Jesus calls some strange characters
Jesus took the initiative and called twelve men out of the larger crowds who followed Him to be His disciples. They were to learn from Him and he delegated spiritual authority to them to preach the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins and of eternal life and also, the text says, “to drive out demons” - we would say - “the power of exorcism”. There was no internet then, no TV, radio or daily newspapers. Jesus had to set in motion from scratch a community of faith and obedience which would carry His message down through the ages - to us today.
Jesus’ disciples do not come over that well in the Gospels. In Acts there is a mixture of heroism and self-sacrifice although Peter and Paul had a blazing argument about the status of newly converted gentile Christians. Jesus called some strange characters. He did not call twelve of His fellow rabbis to found His Church. Why? For a start they would all disagree with one another about everything. Secondly, they would only function within the confines of the Old Covenant and the Law. Thirdly, they would not be fully open to the radical indwelling and leading of the Holy Spirit. And lastly, they would not have a vision for the conversion of the whole of humanity.
Peter is named first with his family name Simon or Symeon as it would have been in the Aramaic language. His father was called Jonah and Peter was married when Jesus called him. Later, his wife accompanied him on his missionary journeys - to Paul’s chagrin and jealousy. He may have had two homes, one in Bethsaida and one in Capernaum. Both were beside the lake because he was a fisherman. He had a strong regional accent which was spotted by a servant girl during Jesus’ arrest and trial. He was a pious Jewish man who could read and write but he was not an academic or a theologian. He was attracted to revival meetings and no doubt had heard John the Baptist preach. It was his brother Andrew who introduced him to Jesus with the words, “We have found the Messiah” - a truly amazing statement for the time. Jesus gave him the name Cephas or Peter which meant ‘The Rock’. Jesus discerned that beneath Peter’s blustering outward personality lay real strength and principle - someone He could rely on - eventually. Peter had faith and spiritual discernment and at times perceived the real nature of Jesus He said, “You are the Son of God” - “You have the words of eternal life”. He also misjudged and misunderstood Jesus’ mission and purpose. He would not allow Jesus to be killed by His enemies. He promised to defend Him with violence if necessary. He earned some very stern and caustic rebukes from Jesus such as, “Get behind me Satan”. Peter swore undying allegiance but Jesus saw through his empty protestations. He denied Jesus and was filled with remorse. When Jesus was buried, Peter thought it was all over and wanted to go back to re-establish his fishing business and make some money. He wasn’t as good a runner as John and was second to the empty tomb. But only the very clear and definite meeting with the Risen Jesus persuaded Peter to become a Christian apostle. Jesus had to ask three times, “Do you really love me Peter? - Feed my sheep”.
As an apostle, Peter became the leader of the First Church. He defied the Sanhedrin with the epic words, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God”. He was imprisoned and miraculously escaped. He made missionary journeys throughout Palestine and later to the north as far as what we know as Turkey. Scholars are reasonably sure that Peter did reach Rome and wrote the letter known as 1 Peter from there during the persecution of Christians by the mad emperor Nero. There is an unverified tradition that Peter was crucified in Rome. The vast St Peter’s Basilica is built on the place associated with his burial. Peter and Paul it might be said jointly established the Church, Peter with the authority given to him by Jesus and Paul with his writings. For Roman Catholics, Peter is the first Pope.
James, son of Zebedee was also a Galilean fisherman called along with his brother John by Jesus to be a disciple and apostle. He was one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples whom He allowed to witness miracles. Jesus called him and his brother ‘sons of thunder’ because they were both apparently aggressive and fiesty. They were freedom fighters to begin with. They wanted God to destroy a Samaritan village whose people had rejected the Gospel message. Ambitious - they asked for preferential places beside Jesus in the coming Kingdom. At that stage they had no idea what Jesus’ purpose was and assumed that He would create a ruling dynasty like that of King David. Jesus asked James if he was prepared to suffer as Jesus himself would do and he said that he would. He did. He was killed on the orders of King Herod Agrippa. Acts 12:2 tells us “He had James the brother of John put to death with the sword”.
John may have been a cousin of Jesus on his mother’s side. John's mother Salome accompanied the two Marys to the tomb of Jesus. The family were prosperous. Salome financially supported Jesus and the disciples. John was another of Jesus’ inner circle. He witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration of Jesus and made preparations for the Last Supper. He is most probably the one described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” who was beside Him at that meal as is seen on every painting and tapestry. It was to John that Jesus entrusted the care of his mother with the words, “Here is your mother”. He arrived first at the empty tomb and saw and believed what had happened.
John became a leading figure in the early Christian Church in Jerusalem. He accompanied Peter on a missionary trip to Samaria and laid hands on new converts. Thereafter it is likely that John travelled extensively as a missionary of the Gospel eventually settling in Ephesus for the long term. There is a testimony that John survived until the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan which was between 98 and 117AD. That might have made John very old. This John wrote the Gospel and the epistles of John and also the Book of Revelation. Some scholars like to disagree with these probabilities but there are certain things which may encourage us to accept the orthodox view. John was a person of spiritual sensitivity, an inner person rather than a physical extrovert such as Peter. He had had his mind and heart and soul opened up by Jesus. St John’s Gospel uniquely describes long explanations by Jesus about His inner consciousness. These could only have come from private discussions and conversations. There was a spiritual affinity. There was a deeper awareness and understanding. All of that is commensurate with this John. The Book of Revelation is of a wholly different character to the Gospel of John but it was written many years after and was the recording of vivid spiritual experience. It was also written by a man under persecution for being Christian. There is a coincidence and a consistency between the character of John the disciple, John the evangelist and John the visionary. They make sense of one person’s extraordinary life. If you follow Jesus he will take you a long way.
We learn a lot from looking at the lives of these three men, Peter, James and John. Peter was a strong personality given to conflicting emotions. He struggled with the cost of being a Christian and was reluctant to give up his secure life and living for an eternal hope. However, he led the early Church through immediate persecution and thereafter to expansion and establishment. It is more than likely that in the end he gave his life for his Lord. James was not so influential but he too made a long spiritual journey from being an angry young man, a nationalist and a political dreamer - to being a leader in the early Christian Church and losing his life while being non-violent for being a follower of Jesus. John was the beautiful thinker of early Christianity. No-one entered into the mind of Jesus as John did and no-one encapsulates the scale of Christian experience as he does.
How has God led you throughout your life from your earliest days to where you are now? Has your spiritual journey been one of growth and enlargement of understanding? Do you see a pattern and providence? Are you happy with it? Are you disappointed or regretful? Are you fulfilled in your Christian life and experience? Have you been faithful to Jesus Christ? Are you now? Will you trust Him for the future?