ONE OF THE FIRST GENTILE CHURCHES PERSECUTED IN SYRIA
LUKE CHAPTER 6
2 It was around that time that Yeshua went out to the hill country to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 When day came, he called his disciples and chose from among them twelve to be known as emissaries:
14 Shim‘on, whom he named Kefa; Andrew, his brother; Ya‘akov; Yochanan; Philip; Bar-Talmai;
15 Mattityahu; T’oma; Ya‘akov Ben-Halfai;
16 Shim‘on, the one called the Zealot; Y’hudah Ben-Ya‘akov; and Y’hudah from K’riot, who turned traitor.
This is a fundamental piece of tradition found in the three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke. The lists in Mark and Matthew are the same, whereas Luke gives the name of Judah son of Jacob in place of Thadddaeus who is named by Mark and Matthew. This cannot simply be an oversight as Luke was using Mark as a source. We must conclude that he was deliberately correcting what he saw as a mistake in the earlier Gospel. As very little is known from the gospels about either of them, it’s impossible to reach any conclusion about this matter.
Mark mentions a hill where Jesus appointed the twelve. Luke adds the information that Jesus went up the hill to pray for a whole day, even through the hours of darkness, before calling his disciples and appointing them as his emissaries, thus making the appointment flow fron Jesus’ intimacy with God. His emissaries will act in the strength of that relationship and make it effective. Luke like Matthew, uses the noun “Apostles” while Mark says that Jesus will send (apostelein) them to preach and cast out evil spirits. It is clear from this that there were many disciples but only twelve “apostles” that is emissaries or messengers who represented Jesus’ intention to spread the news of God’s goodness as widely as possible. It’s hard to tell if in historical fact Jesus intended them to go out to the gentiles. If, as seems likely, Jesus believed that the time had come for Abraham’s children to be a blessing to all nations, he may have seen this happening either through gentiles coming to Israel, seeking a blessing, or by Jews going out to the gentiles. As in fact the early believers did go out, so that the church of Luke’s day was more gentile than Jewish, the appointment by Jesus of emissaries became very important in the story of Jesus.
The number twelve of course represents Israel. Some scholars have said a new Israel, but it’s perfectly possible that Jesus meant to represent the real Israel fulfilling the promise given to Abraham. The Jewish faith had never been evangelical. God has one purpose for the Jews – to live according to his Torah- and another for the gentiles – to live decently by their own lights. The disciples of Rabbis were trainee scholars, not emissaries. So the placing of “sending out” at the heart of the good news of Jesus, shows a conviction that the ancient promise to Abraham about being a blessing to all nations was being fulfilled by the emissaries of Jesus; that a new time had arrived.
The Greek word apostelein, to send became important in the story of Jesus, not just for his apostles, but also as applied to Jesus himself. He also is “sent”, by God, to announce and demonstrate his goodness in Israel. The whole Christian phenomenon can then be seen as a break- out of God’s people, in this case from the promised land, into the wider world, a new exodus of the bearers of God’s blessing for humanity. In time this was called by the Latin word for sending, mission. Individual believers may have a variety of roles but the assemblies of Jesus as a whole are “sent out”; they are a mission of God.
The Complete Jewish Bible translation which I’m using gives names in their Jewish form, which reminds the gentile believers where they have come from. The rest of the world has acccess to Jesus because Jesus’ Jewish apostles were faithful to his mission.
Some have questioned whether Jesus did really appoint apostles, suggesting that the first believers may have invented this story. The evidence seems to be in the other direction, as although all the gospels mention the twelve, they give very little information about most of them. This points to an institution that did really belong to Jesus’ time but which died out with the deaths of the original twelve. Their names were revered; some of them like Peter and John were associated with particular cities in the Roman Empire; most were forgotten, as new leaders emerged in the assemblies of Jesus.
My images today are of contemporary Syrian believers, from one of the most ancient of gentile churches, who are under severe persecution and in danger, along with many other grouops in Syria. Some of them still worship in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.