Jesus went up the mountain, and summoned the people he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve (naming them ‘apostles’) to be with him and to be sent out as heralds, and to have authority to cast out demons. In appointing the Twelve, he named Simon ‘Peter’; James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John, he named ‘Boanerges’, which means ‘sons of thunder’. The others were Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot (the one who handed him over).
You know the revolution has become serious when its leaders appoint an alternative government. The Western world watched and waited in the early months of 2011 as the Libyan rebels set up a kind of shadow body. There was still a ‘government’ in Tripoli, loyal to the long-time leader, Colonel Gaddafi, but away to the north-east, in one of the rebel strongholds, the increasingly influential rebel movement set up a body to administer the larger and larger area under its control.
Until we realize that Jesus’ calling of the Twelve must have felt a bit like that, we won’t get to the heart of what was going on. He was, after all, behaving as if he was already in charge – speaking with authority, and backing up his words with decisive and startling actions. This had already aroused hostility and threats from the existing authorities, both real and self-appointed. Undeterred, Jesus moved ahead. His next action spoke volumes.
Anyone behaving as if they’re in charge, and then calling people and giving them new names and an apparently special role, is quite obviously making a statement. He is, it seems, consolidating his position. He isn’t just a maverick, going around doing bizarre and surprising things. He seems to have some kind of strategy.
But the strategy has a clear symbolic value. Numbers speak volumes. If Jesus had given his followers ten new ‘commandments’, the point would have been obvious: these were to replace the ten given by God through Moses on Mount Sinai. What Jesus does is equally obvious to anyone with the least knowledge of ancient Israel and of the Jewish hopes of the first century.
The people of Israel were a family, tracing ancestry back to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob had had twelve sons, some of whom became famous (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and above all Judah, Joseph and Benjamin) and some of whom remained less so (Naphtali, Issachar, Asher, Gad, Zebulun and Dan). The great primal collection of biblical books, the first five (from Genesis to Deuteronomy) places special emphasis on the Twelve and their particular callings.
When the Israelites finally entered the promised land after their forty-year wander in the desert, Joshua parcelled out the land between the twelve tribes, with the descendants of Levi living and working as priests and teachers among the others. After many generations, disaster struck: the northern tribes were carried away captive by the Assyrians. Nobody really knew where they were, or whether they had been simply dispersed. Only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, and such Levites as lived among them, remained. Up till then, the people had been known as ‘Israelites’, the twelve sons of Jacob (whose special name, given by God, was ‘Israel’). Now they would be known as the ‘Judah-people’. That’s where the modern word ‘Jew’ comes from.
But there were some great, ancient prophets who had predicted that when God restored the fortunes of his people he would call the twelve tribes back into existence. There can be no doubt that this is the message Jesus wanted to convey when he called twelve from among his followers, and spoke of them as such. This was not simply a renewal of ‘Judaism’, the Judah-people. This was a renewal of Israel itself. This was a going-back-to-the-beginning move. It was almost as powerful, and as dangerous, a ploy as it would be today if an apparently self-appointed leader were to call a press conference in front of Buckingham Palace or on the White House lawn, or were to build a new official house and call it ‘Buckingham Palace’ or ‘The White House’.
Two other features of Jesus’ call of the Twelve stand out particularly. First, it forces us to ask, as do Jesus’ actions: who does he think he is? He is not the first of the Twelve, a kind of ‘first among equals’. No: he calls the Twelve into existence. That makes him at least a new Jacob. But perhaps he is going further. It is, after all, God himself who called the people of Israel to be his people.
The second feature reinforces this first one. Jesus gives to some of the Twelve new names. He names Simon ‘Peter’, which means ‘rock’ or ‘stone’. James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, he names ‘Boanerges’, which means ‘thunder-sons’. But this is, more or less, what God had done with some of the original patriarchs. God renamed Abram ‘Abraham’, ‘father of many nations’ (Genesis 17.5). He renamed Jacob ‘Israel’, ‘prince with God’ (Genesis 32.28; 35.10). The new name carries a meaning, and the meaning indicates the purpose of God.
We might, perhaps, have been tempted to pass over this list of the Twelve. We don’t know very much about most of them (a bit like the original twelve Israelite patriarchs, in fact). But the fact that there were twelve of them speaks more power-fully than any individual achievements. And it speaks right through the ages to us as well. The early Christians were quite clear that though Jesus had called the Twelve as a foundation for his work, he had then built on this foundation, and was continuing to do so (Ephesians 2.20). And Jesus himself promises, in the book of Revelation (2.17), that he will give a special ‘new name’ to all those who ‘conquer’, who hold out in the war against wickedness and corruption.
This promise holds firm and good for every single one of Jesus’ followers today. Read the list of names slowly once more, only this time, in between each of the Twelve whom Jesus called, place the names of your Christian leaders, teachers and friends. Right in the middle, place your own name. And pray that God will enable you to hear him call you once more by name, as he called you in your baptism, and show you how you, too, can be part of his alternative government, his project of kingdom and renewal.
Almighty God, you called Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Twelve; and, through Jesus, you called the twelve apostles. Call us afresh today; name us once more to carry forward your purposes in the world.