Jesus built the church on the foundation of 12 disciples. These ordinary men walked with Jesus for more than three years. Professionally, they ran the gamut. Some were fishermen, and one was even a hated tax collector.
Throughout the Gospels, we witness their humanity in their struggles, failures, and triumphs. And after Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, these 12 men would turn the world upside down.
Let's take a look at these disciples:
Of all the apostles, Peter is the most prominent. Whenever the apostles are listed, Peter's name tends to come first (Matthew 10:2, Mark 3:16, Luke 6:14, Acts 1:13). He's brash, impulsive, and courageous. And of all the disciples, the Gospels focus on his words and reactions the most.
Jesus chooses Peter
When he's first introduced to Jesus, Peter is known by the name "Simon." And it's Jesus who changes his name to Peter, meaning "rock" (John 1:42). Luke's Gospel tells us about one of the first encounters Peter has with the Lord:
He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."
Simon answered, "Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets."
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus's knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, "Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people." So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him (Luke 5:3–11).
The Lord tells the fisherman that He intends to make them fishers of people (Matthew 4:19), and after this one encounter, Peter is ready to leave behind his profession for good.
Identifying with Peter's character
It's easy to identify with Peter. His courage, enormous heart, and recklessness are on full display throughout the Gospel narratives. In a single moment, Peter could swing between emotions.
In one episode, Peter responds to seeing Jesus walking on water by asking the Lord to call him out to do the same. When Jesus does, Peter walks on water for a moment, but panic sets in and he begins to sink (Matthew 14:22–31). But it's episodes like this that endear Peter to us—we recognize our own foibles in him.
Peter's deciding moment
During the last supper, Jesus predicts that Peter will betray Him three times. The disciple assures Jesus that this will never happen. And as you can imagine, it's precisely what happens.
While the high priest is trying Jesus, Peter is recognized as one of His followers three different times. Every time someone asks Peter if he knows the Lord, he denies it. When Peter realizes that he has betrayed Jesus, he's heartbroken (Luke 22:54–62).
John's Gospel tells us how Christ restores Peter after the resurrection.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!" (John 21:15–19)
Pillar of the church
When the Holy Spirit is unleashed in the second chapter of Acts, Peter preaches the first evangelistic sermon. More than 3,000 people are baptized into the church that day. And in a moment, this rash disciple becomes a central pillar of the early church.
Scholars believe that Mark draws his Gospel from Peter's reminiscence. Early church fathers confirm this to be true. In his treaty, "Against Heresies," Irenaeus tells us: "Matthew composed his gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome and founded the community. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form."
Peter also contributed two of his own books to the New Testament: First and Second Peter. He wrote these as letters to Christians scattered across the Roman Empire.
Andrew, the brother of Peter
When we see Andrew mentioned in the Gospels, he's usually listed after his brother Peter. This seems to suggest that Andrew was Peter's younger brother. And like Peter, Andrew was a fisherman.
One of Jesus' first followers
Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist and one of the first to follow Jesus. John's Gospel tells us how he met the Christ:
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!" When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?"
They said, "Rabbi (which means "Teacher"), where are you staying?"
"Come," He replied, "and you will see."
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, "We have found the Messiah" (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus (John 1:35–42).
No matter where Andrew fell in the birth order, he could take pride in being the person that introduced Peter to Jesus. For this reason, the Orthodox church gave Andrew the Greek name Protokletos, meaning "first-called."
Andrew brought people to the Lord
The fact that Andrew brings Peter to Jesus seems to reveal something important about Andrew’s nature. When we see Andrew in John's Gospel, he's introducing someone new to Jesus. John tells us that the miracle of feeding 5,000 happens because Andrew brings Jesus the boy with the bread and fish (John 6:8–9). Later, Andrew and Philip bring some curious Greeks to Jesus (John 12:20–22).
James, son of Zebedee
Jesus gave James and his brother John the nickname "Sons of Thunder." Although the Bible doesn't explicitly explain why they were given this nickname, it's possible that it was related to their personalities.
In the ninth chapter of Luke, we see Samaritan villagers refusing to welcome Jesus overnight. When James and John hear about this, their first question is "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" (Luke 9:54)
Jesus rebukes them—but could this story reveal boisterous character traits that would lead to them be called "Sons of Thunder"? It's possible.
Part of Christ's inner circle
Along with Peter and John, James is a member of Jesus's inner circle. This closeness to Jesus gives him front-row seats to the raising of Jairus's daughter (Mark 5:37) and the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–9). It also means that he was with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night the Lord was arrested (Matthew 26:36–37).
But of those closest to Jesus, James is the disciple that we know the least about.
The first martyred disciple
In the seventh chapter of Acts, we see Stephen become the first Christian martyr. But of the disciples, it's James who is the first one killed. Luke, the author of Acts, gives us the details:
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword (Acts 12:1–2).
According to tradition, the apostle John is the author of a Gospel, three Epistles, and Revelation. After Luke and Paul, John is the most prolific author in the New Testament.
The disciple Jesus loved
Like his brother, James, and Peter, John was uniquely close to Jesus. But their friendship seemed to be particularly close. Many times in his Gospel, John mentions a specific disciple whom Jesus loved. It’s traditionally accepted that John was identifying himself.
After He had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, "Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me."
His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, "Ask him which one he means."
Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?" (John 13:21–25, emphasis added)
John's long life
Another time John refers to himself as "the disciple Jesus loved," it's during a discussion Jesus has with Peter about martyrdom. The Lord hints at the death that Peter will experience, and John goes on to tell us:
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"
Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" (John 21:20–23)
Tradition tells us that John lived into old age and died around 100 A.D.
Unlike many of the apostles who came to Jesus through an introduction, Jesus seeks Philip out. John tells us that on His way to Galilee, He approached Philip and said, "Follow me" (John 1:43). Philip then finds Nathaniel and tells him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (John 1:45).
Pragmatic and sincere
Before miraculously feeding the 5,000 with a handful of fish and bread, Jesus tested Philip:
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, He said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Philip answered him, "It would take more than half a year's wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite" (John 6:5–7).
Philip looked at the situation and responded practically. Most of us probably would have had a similar response. But the fact that Philip responded to the situation in a level-headed, sensible manner doesn’t mean that he didn't have a sensitive heart that sought after the Lord.
Before His crucifixion, Jesus was teaching the disciples:
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."
Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us" (John 14:6–8).
Jesus goes on to chastise Philip for not recognizing the relationship He shared with the Father. But Philip's statement is still a glimpse into a heart that longed for God above all.
It's interesting to note that Bartholomew is mentioned in the synoptic Gospels, but not in the Gospel of John. In John's gospel, we find the name Nathaniel in Bartholomew's place. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Bartholomew's name tends to follow Philip's. John follows up Philip's name with Nathaniel, and never mentions Bartholomew.
The church has always assumed that they're the same person.
Bartholomew's change of heart
We don't know much about Bartholomew, but we are given a telling glimpse into his personality. When Philip tells his friend that he's found the one talked about by Moses and the prophets, Bartholomew (Nathaniel) scoffs:
"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked.
"Come and see," said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit."
"How do you know me?" Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you."
Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel" (John 1:46–49).
It only took a moment of exposure to Jesus for Bartholomew to realize that Philip was absolutely right. They had found the Messiah.
It's rather unfortunate that church history has saddled this disciple with the nickname "doubting Thomas." Although this nickname springs from a story in John's Gospel, it shouldn't necessarily be Thomas's defining quality.
After His friend Lazarus died, Jesus told His disciples that they needed to return to Judea to visit his grave. The disciples aren't enthusiastic about this idea. After all, the Jews had just tried to kill Jesus.
It's Thomas who responds valiantly, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16).
Maybe instead of "doubting Thomas," we should call him "Thomas the lionhearted."
Thomas demands proof
It's obvious that Thomas's nickname comes from his response to Christ's resurrection. When Jesus appears to the disciples, Thomas isn't among them. When the disciples come to tell him that they've seen the Lord, Thomas communicates his doubt, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25b).
The critical element in this exchange isn't necessarily Thomas' uncertainty. It's the fact that Jesus comes to meet Thomas where he is. He doesn't scold the disciple for not believing. Instead, He allows Thomas to touch the scars and encourages him to have faith.
Thomas responds instantly with worship, "My Lord and My God" (John 20:28).
It's commonly accepted that the apostle Matthew authored the Gospel which bears his name. This is particularly interesting because when Matthew lists the disciples, he calls himself Matthew the tax collector (Matthew 10:3).
The reason this is interesting is that Jewish society hated Jews that collected taxes for the Roman government. Not only were they seen as collaborators with Rome, but they also took more than they needed and pocketed the surplus. This is why you often see the words tax-gatherers and sinners used together.
Matthew doesn't make his affiliation a secret. In fact, he tells the story of being called by Jesus:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. "Follow me," He told him, and Matthew got up and followed him (Matthew 9:9).
Both Mark and Luke tell a similar story about a tax collector named Levi (Mark 2:14–15, Luke 5:27–29). This is why it's widely believed that Levi was another name that Matthew went by.
Matthew throws a party
From this follow-up story, we can see why it's so important to Matthew to make his readers aware of his background:
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:10–13).
Matthew was one of those undesirables who needed Jesus, and he didn't want anyone to forget it.
James, son of Alphaeus
Of all the apostles, James is one of the most obscure. We don't have a lot of information about him. He is known as the son of Alphaeus. We also know that Matthew's father was named Alphaeus as well (Mark 2:14).
The likelihood that they're brothers is pretty slim, however. When Matthew lists the apostles, he identifies the siblings. But he doesn't say that he and James are brothers.
James the Lesser
To distinguish him from James, the brother of John, this son of Alphaeus has come to be known as "James the Lesser." But this doesn't necessarily mean that this James was less important. It's likely that he was younger or even smaller than the son of Zebedee.
Of all the disciples, Thaddeus can be the most confusing. Many of the apostles are known by multiple names, but it gets pretty complicated when it comes to this disciple. Matthew (10:3) and Mark (3:18) both call him Thaddeus—but in the King James and New King James translations, they call him Labbaeus.
Luke calls him Judas, but he wants to be sure we don't confuse him with the more notorious disciple: "Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor" (Luke 6:16). John's Gospel also calls him Judas: "Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, 'But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world'" (John 14:22)?
Simon the Zealot
We don't have a lot of information about Simon. It's interesting that he's differentiated from Simon Peter with the nickname "the zealot." But what does that mean? It's hard to believe that someone could outdo Peter in zeal.
Scholars still debate what the Gospel writers meant by calling Simon a zealot. It could be that he was a member of the radical, nationalistic, Roman-hating Zealot party. If that's the case, it's interesting that Jesus would have pulled him into the same circle of disciples that included a tax collector (Matthew). That would have made for some tense fireside discussions.
But it's entirely possible that Simon earned this nickname as an extremely fervent disciple.
Either way, this descriptor is one of the few hints we have about this disciple's personality.
There might not be a more infamous character in Scripture—and rightly so. Judas betrays Jesus to the authorities for a mere thirty pieces of silver. It's on account of this betrayal that Jesus is crucified.
While the Gospels don't give us a lot of stories about Judas, they do provide little glimpses into his character. Here are a few details we know about Judas:
- He didn't care about the poor—and he was a thief. When he complains about Mary's waste of expensive perfume that she used to anoint Jesus' feet, John tells us: "He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief" (John 12:6a).
- He was Jesus's treasurer. John goes on to tell us, "as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it" (John 12:6b)
- He was looking for monetary gain. When he goes to the chief priests to betray Jesus, he asks them, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?" (Matthew 26:15a)
- He was under the influence of Satan. After Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, we're told that he withdrew from Jesus until an opportune time (Luke 4:13). Judas provided that opportunity. Luke tells us, "Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve" (Luke 22:3).
- He betrayed Jesus with an act of friendship. It's bad enough to betray your Lord, but Judas took it to another level. Judas tipped the authorities off by greeting Jesus with a kiss (Luke 22:48).
Once Jesus is arrested and it's evident that He's going to be killed, Judas feels incredibly guilty. He tries to give the money back to the chief priests, but in a strange case of false piety, they refuse it as "blood money."
Judas throws the money in the temple and flees. And in his depressed state, Judas hangs himself (Matthew 27:3–5).
Don't forget Matthias, Paul, Barnabas!
After Jesus's resurrection, the disciples met in Jerusalem and nominated two possible replacements for Judas. One was Joseph (Barsabbas), and the other was Matthias. They drew lots for the two and the lot fell to Matthias, making him the new twelfth apostle (Acts 1:12–26). But that's all we know about this apostle.
Even though they were never disciples, Paul and Barnabas are both considered apostles, too (Acts 14:14). The word apostle means "one who is sent." In Acts, Luke refers to both Paul and Barnabas as apostles, but he goes out of his way to differentiate them from the original apostles (Acts 6:2).
The disciples changed the world
Because of their exposure to Jesus, these men spread the gospel all over the world. Out of all of them, only John was not put to death for his faith. It's incredibly inspiring that these guys were able to do so much under seemingly impossible odds—and the church continues their work today.
For more about continuing the work of the disciples go to Cru.org and learn about our mission trips.
All Scripture references quote the New International Version unless otherwise noted.