Jesus’ compassion always turned into mission. His compassion for his people drove him to die for them so that they might live (John 3:16). His compassion also drove him to ensure that his mission was carried out by men—initially, twelve men—who shared his compassion and commitment. He called these men “apostles” (which means “sent ones”) and “sent [them] out” to carry out his mission (Matthew 10:1–5ff).
Since he handpicked and personally commissioned these men, it is helpful to consider the kind of men that they were. I want to take some time over the next several posts to consider what we can learn about these men from the biblical narratives about them. But, first, it will prove beneficial to make a few general observations.
These men were individually selected by Jesus to fulfil his mission. Consider some things about their selection.
First, they were selected as a result of special prayer. In the verses immediately preceding Matthew’s recollection of the apostolic commissioning, Jesus lamented the lack of willing workers in the Great Commission and instructed his disciples to pray for more labourers (Matthew 9:36–38). Luke reveals that he spent all night in prayer himself before selecting the Twelve (Luke 6:12–16).
Second, they were selected for a special purpose. Initially, they were to preach the gospel to Israel (Matthew 10:5–7), but it would not be long before this commission was extended to the lost sheep of the Gentiles (John 10:16). The apostles would eventually build the foundation of the multi-ethnic church of God (Ephesians 2:19–20), which is why the apostolic office ceased with them. With the foundation laid, there was no need to replace the apostles after they died.
Third, they were selected to a special privilege: to personally interact with and directly learn from Jesus during his earthly ministry (Acts 1:20–26). They heard his teachings, saw his miracles, and asked him their questions. They witnessed his arrest, went to his tomb, and saw him resurrected. What a special privilege was theirs!
Fourth, they were selected to have special power. Jesus “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Matthew 10:1). He later said to them, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8). This power was displayed time and again in the early years after the ascension (Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 14:3; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Romans 15:19; Hebrews 2:4). Their power authenticated their preaching (Acts 4:29–30; 2:3–4), while our preaching is authenticated by their writings.
Fifth, they were selected to have a special position. When they asked how they would be rewarded for forsaking all and following Jesus, he promised them thrones in glory (Matthew 19:27–28; Luke 22:28-30). There is some mystery about this promise, but it is evident that a special position was reserved for the twelve apostles.
Sixth, they were not selected because they were special people. They were quite ordinary. They became special people as they followed a special person on their way to fulfilling their specific and special purpose.
This is why studying their lives is valuable. In them, we see our own faults and learn that, as they became special people because they followed a special person, so we can be special people if we will follow that same special person.
William Barclay observed that the Twelve “had no wealth, academic background, [or] social position” but “were chosen from among common people.” There was nothing notable about them except their willingness to serve. This should encourage us that, to be used by God, we need not be extraordinary but only willing. Consider a few encouraging things about their service.
First, though ordinary, they were given an extraordinary opportunity. Religious leaders abounded but were too proud to be used. Jesus therefore chose rank-and-file Jewish men to carry out the greatest mission ever given to humanity. And because they were willing to be used, he used them in a great way.
Second, they were an extraordinary mix. Men of these various standings did not mix with one another. Tax collectors like Matthew were despised by Zealots like Simon. A meeting between a tax collector and a Zealot might well end in a physical altercation, but these two men worked together for gospel purposes. They displayed the mutual love characteristic of Christ’s disciples (John 13:35) despite their sharp differences.
Third, they made ordinary blunders. We can relate to the pride of James and John and the rashness of Peter. We doubt like Thomas and know what it is to be gripped by fear as the apostles were at the cross. They are more like us than we might initially think.
It is just such men who, by the grace of God and the power of Christ, did extraordinary things for Christ. As they raised their hands to be used and put aside their natural differences in pursuit of God’s greater glory, they accomplished great things for God’s kingdom, even as they made significant blunders along the way.
As we consider the lives of these twelve men, we need to come away persuaded of one vital truth: We do not need to be special people. If we are simply willing to be used, and to submit to God’s authority, he can change us and use us to glorify and honour him.