Who were the apostles of Jesus?
What kind of training did you have to complete in order to serve in your vocation? Did you have to do some form of special schooling? Were you mentored by someone with years of experience in your role? Did your training require travel to a different place? How many years did it take for you to learn how to do what you do? Depending on what we do, our answers to those questions might be drastically different.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to sit down for lunch with a former pastor. Early in his life, he had no expectation that he was going to serve in that role, but he definitely had the desire to teach people the Bible so he pursued theological training. Part way through that training, he was invited to participate in an internship at a church in the mid-west. Toward the end of that internship, the church asked him if he would consider joining their pastoral staff. He agreed and for nearly 20 years he served in that position.
In the midst of our lunch conversation, he asked me about my background and training. I told him about the similarity in our paths and how I was initially training to become a high school history teacher until the Lord changed my course. Then I told him about the degrees I earned, the training I received from seasoned pastors who mentored me, and the specialized training I eventually sought on my own to supplement what I had already learned through traditional contexts. All of it was beneficial, but none of it could compare with the kind of training and mentorship the apostles received through the in-person guidance and instruction of Jesus.
Mark 3:13-19 tells us about twelve men that Jesus designated as apostles. This was certainly an interesting group of men, and I would suspect many in their generation were surprised to learn that Jesus had selected them for such a role. They had different backgrounds, different personalities, and different expectations for their lives, but when Jesus invited them to follow Him, they obeyed, and He used these men to cause the message of His gospel to spread throughout the world, eventually reaching our own ears.
“And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:13-15)
By this point in Jesus’ ministry, there may have been hundreds or even thousands of people who were following Him. Some were curious about what He would say or do. Others were fully devoted to Him. But from among this larger group, Jesus set aside a smaller group of twelve men to become His inner circle and receive a unique kind of training and mentorship. Jesus wanted to bring these men close to Him so that they could be thoroughly taught the message of the gospel then be sent into the world to preach it to others while also exercising divinely-empowered authority to cast out demons.
The term “apostle” means one who is sent on a mission with a message. These were Christ’s “sent ones”. They held a unique designation of authority in the days of the early church. It was a foundational role during that season of God’s unfolding plan to redeem humanity. In some respects, I imagine this small group of twelve felt honored to receive this designation, but in time they would certainly learn the high price that would be required of them as they ministered to others and spoke of Jesus to hostile people in hostile place.
“He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Mark 3:16-19)
Mark listed the names of these men, although we can see from the other gospels that it was common for several of them to go by more than one name. For example, the apostle we know as Peter was also called Simon, Simon Peter, and Cephas. Matthew was also known as Levi, and Bartholomew was also called Nathanael. This was common practice in their day, and even in our day, I’m sure some of us go by different names depending on who we’re with. In fact, I have a good friend who doesn’t really like his first name so he sometimes goes by his middle name “Robert”, and has recently started to tell people to just call him “Bob.”
The gospels tell us a variety of things about the apostles, including some of their foibles and moments of immaturity. When reading the Scriptures, it becomes clear that they were ordinary men that Jesus was raising up for a very special task. Don’t be surprised, by the way, if that’s a story you eventually tell others about your own life. Jesus has a habit of raising up ordinary people like us, training us through the guidance of His Spirit, the counsel of His Word, and the mentorship of our brothers and sisters in Christ, then sending us out into the world as His ambassadors.
Among the apostles, one name probably stands out to you when reading Mark’s list. At the end of the list, Mark mentions Judas Iscariot along with the foreshadowing comment that Judas eventually betrayed Jesus. Scripture later tells us that Judas went to the chief priests who promised to give him money as compensation for his betrayal of Christ.
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him. (Mark 14:10-11)
Judas later regretted his betrayal, and in his grief he threw the money he was given back at the chief priests before hanging himself (Matt. 27:5). That was certainly a tragic outcome to witness in the life of Judas, especially when you consider all he was allowed to hear, witness, and experience during the years when he travelled with Jesus. But Scripture and church history tell us some interesting things about the lives, ministries, and eventual deaths of the other apostles as well.
James was put to death with the sword (Acts 12:2). This may mean he was beheaded. Peter was crucified upside down, and some traditions hold that his wife was crucified with him. It’s believed that Matthew was martyred in Ethiopia, having been killed with a sword while preaching the gospel in that country. John was boiled in oil because he wouldn’t renounce his faith in Jesus, but miraculously he survived so he was sentenced to dig in the mines on the prison island of Patmos (where he wrote the book of Revelation).
Bartholomew was whipped to death while ministering in present-day Turkey. Andrew, the brother of Peter, was crucified on an x-shaped cross in Greece. His followers testified that when he was being taken to the cross he actually remarked, “I have long desired and expected this happy hour. The cross has been consecrated by the body of Christ hanging on it.” He then spent the next two days preaching to those who were crucifying him until his body finally gave out.
Thomas died in India where he was stabbed by a spear. Matthias, who was chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1:26), was stoned to death and then beheaded. Church history doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of what life was like for these men as they sought to follow Jesus in a hostile world. *( See: https://www.gotquestions.org/apostles-die.html)
Even the apostle Paul whom Jesus later appointed as an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9), was eventually beheaded by the Roman Emperor Nero in 67 AD. Speaking to Ananias, Jesus revealed this about Paul…
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)
Paul and all of the apostles were willing to suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus. I don’t know about you, but suffering isn’t something I personally look forward to yet I’d like to be able to say that if Jesus calls me to do so for the sake of His name and His glory, I would be willing. I hope you feel the same way.
As hard as it can be to think about all that these men endured while preaching the gospel in their generation, and how tragic it seems to think about the ways in which their lives ended, there’s something sacred about it all that I don’t think we should miss. Their lives, their ministries, their devotion to Jesus, and their deaths provide a powerful testimony of the validity of Christ’s identity and resurrection.
Their devotion to Christ in both life and death bolsters my faith in Jesus, because if Jesus hadn’t actually risen from death, these men never would have been willing to endure this. Most if not all would have given up their mission or recanted their faith rather quickly, possibly as soon a they started experiencing threats from the governing authorities. But they didn’t recant and they didn’t shrink back from sharing the good news of Jesus. These apostles remained strong to the end, ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit, fully confident that Jesus is God.
Ironically, that doesn’t appear to have been a confidence that was initially shared by the earthly brothers of our Lord. We know that after Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born in human flesh, Joseph and Mary had additional children through natural means. Two of those children, James and Jude, became leaders in the early church and wrote two of the letters we have in the New Testament, but prior to Christ’s resurrection, they didn’t seem to believe in Him.
Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:20-21)
At this point in His ministry, Christ’s earthly brothers thought He was crazy. They even tried to seize Him by force to prevent Him from continuing to stir up crowds of followers. Later in their lives, they felt quite differently. James in particular became a prominent leader in the early church. Even though he wasn’t considered an apostle, he was certainly respected by the apostles and they would often seek his counsel.
James experienced a similar fate to the apostles. His belief that his brother Jesus was the Son of God grew so strong that those who set themself against him as his enemies threatened to throw him off the roof of the temple in Jerusalem if he didn’t recant his belief in Jesus. When he refused, they threw him to the ground, a distance of about 100 feet. Having discovered that the fall didn’t kill him, they beat him with a club until he expired.
Even though these testimonies are hard to stomach, my goal in mentioning them isn’t to disturb us. It’s to show the real price that was paid by our forefathers in faith to enable you and me to hear the life-changing message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave His life so that we might find new life in Him. The apostles and early church leaders gave their lives to make sure that message was shared. Believers throughout the centuries have been doing the same because Christ has taught us to live as people with eternity on our minds.
You may or may not experience outright persecution in this world for your faith. But whether you do or you don’t, remember the examples of those who came before us. Let’s live as men and women who have been given a message and a mission that we’re called to make known in the midst of a world of hostility. There is no other name but the name of Jesus by which we must be saved.
© John Stange, 2023