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Apostles — Little Known, but Vital

Some of the apostles listed in the opening article are known only by their recorded name in the New Testament. These individuals are often overlooked, but the context in which they are named indicates their vital importance in the first century ecclesias. It is perhaps surprising that so little is recorded about several of the twelve apostles, but we can often deduce much from the context and their names.
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Some of the apostles listed in the opening article are known only by their recorded name in the New Testament. These individuals are often overlooked, but the context in which they are named indicates their vital importance in the first century ecclesias. It is perhaps surprising that so little is recorded about several of the twelve apostles, but we can often deduce much from the context and their names. Thus we will deal with them in two groups: first the little known of the twelve apostles, including Matthias, selected by the other disciples to replace Judas Iscariot, and then the others designated as apostles later in the New Testament.

Bartholomew (or Nathaniel)

We must assume that these two names represent the same individual for these reasons:

Bartholomew is not itself a first name. ‘Bar’ means ‘son of,’ and ‘Bartholomew’ probably means ‘son of Tolmai.’ Bartholomew must, therefore, have had a first name.

The first three Gospels never mention Nathanael, and the fourth Gospel never mentions Bartholomew. In the two passages where Nathanael is mentioned in the fourth Gospel he is in the company of apostles and is spoken of in a way that makes it very likely that he was an apostle (John 1:43-51; 21:2).

In the lists of the twelve in the first three Gospels and in Acts, the names of Philip and Bartholomew always occur together, as if it was natural to speak of them together; and in the fourth Gospel we learn that it was Philip who brought Nathanael to Jesus (John 1:45). Since, then, Philip is closely connected with Bartholomew and Nathanael; Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person.

Our knowledge of Nathanael comes from two passages in the fourth Gospel. Nathanael came from Cana in Galilee (John 21:2). He was a friend of Philip, and when Philip discovered Jesus he went straight to Nathanael and communicated his discovery to him. It was Philip’s belief that in Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, he had discovered the Messiah to whom all the Law and the prophets pointed. Nathanael was skeptical, and found it hard to believe that so great a figure could emerge from a place like Nazareth. Philip did not waste time and breath in argument; he invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus for himself. Jesus greeted Nathanael with the words: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathanael asked how Jesus knew who he was. Jesus answered that before Philip had called him he had seen him under the fig tree.

The point of this saying is that for many people in Palestine the fig tree was a kind of private room. It was the custom to have a fig tree at the door of the cottage. In Palestine the houses of the poorer people usually had only one room; and often, when they sought quietness to pray and to meditate, they sought privacy beneath the shade of the fig tree. In effect Jesus was saying to Nathanael, ‘Nathanael, I saw you at prayer, in your private devotion in the only secret place you have, there I saw into the secret and private places of your heart; and I know the seeking that is there.’ It is as if Jesus, like God himself, understood Nathanael’s thought afar off (see Psalm 139:2). To Nathanael it seemed an amazing thing that anyone should have the Divine power to read the secrets of his heart. “Rabbi,” he said in awed amazement, “thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.” Thereupon Jesus promised Nathanael even greater things; he promised him that he would be a witness of the ultimate triumph and glory of the end (John 1:43-51). Meager as our information about Nathanael is, it is nonetheless true that when we put it together, the character of Nathanael clearly emerges.

Nathanael was a searcher of the Scriptures and a seeker after truth. The way in which Philip put his announcement is the proof of that: “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write” (John 1:45). The clear implication is that Philip and Nathanael had spent long hours poring over the words of Scripture, searching for information as to what the Messiah must be like and as to when he should come.

Nathanael was a man of complete sincerity. He was an Israelite indeed in whom there was no guile (John 1:47). The proof of that is his willingness to be convinced. At first he was unwilling to believe that any good thing could come out of Nazareth, but when he was confronted with Jesus, his prejudices and his presuppositions vanished, and he believed.

Nathanael was a man of prayer. It was under the fig tree that Jesus saw him (John 1:48). The implication of the story is that Nathanael spent many an hour there.

Nathanael was a man of staying power. He was still there with the apostles after the agony of the cross (John 21:2). “Thou art the King of Israel,” he had said. The man whom he called king found a cross for his throne, but Nathanael still believed.

James the son of Alphaeus

James, the son of Alphaeus, is the apostle about whom we know the least. The New Testament tells us nothing but his name (Matt 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13), and even legend and tradition are almost silent about him. When we study closely all that the New Testament says and implies about this James, we may come to five conclusions:

James is identified as the son of Alphaeus. The first three Gospels all tell us about the call of Matthew (Matt 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27-28). For our present purposes it is the account of Mark which is the most significant. Matthew says: “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me.” There is no doubt that Matthew and Levi are the same person. Since that is so, the name of Matthew’s father was also Alphaeus; and Matthew and this James, most likely, would have been brothers.

In the lists of Matthew and Mark the last four apostles to be named are James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot (Matt 10:3-4; Mark 3:18-19). In Luke’s lists in his Gospel and Acts the last four disciples are James the son of Alphaeus, Simon Zelotes, Judas the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot (Luke 6:15-16; Acts 1:13). It is therefore certain that Judas the brother of James and Thaddaeus are the same person.

Since these four are so consistently named together, there must have been some common factor which bound them into a group. Simon, we know, was a Zealot, a fanatical Jewish patriot; Judas Iscariot, it is probable, was also such a patriot. There is thus a considerable amount of evidence that Thaddaeus was also a Zealot. So then, Simon, Thaddaeus or Judas, and Judas Iscariot were all most probably Zealots. It must, then, be a reasonable deduction that the fourth member of this unaltering group shared the sympathies of the other three. It must be regarded as probable that James, the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Thaddaeus or Judas, and Judas Iscariot were bound together by the bond of intense and fanatical patriotism, and it may well be that all four had once belonged to the Zealot party. So we have our fact and our reasonable deduction. Matthew and James the son of Alphaeus were brothers. James was very probably a Jewish nationalist of the fieriest type, and both were members of the apostolic company.

So it could be that the fact that Matthew and James were both members of the twelve is one of the great illustrations that Jesus came not only to reconcile men to God, but also to reconcile them to each other.

Simon the Zealot

Simon the Zealot is a man about whom we know so little that even his name produces problems. The New Testament tells us nothing but his name, and in the KJV the designation by which he is called differs from place to place. In Matthew and Mark he is Simon the Canaanite (Matt 10:4; Mark 3:18); in two other places he is Simon who is called Zelotes (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). In the Luke passages there is no difficulty, for Simon is called by the Greek word zelotes, which means ‘a zealot.’ The problem lies in the Matthew and Mark passages. There the Greek manuscripts have two readings. The later manuscripts, which the KJV followed, read Kananites, which the KJV translates ‘Canaanite.’ That is quite certainly wrong. The Greek for ‘Canaan’ is Chanaan, and the adjective from it is Chananaios. The reading of the best and most ancient manuscripts is Kananaios, which is the word that the RV and most modern versions transliterate correctly ‘Cananaean’: note the NIV has ‘Zealot.’ This word is derived from the Hebrew verb kana, which means ‘to be jealous’; and it was used for those who were jealous for the Law; zelotes is precisely the same word in Greek; it also means ‘one who is jealous.’ And in this case the jealousy is of those who were jealous for the sanctity and the honor of the Law. ‘Cananaean’ is the correct reading, and ‘Cananaean’ and ‘Zealot’ are the same word, the first in Hebrew, the second in Greek.

It is this which gives us our key to Simon. We know nothing about him personally, but if he was a Zealot, we know very well what kind of beliefs he once held and what kind of man he once was, for we have ample evidence to form a picture of the Zealots and their characteristic beliefs. They were fanatical Jewish nationalists, who had a heroic disregard for the sufferings involved in the struggle for what they regarded as the purity of their faith.

The constitution of the twelve presents us with a situation which is nothing less than a miracle in personal relationships. Within that society there was Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot — Matthew who had accepted the political situation, and who was profitably engaged in helping to administer it, and Simon who would have assassinated any Roman whom he could reach and would have plunged a dagger into any Jew who dared to cooperate with the Romans.

After the crucifixion Simon was still there (Acts 1:13). Here is the proof that Simon had come to see that the dagger must abdicate for the Lord. Simon had dedicated his life to reformation by power politics, and yet he had come to accept the way of sacrificial love.

Philip the apostle

The apostle who was the first to be called (John 1:43) is often confused with Philip the evangelist: it is hoped that the latter will be the subject of a character study in an upcoming issue.

We only have four records of his appearance in the New Testament (apart from his presence in all the lists of the twelve apostles). Each help us to understand the character of this apostle. Even if he had never again appeared in our record, he would forever be known as the first to whom it was said “follow me!”

After his call by Jesus, Philip’s first action was to find Nathanael and to tell him of this Jesus whom he had discovered and who had discovered him. He told Nathanael that they had found him of whom Moses and the prophets spoke. But Nathanael was skeptical. “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” he asked. Philip did not argue; he answered, “Come and see!” (John 1:45-46). This incident tells us two things about Philip. First, he had the missionary instinct. The moment he had found Jesus Christ for himself, he was determined to share Christ with others. Second, Philip had the right approach to the skeptic. He did not argue; he may have been well aware that Nathanael could have sunk him in any battle of argument. He simply said, “Come and see!” Argument often only obscures; confrontation sweeps away a man’s defenses.

The next time we meet Philip is at the feeding of the five thousand. It is to Philip that Jesus addresses the question, “Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” and Philip answers, “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them that every one of them may take a little” (John 6:5-7). It has been suggested that the answer of Philip comes so immediately and so unhesitatingly that he must already have been calculating in his own mind how this multitude could be fed. Maybe Philip was calculating the irreducible minimum necessary to give every person in the crowd a bite! A denarius was a working man’s pay for a day. It is as if Philip said, ‘A year’s pay would not buy enough to give this crowd a bite apiece!’

The next time we meet Philip is in the last days of Jesus’ life. Certain Greeks had come to Jerusalem, and they came to Philip with a request to see Jesus. They probably came to Philip because Philip is a typically Greek name, and because they thought that their best chance of establishing contact with Jesus was through a man with such a name. Philip’s reaction was to go to Andrew and to tell him; and only then did Andrew and Philip bring the Greeks to Jesus (John 12:20-22). Here we see Philip as the man who disliked responsibility, but he knew his own weakness, and in that he was a wise man.

The last time we meet Philip is in the upper room. Jesus was talking, about the Father and how he was going to the Father. Philip was a man for whom faith was difficult. “Lord,” he said, “shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” Philip received what is maybe the greatest answer Jesus ever gave anyone: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). For Philip, to believe involved to see. But Philip did not bottle up and restrain his questioning mind. He took his question to Jesus; and Philip that night learned that if we want to see what God is like we must look at Jesus — and that is the central truth of the Christian religion.

And so Philip disappears off the scene. We learn of his subsequent activities elsewhere than in the Bible, but it is clear his faith endured to the end.


Matthias, of course, was elected to take the place of Judas Iscariot. The mode of election of the twelfth apostle was somewhat remarkable. First, “they appointed two” who had the needful qualifications, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas. It is remarkable that apparently there were only two who were deemed qualified. To decide between these two there was now recourse to the drawing of lots, and Matthias was selected. Nothing more is known about these two men except what can be inferred from Joseph’s double cognomen: Barsabbas–Justus. The first name here identifies a zealot for Sabbath keeping, and the second one who was a dedicated observer of the Law of Moses, as also was Judas Barsabbas (Acts 15:22). In view of the Judaist tensions and contentions which beset the early church before very long, it may well be imagined what awkward situations would have arisen if such a one as Joseph had joined the twelve.

There are those who express doubts about this selection process. After all, it is argued, this method was one of human choice before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Ought not Peter and the rest to have waited for a lead from heaven in this matter? And since, before long, Paul was so emphatically an apostle — the “youngest” of the twelve, should not the selection of Matthias be invalid? However, these arguments have to give way before the clear witness of the inspired text in the rest of Acts: “Peter stood up with the eleven” (2:14); “the twelve called the multitude unto them” (6:2). Nor is it likely that Luke would have been guided to narrate this selection procedure in such detail if indeed it was a mistake from the start.

His name, Matthias, means ‘Gift of Yah,’ and also ‘Given to Yah,’ the secondary sense being seen in his wholehearted service to his God. It is to be hoped that all parties concerned participated with the understanding of the appropriateness of Matthias. Maybe their names will not be found in New Jerusalem with the twelve, but we can be sure Matthias was deserving of his selection.

Andronicus and Junias (Junia):

In Paul’s commendation of the saints he sought to commend (Rom 16:6) were Andronicus and Junia. He gives a four-fold sketch of these fellow-laborers “My kinsmen — My fellow-prisoners — Who are of note among the apostles — Who also were in Christ before me.” Kinsmen is a title Paul gives to six persons in this chapter, and it probably implies that they were members of the same nation — Jewish, as Paul was. My fellow-prisoners is a phrase suggesting that at some time or another they shared imprisonment with Paul: Paul’s “fellow-captives in Christ’s war.”

“Who are of note among the apostles,” can mean one of two things: either they were distinguished as apostles themselves, being included in “all the apostles” (1Cor 15:7), or Andronicus and Junia were the most highly esteemed by the apostolic circle, being honored above others for their toil and character.

“Who also were in Christ before me.” When these two apostles were converted to Christ we are not told, but from them Paul had heard of such a transaction. Andronicus was one of the traveling evangelists or missionaries who preached the Gospel from place to place, and was likely one of the most prominent and successful of these itinerant envoys of the early church. Together with Junia, they must have made a powerful team in the spreading of the gospel.


When Paul wrote about the apostles who were made a spectacle unto the world and to angels and to men, he includes Apollos along with himself in the wider apostolate (1Cor 4:6, 9). This cultured and educated Jew of the Alexandrian race (Acts 18:24), came into contact with Paul while he was in Ephesus during his third missionary journey. Luke gives us a full account of the remarkable ability of Apollos to expound the Scriptures, and how, after his private tuition from two godly souls, Aquila and Priscilla, he mightily convinced the Jews of the Messiahship of Jesus (Acts 18:24-28). Paul seems to allude to Apollos’ eloquence, wisdom, and letter of commendation in defense of his own position as an apostle with authority (1Cor 3:1-8, 22). The last glimpse we have of Apollos is when he is recommended along with Zenas the lawyer to Titus (Titus 3:13), who was then on a missionary journey through Crete and was probably the bearer of this epistle addressed to him by Paul (Titus 1:5).

There has been a tendency to represent Paul and Apollos as rivals based on Paul’s stricture regarding the folly of partisanship: “Are you for Paul or Apollos?” But the hearts of these two workers were almost certainly knit together in a bond nothing could break. That there must have been something refreshing about the unique ministry of Apollos may be gathered from the way both Luke and Paul compared him to water. Luke thought of Apollos as “boiling hot” in earnest spirituality, for this is what the word fervent means. Paul, the great missionary statesman, spoke of Apollos’ words as cool streams upon a burned-up garden, “Apollos watered” (Acts 18:25; 1Cor 3:6). The drooping converts of Corinth, so spiritually parched, were being revived under the preaching of Apollos. His fellow-apostle, Paul, rejoiced in having gained such a capable partner. Within the ecclesias today there are many drooping, withering plants in dire need of watering, but their case is forlorn if the ecclesia lacks those like Apollos, who can water God’s garden.


One cannot read the epistles of Paul, without realizing what a genius for friendship he had.

All we know of Epaphroditus, the Macedonian, is recorded in two vivid passages in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, but from these brief sketches we gain a good deal of insight into the life and character of this brother who was so precious to Paul the aged (Phil 2:25; 4:18).

Paul shows for us the true character of Epaphroditus, who was certainly one of the most loyal and devoted servants of the Lord mentioned in the Pauline epistles.

He was a brother: In all likelihood Epaphroditus was a convert of Paul, but he certainly created for himself a singular place in Paul’s affection. With deep feeling he could speak of him as “my brother.”

My companion in labor: Epaphroditus was among Paul’s best helpers, being among those gifts of our Lord to his ecclesia, which Paul describes as helps (1Cor 12:28).

My fellowsoldier: “…for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete your service to me” (Phil 2:30, RSV). He considered his life worth nothing, but sought to finish his race to aid Paul.

Your messenger (apostle) and minister: A brother honored with the apostolic gifts, so he could indeed minister to the beginning ecclesias.

He was therefore an example for us: he struggled through sickness, but never lost his zeal for the Truth.

Peter Hemingray (Detroit Royal Oak, MI)

1. The source I have found the most helpful about the twelve apostles is William Barclay’s little book “The Master’s Men,” long out of print.
2. Whether Junia/Junias was a male or female has been the subject of much debate, with the ancients as well as modern scholars being evenly divided. If indeed Junia was female, it is attractive to regard the pair as husband and wife, in the fashion of Priscilla and Aquila.
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