Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles
Whenever I feel discouraged by my own limitations, I find hope and inspiration in the lives of the Apostles. Each of these men called “The Twelve” had jobs, families, and ambitions, just as we do. But when they met Jesus, He transformed everything about them, giving them new lives, new goals. As writer/historian Daniel-Rops points out in his book, Jesus and His Times, one of the best proofs that the Gospels are authentic is their account of the Apostles, because no one could have invented such human, fallible characters! I’m glad Jesus chose them, rather than brilliant paragons of virtue with whom we could never identify.
Unfortunately, we have little information about some of the Apostles. Often, all we have to go on is popular tradition, because many of the facts are veiled in obscurity. But there’s nothing obscure about the timeless lessons we can learn from the Apostles. That’s what we’ll explore in this series.
Who were the Apostles?
The word apostle means “one who is sent”; the number 12 corresponds to the 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus called his Apostles at the beginning of his public ministry, along with a nucleus of 72 secondary disciples. This was the forerunner of the Roman Catholic Church’s present hierarchal structure. Before choosing the Twelve, Jesus went up a mountain and prayed and meditated all night, asking the Father’s guidance. Jesus did not require genius, wealth, or social prominence from His followers. He sought willingness, a loving, giving nature and total dedication. At the Last Supper, He told them, “It was not you that chose Me, but I who chose you.” This is true for all of us: God has chosen each of us to fulfill a particular purpose that no one else can fill. No disciples of any other prophets or philosophers, including John the Baptist, were given the power and authority of their master as were Christ’s Apostles.
The traditional grouping of the Apostles given in Matthew is: Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; James and his brother John, sons of Zebedee; Philip and Bartholomew (also known as Nathaniel); Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; Jude Thaddeus and James, son of Alpheus; Simon the Cananean (the Zealot) and Judas Iscariot.
They were simple, ordinary men, typical of the people God usually chooses to do his work. Most were probably of average height — 5’6” inches for a man of that time – and approximately the same age as Jesus, who was 30 at the start of his public ministry. Like all observant Jewish men in those days, they wore untrimmed hair and beards. Most of the Apostles belonged to the social class we would call “blue-collar” workers. Only a few could read or write, but they were by no means stupid or totally uneducated. They knew Aramaic and Greek, and from earliest childhood had been orally taught the Hebrew Scriptures by their parents and the synagogue school. They were no more or less pious than the typical Jew of the day. Because they were not religious scholars, Jesus knew they would be teachable, open to new ideas, and able to understand the average person’s struggles.
None of the Twelve realized at first what their new life would entail. Christ’s followers had to give up everything: family and social life, occupation, familiar daily routine, orthodox ideas. For Jews in Christ’s time, religion consisted of countless rules and regulations. Proud of their status as the chosen of God, they longed for the day when God would wreak vengeance on their oppressors. Yet Jesus asked His disciples to embrace a religion of universal love, brotherhood, and forgiveness towards everyone – even enemies, oppressors, and those they considered “unclean.”
With these twelve humble men, Jesus experienced true brotherhood. Living together for three years as they did fostered a profound and intimate friendship. There were days spent walking the dusty roads, stopping in villages to preach and minister to the throngs; nights gathered around the campfire, sharing food and their deepest thoughts and feelings. The Twelve felt so familiar with Jesus that they often had a possessive, protective attitude towards Him, trying to tell Him what to do, where to go, whom to avoid. As is evident in the Gospels, their vying for Jesus’ attention sometimes generated envy and competitiveness among them. Ardent and emotional, they weren’t above petty squabbles as to who was more important and favored by Jesus, or who should get special honors. They gradually learned to overcome these shortcomings and truly love and support one another. This is a perfect lesson as to how we, as members of Christ’s body, the Church, should behave towards one another.
In their trials and weaknesses, we find encouragement for our own struggles to transcend our limitations and be transformed. They desperately tried to believe, but didn’t know how to trust; wanted to be courageous, but were cowardly. Aspiring to love others and renounce self, they were at times egocentric and manipulative. They wanted to be devoted, but didn’t always succeed. Often, they found Jesus’ words hard to understand and asked naïve, even childish, questions. Only after the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost were they truly enlightened about the deeper meanings in Christ’s teachings.
Although Jesus told them repeatedly that He would have to die, they were still profoundly shocked, bewildered and despondent when it actually happened. In this we recognize our own tendency to ignore the inevitable and refuse to prepare ourselves, only to complain and despair when the inevitable finally happens.
Yet, despite all their flaws, Jesus saw their great potential. He knew that through their association with Him, these twelve very human, very ordinary men would someday become extraordinary.
Born Simon bar Jona (son of Jonas), upon meeting Jesus he was given the nickname “Kephas” in Aramaic (“Peter” in Greek), meaning “rock.” This must have amused those who knew him well, because Peter was far from rock-like in those early days! He was a volatile man, constantly wavering between loyalty and inconstancy, faith and doubt, bravado and cowardice. Big and broad, rash and impetuous, he often tactlessly put his foot in his mouth and was admonished by Jesus for speaking out of turn. But as the natural leader and spokesman of the Twelve, Peter was quick to respond to whatever Jesus wanted. When the others were disconcerted by Christ’s teachings, Peter remained firm. Although he found it hard to comprehend the true meaning behind Jesus’ mission, he loved Him heart and soul.
Along with the brothers James and John, Peter was part of the “inner circle” who were greatly trusted and relied upon by Jesus and sometimes singled out for certain privileges. For instance, they were present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, were the only Apostles to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration, and accompanied Him when He went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion.
When Jesus asked the Apostles who they thought He was, it was Peter who gave the touching, truthful answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” [Matt. 16:16]. At that point, Jesus made Peter the head of His new Church. Yet shortly after this extraordinary declaration of faith and loyalty, Peter tried to talk Jesus out of fulfilling His destiny of going to Jerusalem to die, and was admonished by Jesus with the shocking words, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Peter had to learn, as we all do, not to question or resist the will of God or apply human argument to His mysterious ways.
My favorite story about Peter is Matt. 14:28-31, which recounts his famous, impetuous dash across the water from the storm-tossed boat towards Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. When Peter’s mind caught up to his heart, he realized what he was doing, panicked, began to sink, and had to be lifted up by Jesus. This shows us that with faith in God and the abilities He has given us, we can do marvelous things. It’s only when we stop trusting God and rely solely on our own resources that we fall apart. It’s also a reminder to focus on the present moment. While Peter was concerned only with answering Jesus’ call to come to Him on the water, he was able to accomplish the miraculous. But when his mind moved off the present moment to dwell on doubt and fear, this marvelous ability fled as quickly as it had come.
The most striking example of Peter’s vacillating nature is, of course, his denial of Jesus, whom he loved so dearly. Yet, as horrified and filled with remorse as he was over his disloyalty, Peter did not despair as Judas did. He trusted that God in His infinite mercy and love would forgive him. Peter put his sin behind him and went on to become the leader of Christ’s Church on earth. This is a lesson in perfect contrition: the honesty and humility to admit our failings and make amends, the confidence that we will be pardoned, as well as the ability to forgive ourselves and move on towards what God has planned for our lives.
After Pentecost, Peter became a powerful leader, but still sometimes wavered in his resolve. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul admonishes Peter for separating himself from the Gentiles because of pressure from some Jewish members of the early Church. Peter learned to have the courage of his convictions despite criticism and opposition. In our own increasingly secular society, where our spiritual beliefs and moral values are constantly being challenged, we need to look to Peter’s example.
Peter was martyred in Rome by crucifixion during the reign of Nero in AD 64. Popular tradition says he was crucified upside-down, although historic evidence of that particular detail is inconclusive.
Peter’s finest qualities were leadership, humility, devotion, faith, honesty, perseverance and hope. When first called by Jesus, Simon Peter protested, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” [Luke 5:8]. In our own lives we, too, often respond to God’s call by saying, “Not me, Lord – I’m not good enough!” But like Peter, we can put our past behind us and move forward, firmly believing that God can transform us into something greater.
In Part Two: Andrew, James and John, Philip, Bartholomew, and Thomas.
Photo courtesy of Waiting for the Word (no changes made). Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/