03. One Dozen Disciples

Matthew 9:36-10:4

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10:1Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus. 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

  1. The concept of 12.

The number twelve has been important in the world for thousands of years.  Thousands of years before Christ the Sumerians Civilization gave us a way of counting using the number 12.  They gave us a system that was based on 12 inches to a foot, 60 seconds to a minute, 360 degrees to a circle. 12 months to a year.  Twelve may have been chosen for it was the maximally divisible number. 12 can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, or 6.  Any other number fell far short of that ability.  For instance, in the metric system, 10 is divisible only by 1, 2 and 5.

To this very day we buy eggs or doughnuts by the dozen.  And they can be shared equally between 2 or 3 or 4 or 6 people rather easily.

But the number 12 was also an important part of the Political life of the ancient world.  The Sumerians, the Philistines and Greeks organized themselves into groupings of 12 tribes or 12 city states called Amphictiones.  They organized themselves around a common sanctuary for their mutual support and protection.  In the Old Testament records the 12 sons of Ishmael became 12 tribes cooperating together.  The 12 sons of Jacob became the 12 tribes of Israel.

It is strange to note that these groups were called “twelve” even if there were more or less than that number.  In fact, in Israel there were 13 tribes, not twelve, but they were always called twelve because that was the official number for tribes in an economic union.

There comes a day when the numerical symbol of twelve picked up a new significance.  Jesus has been gathering people around him who sensed in him the presence of God Himself.  That growth of the early community could have continued like that, but there comes the day when Jesus selects out of this enlarging group twelve people to be not only disciples in general, but apostles in particular.  What’s the difference?  Disciples are learners.  Apostles are disciples who are given assignments. They are commissioned as leaders.  And Jesus chooses 12 disciples who are to work with him in establishing the Kingdom of God.  (In our reading this morning Andrew & Peter and James & John are the first four.)

And I cannot believe for a moment that the number 12 is accidental.  It was an intentional choice.  The signal was very clear.  Jesus was out to create a new kingdom, a new way of governing the world.  He was choosing to create a new people with its own 12 founding members.   To some this looked like treason.  He was replacing the 12 patriarchs from which the people of Israel grew, with twelve men who will found the new people of God.

By the way….The Seventy      Luke 10:1-24

There were, however, within the followers of Jesus, another group of disciples.  They are described in Luke 10:1-20. They are the 70.  They are prepared not only to learn; they are also prepared to serve.  Jesus is planning to visit each of the villages in the Galilee area.  He wants some of his disciples to go ahead of him, in groups of two to set up a beach head in 35 villages.  He himself intends to go there, but he cannot be in all of them simultaneously so he wants these 70 to begin announcing the message and doing the same work he is doing.

The 70 return on a designated day and report in. Hear the results: “The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord in your name even the demons are subject to us,” And he said “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening…. At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.”  These 70 disciples were a joy to him.  They were workers with him in this grand enterprise.

He chose seventy. 70 was significant. There were 70 leaders in the Sanhedrin who ruled Jewish Religious life. These were the successors to the 70 elders with whom Moses shared leadership. What was Jesus up to?  He was building a church that would be a shadow cabinet to the current systems that operated. He was creating “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” who would out-think, out-live and out-die the governments in power.

No wonder the religious leadership wanted Jesus out of the way.  To the Roman authorities the choice of 12 may have looked like political insurrection, and perhaps his death at the hands of Rome may have been due to him being seen as a King trying to build his own kingdom.  And they were not far wrong.  Jesus had come to found a new kingdom.  He was to be its sovereign Lord.  He had said “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not be able to withstand it.”   But to Pilate he could also say “My Kingdom is not of this world.”   It is unlike any that have ever existed.   Every other kingdom has been created to provide economic support, political power, military protection and its leaders have been the strong and the powerful.  But the kingdom that Jesus begins is unlike that in every way.

  1. The Persons Called

It is interesting to note who these 12 were.  They were a microcosm of average people.  They were men of such varied temperament and such diverse personality and such contrary political opinion that they appeared to have little in common with each other.  These men were not clones of one model.  They are found at times scrapping with each other for leadership.  There are feuds among them for the primacy of place in this new kingdom that is being created before their eyes.  In fact, there are some in the group that are absolute contradictions.

Matthew was a traitor-tax-collector while Simon the Zealot is a super-patriot.  Simon Peter is a bull-in-a-china-shop-extrovert and Nathaniel is an introvert.  Thomas is wired for thought and James is wired for action.

Why would Jesus select such a motley crew?  They were not politically astute.  They were not leaders of their people.  They had no political aspirations.  They were not people of significant wealth or high education.  They came from families whose genealogies were not worth recording.

They were not even particularly religious.  None were clergy and as far as we know none were very pious.  At least none of their words seem to betray much of a religious orientation.  We know that some were blue collar workers and some were white collar.  Some were small business men and others were dreamers who might have been under employed.  But these men were unusual choices to say the least for the founding membership of the New Thing that God was about to inaugurate.

An Aside.   I have felt bad for many years that none of the first 12 were women.   Luke tells us that many of the disciples of Jesus were women.   Women were a constant part of those who had participated in the launching of this new enterprise.   But when Jesus chooses 12 they are all men.  I suspect there was a reason for that.

The message he brings is radical enough. To place women in leadership this early would have been to bring extra opposition, not only to the message but also to His method. The world was so chauvinistic it didn’t even know it was. To place women in leadership in that Jewish or Gentile world would have been to force an issue that could shipwreck the start of the new way of life.  Part of the problem was the disciples themselves.  They too were as chauvinistic as their world.  They were not ready to be that radical yet.  Though by the time Luke writes his version of the gospel, the church is beginning to understand its own prejudices better.  When we get to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we now read of a woman called Junia being among the apostles and women like Priscilla are able to give leadership in the church.  Nonetheless I feel bad that women were not among the first 12.

The one thing that marks them all the men Jesus chose are that they are very ordinary people.  People of substantial diversity.  But there is more than just their diversity.  These men are rather rough-hewn people.  They are painted as sinful and stupid at times.  Why would Jesus choose them to be the foundational leaders of the infant church?

  1. The nature of His Kingdom.

He chooses such people because his kingdom is to be built on a very different blueprint.  Other kingdoms have the strong ruling over the weak.  They have the powerful manipulating the lives of the common person.  The wealthy and the brilliant make sure control is in their hands.  Kingdoms usual exist for the benefit of its leaders and rarely for the good of its peoples.

But the Kingdom Jesus is founding, with these 12 men as its footings and its foundation, is to be for the good of its citizens.  It is to be a society with mutual care for one another.  It is not to be led by the powerful, but by the weak.  It is a place where wounded people will care for wounded people.  It where servanthood is the mark of its leaders. It is a kingdom where the powerless are enabled to live lives more wholesomely so they can be helpful in enabling the lives of others.

Then what kind of leaders could be the foundation of such a movement?  Only those that were fully aware of their own weakness.  Those aware of their own frailty.  Listen to Paul as to he speaks to the church in Corinth. (I Cor. 1:26)
Consider your call, my friends
Not many of you were wise by human standards
Not many were powerful,
Not many were of noble birth.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.
God chose what is low and despised in the world.       

That is God’s way.  And when Jesus chose 12 he chose people just like you and me.

  1. Why these specific men?

But the question comes still, “Why did he choose these specific 12 men? Were they weaker than most?  More sinful than most?”  I think not.  No better but no worse.

Then why these 12?

Perhaps they were willing to trust him.  They were willing to follow him.  A rich young ruler would have been a real catch.  Perhaps.  But that young man went away sad.  He discovered that he was more attached to his money than to the master.   Others gathered around him when their stomachs were filled, or when miracles followed in his wake.  But when he spoke about discipleship many said, “Let me first bury my dead” or others said “I’ve just bought land and need to see it.”  Others said “I have married a wife and cannot come.”  And right after the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus said some words hard to grasp and the Gospel of John passes on the sad words, “Many followed no more with him.”

But when Jesus asked these 12, “Will you also go away?” those twelve men in those dramatic moments said “To whom else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”   And so they followed him.  Followed him with fears.  Followed him at times at a distance. Followed him with confused minds and hearts.  But they followed him nonetheless.

There is a second reason, however, why Jesus may have chosen them.  They were not only tenacious bulldogs who would not let him go.  They were untamed men in many ways. They were willing to move against the tides of their age.  How do we know?  Look at these 12.

Matthew was a Tax collector.  Talk about going against the current of popular opinion!

Simon was called the Zealot.  A revolutionary who wanted a world changed, because he did not like the one he had inherited.

Nathaniel was a day dreamer who along with Martin Luther King Jr. may have said “I have a dream” and believed that that dream could come true in Jesus, against all the evidence.

Thomas was a doubter and a skeptic who followed no crowd easily.

And it is interesting to note, every one of those early disciples were Galileans, except for one, Judas Iscariot.  Galileans lived closer to the Gentile world and were noted for their desire for a change in their world, known for their questioning the pronouncements of the establishment in Jerusalem. Mavericks every one.


So in summary, let us note the courage that these followers showed.
Their independence from peer pressure.
Their commitment to follow Him.
They made themselves available to him, when others turned away.

God still looks for people who will follow in His ways.
People with an openness to be changed and to see change.
Such are the ones that Jesus has always chosen to be his followers!
I want to be his disciple.  Don’t you?