Twelve Ordinary Men, Week 18

Twelve Ordinary Men  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  50:34
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The final group of four apostles is the least known to us, except for Judas Iscariot, who made himself notorious by selling Christ to be crucified. This group seems to have been less intimate with Christ than the other eight disciples. They are virtually silent in the Gospel narratives. Little is known about any of them, except the fact that they were appointed to be apostles. We’ll deal with three of them in this chapter, and save Judas Iscariot, the traitor, for the final chapter.
It must be borne in mind that the apostles were men who gave up everything to follow Christ. Peter spoke for them all when he said, “See, we have left all and followed You” (Luke 18:28).
Luke 18:28 ESV
28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.”
They had left houses, jobs, lands, family, and friends to follow Christ. Their sacrifice was heroic. With the exception of Judas Iscariot, they all became valiant and intrepid witnesses.
We don’t actually see much of their heroism in the Gospel records, because the Gospel writers—two of them apostles (Matthew and John) and the other two (Mark and Luke) close friends of apostles—honestly portrayed their weaknesses as well as their strengths. The apostles are not presented to us as mythic figures, but as real people. They are not depicted as prominent celebrities, but as ordinary men. That is why, as far as the Gospel accounts are concerned, the apostles give color and life to the descriptions of Jesus’ life, but they are rarely in the foreground. They are never major role players.
When they do come to the foreground, it is often to manifest doubt, disbelief, or confusion. Sometimes we see them thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to think. Sometimes they speak when they ought to remain silent and seem clueless about things they ought to have understood. Sometimes they exhibit more confidence in their own abilities and their own strengths than they should. So their shortcomings and weaknesses show up more often than their strengths. In that sense, the raw honesty of the Gospel accounts is amazing.
Meanwhile, there are very few manifestations of any great acts by the apostles. We are told that they were empowered to heal, raise the dead, and cast out demons, but even that is narrated in such a way as to highlight the apostles’ imperfections (cf. Mark 9:14–29).
Mark 9:17–18 (ESV)
17 ...“Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute.
18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”
The one place in all the Gospels where a specific apostle does something truly extraordinary is when Peter began to walk on water—but he immediately found himself sinking.
The Gospel records simply do not portray these men as heroes. Their heroism played out after Jesus went back to heaven, sent the Holy Spirit, and empowered them. Suddenly we begin to see them acting differently. They are strong and courageous. They perform great miracles. They preach with a newfound boldness. But even then, the biblical record is sparse. Primarily, all we see are Peter, John, and later the apostle Paul (who was added to their number as “one born out of due time”—1 Corinthians 15:8). The rest of them went on into obscurity.
The legacy of their true greatness is the church, a living, breathing organism which they helped found and of which they became the very foundation stones (“Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone”—Ephesians 2:20). The church, now some two thousand years old, exists today because these men launched the expansion of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. And their heroism will be rewarded and commemorated throughout eternity in the New Jerusalem, where their names will be permanently etched into the foundation of that city.
The Gospels are the record of how Jesus trained them. Scripture deliberately records more about Jesus and His teaching than it does about the lives of these men. It all serves to remind us that the Lord loves to use weak and common people. If the faults and character flaws of the apostles seem like a mirror of your own weaknesses, take heart. These are the kinds of people the Lord delights to use.
The one thing that set these men apart from others in the Gospel accounts was the durability of their faith. Nowhere does this come through more clearly than in John 6, shortly after the feeding of the five thousand, when crowds of people began to flock around Jesus, hoping for more free food. At that very point, Jesus began to preach a message that many found shocking and offensive. He described Himself as the true manna from heaven (v. 32).
John 6:32 ESV
32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
That was shocking enough, because by describing Himself as having come down from heaven (v. 41),
John 6:41 ESV
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
He was claiming to be God. The Jewish leaders and the people understood this correctly as a claim of deity (v. 42). John 6:42
John 6:42 ESV
42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus responded by saying again that He was the true bread of life (v. 48).
John 6:48 ESV
48 I am the bread of life.
He then added that He would give His flesh for the life of the world, and said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (vv. 54–56).
John 6:54–56 ESV
54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
Obviously, He was not talking about literal cannibalism; He was using vivid imagery to speak of the absolute commitment He required of His followers.
John writes, “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’ ” (v. 60).
John 6:60 ESV
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
The word “disciples” in that verse refers to the larger group of followers who followed Jesus, not the Twelve in particular. John goes on to say, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more”.
John 6:66 ESV
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.
On that very day, many of the dozens of disciples who had sat under Jesus’ teaching and witnessed His miracles stopped following Him. His sayings were too hard and His demands too rigorous for them. But not the Twelve. They remained resolutely with Jesus.
And as the crowd dissipated in shock, Jesus looked around at the Twelve and said, “Do you also want to go away?” (v. 67).
John 6:67 ESV
67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”
Now was the time to leave, if they were inclined to do so.
Peter spoke for the group when he answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68).
John 6:68 ESV
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,
They were staying with Him no matter what. Except for Judas Iscariot, they were men of true faith.
Jesus knew all along that some of His disciples were not true believers, and He knew that Judas would betray Him. He told them, “ ‘But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him” (v. 64).
John 6:64 ESV
64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)
In verse 70, He answers Peter, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” He knew their hearts. Except for Judas, they had made the break with their past permanently. They had given up everything to follow Jesus.
John 6:70 ESV
70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.”
That is the single most heroic fact about them revealed in the Gospels. And Judas’s failure to make that commitment, while pretending that he had, was what made him so despicable.
As we examine this last group of apostles, we discover that although Scripture says very little about them, they nonetheless have their own distinctions.

James, Son of Alphaeus

The ninth name in Luke’s list of the apostles (Luke 6:14–16) is “James the son of Alphaeus” (v. 15).
Luke 6:14–16 ESV
14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
The only thing Scripture tells us about this man is his name. If he ever wrote anything, it is lost to history. If he ever asked Jesus any questions or did anything to stand out from the group, Scripture does not record it. He never attained any degree of fame or notoriety. He was not the kind of person who stands out. He was utterly obscure. He even had a common name.
There are several men with the name James in the New Testament. We have already met James the son of Zebedee. There was another James, who was the son of Mary and Joseph and therefore a half brother of Christ (Galatians 1:19). The James who was Jesus’ half brother apparently became a leader in the Jerusalem church. He was the spokesman who delivered the ruling at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:13–21. He is also thought to be the same James who penned the New Testament epistle that bears his name. He is not the same James named as one of the apostles in the third band of four.
Practically all we know about the James with whom we are concerned is that he was the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
Matthew 10:3 ESV
3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;
Mark 3:18 ESV
18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot,
Luke 6:15 ESV
15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot,
Acts 1:13 ESV
13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.
In Mark 15:40, we learn that James’s mother was (one of the other) named Mary. That verse, together with Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:47 mention another of this woman’s sons, Joses. Joses must have been well-known as a follower of the Lord (though not an apostle), because his name is mentioned repeatedly. Their mother, Mary, was obviously a devoted follower of Christ as well. She was an eyewitness to the crucifixion. She is also one of the women who came to prepare Jesus’ body for burial (Mark 16:1).
Mark 16:1 ESV
1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
Aside from those scant details that can be gleaned about his family, this James is utterly obscure. His lack of prominence is even reflected in his nickname. In Mark 15:40 he is referred to as “James the Less.”
Mark 15:40 ESV
40 There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.
The Greek word for “Less” is mikros. It literally means “little.” Its primary meaning is “small in stature,” so it could refer to his physical features. Perhaps he was a short or small-framed man.
The word can also speak of someone who is young in age. He might have been younger than James the son of Zebedee, so that this title would distinguish him as the younger of the two. In fact, even if this is not what his nickname mainly referred to, it is probably true that he was younger than the other James; otherwise he would more likely have been known as “James the Elder.”
But the name most likely refers to his influence. As we have already seen, James the son of Zebedee was a man of prominence. His family was known to the high priest (John 18:15–16). He was part of the Lord’s most intimate inner circle. He was the better-known of the two Jameses. Therefore, James the son of Alphaeus was known as “James the Less.” Mikros. “Little James.”
It may well be that all these things were true of James, so that he was a small, young, quiet person who stayed mostly in the background. That would all be consistent with the low profile he had among the Twelve. We might say his distinguishing mark was his obscurity.
That in itself is a significant fact. Apparently he sought no recognition. He displayed no great leadership. He asked no critical questions. He demonstrated no unusual insight. Only his name remains, while his life and his labors are immersed in obscurity.
But he was one of the Twelve. The Lord selected him for a reason, trained and empowered him like the others, and sent him out as a witness. He reminds me of those unnamed people mentioned in Hebrews 11:33–38:
… who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
Eternity will reveal the names and the testimonies of these, like James the Less, whom this world barely remembers and knows nothing about.
Early church history is also mostly silent about this man named James. Some of the earliest legends about him confuse him with James the brother of the Lord. There is some evidence that James the Less took the gospel to Syria and Persia. Accounts of his death differ. Some say he was stoned; others say he was beaten to death; still others say he was crucified like his Lord.
In any case, we can be certain that he became a powerful preacher like the others. He surely performed “the signs of an apostle … in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (2 Corinthians 12:12). And His name will be inscribed on one of the gates of the heavenly city.
2 Corinthians 12:12 ESV
12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.
Here’s an interesting thought about James, son of Alphaeus: You may recall that according to Mark 2:14, Levi (Matthew) was the son of a man named Alphaeus as well. It could be that this James was the brother of Matthew. After all, Peter and Andrew were brothers and James and John were brothers. Why not these two? There is no effort on the part of Scripture to distinguish between the two Alphaeuses. On the other hand, Matthew and James are nowhere identified as brothers. We simply don’t know whether they were or not.
Another interesting question about James’s lineage comes to light when we compare Mark 15:40 with John 19:25. Both verses mention two other Marys who were standing by the cross of Jesus with Mary the Lord’s mother. Mark 15:40 mentions “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses.” John 19:25 names “[Jesus’] mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Jesus’ mother’s sister (“Mary the wife of Clopas”) and “Mary the mother of James the less” are the same person. (“Clopas” may have been another name for Alphaeus, or James’s mother might have remarried after his father died). That would have made James the Less Jesus’ cousin.
Was James the cousin of our Lord? Was he the brother of Matthew? We don’t know. Scripture doesn’t expressly tell us. The disciples’ importance did not stem from their pedigree. Had that been important, Scripture would have recorded it for us. What made these men important was the Lord whom they served and the message they proclaimed. If we lack details about the men themselves, that is OK. Heaven will reveal the full truth of who they were and what they were like. In the meantime, it is enough to know that they were chosen by the Lord, empowered by the Spirit, and used by God to carry the gospel to the world of their day.
All the men themselves more or less disappear from the biblical narrative within a few years after Pentecost. In no case does Scripture give us a full biography. That is because Scripture always keeps the focus on the power of Christ and the power of the Word, not the men who were merely instruments of that power. These men were filled with the Spirit and they preached the Word. That is all we really need to know. The vessel is not the issue; the Master is.
No one epitomizes that truth better than James the Less, son of Alphaeus. He may have been able to claim that he was Matthew’s brother or Jesus’ cousin, but he went quietly unnoticed through the entire Gospel narrative. This world remembers next to nothing about him. But in eternity, he will receive a full reward (Mark 10:29–31).
John F. MacArthur Jr., Twelve Ordinary Men: How the Master Shaped His Disciples for Greatness, and What He Wants to Do with You (Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group, 2002), 168–174.
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