Jesus—His Life and Message: The Disciples (Part 2)

May 5, 2015

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

During His ministry, Jesus chose and commissioned twelve of His disciples to be apostles. The Gospel of Luke tells it this way:

In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.1

While naming the twelve, Mark’s Gospel also includes the reasons Jesus chose the group:

He went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.2 

Matthew simply says that Jesus called to him his twelve disciples3 and gives their names,4 while the Gospel of John makes many references to the “Twelve,” but tells nothing of their being chosen and never lists them all. The book of Acts includes a full listing.5 Ten of the names are present in all of the lists, whereas there are two names which differ, which I’ll say something about further on.

Choosing to appoint the Twelve is commonly seen as a parabolic act, one which made connections with the original twelve tribes of Israel.6 Since the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, there were only two and a half of the original twelve tribes (Benjamin, Judah, and half of Levi) within Israel,7 so some commentators see the appointing of the Twelve as symbolizing the future restoration of Israel promised in the Old Testament.8 Others suggest that it symbolizes God’s judgment and rejection of Israel and the raising up of a “new Israel” to replace it.9 Robert Stein explains:

Both of these views contain an element of truth. The arrival of the kingdom of God involved fulfillment of the OT promises and thus the restoration of Israel, but it did not restore Israel according to the national and political hopes of most first-century Jews. Similarly, a new people was indeed called into being, which included both Jew and Greek, but this would be clear only after the resurrection.10

Mark tells us that Jesus chose these twelve men for two reasons. The first was so that they might be with him. They would accompany Jesus throughout His ministry, which would entail seeing His actions, listening to His teachings, learning from Him, and assisting Him. They would also be His closest companions. Witherington states:

This is part and parcel of the portrait of the fully human Jesus in this Gospelin this case he needed a support group, he longed for fellowship. He lives as a person in community, not as an isolated prophet. These were not merely to be Jesus pupils (remembering that the word disciple actually means learner), but his friends and coworkers.11

The second reason was so that he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. The Greek verb for send or sending out is apostellō (ah-pah-stehl-o), which is also the root word for apostle, apostolos (ah-pah-stah-loss). This expressed the Jewish concept of agency (shaliach in Hebrew, meaning messenger or emissary), where one would be sent out as an official agent commissioned to act in the place of, and with the authority of, the one who sent them. The apostles would, in a sense, be extensions of Jesus, being given authority to cast out demons, and carrying out the tasks He had come to do—such as preaching, teaching, healing—in His name, with His authority and power.12

The Twelve were a subset of a larger number of disciples. Though we don’t know exactly how many disciples followed Jesus during His lifetime, Luke’s Gospel says: The Lord appointed seventy-two others13 and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go,14 so we know there were at least seventy-two others.

Later in the gospel accounts, we learn that there were also women among Jesus’ followers. 

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.15

At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion we’re told that:

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.16

Author Craig Keener wrote:

In that culture women were relegated to a marginal role in discipleship at best, and not permitted to be disciples of rabbis, but these women had followed Jesus as disciples in whatever ways they could  Their ministry to Jesus needs probably largely followed the roles assigned their gender and social rank in their culture  Yet the special role accorded women among Jesus disciples, in addition to the loyalty with which they responded to him, is significant.17

R. T. France wrote:

In the culture of Jesus day a close-knit travelling group which included women would probably have been socially inappropriate, but we shall discover in Matthew 27:5556 that women, while not mentioned in the earlier narratives, have all the time been part of Jesus movement. They are described there as having followed him during the Galilean period, the same term which we have seen to carry the connotation of discipleship in Matthew. So the absence of women among the specific task force of the Twelve does not indicate that there were no women disciples.18

While the Twelve were a subset of all the disciples, Peter and the Zebedee brothers—James and John—were a subset of the Twelve. There were times when these three were taken aside with Jesus: the healing of Jairus’ daughter,19 the transfiguration of Jesus,20 and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I’ll briefly cover some information about each of the Twelve.21

Simon Peter was given the place of prominence in all lists of the Twelve, as he is always named first. He was originally named Simon, but Jesus gave him a new name, Peter (Petros in Greek, Cephas in Aramaic), which means rock or stone, probably symbolizing his eventual leadership among the early church.

The changing of a persons name recalls how in the Old Testament God gave new names to certain people (Abram became Abraham, Genesis 17:5; Sarai became Sarah, 17:15; Jacob became Israel, 32:28), and bears witness to the status of Jesus in renaming Simon and to the new stage in the life of the one named.22

The timing of when Jesus gave Simon a new name isn’t exactly clear. John places it when Jesus first meets Peter,23 and Matthew puts it later in Jesus’ ministry when Peter states Jesus is the Messiah.24 Luke and Mark simply state that Jesus gave him a new name.

Andrew was Peter’s brother, and like him, was a fisherman. He and Peter were originally from Bethsaida,25 but at some point had moved to Capernaum. Andrew is only mentioned a few times in the gospels and once in the book of Acts.26

James and John, from Capernaum, were brothers who left their father and their fishing business to follow Jesus. Their mother also followed the Lord and was present at His crucifixion.27 James was an early church martyr.28 Though not all scholars agree, John is traditionally considered the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”29

All we know about Philip is what is said in the Gospel of John.30 Some confuse the apostle Philip with Philip the Evangelist, who was one of the seven deacons chosen by the apostles in the book of Acts.31

Bartholomew is a patronym (a name derived from a father or ancestor), meaning “son of Tholomaios.”32 There is speculation that he had another name, possibly Nathanael. The reasons for this possibility are: 1) the patronym probably doesn’t indicate his full name; 2) the Synoptics don’t mention Nathanael, and John doesn’t mention Bartholomew; 3) every list except Acts 1:13 places Bartholomew and Philip together; and 4) the other men named in John 21:2 are apostles, and Nathanael is among them. Thus, it is quite possible that Bartholomew is Nathanael.

Matthew is most likely another name for Levi the tax collector, who after being called by Jesus gave a party for Him, which caused the Pharisees to criticize Jesus for eating with sinners. The name Matthew is used in Matthew 9:9–11, and Levi is used in Luke 5:27–30, both of which seem to be describing the same event.

Thomas means “twin.” In John’s Gospel, Thomas is also referred to as Didymus, which means “two-fold or twain.”

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.33

What information we have about Thomas is found in John’s gospel: When Jesus stated He would be going away, Thomas said to him, Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus said to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.34 Thomas wasn’t in the room the first time Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, and Thomas told the others “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.35 This statement has given him the nickname “Doubting Thomas” throughout Christian history. However, he also uttered one of the most important Christological phrases in the New Testament when he did see the risen Lord, as he explicitly stated that Jesus was God.

Thomas answered him, My Lord and my God!36

The exact identification of James the son of Alphaeus is uncertain. Some think he could be the brother of Matthew/Levi, as Mark refers to Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth.37 However, Alphaeus might have just been a popular name at the time, so there isn’t conclusive evidence that they were brothers.

Simon is called “the Zealot” in Luke, and “the Canaanite” in Mark and Matthew. Bock states:

The term in Mark [and Matthew] was mistranslated as the Canaanite in many early English translations going back to T. Cranmer in 1539.38

Some commentators suggest that Simon had been a member of the Zealots, a religious/political party that believed in using violence to free the nation from Roman rule. However, this party didn’t formally come into existence until some time after Jesus’ crucifixion. While he may not have been a member of the ZeaIots, the surname could indicate that Simon had nationalistic tendencies. However, in the book of Acts, Luke used the same Greek word, zelotes, as being someone who is zealous for the law39 and zealous for God.40 So Luke may have meant that Simon was a zealous person with regard to Scripture.

Judas the son of James is named in Luke’s list of the Twelve41 and in the list in the book of Acts.42 Mark and Matthew don’t list Judas, but rather list Thaddeus.43 In Matthew, the King James version reads and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus. (The Greek word Lebbaeus means “a man of heart,” and Thaddaeus means “large hearted, courageous.”) Of the more modern translations, only the New King James includes Lebbaeus as a surname of Thaddaeus; others exclude it. Many commentators believe that Judas and Thaddaeus are the same person, since four other apostles have dual names (Simon/Peter, Thomas/Didymus, Matthew/Levi, Bartholomew/Nathanael).

Jeremias explains:

In seven instances the lists give second names, all, as far as can be determined, Aramaic. Second names were extraordinarily widespread in the Judaism of the time because they were indispensable for distinguishing between the numerous people who bore the same name We find that only those disciples whose names appear twice in the lists are given a second name. In the group of twelve there were six disciples each of whom had a namesake: there were two disciples called Simon, two called James and (according to Luke) two called Judas. In these six cases another name was essential as a distinguishing feature  It would be quite understandable if after Easter the second Judas was known in the community by his second name [Thaddeaus] ... which would distinguish him from Judas Iscariot. The Lukan tradition would then have kept the proper name [Judas], and the Marcan tradition the nickname [Thaddeaus] of the second Judas.44

There are different theories about the meaning of the surname of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. The most likely is that it’s a reference to a region in Judea, Kerioth.45 If this is the case, Judas was likely the only non-Galilean among the Twelve.46 Another possibility is that the name comes from an Aramaic term that means “false one.” If so, then it is used as a description of him. A third possibility is that it comes from the Latin sicarius, meaning dagger man, assassin. If so, then he was referred to by this name after Jesus’ crucifixion. Most scholars consider Iscariot to be a family name which references Kerioth in Judea.

The twelve apostles were those who were with Jesus from the early stages of His ministry; disciples who were constantly with Him, watching, listening, and learning. They often didn’t understand the meaning of what Jesus taught, and their understanding of the role of the Messiah was in alignment with that of first-century Jews in general, so they misunderstood much. But over time, through Jesus’ patient teaching, and as a result of the time they spent with Him, they began to see enough that when Jesus asked them:

Who do you say that I am? Simon Peter replied, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered him, Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.47

Though they didn’t fully understand who Jesus was, or the meaning of all He taught, after His resurrection He further explained the Scriptures to them so they gained full understanding. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.48 After being filled with the Holy Spirit, these men preached the good news of the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. Most of them were martyred for doing so, but they faithfully carried out the commission Jesus gave them to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.49

As disciples, as followers of Jesus, we have been given the same commission:

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.50

Like the first disciples, we may not fully understand everything there is to know about God, Jesus, theology, etc.; but, as disciples, we know more than enough to do our best to love Him, live for Him, apply His teachings to our lives, and bring others to Him. As He said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”51


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:19:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:5124:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the Word. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston, Koninklijke Brill. 1999.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:2716:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 18:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. Mark. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus Teachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Witherington III, Ben. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Luke 6:12–16.

2 Mark 3:13–15.

3 Matthew 10:1.

4 Matthew 10:2–4.

5 Acts 1:13.

6 Points taken from Stein, Mark, 168.

7 For further explanation see JesusHis Life and Message: The Setting.

8 Isaiah 11:10–16; 49:6; 56:8; Ezekiel 45:8; Micah 2:12.

9 See Romans 9–11.

10 Stein, Mark, 168.

11 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 151.

12 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 424, 426.

13 Some translations say seventy.

14 Luke 10:1.

15 Luke 8:1–3.

16 Mark 15:40–41. See also Matthew 27:55–56.

17 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 689–90.

18 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 375.

19 Mark 5:37.

20 Mark 9:2.

21 Points regarding the apostles are summarized from Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:19:50, 543–547.

22 Stein, Mark, 171.

23 John 1:42.

24 Matthew 16:17–18.

25 John 1:44.

26 Mark 1:16, 29; 13:3; John 1:40; 6:8; 12:22; Acts 1:13.

27 Matthew 27:56.

28 Acts 12:1–2.

29 John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20.

30 John 1:43–48; 6:5–7; 12:22; 14:8–9.

31 Acts 6:5–6.

32 Stein, Mark, 173.

33 John 20:24 KJV.

34 John 14:5–6.

35 John 20:25.

36 John 20:28.

37 Mark 2:14.

38 Bock, Luke 1:19:50, 545.

39 Acts 21:20.

40 Acts 22:3.

41 Luke 6:13–16.

42 Acts 1:13.

43 Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18.

44 Jeremias, New Testament Theology, 232–33.

45 Joshua 15:25, Jeremiah 48:24.

46 Bock, Luke 1:19:50, 546.

47 Matthew 16:15–17.

48 Luke 24:45.

49 Matthew 28:19–20.

50 Mark 16:15.

51 Matthew 4:19.