Take away the apostles and it’s unlikely that we would be Christians. Without these faithful and courageous men, we would not know the Good News nor Our Lord Jesus Christ. The original Twelve Apostles plus Paul and Matthias are the foundations of our faith. It was these men who spread the message of Jesus, sharing the story of his resurrection to most of the known world in the first century. Following Pentecost, they had an unwavering commitment to Christ, even willing to suffer and give up their lives for him; in fact, most died as martyrs.
Considering their importance, we know little about several of these men, and what we do know is based largely on tradition or legend. Some things we can surmise about them all are based on Jewish culture; for example, the teacher (Jesus) was always older than the student, so the apostles were likely under the age of 30 and some may have been teenagers. Being young and fishermen, they were probably in good health, which was necessary to follow Jesus all around Galilee. Most were uneducated, except perhaps for Matthew, the tax collector. They were not well traveled, not sophisticated, and lived and worked locally. St Josemaría Escrivá wrote about them: “The apostles were mere fisherman. … They weren’t educated; they weren’t even very bright, if we judge from their reaction to supernatural things. … They were poor; they were ignorant.” Nevertheless, Jesus called them to be his witness to all mankind.
Name the apostles
At some point in every class for people going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), the attendees are asked to name the original apostles. Typically, someone responds: “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” there is a pause, “and Paul.” Many of the students, and other Christians, struggle naming the Twelve and frequently think that the Gospel writers were all apostles.
The apostles are: Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, John, Philip, Bartholomew (Nathanael), Thomas, Matthew (Levi), James the Less, Jude (Thaddeus), Simon and Judas, plus Matthias and Paul, who were not part of the Twelve. The three synoptic Gospel versions, plus the Book of Acts, confirm the selection of the original Twelve. Some of the names vary slightly, but they are the same individuals. According to the Gospel version of Matthew, it was Andrew, Peter, along with James and John, followed by Philip that were the first apostles selected. They were all fishermen; in fact, most of the Twelve were fishermen. They had that special virtue found in every fervent fisherman, the virtue of patience; they threw their lines or nets into the water and waited. This virtue would serve them when Christ called them to be fishers of men. After selecting those first five, Jesus next called Matthew, a tax collector, and then Bartholomew. The Gospel does not make specific mention of Jesus calling each of the other apostles, although they are named as a group in several places.
Jesus gifted the apostles
For three years the apostles lived with Jesus, listened to him, watched him perform miracles; they were being readied for a great mission. Jesus passed on his divine gifts, including forgiveness of sins, of healing, and turning the bread and wine into his body and blood, to the apostles. No ordinary person can give another his God-given talents. A great major league hitter can demonstrate and explain how to hit, but he cannot instill the talents only he possesses into another. A catechist can discuss how to pray, but the sincerity of the prayer must come from the individual offering the prayer. Jesus, however, was divine and even gave the apostles the words necessary to profess his Good News.
After issuing the Great Commission and just before he ascended back to the Father, he told them to wait in Jerusalem, for “the promise of the Father, about which you have heard me speak” (Acts 1:4). In sum, they wouldn’t be ready to carry out their mission until they received the Holy Spirit. Their first converts were all Jews; the apostles did not begin to evangelize to non-Jews until some 10 years later. They would have help from others such as Barnabas and Timothy in accomplishing this sacred work.
Jesus passed on his divine gifts, including forgiveness of sins, of healing, and turning the bread and wine into his body and blood, to the apostles.
These were imperfect men, and their defects surface throughout the Gospels: they sometimes doubted, denied, even betrayed Jesus; they were slow to understand and questioned some of his actions. Judas betrayed him and then went out and hanged himself. Peter denied the Lord three times. All except John abandoned Jesus during his passion. Thomas rejected the story that Christ was alive, and most did not believe the women on Easter morning that he was resurrected. Philip demonstrated a lack of faith questioning how Jesus could feed 5,000 people with a few fish. Only after the Resurrection were the apostles filled with unwavering faith and complete belief in Jesus.
Before Pentecost they had fled in fear; now they willingly praised his name to the ends of the earth even though in doing so they would be despised, beaten and imprisoned. They went most individually from Jerusalem to India through Persia, to Greece, Turkey, North Africa, the Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This is not a complete list of countries, but when you add on the efforts of St. Paul, who traveled and evangelized over 10,000 miles, including Europe, the apostles spread Christianity to most of the known world. Except for cities like Jerusalem, Antioch (Syria) and Rome, their work was done in small Christian communities where in many cases they gave up their lives. The Scriptures only tell the deaths of two apostles: St. James the Greater, who was murdered by Herod, and Judas, who hanged himself. From tradition and legends, we find that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, and nearby on about the same day, Paul was beheaded. Andrew was crucified hanging in the shape of an X, Bartholomew was flayed alive, Matthew was stoned and then beheaded, and Thomas was speared to death. All the apostles experienced martyrdom except for John, who died a normal death.
Soon Christianity was no longer a by-product of Judaism but growing into a universal (catholic) church. The apostles had to perform long and dangerous journeys, deal with many different cultures, and remain cognizant that the Romans and many Jews wanted to persecute them. But mostly wherever they went, they attracted people seeking to learn about the resurrected Christ, about his message of love, about eternal life. These holy men remain models for us.
These were imperfect men, and their defects surface throughout the Gospels: they sometimes doubted, denied, even betrayed Jesus; they were slow to understand and questioned some of his actions.
MEET THE APOSTLES
In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus initially met Peter, James and John at the Lake of Gennesaret where they had been fishing all night but with no catch. Jesus suggested the fishermen should lower their nets again. Peter complained because of their earlier experience but eventually agreed. Suddenly they had so many fish they couldn’t bring in the nets. Peter fell to his knees in front of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord for I am a sinful man.” Jesus told him not to be afraid, then said to the three fishermen, “‘from now on you will be catching men’ … they left everything and followed him” (Lk 5:8-11).
Peter demonstrated a lack of faith and even argued with Jesus on occasion. He showed little faith when he attempted to walk on the water toward Jesus; as long as his attention was on his savior, he was OK, but once he took his eyes off Jesus, he began to sink (cf. Mt 14:28-33). Peter argued with Jesus when he said he would be killed by the Jews and again when Jesus wanted to wash his feet. Along with James and John, Peter fell asleep during Christ’s agony in the garden. But for all these human flaws, Jesus saw Peter as the one to lead the Church by becoming the first pope. Peter not only evangelized the Jews but was responsible for the first Gentile conversion: the centurion, Cornelius (cf. Acts 10).
The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As He touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith strengthened. So, the disciple who doubted, then felt Christ’s wounds, becomes a witness to the reality of the resurrection.” Thomas is our witness, his eyes are our eyes and his hands are our hands; accordingly, we have no doubt — Christ lives.
The mother of James and John asked Jesus that her sons sit one on his left and one on his right in his kingdom. Jesus tells her: “You do not know what you are asking.” He explains in the presence of all the apostles that positions of authority come from the Father, from a divine calling not from personal ambition and adds: “whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Mt 20:22, 26-28).
Bartholomew then speaks that line we all know: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). Despite this rebuff, Philip escorts Bartholomew to Jesus, where Bartholomew is determined to size up Jesus. But there is no sizing up because Bartholomew recognizes him as the true Messiah, saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (Jn 1:49). This proclamation is not unlike Peter’s confession months later: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). By heavenly intervention both Bartholomew and Peter recognized the divine Jesus.
At least twice Philip is used by Jesus to help the disciples understand the role of Jesus and who he is. At the multiplication of the loaves in John’s Gospel, Philip is worried as to how 5,000 people will be fed: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little [bit]” (Jn 6:7). Philip watched awestruck as Jesus turned the few fish and bread into enough to feed all the people. Later at the Last Supper, the Lord rebuked Philip when the apostle asked, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus responds: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?” (Jn 14:8-9). All the apostles saw Jesus as their teacher, but some were slow in recognizing him as their savior.
It is also worth noting that Philip the apostle should not be confused with Philip the Evangelist, who successfully carried the message of Jesus to Samaria and baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert route between Jerusalem and Gaza (cf. Acts 8:27-39).
At one point, he was going to Damascus to capture additional followers of Christ. On the road between the two cities, he was confronted, blinded and converted by Jesus, who sent him into Damascus to a house on the street called Straight. Here he would regain his sight and be baptized. From that point Paul became the greatest of the evangelizers, the Apostle to the Gentiles. He established at least 14 Christian communities and preached to thousands of individuals while crisscrossing the Middle East and into Europe four different times. His letters to the communities he established fill much of the New Testament.
James issued a letter to the Gentiles basically indicating that the Gentiles did not have to adhere to all the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised before becoming a Christian. The only prerequisite was that those seeking to follow Christ would give up their pagan sacrifices. These actions overcame a major hurdle in converting and baptizing people in every nation, not just Jews. St. James the Less is also regarded as the author of the New Testament book of James.
In the eyes of the Jews, Matthew was a despicable creature, an outcast no better than a sinner because of his job, but Jesus, in his abundant love and mercy, read Matthew’s heart and called him to be one of his apostles. Matthew gave up everything to become a follower, a believer in Christ. While not a lot is known about Matthew, there is evidence that he went to evangelize in India where he is that country’s patron saint.
Jude was known as Thaddeus, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and Judas, according to St. Luke. St. John also refers to him as Judas at the Last Supper: “Judas, not the Iscariot, said to him, “Master, [then] what happened that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?'” (Jn 14:22). This is a question likely being considered by some of the other apostles who still saw Jesus as potentially an earthly king, not yet grasping why Jesus had come to earth or what was going to happen to him on the next day. Jesus responds that he will make himself known to those who love him and keep his commandments, “and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (Jn 14:23).
Matthias was picked to replace the betrayer, Judas (Act 1:15-26). While the apostles waited in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, Peter, as their leader, could have picked the replacement, but he left the choice to the apostles. Peter does provide some direction saying that whoever is chosen must have been part of Christ’s followers from his baptism and be a witness to his resurrection. There are two candidates, Barsabbas and Matthias; eventually, Matthias is selected by drawing lots. We never hear of Matthias again in the New Testament.
At the Last Supper, Jesus knew what Judas was doing, and after washing all the apostles’ feet, including Judas, he revealed that someone would betray him and identified Judas, saying, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (Jn 13:27). Later that same night, Judas, leading a band of soldiers, singled out Jesus as leader of the Christian group. After the arrest of Jesus, Judas tried to give the money back but was rejected by the Jews, and so he “went off and hanged himself” (Mt 27:5).
D. D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.
|Apostle to the apostles — St. Mary Magdalene|
Like the apostles, Mary Magdalene demonstrated devotion and commitment to the Lord. She and other women traveled around Galilee with Jesus “provided for them out of their resources” (Lk 8:3). She followed Jesus to Jerusalem, and unlike the apostles, except John, she was with him at the Crucifixion. On that first Easter morning, the Gospel says she was the first person Jesus encountered. Jesus sends her to his brothers [apostles] and Mary tells them, “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18). Thus, she is known as the apostle to the apostles.