When Jesus told his disciples to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” do you think they saw themselves as the answer to that prayer? That appears to be the point Matthew makes in his Gospel. How so? Because he follows that command to pray by describing how Jesus took action in calling, equipping, and sending the twelve out on mission. While this clearly demonstrates the sovereignty of Jesus, let’s see what we can learn about the twelve apostles with these notes from James Boice in the Boice Expositional Commentary.

Jesus Takes Action

A need has been perceived and described, and we have been told to pray for a solution: “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (v. 38). What more can we do? We have been told to pray, so we pray. That is the end of it. Ah, but it is not. What strikes us at this point is that having instructed his disciples to pray and undoubtedly having prayed himself, Jesus also took action. He placed “the very men who had been urged to pray that the Lord of the harvest might thrust out laborers into his harvest … in the forefront of these laborers.”

Matthew 10:1 says, “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” This is the first time Matthew has specifically mentioned “the Twelve” (“twelve disciples” in verse 1 and “twelve apostles” in verse 2; cf. 4:18–22; 9:9). A list of the twelve apostles is found three other places in the New Testament: Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:13–16; and Acts 1:13. Matthew is unique in that he is the only one to introduce the twelve apostles in six pairs—(1) Peter and Andrew, (2) James and John, (3) Philip and Bartholomew, (4) Thomas and Matthew, (5) James and Thaddaeus, and (6) Simon and Judas. This may reflect the fact that, according to Mark, the twelve were originally sent out in pairs to do their work (Mark 6:7).

The Twelve Apostles

Peter and Andrew

Peter is always placed first in the lists of apostles, which must reflect that he was a true leader. He was not over the others; they only had one master, who was Jesus. But Peter was primus inter pares (“a first among equals”). Peter and his brother Andrew were fishermen. They came from Bethsaida (John 1:44), and they were both probably followers of John the Baptist before Jesus called them (see John 1:35–42). Jesus gave Simon the name Cephas (an Aramaic word that is the equivalent of “Peter” in Greek), meaning “rock.” We are told more about Peter in the New Testament than about any other apostle.

Andrew is not as prominent as his outspoken and impetuous brother, but he is important. He is often seen bringing others to Jesus, including Peter himself (John 1:40–42; 6:8–9; 12:20–22).

James and John

James and John were a second set of prominent brothers, and, like the first two brothers, they also were fishermen. Their father was Zebedee, and the family was wealthy enough to employ other workers (Mark 1:20) and to help support Jesus and his disciples (Matt. 27:56). It was Zebedee’s wife who did this, and her name was probably Salome (compare Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; 16:1). She was concerned about her sons’ future roles and did not hesitate to ask that they might have the two most prominent places in Jesus’ kingdom (Matt. 20:20–21). Jesus called James and John “Boanerges” (sons of “thunder”) probably because of their intense and vehement personalities. On one occasion they wanted to destroy a Samaritan city that had rejected Jesus (Luke 9:51–56).

James was probably the older of the two, since he is always mentioned first. He was the first of the apostles to be martyred. He was killed by King Herod, who also arrested Peter when he saw that James’ execution pleased the Jews (Acts 12:1–2). John is more prominent. He appears frequently in the New Testament and was responsible for five of the New Testament books. Since James was the first of the apostles to be martyred and John seems to have lived longer than any of the others, dying on the island of Patmos at an advanced age, we are reminded that we cannot predict or explain God’s ways. God does one thing with one of his disciples and something quite different with another, for his own wise ends.

Philip and Bartholomew

Philip is a Greek name meaning “lover of horses.” He was from Bethsaida, as were Peter and Andrew, and is mentioned mostly in John (see John 1:43–48; 6:5–7; 12:21–22; 14:8). Bartholomew is an Aramaic name meaning “son of Tolmai.” He seems to be the same person as Nathanael, who came from Cana (John 21:2) and is remembered most for Jesus’ tribute to him in John 1:47.

Thomas and Matthew

Thomas is also called Didymus, which means a “twin” (John 11:16; 21:2). He appears only in John (John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24–29). He is called “doubting Thomas” because of the incident in John 20, but he was also courageous (John 11:16), and it is his bright confession of faith that John uses to climax his Gospel (John 20:28). Matthew describes himself as “the tax collector,” thereby calling attention to the dishonorable business that had occupied him before Jesus’ call. His words are probably a humble acknowledgment of God’s grace to him. The other Gospels contain no such allusion.

James and Thaddaeus

The words “of Alphaeus” distinguish this James from James the son of Zebedee, who was the brother of John. We do not know much about him. However, Matthew’s father was also called Alphaeus (Mark 2:14), and if this is the same Alphaeus, Matthew and James would have been a third set of brothers. By elimination, Thaddaeus is probably Jude (called “Judas, not Iscariot” in John 14:22). He may be the author of the book by that name. “Thaddaeus” means “beloved.” Only John 14:22 tells us anything about him.

Simon and Judas

The first of these names is actually “Simon the Cananaean,” the latter being an Aramaic word for “zealot,” which is what he is called explicitly by Luke (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). The Zealots were a party of nationalists, and therefore, “Simon the Zealot” is probably a reference to Simon’s past political associations. The epithet also distinguishes him from Simon Peter.

Last in every one of these four lists of apostles is Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. His second name, Iscariot, has been explained in various ways, some of them fanciful. But Iscariot was probably a place name, meaning one from Kerioth, a town in Judah. Judas was the treasurer of the band, but he was not honest (see John 12:6; 13:29), and he objected to Mary’s use of her valuable perfume to anoint Jesus (John 12:4–6). The account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is told in Matthew 26:14–56 (also Mark 14:10–50; Luke 22:3–53; John 13:2–30; 18:2–3), his suicide in Matthew 27:3–10 and Acts 1:15–19.

E Pluribus Unum

What strikes us most about these apostles is Jesus’ success at welding such widely diverse people into an amazingly influential band that he used to change the world profoundly, pervasively, and forever.

We cannot fail to be impressed with the majesty of the Savior, whose drawing power, incomparable wisdom, and matchless love were so astounding that he was able to gather round himself and to unite into one family men of entirely different, at times even opposite, backgrounds and temperaments. Included in this little band was Peter the optimist (Matt. 14:28; 26:33, 35), but also Thomas the pessimist (John 11:16; 20:24, 25); Simon the one-time Zealot, hating taxes and eager to overthrow the Roman government, but also Matthew, who had voluntarily offered his tax collecting services to that same Roman government; Peter, John, and Matthew, destined to become renowned through their writings, but also James the Less, who remains obscure but must have fulfilled his mission.”

William Hendriksen

If Jesus used disciples such as these, he can use you. He can draw you into that remarkably diverse band of people called the church. But remember, these disciples trusted Jesus and obeyed him. You must do that too.

Expositional Insights from the Boice Expositional Commentary

The Boice Expositional Commentary series contains 27 volumes of faithful exposition by James Montgomery Boice. These are great expositions that you can read right alongside your favorite Bible translation in the Olive Tree Bible App. Whether you’re reading these volumes for your own study, devotions, or in preparation for teaching, they will feed your desire to understand God’s word.

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