Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, along with James and his brother John, are always mentioned first in the biblical record whenever the apostles are listed together by name (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13). They were the first to be called by Christ to comprise his immediate band of followers (Mark 1:16-20), and both sets of brothers appear to have been present when Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:29-31). Throughout the remainder of the Gospel narratives, with the single exception of Mark 13:3-4, Andrew essentially fades into the background as the other three rise to prominence.
Peter, James, and John were the only disciples allowed to accompany Jesus when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Mark 5:37). On the mountain where Christ was transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah, none of the apostles was invited to witness this glorious event except Peter, James, and John (Mark 9:2). In the Garden of Gethsemane, not long before his arrest and eventual execution, the Lord selected only Peter, James, and John to accompany him to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 14:32-35).
Why were these three men consistently singled out and set apart from the others? Why were they given unique opportunities that were unavailable to anyone else? What was so special about them to be allowed into Christ’s most inner circle? The following observations may be of interest.
Peter, James and John were among the most unlikely representatives of Christ. As Galilean fishermen, skilled in handling boats, nets and fish, what did Jesus see in them as prospective teachers and spiritual leaders? They were clearly not men of polish, prestige, and influence. They lacked formal education and rhetorical training (Acts 4:13) and were certainly not the brightest and most refined that could have been chosen. Each had significant character flaws as well. Peter was erratic and impulsive, slow to listen and quick to react. He regularly misread situations and misunderstood the Lord’s purpose, requiring constant rebuke and correction (Matthew 14:31; 16:22-23; 26:33-35; John 13:6-8; 18:10-11; et al.). James and John, apparently due to their fiery temperaments, earned the unenviable title "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17). They were impatient, intolerant, and quick to judge (Luke 9:54), not to mention prideful and self-seeking (Mark 10:35-44).
As Jesus looked beyond their glaring imperfections and saw extraordinary potential, these unimpressive and profoundly flawed human beings went on to become effective evangelists and capable leaders in the early Christian movement. As a matter of fact, it is precisely because of their heightened fallibility that the power of God is more clearly evident in all they achieved. And the same Lord is still capable of accomplishing the unexpected through imperfect people like you and me.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, NKJV)
NICKNAMED BY CHRIST
Another intriguing observation is that Peter, James and John are the only three apostles to have been nicknamed by Christ. Petros ("Peter"), the Greek equivalent of the Aramaic Kēphas ("Cephas"), is the designation Jesus gave to Simon (Mark 3:16; John 1:42). Such a respectable name, meaning "a stone" and thus signifying firmness and stability, is clearly not descriptive of what Simon was like when he first received it. Nonetheless, it is precisely what he was expected to become (see Jesus Called Him 'Peter' Only Twice). The Lord designated James and John Boanērges, Aramaic for "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17). As noted above, this appears to have been indicative of their volatile dispositions at the time but certainly not what they were expected to be.
We see here the use of two different approaches to achieve comparable goals. Peter’s name was a constant reminder of the rock-solid character he needed to develop, whereas James and John’s less-than-flattering moniker highlighted what they needed to overcome. Different people are motivated by different things. While the ultimate aim of all that Paul and his colleagues did was "to be well pleasing to [the Lord]" (2 Corinthians 5:9), other motivating factors included the coming judgment (v. 10), the terror of the Lord (v. 11), and the love of Christ (v. 14). What compels you might not have as strong of an influence on me, and vice versa. As we "exhort one another daily" (Hebrews 3:13), we ought to utilize whatever works most effectively for each person.
THE WEAKEST DISCIPLES?
Although Peter, James and John have historically been acknowledged as the Lord’s "inner circle," this does not necessarily mean they were his favorites. It may rather suggest that they were among the weakest disciples and needed the extra attention. In view of the extreme importance of the work they were being called to do, and considering their significant shortcomings and the fact that Jesus was not one to show partiality, this seems to be a reasonable deduction.
The lesson here is that each member of Christ’s body is not only different but has unique potential with accompanying needs. None is without importance, all have God-given responsibilities, and every disciple should be directed accordingly.
No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schims in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:22-24)
RESPECTIVE LENGTHS OF SERVICE
Peter, James and John were prepared by the Lord for active roles in his kingdom and for different lengths of service. After only fourteen years of preaching the gospel, the apostle James was killed in AD 44 by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2). The apostle Peter reportedly suffered martyrdom at the hands of Nero in the mid-60s (cf. 2 Peter 1:14), ending approximately three and a half decades of missionary activity. Traditionally the apostle John is believed to have died near the end of the first century after seventy notable years of apostolic ministry.
Here we learn that what really matters to the Lord is not longevity of service but faithfulness to the task. The parable of the vineyard workers likens the kingdom of heaven to a landowner employing laborers for his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Those hired early in the morning agree to the customary daily wage, whereas others recruited throughout the day end up receiving the same amount. From a worldly point of view, those who labored for the shorter periods were in a favorable position compared to the ones who worked the longest. But from the heavenly perspective, what a blessing it is to serve God on earth for as long as possible! The later in life one puts off obeying and serving Christ, the more he/she misses out on what is truly worthwhile. James was blessed with a few good years of productive ministry, and while he went on to his eternal reward comparatively early, Peter had the greater honor of serving for a longer period of time. But it was John who had the greatest privilege of laboring in the Lord’s vineyard the longest.
Can you in any way relate to Peter, James, and/or John? Are you an unlikely representative of Jesus? Have you discovered what effectively motivates you to faithfulness? Are you weak and in regular need of spiritual support? Do you possess a sincere willingness to remain committed to the Lord until the end? If so, welcome to Christ’s inner circle!
--Kevin L. Moore
Related Posts: John of Zebedee, James of Zebedee, Simon Peter
Image credit: https://eastdailyoffice.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/jesusjamesjohn-srgregoryemsosb-800.jpg