We read about the Twelve Apostles[1] in all four gospels. While John doesn’t mention the selection and calling of these men, he does refer to The Twelve several times. The Twelve[2] became the designated title for Jesus’ closest friends.

Choosing Twelve

Mark tells us that Jesus went up to a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.

How would those left out have felt? Jesus recognised something we all need to learn: not everyone can be close to us. Jesus had hundreds of followers but only twelve apostles. And even amongst the Twelve, Jesus had three close friends – Peter, James and John – and John was his closest friend.

Luke mentions Jesus made these decisions after spending the night praying to God. It’s always wise to spend time in prayer before making important decisions.

The Unlikely

Jesus’ choice of twelve was a symbolic gesture. Initially, the people of Israel consisted of twelve tribes.

Four of the guys, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, along with James and John, were fishermen. They would have been often ceremonially unclean because of their work, making them unlikely spiritual leaders. Add to that James and John’s fiery temper. Jesus called them Boanerges, the Aramaic term meaning “sons of thunder.”

Christianity.com describes James and John as “rough-hewn guys—amazing, colourful characters. They would not back away from a confrontation. In fact, they might even have looked forward to one. They could be very aggressive. And they also could be very insensitive.” On one occasion, Jesus was speaking about his impending death. The brothers asked, “Can we sit on either side of you in your kingdom?” Imagine you tell people you have one week to live, and they ask if they can have your car.

On another occasion, the brothers wanted to destroy an entire Samaritan town with fire. These guys were volatile young adults, but Jesus saw something in them that was worth choosing.

The Obscure

Philip was from Bethsaida, the same city Andrew and Peter were from. Philip was shy and introverted.

Nathanael was cynical. John writes that Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael asked, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” I understand Nathanael’s response because Nazareth was a small rural town of 500 – 1000 people, and Jesus was a common name, as it still is in Latin countries. It would be the same as me telling you that I’d found the Messiah, and his name is Bob from Mt. Isa. Jesus responded to Nathanael by declaring he had a clean spirit.

Two other disciples are obscure: James and Judas. These guys should not be confused with John’s brother, James, or Judas Iscariot. James is the son of Alphaeus and is identified in church tradition as James the Younger or James the Less. His brother is Matthew, the tax collector. Judas is also called Jude and Thaddaeus. He is the author of the little letter, Jude, tucked in before Revelation.

The Surprising

The final four apostles are unexpected inclusions in the Twelve for various reasons. Thomas is known for his pessimistic nature and reminds me of Eeyore, the gloomy donkey from Winnie the Pooh. For example, when the disciples learned about Lazarus’ death, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Tax Collectors were despised amongst the Jewish population as Roman collaborators, so it was extraordinary that Jesus would welcome Matthew, knowing well that his inclusion would rattle the nerves of the other disciples and the population he was trying to reach.

Even more astounding was Simon the Zealot. Zealots were a Jewish sect noted for their uncompromising opposition to pagan Rome and the polytheism it professed. The Zealots were an aggressive political party who despised even Jews who sought peace with the Roman authorities. Extremists among the Zealots turned to terrorism and assassination and became known as Sicarii (“dagger men”).

Finally, Judas Iscariot. His last name indicates his hometown, a “man of Kerioth” in the Judean hill country. Judas was Jesus’ treasurer, a thief, and a traitor. I find it surprising that Jesus chose such a person, knowing he would be a betrayer.

The Lessons

We can learn some valuable lessons from Jesus’ choice of the Twelve. Firstly, God calls imperfect people.[3] The Bible is honest and tells human stories, warts and all. Many people in scripture wouldn’t be allowed in our churches! Have you ever thought God couldn’t use you? Think again!

Secondly, God calls different people. One of the most significant difficulties we all face is relational challenges, and Jesus selected The Twelve, fully aware of their various personalities and the resulting clashes. In my years of pastoring, I’ve seen many people leave the church because they fell out with a fellow believer. They naively go to another church only to experience the same thing. Most of the New Testament epistles address interpersonal conflict. Why do we think a church community would be any different today?

Finally, God empowers people with his Spirit. In scripture, we see the twelve ragtag apostles entirely revolutionised by the power of the Holy Spirit. They were transformed from Jesus-denying, fearful, deserting followers into brave believers speaking boldly in the face of persecution, performing miracles and leading a church of thousands. As followers of Jesus, we must rely on the Holy Spirit and allow him to transform us.

The End

What happened to The Twelve? All but two of them became martyrs for their faith – Judas committed suicide, and John died of old age:

  • James, the brother of John, was beheaded with a sword by King Herod
  • Thomas preached in India and was slain with an arrow.
  • Simon the Zealot and Judas, son of James, were crucified.
  • Nathanael was beaten, crucified, and then beheaded.
  • Andrew, Peter’s brother, was crucified.
  • Matthew was run through with a spear.
  • Philip was crucified and then stoned to death.
  • Peter was crucified upside down.
  • James, the son of Alphaeus, was stoned by the Jews.


[1] Greek: apostelló means “to send on a defined mission by a superior.”

[2] From Romans onwards, other people, including women, are designated apostles.

[3] For some entertaining insight into the Twelve Apostles, read this amusing article.