Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

42. The Call of the Twelve (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1, 13)*

The time was now ripe for the formal selection of a band of close disciples. So first Jesus went up into a mountain to pray about it. Luke’s text can be read as meaning ‘the mountain on which was the place of prayer’ which Jesus had been glad to use on former occasions (Acts 16:13; Mk. 1:35).

The whole night was spent in prayer about those who were to be his apostles. The decisions ‘ were momentous. Jesus knew that later during his ministry and also to a much greater extent in the years to follow these men would have to shoulder big responsibilities. The well-being of the elect of God would be in their care.

Chosen, Given

Next day he called his body of followers together, again on the mountain, and as they stood in a group before him he called first one and then another, separating them off to be members of his new band of apostles. “He called unto him whom he would” (Mk). The Greek text emphasizes that the choice was his. Yet, in later years, Peter was to recall how they were “chosen before of God” (Acts 10:41). Indeed this was a truth which Jesus himself acknowledged with thankfulness: “Thine they were, and thou gavest them me... I pray for them which thou hast given me, for they are thine” (Jn. 17:6, 9, 11, 12, 24). There is, of course, no contradiction. That night of prayer explains.

The first Jesus (Joshua) had taken twelve stones out of Jordan as a token that Israel were now dedicated to the task of turning the Land of Promise into a Kingdom of God. Now a greater Joshua had chosen his twelve, the first being Peter (a stone). These twelve, who also came new-born out of a Jordan baptism, were to become the foundation stones of a New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14).

Matthew lists the twelve in pairs because Jesus later sent them out “two and two” (Mk. 6:7). He deliberately and significantly puts the call of the twelve immediately after a very moving description of the needs of the people: “When he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. Then said he unto his disciples. The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (9:36-38).

Jesus himself had done precisely this -- praying that God would provide helpers, the right kind of helpers, for the herculean task which lay before him. Just as Moses had found it necessary to delegate much of the work of administration to seventy elders whom God equipped with the wisdom of His Spirit (Num. 11:25), so now Jesus sought the help of his apostles. Nevertheless one cannot help but reflect somewhat ruefully that the twelve appear in the gospels as hindrances and liabilities to their Master as much as helpers.


From this time on the twelve were known as Apostles. Yet, perhaps conscious of their inadequacies in the early days, Matthew and Mark (that is, Peter) use the term only once-both in connection with the preaching mission on which Jesus sent them-whilst John never uses the word at all (except in Rev.21:14). Luke, who was of course outside the number of the twelve, has it six times in his gospel, but in Acts he employs the title exclusively, for by that time their apprenticeship was over.

The word “apostle” does not mean “messenger”, but rather “ambassador” or representative (s.w. Is. 18:2 Sym. version). An ambassador has powers to act on behalf of the king who sends him. The apostles were like that. The word was also used of the envoys who maintained contact between the temple and the communities of the Jewish dispersion. Perhaps this is the main point.

Mark’s record lists three important aspects of the work they were to fulfil:

The second and third of these functions were only to be taken up after a fairly lengthy training, for they were not sent out preaching until just before the beginning of the last year of the ministry (Mk. 6:7). The first was surely more important than it may seem at first. Jesus needed their fellowship. In spite of all their variegated failures, at the end of his ministry he could still say his heartfelt “Thank you” - “Ye are they that have continued with me in my temptations” (Lk. 22:28).

The necessary signs of an apostle, as insisted on in the early church, were these: He must have received his call to office from the Lord; he must have known Jesus both in the days of his flesh and after his resurrection (Acts 1:21, 22); and he must be endowed with the miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 12:12; 1 Cor. 9:2). And his triple function was to be an ambassador for Christ (1 Cor. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:20; Eph. 6:20), to bear witness of the Lord’s resurrection (Lk. 24:48), and to exercise powers of guidance and direction without geographical limit in the ecclesias. But all this lay well ahead in the future.

Three Fours

There are four lists of the apostles -- in Matthew 10, Mark 3, Luke 6 and Acts 1. The order of names is not the same, but each list is divisible into three quaternions. In each of these groups the order varies, but the names are the same. Thus, Peter and Andrew, James and John are always together. Next come Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, whilst the last group is James the son of Alphaeus, Simon Zelotes, Judas of James, alco called Lebbaeus and Thaddaeus, and, always last, Judas Iscariot, replaced in Acts.1 by Matthias.

The first four seem to have been specially close to Jesus. Where Peter and John are concerned this is very evident in the gospel story. These two with James were privileged to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter. They were present at the Transfiguration, and were intended to be closer to Jesus during his agony in Gethsemane. Along with Andrew they received the Lord’s exposition of his Olivet prophecy. It is difficult to discern any common factor in these very diverse occasions. Probably they are to be taken as examples of a large number of occasions when these apostles were accorded special priorities.

With perhaps one or two exceptions they were a team of remarkably young men. Jesus had a strenuous programme for them to fulfil. And, looking to the future, he must have taken into account that the church which was to be founded would need the guidance and direction of his representatives for a good many years. Also there would be a decided psychological advantage in having around him men of his own age or younger. Older men would not take so readily to the new teaching and new life to which he called them.

Family Connections

Specially interesting features of these twelve are the close family relationships which existed among them. Peter and Andrew were brothers (Jn. 1:40, 41). And, of course, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were brothers. They were also the Lord’s cousins. This, and several other interesting facts, are established by a careful comparison of the details in Matthew, Mark and John, of the group of women close to the cross of Jesus:

Matthew 27:56

  1. Mary Magdalene
  2. Mary the mother of James and Joses
  3. The mother of the sons of Zebedee
  1. Mark 15:40

  1. Mary Magdalene
  2. Mary the mother of James the less and Joses
  3. Salome.
John 19:25

  1. Mary Magdalene.
  2. Mary the wife of Clopas (Alphaeus).
  3. His mother’s sister.
  4. His mother.

This immediately establishes that the mother of the sons of Zebedee was the sister of Mary, the Lord’s mother, and that her name was Salome, which means Peace. Yet Jesus called her two boys the Sons of Thunder!

The comparison also demonstrates that Mary and Clopas were the parents of one of the apostles, James the less, so called because of his size-”wee Jamie!” His brother Joses -- that is, Joseph-was also well-known in the early church, or there would be little point in mentioning him. So probably he is to be equated with the Joseph Barsabbas, called Justus, who was excluded from the apostleship when Matthias was appointed by the drawing of lots. His nicknames, “Son of the Sabbath” and “The Righteous”, are clear indications of a man who took his loyalties to the law of Moses with tremendous seriousness. In view of the Judaistic problems which beset the early church in later days his failure to be elected to apostleship can be seen as God-guided. Acts 1:23 mentions also Judas Bar-Sabbas, who was possibly a member of the same family.

More than this, if it is correct that Clopas and Alphaeus are two Graecised forms of the same Hebrew name Chalpai (=the Lord’s innovator or rebel), then since Matthew was son of Alphaeus, he too was a member of this remarkable family.

In three of the lists Matthew (Lev!) and Thomas Didymus are joined together. Didymus means Twin, and Lev! means Joined, so it is not improbable that they were twin brothers.

Nor is this all. In the AV, there is another Judas besides Iscariot: “Judas of James”. The word “brother” is not in the text. It is well-recognized that this is a normal way of saying “Judas the son of James” (cp. Jn.6:71; Acts. 1:13)-and since James the son of Zebedee is excluded, he was most probably the son of the James who was son of Alphaeus and Mary. If this conclusion is correct, the apostolic band included a father and son! And in that case Judas must have been in his late teens or early twenties, and even allowing for the early marriages normal in those days, Alphaeus and his wife Mary were middle-aged. Alphaeus himself must have been well-known in the early church, otherwise what reason for the mention of him at all?

A very early writer mentions that a certain Clopas was the brother of Joseph, the husband of Mary. This means that there were close family ties between Jesus and this truly remarkable family which supplied no less than four out of twelve of the apostles.

There is a possibility that the Cleopas who was one of the two with Jesus on the road to Emmaus is to be identified with Clopas-Alphaeus. If so, it is possible to infer that he was not accompanied by his wife (compare Lk. 24:22 with Mk. 16:1), nor by his son (Lk. 24:33). However, since the most likely assumption is that these two were man and wife, going to their own home in Emmaus, and all the apostles (except perhaps Judas) were Galileans, it seems probable that this Cleopas is not to be identified with the father of the apostolic family.

The First Group

Apart from the more familiar members of the-band of apostles, Peter, John, Judas Iscariot, remarkably little information is to be gleaned about the rest. But how eloquent is the fact that Peter is always set first, whilst Judas is always last. When it is considered that within an hour or two of each other Judas betrayed hiss Lord for money and Peter denied him over and, over again with oaths and curses, the mysteries., of the divine “election of grace” become more awe-inspiring than ever.

Peter’s being declared the first (Mt.10:2) is not, just a matter of enumeration, for he has already; been set at the head of the list. He was first in status and authority, but the first clear indication of this was when Jesus said to him: “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:32).

In the lists James the son of Zebedee is always given priority over his brother John--and even in martyrdom (Acts 12:2). These are indications of a more forceful character than “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

Although the idea is not popular in modern academic circles, a remarkably good case can be made out for this James being the author of the epistle which bears that name (“The Epistle of James”, H.A.W.). If this identification is accepted it needs only one reading of the epistle to recognize the author as a vigorous dynamic personality.

Several suggestions have been made regarding the name Boanerges, given by the Lord to James and John:

With these diverse alternatives, it is hardly possible to be sure which is correct. Mk. 3:17 Gk. suggests that the names were given separately and not as a pair.

Andrew was not a married man like his brother, for he shared the same home in Capernaum (Mk. 1:29). All that is mentioned about him suggests a very practical individual. As soon as he was convinced about the divine authority of Jesus, he went off and brought his brother to the Lord. When Jesus was faced with the problem of feeding the great multitude in the wilderness, it was Andrew, anxious to be of service, who drew attention to the small boy with a few loaves and fishes-”but what are they among so many?” (Jn. 6:8, 9). And he was one of the small group who pressed for further explanation of the Lord’s portentous words about the destruction of the temple. That persistence evoked the invaluable Olivet prophecy (Mk. 13;3, 4).

The Second Group

Philip was another matter-of-fact, “down-to-earth” type. Does his Greek name hint at mixed parentage? It was to him that Greeks, showing by their attendance at the Passover their strong sympathy with the Jewish religion, applied for help in satisfying their desire to get to know Jesus. Was it coincidence that they should seek this help from the apostle who had said to Nathaniel in very practical fashion: “Come and see”, when seeking to persuade him about the Messiah? And again, was it coincidence that Philip should get the collaboration of Andrew who had converted his own brother by the very practical method of bringing him to Jesus (Jn. 12:20-22)?

It was Philip, also, who bluntly demanded of the Lord: “Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us” (Jn.14:8). He wanted a theophany which he could see - something plain and unmistakable. According to Clement of Alexandria, Philip was the disciple who, when bidden follow Christ, replied: “Suffer me first to go and bury my father” (Mt.8;21). This may be guesswork, but it is in character.

Bartholomew is generally identified with Nathaniel (Jn.l:45). The conclusion is very likely correct (see Study 20). In that case, “an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile” is a wonderful encomium regarding his character, especially since it expresses the judgement of a Jesus who “knew what was in man”. Yet this wonderful disciple is henceforward a mere name in the gospel page. Could there be a better example to stress the brevity and selectivity of the gospel record?

Thomas, stolid, unimaginative, determined to follow only his own practical commonsense, had also a streak of pig-headedness in him. He should have been more ready than he was to give in before the sheer weight of testimony and to acknowledge belief in the resurrection of his Master. But he was a wonderfully loyal disciple. When Jesus was not to be discouraged from going to Bethany at the time of the death of Lazarus, Thomas gave the lead to the rest: “Let us also go that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16). To his hard-headed pessimism the project was sheer suicide. Nevertheless if Jesus insisted, there was nothing for it but to accompany him. They must not let him down!

Precisely the same loyalty showed itself when Thomas stuck out stubbornly against the growing conviction of the rest that Jesus was risen. He disagreed with his brethren on the most fundamental of all principles of the Faith, yet on the following Sunday (Jn. 20:26) he was “at the meeting” with all the rest; and that tenacious loyalty, maintained against all: personal inclination, saved his life!

Matthew has already been considered at some length (Study 35). His humble spirit is to be seen in two features of these four apostolic lists. It is only in his own list that he is baldly labelled: “the publican”. In all four places he is linked with Bartholomew, b.ut his list is the only one of the four which puts Bartholomew first of the two. His new name in Christ is usually taken to mean: “Gift of God”; but it could just as easily mean: “Given to God”. Then was it he who set the example to Publican Zaccheus (Lk. 19:8a) of how to re-dedicate ill-gotten wealth?

The Third Group

Simon the Zealot was a very different type. Visionary, fanatical, sanguine, unpractical-it was men of this character who usually joined the movements for political and national freedom which constantly agitated Jewry. That Jesus could attract and hold a man of such bent was not the least of his miracles. His other cognomen-”Canaanite”-is not to betaken as indicating his origin among the remnants of the old non-Jewish people in the Land. The Greek form is not the same as that describing the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mt.15:22). It may possibly mean “man of Cana”, but it is usually interpreted by means of a Hebrew root meaning “jealous (for the honour of Israel), zealous”-an equivalent to Zealot. Thus Simon the tax-hater joined Matthew the tax-collector. And cautious Thomas joined the impetuous violent Peter.

James the son of Alphaeus-”little James”-was probably the oldest of the apostles. His presence would help to add stability to a group of widely differing personalities. His son Judas was almost certainly the youngest of the twelve. In the lists he is named also: “Lebbaeus and Thaddeus. The first of these comes from the Hebrew word for “heart” (modern equivalent: “mind”); and since “Thaddeus” probably connects with a word meaning “knowledge”, “Judas the judicious” is suggested, or maybe “brainy Judas”. He was possibly, but doubtfully, the writer of the Epistle of Jude.

Combining the probable conclusions reached here with others concerning Joseph and Mary it becomes possible to represent these remarkable family connections in a genealogical table:

Note here:

  1. But for difficulties of arrangement, Mary would be shown as the older of the two sisters.
  2. There is no room for the (at least) seven other children of Joseph and Mary (Mt. 13:55, 56)
  3. Judas Barsabbas (Acts 15:22) should possibly be shown alongside Joseph Barsabbas.
  4. Bartholomew (Nathaniel) should almost certainly be included here (See Study 21), but there is no hint to indicate where.
Judas Iscariot

It is understandable that Judas Iscariot is always set last. The refrain about betrayal comes in so often as to take on an even more sinister sound than “Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin”. The words for the betrayal of Jesus come sixty times in the New Testament, and in about hair of these there is pointed association with Judas. But it was not always so. Mark 14:10 calls him “the one of the twelve”, possibly suggesting by this a prominence of a different kind before he turned traitor. Why did Jesus appoint him treasurer? Was it because of his outstanding administrative ability, or because the Lord saw the inherent weakness in the man and gave him opportunity for its correction by learning at first-hand a good stewardship of money? The suggestion that he belonged to the famous family at Bethany rests on rather slender evidence, but is not impossible.

His name Iscariot has been read in a variety of ways. If it means “man of Kerioth”, then from the very beginning Judas was odd man out, for this would make him originate in the southern part of Judaea (Josh. 15:25), whereas the rest were all Galileans (Acts 2:7). The mention of his father Simon Iscariot (Jn. 6:71) suggests a well-known family. Probably more than any of the others Judas considered that socially he had demeaned himself in becoming a disciple of the Nazarene. But how well his example shows that disastrous downfall is possible even for those nearest to Jesus.

Other possible meanings of Iscariot are: (a) a man of reward or bribe (Gen. 30:18); the same Hebrew root comes in the significant prophecy of the thirty pieces of silver (Zech. 11:13). (b) The name has been linked with a rare Hebrew word for “strangling”. If this is correct, it was a name given him by the early church in later days. John 6:71 RV is hard to reconcile with this, (c) “Man of great preaching”, the man who could have outdone Peter on the Day of Pentecost? (d) “Man of divorcement”. This, if valid, must be seen as a secondary meaning read into his name by the church in later days, (e) “Man with the apron (ie. the bag)” (Jn. 12:6).

They were truly a remarkable mixture, these apostles of Jesus. There can and should be no doubts as to the fitness of each one of them for the privilege and high duty laid upon him. They were given to Jesus by the Father (Jn. 17:6). They were chosen by their Leader only after a long night of prayer. Yet, as the gospels proceed to suggest, most of them came near to deserting their Master’s cause long before Judas did. However, again through the prayers of Jesus, they survived to become a team of preachers who set the world ablaze.

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