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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The World into Which Jesus Came

Don Stewart :: What Do We Know about the Twelve Disciples?

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What Do We Know about the Twelve Disciples?

The World into Which Jesus Came – Question 16

The New Testament says that Jesus personally handpicked twelve men to be His inner core of disciples, the Twelve Disciples of the Twelve Apostles. Some of them have become famous while others of them are little-known. From the Scripture we can make the following observations about these particular men who Jesus chose.

Simon Peter

Simon Peter is probably the most well-known of Jesus’ disciples. Simon is a Greek name, but in the New Testament, it is probably a contraction of the Hebrew Simeon. From Scripture, we can learn much about this man.

1. His Name Is First on Every List of Disciples

To begin with, Peter is first in every list of the apostles (first among equals) and plays a prominent role in the gospels. His father’s name was Jonah or John. He was a native of Bethsaida a town on the Sea of Galilee. We read of this in John’s gospel. It says,

Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. (John 1:44 NKJV)

Here Peter is mentioned in connection with his brother Andrew as well as another disciple of Jesus, Philip.

Jesus would later condemn Bethsaida for their unbelief in Him. Matthew records the Lord saying the following against this city:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matthew 11:21 NRSV)

This town, which was exposed to the miracles of Jesus, rejected His testimony. Consequently they received greater condemnation.

Interestingly, the reference of Peter being first among the apostles is not found in Mark. Since Mark wrote his gospel from Peter’s perspective, likely recording Peter’s very words, it is understandable why this reference would be omitted.

2. He Was a Fisherman by Trade

The gospels tell us that Peter and his brother Andrew were fisherman who worked on the Sea of Galilee. They were disciples of John the Baptist before becoming disciples of Jesus. John wrote of this,

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples... One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. (John 1:35, 40 NRSV)

Thus, Peter and Andrew were John’s disciples before they followed Jesus.

3. Jesus Gave Simon the Name Peter

Jesus gave to Simon, when he first approached Him, the surname Cephas which in Aramaic signified a rock or a stone. Again, we read about this in the Gospel of John:

Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. Jesus looked at Simon and said, “You are Simon, son of John. Your name will be Cephas” (which means “Peter”). (John 1:42 God’s Word)

This was translated into Greek as Petros, which also means “rock.” The Latin form is Petrus, and in English it is Peter.

The Aramaic form of his name, Cephas, is always used by the Apostle Paul in describing him. It is found nowhere else in the New Testament except John 1:42.

4. Peter Is the First Who Confessed Jesus as the Christ

Peter is the first of Jesus’ disciples who confessed Him as the Christ, or Messiah. Matthew records the event as follows:

Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter spoke up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:15, 16 CEV)

Peter vocalized what the rest of the disciples were thinking about Jesus. Indeed, they came to believe that He was truly the Christ, God the Son.

5. Peter Wrote Two New Testament Books

Peter wrote two New Testament books (First and Second Peter) as well as being the source for the Gospel of Mark. In fact, it is possible, even likely, that the Gospel of Mark was taken down word for word from Peter’s speeches given in Rome. Therefore, three of the twenty-seven writings which became our “New Testament” have Peter’s authority behind them. Peter was indeed an important figure in the spread of the Christian gospel.


Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter. His name is Greek. It has the meaning of “manly.” The facts concerning his parentage, residence, occupation and early discipleship are all mentioned in connection with Peter.

His life, however, has a great lesson for believers. Andrew was the one who brought to Jesus his own brother Simon. John records the incident as follows:

One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, “You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas” (which is translated, A Stone). (John 1:40-42 NKJV)

Thus, the usefulness of Simon Peter is, in one sense, due to the brother who told him of Jesus. Therefore, we learn an important lesson here. We should never underestimate what it can mean to bring someone to the knowledge of the Savior. While the life and ministry of Andrew may not have been remarkable the life of Simon Peter certainly was. Yet, if it were not for Andrew, Peter would have never met Jesus.

Jacob (James) the Son of Zebedee

James (Jacob) was the brother of John. He was probably the elder since he is usually mentioned first. While John is sometimes placed first (Luke 9:28; Acts 12:2) it is probably because he was the more prominent of the two.

Jacob (James) was the first martyr among the Twelve Apostles. This is recorded for us in the Acts of the Apostles. It says of Herod Agrippa I.

He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword (Acts 12:2 NLT).

James is originally the same name as Jacob being written in Greek Iacobos, and transliterated into Latin, as Iacobos.

John the Son of Zebedee

John, the brother of James, the son of Zebedee, was the author of the fourth gospel. He describes himself as follows in that gospel. He said,

This is that disciple who saw these events and recorded them here. And we all know that his account of these things is accurate. (John 21:24 NLT)

John saw the events in the life of Jesus. Therefore, his testimony is one of an eyewitness.

James and John, with Peter made up a kind of inner circle of the disciples. They both appeared together with Peter in the Transfiguration. Matthew records what took place:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. (Matthew 17:1 NRSV)

It was only these disciples to whom Jesus showed His glory. Why Jesus chose only these three is not revealed to us.

James and John also appear in connection with their mother’s special request. Mathew records the following:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. (Matthew 20:20 NRSV)

The favor she asked Jesus was for her sons to sit in the places of power, or authority, in Jesus’ kingdom. The request made the other disciples unhappy.

John the son of Zebedee wrote five books that make up the New Testament. They include the Gospel of John, 1,2,3 John, and Revelation. Obviously he was a very important figure in the spreading of the message of Jesus Christ.


This name Philip in Greek means “lover of horses.” He must be distinguished from Philip the evangelist, of whom, we read about in the Book of Acts.

1. The Call of Philip

The Scripture tells us Philip immediately answered Jesus’ call to follow Him. In John’s gospel, we read of that call:

The next day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee. He found Philip and told him, “Follow me!” (John 1:43 God’s Word)

Philip followed Jesus when the Lord called. This is certainly a good example for us to follow.

2. Philip and the Feeding of the Five Thousand

When Jesus fed the five thousand He asked Philip what He should do. We read about this in the Gospel of John:

When Jesus saw the large crowd coming toward him, he asked Philip, “Where will we get enough food to feed all these people?” He said this to test Philip, since he already knew what he was going to do. (John 6:5, 6 CEV)

Notice that Jesus was not asking Philip for advice. Indeed, Jesus already knew what He was about to do.

3. Philip Wishes to See God the Father

We also find Philip asking Jesus a question on the night of His betrayal. John records the dialogue between the two:

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” (John 14:8-9 NET)

Philip wanted Jesus to show them God the Father. Jesus replied by saying the one who has seen Him has seen the Father.

This is all that is said about Philip. We hear no more from him in Scripture.


Nathaniel is probably the same person mentioned in Matthew’s gospel as Bartholomew. Bartholomew is not a name. He is actually Bar Talmai (the son of Talmai). The only account we have of Nathaniel is found in John’s gospel. It reads as follows:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the man whom Moses wrote about in his teachings and whom the prophets wrote about. He is Jesus, son of Joseph, from the city of Nazareth.” Nathanael said to Philip, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip told him, “Come and see!” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and remarked, “Here is a true Israelite who is sincere.” Nathanael asked Jesus, “How do you know anything about me?” Jesus answered him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael said to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Jesus replied, “You believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” Jesus said to Nathanael, “I can guarantee this truth: You will see the sky open and God’s angels going up and coming down to the Son of Man.” (John 1:45-51 God’s Word)

We learn a number of interesting things from this encounter.

First, Nazareth was not the place where the people were looking for the Messiah to come out of. Indeed, Nathaniel’s statement may reflect jealousy between the various cities or it may reflect the view that Nazareth was a place where nothing good came from. In other words, it was a hopeless place.

We also find that Jesus knew certain things about Nathaniel which caused him to confess that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Many people have speculated as to what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree. He may have thinking about the Messiah or studying about Him. Possibly he was in the act of teaching others about Him. We just do not know. Since we are not told any speculation is fruitless. What we do know is that whatever he was doing, Jesus had some insight into what was occurring.

Nathaniel is not mentioned elsewhere.


Thomas is the well-known “doubter.” The name Thomas means “twin” as does the Greek Didymus. The Gospel of John describes him responding in the following manner when Jesus told the disciples they must go back to Judea:

Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16 NRSV)

Thomas obviously knew of the impending danger.

1. Thomas Asks Jesus a Question

We also find Thomas asking Jesus a particular question which caused Jesus to give one of His most memorable statements:

Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:5-7 NET)

Jesus told Thomas, as well as the others, that He was the way, truth, and the life. Apart from Him, nobody could come to God the Father.

2. Doubting Thomas

Thomas is famous for doubting the disciple’s testimony of seeing the risen Christ. John wrote about the famous episode of Thomas wanting to touch the body of the risen Christ before believing in Him. John writes,

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24, 25 NKJV)

Thomas had to see for himself. When Thomas saw that Christ had indeed risen, he testified that he too believed:

Thomas responded to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28 HCSB)

Thomas confessed that Jesus was both Lord and God. He recognized that Jesus had truly risen from the dead.

This is the last of the details which we read of Thomas. He is not mentioned again in Scripture.


Matthew was author of the first gospel. He is known as the tax collector or a customs official. The gospels tell us that Jesus called Matthew and he immediately followed. We read about his conversion in the gospel that he wrote:

As Jesus was leaving, he saw a tax collector named Matthew sitting at the place for paying taxes. Jesus said to him, “Come with me.” Matthew got up and went with him. (Matthew 9:9 CEV)

Matthew immediately followed Jesus when Jesus invited him. Matthew then invited Jesus and others to his house for a meal. This caused a problem with the religious leaders. Matthew explains what took place:

While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13 HCSB)

The religious leaders did not think a Teacher such as Jesus should mingle with “sinners.” This provided Jesus with the occasion of explaining why He came into our world.

Nothing more is said of Matthew after this event.

James the Son of Alphaeus

The “son of Alphaeus” distinguishes him from the other James, the brother of John. He may have been the brother of Matthew who was also a son of Alphaeus. Yet this is nowhere stated as a fact.

Basically, we know nothing of him other than he was one of the Twelve. He is never singled out for us in the gospels or in the remainder of the New Testament. Indeed, he is one of those among the Twelve who is only known from his name in the list.

Thaddaeus (Judas, Perhaps Lebbaeus)

The disciple is known by a number of different names. This includes Thaddaeus, Judas the son of James, Judas, not Iscariot, and possibly Lebbaeus.

First, the name Thaddaeus is only mentioned in two of the gospels, Matthew and Mark. Matthew listed the disciples as follows:

Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus. (Matthew 10:3 NET)

In this list, he is mentioned with James the son of Alphaeus.

He is probably to be equated with Judas, the son of James, who is mentioned in Luke and the Book of Acts. Luke lists the Twelve in this manner:

And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles... Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:13, 16 ESV)

Here he is distinguished between Judas Iscariot. The name Judas may have been superseded by a new one, Thaddaeus, in order for there to be one Judas among the Twelve.

This name is also used of him in the Book of Acts. We read,

When they had entered Jerusalem, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James were there. (Acts 1:13 NET)

It is also possible that after the betrayal of Judas Iscariot that he did not want the stigma that would be attached with the name Judas.

Indeed, in John’s gospel, we find him asking Jesus a question about making Himself known to the world:

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (John 14:22-24 ESV)

Notice that John makes the distinction between this Judas and Judas Iscariot. He did not want his readers to be confused.


In Matthew 10:4, some manuscripts add the name Lebbaeus to Thaddaeus:

Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus. (Matthew 10:3 NKJV)

Most modern translations do not have this name in the text. They believe that it was a later addition and thus, not one of the names of Thaddaeus.

Simon the Cananean

Some believe that the word “Cananean” is derived from Canaan or Cana. However others contend that it comes from the Aramaic word qanan meaning “zealot” or “enthusiast” The name is thus equivalent to the label “zealot” given to Simon in the lists of Luke and Acts and may refer to his intense nationalism and hatred of Rome.

If this is correct, then Simon was working with others to see the Roman rule overthrown. The zealots would use force, if necessary, to achieve their goal. Jesus taught Simon that there is indeed something worse than the bondage of Rome; it was the bondage of sin. By following Jesus, Simon was set free from this real bondage.

Judas Iscariot

Judas is mentioned more often than any of the other disciples except for Peter. The name “Iscariot” is the Greek equivalent of the transliterated Iscarioth (man from Kerioth). Kerioth is located in southern Judea, twelve miles south of Hebron.

1. Judas the Thief

John describes Judas as a thief. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with perfume in anticipation of His impending death, we find that Judas objected. John explains why:

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was going to betray him) said, “Why wasn’t this oil sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” (Now Judas said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money box, he used to steal what was put into it). (John 12:4-6 NET)

The motives of Judas were not pure.

2. Judas the Betrayer

Judas would eventually betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Luke explains the plot:

The Festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called Passover, was drawing near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Him to death, because they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, who was numbered among the Twelve. He went away and discussed with the chief priests and temple police how he could hand Him over to them. They were glad and agreed to give him silver. So he accepted [the offer] and started looking for a good opportunity to betray Him to them when the crowd was not present. (Luke 22:1-6 HCSB)

Judas eventually brought the authorities to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

3. The Betrayer Hangs Himself

Judas then hanged himself in remorse. The Bible explains it in this manner:

Judas threw the money into the temple and then went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:5 CEV)

Such was the end of his pathetic life.

4. Matthias Replaced Judas

Judas was replaced by Matthias. We read of this in the first chapter of the Book of Acts. Peter stood up and said the following to the other ten disciples:

“Therefore, from among the men who have accompanied us during the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—beginning from the baptism of John until the day He was taken up from us—from among these, it is necessary that one become a witness with us of His resurrection.” So they proposed two: Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, “You, Lord, know the hearts of all; show which of these two You have chosen to take the place in this apostolic service that Judas left to go to his own place.” Then they cast lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias. So he was numbered with the 11 apostles. (Acts 1:21-26 HCSB)

Matthias was the twelfth disciple who replaced Judas. However, we hear nothing whatsoever of him after this episode.

The Disciples of Jesus Were a Diverse Group

Notice the diverse character of the twelve. They include: fishermen, a former tax collector, a zealot, and a traitor. The twelve represent the core of the new movement that will reveal the new activity of God. They were not taken from the elite of society, neither from the lowest levels.

There were two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John. There was possibly a third set with Matthew and James the son of Alphaeus.

This sums up what we know for certain about these twelve men which Jesus chose to be His disciples.

Summary – Question 16
What Do We Know about the Twelve Disciples?

While here on earth Jesus chose twelve disciples to be His intimate pupils. However, not all of them were prominent. In fact, we know almost nothing about a few of them. This includes Simon the Cananean, Thaddaeus, Nathaniel and James the son of Alphaeus. The New Testament gives us more information about the other eight. We can highlight them as follows.

Peter is the one most prominently mentioned in Scripture. Indeed, he is placed first in every list of disciples. It was Peter who first publicly confessed Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, when the Lord asked the group who they believed that He was. Peter went on to write two books that became part of our New Testament as well as the person behind the Gospel of Mark.

Andrew was the brother of Peter. His is only mentioned in connection with Peter. However, Andrew is the one who brought Peter to Jesus. Therefore, his contribution to the spread of the gospel cannot be underestimated.

James and John were also brothers. They were called the “sons of Zebedee.” James was the first martyr of the Christian church. He was murdered by the evil King Herod Agrippa I.

John seemingly lived to a ripe old age. In fact, seems to be the only one of the Twelve who was not martyred. John is the writer of the fourth gospel. He testifies that he was an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus. John also wrote the three letters which bear his name, 1,2,3 John, as well as the Book of Revelation. He was indeed an important New Testament character.

Philip is specifically mentioned on three occasions. First, his calling by Jesus is recorded. He then tells Nathaniel that they have found the Messiah. Next, we find Jesus asking Philip as to how they could feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. Finally, on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, Philip asks Jesus to show God the Father to them.

Nathaniel is probably the same person known as Bartholomew. The only thing known about him concerns the time he first met Jesus. When Jesus said that he saw Nathaniel under a fig tree this caused Nathaniel to confess Jesus as the Messiah.

Matthew was a customs official who collected taxes for Rome. This position was hated by the Jews. Matthew’s conversion is recorded for us in his own gospel. After this, he arranged a great feast for Jesus and many others. Nothing else is known of Matthew apart from these two episodes.

Thomas is the famous doubter. He is specifically mentioned on three occasions in the New Testament. First, he warned the disciples if they went to Judea with Jesus they would probably die with Him. Thomas also asked Jesus to show them where He was going when Jesus spoke of going away. Finally, we have the episode of Thomas demanding to see the scars on the body of the risen Christ.

Almost nothing is known of James the son of Alphaeus except for his listing among the Twelve.

Thaddaeus is also called Judas (and perhaps Lebbaeus). He is distinguished from Judas Iscariot. The only thing known of him is a question he asked Jesus on the night of His betrayal.

Simon the Cananean is Simon the Zealot. This means that he belonged to the political party that was attempting to overthrow Rome. We know absolutely nothing about him apart from the fact that he is listed as one of the twelve.

Apart from Peter, Judas Iscariot is the disciple whom the most is said about. We know that he held the money bag for the Twelve. John tells us that he was a thief. Of course, he will always be known as the one who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Judas then went out and hanged himself when he realized he had betrayed an innocent man.

After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Judas was replaced by Matthias. Nothing else is known of Matthias.

This basically sums up what we know about these men from the New Testament. While there are sources outside of the Bible which tell us other things about them the only information that we can be certain about is that which we find in the New Testament.

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