Luke 6:12-16

Text Comment

v.12     The time reference, “in these days,” is vague. Luke isn’t telling us that this particular event happened immediately after the last one he described and before the next; he is simply telling us some of the important things that happened in this earlier period of the Lord’s ministry in Galilee.

            However, it is perfectly possible that the last sentence of the previous paragraph has set the stage for what follows. That is, there is a thematic connection between the two paragraphs. Jesus is aware of the opposition rising against him, the hatred of the religious establishment. He knows they wish to be rid of him even if that means killing him by some means. That leads him to spend an entire night in prayer and then to prepare a group of men to carry on his work after he is gone. Did the very idea of the twelve come out of his night of prayer? Did the particular names come to him in answer to prayer? He already had disciples as John had before him, but the group of twelve was something new. It seems likely that the Lord prayed as long as he did because he realized that he was about to make a decision that was to have immense ramifications. [Block, i, 540]

v.13     Now that must have been a scene to remember! Clearly there were many more than twelve present because out of the total number the Lord chose twelve. So what did Jesus do? Did he point to Peter and say, “Come stand by me,” then look around, point, and say, “Andrew, you too,” as if he were picking a softball team at a church picnic? Or did he sit there and explain to them all what he was about to do and why he had chosen twelve men before he identified them? And, of course, we can’t help wondering what the others thought. The point is very clearly that the choice of these twelve men was calculated, the result of thought and prayer.

            “Apostle” is a noun derived from the verb meaning “to send.” So the noun means “someone sent,” or “messenger,” and often with the sense that the apostle is the representative of the one who sent him, even one who can wield the authority of the sender. In any case, the term here distinguishes these twelve men from the rest of the company of the Lord’s disciples, which may already have been a substantial group.

            The number twelve is surely significant. These men represent Israel in a new form. As there were twelve tribes that made up Israel, so there would be twelve apostles, and, as you know, this group is often referred to simply as “the twelve.” So much was twelve significant that after Judas Iscariot was lost to the group it was felt necessary to replace him to reach the number twelve once again. It is also possible that given the reference to the opposition to Jesus by the religious leadership at the end of the previous paragraph, the election of the twelve amounts to a judgment upon the leadership of the church and the Lord’s provision of new leadership for her. [Green, 259]

v.14     From here on Luke will always refer to Simon as Peter.

v.16     In the New Testament there are four separate lists of the twelve, besides this one, one in Matthew, one in Mark, and one in Acts chapter 1. Peter is always listed first and Judas last, except in Acts 1 where he is omitted because he was already dead.

            As you may know, there are a number of these men who were referred to by more than one name, not uncommon in those days. For example, we read in 5:27-28 of the calling of the tax collector, Levi. But Levi’s other name in the Gospels is Matthew, and it is by that name that he is called here and in the other three lists of the twelve. Similarly Judas the son of James is called Thaddeus in Matthew and Mark. In a similar way Bartholomew is almost certainly the same man called “Nathaniel” in the Gospel of John, though the name Nathaniel never appears in any of the lists of the twelve; he is always identified as Bartholomew. Thomas also appears in all four lists but is also called “Didymus” in the Gospel of John which is the Greek form of his Hebrew name; both mean “twin.” Thomas was apparently a twin though we know nothing of his brother or sister. It is also possible that James the son of Alphaeus was Matthew’s brother, as we have reference to Levi as the son of Alphaeus in Mark 2:14. This assumes, of course, that Alphaeus was the same man in each case. In the recently published Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Alphaeus comes in as the 61st most common male name. [Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 87]

            Some other interesting details. “Iscariot” probably means “man of Kerioth,” a town in Judea. If so, this Judas, the traitor, was likely the only non-Galilean in the group. The other Simon is described as “the Zealot,” almost certainly a reference to his politics. He identified with the Chicago School of Economics and probably voted for Ron Paul! Josephus would later blame the zealots, the party of Roman opposition, for bringing down upon the Jews the catastrophe of A.D. 70. The zealots as a group made their last stand at Masada and were annihilated. Not good news for the Ron Paul campaign!

As we said in a previous sermon, the Lord’s training and preparation of the twelve disciples for their future work are a major theme of the Gospels and will be in the rest of Luke’s Gospel. We will encounter these men on virtually every page. Much of the Lord’s teaching was addressed to them in particular. They became, as it were, the church in microcosm or miniature and what was said to them, therefore, was said to us, what we see in them we can see in ourselves, and their calling we find our calling. To be sure, they had an utterly unique role in the history of salvation and in that sense they had no successors; but in most respects what was true of these twelve men is and must be true of every Christian. Hence their immense importance to the Christian faith ever since and their honored place in the pantheon of Christian heroes, Judas excepted. And, in Judas’ case, his honored place within the Lord’s inner circle is precisely what has clothed his name in such infamy through the ages.

Jesus never set up an organization. He left behind no formal structures for his movement: no constitution, no set of officers with specific roles and responsibilities, not even, if you can believe it, a vision statement! These twelve men represent the sum total of his administrative machinery. [Morris, 145] And yet it was these twelve men who would turn the world upside down and launch the Gospel on its course of conquest through the world. It was these twelve men who, together with the Apostle Paul, a late addition to their number, would lay the foundation for the life and work of the Christian church forever after. It is still today the goal of any true follower of Jesus Christ to be the Christian these men described as the authentic follower of Jesus Christ, and to live that life to which these men have called us both in their writings and by their example. It is true enough that only part of the New Testament was written by the twelve men listed here: three of the four Gospels, five of the smaller letters, and the book of Revelation. But all the rest stands on a foundation these men laid down, as the Apostle Paul himself willingly admitted, and bears witness to the good news these twelve men first proclaimed to the world.

But since these men constituted the church of the new epoch in a representative form – there being twelve of them, the new Israel – since they would serve as the church in microcosm throughout the rest of the Gospel of Luke, it is worth our considering this group and what we can learn of ourselves and our life from them. There may be more than you would think.

I recently finished a fascinating history of the short presidency and then the assassination of President James Garfield, about all of which I knew very little. It was also an account of the life of the man who shot the president, one Charles Guiteau. The poor man was obviously insane, but it was also perfectly obvious that the nation would not stand for a verdict of not-guilty by reason of insanity. As it turned out, the jury was out for less than an hour before returning a verdict of “guilty as charged” and Guiteau was hung. But apropos this list of the twelve disciples, I was intrigued by the make-up of that jury. It had taken a pool of 175 men to find the twelve eventual jurors, men who could at least claim to render an impartial verdict. But what a group it was! Eleven were white, one was black. There was a machinist, two grocers, three merchants, an iron worker, a retired businessman, a restaurant manager, a cigar dealer, and two plasterers. [Millard, Destiny of the Republic, 238]

Well, so this group of twelve men; how diverse and how ordinary. Four of them at least were fishermen: Peter and his brother Andrew as well as James and John, who, interestingly, were Jesus’ cousins, their mother being his aunt, his mother Mary’s sister. [cf. John 19:25 with Matt. 27:56 and Mark 15:40] Matthew, we know, was a tax collector. Of the others’ occupations we know nothing, but in all likelihood they represented the range of typical occupations for the men of Galilee in those times, from farmer to shopkeeper.

What is more interesting still is that the group contained within itself a cross section of physical, intellectual, and spiritual types. Some of them were outstanding individuals whose personalities still make a great impression even across the great distance that separates their lives from ours. Peter was such a man. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are elsewhere called “the sons of thunder,” and surely that description was derived from the type of men that they were: men of strong feeling, strong conviction, and perhaps mercurial emotions. And yet John impresses us as equally a gentle man. It was John, not Peter who laid his head on the Savior’s chest the night of the last supper. Matthew was in all likelihood a highly organized man – such a man would make a good tax collector – and we find that careful organization in a unique way in his Gospel. Only Matthew, among the four Gospels, is organized with sections of teaching and sections of narrative interspersed. Philip and Thomas on the other hand, so far as we learn anything more about them in the Gospels, seem to us to have been more retiring, hesitant, and cautious, perhaps fearful.

But, surely, the most remarkable thing about these men is how little we know about all of them.  They were, apparently, ordinary men. Most of them left virtually no mark whatsoever on subsequent church history, though, to be sure, they may have done good work in their own time of which we know nothing. We know of Peter, of course, from the book of Acts, something of John’s long life and ministry, and we have a Gospel from Peter (Mark’s Gospel is Peter’s), Matthew, and John. We have the record of James’ martyrdom in A.D. 44 at the behest of Herod Agrippa I because we have the record of it in Acts 12. We know a little something of Thomas from references to him in the Gospel of John, including the famous “doubting Thomas” episode after the Lord’s resurrection. There is certainly a well-established tradition that Thomas and Bartholomew took the Gospel eastward from Palestine after Pentecost and that Thomas founded the Christian church as far away as the Arabian cost of India. There is nothing inherently unlikely in that story, given the vigorous trade we know there to have been between the Roman Empire and India in the first century and given what we know to have been a powerful eastward expansion of Christianity following Pentecost. But it is a tradition only. There is little hard evidence and still less regarding the subsequent ministry of most of these men. [cf. D. MacCulloch, Christianity, 248]

So, of the most famous few we know comparatively little and of most of them we know virtually nothing of their lives and work after the Lord’s ascension to heaven. Legend could be counted on to fill in the blanks and did so lavishly, but of reliable knowledge we have virtually none. Indeed, a famous English scholar, B.H. Streeter, published a well-regarded early church history in 1929 that began with the question: “What became of the Twelve Apostles?” [Cited in F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame, 283n.]

In other words, these remarkably privileged men, these men who had accompanied the Lord Jesus for nearly three years, had been his intimate companions, these men who could until the end of their days summon up in memory a picture of his face and the sound of his voice, these men who heard all his sermons, witnessed his miracles, including some that no one else saw but they, and who were eyewitnesses as well of both his resurrection and his ascension to heaven: these men were and remained ordinary men. Their place of privilege in the history of salvation did not bestow on them a personal greatness that the world was forced to recognize. And their work, no doubt faithfully performed as long as they lived, was not greatly different in kind or in effect from that of many others who likewise may have gone to foreign lands as evangelists and church planters.

In this way, are these men not a perfect picture of the church? It is composed of some high-fliers – we are always glad to point out that some of the world’s greatest minds, greatest writers, greatest inventors, greatest artists, greatest scientists, greatest musicians, even greatest athletes have been deeply committed Christians – but the largest portion of the church and of its leaders is composed of ordinary believers. Very ordinary people just like you and like me. Christians have and have always had very ordinary jobs, ordinary intelligence, ordinary gifts of one kind or another, and have lived ordinary lives. The only extraordinary thing about them is that Christ lives in them by his Holy Spirit and through them works his gracious will in the world and in the lives of others. Here is the first practical lesson to be drawn from this list of twelve men: if you wish to live your life among the high and the mighty, the Christian church is not the place for you. If it is fame and fortune you’re after, you are very unlikely to find it in the membership of the Christian church. The church is as it has always been: a community of the small fry. On the other hand, what good news for all of us small fry! The King of Kings gathered folk just like you and me to himself and founded his church upon them as a foundation. Not the high and mighty, but ordinary people. There is a place for you and me in his kingdom.

But the fact that a few of these men were less ordinary than the others raises still another thought. In fact, one of the most fascinating personal dimensions of the story of the Twelve is the fact that the Lord singled out among them three men for a particularly close relationship with himself: Peter, James, and John. Peter, as I said, comes first in every listing of the membership of the Twelve, but James and John come next in two of the other three lists, and follow Andrew – who is listed with Peter as his brother – in the other. Those three men are always either first or nearly first! Those three men, not the other nine, were with him on the mountain top the night of his transfiguration. Those three men were the same ones he invited to go with him further into the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal. I have always wondered about this; I’m sure you have as well. If you were one of the Twelve and knew that Jesus was the Messiah, if you had come to appreciate as these men had that they stood at the crossroads of time and that they, of all human beings who had ever lived or would ever live, had been given an utterly supreme privilege – to be an intimate associate of the Lord Jesus, an insider in his ministry – how would you have handled the fact that he Jesus seemed to trust, seemed to prefer the company of those three men even more than yours? We know the Twelve were not immune to jealousy because it surfaces a few times in the Gospel narrative. Surely some of the nine must have resented to some degree the special place the Lord gave to those three men: Peter, James, and John. They would have known – we have an unerring instinct for this, don’t we? – whether or not the Lord ever said anything about it, that the Lord had given them a special place in his heart.

But that too is the life of the church is it not? Some rise above others. It can’t be helped. Greater gifts, greater drive, greater opportunities provided by providence make some more influential than others, more admired than others, more influential than others, better known than others.

No group of Christians is quite so like the Twelve as the company of Christian ministers, for they too have been sent by the Lord with his authority to preach his message. They too have been entrusted with the good news in a formal, life-changing way. And it does not take anyone who reads the history of the Christian ministry very long to learn that jealousy is today and has always been a perennial problem for ministers. McCheyne said it was the besetting sin of the ministry! What did James the son of Alphaeus or Thomas or Matthew think when he watched Jesus and Peter, James, and John ascend the Mount of Transfiguration? Or when later they heard of the astonishing thing those three men saw on the mountain, but which the others did not?? What did Simon the Zealot or Judas the son of James think when he heard the Lord ask Peter, James, and John to accompany him alone into the inner recesses of Gethsemane?

But when we Christians are at our best, we not only are not bothered by this, we revel in it, do we not? Is this not a feature of both human and Christian life? People are always looking for heroes. They are always looking for leaders. They are always looking for people to admire and to respect. The tragedy of human life is that so often people come to admire and respect people for all the worst reasons; but it is a feature of human life to look up to others. We look to leaders, we enjoy admiring them, we gather round them, and we count it an honor to serve them. Has it ever occurred to a Christian to be jealous of Jesus; to envy him for his position, his honor, his authority, his power? Of course not! It belongs to him by right and, in fact, we find our greatest satisfaction in being his servants, his soldiers. Great commanders have always found it of crucial importance that that their soldiers took great pride in belonging to an army under their command: whether Julius Caesar, Napoleon or the Duke of Wellington, George Washington, Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, or Norman Schwarzkopf. Their soldiers took pride in the victories won. They sing the name of their commander in song. They wept at his death. His life was connected to theirs in a very important way.

One of the English Admiral Horatio Nelson’s commanders during the Napoleonic Wars was Robert Stopford, who captained one of the ships with which Nelson chased the French fleet – nearly twice the size of his own – to the West Indies. He wrote of the desperate hardships of that daring adventure: “We are half-starved, and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port. But our reward is – we are with Nelson!” [J.S. Steward, Heralds of God, 144]

Well, that is what Christians feel about the difficulties of serving Christ, our reward is: “We are with Christ! This is what comes from following Christ and from being a soldier in his army.” There is something about the human heart, and all the more about the Christian heart remade by grace, that longs for someone to serve, someone who is worthy of our service, someone whose service gives purpose and dignity and honor to our lives.

I was struck, in reading about President Garfield, that out of the blue as his candidacy had been – he had had no intention of running for the office only months before the election; had actually given the nomination speech for another candidate at the Republican Convention that year – and short as his presidency lasted – he was inaugurated March 4, 1881 and died a few months after he had been shot on September 19th of the same year – the nation had come to revere its new president, to find in him a genuinely great man, and the months of waiting after the crime had only served to make the country the more to feel that to some great measure its welfare depended upon the good man who now lay at the mercy of the doctors treating him, doctors who, however unwittingly, did precisely the wrong thing time and time and eventually did to him with their medical treatment what the assassin’s bullet had been unable to do. This is a strange but telling and important fact of human life and of your life: that we were made to admire, to love, and to find great satisfaction in the greatness of others and to be honored to serve them. We were made, of course, to serve God and find our satisfaction in that service; but we were also made in the image of God and we were made for service so profoundly, that we can find immense satisfaction in serving even other human beings whom we believe to be worthy of our loyalty and service. The entire course of human history is the demonstration of that fact.

And so it is that there are these gradations of influence and authority and privilege even in the church of God as there are among the angels of God, where archangels are higher than other angels, and where some angels, like Gabriel and Michael are actually mentioned by name in Holy Scripture, but all the others are known only as angels without personal distinction. And so it is that there is a Peter and a John among the Twelve, but also a James the son of Judas and a Philip.

It doesn’t bother me, I hope it doesn’t bother you, that there are many, a very great many, far higher in the church than myself. Like the courtiers of Queen Elizabeth or the soldiers of George Washington I find within my own heart – not perfectly but really – a happy readiness to offer my service to someone worthy of following and serving. Don’t you? You will when your heart is perfect because there will be ranks in heaven also as there are on earth, as the Bible clearly says. There will be many saints above you and there will be, perhaps, some below who will take pleasure in offering their service to you! Have you thought about that? Does that make you want to be worthy of that kind of loyal service? I hope so.

Florence and I have recently watched the first two seasons of the British soap opera Downton Abbey, fascinating in its depiction of early 20th century life in one of England’s great houses. Two very different communities inhabited those great manors: the lordly family itself, often with guests from the English gentry, and the small army of servants who cooked and served the food, dressed the ladies and the men several times a day in the elaborate clothing worn in those days by the British aristocracy, cleaned the immense rooms, tended the fires, cared for the grounds and gardens, drove the family where it wished to go, and on and on.

What is obvious, however strange it may seem to the modern American, people in service – “in service” was how they described the calling of household servants (before the First World War there were more people in service in England than there were miners in the enormous English coal mining industry) – were often honored to work for the lords and the families and the houses to which they belonged. They came to take a very personal pride in serving their masters, even the dukes and the earls and the lords of the manor who were in status and significance far below the King of England himself.

Well is it not so for Christians as well. We are being prepared for an eternity of service which it will be our honor to render, first to Christ, but surely as well to those below him but above us. We are made and then saved to find satisfaction and fulfillment in that. Can you American Christians look forward to that? I think you can. I think you have felt in your own souls the pleasure of serving a worthy master or at least you have longed for that pleasure. Heaven will be full of this honor. No wonder there is so much opportunity to experience it in the life of the church already! And so here is our second application from this simple list of twelve names. If American ideas of equality are precious to you – the denial that we have betters, the offense in the very idea that there are some, perhaps many, superior to yourself – the Christian church is no place for you. The church is today as it has always been: a community of servants offering their service to all those above them, as they offer it to Christ.

Just a small paragraph with a list of twelve names, but a picture of the church as it is today and as it will always be in heaven. A grand picture of ordinary people being raised up into intimate fellowship with the King of Kings and a picture of distinctions between those twelve men, such as we find between Christians today and will find in heaven as well. Our calling, now and forever, and our privilege, now and forever! What fortunate men they were. But only somewhat more fortunate than we!