Written by Don Closson
This article is also available in Spanish.
Don Closson examines the ministry and role of the four most prominent apostles, Peter, Andrew, John and James. He shows how these primary apostles were changed from fishermen into true fishers of men through the power of the Lord.
Matthew 10:2-4 records:
These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Christians hold in high esteem (excluding Judas Iscariot) those who were personally called by Jesus and who walked with Him during His ministry on Earth. That is especially true of the twelve Apostles. The Greek words used for apostle convey both the notions of sending or dispatching (apostolos) as well as the idea of commissioning someone with divine authorization (apostello). The idea of apostleship might be traced back to the Hebrew notion of an envoy. This Jewish institution would have been familiar to Jesus and is well documented in the rabbinic writings where it refers to “one who has been authorized to carry out certain functions on behalf of another.” A well-known Jewish adage is “a man’s envoy is as himself.”
It is interesting to note that Jesus called to Himself those whom He wished (Mark 3:13-14). There were no volunteers. They were to travel, share food, and live with Jesus, experiencing firsthand His life and ministry. They were then sent out to proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, and that they had been commissioned to act as Jesus’ representatives with His authority.
Lists of the Twelve are found in four places in the New Testament, and comparisons of the lists can reveal important information about the apostles. Peter is always mentioned first and Judas Iscariot last. The twelve are also listed in three groups of four, the first four always being Peter, Andrew, James, and John. This group of four apostles had a special relationship with Christ and will be the focus of this article.
Another interesting insight into the make-up of the group can be found in the process used to replace Judas Iscariot after his death. The first chapter of Acts states that Judas’ replacement must have accompanied the apostles from the beginning. In other words, he must have been present at John’s baptism of Christ and still around to see Jesus’ ascension into heaven. It was also noted that he must have been an eyewitness to the resurrection. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the life, teachings, miracles, and finally the death and resurrection of our Lord. This was essential for them to have a clear and accurate testimony of the Messiah.
In this article we will look at the inner circle of Christ’s apostles: Peter, Andrew, James and John. We will see how God changed the lives of these ordinary men forever.
The Apostle Peter
In every one of the four lists of the Apostles found in the New Testament, Peter is always mentioned first. Peter is often called the primus inter pares or the first among equals. It is obvious that he plays a leadership role among his fellow apostles and is recognized by Christ as a foundation of the church. Although we might debate what this leadership role is, we cannot deny its existence.
The New Testament gives Peter four names. His Hebrew name was Symeon, which in Greek is Simon. Peter was probably a bilingual Jew who was influenced by the Greek culture in Galilee at the time. John records that Jesus gave him the Aramaic name Cephas which translates as Peter in Greek and means “a rock.” This new name given by Jesus is an indication of how Peter would change while under the Lord’s influence. Peter’s early impetuousness would be transformed into that of a stable, charismatic witness for Christ.
Unlike many of the other Apostles, the New Testament gives us some background information about Peter’s family life. His father’s name was Jonah or John and we know that he was married. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14), and Paul mentions that Peter took his wife with him on journeys to various churches (1 Cor. 9:5). Peter probably lived with his brother, Andrew, in Bethsaida and later moved to Capernaum as he followed Jesus in ministry.
Peter became a disciple in the very early days of Jesus’ ministry. John mentions an early encounter with Jesus after Andrew introduces the two. Later, perhaps a year or so, Matthew and Mark record Jesus calling Peter to full-time ministry as a fisher of men.
As an apostle, Peter plays a significant role among the Twelve. Peter is often singled out and the rest are mentioned as a group with him (Mark 1:36). He also acts as a spokesman for the group. In Luke 12 he asks Jesus about the meaning of a parable. In Matthew 16 he affirms Jesus as the Messiah, and then in chapter 19 he reminds Jesus of the sacrifices made by the apostles as a group. He is often the first to act as well. Matthew 14 records Peter’s attempt to meet Jesus on the water, even though he loses heart midway.
Peter’s leadership role lends added significance to a number of events in the Bible. For instance, the detail given of Peter’s denial of Jesus has its impact precisely because of Peter’s prominence in the group. Also, the account in John chapter 21 of Jesus questioning Peter’s love and admonishing him to “feed my sheep” takes on poignancy.
The Apostle Peter and His Brother Andrew
The Roman Catholic Church has long used Matthew 16:17-19 as justification for the office of the Pope and the succession of popes starting with Peter. Protestants have reacted by tending to downplay Peter’s significance as a leader among the apostles and any special office that he might hold in the body of Christ. As I mentioned previously, Peter is clearly represented as the leader of the apostles. However, the use of this passage in Matthew to justify the modern office of the Pope reads too much into the Scriptures.
For instance, Matthew 16 says nothing about Peter’s successors, their infallibility, or their authority. Part of the problem with ascribing these attributes to Peter’s successor is that he would have had authority over a still living apostle, John. Peter is the first to make a formal confession of faith (Matt. 16:16), but he continues on as a very fallible part of the team Christ has assembled. He is sent, along with John, by the apostles to Samaria, when word had come that some had accepted the word of God there. In Acts 11 the church in Jerusalem took issue with Peter’s entering a gentile’s home. Although they eventually agreed with his explanation, they still had the authority to question Peter’s actions. In Galatians, Paul writes that he rebuked Peter to his face for separating himself from the Gentiles when accompanied by Jews from Jerusalem (Galatians 2:11). The New Testament allows us to claim Peter as the leader of the apostles, but not the first in a line of infallible popes.
Where Peter is outspoken and prominent, his brother Andrew was happy to play a background role among the Twelve. Andrew worked in his father’s fishing business with Peter in Bethsaida and probably shared a home with Peter until Peter’s marriage.
Although Andrew is listed as one of the inner circle closest to Jesus, we do not have a lot of information about his ministry. He is first mentioned as a follower of John the Baptist. When John directs his followers towards Jesus, Andrew is quick to seek time with the Lord. After listening to Jesus for a few hours, Andrew is convinced that Jesus is the messiah and immediately begins to tell others, starting with his brother Peter.
Andrew has been called “the apostle who shared Christ personally.” Andrew was recorded as one who brought people to Christ. First he brings Peter to the Lord, then at Passover he introduces searching Greek Gentiles to Jesus. When food is needed to feed the multitude, Andrew brings a child with bread and fish.
Andrew may not have had the leadership qualities of his brother Peter. He is never noted for his eloquent speech or his bold actions. However, one can imagine Andrew’s heart when his brother, whom he introduced to the Lord, preached in the power of the Spirit in Jerusalem, resulting in thousands of new believers. Andrew may have played a background role among the inner circle of Christ’s followers, but it was a vital role just the same.
The Sons of Zebedee
James and John make up the other pair of brothers who were part of Christ’s inner circle. Like Peter and Andrew, they were also from Bethsaida and worked together with them in the fishing industry. They were known as the “sons of thunder” because of their fiery temperaments, which would occasionally give rise to some awkward moments (Mark 3:17). Their father, Zebedee, and mother, Salome, were probably well off materially. The family is mentioned to have had servants (Mark 1:20) and Salome ministered to Jesus with her resources (Matthew 27:55-56). John implies that Salome is Mary’s sister, making James and John cousins to Jesus (John 19:25).
Both James and John are members of the first group of four apostles, always mentioned first in lists of the Twelve. But they are also part of what might be called the inner three, those into whom Christ poured special time and teachings.
It is widely recognized that the designation “the disciple whom Jesus loved” refers to the apostle John. John stands out among the apostles as being the only one to have witnessed the crucifixion and afterwards, took Jesus’ mother home to live with him (John 19:25-27). He was also the first of the twelve to see the empty tomb.
John was first a follower of John the Baptist. That meant that he was seriously seeking God prior to meeting Jesus and was primed to make a commitment to the Messiah. He and Andrew had an early encounter with Jesus before becoming full time disciples. Both had spent time listening to the Lord and becoming convinced of His authenticity. While with Jesus, their temperaments became evident on a number of occasions. Luke describes an incident in which John asks Jesus if they should call down fire on a Samaritan village that had refused them hospitality (Luke 9:54). Having just experienced the transfiguration of Jesus, John was indignant at the lack of proper respect for his Lord.
There is also the well-known incident when Salome asks Jesus to place one of her sons at His right hand when He establishes His kingdom (Matthew 20:21). Jesus responds sharply to the request by telling them that they do not know what they are asking. He asks them, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22) With their typical bravado, they answer, “We can.” They were still hoping that Jesus was about to establish a political kingdom in Israel. They did not realize that His kingdom would begin with His sacrificial, atoning death on the cross. It is somewhat fitting that James becomes the first martyr from among the Twelve. Acts 12 records that Herod Agrippa had James put to death by the sword probably around 42 A.D. (Acts 12:2)
The apostle John was an interesting combination: the disciple Jesus loved, and yet one who could be intolerant and self-seeking. James would be the first to die a martyr, and yet his brother would live the longest of all the apostles. Next we will look at the legacy left by the inner circle of Jesus and what we can learn from their lives.
The Legacy of Those Closest to Jesus
John writes in Revelation 21:10, 14:
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. . . . The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Whether this verse refers to an actual city as many argue, or to the church or body of Christ, as others hold, it portrays the remarkable honor allotted to the Twelve Apostles. And among the Twelve, Jesus poured His life into an inner circle that had a key role in establishing the church. Peter, Andrew, James and John were privileged to be with Jesus when He healed Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37), and at the Transfiguration of Christ (Mark 9:2). They were the audience at the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13:3) and were with Jesus during His time of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37).
These four men left quite a legacy. Peter is credited with providing the material for the book of Mark and the two epistles given his name. He was the leader of the church in Jerusalem during the first 15 years covered in the first twelve books of Acts, after which James, the brother of Jesus, took over. Peter then became a missionary to the Jews and to a lesser degree, the Gentiles. Although tradition gives Peter credit for leading the church at Rome, it is unlikely. Yet he did go there near the end of his ministry and probably suffered martyrdom there.
The last mention we have of Andrew is in the upper room with Jesus. The book of Acts is silent regarding him. Tradition has Andrew traveling as a missionary to Russia and meeting martyrdom by crucifixion at Patras in Greece around 60 A.D.
We know that James was the first of the Twelve to be put to death. Thus he left no writings. Tradition has it that the officer guarding James was so taken by his testimony that he repented and was beheaded with the apostle.
Finally, we have the apostle John. Along with internal evidence from the book of John, early church fathers Irenaeus and Polycrates identify the apostle John as the “disciple Jesus loved.” Having lived the life of an apostle the longest, John wrote the fourth gospel, the remarkable book of Revelation, and three epistles to the church. Of all Christ’s followers, John conveys the majesty of Christ the most clearly. According to tradition, John spent his last days in Ephesus, traveling there after the death of Domitian (who had exiled him to the Isle of Patmos). John’s followers, Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius, would become pillars in Christ’s church, just as John had been.
Ordinary fishermen, these four men are a testimony to the life changing impact that walking with our Savior can have on anyone who chooses to be His disciple.
©2001 Probe Ministries.