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Twelve Ordinary MenHOW the MASTER SHAPED HIS DISCIPLES for GREATNESS, and WHAT HE WANTS TO DO with YOU
By John MacArthur
Nelson BooksCopyright © 2007 John MacArthur
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCommon Men, Uncommon Calling
* * * For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.
-1 Corinthians 1:26-29
From the time Jesus began His public ministry in His hometown of Nazareth, He was enormously controversial. The people from His own community literally tried to kill Him immediately after His first public message in the local synagogue. "All those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way" (Luke 4:28-30).
Ironically, Jesus became tremendously popular among the people of the larger Galilee region. As word of His miracles began to circulate throughout the district, massive hordes of people came out to see Him and hear Him speak. Luke 5:1 records how "the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God." One day, the crowds were so thick and so aggressive that He got into a boat, pushed it offshore far enough to get away from the press of people, and taught the multitudes from there. Not by mere happenstance, the boat Jesus chose belonged to Simon. Jesus would rename him Peter, and he would become the dominant person in Jesus' closest inner circle of disciples.
Some might imagine that if Christ had wanted His message to have maximum impact, He could have played off His popularity more effectively. Modern conventional wisdom would suggest that Jesus ought to have done everything possible to exploit His fame, tone down the controversies that arose out of His teaching, and employ whatever strategies He could use to maximize the crowds around Him. But He did not do that. In fact, He did precisely the opposite. Instead of taking the populist route and exploiting His fame, He began to emphasize the very things that made His message so controversial. At about the time the crowds reached their peak, He preached a message so boldly confrontive and so offensive in its content that the multitude melted away, leaving only the most devoted few (John 6:66-67).
Among those who stayed with Christ were the Twelve, whom He had personally selected and appointed to represent Him. They were twelve perfectly ordinary, unexceptional men. But Christ's strategy for advancing His kingdom hinged on those twelve men rather than on the clamoring multitudes. He chose to work through the instrumentality of those few fallible individuals rather than advance His agenda through mob force, military might, personal popularity, or a public-relations campaign. From a human perspective, the future of the church and the long-term success of the gospel depended entirely on the faithfulness of that handful of disciples. There was no plan B if they failed.
The strategy Jesus chose typified the character of the kingdom itself. "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). The kingdom advances "'Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6). A dozen men under the power of the Holy Spirit are a more potent force than the teeming masses whose initial enthusiasm for Jesus was apparently provoked by little more than sheer curiosity.
Christ personally chose the Twelve and invested most of His energies in them. He chose them before they chose Him (John 15:16). The process of choosing and calling them happened in distinct stages. Careless readers of Scripture sometimes imagine that John 1:35-51, Luke 5:3-11, and the formal calling of the Twelve in Luke 6:12-16 are contradictory accounts of how Christ called His apostles. But there is no contradiction. The passages are simply describing different stages of the apostles' calling.
In John 1:35-51, for example, Andrew, John, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel encounter Jesus for the first time. This event occurs near the beginning of Jesus' ministry, in the wilderness near the Jordan River, where John the Baptist was ministering. Andrew, John, and the others were there because they were already disciples of John the Baptist. But when they heard their teacher single out Jesus and say, "Behold the Lamb of God!" they followed Jesus.
That was phase one of their calling. It was a calling to conversion. It illustrates how every disciple is called first to salvation. We must recognize Jesus as the true Lamb of God and Lord of all, and embrace Him by faith. That stage of the disciples' call did not involve full-time discipleship. The Gospel narratives suggest that although they followed Jesus in the sense that they gladly heard His teaching and submitted to Him as their Teacher, they remained at their full-time jobs, earning a living through regular employment. That is why from this point until Jesus called them to full-time ministry, we often see them fishing and mending their nets.
Phase two of their calling was a call to ministry. Luke 5 describes the event in detail. This was the occasion when Jesus pushed out from shore to escape the press of the multitudes and taught from Peter's boat. After He finished teaching, He instructed Peter to launch out to the deep water and put in his nets. Peter did so, even though the timing was wrong (fish were easier to catch at night when the water was cooler and the fish surfaced to feed), the place was wrong (fish normally fed in shallower waters and were easier to catch there), and Peter was exhausted (having fished all night without any success). He told Jesus, "Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net" (Luke 5:5). The resulting catch of fish overwhelmed their nets and nearly sank two of their fishing boats! (vv. 6-7).
It was on the heels of that miracle that Jesus said, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). Scripture says it was at this point that "they forsook all and followed Him" (Luke 5:11). According to Matthew, Andrew and Peter "immediately left their nets and followed Him" (Matthew 4:20). And James and John "immediately ... left the boat and their father, and followed Him" (v. 22). From that point on, they were inseparable from the Lord.
Matthew 10:1-4 and Luke 6:12-16 describe a third phase of their calling. This was their calling to apostleship. It was at this point that Christ selected and appointed twelve men in particular and made them His apostles. Here is Luke's account of the incident:
Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot who also became a traitor.
Their apostleship began with a kind of internship. Christ sends them out. Mark 6:7 says they were sent out two by two. At this stage they were not quite ready to go out alone, so Christ teamed them in pairs, so that they would offer one another mutual support.
Throughout this phase of their training, the Lord Himself stuck closely with them. He was like a mother eagle, watching the eaglets as they began to fly. They were always checking back with Him, reporting on how things were going (cf. Luke 9:10; 10:17). And after a couple of seasons of evangelistic labor, they returned to the Lord and remained with Him for an extended time of teaching, ministry, fellowship, and rest (Mark 6:30-34).
There was a fourth phase of their calling, which occurred after Jesus' resurrection. Judas was now missing from the group, having hanged himself after his betrayal of Christ. Jesus appeared to the remaining eleven in His resurrection body and sent them into all the world, commanding them to disciple the nations. This was, in effect, a call to martyrdom. Each of them ultimately gave his life for the sake of the gospel. History records that all but one of them were killed for their testimony. Only John is said to have lived to old age, and he was severely persecuted for Christ's sake, then exiled to the tiny island of Patmos.
Despite the obstacles they faced, they triumphed. In the midst of great persecution and even martyrdom, they fulfilled their task. Against all odds, they entered victorious into glory. And the continuing witness of the gospel-spanning two thousand years' time and reaching into virtually every corner of the world-is a testimony to the wisdom of the divine strategy. No wonder we are fascinated by these men.
Let's begin our study of the Twelve by looking carefully at phase three of their calling-their selection and appointment to apostleship. Notice the details as Luke gives them to us.
First, the timing of this event is significant. Luke notes this with his opening phrase in Luke 6:12: "Now it came to pass in those days." The New American Standard Bible renders the phrase this way: "And it was at this time." Luke is not talking about clock time, or the specific days of a specific month." At this time" and "in those days" refers to a period of time, a season, a distinct phase in Jesus' ministry. It was an interval in His ministry when the opposition to Him peaked.
"In those days" refers back to the immediately preceding account. This section of Luke's Gospel records the vicious opposition Christ was beginning to receive from the scribes and Pharisees. Luke 5:17 is Luke's first mention of the Pharisees, and verse 21 is his first use of the word "scribes." (The scribes are mentioned alongside the Pharisees as "teachers of the law" in verse 17.)
So we are first introduced to Jesus' chief adversaries in Luke 5:17, and Luke's account of their opposition fills the text through the end of chapter 5 and well into chapter 6. Luke describes the escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of Judaism. They opposed Him when He healed a paralytic and forgave his sins (5:17-26). They opposed Him for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (5:27-39). They opposed Him when He permitted His disciples to pluck heads of grain and eat them on the Sabbath (6:1-5). And they opposed him for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (6:6-11). One after another, Luke recounts those incidents and highlights the growing opposition of the religious leaders.
The conflict reaches a high point in Luke 6:11. The scribes and Pharisees "were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus." Both Mark and Matthew are even more graphic. They report that the religious leaders wanted to destroy Jesus (Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6). Mark says the religious leaders even got the Herodians involved in their plot. The Herodians were a political faction that supported the dynasty of the Herods. They were not normally allied with the Pharisees, but the two groups joined together in collusion against Jesus. They were already hatching plans to murder Him.
It is at this precise point that Luke interjects his account of how the Twelve were chosen and appointed to be apostles. "It came to pass in those days"-when the hostility against Christ had escalated to a murderous fever pitch. Hatred for Him among the religious elite had reached its apex. Jesus could already feel the heat of His coming death. The crucifixion was now less than two years away. He already knew that He would suffer death on the cross, that He would rise from the dead, and that after forty days He would ascend to His Father. He therefore also knew that His earthly work would have to be handed off to someone else.
It was now time to select and prepare His official representatives. Jesus-knowing the hatred of the religious leaders, fully aware of the hostility against Him, seeing the inevitability of His execution-therefore chose twelve key men to carry on the proclamation of His gospel for the salvation of Israel and the establishment of the church. Time was of the essence. There weren't many days left (about eighteen months, by most estimates) before His earthly ministry would end. Now was the time to choose His apostles. Their most intensive training would begin immediately and be complete within a matter of months.
The focus of Christ's ministry therefore turned at this point from the multitudes to the few. Clearly, it was the looming reality of His death at the hands of His adversaries that signaled the turning point.
There's another striking reality in this. When Jesus chose the Twelve to be His official representatives-preachers of the gospel who would carry both His message and His authority-He didn't choose a single rabbi. He didn't choose a scribe. He didn't choose a Pharisee. He didn't choose a Sadducee. He didn't choose a priest. Not one of the men He chose came from the religious establishment. The choosing of the twelve apostles was a judgment against institutionalized Judaism. It was a renunciation of those men and their organizations, which had become totally corrupt. That is why the Lord didn't choose one recognized religious leader. He chose instead men who were not theologically trained-fishermen, a tax collector, and other common men.
Jesus had long been at war with those who saw themselves as the religious nobility of Israel. They resented Him. They rejected Him and His message. They hated Him. The Gospel of John puts it this way: "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11). The religious leaders of Judaism constituted the core of those who rejected Him.
Nearly a year and a half before this, in one of the first official acts of Jesus' ministry, He had challenged Israel's religious establishment on their own turf in Jerusalem during the Passover-the one time of year when the city was most populated with pilgrims coming to offer sacrifices. Jesus went to the temple mount, made a whip of small cords, drove the thieving money-changers out of the temple, poured out their money, overturned their tables, and chased their animals away (John 2:13-16). In doing that, He struck a devastating blow at institutionalized Judaism. He unmasked the religious nobility as thieves and hypocrites. He condemned their spiritual bankruptcy. He exposed their apostasy. He publicly rebuked their sin. He indicted them for gross corruption. He denounced their deception. That is how He began His ministry. It was an all-out assault on the religion of the Jewish establishment.
Now, many months later, at the height of His Galilean ministry, far removed from Jerusalem, the resentment that must have been inaugurated at that first event had reached a fever pitch. The religious leaders were now bloodthirsty. And they began to devise a scheme to execute Him.
Their rejection of Him was complete. They were hostile to the gospel He preached. They despised the doctrines of grace He stood for, spurned the repentance He demanded, looked with disdain upon the forgiveness He offered, and repudiated the faith He epitomized. In spite of the many miracles that proved His messianic credentials-despite actually seeing Him cast out demons, heal every conceivable sickness, and raise dead people to life-they would not accept the fact that He was God in human flesh. They hated Him. They hated His message. He was a threat to their power. And they desperately wanted to see Him dead.
Excerpted from Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur Copyright © 2007 by John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission.
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