“The names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-gatherer; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him” (Matt. 10:2–4).
God uses unqualified people to accomplish His purposes.
We live in a qualification-conscious society. Almost everything you do requires you to meet someone else’s standards. You must qualify to purchase a home, buy a car, get a credit card, or attend college. In the job market, the most difficult jobs require people with the highest possible qualifications.
Ironically, God uses unqualified people to accomplish the world’s most important task: advancing the Kingdom of God. It has always been that way. Adam and Eve plunged the human race into sin. Lot got drunk and committed incest with his own daughters. Abraham doubted God and committed adultery. Jacob deceived his father. Moses was a murderer. David was too, as well as an adulterer. Jonah got upset when God showed mercy to Nineveh. Elijah withstood 850 false priests and prophets, yet fled in terror from one woman—Jezebel. Paul (Saul) murdered Christians. And the list goes on and on.
The fact is, no one is fully qualified to do God’s work. That’s why He uses unqualified people. Perhaps that truth is most clearly illustrated in the twelve disciples, who had numerous human frailties, different temperaments, different skills, and diverse backgrounds, and yet Christ used them to change the world.
This month you will meet the disciples one by one. As you do, I want you to see that they were common men with a very uncommon calling. I also want you to observe the training process Jesus put them through, because it serves as a pattern for our discipleship as well.
I pray that you will be challenged by their strengths and encouraged by the way God used them despite their weaknesses and failures. He will use you too as you continue yielding your life to Him.
Suggestions for Prayer: Memorize Luke 6:40. Ask God to make you more like Christ.
For Further Study: Read 2 Timothy 1:3–5, noting the weaknesses Timothy may have struggled with, and how Paul encouraged him. How might Paul’s words apply to you?
The Master’s Men—Part 1: Peter: A Lesson in Leadership
Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, (10:2a)
In his book Quiet Talks on Service, S. D. Gordon gives an imaginary account of Jesus’ return to heaven after His ascension. As the angel Gabriel greets Jesus he asks, “Master, You died for the world, did You not?” to which the Lord replies, “Yes.” “You must have suffered much,” the angel says; and again Jesus answers, “Yes.” “Do they all know that you died for them?” Gabriel continues. “No. Only a few in Palestine know about it so far,” Jesus says. “Well, then, what is Your plan for telling the rest of the world that You shed Your blood for them?” Jesus responds, “Well, I asked Peter and James and John and Andrew and a few others if they would make it the business of their lives to tell others. And then the ones that they tell could tell others, and they in turn could tell still others, and finally it would reach the farthest corner of the earth and all would know the thrill and power of the gospel.” “But suppose Peter fails? And suppose after a while John just doesn’t tell anyone? And what if James and Andrew are ashamed or afraid? Then what?” Gabriel asks. “I have no other plans,” Jesus is said to have answered; “I am counting entirely on them” (cited in Herbert Lockyer, All the Apostles of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972], p. 31).
Though it is a fantasy, that story dramatizes a great truth about the gospel. The only plan the Lord has for reaching the world is for those who know Him to witness about Him to others. The life-changing power of the gospel is in the atoning death of Jesus Christ and can be applied in a life only through the convicting and recreative work of the Holy Spirit. But the declaration of the gospel is in the hands of those who have already experienced the new life and are willing to tell of it to others.
Society routinely sets standards of qualification for a myriad of enterprises. Businesses establish qualifications for their employees, and the more responsible the job, the higher the qualifications. Advertisements for jobs often list requirements such as self-motivation, ability to work under pressure, minimum typing speed, several years’ work experience, and willingness to travel. A person must also qualify in order to buy a house or car, get a credit card, enroll in college, or receive a driver’s license.
Scripture makes clear that God’s standards for His people, especially for the leaders who are to model those standards for His people, are extremely high (1 Tim. 3:1–12; Titus 1:6–9; 2 Pet. 3:14). The standard for every believer, in fact, is nothing less than perfection: “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says (Matt. 5:48) Yet Scripture makes equally clear that no person in himself can meet the least of God’s standards. Even after he became an apostle, Paul confessed of himself: “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). In the same epistle he says of mankind in general, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (3:10–12).
The greatness of God’s grace is seen in His choosing the undeserving to be His people and the unqualified to do His work. It should be a marvelous encouragement to every believer to know that, just as Elijah (James 5:17), the apostles had a nature like ours. Because there was no other way, God chose to bestow sanctifying grace on those who believe in His Son and by His own power to transform them into men and women of great usefulness.
We are tempted to become discouraged and disheartened when our spiritual life and witness suffer because of our sins and failures. Satan attempts to convince us that those shortcomings render us useless to God; but His use of the apostles testifies to the opposite. They did not lead the church in turning the world upside down because they were extraordinarily talented or naturally gifted, but because-in spite of their human limitations and failures-they surrendered themselves to God, whose power is perfected in man’s weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
That has always been God’s way, since He has never had anything but imperfect and sinful men through whom to work. Soon after God delivered Noah and his family through the Flood, Noah became drunk and acted indecently. Abraham, the father of the faithful, doubted God, lied about his wife, and committed adultery with her maid. Isaac told a similar lie about his wife when he thought his life was in danger. Jacob took advantage of his brother Esau’s weakness and extorted the birthright from him. Moses was a murderer, and in pride he struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God had instructed. His brother, Aaron, the first high priest, led Israel in erecting and worshiping the golden calf at the very time Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God. Joshua disobeyed the Lord by making a treaty with the Gibeonites instead of destroying them. Gideon had little confidence in himself and even less in God’s plan and power. Samson was repeatedly beguiled by Delilah because of his great lust for her. David committed adultery and murder, was an almost total failure as a father, and was not allowed to build the Temple because he was a man of blood. Elijah stood fearlessly before 850 false prophets but cowered before one woman, Jezebel. Ezekiel was brash, crusty, and quick to speak his mind. Jonah defied God’s call to preach to the Ninevites and resented His grace when they were converted through his preaching.
Apart from the brief ministry of His own Son, the history of God’s work on earth is the history of His using the unqualified. The twelve disciples who became apostles were no exception. Even from the human standpoint they had few characteristics or abilities that qualified them for leadership and service. Yet God used those men, just as He did Noah, Abraham, and the others, in marvelous ways to do His work.
Writing to the factious, worldly Corinthians, Paul insisted that neither he nor Apollos were anything in themselves. “What then is Apollos?” he asks. “And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1 Cor. 3:5–7).
The New Testament does not teach Christian leaders to follow the individual methods or styles of the apostles. It does not explain their methods or give details of their specific strategies for evangelism or other ministry. The focus of apostolic power in the New Testament is always on the Lord. As with the lowliest believer, the apostles’ power and effectiveness were exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit.
The story is told that after a famous artist finished his painting of the Last Supper he asked a friend to comment on the work. When the friend remarked that the cups were the most magnificent parts of the entire painting, the artist was dumbfounded. He picked up his brush and painted over every cup, explaining, “I failed. I wanted you to see Christ, but you only noticed the cups.” It is a wonderful thing to be a vessel fit for the Master’s use, but the vessel is not the source of spiritual power and should never be the focus of attention.
Emphasizing the methods and practices of famous and visibly successful Christian leaders inevitably weakens the church, and at no time in history has that misguided emphasis been more dominant than it is in much of the church today. When men are elevated, Christ is lowered; and when men’s power and resources are relied on, Christ’s work is weakened.
Someone has commented that a great writer can take a worthless piece of paper, write a poem on it and instantly make it extremely valuable. A famous artist can take a piece of canvas worth fifty cents and by painting a picture on it make it priceless. A wealthy man can sign his name to a worthless piece of paper and make it worth a million dollars. In an infinitely greater way Jesus Christ can take a worthless, corrupted, and repulsive life and transform it into a righteous child of God and a useful worker in His kingdom.
A church in Strasbourg, France, was severely damaged by bombs during World War II. Although a beloved statue of Christ had survived, a ceiling beam had fallen across the arms and broken them off. A local sculptor offered to restore the statue without charge, but the townspeople decided to leave it as it was. Without hands it would be a continuing reminder to them that God does His work through His people. His earthly hands.
Jesus Christ chooses human hands-and minds and arms and feet-as the instruments of His eternal work of redemption. Those who are not offended by His demands for discipleship and who, like the apostles, give their imperfect and flawed lives to Him as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), become His means for drawing all men to Himself.
Jesus did not intend to proclaim the kingdom alone. His own ministry lasted but three years and did not even extend to all of Palestine. From the earliest part of His ministry He began training the twelve who would continue His work It was in this training of the twelve that the Lord began the process Paul later admonished Timothy to follow: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
Jesus chose only twelve men to be His apostles, a seemingly insignificant number for the task ahead. They would be pitted not only against the evil, unbelieving system of the world but against Satan and his demon system.
History is full of amazing exploits by a few men against great odds. Sometimes the few have been victorious, and often they have gone down in tragic defeat. In either case they are remembered and admired for their courage. Against supernatural enemies, however, man can never be successful in his own power, no matter how great his courage. On the other hand, when God empowers His people, no obstacle or enemy can withstand them.
Shamgar, a judge of Israel, killed 600 men with an ox goad. With only 300 men filtered from an original force of 32,000, Gideon, another judge, routed an uncountable number of Midianites and Amalekites, whom the Lord caused to slaughter each other in panic. Still another judge, Samson, slaughtered 1,000 Philistines with only the jawbone of a donkey as a weapon. Jonathan and his armor bearer, who was probably only a boy, killed twenty armed Philistines who were waiting for them at the top of a hill; and that victory led to the defeat of the entire Philistine army by Israelites armed only with farm implements. In one day Elijah singlehandedly slaughtered 850 pagan prophets on Mount Carmel.
The Lord can display His divine power through a handful of men, or even one man, just as surely as through a multitude-so the small number of the apostles was no hindrance to the work of the gospel.
Henry Drummond, the Scottish author and evangelist who wrote the well-known booklet The Greatest Thing in the World, was once invited to speak to an exclusive men’s club in London. He began his talk with a provocative analogy that those men easily understood: “Gentlemen, the entrance fee into the kingdom of heaven is nothing; however, the annual subscription is everything.”
Because Jesus Christ paid the total price for salvation, it costs nothing to become His disciple. But to follow Him as a faithful disciple costs everything we have. We are not only saved by Christ’s blood but are bought with it and therefore belong totally to Him (1 Cor. 6:19–20; 7:23).
The twelve men Jesus called as disciples and transformed into apostles were willing to pay everything. They turned their backs on their occupations, their life-styles, their homes, their own plans and aspirations. They committed themselves totally to following Jesus Christ, wherever that would lead and whatever that would cost.
They were a committed few among the unbelieving many. From early in His ministry, and especially after He began performing miracles, Jesus never lacked for an audience. The multitudes followed Him wherever He went, so much so that He often had difficulty being alone by Himself or with the twelve. The crowds were attracted by the ring of authority in His voice, by the uniqueness of His message, by the wonder of His miracles, and by His concern for common people and for the sick, diseased, and sinful.
In the broadest sense they were disciples (mathētēs), which has the root meaning of follower or learner. But that term does not necessarily carry the idea of commitment, as is clear from several gospel accounts. The morning after Jesus fed the five thousand (plus women and children), many of the people who were fed followed Him back to Capernaum. When He saw them, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled” (John 6:26). A short while later He said to the same group, “You have seen Me, and yet do not believe” (v. 36). Among this crowd were “many … of His disciples” (v. 60) who were disturbed when they heard Jesus say, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (vv. 54). After Jesus further explained what He meant, they were even more offended, and “as a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore” (v. 66). Those disciples were only observers and hearers who had no desire to trust and follow the Lord.
Those disciples accepted Jesus as a great teacher and wonder worker, but only on the physical level. They were quite willing for Him to heal their bodies and fill their stomachs, but they did not want Him to cleanse their sins, recreate their hearts, and transform their lives. They gladly came to Him for the “food which perishes,” but they had no appetite for “the food which endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).
Jesus’ teaching was not “difficult” (v. 60) because it was hard to understand but because it was hard to accept. The people knew that Jesus was not talking of eating and drinking His physical body and blood but of accepting everything that He was, said, and did. His statement was difficult for them to accept for the very reason that they did understand it.
As in Jesus’ time and throughout history, false disciples today are willing to accept whatever of the gospel fits their personal inclinations and life-styles. They are willing to be identified as Christians, belong to a church, be active in its work, and give money to its support. But they have no intention of giving themselves to Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. When such a demand is made of them, or even suggested, they vanish as quickly and permanently as those disciples at Capernaum.
Jesus’ difficult teachings offended them and caused them “to stumble” (John 6:61). “Stumble” translates skandalizō, which means to put up a snare or stumbling block, and is the term from which we get scandal. The original meaning pertained to a trap held up by a stick. When an animal grabbed food that was attached to the stick, the stick would fall, causing the trap to capture or kill the animal. The offended disciples at Capernaum understood clearly that to accept Christ’s demand to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to receive eternal life meant to give up their old life-which they would not relinquish even for heaven. Consequently, they had nothing more to do with Jesus.
After the crowd left, Jesus asked the disciples, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” (v. 67). He “knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him” (v. 64), but He wanted to make sure that the twelve realized in their own minds the cost of true discipleship. Peter replied for the group, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (vv. 68–69)
Except for Judas, the twelve decided to eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood, whatever the cost. They had no idea of the particulars of the cost, but they placed themselves in the Lord’s hands, confident that in Him and only in Him, was eternal life and everything else of any value.
The twelve men Jesus chose as His apostles had in their hands the full responsibility for initially taking the gospel to the rest of the world. The church was “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Eph. 2:20). Jesus promised them, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26). Through the Holy Spirit the apostles received God’s divine revelation and were the ones responsible for writing most of the New Testament. It was therefore to “the apostles’ teaching” to which the true and faithful church has always devoted itself, beginning in Jerusalem immediately after Pentecost (Acts 2:42). Through them the doctrine of the New Covenant was established, explained, and proclaimed.
The apostles not only were the channels of Christian theology and evangelism but were also the first examples of godly, virtuous living for the church to follow God confirmed their authority as true apostles “by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12); and as “His holy apostles” (Eph. 3:5) they received, taught, recorded, and exemplified the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, the third phase of the disciples’ training under Jesus was what might be called their internship, which began immediately after their conversion and calling and preceded their final commissioning and sending after His ascension (Acts 1:8). It is this third phase of training that occupies Matthew in chapter 10. By this time the disciples had been under Jesus’ instruction for perhaps eighteen months, but they had not participated directly in the ministry. Until now they had only been observers and learners. Now they began to have direct involvement as the Lord sent them out two by two (see Mark 6:7) to try their wings in the work for which He had given them authority.
The apostles were essential for the future of the Christian faith, because they were the only ones called and empowered to build the foundation of God’s only plan for telling the world of redemption through His Son. It was time for them to be more than mere hearers and observers, so they were given “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (10:1). But their first responsibility was to “preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ ” (v. 7), for which message their miraculous works would be divine authenticating signs. As Nicodemus acknowledged regarding Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
“How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” asks the writer of Hebrews. “After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:3–4). The Lord Jesus Christ was the first preacher of the gospel, and the apostles (“those who heard”) confirmed what He preached, and God the Father confirmed their testimony by the divinely empowered “signs and wonders … various miracles and … gifts of the Holy Spirit” that accompanied their preaching. The word of the apostles was miraculously attested as they laid down the foundation for the church.
The apostles were ordinary men. As far as we know, the only one who was materially prosperous was Matthew, who gained his wealth by legally but unethically extorting taxes for Rome. None of the twelve was highly educated or had prominent social, political, or religious status. Details about some of them remain unknown to us today, except for their names, because neither Scripture nor secular history has much to say about them.
Yet there has never been a task in the history of the world equal to that of those common men whom the Lord chose to be His first agents of ministry in setting in motion the advancement of the kingdom of God on earth. They had the monumental assignment of finishing the foundation work of the church that the Lord Himself had begun. Luke mentions this transition of responsibility in the introductory words of Acts: “The first account [i. e., the gospel of Luke] I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God” (1:1–3).
A number of truths about the apostles can be learned simply from the scriptural listings of their names. First of all, in the four New Testament lists of the apostles (Matt. 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:14–16; and Acts 1:13; cf. v. 26), Peter is always named first. In Matthew 10:2 the first does not refer to the order of selection, because Jesus called Andrew, Peter’s brother, before He called Peter (John 1:40–42). In this context, prōtos (first) indicates foremost in rank. The apostles were equal in their divine commission, authority, and power; and one day they will sit on equal thrones as they judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). But in terms of function, Peter was the first, the foremost member of the twelve. Prōtos is used with the same meaning in 1 Timothy 1:15, where Paul speaks of himself as the “foremost of all” sinners. In Revelation 1:17, Christ speaks of Himself as “the first [prōtos] and the last.” No group can function properly without a leader, and Peter was the leading member of the twelve from the beginning.
Second, all four lists of the apostles are divided into the same three subgroups. The first group includes Peter, Andrew, James, and John; the second includes Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, and Matthew; and the third includes James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot. The names are in different orders within the groups, but they always include the same four names, and the first name in each group is always the same, suggesting that each group had its own identity and leader. The first group includes those Jesus called first (though not in the individual order), the second includes those He called next, and the third group those He called last.
We know a great deal about the men in the first group, much less about those in the second, and almost nothing about those in the third-except for Judas, who betrayed Jesus, committed suicide, and was replaced by Matthias just before Pentecost (Acts 1:26). There is not only a decreasing amount of information about the members of each group but also a decreasing intimacy with Jesus. The first four constituted Jesus’ inner circle of disciples; and of those four, Peter, James, and John were especially close to Him. Little is said about His direct instruction or work with the second group, and almost nothing about close contact with the third. He loved all the apostles equally, empowered them equally, and promised them equal glory; but because of the physical limitations common to all men, He was not able to give them equal attention. It is impossible for any leader to be equally close to everyone with whom he works. By necessity he will spend more time with and place more responsibility on certain people who are particularly capable and trustworthy.
The first group included two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John, all of whom were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector, but we know nothing of the occupations of any of the other seven. The two sets of brothers were acquainted even before Jesus called them, because they fished near each other on the Sea of Galilee (see Matt. 4:18–21).
The temperaments of the apostles about whom we know the most were very much different. Peter, for example, was impulsive, a natural leader, and a man of action. Almost invariably he was the first to react to something that was said or done by saying or doing something himself. John, on the other hand, appears to have become quiet and pensive under Christ’s tutelage. In the first twelve chapters of Acts we read of Peter and John working closely together during the early days of the church. It must have been a helpful learning experience for both of them, with Peter anxious to charge ahead and John wanting to think things over first. Peter did all the preaching. Men of equal status and office and even of similar giftedness may have different functions relative to the uniqueness of their gifts.
Thomas was clearly the most skeptical of the twelve (John 20:25), and Simon the Zealot’s very name indicates he was a radical Jewish revolutionary, dedicated to driving out the Roman oppressor. Before he met Christ he doubtlessly would have willingly plunged a knife into the heart of Matthew, a traitorous collaborator with Rome.
The first, Simon, who is called Peter, (10:2a)
All of the twelve, including Judas, were integral parts of the Lord’s plan. But Peter was by far the central figure, both during the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry and during the early years of the church after Pentecost. Jesus spent more time with Peter than with any of the others, partly because Peter was constantly at the Lord’s side. He was never far from Jesus and was continually asking Him questions, giving advice, and even giving commands. Apart from that of Jesus, no name is mentioned more often in the New Testament than Peter’s. No other person speaks as often or is spoken to as often. No disciple was reproved as often or as severely as Peter, and only he was presumptuous enough to reprove the Lord. No other disciple so boldly confessed Christ or so boldly denied Him. No other disciple was so praised and blessed by Jesus, and yet no other did He call Satan.
How could Jesus take such an ambivalent, inconsistent, and self-centered man and make him into the first-the prōtos-of the apostles? From the gospel record we can discern at least three instructive elements that were instrumental in the Lord’s preparation of Peter: the right raw material, the right experience, and the right lessons.
The Right Raw Material
Peter had the right raw material from which Jesus could fashion the sort of leader He intended Peter to be. Peter was a big beginning; he had potential. But while he was in control of his own life, his beginnings never got further than that and his potential was not always easy to see.
But one of Peter’s qualifications for leadership is seen in his continually asking questions of Jesus. He always wanted to know the what, when, where, and why of everything the Lord said and did. Many of his questions were superficial and immature, but they reflected a genuine concern about Jesus and His work. A person who does not ask questions has little chance for success as a leader, because he has no desire or willingness to inquire about what he does not understand. When the other disciples failed to understand something, they appear to have been more likely to keep quiet or simply discuss their doubts and questions among themselves. Peter, on the other hand, was never reluctant to ask Jesus about whatever was on his mind.
When Peter did not understand what Jesus meant when He said that it is “not what enters into the mouth [that] defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth,” he asked, “Explain the parable to us” (Matt. 15:11, 15). When he was concerned about the reward he and his fellow disciples would get for leaving all and following Jesus, he did not hesitate asking about it (Matt. 19:27). Peter wondered about the fig tree that Jesus caused to wither (Mark 11:21) and, with James, John, and Andrew he asked Jesus to explain when and how the Temple would be destroyed (Mark 13:4). After Peter was told that he would be a martyr for the Lord, he asked about John’s fate: “Lord, and what about this man?” (John 21:21). Peter’s questions seldom received the answer he expected, because they usually were self-centered or completely missed the primary truth Jesus was explaining. But the Lord used even his poor questions to patiently train him in leadership. Peter’s questions, immature as many of them were, gave the Lord an opportunity to help him grow.
Second, Peter showed initiative, another necessary ingredient of leadership. Just as he was usually the first to ask Jesus questions, he was also usually the first to respond to questions Jesus asked. When the Lord asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter immediately replied, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15–16). When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Peter therefore having a sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear” (John 18:10). Even though his actions were often misguided, Peter was ready to respond in what he thought was Christ’s behalf.
Third, Peter positioned himself in the middle of the activity. He was a natural participant, never content to be on the sidelines. He stayed as close to Jesus as possible and wanted to be a part of everything that happened. Even when he denied the Lord, he was at least as near to Jesus as he could be, whereas all the other disciples were nowhere to be found. When they were told of Jesus’ resurrection, Peter reached the tomb after John only because John was a better runner (John 20:4). Peter was always there.
The bold fisherman was a native of Bethsaida and later moved to Capernaum, where he and his father, John (or Jonas), and brother, Andrew carried on their trade. Because he had a mother-in-law, we know that Peter was married when Jesus called him (Matt. 8:14), and from Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 9:5, it is likely that Peter’s wife traveled with him throughout his apostolic ministry.
Even Peter’s names give insight into his character. He was given the common name Simon by his parents, but Jesus changed his name to Peter (Cephas in Aramaic) which means stone (Matt. 16:18). By nature Peter was vacillating and unstable, and when the Lord named him Peter, the other disciples doubtlessly had great reservations about the appropriateness of his new name. But the new name was perhaps a gentle and encouraging reminder to Simon of the kind of man Jesus called him to become.
Peter is usually referred to as Simon when the purpose is simply to identify him or something related to him-such as his house or mother-in-law (Mark 1:29–30), his boat (Luke 5:3), or his fishing partners (Luke 5:10). He is also referred to as Simon whenever he is reprimanded for sin or displays special weakness, as when he questioned Jesus’ advice to go “out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). When Jesus came back from prayer in the garden and found the disciples sleeping, He said, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?” (Mark 14:37). After the resurrection Peter disobediently returned to his fishing, and when the Lord confronted him three times about his faithfulness, each time He addressed him as Simon (John 21:15–17). He used his old name to point out that he was acting like his old self.
In John’s gospel Peter is called by both names together (Simon Peter) some seventeen times. Perhaps because John knew Peter so well he used the two names to depict both the old and the new characteristics of his friend, which were often intermixed and difficult to distinguish.
The Right Experiences
A second element in preparing for leadership is having right experiences. The Lord brought into Peter’s life all the experiences necessary to develop his leadership ability.
First of all, Jesus gave Peter wondrous revelations. When Peter first confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus explained to him. “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:16–17). When many of Jesus’ followers forsook Him because of His teaching about the cost of discipleship, using the figure of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, the Lord asked the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Peter’s response on that occasion seems also to have been inspired of God as he said. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” (John 6:66–68).
Jesus was transforming Peter by letting him know that God wanted to use his mouth to proclaim the great delivering truth of the gospel. One day he would stand up boldly and say, “Men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give heed to my words” (Acts 2:14). And one day he would take a pen and write God’s revelation in the form of two New Testament epistles.
Second, Peter was given great honor and reward. After Jesus explained to Peter that the truth of his confession was revealed to him by the Father, He said. “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18). The lord used Peter to preach the great sermon at Pentecost to tire Jews assembled there from all over the world, and He used Peter to bring the gospel to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Peter unlocked the doors of the gospel to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
All of the apostles opened the door to the kingdom as they, preached the gospel of salvation, and every time any man of God preaches Christ he, too, unlocks those kingdom doors to let men in.
Third, Peter experienced great rebuke. A short while after Jesus honored Peter by the declaration just mentioned above, Peter himself proved that our Lord’s reference could not have been to him, since he was then anything but a solid foundation on which Christ could build His church. Perhaps feeling proud and overconfident as the leading disciple, he demonstrated that his mouth could be used by Satan as well as by God. When the Lord “began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day, … Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You’ ” But his severe rebuke of Jesus brought an even more severe rebuke from Jesus: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt. 16:21–23).
A great danger of leadership is not knowing its limits. Many dictators and demagogues were once capable public servants, but great honor and power caused them to believe the right of leadership lay in themselves rather than in their privileged office. When Peter began elevating his own position and understanding, he found himself serving Satan rather than God. Great potential for being used by God also brings great potential for being used by Satan.
Fourth, Peter experienced what might be called great rejection, not by Jesus but of Him. Peter’s extreme self-confidence again caused him to fail Jesus exactly at the point where he thought he was strongest. Just as confidence in his own wisdom resulted in his rebuke by Jesus, his confidence in his own dependability resulted in his rejection of Jesus. When Jesus predicted that all the disciples would fall away when He was arrested, Peter again contradicted Him, asserting, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” When Jesus went on to say that Peter’s falling away would occur that very night and would, in fact, happen three times, Peter protested even more strongly: “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.” Following his lead, “all the disciples said the same thing too.” Jesus, of course, again proved right and Peter again proved wrong. While he warmed himself in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter not only denied the Lord three times, but progressively denied Him more vehemently (Matt. 26:31–35, 69–75).
Fifth, Peter experienced a great recommissioning. When Jesus confronted him with the lack of love, Peter assured the Lord three times that he did indeed love Him, and Jesus three times reinstated him and charged him to care for His flock. Jesus had not given up on Peter. He reassured His faltering disciple that his calling still stood and commanded him again just as He had in the beginning, “Follow Me!” (John 21:15–19).
The Right Attitudes
A third element in Jesus’ training of Peter was teaching him the principles of godly leadership. First of all, because leaders can easily become domineering, they have a special need to learn submission. When the Capernaum tax collectors demanded a two-drachma Temple tax from Jesus, He commanded Peter to go and catch a fish, in whose mouth would be a stater, exactly enough to pay the tax for both Jesus and Peter (Matt. 17:24–27). From that experience Peter learned a lesson not only in submitting to Jesus but to human authorities. In his first letter he wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. … Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:13–15, 17).
Second, Peter needed to learn restraint, of which he needed a double portion. As already mentioned, when the Roman soldiers came with the officers of the chief priests and the Pharisees to arrest Jesus in the garden, Peter drew his sword and began to fight-even though the Roman cohort alone may have numbered 500 or more men. Jesus told Peter to put away his sword and to let God’s divine plan take its course (John 18:10–11).
Third, Peter needed to learn humility; and again he needed a double portion. Only a few hours after he proudly boasted, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away,” Peter denied the Lord three times-although he was in little, if any, danger (Matt. 26:33, 69–75). But he eventually learned his lesson, and many years later wrote, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5).
Fourth, Peter needed to learn to sacrifice, and Jesus promised him, “ ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.’ Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ ” (John 21:18–19). When Peter became concerned that John might not have to pay such a costly sacrifice, Jesus told him sternly, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” (vv. 21–22). For the second time on this occasion Jesus commanded Peter to follow Him, this time using the emphatic su (“you”).
That was the last time Jesus had to command Peter to follow Him. From then on, Peter obeyed whatever the cost. He even learned to rejoice in his suffering for Christ, and wrote, “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. … If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God. … Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Pet. 4:13–14, 16, 19).
Fifth, Peter needed to learn love. It was lack of genuine love that caused Peter to deny His Lord, and it was about that love that Jesus pressed him three times. The Holy Spirit led Peter and John to minister together in the early years of the church, and Peter no doubt learned many lessons in true love from the great apostle of love.
Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet not only was an example of humility but of the source of humility-love. Service to others, no matter how costly or demeaning, is neither humble nor godly if done from any motive but love (cf. 1 Cor. 13:3). Peter records the lesson he learned: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8)
Sixth, Peter needed to learn courage. Because Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s suffering pointed to great sacrifice, it also pointed to need of great courage. When Peter was brought before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, or Council, for preaching the gospel, he was no longer the fearful coward he had been in the high priest’s courtyard the night of Jesus’ arrest. Now confident in his Lord rather than in himself, he stood boldly and declared, “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead-by this name this man [the one Peter had healed in Solomon’s portico] stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the very corner stone” (Acts 4:10–11; cf. 3:1–8). When the Council again charged Peter and John not to continue preaching, the apostles replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (v. 19–20). At the subsequent prayer meeting in Jerusalem they prayed for continued boldness; and “when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness” (v. 31).
Peter often learned his lessons slowly, but he learned them well. He took the initiative to seek someone to replace Judas among the apostles (Acts 1:15–17), became the first spokesman of the church at Pentecost (2:14), was the first to defend the gospel before the Sanhednn (4:8), was the first to enact church discipline (in dealing with the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira, 5:3–9), confronted Simon the magician when he attempted to pervert God’s power to his own advantage (8:18–23), healed Aeneas and raised Dorcas from the dead (9:34, 40), was the first to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10), and wrote two marvelous epistles in which he humbly included all the lessons Jesus had patiently taught him.
Peter was a man God touched with His grace in a special way. As a “wandering heart” that God finally captured and claimed for Himself, Peter would have sung joyfully the words of Robert Robinson’s beloved hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Take my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Tradition reports that Peter died a cruel death. And before he himself was crucified, he is said to have been forced to witness the crucifixion of his wife. In his Ecclesiastical History, the early church Father Eusebius writes that Peter stood at the foot of his wife’s cross and kept repeating to her, “Remember the Lord. Remember the Lord.” After she died, it is said he pleaded to be crucified upside down, because he was unworthy to die as his Lord had died.
Peter’s life can be summed up in the last words of his second epistle: “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To Him be glory, both now and forever. Amen” (2 Pet. 3:18).
|The Master’s Men—Part 2: Andrew, James the son of Zebedee, John
and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; (10:2b)
Along with Peter, the leading disciple (the foremost, or “first,” v. 10:2a), these three men composed Jesus’ inner circle of four. Like Peter, they do not appear on the surface to be ideal candidates for becoming apostles and the foundation of the church. Yet from the accounts of these men both in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, we learn that God is able to use in His service any kind of person who submits to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
The apostles, and especially these four who are the best known of them, are often looked on as “stained glass saints.” They have been frequently portrayed with halos above their heads and benign expressions on their faces. Not only children but cathedrals, chapels, cities, and towns are named after them. Their names are often preceded by Saint, adding to the notion that they were on a completely different plane of spiritual existence from other human beings, including other Christians.
But although they had an uncommon calling, the apostles were common men, much like the rest of us. They were saints only in the sense that every believer is a saint, made holy unto God through the imparted righteousness of Jesus Christ and awaiting the full perfection of sainthood in heaven (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Phil. 3:12–14; Heb. 11:40; Jude 14). Until then, they, like all saints, had to live with the weakness of their humanness.
Andrew was Peter’s brother, and his name means “manly.” Like his brother, he was a native of Bethsaida (John 1:44) and was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. Even before he met Jesus, Andrew was a godly, dedicated Jew He and John were disciples of John the Baptist, and when that prophet declared of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” they left the Baptist and began to follow Jesus (John 1:36–37). Andrew then “found first his own brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which translated means Christ)” (v. 41). Peter and Andrew lived together (Mark 1:29) and doubtlessly shared everything with each other. It was therefore compelling for Andrew to share with Peter the most important discovery of his life.
Subsequent to his confession of Jesus as the Messiah, however, Andrew had returned to his fishing. A while later, as Jesus was “walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men’ ” (Matt. 4:18–19). It was at this time that Jesus actually called the two men into discipleship training, and from that point on these two brothers, along with the other two brothers, James and John, became Jesus’ most intimate friends. But though he was greatly respected by his fellow disciples and is always spoken of favorably in the few accounts in which he is mentioned, Andrew was apparently never quite as close to the Lord as the other three and is usually referred to as Peter’s brother.
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Andrew is not mentioned except in the lists of the twelve disciples. And in only three accounts in John’s gospel do we find any information about him more than his name.
First, John tells us of Andrew’s previous discipleship to John the Baptist, his confession of Jesus as the Messiah, and his reporting to Peter his discovery and introducing him to the Lord (John 1:37–42). From his first encounter with Jesus, Andrew demonstrated an eagerness to introduce others to His Lord, and the desire to witness characterized his entire ministry.
Second, John tells us of Andrew’s involvement in Jesus’ feeding the five thousand on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. When Philip expressed bewilderment at Jesus’ question, “ ‘Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?’ … Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?’ ” (John 6:5–9). He, too, was puzzled about Jesus’ question, but he did as much as he could in response to it and located some food. The barley loaves were rather small, much like biscuits or large crackers, and were otten eaten with fish preserved by pickling so that they could be carried to work as a lunch or on trips away from home. Andrew’s bringing the boy to Jesus suggests that he believed his Master could somehow make more of this small amount of food.
Third, John depicts Andrew bringing others to the Lord. When some God-fearing Gentiles came to Philip asking to see Jesus, “Philip came and told Andrew; Andrew anti Philip came, and they told Jesus” (John 12:20–22). Although Philip himself was one of the twelve, he apparently felt less than comfortable approaching Jesus alone and asked Andrew to accompany him.
From these three accounts we can discern several insights into the character of Andrew. First of all we see his openness and lack of prejudice. He knew that the disciples’ first priority, but not their only task, was to take the gospel to their fellow Jews, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). But he also must have known that the person to whom Jesus Himself first revealed His messiahship was a half-breed Samaritan woman, who trusted in Him and, like Andrew immediately began telling others of Him (John 4:25–29, 40–42).
Andrew was also characterized by simple but strong faith. We do not know what was in his mind when he brought the boy with the loaves and fish to Jesus, but he obviously believed Jesus could make use of the boy and his food. He had seen Jesus make wine, and he probably saw no reason why He could not multiply food as well.
Andrew also appears to have been humble. Throughout his ministry he was known primarily as Peter’s brother, and he was never as intimate with Jesus or used by Him as publicly or dramatically as was his brother And though he was part of the inner circle, Andrew seemed always to be in the shadow of Peter, James, and John. Yet there is no indication that he ever resented his position or function. He was content simply to belong to and serve Jesus, and no doubt to the end of his life was in awe of the fact that he was called to be an apostle at all. He cared more for his Lord and His work than he did for his own welfare or advantage, and he willingly sacrificed his own interests and comfort for the sake of others coming to the Lord He showed nothing of the self-will and self-interest seen at times in Peter, James, and John.
Andrew is the model for all Christians who labor quietly in humble places and positions. He did not try to please men but God, and had no interest in building a reputation for himself. He would gladly have taken for himself Christina Rossetti’s words:
Give me the lowest place;
Not that I dare ask for that lowest place,
But Thou hast died that I might live
And share Thy glory by Thy side.
Give me the lowest place;
Or if for me the lowest place is too high,
Then make one more low
Where I may sit and see my God and love Him so.
(Cited in Herbert Lockyer, All the Apostles of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972], p. 54.)
Andrew was that rare person who is willing to take second place, who is perfectly content to be in support of the more noticeable and acclaimed ministry of others, if that is where God wants him to be. He does not mind being hidden, so long as the Lord’s work is done. Here is the person that all leaders depend on and who are the backbone of every ministry. The cause of Christ is greatly dependent on the self-forgetting souls who are satisfied to occupy a small sphere in an obscure place, free from self-seeking ambition. Andrew was told that one day he would sit on one of the apostolic thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). But for him that unique honor was not cause for boasting but for humble awe and wonder.
The Scotsman Daniel McLean wrote of Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland:
Gathering together the traces of character found in Scripture [about Andrew], we find neither the writer of an Epistle, nor the founder of a Church, nor a leading figure in the Apostolic Age, but simply … an intimate disciple of Jesus Christ, ever anxious that others should know the spring of spiritual joy and share the blessing he so highly prized. A man of very moderate endowment, who scarcely redeemed his early promise, simple minded and sympathetic, without either dramatic power or heroic spirit, yet with that clinging confidence in Christ that brought him into that inner circle of the Twelve; a man of deep religious feeling with little power of expression, magnetic more than electric, better suited for the quiet walks of life than the stirring thoroughfares. Andrew is the apostle of the private life-the disciple of the hearth. (Cited in Lockyer, All the Apostles, pp. 55–56)
God uses people like Andrew, and only He can calculate their effectiveness. Sometimes it takes an Andrew to reach a Peter. An obscure Methodist preacher of the eighteenth century named Thomas Mitchell was an Andrew His obituary read, “Thomas Mitchell, an old soldier of Jesus Christ, a man of slender abilities as a preacher, and who enjoyed only a very defective education.” Yet one of his friends wrote of him: “His earnest and loving work caused him to lead many people to Christ.” Though a man of “slender abilities” and “defective education,” he was nevertheless God’s means of bringing to Christ the great preacher Thomas Olivers.
Thomas Mitchell went to a little village in Lincolnshire, where he arose each morning at five o’clock to preach in the open air, as John Wesley often did. His preaching was so fiery that he was arrested and attacked by a mob as he was taken to the public house for a hearing before the village curate. The crowd convinced the curate to let them throw Mitchell into a filthy, slimy pond. Each time he managed to crawl out, the mob threw him back in. He was then painted from head to foot with white paint and taken again to the public house. After a long debate about what to do with him, they decided to drown him. He was thrown into a small lake outside the town, and each time he came to the surface, a man with a long pole would push him under again. Eventually he was taken out, more dead than alive. He was tirelessly cared for by a godly old lady of the village, but when the mob found out that he was recovering, they threatened to rend him limb from limb unless he promised never to preach again. He refused to make such a promise but somehow managed to escape the threatened punishment. He later wrote of the incident, “All the time God kept me in perfect peace and I was able to pray for my enemies.” For the rest of his life he continued to minister in obscure faithfulness. But by God’s standards and in God’s power, he was far from being “a man of slender abilities.” So was Andrew.
James the Son of Zebedee
The third man named in Matthew’s list of the first four disciples is James the son of Zebedee. In the gospel accounts, James never appears apart from his brother John, and during the three years of training under Jesus they were inseparable. Because James is always mentioned first, he was probably the older and more dynamic of the two. The brothers were fishing partners with their father, Zebedee, who was apparently fairly well-to-do, because he employed hired servants in his business (Mark 1:20).
Because so little is said of him, James appears in the gospels more as a silhouette than a detailed portrait. Jesus referred to James and John as “Boanerges, which means, ‘Sons of Thunder’ ” (Mark 3:17), and from that descriptive name alone we can assume James was passionate, zealous, fervent, and aggressive.
As Passion Week approached, Jesus sent several disciples ahead to make arrangements for lodging. Because they were traveling from Galilee, they would need to spend a night in Samaria on the way to Jerusalem. Jews and Samaritans had great religious and racial animosity for one another, and when the Samaritans refused to give accommodations to Jesus “because He was journeying with His face toward Jerusalem,” James and John said to Him, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:52–54). The two brothers may have believed that the repentant Samaritan woman at Sychar and the others there who had trusted in Jesus as the Messiah were barely worthy of salvation (see John 4:25–42). But a Samaritan who refused even to provide the Lord a night’s lodging was, in their view worthy only of instant execution. At that point James and John were hateful and intolerant, and their volatile and vengeful temperaments clouded over what they had heard Jesus teach and seen Him do. He therefore “turned and rebuked them, [and said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them’]” (Luke 9:55–56).
James had much zeal but little sensitivity. In his resentment of the Samaritans’ rejection of Jesus he reflected a commendable commitment. It is good for God’s people to become incensed when He is dishonored and vilified (cf. Ps. 69:9; John 2:13–17). Jesus Himself was angered when His Father’s house was profaned (Matt. 21:12–13) and when hardness of heart made His opponents criticize even His healing the diseased and afflicted on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15–16). But Jesus did not return evil for evil (1 Pet. 2:23), and He forbids His followers to do so (Matt. 5:38–42).
When the mother of James and John, doubtlessly at their urging, asked Jesus to grant them seats on either side of His throne in the kingdom, the Lord asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” Without hesitation they replied confidently, “We are able” (Matt. 20:21–22). Whether they instigated their mother’s request or not, they obviously thought it was perfectly appropriate. They had no reservations about their deserving the honor or their ability to meet any demands it might make of them.
From a human standpoint James and John displayed more natural reliability than Peter. They were not as vacillating and were not given to compromise or equivocation. But they were brazenly ambitious. The two who vengefully wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans are now seen also as self-serving place seekers, stalking the Lord for His patronage-unashamed of using their mother to gain their personal ends and oblivious of the fact that they were demeaning Christ and His kingdom.
When Herod wanted to attack and destroy the infant church, he singled out James for arrest and execution. The fact that he chose James first suggests that this apostle may have been more publicly noticeable and Influential than even Peter or John It was only after he saw that the murder of James pleased the Jews that Herod “proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:1–3). At least in the king’s eyes, James seemed to be the most dangerous. He was probably thunderous and unrelenting in his ministry, and because of it became the first apostolic martyr.
Zeal is a great virtue, and the Lord needs those who are fearlessly aggressive. But zeal is also prone to be brash, loveless, insensitive, and lacking in wisdom. Insensitivity can destroy a ministry, and James had to learn to bridle his ambition and to love.
Some pastors who are orthodox in doctrine and morally upstanding are utterly insensitive to their congregations and their own families. The nineteenth-century writer Henrik Ibsen told of a Norwegian pastor who diligently followed the motto “All or nothing.” He was stern and uncompromising in everything he said and did. He zealously wanted to advance the kingdom of Christ, but he had no regard for the feelings of fellow believers. He wanted to uphold God’s standards of truth and holiness, but he was blind to His standards of love and kindness.
He was especially hard on his own family. When his little girl became seriously ill, he refused to take her out of the cold Norwegian climate to a warmer place, even though the doctor warned that not to do so would cost her life. The pastor responded with his usual “All or nothing,” and the girl soon died. Because the mother had found no love in her husband, her life had been completely centered in her little daughter. When the daughter died, the mother was so distraught and shattered that she would sit for hours fondling the clothes of her baby girl, trying to feed her starved heart with the empty garments. After a few days her husband took the clothes away and gave them to a poor woman on the street. The wife had hidden one little bonnet as a last reminder, but her husband soon found that and gave it away-after giving the grieving mother a lecture on “All or nothing.” In a few months the mother also died, a victim more of her husband’s misguided zeal than of her daughter’s untimely death.
The great evangelist Billy Sunday saw thousands of souls converted to Jesus Christ, but every one of his children died in unbelief, because he had had no time for them Zeal without love is cruel and destructive. A person with flaming passion and enthusiasm for the Lord’s work but who tends to be intolerant and impatient is doubtlessly more usable than a lukewarm, uncommitted, and compromising person, who the Lord said is fit only to be spat out of His mouth (Rev. 3:16). But intolerance and insensitivity are a tragic barrier to effective ministry and are never justified. Without love, the most dynamic and dedicated zeal-even in the Lord’s own work-is nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3).
Jesus bridled James’s zeal and channeled His servant’s energy into fruitful ministry. James and John did indeed drink their Master’s cup, as He had predicted (Matt. 20:23). For John the cup was a long life of rejection and a death in exile. For James it was a short bright flame that brought martyrdom.
An ancient Roman coin depicted an ox facing both an altar and a plow with the inscription “Ready for either.” That should be the attitude of every believer. James gave his life for the Lord as a brief and dying sacrifice, whereas John gave his as a long and living sacrifice of service.
The last disciple mentioned in the first group is John, the brother of James. Unlike Andrew and James, John is one of the most prominent disciples in the New Testament. He not only figures prominently in the gospel accounts but wrote one of the gospels himself, as well as three epistles and the book of Revelation.
Because of his eventual gentleness and self-effacing attitude, we are sometimes inclined to think of John as being naturally retiring and mild mannered, perhaps even somewhat effeminate. But in his early years he was fully as much a “Son of Thunder” as James. He joined his brother in wanting to call down fire on the unbelieving Samaritans and in seeking a position next to the Lord in the kingdom. Like James, he was naturally intolerant, ambitious, zealous, and explosive, though perhaps not as much so.
It is interesting that the only time John is mentioned alone in the gospels is in an unfavorable light. On one occasion he came to Jesus and reported, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to hinder him because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). John appears prejudiced and sectarian, and he did not look favorably on those who were not affiliated with his own group, even if they were faithfully doing the Lord’s work.
Christians are justified in breaking fellowship with fellow believers who teach false doctrine and persist in immoral living; in fact are commanded to do so (Rom. 16:17–18; 1 Cor. 5:9–11; Gal. 1:8; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14). But exclusivism or sectarianism based on form, culture, status, race, color, wealth, appearance, or any other such superficiality is anathema to the Lord, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek … slave nor free man … male nor female; for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Throughout his life, John remained uncompromising in doctrine and in standards of morality, but the Holy Spirit developed in him an unparalleled capacity for love, so much so that he is often called the apostle of love. It is apparent from his epistles that: he did not slip into the foolish and tolerant sentimentality that often masquerades as love. During the rest of his life, which lasted until near the turn of the second century, he lost none of his intolerance for falsehood and immorality. Love without certain standards or strong convictions is as much a spiritual disaster as zeal without sensitivity. The Lord knew that, as far as the human author was concerned, the apostle who became the most powerful advocate of love would have to be a man who was also uncompromising of truth. Otherwise his love would take him down the road of destructive sentimentalism that is traveled by so many in the name of Christ.
In his five New Testament books John uses forms of the word love eighty times and witness or its synonyms some seventy times. He was always a witness to the truth and ever a teacher of love. Truth guarded his love, and love surrounded his truth.
John was also a discoverer, a seeker for truth. He was the first to recognize the Lord on the shore of Galilee and was the first disciple to see the risen Christ. It was to him that the Lord entrusted the revelation of future events in the Apocalypse. John did not lean on Jesus’ breast (John 13:23) because of maudlin sentimentality but because he had an insatiable hunger for Christ’s truth and fellowship. He wanted to gather every word that came from his Master’s lips and to bask continually in the warmth of His love.
That John’s love was controlled by God’s truth is nowhere seen more clearly than in his three epistles, in which his exhortations for love are always balanced by commands for truth and righteousness. He denounced the antichrist and those who sided with him. He rebuked the unloving and the disobedient. It was John that Jesus inspired to record His most sobering distinction between the saved and the unsaved, declaring that the one is the child of God and the other the child of Satan (John 8:41–44). Again and again John appealed to various witnesses to the truth he taught. He spoke of the witness of John the Baptist (John 1:7–8; 3:26), the witness of the miracles (John 5:36), the witness of the apostles (15:27), the witness of the Father (5:37), of the Son (18:37), and of the Holy Spirit and the water and blood (1 John 5:8).
But throughout his teaching John’s heart of love and compassion is revealed, and the reflection of his great capacity not only to teach but to exemplify love is manifest. People who love greatly can also be loved greatly, because they are eager to receive it as well as give it. John continually took in the love of Christ and continually gave it out. He so identified with Christ’s love that he referred to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20). John could claim no greater honor for himself than being the apostle whom Jesus loved.
Tradition tells us that John did not leave the city of Jerusalem until Mary the mother of Jesus died, because the Lord had entrusted her into his care (John 19:26). The Lord said to Peter, “Tend My sheep” (John 21:17); but to John He said, in effect, “Take care of My mother.” John had a special love that Jesus knew would lead this disciple to treat Mary as his own mother.
John’s teaching on love might be summarized in ten truths that run through his writings. He taught that God is a God of love (1 John 4:8, 16), that God loves His Son (John 3:35; 5:20) and is loved by His Son (14:31), that God loved the disciples (16:27; 17:23), that God loves all men (3:16), that Christ loved the disciples (13:34), that He loves all believers (1 John 3:1), that He expects all men to love Him (John 14:15, 21), that believers in Him should love one another (13:34; 1 John 4:11, 21), and that love fulfills all the commandments (14:23; 1 John 5:3).
From the lives of these three men, as from the lives of the other disciples, it becomes obvious that the Lord uses a variety of people. Andrew was humble, gentle, and inconspicuous. He saw the individual more than the crowd. He was not a dynamic evangelist, but he continually brought people to Jesus Christ. James, like Peter, was dynamic, bold, and a natural leader. He initiated, took charge, and moved ahead; but he could also be self-willed, self-assured, prejudiced, and ambitious. John was also a son of thunder, but of a milder sort. He was a truth seeker who was sensitive to those to whom he taught the truth.
Jesus transformed all three into effective fishers of men and foundation layers of His church, and all three suffered for their faithfulness. Tradition says that Andrew led the wife of a provincial governor to Christ and that when she refused to recant her faith the governor had Andrew crucified on an X-shaped cross-which subsequently became his symbol in church lore. He is said to have hung on the cross in agony for two days, preaching the gospel to those who passed by for as long as he was able.
According to tradition, when James had been sentenced to death and was about to be beheaded, the Roman soldier who guarded him was so impressed with his courage and constancy of spirit that he knelt at the apostle’s feet, begging forgiveness for the rough treatment he had given him and for his part in the execution. James is said to have lifted the man up, embraced and kissed him, and said, “Peace, my son. Peace to you and the pardon of your faults.” The soldier is said to have been so moved by James’s compassion that he publicly confessed Christ and was beheaded alongside the apostle.
Scripture reports that John was banished to the small and barren Isle of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, off the west coast of Asia Minor. He died about a.d. 98, during the reign of Emperor Trajan. Some sources suggest that those who knew him well said their reminder of John was the echo of a constant phrase that was on his lips: “My little children, love one another” (cf. 1 John 3:13, 14; 4:7, 11, 20–21).
These were three men with ordinary temperaments, ordinary strengths and weaknesses, and ordinary struggles. Yet in the power of Christ they were transformed into men that turned the world upside down. It was not what they were in themselves but what they were sovereignly and willingly made to become that rendered them such powerful instruments in the Master’s hands. The fishermen of Galilee became fishers of men on a vast scale, and in God’s power they gathered thousands of souls into the church and played a vital part in the salvation of millions more. Through the testimony of their lives and writings, those fishermen are still casting their nets into the sea of mankind and bringing multitudes into the kingdom.
|The Master’s Men—Part 3: Philip, Bartholomew (Nathanael)
Philip and Bartholomew; (10:3a)
The second group of four disciples begins with Philip, as it does in the other listings (Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13), probably indicating he was its leader. This Philip is not to be confused with the deacon who became a prominent evangelist in the early days of the church (see Acts 6:5; 8:4–13, 26–40).
All of the twelve were Jews, but many used both Greek and Jewish names. It is not known what this disciple’s Jewish name was, because Philip (a Greek name meaning “lover of homes”) is the only name used of him in the New Testament. It was possibly due to his name that the Greeks who wanted to see Jesus came to Philip first (John 12:20–21).
Philip’s hometown was the northern Galilee town of Bethsaida, where Peter and Andrew also lived. Because they were all God-fearing Jews and probably were all fishermen (see John 21:2–3), it seems certain that Peter, Andrew, Philip and Bartholomew not only were acquaintances but were close friends even before Jesus called them.
As with Andrew, the first three gospels make no mention of Philip except in listings of the apostles, and all that is revealed about him is found in the fourth gospel.
It can be surmised from John’s account that Philip was already a devout man. The day after Jesus called Peter and Andrew, “He purposed to go forth into Galilee, and He found Philip, and Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me’ ” (John 1:43). Although John, Andrew, and Peter had taken up with Jesus as soon as they realized He was the Messiah (vv. 35–42), Philip was the first person to whom the Lord expressly said, “Follow Me.”
God had already given Philip a seeking heart. Salvation is always on the sovereign Lord’s initiative, and no one comes to Jesus Christ unless God the Father draws him (John 6:44, 65). But God planted the desire in Philip’s heart to find the Messiah even before Jesus called him. Philip therefore said to Nathanael (or Bartholomew), “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45). From the perspective of divine sovereignty, the Lord found Philip, but from the perspective of human understanding and volition, Philip had found the Lord. Both the divine and human wills will be in accord when salvation takes place. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), and it is those who truly seek Him who find Him (Luke 7:7–8; cf. Jer. 29:13). God seeks and finds the hearts of those who genuinely seek Him.
From his comments to Nathanael, it seems that Philip must have been diligently studying the Scriptures to learn God’s will and plan. God’s promised Messiah was central on his mind, and when he was introduced to the Messiah, he immediately acknowledged and accepted Him. Using His written Word, God had prepared Philip’s heart. From the scriptural record we know of no human agent who was instrumental in Philip’s calling or commitment. Jesus simply walked up to Him and said, “Follow Me.” Philip’s heart and eyes and ears were spiritually attuned, and when he heard Jesus’ call he knew it was from God. We can only imagine the excitement and joy that filled his soul at that moment.
The genuineness of Philip’s faith is seen not only in the fact the he immediately recognized and accepted the Messiah but in the reality that he also promptly began to serve Christ by telling others of Him. As soon as Jesus called him, Philip found Nathanael and told him he had found the Messiah.
One of the certain marks of genuine conversion is the desire to tell others of the Savior. The new believer who is baptized as a public testimony of his new relationship to Jesus Christ often has a spontaneous desire to use that occasion to witness for the Lord. The believer who has not left his first love for the Lord inevitably has a loving desire to witness to those who do not know Him.
Because Philip already cared about his friend Nathanael, it was natural to communicate to him the most profound and joyous discovery of his life. In every listing of the twelve, Philip and Nathanael are together, and it is likely they had been close friends for many years before they met Jesus.
Second, we learn from John’s gospel that Philip had a practical, analytical mind. When Jesus faced the great crowd of people who had followed Him to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, He knew they were tired and hungry and that few of them had made provision for eating. He therefore “said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?’ ” (John 6:5). Philip had seen Jesus perform many miracles, including the turning of water into wine (John 2:1–11), but at this time his only thoughts were of the practical problems involved in Jesus’ suggestion. In addition to the 5,000 men (6:10), it is not unrealistic to assume that there were an equal number of women and several times that many children.
Judging from Philip’s response, it may have been that he was normally in charge of getting food for Jesus and his fellow disciples, just as Judas was in charge of the group’s money. He therefore would have known how much food they usually ate and how much it cost. But Jesus had a special purpose in asking Philip about the food. “And this He was saying to test him; for He Himself! knew what He was intending to do” (v. 6). If Jesus had asked about buying food only for the thirteen men in their own group, the answer would have been simple and practical, and Philip could quickly have given the answer. But he should have realized that, in His asking about feeding the entire multitude, Jesus’ question went far beyond the practical and implied the impossible.
But Philip took the question at its practical face value and immediately began to calculate an answer based on his own experience. Making a rough estimate, he concluded that “two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little” (v. 7). A denarii represented the daily wage of an average Palestinian worker, and even if two hundred of them were collacted from the crowd or taken from the disciples’ treasury, that amount could not buy enough bread even to give the multitude a snack.
Philip’s response was sincere, but it revealed a lack of consideration for Jesus’ supernatural provision. He was face to face with the Son of God, but he could see no further than the practical, physical dilemma. There was no prospect of a solution from the human standpoint, and that is all he considered. He was so engrossed in the material situation that he completely lost sight of God’s power.
It has been noted that the supreme essential of a great leader is a sense of the possible. Like most people, however-including perhaps most believers-Philip only had a sense of the impossible. He did not yet understand that “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26; cf. Mark 9:23).
It would seem that, after having seen Jesus perform so many miracles, Philip’s immediate response would have been, “Lord, You made the water into wine, stilled the storm, and have healed every kind of disease. Why bother trying to buy so much food when all You have to do is say the word and create the food necessary to feed all these people?”
Philip failed Jesus’ test of faith because he was too taken up with his own understanding and abilities. He was methodical and full of practical common sense; but those virtues, helpful as they often are, can be an obstacle to the immeasurably greater virtue of trusting God for what is impractical. Facts and figures are a poor substitute for faith.
Third, we learn from John’s gospel that Philip was not forceful and was inclined to be indecisive. Although he was not a member of the inner circle, Philip had access to Jesus on his own. But when “certain Greeks among those who were going up to worship at the feast … came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and began to ask him, saying, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus,’ ” Philip decided to take them first to Andrew (12:20–22).
Philip knew that Jesus healed the Gentile centurion’s servant and accepted the half-Gentile Samaritans who came to Him for salvation, yet he seems to have been uncertain about whether it was proper to introduce these Gentiles to the Lord. He may have been thinking of the temporary instruction Jesus gave when He first sent the disciples out on their own: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5–6). Natural Jewish prejudice made that an easy command to obey, and Philip may have thought the restriction was still in effect. But he did not ignore the Greeks’ request and at least made the effort to consult Andrew.
Fourth, we discover from John’s gospel that Philip lacked spiritual perception This deficiency was evident in his failing Jesus’ test in regard to feeding the multitude, and it was even more pronounced when, almost three years later, he said to Jesus at the Last Supper, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (John 14:8). It must have grieved Jesus deeply to hear such a question, and He replied, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me; otherwise believe on account of the works themselves” (vv. 9–11).
After three years of learning at Jesus’ feet, Philip’s spiritual perception still seemed almost nil. Neither Jesus’ words nor His works had brought Philip to the understanding that Jesus and His Father were one. After gazing for three years into the only face of God men will ever see, he still did not comprehend who he was seeing. He had missed the main truth of Jesus’ teaching, that He was God incarnate.
Yet the Lord used that man of limited vision and trust. Philip was slow to understand and slow to trust. He was more at home with physical facts than with spiritual truth. Yet, along with the other apostles, Jesus assured him of a throne from which he would judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28) Philip was pessimistic, insecure, analytical, and slow to learn; but tradition tells us that he ultimately gave his life as a martyr for the Lord he so often disappointed and who so patiently taught and retaught him. It is reported that he was stripped naked, hung upside down by his feet, and pierced with sharp stakes in his ankles and thighs, causing him slowly to bleed to death. He is said to have asked not to be shrouded with linen after he was dead, because he felt unworthy to be buried as was his Lord.
Bartholomew means “son [Aramaic, bar] of Tolmai.” He was much different from Philip, his close friend and companion with whom he is always paired in the New testament. The first three gospels refer to him only as Bartholomew but John always as Nathanael, which may have been his first name. The short account of John 1:45–51 is the only place this apostle is mentioned in the New Testament outside the four listings of the twelve.
Bartholomew came from Cana of Galilee and was brought to the Lord by his friend Philip. As soon as Philip discovered Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, he “found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’ ” (John 1:45).
Philip’s words imply that, like himself, Nathanael was a student of Scripture, a seeker after divine truth and well acquainted with the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. A further implication seems to be that these two men were partners in Scripture study, having examined the Old Testament together for many years. In any case, it is clear from Philip’s statement that he knew Nathanael would immediately know whom he was talking about. They both hungered for God’s truth and earnestly sought the coming of the anticipated Messiah.
But Nathanael was affected by prejudice. Instead of judging Jesus by what He said and did, Nathanael stumbled over the fact that He was from Nazareth, a town with a notably unsavory reputation. It was an unrefined, rowdy place that hosted many foreign travelers. Nathanael’s question, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46), was probably a common expression of derision among the Jews of Galilee.
Prejudice is an unwarranted generalization based on feelings of superiority, and it can be a powerful obstacle to the truth. Herbert Lockyer points out that in his allegory The Holy War, John Bunyan depicts Christ (called Emmanuel) invading and holding the life of a person (represented as the town Mansoul). During the course of the siege on Mansoul, Emmanuel’s forces attack Eargate. But Diabolus (Satan) sets up a formidable guard called “Old Mr. Prejudice, an angry and ill-conditioned fellow who has under his power sixty deaf men” (All the Apostles of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972], p. 60).
The nature of prejudice is to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to any truth that does not fit its preconceived and cherished ideas. Consequently, it is a common and powerful weapon of Satan By appealing to various prejudices he often succeeds in getting a person to reject the gospel even before learning what it is really about. The prejudices of their man-made traditions blinded many Jews to the true teaching of their Scriptures and thereby led them to reject Jesus as the Messiah-despite His clear demonstrations of divine power and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Fortunately, Nathanael’s prejudice was tempered by his genuine desire to know God’s truth. He agreed to Philip’s suggestion (“Come and see”) and went to meet Jesus for himself (v. 46b-47a).
From the mouth of Jesus we learn still other characteristics of Nathanael. As Nathanael approached, Jesus said, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (v. 47b). Alēthōs (“indeed”) was a word of strong affirmation by which Jesus declared Nathanael to be the kind of man God intended His chosen people to be. He was a Jew in the truest spiritual sense, “a Jew who is one inwardly, … [whose] praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:29). He was not merely a physical descendant of Abraham but, more important, a Jew in the true covenant with God, a spiritual descendant, a child of promise (see Rom. 9:6–8).
Not only was Nathanael a genuine, spiritualual but he was, by the Lord’s own testimony, a man “in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47c). He was a genuine Jew and a genuine person. He had no deceit or duplicity, no hypocrisy or phoniness. That characteristic alone set him far apart from most of his countrymen, especially the self-righteous and hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, whose very names Jesus used as synonyms for religious and moral hypocrisy (Matt. 23:13–15, 23, 25, 27).
Nathanael had reflected the common prejudice of the time, but his heart was right and won out over his head. His prejudice was not strong and it quickly withered in the light of truth. What an astoundingly wonderful commendation to be described by the Lord Himself as “an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”
Nathanael’s response to Jesus’ commendation reflected its appropriateness. He did not swell up with pride at the compliment but wondered how Jesus could speak with such certainty about the inner life of a person He had never met. “How do You know me?” he asked (John 1:48). “How do You know what I am really like on the inside?” he was asking. “How do You know that I truly seek to follow God and that my life is not hypocritical?” Because of his genuine humility, Nathanael may have been inclined to doubt Jesus’ judgment and think His comments were mere flattery.
But Jesus’ next words removed any doubts Nathanael may have had. When Jesus said, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” Nathanael knew he stood in the presence of omniscience He declared, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (vv. 48b-49).
Because fig trees of that region could become quite large, they were often planted near a house to provide shade, comfort, and a place of retreat from household activities. Nathanael must have been meditating and praying in the shade of such a tree before Philip came to him.
In any case, Jesus not only saw where Nathanael was sitting but knew what he was thinking. “I saw you in your secret place of retreat,” Jesus said, in effect, “and I even saw what was in your heart.” Nathanael’s prayers were answered and his searching for the Messiah was over. Because his heart was divinely prepared to seek the Messiah, he immediately acknowledged Him when they met, just as the godly Simeon and Anna recognized even the infant Jesus as the: Son of God (Luke 2:25–38).
Jesus continued His attestation of Nathanael’s faith. “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe?” (John 1:50), is better translated as a statement of fact (as in the NIV). Both Jesus and Nathanael knew it was the manifestation of omniscience that convinced Nathanael of Jesus’ messiahship. Because of Nathanael’s faith, Jesus went on to say, “ ‘You shall see greater things than these.’ And He said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ ” (vv. 50b-51). This demonstration of Jesus’ omniscience would come to seem small to Nathanael in comparison to the wonders of divine power he would soon begin to witness.
It may be that Nathanael came to understand Jesus’ glory as well as any of the other apostles. We know nothing else of the man than what is found in that one brief account. But it seems reasonable to assume that he was among the most dependable and teachable of the twelve. There is no record of his questioning Jesus or arguing with Him or even misunderstanding Him.
The New Testament says nothing of his ministry or his death, and even tradition has little to offer about him. But it is apparent from the Lord’s own words that, like David, Nathanael was a man after God’s own heart.
|The Master’s Men—Part 4: Thomas, Matthew
Thomas and Matthew the tax-gatherer; (10:3b)
As in the other lists of disciples, these two men are in the second group of four, although the order of their names varies (see Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
Probably since the first century, Thomns has been known primarily, if not almost exclusively, for his doubt; and “doubting Thomas” has long been an epithet for skeptics. But a careful look at the gospel accounts reveals this disciple was a man of great faith and dedication.
As with several other apostles, all that is known of him besides his name is found in John’s gospel. While Jesus was ministering on the other side of the Jordan River near Jericho, the report came that Lazarus had died. On hearing the news, Jesus said to His disciples, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him” (John 11:15). Even after witnessing so many miracles, including the raising of the dead, the twelve were still lacking in faith, and Jesus determined to perform this last great miracle for their benefit. He had already decided to go back to Judea, despite reminders by the disciples that it would cost His life (vv. 7–8). Because Bethany was a near suburb of Jerusalem, for Jesus to go there was almost as dangerous as His going into Jerusalem. Fully realizing the danger for all of them, “Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with Him’ ” (v. 16).
Thomas, and doubtlessly the other disciples as well, believed that, because of the hostility of the Jewish establishment, going to Jerusalem would be virtual suicide. But he took the initiative to encourage the twelve to go with Jesus and suffer the consequences with Him. He was obviously pessimistic about the outcome of the trip, but the pessimism makes his act all the more courageous. As a pessimist, he expected the worst possible consequences; yet he was willing to go. An optimist would have needed less courage, because he would have expected less danger. Thomas was willing to pay the ultimate price for the sake of His Lord.
Such unreserved willingness to die for Christ was hardly the mark of a doubter. Thomas was willing to die for Christ because he totally believed in Him. Thomas was perhaps equalled only by John in his utter and unwavering devotion to Jesus. He had such an intense love for the Lord that he could not endure existence without Him. If Jesus was determined to go to jerusalem and certain death, so was Thomas, because the alternative of living without Him was unthinkable.
Herbert Lockyet has commented: “Like those brave knights in attendance upon the blind King John of Bohemia who rode into the battle of Crécy with their bridles intertwined with that of their master, resolved to share his fate, whatever it might be … so Thomas, come life, come death, was resolved not to forsake his Lord, seeing he was bound to Him by a deep and enthusiastic love” (All the Apostles of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972], p. 178)
Thomas had no illusions. He saw the jaws of death and did not flinch. He would rather face death than face disloyalty to Christ.
In the Upper Room following the Last Supper, Jesus urged the disciples not to be troubled in heart and assured them that He was going to prepare a heavenly place for them and would come again and receive them to Himself, in order that they might forever be with Him. He then said, “And you know the way where I am going” (John 14:1–4). Puzzled at this, Thomas asked, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” (v. 5).
Only a few days earlier Thomas had declared his determination to die with Christ if necessary. His devotion to Christ was unqualified, but like the other disciples he had almost no understanding of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, for which his Master had been preparing him for three years. Thomas had little comprehension of what Jesus had just said, apparently assuming Jesus was only talking about taking a long journey to a distant country. He was bewildered, saddened, and anxious. Again the disciple’s pessimism and also his love are revealed. His pessimism made him fear that he might somehow be permanently separated from his Lord, and his love for his Lord made that fear unbearable. Understanding Thomas’s heart as well as his words, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (v. 6). “If you know Me,” Jesus was saying, “you know the way. And if you are in Me, you are in the way. Your only concern is to be with Me, and I will take you wherever I go.”
The third text in which John tells us about Thomas is by far the best known. When Jesus was crucified and buried, all of Thomas’s worst fears had seemed to come true. Jesus had been killed, but the disciples were spared. Their Master was gone, and they were left alone, leaderless and helpless. For Thomas it was worse than death, which he had been perfectly willing to accept. He felt forsaken, rejected, and probably even betrayed. From his perspective, his worst pessimism had been vindicated. Jesus’ promises had been empty-sincere and well meaning, no doubt, but nevertheless empty. Because he loved Jesus so much, the feeling of rejection was all the more deep and painful. The deepest hurt is potentiated by the greatest love.
When the other disciples told Thomas they had seen the Lord, he probably felt like salt had been poured into his wounds. He was in no mood for fantasies about His departed Lord. It was unbearably painful trying to adjust to Jesus’ death, and he had no desire to be shattered by more false hopes. When Thomas heard that Jesus was raised from the dead and alive, he declared, “Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
A person who is depressed, especially if he is naturally pessimistic, is hard to convince that anything will ever be right again. Because he is convinced his plight is permanent, the idea of improvement not only seems unrealistic but can be very irritating. To the person confirmed in hopelessness, even the idea of hope can be an offense.
But Thomas’s attitude was basically no different from that of the other disciples. They, too, were incredulous when first told of Jesus’ resurrection. When Peter and John ran to the tomb and found it empty as Mary had said, “as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9). Even with evidence of the resurrection, they did not search for a risen Lord but went back home (v. 10). When Christ appeared to the ten disciples (Judas was dead, and Thomas was elsewhere), who huddled behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews,” they were not certain that it was the flesh and blood Jesus until after He “showed them both His hands and His side” (vv. 19–20). Nor had the two disciples to whom Jesus appeared on the Emmaus road believed the reports of His resurrection (Luke 24:21–24). None of the disciples believed Jesus was alive until they saw Him in person.
Because they all doubted His promise to rise on the third day, Jesus allowed Thomas to remain in his doubt for another eight days. When He then appeared again to the disciples, He singled out this dear soul who loved him enough to die for Him and who was now utterly shattered in spirit. “Reach here your finger, and see My hands,” He said to Thomas, “and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:26–27). In one of the greatest confessions ever made, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Now all doubt was gone and he knew with full certainty that Jesus was God, that Jesus was Lord, and that Jesus was alive! The Lord then gently rebuked Thomas, saying, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (vv. 28–29). But His rebuke was fully as much of the other disciples as of Thomas, because his doubt, though openly declared, had been no greater than theirs.
If Jesus is not God and is not alive, the gospel is a foolish and futile deception, the furthest thing from good news. “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul told the Corinthian skeptics, “your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins … If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17, 19).
Tradition holds that Thomas preached as far away as India, and the Mar Thoma Church, which still exists in southwest India and bears his name, traces its origin to him. He is said to have had died from a spear being thrust through him, a fitting death for the one who insisted on placing his hand in the spear wound of his Lord.)
Because he wrote the first gospel, Matthew is one of the best known apostles. But the New Testament reveals very few details of his life or ministry.
Before his conversion and call to discipleship, Matthew collected taxes for Rome (Matt. 9:9). It was not an occupation to be proud of, and one would think he would have wanted to dissociate himself from the stigma as much as possible. Yet when he wrote the gospel some thirty years later, he still referred to himself as the tax-gatherer.
As discussed previously in more detail (see chap. 6), tax-gatherers were considered traitors, the most hated members of Jewish society. They were often more despised than the occupying rulers and soldiers, because they betrayed and financially oppressed their own people. They were legal extortioners who extracted as much money as they could from both citizen and foreigner with the full authority and protection of Rome.
They were so despicable and vile that the Jewish Talmud said, “It is righteous to lie and deceive a tax collector.” Tax collectors were not permitted to testify in Jewish courts, because they were notorious liars and accepted bribes as a normal part of life. They were cut off from the rest of Jewish life and were forbidden to worship in the Temple or even in a synagogue. In Jesus’ parable, the tax collector who came to the Temple to pray stood “some distance away” (Luke 18:13) not only because he felt unworthy but because he was not allowed to enter.
Matthew was hardly proud of what he had been, but he seems to have cherished the description as a reminder of his own great unworthiness and of Christ’s great grace He saw himself as the vilest sinner, saved only by the incomparable mercy of his Lord.
Even from the little information given about him, it is evident Matthew was a man of faith. When he got up from his tax table and began to follow Jesus, he burned his bridges behind him. Tax collecting was a lucrative occupation, and many opportunists were doubtlessly eager to take Matthew’s place. And once he forsook his privileged position, the Roman officials would not have granted it to him again. The disciples who were fishermen could always return to fishing, as many of them did after the crucifixion; but there could be no returning to tax collecting for Matthew.
In the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees, Matthew’s leaving his tax office to follow Jesus did little to elevate his standing. Casting his lot with Jesus did not increase Matthew’s popularity, but it greatly increased his danger. There is little doubt that Matthew faced something of the true cost of discipleship before any of the other apostles.
Matthew was not only faithful but humble. In his own gospel (and even in the other three) he is faceless and absolutely voiceless during his time of training under Jesus. He asks no questions and makes no comments. He appears directly in no narrative. Only from Mark (2:15) and Luke (5:29) do we learn that the banquet Jesus ate with “tax-gatherers and sinners” was in Matthew’s house. In his own account, the fact that he was responsible for it is only implied (Matt. 9:10). He was eager and overjoyed for his friends and former associates to meet Jesus, but he calls no attention to his own role in the banquet.
It may be that his humility was born out of his overwhelming sense of sinfulness. He saw God’s grace as so superabundant that he felt unworthy to say a word. He was the silent disciple, until the Holy Spirit led him to pick up his pen and write the opening book of the New Testament-twenty-eight powerful chapters on the majesty, might, and glory of the King of kings.
The fact that Matthew is also referred to as Levi indicates his Jewish heritage. We have no idea what his biblical training may have been, but Matthew quotes the Old Testament more often than the other three gospel writers combined-and quotes from all three parts of it (the law, the prophets, and the writings, or Hagiographa). Since it is highly unlikely he studied Scripture while he was a tax collector, he gained his biblical knowledge either in his youth or after he became an apostle.
Matthew had a loving heart for the lost. As soon as he was saved his first concern was to tell others of that great news and invite them to share in it. He was ashamed of his own previous life of sin; but he was not ashamed to be seen eating with his former associates who were despised by society and living under God’s judgment, because they needed the Savior just as he had.
He sensed personal sinfulness as perhaps none of his fellow disciples did, because he had been greedily and unashamedly involved in extortion, deception, graft, and probably blasphemy and every form of immorality. But now, like the woman taken in adultery, because he was forgiven much, he loved much (see Luke 7:42–43, 47). The genuineness of his love for the Lord is proved in his concern for the salvation of his friends.
God took that outcast sinner and transformed him into a man of great faith, humility, and compassion. He turned him from a man who extorted to one who gave, from one who destroyed lives to one who brought the way of eternal life.
|The Master’s Men—Part 5: James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus (Judas the son of James), Simon the Zealot
James the son Alphaneus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, (10:3c-4a)
These men are the first three in the third group of four apostles and are the least known of the twelve. Most of what we know of them is inferred from their names or descriptive identities or is gleaned from church tradition. Except for one short question posed to Jesus by Thaddaeus, the Bible tells us nothing about their individual characters, personalities, abilities, or accomplishments, either during their three years of training under Jesus or during their ministry in the early church.
James the Son of Alphaeus
The first-named of these unknown apostles is James, who is distinguished from the other apostle James (the son of Zebedee, v. 2) and from James the half brother of Jesus by being identified as the son of Alphaeus. In Mark 15:40 he is referred to as “the Less.” Mikros (“less”) can also mean smaller or younger. Used in the sense of smaller, the name may have been another means of distinguishing him from James the son of Zebedee, who was clearly larger in influence and position and possibly also in physical stature. In the sense of younger, it may have indicated his youthfulness in comparison to the other James.
As just mentioned, this James was considerably less than James the son of Zebedee in the realm of influence. He may have had outstanding traits such as boldness or courage, but, if so, he would likely have been called “the Bold” or something similar, rather than “the Less.” He could have been older than the other James; but if that were true, he would probably have been called “the Elder,” since that description would have been less confusing and more respectful of his age. It is also possible, of course, that he was smaller in stature. But the most probable meaning of “the Less” would seem to be that of youthfulness, coupled with that of his subordinate position in leadership.
Because Matthew’s father was also named Alphaeus (spelled Alpheus in Mark 2:14), James and Matthew may have been brothers. Or this James may have been a cousin of Jesus. Clopas was a form of Alphaeus, and if Jesus’ “mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas” (John 19:25), was James’s mother, he would have been Jesus’ first cousin. That possibility is also supported by Mark 15:40, which tells us that the mother of James the Less was named Mary. It is possible that he was both Matthew’s brother and Jesus’ cousin. In either case or both, this James’s low profile testifies to his humility, since there is no indication that he tried to take personal advantage of any such relationship.
James was not distinguished as a gifted leader, either before or after his calling and training. We can assume he faithfully fulfilled the Lord’s work during his ministry, and we know that he will one day sit on a heavenly throne and join the other twelve in judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). But his apostleship had no relationship to outstanding ability or achievement. He was an unextraordinary man, used in unextraordinary ways to help fulfill the extraordinary task of taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.
After 2,000 years, James the son of Alphaeus remains obscure. We do not know a single word he spoke or a single thing he did. The early church Fathers claimed that he preached in Persia (modern Iran) and was crucified there as a martyr for the gospel. If that is true, one can only wonder what would have happened to that country and to world history had those people responded favorably to the gospel.
Thaddaeus (Judas the Son of James)
The second apostle listed in the third group is Thaddaeus. Based on less reliable Greek manuscripts, the Authorized text reads, “Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus.” From Luke 6:16 and Acts 1:13 we learn that he was also called Judas the son of James. It is likely that Judas was his original name and that Thaddaeus and Lebbaeus were descriptive names, somewhat like nicknames, added by his family or friends.
Thaddaeus comes from the Hebrew word shad, which refers to a female breast. The name means “breast child,” and was probably a common colloquialism for the youngest child of a family, the permanent “baby” of the family who was the last to be nursed by his mother.
Although the name Lebbaeus is not found in what are considered the superior Greek manuscripts, and is therefore not in most modern translations, it may well have been one of this apostle’s names. It is based on the Hebrew leb (“heart”) and means “heart child,” which suggests he was known for his generosity, love, and courage.
On the night before His arrest and trial, Jesus said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him” (John 14:21). At that time Thaddaeus spoke his only words recorded in Scripture: “Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, ‘Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us, and not to the world?’ ” (v. 22).
Judas (Thaddaeus) obviously was thinking only of outward, visible disclosure, and he wondered how Jesus could manifest Himself to those who loved Him without also manifesting Himself to everyone else. Like most Jews of his day, he was looking for Christ to establish an earthly kingdom. How, he wondered, could the Messiah sit on the throne of David and rule the entire earth without manifesting Himself to His subjects? Thaddaeus may also have wondered why Jesus would disclose Himself to a small group of insignificant men and not to the great religious leaders in Jerusalem and the powerful political leaders in Rome.
Jesus did not rebuke Thaddaeus for his misunderstanding, which he sincerely and humbly expressed. In light of common Jewish expectations, the question was appropriate and insightful, and it gave Jesus the opportunity to further explain what He meant. He proceeded to reiterate what He had just said and added the negative side of the truth: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me” (John 14:23–24). Christ was not at that time establishing His earthly kingdom, and the disclosure He was then making was of His divinity and authority as spiritual Lord and Savior. That disclosure can only be recognized by those who trust and love Him, and the genuineness of such trust and love is evidenced by obedience to His Word Manifestation is limited to reception.
A radio or television broadcast can have a great range, reaching virtually the entire globe by use of satellites. But its programs are only “disclosed” to those who have proper receivers. The rest of the world has no awareness of the broadcast, although its electronic waves completely surround them.
Henry David Thoreau once observed that “it takes two people to speak the truth, the one who says it and the one who hears it.” Those who will not listen to the gospel cannot hear it, no matter how clearly and forcefully it may be proclaimed. Jesus Christ was God incarnate, yet “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:10–11). During His three years of ministry, countless thousands of people-mostly God’s chosen people, the Jews-saw and heard Jesus. Yet only a few had more than passing interest in who He really was or in what He said. The god of this world so blinded their minds that when they looked they could not see (2 Cor. 4:4).
Someone has commented that if you tore a beautiful hymn out of a hymnal and threw it down on the sidewalk, you could expect many different reactions from those who saw it. A dog would sniff at it and then go his way. A street cleaner would pick it up and throw it in the trash. A greedy person might pick it up expecting to find a valuable document of some sort. An English teacher might read it and admire its literary quality. But a spiritually-minded believer who picked it up and read it would have his soul blessed. The content would have been the same for all those who came in contact with it, but its meaning and value could only be understood by a person receptive to its godly truth.
Only those whose hearts are purified by love and who walk in obedience to God’s Word can perceive Christ’s truth, beauty, and glory. Thaddaeus was such a person.
Tradition holds that Thaddaeus was specially blessed with the gift of healing and that through him the Lord healed many hundreds of people in Syria. He is said to have healed the king of that country and won him to the Lord. The supposed conversion threw the land into such turmoil that the king’s unbelieving nephew had Thaddaeus bludgeoned to death with a club, which became the symbol for that apostle.
Simon the Zealot
The third name in the third group is Simon the Zealot. The King James version’s “Simon the Canaanite” is based on an unfortunate transliteration of kananaios, which was derived from the Hebrew qanna, meaning “jealous” or “zealous.” It is the equivalent of the Greek zēlōtēs (“zealot”), a description Luke uses of this Simon (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
Zealot may have signified his membership in the radical party of Zealots whose members were determined to throw off the yoke of Rome by force. The Zealots developed during the Maccabean period, when the Jews, under Judas Maccabaeus, revolted against their Greek conquerors. During the time of Christ, another Judas (a common Jewish name of that period) was the outstanding Zealot leader.
The Zealots were one of four dominant religious parties in Judah (along with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes) but were for the most part motivated more by politics than religion. They were primarily guerrilla fighters who made surprise attacks on Roman posts and patrols and then escaped to the hills or mountains. Sometimes they resorted to terrorism, and the Jewish historian Josephus called them sicarii (Latin, “daggermen”) because of their frequent assassinations. The heroic defenders of the great Herodian fortress at Masada were Jewish Zealots led by Eleazar. When that brave group fell to Flavius Silva in a.d. 72 after a seven-month siege, the Zealots disappeared from history.
If Simon was that sort of Zealot, he was a man of intense dedication and perhaps violent passion. His always being listed next to Judas Iscariot may suggest that those men were somewhat two of a kind, whose primary concern about the Messiah was earthly and material rather than spiritual. But whatever motivations they may originally have had in common soon vanished, as Judas became more confirmed in his rejection of Jesus and Simon more confirmed in his devotion to Him.
Apparently throughout their ministries, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot remained unknown even to most of the church. But they joined the ranks of the unnamed Old Testament saints who “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these … gained approval through their faith” (Heb. 11:36–39).
|The Master’s Men—Part 6: Judas
and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him. (10:4b)
Among the twelve apostles, one stands out against the backdrop of the others as a lonely, tragic misfit, the epitome of human disaster. He is the vilest, most wicked man in Scripture. In the lists of apostles he is always named last and, with the exception of Acts 1:13, is always identified as Jesus’ betrayer. For 2,000 years the name Judas Iscariot has been a byword for treachery.
Forty verses in the New Testament mention the betrayal of Jesus, and each of them is a reminder of Judas’s incredible sin. After the description of his death and his replacement among the twelve in Acts 1, his name is never again mentioned in Scripture. In Dante’s Inferno Judas occupies the lowest level of hell, which he shares with Lucifer, Satan himself.
Judas was a common name in New Testament times and was a second name for one of the other apostles, Thaddaeus. It is a personalized form of Judah, the southern kingdom during the Jewish monarchy and the Roman province of Judea during the time of Christ. Some scholars believe the name means “Yahweh (or Jehovah) leads,” and others believe it refers to one who is the object of praise. With either meaning, it was a tragic misnomer in the case of Judas Iscariot. No human being has ever been less directed by the Lord or less worthy of praise.
Iscariot means “man of Kerioth,” a small town in Judea, about twenty-three miles south of Jerusalem and some seven miles from Hebron. Judas is the only apostle whose name includes a geographical identification, possibly because he was the only Judean among the twelve. All the others, including Jesus, were from Galilee in the north. Judean Jews generally felt superior to the Jews of Galilee; and although Judas himself was from a rural village, he probably did not fit well into the apostolic band.
Judas is always listed among the twelve apostles, but his specific call is not recorded in the gospels. He first appears in Matthew’s listing, with no indication as to where or how Jesus called him. Obviously he was attracted to Jesus, and he stayed with Him until the end of His ministry, far past the time when many of the other false disciples had left Him (see John 6:66).
There is no evidence that Judas ever had a spiritual interest in Jesus. It is likely that, from the beginning, he expected Jesus to become a powerful religious and political leader and wanted to use the association with Him for selfish reasons. He recognized Jesus’ obvious miracle-working power as well as His great influence over the multitudes. But he was not interested in the coming of the kingdom for Christ’s sake, or even for the sake of his fellow Jews, but only for the sake of whatever personal gain he might derive from being in the Messiah’s inner circle of leadership. Although he was motivated totally by selfishness, he nevertheless followed the Lord in a half-hearted way-until he was finally convinced that Jesus’ plans for the kingdom were diametrically opposed to his own.
Christ chose Judas intentionally and specifically, “for Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him” (John 6:64). Although the disciples did not at the time understand what He meant, Jesus alluded to His betrayal a year or more before it occurred. “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?” Jesus told them soon after the false disciples at Capernaum turned away from Him. John explains that “He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him” (vv. 70–71).
David predicted Christ’s betrayal a thousand years before the fact. “Even my close friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread,” he wrote, “has lifted up his heel against me” (Ps. 41:9; cf. 55:12–15, 20–21). Although that passage primarily referred to David, its greater significance applied to Jesus Christ, as He Himself declared (John 13:18).
Zechariah even predicted the exact price of betrayal. “And I said to them, ‘If it is good in your sight, give me my wages; but if not, never mind!’ So they weighed out thirty shekels of silver as my wages. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter, that magnificent price at which I was valued by them.’ So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of the Lord” (Zech. 11:12–13). At the Lord’s command, the prophet had shepherded the Lord’s people (vv. 4–11), and the wages they paid Zechariah represented the “magnificent price” at which their descendants would value the Messiah Himself.
In His high priestly prayer, Jesus said to His Father, speaking of the twelve, “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Thy name which Thou hast given Me; and I guarded them, and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12). Luther translated “son of perdition” as “lost child,” that is, a child whose nature and intention is to be continually wayward and lost. Jesus lost none of the twelve except the one who was confirmed in his sin and refused to be saved. He chose Judas in order to fulfill Scripture, knowing that Judas would reject that choice.
At the Last Supper Jesus said, “Behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Me on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Luke 22:21–22). Although our finite human minds cannot understand it, God had predetermined the betrayal, though, at the same time, Judas was held fully responsible for it, because it was by his own choice.
In Judas’s rejection of Christ there is the same apparent paradox of divine sovereignty and human will that exists in the process of salvation. Although a person must receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior with an act of his will (John 1:12; 3:16; Rom. 1:16), every believer who does so was chosen to be saved even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; cf. Acts 13:48). In the same way, Judas had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ in regard to salvation, although Christ planned from the beginning for the disbelief and rejection that would characterize this disciple. Those seemingly conflicting truths-just as others found in Scripture-are resolved only in the mind of God. The Bible is clear that Jesus extended to Judas the opportunity for salvation to the extent that his unbelief was his own choice and fault (cf. Matt. 23:37; John 5:40). Judas chose to reject and betray Christ. That is why Christ did not label him as a victim of sovereign decree but “a devil” (John 6:70) and made clear that he did what he did not because God made him do it but rather Satan (John 13:27).
God also predetermined Judas’s successor among the twelve from the beginning. Just before Pentecost, the Holy Spirit led Peter to explain to the apostles who remained, “It is therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us-begnning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us-one of these should become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21–22). Out of the disciples who met that qualification, the eleven then chose “two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, ‘Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two Thou hast chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (vv. 23–26). Both God’s sovereign, predetermined choice and the human choice of the apostles were involved in the selection of Matthias.
A few days later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter said to the crowd in Jerusalem, “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know-this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (2:22–23). God sovereignly predetermined Jesus’ crucifixion, but the unbelieving Jews were responsible for sending Him to the cross. It was God’s predetermined will to send His Son to die, and it was rebellious man’s determined will to put Him to death.
Judas’s outward personality must have been commendable or at least acceptable. Before the actual betrayal, none of the other disciples accused Judas of any wrongdoing or criticized him for any deficiency. When after three years of training them Jesus predicted that one of the twelve would betray Him, the other eleven had no idea who it might be. At first, “being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ ” (Matt. 26:22). Then “they began to discuss among themselves which one of them it might be who was going to do this thing.” But they soon lost sight of the betrayal and began to discuss not who was the worst among them but rather “which one of them was regarded to be greatest” (Luke 22:23–24). In any case, Judas was no more suspect than any of the others. In answer to John’s question “Lord, who is it?” Jesus replied, “That is the one for whom I shall dip the morsel and give it to him” (John 13:25–26). Jesus then gave the morsel to Judas, saying, “What you do, do quickly.” Still the others had no idea the traitor was Judas. “No one of those reclining at the table knew for what purpose He had said this to him,” that is, to Judas (vv. 27–28).
Because he was never suspected by the other disciples, Judas must have been a remarkable hypocrite. He had even been selected treasurer of the group and was perfectly trusted (John 13:29). It is probable that, like most of the other disciples, he had led a respectable, religious life before Jesus called him. Perhaps he had not been an extortioner and traitor to his own people like Matthew or a hot-blooded revolutionary and possible assassin like Simon the Zealot, although his coming from Kerioth of Judea might have obscured his background to the other disciples, who were Galileans.
Judas apparently guarded what he said. His only recorded words were spoken near the end of Jesus’ ministry, when he objected to Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and given to poor people?” he asked (John 12:5). “Now he said this,” John explains, “not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it” (v. 6). Under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, John was given that insight which he recorded when writing the gospel decades later; but at the time of the incident he had no awareness of Judas’s ulterior motive.
Judas was no more naturally sinful than any other person ever born. He was made of the same stuff as the other apostles, with no less common goodness and no more innate sinfulness. But the same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay, and Judas’s choice not to trust in Jesus became more and more hardened and fixed as he continued to resist the Lord’s love and Word.
Judas was probably one of the youngest disciples and likely an outwardly devout and patriotic Jew Though not as radical as Simon the Zealot, he was anxious for the Roman yoke to be thrown off and expected Jesus to usher in the messianic kingdom that would accomplish that. Rome would be overthrown, and God’s people would be reestablished in peace and prosperity.
But Judas was first of all a materialist, as his stealing bears witness. He wanted the earthly benefits of a restored Jewish kingdom but had no interest in personal righteousness or regeneration. He was perfectly satisfied with himself and came to Jesus solely for material advantage, not for spiritual blessing. Jesus gave him every opportunity to renounce his self-life and seek God’s forgiveness and salvation, but Judas refused. The Lord gave the parables of the unjust sinward and the wedding garments, but Judas did not apply the truths to himself. The Lord taught much about the dangers of greed and love of money and even warned the twelve that one of them was a devil, but Judas would not listen. He did not argue with Christ, as Peter and some of the others did and, in fact, probably openly acted as if he agreed with Him. But the response of his heart was continual rejection. Jesus chose Judas because the betrayal was in God’s plan and was prophesied in the Old Testament; yet Jesus gave Judas every opportunity not to fulfill that prophecy.
Judas was in the third group of four disciples-with James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot-indicating he was among the disciples who were least intimate with Jesus. It is likely he was on the fringe even of his own subgroup, participating no more than necessary, and that from the sidelines. It is doubtful he was close to any of the others. He was thought to be honest, but he developed no close friendships or intimate relationships. He was a loner.
In the Orient, a host would always offer an honored guest the first sop, which consisted of a morsel of bread dipped in a syrup-like mixture of fruit and nuts. At the Last Supper Jesus offered the first sop to Judas. Yet at the very moment the Lord extended special honor to Judas, “Satan then entered into him” (John 13:27). To the very end Jesus loved Judas, but he would have none of what He offered him.
His Progressive Rejection
Judas did not begin his discipleship intending to betray Jesus. He was in full sympathy with what he thought was Jesus’ purpose and plan and was ready to support Him. After each miracle Judas may have expected Jesus to announce His kingship and begin a campaign against Rome, whose vast army, great as it was, would have been no match for Jesus’ supernatural power. Judas kept hanging on and hanging on, expecting Jesus to fulfill his dreams of defeating the despised oppressor. Like a gambler who thinks every loss puts him that much closer to winning, Judas perhaps thought that every failure of Jesus to use His power against Rome brought that ultimate and inevitable goal a bit closer.
For three years Judas hoped, and at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem he must have thought the time had finally come. Obviously, Judas reasoned, Jesus had been building up to a grand climax, waiting for the crowds to fully recognize His messiahship and His right to the throne of David. He would ascend His throne by popular demand, and the Lion of Judah would at Last expel and destroy the eagle of Rome.
But when Jesus rejected the crowd’s crown and instead began to teach even more earnestly about His imminent arrest and death, it was Judas’s hopes and expectations that were expelled and destroyed. He was devastated that Jesus could build up to such a perfect opportunity and intentionally let it slip through His hands. He must have thought Jesus mad to willingly allow Himself to be mistreated and even killed, when with one word He could destroy any opponent. Now he knew beyond doubt that, whatever Jesus intended to do, it had no relationship to his own motives and plans.
Judas started at the same place as the other disciples. But they trusted in Jesus and were saved, and as they surrendered more and more to His control, they grew away from their old ways. They, too, were sinful, worldly, selfish, unloving, and materialistic. But they submitted to Jesus, and He changed them. Judas, however, never advanced beyond crass materialism. He refused to trust Jesus anti more and more resisted His lordship. Eventually he was confirmed in his own way to the point that he permanently closed the door to God’s grace. Like Faust, he irretrievably sold his soul to the devil.
When Jesus turned His back on the crown offered by the multitude, Judas turned his back on Jesus. He could no longer restrain his vile, wretched motives for self-glory and gain. He had given a glimpse of his true self when he showed more concern for the money “wasted” on perfume to anoint Jesus than concern for the Lord’s imminent arrest and death, which the disciples by now knew awaited Him in Jerusalem (John 1l:16).
Judas’s fascination with Jesus had turned first to disappointment and finally to hatred. He had never loved Jesus but only sought to use Him. He had never loved his fellow disciples but rather stole for himself from what small resources they had. Now he turned completely against them.
On the last night Jesus was together with the disciples, He washed their feet with His own hands, to teach them humility and service. As He began He said, “You are clean, but not all of you,” referring to Judas (John 13:10–11). After the object lesson He gave another warning that Judas could have heeded: “I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats My bread has lifted up his heel against Me’ ” (John 13:18). Jesus grieved over Judas, being unwilling that even this vile man should perish (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). As the time for the betrayal came closer, Jesus “became troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me’ ” (v. 21). He did not grieve over the loss of His own life, which He willingly laid down. He grieved over the spiritual death of Judas and, it seems, made one last appeal before it became forever too late. He knew Judas’s unbelief, greed, ingratitude, treachery, duplicity, hypocrisy, and hatred. Still He loved him. The death He was about to die was as much for Judas’s sin as for the sins of any person ever born, and it was for Judas that the Lord grieved as only He can grieve. He lamented over Judas in the same way He had lamented over Jerusalem: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37).
Throughout church history, in the name of love and compassion, some people have tried to attribute a good motive to Judas’s betrayal or at least to minimize its evil. But such an attempt flies in the face of Scripture, including Jesus’ own specific words. The Lord called Judas a devil and the son of perdition. To make Judas appear better than that is to make God a liar. Every unsaved person is under Satan’s control and serves Satan’s will. But when Judas accepted the morsel from Jesus’ hands without repentance or regret, Satan took possession of him in a way that is frightening to contemplate (John 13:27).
Judas did not betray Jesus in a sudden fit of anger. We are not told when the idea first came to him, but apparently the incident of Mary’s anointing Jesus with the perfume prompted him to pursue it. It was right after this that “one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests, and said, ‘What are you willing to give me to deliver Him up to you?’ ” After accepting the thirty pieces of silver, “from then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Him” (Matt. 26:14–16). Luke adds that he sought “a good opportunity to betray Him to them apart from the multitude” (22:6). Judas was a coward, and at that time he assumed the crowds who acclaimed Jesus during the triumphal entry would remain loyal to Him. He wanted no one to know of his treachery, certainly not a hostile multitude. Like the chief priests and scribes who paid him, he was “afraid of the people” (Luke 22:2).
It is difficult to determine the equivalent modern buying power of the thirty pieces of silver Judas received, especially since the specific silver coin is not identified. But at the most generous reckoning, it was a trifling sum for betraying any person to his death, much less the Son of God. The relatively small amount suggests that, in his greed and hatred, Judas was willing to settle for any price. It also suggests the disdain the chief priests and scribes had for Judas. Their hatred for Jesus was public and well known; but Judas was one of Jesus’ disciples and friends, and the Jewish leaders doubtlessly had contempt for his treachery even though they used it to their own ends. The small price further suggests the low value all of them placed on Jesus’ life.
So that His enemies could recognize Jesus in the darkness of Gethsemane, Judas “had given them a signal, saying, ‘Whomever I shall kiss, He is the one’ ” (Mark 14:44). His contempt for Jesus was such that he used that cherished mark of love and friendship as his sign of betrayal.
Judas not only profaned the Passover by receiving blood money but he also profaned Gethsemane, the private place of worship and solace that He knew Jesus loved. “Judas then, having received the Roman cohort, and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns and torches and weapons” (John 18:3). Unaware that Jesus knew of his wicked plan, Judas thought to deceive Him by the kiss, reigning love and loyalty. But Jesus already knew the soldiers were coming and “went forth, and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ ” (v. 4). When they said, “Jesus the Nazarene,” He replied, “I am He” (v. 5). As if to reinforce his hateful determination to betray Jesus, Judas proceeded to kiss Him, although it was no longer necessary to identify Him. His supreme act of hypocrisy was to pretend love for Jesus while giving Him over to His enemies. The Greek text of Matthew 26:49 uses an intensive form that suggests Judas kissed Jesus fervently and repeatedly. Yet even in face of this diabolical sham, Jesus called Judas “friend” as He told him, “Do what you have come for” (v. 50). Jesus’ love extended even beyond Judas’s point of no return.
The degree of Judas’s betrayal was unique but not its nature. Through Ezekiel, God rebuked His people for profaning Him “for handfuls of barley and fragments of bread” (Ezek. 13:19), and through Amos He charged them with selling “the righteous for money and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6). Still today men and women will sell out the Lord for whatever they think is worth more.
It may not be for silver,
It may not be for gold;
But yet by tens of thousands,
The Prince of life is sold.
Sold for a godless friendship;
Sold for a selfish aim;
Sold for a fleeting trifle;
Sold for an empty name.
Sold in the mart of science;
Sold in the seat of power.
Sold at the shrine of fortune;
Sold in pleasure’s hour.
Sold for your awful bargain,
None but God’s eye can see.
Ponder my soul the question,
How shall He be sold by thee?
Sold, O God. What a moment
Stilled his conscience’s voice?
Sold, unto weeping angels
Record the fatal choice.
Sold, but the price accepted
To a living coal shall turn;
With the pangs of a late repentance
Deep in a soul to burn.
(Author unknown. Cited in Herbert Lockyer, All the Apostles of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972], p. 110.)
Judas sold Jesus for greed. He was malicious, vengeful, ambitious, and hateful of everything good and righteous. But above all, he was avaricious.
No man could be more like the devil than a perverted apostle. And for the same reason, every false teacher who holds the name of Christ stands in special guilt and is worthy of special disdain.
“When lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin,” James says, “and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:15). Judas’s sin caused him to sell out Christ, his fellow apostles, and his own soul. When Jesus had been found guilty by the mock trial in the Sanhedrin and was turned over to Pilate, Judas “felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood’ ” (Matt. 27:3–4). But remorse is not repentance. Judas regretted what he had done and recognized something of its horrible sinfulness. But he did not have a change of mind, and he did not ask God to change his heart. He knew he could not undo the damage he had done, but he tried to mollify his conscience by returning the money he had been paid for his wickedness. Because he lived only on the material level, he somehow thought he could resolve his problem by the physical act of giving back the blood money. Then his unforgiven heart turned from vengeance against Christ to vengeance against himself, and he “went away and hanged himself” (v. 5). That did not end the misery of his conscience, however, for his guilt and anguish will last through all eternity.
Apparently Judas failed in his hanging attempt, and Luke reports the consummation of his death. It may have been that the branch to which the rope was tied broke and he fell over a precipice or down a hill, “and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).
Although they had no compunction about making false charges against Jesus and of unlawfully condemning Him to death, the chief priests’ consciences would not let them put the thirty pieces of silver back into the Temple treasury after Judas threw the money at their feet, “since it is the price of blood” (Matt. 27:6). In perfect fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy (Zech. 11:12–13), “they counseled together and with the money bought the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day” (Matt. 27:7–8).
God overruled the wickedness of Jesus’ betrayer and executioners and used it to fulfill His own Word. Even those who bitterly opposed the Lord’s will found themselves unwittingly fulfilling His Word.
Lessons Learned from the Life of Judas
Even wickedness and tragedy can teach valuable lessons, and there is great profit from studying the life of Judas. First of all he is the world’s greatest example of lost opportunity. Judas was among the original twelve men Jesus called to be His apostles, His gospel ambassadors to the world. He lived and talked and ministered with Jesus for three years, hearing God’s Word from the mouth of His own Son and seeing God’s power manifested as never before on earth. No human being has every heard a more complete and perfect declaration of the gospel or seen more perfect obedience to it. Judas heard the perfect gospel and saw the perfect life. To none of the apostles did Jesus give more specific warning about sin-and more repeated opportunity to repent of it and to believe-than He did to Judas. Yet Judas turned his back on grace incarnate.
Today many people have heard the gospel clearly and seen genuine though imperfect examples of its transforming power. Yet they, too, reject it and, like Judas, choose instead to stay in the way that leads to destruction.
Second, Judas’s life provides the world’s greatest example of wasted privilege. He lusted for temporary material possessions and riches when he could have inherited the universe forever. It is a tragically foolish bargain to exchange the riches of God’s kingdom for the pittances the world can offer.
Third, Judas’s life serves as the clearest illustration of love of money being the root of all kinds of evil (see 1 Tim. 6:10). In the unbelievable extreme of greed, he loved money so much that he sold the Son of God for a trifling amount of it.
Fourth, Judas’s life is the supreme object in history of the forbearing, patient love of God. Only God could have known the utter evil of Judas’s heart from the beginning and yet never have withdrawn His offer of grace. At the Last Supper Christ presented Judas the dipped morsel as a gesture of love and honor; and even as He was being betrayed by the kiss, He called Judas “friend.”
The life of Judas provided an essential qualification in preparing Christ for His high priestly role. Judas’s betrayal brought great anguish to Jesus’ heart, and through that and other such torment the Son of God was perfected through His suffering (Heb. 2:10). Christ can understand and sympathize with our suffenngs partly because Judas helped make Christ’s own suffering complete.
Judas was the consummate hypocrite of all time, the supreme illustration of an ungodly life that hides behind Christ while he serves Satan.
Someone has well said,
Still as of old,
Man by himself is priced.
For thirty pieces of silver
Judas sold himself, not Christ.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 134). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 141–153). Chicago: Moody Press.