Who were the Christian Apostles? What were they? A lot has been said about them. Most of the information is based on stories or rumors. Many people, including Christians, do not fully understand their role.
Let us start with what an Apostle is. The word in the original Greek means messenger or one sent out. This would be a very special role to fulfill. In the Christian religion this title (not the general description) was only given to 13 hand-chosen men: 12 sent to the Jews and 1 sent to the Gentiles. To be an Apostle these men had to be picked by Jesus Himself and not by others. They had to be the ones who formed His inner circle and heard His personal teachings. He had many disciples, or followers, but only a few formed the inner circle that He knew would be ones to carry the message to the masses. Others could be called apostle but were not the ones chosen personally by Jesus. They are distinguished by the upper and lower-case A’s.
You would think that the Apostles would be the crème-de-la-crème of the day. But instead they were fishermen and tax collectors (which were not viewed very kindly by the Jewish people). They were not winners of the Noble prize. They were not the religious leaders of the day. They were not large land owners. They were the men you passed on the street as you ran your errands. They were chosen for their hearts and their potential, not for their value in the world’s eye.
Getting to Know the Men
1. Peter — one of the most famous of the Apostles. He was a fisherman who heard of a great teacher proclaiming the coming of a savior. He went to hear this man with a multitude of others. He was so mesmerized with what he heard that he became a follower of this man called John the Baptist (named so because he was preaching repentance and baptism to prepare for the savior). Peter’s brother introduced him to a man rich in wisdom that spoke amazing words. It was not much longer while fishing with his brother, Andrew, that same man walked by on the beach and told them to follow Him and they would be fishers of men (Matthew 4:18–20). He dropped his nets of fish and went. The story of Peter’s tutelage under Jesus is one many can relate to. Through the three years we find him questioning, not quite grasping what was in front of him, jumping in without thinking, and betraying the very man he loved. He gave us so much to empathize with. Yet, Jesus never gave up on him. In fact, He knew that each of these “faults” or “failings” would only make this fisherman stronger. When he questioned, he was admitting limitations (Mark 8:4). When he could not get it, he was showing us weakness (Mark 8:21). When he jumped in, he taught us that we can stand strong on a leap of faith (Matthew 14;28–31). When he denied the truth, he showed us that he could fear. Jesus knew all of this and He knew what Peter would become. This man who showed fear, who was rash, who could not face possible ridicule would later preach the greatest sermon with thousands coming forward to join him. He would face angry authorities, prison, beatings, and eventually death. His two most famous incidents were walking on water with Jesus (Matthew 14:22–33), and his denial of Jesus three times before the cock crew (John 18:15–27). After Jesus’ return to heaven, boldness entered Peter as never before. He began to preach and spread the word about the Messiah. Before his death he managed to write letters to many of the believers in the area that he ministered to. Two of those survive today as 1 and 2 Peter. Even after his receipt of the Holy Spirit and the exhibition of boldness, he showed that he was still human. He was rebuked by another Apostle and directed back to the right way of spreading the word when he began to give into peer pressure (Galatians 2:11–21). Peter can teach us much today: to trust the Lord during the storms, that we are forgiven, that you can do anything you are empowered to do, that even a fisherman can take the world by storm. His death around 66 A.D. by Emperor Nero caused great sorrow in the Christian world as the man once named Simon and renamed by the Lord as Peter, the rock, was crucified upside down. Tradition holds that he requested this since he was not worthy to die the way his Lord had.
2. Andrew — the brother of Peter. He was a follower of John the Baptist, also. He was with Peter fishing when Jesus called them to follow Him and learn more than they ever imagined (Matthew 4:18–20). He was the one who originally first introduced Peter to Jesus before their final call. It was Andrew who brought the young boy to Jesus for the miracle of feeding the 5000 (John 6:8-). His death is traditionally set in Achaia where he was reportedly crucified on an x-shaped cross.
3. James — the brother to the Apostle John and the son of Zebedee. James was present when Jairus’ daughter was raised from the dead (Mark 5:37), at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1), and was with Jesus in the Garden before His arrest. James could be a little too enthusiastic in his following. In Luke 9:52–54 he got very upset with a town that refused to receive Jesus and his followers. They tried to call down fire from heaven on the town. Jesus rebuked them and took them away from the town. This explains the nickname they had as the “Sons of Thunder”. One of the most famous scenes involves James, John, and their mother in Matthew 20:20–21 and Mark 10:35–40 in which they pleaded for a special place for James and John in the kingdom Jesus was to set up. He only promised then that they would share in his suffering. James became the first of the Apostles to be martyred (note that he was not the first martyr. That distinction was given to Steven who was stoned to death) by King Herod Agrippa I somewhere around 44 A.D. The king was so angry with the Apostle that he had him slaughtered with a sword (Acts 12:1–3). This is the only Apostle whose death is recorded in the Bible.
4. John — the brother to James and known as the one Jesus loved. This fisherman turned evangelist was one of the few people on the earth that stood by his teacher. During Jesus’ trial, John was the only one who was brave enough to be present. He snuck into the proceedings and watched. He was with Jesus’ mother during the crucifixion, and even was honored by having Jesus place Mary in John’s care. John became a strong force in the Christian world and was the only one of the Apostles to die a natural death in Ephesus. Though there were many attempts on his life including a report of him being boiled in hot oil and lived. He was at one point exiled to the island of Patmos where he wrote one of the most famous books of the Bible, Revelation. He is attributed with writing five of the New Testament books.
5. Philip — This Apostle called Bethsaida his home. He was another one introduced by a brother, Nathanael, to Jesus. Philip appears just a few times in the scripture and most of them are openings for Jesus to teach on a particular subject. Tradition has his death in Heirapolis where he was tortured and crucified upside down. He supposedly preached to the very end.
6. Bartholomew/Nathanael — Very little is mentioned about this Apostle. He is listed as an apostle and as in attendance periodically. Tradition has him taking the gospel to Armenia and into India. His death was in Baku near Albania where he was flayed alive and then crucified upside down.
7. Thomas — Another apostle not mentioned often. He is most known for his “doubt” of the resurrected Jesus. When Jesus offered him visible proof, Thomas proclaimed Him as his Lord (John 20:24–29). Tradition has Thomas going into India to spread the word and where he was killed and buried.
8. Matthew/Levi — Matthew was a tax collector. His calling was surprising since tax collectors were not at all popular and he just walked away from all the money. Matthew learned that not everything is gold. Tradition has him travelling to Ethiopia and being stabbed to death.
9. James the Younger — This Apostle’s mother was with Mary at the foot of the cross. According to Jewish historian, Josephus, James travelled to Syria where he stoned and clubbed to death.
10. Thaddaeus /Jude– This Apostle is only mentioned twice in the scriptures. Tradition has his murder in Armenia with Simon.
11. Simon — “the Zealot”. His nickname implies that he was once a member of a revolutionary group known as Zealots. He was murdered in Armenia with Jude.
12. Matthias — This Apostle was not one of the original inner circle though he was a follower of Jesus from His baptism through His death and resurrection. After Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and suicide, the remaining Apostles prayed and asked for direction in choosing a replacement. The original Apostles were to be a complete number of 12 to represent the 12 tribes of Israel they were to reach. Not much more is known about him. Tradition has him being murdered in Ethiopia.
13. Paul — This is an Apostle that could have 100 articles written about him and still not get the job done. Paul was not a follower of Jesus during His three year earthly ministry. He actually was a member of the religious order that had Jesus put to death. He is first introduced to the world in Acts 7:54–8:1 as giving approval for the stoning of Steven, the very first Christian martyr. From that point on, much is written about him. Saul was his Jewish name, but he was unusual in that he was also a Roman citizen (therefore, the name Paul). Most of the book of Acts chronicles his miraculous conversion, acceptance by the other Apostles and church leaders, and building many of the churches that lasted for generations. He is credited with writing 14 books of the Bible and was one of the most quoted and revered of all the earliest evangelists. The Book of Acts also reveals the various prisons stays, attempted murders, and eventual arrest that took him to Rome. Tradition has a possible release from his long prison stay and further missionary travels. He was later arrested again and since he was a Roman citizen, which left crucifixion as illegal, he was beheaded.