The Gospel writers did not provide us with a specific timetable as to how and when Jesus made these 12 men His closest companions for the three years leading up to His death and resurrection, but we do know from extra-biblical writings what that commitment looked like. The word for disciple (mathetes) stressed the relationship between the teacher (rabbi or master) and the disciple (student). Most disciples of Jesus’ day would separate themselves from their daily life to solely follow the teacher. It was not enough to know what the rabbi said. Rather, the foremost goal of any disciple was to become like the rabbi and do what the rabbi did (Lk. 6:40). Jesus’ disciples were quite the assortment of personalities, but each chose to follow Him, and in the end, most of them lived and died just like the Master taught them.
Peter, whose Hebrew name is based on the verb “to hear” was impulsive and outspoken. But Jesus gave him the name Peter, which means “rock” (Mt. 16:16-19; Jn. 1:42) and it came to more aptly describe his foundational role in the early church- an extensive ministry that reached from Jerusalem to Asia and Rome. Like his brother Peter, Andrew, which means “manliness”, was a Galilean fisherman. He was originally a disciple of John the Baptist. According to John 1:35-42, it was Andrew who introduced Peter to Jesus.
James and John, the other brotherly pair in Jesus’ disciples, were apparently partners with Peter and Andrew (Lk. 5:1-11). Matthew, Mark and Luke all note that their father’s name was Zebedee (Mt. 4:21-22), but it’s Mark who takes note that Jesus gave them a nick-name, “Boanerges”, which means “Sons of Thunder” (Mk. 3:17) and this ability to make noise apparently ran in the family (see Mt. 20:20-28). While James eventually gave his life for the Gospel (Acts 12:2), John is noted as the only disciple not to see a martyr’s death. He was exiled to the island of Patmos by the tyrannical Emperor Domitian and contributed 5 books to the New Testament including the Gospel that bears his name and the Book of Revelation.
The most controversial disciple was Simon the Zealot. Scholars debate over whether or not he actually belonged to the Zealots who were pledge to violently erase all Roman dominance, including Jews who were sympathetic to Rome, from society. Many believe it is highly unlikely Jesus would call someone with such political aspirations. Instead, they believe the tag-line describes his personality. We have no further evidence either way, but we do know he followed Jesus.
Judas Iscariot gets a few “scenes” as Jesus’ ministry moves forward but his actual embrace of Jesus’ teaching is questionable. He is more known for his betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide than his adherence to the Gospel. The remaining disciples, Philip, Nathanael (a. k. a. Bartholomew), Thomas, Matthew, James “the son of Alphaeus”, and Thaddaeus, range from being mentioned at their initial call to complete obscurity. We know something about Philip, Nathanael, Thomas and Matthew, but the other two are barely mentioned except for being included any time the phrase “the disciples” is used.
An interesting point to note is that at some point “the disciples” took on a new title, “apostles” (Mt. 10:1-2; Mk. 3:13-14; Lk. 16:13). While a disciple is a student, an apostle is one who is sent to represent someone. Jesus gave His disciples the task of representing Him by sending them off to continue His ministry. Therefore, if we too are His disciples, He has done the same with us. Although we do not have many details on most of the disciples, we know they made an impact and a difference wherever they landed because the Good News spread. The question before you today is the same? If you are His disciple, where has Jesus sent you to be His apostle?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.