When Jesus called His twelve Apostles, they had no idea what was ahead for them. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke by identifying these men whom the Lord appointed to lay the foundation of the church.
We are going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We’re in chapter 6, and I will be reading verses 12 through 16, which is Luke’s account of the calling of the twelve Apostles:
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.
You have just heard a word from the living God, whose Word is inspired by the Spirit of holiness and truth, and who accompanies that Word with His power as well. Please receive this with all the authority of God. Let us pray.
Again, our Father, as we consider this moment in redemptive history and its significance for history and for us even now, we pray that You would assist us in our weakness by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jesus’ Extraordinary Prayer
This is a very short passage, but one that has great historical significance. On this occasion, Jesus anointed twelve of His disciples and gave them the office of Apostleship. History notes that this small handful of men turned the world upside down. What God did with this handful of people and is continuing to do through their ongoing influence is an amazing reality.
The passage begins by mentioning, “It came to pass in those days that Jesus went up to the mountain to pray.” That Jesus separated Himself from His disciples and the multitudes for seasons of prayer is not at all unusual, but Luke adds the detail, “He continued all night in prayer to God.”
I’m going to ask you to answer this question in your own mind: Have you ever prayed all night, for the entire night? That’s a long time to spend in prayer, and I think even Jesus reserved that kind of marathon of prayer for extraordinary occasions.
We know of the intensity of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before He was betrayed, tried, and killed. But here, we see Jesus wrestling all night in prayer before the Father, as He is about to select His Apostles who will carry on His ministry after He Himself leaves this planet.
It’s interesting to me that of the twelve selected, one of them would be a traitor, and Jesus, we are told, knew from the beginning about Judas’ plans and desires. In this time of prayer, Jesus was certainly wrestling with, among other things, the decision to select the one whom He knew would betray Him.
The Role of an Apostle
We read, “When it was day, He called his disciples to Himself and from them He chose twelve, whom He also named apostles.”
We frequently talk about the twelve disciples and the twelve Apostles, as if a disciple was the same thing as an Apostle. Of course, that is not the case. Jesus had many more disciples than the Twelve. On one occasion, He sent seventy of them out on a preaching mission. Yet from this larger band of over seventy disciples following Jesus, He selected twelve to be Apostles.
What is the difference between a disciple and an Apostle? The term disciple in the New Testament means “a learner.” A disciple is a student. In this period in Jewish history, disciples were not merely students, but they were also adherents to certain leaders, like rabbis, for example. In the case of John the Baptist, his were “John’s disciples.” So, those who followed Jesus enrolled in His rabbinic school, as it were. They were adherents of Him and followed Him closely as His servants and as students. From that group, He selected Apostles.
The role of an Apostle was one of great significance and great authority. The role of a student was considered a somewhat lowly position, like servanthood, but the role of an Apostle was bathed in authority. In the ancient world, an apostolos—one who was sent—functioned as an emissary, ambassador, or representative of someone in a high position of authority. For example, kings might send out apostles to represent them as the king’s emissaries, and they carried with them the credentials of the very authority of the one who sent them. When Jesus separated twelve men and gave them Apostolic authority, He was assigning to them His own authority, so that what they said and taught carried with it the full weight of Jesus’ own authority.
The Foundation of the Church
The first and greatest Apostle in the New Testament, indeed the supreme Apostle in the New Testament, was Jesus Himself. Remember, Jesus said, “I speak nothing on My own authority, but I only speak that which the Father has called Me to say.”
The Father had given Him all authority on heaven and earth so that when Jesus spoke, He spoke with the authority of the One who sent Him, and the One who sent Him was God. In a similar manner, Jesus selected His Apostles and said to them, “Those who receive you receive Me; those who reject you reject Me.”
I mention that point because we live in a time when there is much criticism leveled at Scripture and the authors of Scripture. You might hear people say, “I believe in the teaching of Jesus, but it’s Paul that I can’t stomach,” or, “I don’t have to listen to what John or Peter say.” You can’t have it that way. This was the debate Jesus had with the Pharisees. They said: “We believe Moses, we believe Abraham, we believe God. It’s You that we don’t believe in, Jesus.” Jesus responded: “Moses wrote of Me, Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and it’s the Father who sent Me. You can’t believe in the Father and reject the Son.” Following the same principle, Irenaeus wrote against the heretics of his day, you can’t receive Christ and reject His Apostles, because they carried the authority of the One who commissioned them in their ministry.
Luke goes on to tell us who in the group of disciples had been selected for this office of Apostle. Scripture tells us that the foundation of the church is not Jesus but rather the prophets and the Apostles. In the building metaphor, it is the prophets and the Apostles described as the foundation, and Jesus is the chief cornerstone.
The Bible says that there is no other foundation which can be laid than that which is laid in Christ Jesus, but the whole foundation is built upon the prophets and the Apostles. The point is this: if the church rejects Apostolic authority, it rejects the very foundation of the church itself. As the psalmist says, “If the foundations be shaken, how can the building stand?” The foundation of the church is built in large measure on the people mentioned in this text.
Simon Peter: The Rock
I want to take some time this morning and the following weeks to give a capsule summary, a brief biographical sketch, of these persons whom Jesus called to be Apostles. We hear a lot about some of these men in the pages of the New Testament, but others we hear hardly any mention of whatsoever. Let’s look at the list Luke provides for us.
Luke says, “He named apostles,” first of all, “Simon, whom he also named Peter, and Andrew his brother.” In every list of the Apostles in the New Testament, the first person mentioned is Simon Peter. That is a fascinating point because he was not the first disciple. His younger brother preceded him in discipleship, and it was his younger brother who introduced Peter to Jesus. You might wonder why that brother isn’t mentioned first and paramount in all the lists of the disciples that we find in the New Testament. When we get to heaven, we might want to lobby for the preeminence of that first disciple, the younger brother of Simon Peter, whose name was Andrew, for whom our church is named.
In any case, Peter is first on every list, and it’s probably not because he was the first bishop of Rome, but rather because he obviously had a position of leadership among the group of disciples and Apostles. He became the spokesman for them, as it were.
As we find throughout the gospels, Peter was known as a man who was exceedingly impetuous and, in many ways, unstable, unreliable, and not dependable. His performance throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus would have earned him the nickname “the sand” rather than “the rock.” However, after the death and resurrection of our Lord, Peter was indeed the rock of the early church.
During the ministry of Jesus, we see the wavering spirit of Peter. He was bold to walk out onto the water following Jesus, but he was also the one who started to sink when he doubted. He was the one who distinguished himself at the Caesarea Philippi inquiry, when Jesus looked at His disciples and took a poll among them and asked, “Who is it that men say that I am?” The answer came, “Some say that You’re a prophet, Elijah, Jeremiah, or maybe even John the Baptist come back from the dead.” Jesus responded, “Who do you say that I am?” It was Simon who gave the great confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” With that confession of faith, Jesus turned to Simon and said, “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven, and thou shall be called Petros, the rock, and upon this rock I will build My church.”
Just a few minutes after Jesus called Simon “the rock,” He gave him another name. Jesus announced to His disciples shortly after the Caesarea Philippi confession that they were going to go back to Jerusalem, and there Jesus would be handed over to the Gentiles to be judged and killed. The “rock” said, “No, this will never happen.” We call that the first papal encyclical, which was not infallible, because Peter announced that he wouldn’t stand for that, and that Jesus could not go to Jerusalem. He told Jesus, “Forbid it, Lord.” Imagine that: “Forbid it, Lord. No, Lord. You cannot do that, Lord.” What a way to talk to your Lord. In response, Jesus listened to His close friend and disciple, looked at him, and saw something else in Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan.”
It was the same Simon Peter who gave that magnificent confession of faith who, during the trial of Jesus, was confronted not by the authorities, not by the soldiers, but by a maid. She said, “Are you not one of that Man’s followers?” He cursed with a loud voice, denying three times that he even knew Jesus. This was the same Simon Peter who met with the risen Christ on the shore of the lake of Galilee and was asked three times by Jesus, “Peter, do you love Me?” As he had denied Jesus three times earlier, now he affirmed his love for Christ three times: “Lord, you know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.”
Peter’s ministry was a great blessing to the church when persecution broke out in Jerusalem against the Christians under Herod. One of the Apostles was slain, Peter was imprisoned, and the rest of the Apostles met in secret and prayed diligently for Peter’s release and rescue. You might recall the strange incident that, while the Apostles were praying, their prayer time was interrupted by a knock at the door. Somebody went to the door and opened it, and Peter was standing there. The person closed the door in his face, came back, and said, “I just saw Peter’s ghost.” They were praying that God would rescue Peter from his imprisonment, and when God did, they didn’t believe it. They thought it was his ghost.
Peter’s ministry continued into the decade of the sixties, where at long last he was arrested by the Romans. Under the tyranny of Nero, who also saw to it that the Apostle Paul would be executed that same year, Simon Peter was thrown into the Mamertine Prison in Rome. He was tortured for quite a period before he was taken to the Circus Maximus and executed by being crucified upside down. He didn’t want to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus, because he said he was not worthy to be executed in the same manner Jesus was, and so he was crucified upside down.
Andrew: The First Called
The first Apostle, the first disciple who was called, had first been a follower of John the Baptist. As he heard John the Baptist point to Jesus as the coming Messiah, this first disciple, Andrew, transferred his allegiance from John the Baptist to Jesus with John the Baptist’s great blessing and approval.
It was Andrew who brought his older brother Simon to Jesus. The two brothers became disciples and both were elevated to the level of Apostle. Every time we find Andrew in the New Testament, we find him bringing people to Jesus. That is one of the reasons that we chose him to be the patron saint of our church, so that our church would be known for doing the same thing this disciple did during the ministry of Jesus—bringing people to Jesus. That was his legacy.
Andrew also suffered martyrdom. He was killed in 70 A.D., the same year in which Jerusalem fell, and his crucifixion was on a cross in the shape of an X. Tradition tells us that when he saw the cross that had been prepared for his execution, he broke out in joy. He said, “My whole life has been for the cross.”
Andrew was delighted that he could join his Savior in death through crucifixion. He was not nailed to the cross. He was tied to that cross, and he lived on that cross for three days of torture before he died.
James: The First Apostolic Martyr
The other two disciples mentioned in this text are James and John. Peter, James, and John were normally considered to be the inner circle of the Twelve. These three were present, for example, at the transfiguration. I don’t know where Andrew was on that occasion, but Peter, James, and John were there. Just as Andrew and Peter were brothers, so James and John were brothers.
James and John were known as the sons of Zebedee and were also known by the nickname “the sons of thunder,” because they wanted Jesus to bring down fire from heaven. These were firebrand disciples. They were not blessed, meek, and mild James and John. They were ready to turn the world upside down.
These were also the same ones who, embarrassingly, had their mother intercede with Jesus. She asked that when Jesus came into His kingdom, her two sons, James and John, might be placed at the right hand of Jesus. On that occasion, Jesus had to rebuke them and say that those who wanted to be first had to be last.
James remained a faithful disciple. In the early church, it was known that there were two called James among the twelve; James the son of Alphaeus, who was called James the Lesser, and then James the brother of John, the son of Zebedee, who was known as James the Greater. James the Greater had the distinction of being the first Apostolic martyr in Christian history. James was not the first Christian martyr. The first martyr, of course, was Stephen, but the first of the Twelve, the first martyred Apostle, was James in the year 44 A.D. James was martyred during a Jewish persecution led by Herod Antipas, which was the occasion for Peter’s imprisonment right after James had been executed. So, James is remembered as being the first of the Apostolic martyrs in church history.
John: The Apostle of Love
James’ brother John had the distinction of being the only one of the Twelve not to suffer a violent death. Ten of the Twelve were martyred for the faith. One of the Twelve took his own life in remorse—Judas. Out of the remaining eleven, ten were martyred and one was not. The only one who died at home in peace was John. We are told in church history that all the rest of the Apostles, apart from Judas, suffered and died for their faith. It was said of John that he suffered and lived for the faith.
Just because John escaped martyrdom does not mean that he escaped suffering. He was subjected to suffering throughout his whole life, which was a long life. He became the oldest of the disciples and Apostles to die, and he died and was buried in Ephesus.
Some of you were with us when we made the trip to the Holy Land and went to Ephesus. I spoke briefly, standing on the top of the tomb where John is buried. That was a moving moment for me, to be there that close to the grave of one who was such a faithful follower of Jesus.
John wrote five books of the New Testament: First, Second, and Third John, the book of Revelation, and of course the gospel of John. Peter wrote First and Second Peter, and he didn’t write any of the Gospels, but it’s been thought that Mark was Peter’s disciple and was really fulfilling Peter’s teaching in providing the gospel of Mark.
John was known as the disciple whom Jesus loved, and he was also known for being the Apostle of love. His admonishment to the Christian committee would always be, again and again, “Beloved, love one another.”
John experienced exile under the emperor Domitian to the island of Patmos, where he received that heavenly vision that he recorded, as Jesus instructed him, which comes to us now as the book of the Revelation of Saint John. In the book of Revelation, we have the marvelous vision of Christ’s triumph over all His enemies and the triumph of His people, who will participate in Christ’s triumph. We have the Apostle John to thank for that magnificent vision, as well as his great gospel.
John suffered many times. On one occasion, he was scheduled to be executed by being boiled in oil, but somehow, we don’t know how, he was able to escape that fate. On another occasion, tradition tells us that he was supposed to be executed and was administered some kind of poison. Just as Socrates had been executed by being forced to drink the hemlock, so John the Apostle was to be executed by drinking poison. This time, it wasn’t rescheduled. According to tradition, he drank the poison, and it didn’t affect him. He suffered but did not die. He didn’t die until the Lord was ready to take him.
To Be Continued
We have only briefly looked at four of the Twelve this morning, but can you imagine how these four I’ve already mentioned were used by God to turn the world upside down? God willing, next week, we will look at some more of these men who were selected by our Lord as His succession plan here on earth, as He established His church upon the foundation of these Apostles. Let’s pray.
Our Father and our God, we thank You for these men, whom You knew from the foundation of the world and who were chosen by Your Son, the great Apostle, to be His representatives on this earth. We thank You for the church, whose foundations were established by them and whose growth was sown by their blood. We thank You for this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.