“He appointed the Twelve: To Simon, he gave the name Peter; and to James the son of Zebedee, and to his brother John, he gave the name ‘Boanerges’ (that is, ‘Sons of Thunder’); Andrew; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Who is the church for? Everybody, right? That’s the “right” answer. But is it really? I mean, look at most of our churches. While there are a very few that are truly a blend of races and ethnicities, most are largely, if not entirely homogenous. And for folks who spend much time in a contest in which everyone is pretty much just like you, it becomes easy to start to think that the church is really only for people who look like you. What we see here, though, points us back to that right answer and helps us understand why it is so right.
There are all kinds of angles and lenses from and through which we could examine the calling of the disciples. Mark doesn’t include as many of their specific calls as the other Gospel writers do. Of the ones he does include Matthew’s is the longest. The others offer only the short version.
For our purposes now, Jesus called a group of disciples to follow Him for three reasons. The first was cultural. This model of ministry was a common one in that culture. Every prominent rabbi called disciples to follow him, learn from him, expand his impact, and carry on his legacy when he was gone. The best and the brightest young men competed intellectually to be the students of various well-known rabbis the way students today compete for admission into highly regarded universities.
This cultural aspect of the disciples points us to the second and third parts. From a practical standpoint, Jesus couldn’t accomplish everything He came to earth to do on His own. Even though He was God and didn’t technically need anyone, in His equally full humanity, He faced the same limitations of space and time that we have. He couldn’t go all the places He wanted to go and preach all the places He wanted to preach. He needed people to help Him. Thus the disciples.
Finally, from a spiritual standpoint, Jesus wasn’t simply there to preach for a while and be done. He was starting something He wanted to last far beyond His brief time on earth. In order to start a movement, you need followers. More than that, you need followers who attract followers who attract more followers. Thus Jesus didn’t simply call some disciples, He empowered some men and created a unique culture of discipleship that has persisted to this day.
Yet who were these men? And, by the way, given the day’s culture, the inner circle were all men. But Jesus had women followers who were afforded the same respect and access the men were given. This spirit of equality of value bled into the church itself where women were consistently given a position and role and respect that went far beyond anything the broader culture gave them. It is not unsurprising, then, that history shows us women flocked to the early church in much higher numbers than men.
But we’re talking now about this original group of twelve. Who were these men? Well, when it comes to personal details, we don’t know many. About some we don’t know any more than their names. What we do know, though, tells us quite a lot.
While on the one hand it was a pretty homogenous group—they were all Jews from that region—on the other hand, they were all over the map and in such a way that would have left Jesus with quite a task managing the group dynamics. This is one of those things I wish the Gospel authors had told us a lot more about because of the leadership lessons we could have learned from it.
First, there was the group of four fisherman—Peter, Andrew, James, and John. They would have all been mostly cut from the same mold. They were faithful Jews, but their bigger concern was making it through each day. Fishermen have always been cut from the same basic cloth. This quartet fit the model. They were bold and brash and headstrong. They knew what they thought was right and you were going to have quite a task ahead of you if you wanted them to think in a different way.
Then there was Nathaniel. His first reaction to the news of Jesus’ hometown was to reveal his personal prejudice against that region. What good ever came out of Nazareth? He didn’t think Jesus could be anything special because of where he was from. If a person carries a prejudice like this, he usually has others. So, we have a group of stubborn fishermen and a racist. Good start.
Next was Matthew. Matthew, as we’ve talked about, was a tax collector. That means he was a Roman sympathizer. At the very least he was willing to work with them to keep his fellow countrymen in line. At most he was an active supporter of what they were doing. Maybe he wasn’t crooked like most tax collectors were, but we don’t see any evidence that he didn’t fit the mold.
Well, the group dynamics just with these six guys would have been tough. Matthew was the kind of guy the fishermen quartet would have naturally hated. Nathaniel didn’t like anybody who didn’t fit his predetermined mold.
What about the rest? Well, Judas Iscariot, for one, betrayed him. We know from some of John’s comments that he was a crook besides. The other Simon (the one whose name Jesus didn’t change) is always known as Simon “the Zealot.” Now, we don’t know much else about him other than this title, but that title carries some weight. The Zealots in first century Israel were a radical political movement whose sole purpose was the destruction and overthrow of Rome. Anyone and anything associated with Rome they considered a mortal enemy who needed to be destroyed by any means possible. How well do you think he and Matthew got along?
Bottom line here: the disciples were an incredibly diverse group of men. While, again, they shared some similarities, the things that should have kept them apart from one another far outnumbered any that might have drawn them together. And yet Jesus chose and called each one of them specifically to the task of advancing the good news of the kingdom of God. Listen: If Jesus could start with a group as diverse as this, then the church really is for everybody. There is not anyone who is someone Jesus doesn’t want or couldn’t use to accomplish His purposes.
This principle must motivate the church today. If we aren’t a group of people with whom anyone can connect, then we aren’t following in the footsteps of our Lord. I understand that some people feel more comfortable worshiping and sharing life with people who are like them, but the church is for everyone. Some amount of segregation is going to happen naturally because that’s what people do, but we in the church need to be intentional about cultivating a culture where personal (not theological) diversity is embraced; where people can come no matter who they are and what is in their background, and experience the life-changing love of Jesus. That’s the movement Jesus started from the beginning. Let’s be sure we’re on the same path He blazed.