The Lord Jesus had many followers during His earthly ministry, and many more have chosen to do so in the centuries following. As Jesus began to obtain followers, He selected twelve to follow Him in a closer way, who received personal teachings and explanations. He called them personally to Him.
These twelve are known as the apostles. Though Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples, eventually betrayed Jesus and lost the position after his suicide, another was voted in by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. These apostles became the catalyst for the spread of the Gospel.
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What Is an Apostle?
The authors of the Gospels mention two types of followers of the Lord Jesus. The larger group were disciples. While there are several words for disciple, in general, it refers to anyone who followed and specifically received the teachings of a specific person.
Both Jesus Christ and John the Baptist had disciples. For example, in the Book of John it says, “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’” (John 1:35-36). In fact, in the immediate next verse these two disciples of John the Baptist became disciples of Jesus. “The two disciples heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus” (John 1:37). One of them was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, both of whom became apostles.
The Gospel of Mark was written by Mark, who appears to have been a disciple of Jesus Christ.
An apostle, therefore, is different than a disciple, since there were many disciples, but only twelve apostles. In the Greek, apostle is ἀπόστολος (apóstolos). The literal meaning of this is, “one who is sent out.” The apostles were those called by Jesus to learn, and then go out. In fact, every Gospel has an account of Jesus sending them out to spread the word of the Kingdom of Heaven, perform miracles, exorcise demons, and share the Gospel.
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Where Are the Apostles Found in the Bible?
The apostles are featured heavily in the Gospels and are mentioned in some of the other books of the New Testament. Matthew and John were each apostles and wrote a Gospel book. They are introduced as the Lord Jesus calls each one of them to Him. Each of the Synoptic Gospels has a full list of the twelve.
“And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him” (Mark 3:13-19).
These men came from different walks of life, and different backgrounds. The sons of Zebedee and the other brothers - Simon Peter and Andrew - were fishermen. Levi, also known as Matthew the Gospel writer, was a tax collector. Thomas, also known as Didymus, is presumed by many Biblical scholars to be a twin because of the English translation of his name, though this fact is not confirmed or denied in the Bible. While we do not know the details of all the apostles, we can presume they were called in a similar manner to the accounts given for Matthew and the fishermen.
It is worth noting that when Jesus calls them to Him, they drop whatever they are doing to follow Him. When Jesus called the tax collector, the Biblical record states, “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him” (Matthew (9:9). It does not say there was hesitation, confusion, or contemplation. All accounts of the twelve apostles indicates they rose up immediately to follow the call.
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Why Was a Twelfth Apostle Chosen after Judas Died?
One of the twelve who followed the call would be the one to betray Jesus. Judas Iscariot turned Jesus over to the religious leaders, and eventually committed suicide. When Jesus ascended into heaven and gave the Great Commission, there were only eleven apostles, but there were many disciples. Many of the disciples, along with the apostles, were gathered together, and they did debate about replacing Judas.
The Holy Spirit gave them understanding that Judas’ role was finished, but God’s will was for there to be twelve apostles. When debating who would take up this mantle, there were very specific criteria that needed to be met. “ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
In other words, the individual to replace Judas must have been a disciple from the beginning of the Lord’s earthly ministry, and been a witness to His resurrection. Only two men match, Matthias and Barsabbas. The process then moves forward, and the apostles pray that God would reveal His choice based on the hearts of the men. To truly leave the decision up to God, they relinquish control over the process: “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26). A new apostle was ordained, and there were twelve again.
Why Were There 12 Apostles?
The decision to replace Judas and have twelve apostles again does lead to the question as to why there needed to be twelve. This number does have significance in the Bible. In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob - son of Isaac, son of Abraham - had twelve sons who became the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. In the Old Testament, there are twelve minor prophets. Prophetic visions about the New Heaven in the Book of Revelation show there will be twelve gates and twelve foundations.
It is a number associated with wholeness, completeness, and perfection. The need for twelve apostles is not just to have an even number to symbolize completeness, Jesus specified the twelve apostles would have a role in heaven: “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28-30). The apostles knew Jesus best during His earthly ministry, and each will have authority in Heaven.
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What Happened to the Apostles?
From a Biblical standpoint, there is not a lot of information about what happened to the apostles after the Ascension of Jesus Christ into Heaven. It is known that they scattered after Jesus was arrested, and they were hiding together after His burial. When He rose from the dead, they gathered around Him to learn.
The Book of Acts tells the story of the initial growth of the church, which was driven in large part by the Apostles. Before the baptism by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were staying together in a room in Jerusalem.
After Pentecost, the apostles begin to go out into the ends of the earth to spread the Gospel. The ultimate fates of each one is not necessarily confirmed in the Bible. Some are and some are not. For those that are not mentioned in the Bible, there are some historical traditions, some of the more reliable ones are recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Below is a list of the fates of the twelves after the Book of Acts which are commonly accepted, with the ones verified by the Bible indicated. Please note it is difficult to historically verify some of these. According to tradition, this is what may have happened to each Apostle:
Simon Peter: Spread the Gospel in Jerusalem and abroad including Antioch. He died by crucifixion, and according to tradition he asked to die upside-down. His death was prophesied by Jesus in John 21:18.
Thaddeus also called Jude: Crucified at Edessa.
Bartholomew: Said to have translated the Gospel of Matthew, is believed to have been beaten then crucified.
Thomas also called Didymus: Went to Parthia and India, where he is believed to have been martyred.
Simon the Zealot: Went to Africa and may have gone as far north as Britain, where tradition holds he was martyred.
John: Travelled and spread the Gospel till he was sent to Rome. They attempted to boil him in oil which failed so he was banished to Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation.
Philip: Served the cause of Christ until his death in Heliopolis.
Matthew: It is believed much of Matthew’s ministry was in Africa, including modern-day Ethiopia, and that he was killed with a halberd.
James the son of Alphaeus: He served until he was stoned for his faith.
Matthias: Not much is known of his ministry, though tradition holds he was stoned and then beheaded.
Andrew: Preached in what is now the middle east and was crucified.
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Was Paul an Apostle?
There is one other individual worth noting when discussing the apostles. Paul was saved on the road to Damascus after the Lord Jesus came to him and confronted him about persecuting the church. Though he did have to earn back the trust of the church, Paul grew into one of the most respected men in the Christian world, writing half of the New Testament, and became known as the Apostle Paul, the same title as the twelve.
Of this title, Paul wrote, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:8-10a). Paul felt that God allowed Him to be one who was sent out, and was given the title of apostle only through the grace of God.
Paul did not seem to think of himself as one of the twelve, and there is little in the Bible to suggest he will sit with the apostles selected by the Lord to judge Israel. He served faithfully, urgently, and greatly as a servant of the Lord, and should be called an apostle, but the calling of the original twelve appears to have been settled. Later, others would go on to be called apostles such as Apollos, a prolific teacher of the word of God mentioned as being active in Ephesus and Corinth.
Apostles of the Lord went out, preaching, even at the risk of their own life. They became the force which spread the Gospel in the first century after Jesus returned to the Father, and they will serve Him forever. Much can be learned from studying the lives of the apostles, whether it is the twelve, or those who came after in the early church like Paul. The modern church follows their large footsteps and should take up the mantle to spread the Gospel for the Kingdom of God.
Criswell, David. The Apostles After Jesus: A History of the Apostles - Separating Tradition and History. Dallas: Fortress Adonai Press, 2013.
Foxe, John. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Belfast: Ambassador Publications Ltd., 2017.
Hamm, Dennis, The Acts of the Apostles. Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016.
MacArthur, John. Twelve Ordinary Men How the Master Shaped His Disciples for Greatness, and What He Wants to Do with You. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.