs. At some points, we are told, he could not even enter towns, but had to stay in the open country because of the press of people who “came to him from every quarter” (Mark 1:45).

Because of his miracles and his ability to heal the sick, villagers would often try to keep Jesus as a wonder-worker among them. Luke tells how crowds “sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them,” but he insisted on going to other towns (Luke 4:42). Jesus wished for the throngs to understand that the miracles were a sign that the Kingdom of God was at hand, but that it was his teaching that was central to his ministry, not the miracles.

From the large group of disciples, Jesus created an inner circle to spread the news of his ministry. “Disciple” simply means one who learns from a teacher. As Mark 2:18 makes clear, John the Baptist and the Pharisees also had student-followers called disciples. The Gospels reveal at various points that Jesus had several circles of disciples. The most intimate group consisted of three disciples, Simon Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John; they were three of the four fishermen Jesus first called along at the Sea of Galilee. The Gospels describe these three as being with Jesus at important moments such as the transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 9:2; 14:33).

The most important grouping was that known as “the twelve.” Their number evidently was symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). The exact number was sufficiently important that when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, forfeiting his place among “the twelve,” a replacement had to be named (Acts 1:15-26). It was made clear that the replacement must be one who had been a disciple during Jesus’ mission.

The Gospels emphasize that the twelve did not simply volunteer for the mission but were selected by Jesus. From high on a mountainside Jesus summoned “those whom he desired” and appointed them “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:13-14). The corresponding passage in Matthew (10:1-2) lists the twelve “Apostles” and elaborates on the commissioning and instruction of the twelve. “Apostle” literally means one sent out on a mission. So if a teacher deputizes a disciple for a mission, he becomes an apostle at the same time. Apostles were not always limited to twelve; in Acts 14:14 we find apostles Barnabas and Paul preaching the Gospel. Paul’s authority to be an apostle and teacher of the gospel is based on his claim to have seen the risen Lord (Galatians 1:11-12).

The credentials of Jesus’ followers were not impressive. The Book of Acts describes two of their leaders, Peter and John, as uneducated, common men,” words that would evidently fit them all. But the group cut across some of the basic divisions of society. Among the twelve were Matthew the tax collector. As such he would have been despised by Jews as a collaborator with Roman oppression. Then there was Simon the “Cananaean” or “Zelot,” who before his calling had probably been a man committed to the overthrow of Roman rule.

Although Jesus had chosen them, the Gospels repeatedly show that these disciples had great difficulties in understanding Jesus and his mission. Jesus was often exasperated with them: “Do you not yet perceive or understand?” he asked on one occasion. On another occasion, the disciples tried to prevent Jesus from blessing some children, apparently thinking it a waste of Jesus’ time. Jesus overruled his disciples, and drawing the children to him, told the disciples that they had turned away the very ones to whom the kingdom of God belonged. Still, Jesus was forebearing towards the disciples. According to tradition, two of them, Matthew and John, would become evangelists – literally: one who proclaims “good news” or the gospel. The testimony of the apostle Peter was said to be recorded by the Evangelist John Mark. The remaining Evangelist was Luke, by tradition a friend of Paul’s. Although these four came to be known as “the evangelists.” In fact all apostles were evangelists, commissioned to proclaim good news.

The Gospel of Luke indicates that there was another wider circle, this one composed of 70 disciples, also commissioned by Jesus. Their number may allude to the 70 elders of Israel or the 70 nations of the world listed in Genesis. Both the twelve and the 70 were sent out on remarkable missions in Jesus’ name. They were to “take no gold nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff.” Thus they traveled, two by two, from town to town, preaching the kingdom of God and healing the sick.

Yet another circle of disciples was a circle of women. These were women “who, when he was in Galilee, followed him and ministered to him.” Luke indeed noted that these women provided for Jesus and his followers “out of their means.” Amazingly, Luke reports that this group included on woman named Joanna, whose husband was in the court of Herod. For a married woman of such station to leave home and follow a teacher like Jesus was certainly extraordinary. One of the more prominent of the women was Mary Magdalene, and the Gospels report that she was with the women at Jesus’ crucifixion and was the first to receive a revelation of Jesus’ resurrection.


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