Jesus Chooses Twelve Disciples
In Luke 6:1-11, we read that Jesus began to experience His first opposition from the scribes and Pharisees. The issue was how to interpret the law in regard to the Sabbath. He had already run into opposition in Nazareth for pointing out to them that God loved Phoenician widows as much as Israelite widows, and that God had healed a Syrian leper while there were many other lepers in Israel. The rabid nationalism in Nazareth was a problem that needed to be addressed, and Jesus did so. It nearly got Him killed.
But in Luke 6 the story progressed to show the roots of a more general opposition, this time by the doctors of the law and the religious leaders in Judea. Luke 6:11 says that Jesus’ way of keeping the Sabbath caused the scribes and Pharisees to be “filled with rage.” To them, Jesus had suddenly become a problem—in essence, He was thought to be a lawless miracle-worker who ministered outside of the established religious norms and did not submit to their long-established traditions.
Jesus’ Reaction to the Pharisees’ Rage
Jesus’ reaction was to pray about it. Luke 6:12 says,
12 And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God.
He was alone, and there were no witnesses to hear His conversation with His Father. But when He returned, He began to call twelve disciples, so we may conclude with certainty that this was His Father’s answer. Jesus already had a fairly large group of disciples wherever He went, including Matthew Levi. No doubt some of these followed Him from place to place, if they could afford it. But now Jesus formally chose twelve of them to work with Him in full-time training for ministry. Eventually, these would become apostles.
And so a new phase of His ministry began.
Jesus came off the mountain after praying all night, knowing that He was to call twelve disciples. It is evident too that He knew who to call, and that He had already met most (if not all) of them earlier. We know this mostly because of the account in the Gospel of John.
We have already seen how Jesus called the first seven disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, and Matthew Levi. Many others also followed Jesus. However, most of them also had to work for a living, and so they were unable to follow Jesus full time. They were disciples in the sense that they believed Jesus’ message, but they had not joined Him in full-time ministry.
Jesus Calls the Other Disciples
Luke then tells us in Luke 6:13-16 that Jesus actually began to call His twelve disciples, listing the first seven in the order of their calling:
13 And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles: 14 Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and John; and Philip and Bartholomew [i.e., Nathanael]; 15 and Matthew [i.e., Levi] and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot; 16 Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Although Andrew was actually the first to hear of Jesus through John the Baptist (John 1:40, 41), Peter is listed first. This is because they were not actually called when Jesus first met them. Jesus later called them to ministry while the two of them were mending their nets at the lake (Luke 5:2). At that time Jesus told them to go back out and cast their nets out into the lake. They caught so many fish that the nets broke. Jesus then gave them His official call and told them, “I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19).
The next ones on Luke’s list were James and John, because they were the next ones to be called, as we see from Luke 5:10 and Matt. 4:21, 22.
Neither Matthew nor Luke tell us anything of the formal call of Philip and Nathanael, but since they were from the same city, there is no doubt that Jesus and the four fishermen went to them, and they were next to follow Jesus. So Jesus had already called six disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Nathanael. At that point Jesus was half way to His goal of twelve, and so far all of them were from the town of Bethsaida, and perhaps all were called on the same day.
We know also that the next one to be called was Matthew Levi, and so he appears next in the list of the twelve. This calling, however, occurred later. Hence, Jesus already had seven disciples by the time Luke gives us the list of disciples.
Luke calls him Matthew. This was his Aramaic name, but Levi was his Hebrew name. Matthew Levi had already become one of Jesus’ followers (Luke 5:28), along with many others, prior to the time when Jesus began to choose disciples. He collected the duty on the fishing trade at the Sea of Galilee. We do not know if he actually quit his job at that time, or if he simply became a believer. We are only told that he prepared a banquet for Jesus and invited his fellow tax collectors to hear Jesus. The only thing we know for certain is that in Luke 6:15 he was one of those chosen to be one of the twelve. That is the latest point in his life when he would have had to quit his job.
After Jesus returned from his prayer meeting on the mountain, He called the last five disciples. No doubt Luke lists them too in the order in which they were called. However, we are given no particular story or unusual circumstance at the time of their calling.
These twelve would receive specialized training. It was also more practical to bring twelve from town to town, rather than the usual large crowd, when we consider the logistics of hospitality.
In that culture, when an important person came to town, word spread immediately, and people went to meet him. Kenneth Bailey tells of this practice in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, saying,
In the Middle East, village people show honor to an important guest by walking some distance out of town to greet the guest and escort him or her into the village. At times, the popularity of a guest can be measured by how far the crowd walks to welcome the visitor. (p. 172)
This is the way we should understand the so-called “rapture,” for there we see 1 Thess. 4:17 that believers will be “caught up together… to meet the Lord in the air.” The Greek word translated “to meet” is apantesis, which means to meet and escort an important person back to town. It does not picture meeting an important person so that he can take people to his own home. The “rapture” idea is wrong, for we are to meet Him to escort Him to the earth, not to return to heaven with Him. Bailey continues,
For more than forty years I was entertained in countless Middle Eastern towns and homes. As is typical anywhere, the community selects the form of hospitality, not the guest. The former naturally chooses a host who can provide a level of hospitality that will bring honor to the community…. No guest selects his own host…. (p. 180)
As more and more people began to follow Jesus, no doubt it became increasingly difficult for the towns and villages to host His entourage. So Jesus was led to reduce it by choosing twelve men, who would travel with Him full time. The rest of His following would have to see Him occasionally when He came to their home towns.
The Other Disciples
Perhaps it is not coincidental that Bartholomew and Matthew are listed next to each other. Later church historians tell us that these two later brought the gospel to India. Matthew, of course, wrote the gospel that bears his name, but it was first written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek. Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, wrote of this in the early fourth century, quoting Irenaeus from the third century:
“Now Matthew published among the Hebrews a written gospel also in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and founding the church” [i.e.,44-45 A.D.]. Lessons from Church History, Vol. 1, p. 10
Of course, modern critics usually dispute Matthew’s authorship and assign his gospel to about 80-90 A.D. Since such critics do not believe in prophecy, they say that Jesus’ prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 25 must have been written after the fact. I do not share their view. We also read elsewhere,
There is no disputing Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew. In about 400 AD, Jerome translated it from a copy at the Library of Caesarea. It was quoted dozens of times by the earliest church commentators. Jerome explained that our Greek version of Matthew came from this Hebrew version.
Thomas first established the church in Alexandria, Egypt and then went to India around 52 A.D. The converts to Christianity came to be known as Saint Thomas Christians, or Nasranis, a name derived from Jesus the Nazarene.
Luke 5:15 lists “James the son of Alphaeus.” Both names are Aramaic, according to Dr. Bullinger. This James went to Spain within a few years of Jesus’ ascension. He is the James who was executed by Herod Agrippa I in Acts 12:2, shortly after returning to Jerusalem. His martyrdom occurred in 44 A.D., but the angel of the Lord set Peter free, as the story goes, and he fled to Caesarea, where he was protected by the Roman garrison and his friend, Cornelius. From there he went to Rome, where he preached the gospel.
Luke then lists Simon the Zealot as the next disciple. The Zealots were radical freedom fighters in those days, believing that it was God’s will that Judea be free. They did not understand Daniel’s prophecy of the four beast nations, nor did they believe that they were to submit to Rome’s dominion. Certainly, they did not believe the law of tribulation in Leviticus 26, where God vowed to put Israel into captivity to foreign nations if they persistently violated His law and covenant.
In the late first century, Josephus lists the Zealots as the fourth sect among the people, along with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.
Yet this Simon had “heard” and believed Jesus’ teaching. Jesus taught him to submit to God’s judgment upon the nation and live at peace with their captors. Hence there is no doubt that this Simon did not participate in the Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-73 A.D.).
In Luke 6:16 we see both Judases listed. First was Judas the son of James. In Matt. 10:3 he is called Thaddeus. This was his Aramaic name, derived from the word taddai, which means “courageous heart.”
It is not fully clear if this is the same Thaddeus that was later sent to Syria to pray for Abgar Uchama the Toparch. The Abgar Letter to Jesus is recorded by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, xiii and reproduced in Volume 1 of Lessons from Church History, Appendix 3.
It seems that Abgar was suffering from some incurable and painful disease and heard about Jesus during His ministry. He wrote a letter to Jesus, offering Him asylum from His enemies in Judea. Jesus responded with a letter, telling him that He could not come, but that He would later send one of His disciples. The same document then adds a footnote, telling us that Thomas sent “Thaddeus, one of the seventy.”
This does not identify Thaddeus as one of the twelve, but rather we find one of the twelve sending Thaddeus, one of the seventy. Hence, it is likely not the same Thaddeus. Even so, we find in church history a strong Syrian Christian community in Edessa by the second century. This was the center of Syriac Christianity, and it had a very powerful influence on Christian thought and teaching in the early church. It was also the early home of the Shroud of Turin.
Finally, Luke lists Judas Iscariot last, as if to emphasize the fact that he became “a traitor.” The name Iscariot is the Greek form of Ish-Kerioth, “man of Kerioth.” It identifies Judas as being a man from Kerioth-arba, the old name for Hebron (Joshua 14:15).
Judas was said to be the childhood friend of Jesus, yet betrayed Him in the end. He fulfilled the prophetic type of Ahithophel who betrayed King David when Absalom overthrew him and took the throne for a season (2 Sam. 15:12). Later Ahithophel hanged himself (2 Sam. 17:23), setting the pattern for Judas as well (Matt. 27:5).
These are the twelve that Jesus chose. It seems that their training began immediately. The so-called “Sermon on the Mount” was the basic instruction given to these twelve disciples to show them how to alter their understanding of the law. This summarized the foundational teachings of Jesus’ ministry and marked the difference between His view and the normal teachings of others at the time.