The Life of Jesus: His Disciples
Today in our series The Life of Jesus, we want to consider the relationship Jesus had with his disciples. In the days of Jesus a religious teacher, known as a rabbi, was expected to have followers who willingly learned from him. It was only natural, therefore, that early in his ministry Jesus would call disciples. The account in Mark’s Gospel records the simplest invitation Jesus offered: “Follow me.”
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
The relationship between Jesus and his followers, which began in a simple fishing village by the Sea of Galilee, has spread throughout the entire world. The amazing fact is that those first few disciples – fishermen, either casting a net into the lake or mending nets in their boats – accomplished that huge impact.
Recently archeologists have found a boat dating from the first century. It consists of seventeen different types of wood. The builders did not originally construct the vessel with that many kinds of wood. Instead, archeologists confirmed that it had been mended many times with whatever wood was available. These first disciples of Jesus used that same sort of patched boat in their fishing business.
Jesus saw these men that he wanted as disciples – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – and called them by simply saying, “Follow me.” Scripture says they obeyed Jesus and immediately left their nets and boats. In doing so, they were giving up not only their lifestyle; they were also giving up their livelihood. James and John actually left their father standing in the boat. I can only imagine what Zebedee’s reaction was when his sons, partners in the family fishing business, left him with the hired men. According to the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – these four men were the first disciples of Jesus.
What kind of men did Jesus call? Jesus began his group with four fishermen. We might have thought he would have chosen other individuals – maybe scholars, those who were learned. Maybe he should have chosen those who were well-to-do or maybe those who were more prestigious. Jesus selected blue-collar workers, common people as disciples.
We can determine how Jesus chose his disciples by looking at several passages of Scripture. Consider Luke 6:12-16:
12 One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Notice that Verses 12-13 say that Jesus spent an entire night of prayer before selecting twelve special disciples “whom he also designated apostles.” Apparently Jesus had more than twelve disciples at this time. Out of that larger group he chose the twelve listed above to serve as apostles. We see a distinction here between disciples – those who are called to follow – and apostles – those who are sent to spread the Word.
We must ask several questions about Jesus’ selection. After praying all night long, Jesus could do no better than this? Is this group the finest men he could gather around him? For crying out loud! Judas Iscariot was included in this bunch! Do Scriptures teach that Judas was an answer to prayer? Yes, after praying all night long, Jesus designated these twelve disciples as apostles.
A parallel account occurs in Chapter 3:13-19 of Mark’s Gospel:
13 Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
We see three notable differences between the two passages. First, the two lists of names are somewhat different. In this second passage we learn that Jesus gave the sons of Zebedee – James and John – the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder.” That information reveals a bit about the temperament of those two brothers. They wanted to call fire down from heaven to destroy a village. No wonder Jesus gave them that epithet.
A second difference is the mention of the name Thaddaeus instead of Judas the son of James. Scholars suggest that perhaps Judas decided to use a different name, the family name Thaddaeus, to differentiate himself from Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.
The biggest difference in Mark 3 appears in Verse 14, which tells us that Jesus appointed these twelve for two reasons. First, he wanted to have companions during his ministry; Jesus also calls us to be with him. Second, Jesus wanted to send these followers out into the world; Jesus also calls us to spread the good news. Jesus gives us a double purpose.
How can we be with Jesus? We can be with him through prayer and Bible reading. We can be with him by gathering together as the body of Christ, knowing that the Spirit of Christ is here with us. We can be with Jesus every time we stop long enough in our busy lives to call to mind the fact that he is our Lord and Savior. I need a big dose of that several times a day. If we are aware that we are with Jesus, we become conscious of his mission for us.
The opening verses of Luke Chapter 10 deserve our attention. This remarkable passage has caused scholars to scratch their heads through the years.
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 2 He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Some of the early church fathers tried to identify these seventy-two additional disciples. They included people like Cleopas, who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus; John, Mark, and Luke, Gospel writers; Barnabas and Silas, companions of Paul; Matthias, Stephen, and Phillip, early deacons; and Ananias, who baptized Paul. Tradition claims that Jesus had seven women disciples. Among them were Mary, his own mother; Mary Magdalene; Salome, his aunt and mother of James and John; Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, both from Bethany. Scholars basically included these seven women and pulled every name they could out of the Scriptures.
Being a disciple meant more than being called. It meant more than being sent out into the world. Being a disciple of Jesus also meant being will to pay the cost, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his definitive book on this topic: The Cost of Discipleship. We find clear scriptural evidence of this cost in Luke 14, a passage mentioned last week.
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
33“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
The large crowds of Verse 25 are all would-be disciples. Jesus turned to these people behind him, doing an about-face. He then addressed them, using Aramaic hyperbole. His exaggerated comment about hating family members is a way of saying, “No person in your life can be more important than I am.” His sentence about carrying a cross is his way of saying, “No purpose in your life can be greater than the purpose for which I have called you.” Our cross is the mission Christ has given to us. Verse 33 adds that we must give up all of our possessions to follow Christ. Nothing – no person, no purpose, no possession – can be of greater importance than the person of Jesus, the purpose for which Jesus has called us, and the possession of knowing that we have life eternal through Christ Jesus.
If we take a brief glimpse into the lives of some of those original twelve, we can see that they were a pretty rough bunch. James and John, called “sons of thunder,” came to Jesus and asked for places of honor. One Gospel account says it was their mother, Jesus’ own aunt Salome, who actually asked that her two sons be given the places of honor when he came into his kingdom. Jesus’ response, “You must drink the cup from which I drink” ultimately came true. James was the first disciple to be killed, and John was the last. They both drank from the cup of suffering from which Jesus drank.
Consider Matthew, the tax collector, who was hated among people, and Thomas, a twin, as evident from his second name of Didymus. Thomas has gotten a bad rap for being absent when Jesus appeared to the grieving disciples soon after the resurrection. People criticize him, saying, “If he had only been in church…” He, like many people, probably needed to be alone when grieving Jesus’ death. Thomas was also known as a doubter; his faith did waver. I sometimes say that Thomas was from Missouri. He wanted proof. “Show me. Just show me.” Jesus did show Thomas. Jesus often meets us at our greatest need.
Andrew, one of my favorite disciples, was known for bringing people to Jesus. He found and brought the boy with the five loaves and two fish so that Jesus could feed the multitude. He went outside the bounds of Judaism by bringing the Greeks to Jesus. He brought his own brother, the impetuous Simon Peter, to Jesus.
When Simon Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, he said, “Let me try that.”
Jesus instructed, “Come.”
Peter stepped out of the boat and actually took a few steps on the water until he looked down to see how he was doing. When he started sinking, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Peter’s faith pretty much goes from the height to the depth. We see an up and down, an up and down, in his life. He was the first to give the affirmation of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Later in the same Gospel Peter rebuked Jesus for telling his disciples that he had to suffer and die. In this series on the life of Jesus, Peter will be the key to the turning point in several weeks.
What can we expect of a disciple of Jesus? First is the willingness to learn. A disciple of Jesus must be teachable and have a desire to learn from Christ. If we ever decide we have learned it all, we start to atrophy in our Christian life. We must never quit learning. Second is the desire and intention to be obedient. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus told his followers in John 14:15. They did that pretty well, but not perfectly. Third is the willingness to endure difficulties with humility. We must realize that we are not exempt from the wear-and-tear of life, that we will have scars just like everyone else.
Fourth, being a disciple of our Lord requires a servant’s heart, a lesson Jesus taught repeatedly. The disciples were hard learners. Jesus set the example of this characteristic on one occasion by washing the feet of his disciples during a Passover meal. At another time when James and John asked for the places of honor, Jesus did not cajole them with, “Now, now fellows. Don’t be competitive.” He told them, “If you want to become great, you must become a servant” (Matthew 20:26). We, too, must have a servant’s heart.
In addition, being a disciple of Jesus requires faith. Jesus called fishermen, possibly because they were so hopeful. Fishermen can fish all day long and still believe in that one additional cast. Notice that Jesus called fishermen, not golfers. Being a disciple of Jesus requires belief and trust.
Who among us is worthy to be called a disciple of Jesus? The answer is that not one single one of us is worthy. Maybe Jesus picked such a rough bunch because he knew that many rough people would follow him. Jesus also welcomed the well-to-do. Think of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, certainly disciples who saw to the burial of Christ.
When I think about being a worthy disciple I come to two apostles who seem to be so similar to me: Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot. I have thought a lot about the fact that Simon Peter denied Jesus three times and that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. I honestly do not see much difference in the denial and the betrayal. Refusing to acknowledge Jesus and turning against Jesus are pretty close.
Consider Simon Peter’s impetuousness. When the heat was really on, he offered the disclaimer, “Lord, I will never deny you. I will never leave you.” Jesus replied, “Satan has sought to sift you. Before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you are going to deny me three times.” That is exactly what happened. Scripture says that when Peter denied Jesus the third time and heard the rooster crow, he turned to the Lord. They exchanged looks, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.
Judas, a zealot, was from Kerioth, as his name Iscariot indicated. That city was known to be a hotbed of Jewish zealots. About 165 years before Jesus’ birth, Judas Maccabeus, also from Kerioth, led a revolution. He rode a colt down the Mount of Olives and into the city with people waving palm branches and laying garments on the road ahead of him. Judas Maccabeus “cleaned house” in the temple, eliminating what the book of Daniel calls an “abomination of desecration.” Antiochus Epiphanes, a Syrian tyrant with a Greek name, had desecrated the temple altar in Jerusalem when he slaughtered a pig there and erected an idol to Zeus. The people remembered Judas Maccabeus’ role in leading the revolution to eliminate Antiochus’ reign. When the zealots saw Jesus coming down that same mountain, riding on a colt, they may have thought, Here is the one who will lead the revolution to defeat the Romans.
Judas Iscariot, mistaken about Jesus’ purpose, tried to make a political overthrow easy for Jesus by bringing him into conflict with the authorities. How wrong he was! When he discovered just how wrong he had been, Judas threw the money he had received – thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave – at the feet of the high priest. He was not interested in the money he was offered to betray Jesus.
Simon Peter denied Jesus but later became the leader of the Christian church. Judas Iscariot, according to Dante, betrayed Jesus and is frozen in hell in a block of ice along with Brutus, the other great traitor.
What is the difference between these two disciples Jesus called? Peter accepted forgiveness, a true mark of discipleship. Peter knew that the Lord had forgiven him, as confirmed by the Sea of Galilee when Jesus once again called him, “Follow me.”
Judas, however, could not accept forgiveness. What would have happened if he had gone to the cross, looked up into the face of Jesus, and said, “Lord, I am sorry. I had it all wrong. I thought you were going to lead a revolution”? Jesus would have done to Judas what he did for all of us. He would have said, “Father, forgive him. He does not understand what he was doing.” Jesus loved Judas. He called Judas Iscariot after a night of prayer, just as he called the others.
If we want to be a disciple of Jesus, we must accept the forgiveness that only he can offer. That is the greatest mark of discipleship.
Disciples have been made again and again since Jesus lived on earth. Disciples were added daily to the number in Jerusalem. The first were called Christians at Antioch. Disciples are still being added today.
Are you a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ? If not, I invite you to follow him, to become his disciple, and to accept his forgiveness today.Kirk H. Neely © February 2014