This group of three apostles is the least known to us. They are virtually silent in the gospel narratives. And they are each referred to by several names. Before reading further, just for fun, see if you can match the names above to these three apostles.
It must be borne in mind that the apostles were men who gave up everything to follow Christ. Peter spoke for them all when he said, “See, we have left all and followed you” (Luke 18: 28). They had left houses, jobs, lands, family, and friends to follow Christ.
The legacy of their true greatness is the church, a living breathing organism which they helped found. The church, now some 2000 years old, exists today because these men launched the expansion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
James, Son of Alphaeus
There are several men with the name James in the New Testament. There is James who is the son of Zebedee. There is another James, who was the son of Mary and Joseph and therefore a half-brother of Christ (Galatians 1: 19). The James who was Jesus’s half-brother apparently became a leader in the Jerusalem church. He was the spokesman who delivered the ruling of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15: 13-21. He is also thought to be the same James who penned the New Testament epistle that bears his name. He is not the same James named as one of the apostles.
Among other names, the Apostle James was called James the Less or Little James, which may have referred to his stature as a short person or his age as a young person. It could also refer to his level of influence within the group of apostles.
Practically all we know about the James with whom we are concerned, is that he was the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10: 3; Mark 3: 18, Luke 6: 15; Acts 1: 13). In Mark 15: 40, we learned that James’s mother was named Mary. That verse, together with Matthew 27: 56 and Mark 15: 47, mentions another of this woman’s sons, Joses. Joses must have been well known as a follower of the Lord (though not an apostle), because his name is mentioned repeatedly. Little James’ and Joses’ mother, Mary, was obviously a devoted follower of Christ as well. She was an eyewitness to the crucifixion. She is also one of the women who came to prepare Jesus’s body for burial (Mark 16: 1).
There is some evidence that James the Less took the Gospel to Syria and Persia. Accounts of his death differ. Some say he was stoned; Others say he was beaten to death; Still others say he was crucified like his Lord.
Here’s an interesting thought about James, Son of Alphaeus. You may recall that according to Mark 2:14, Levi (Matthew) was the son of a man named Alphaeus as well. It could be that this James was the brother of Matthew. There is no effort on the part of the scriptures to distinguish between the two Alphaeus’s and Matthew and James were nowhere identified as brothers. We simply don’t know whether they were or not.
Another interesting question about James’s lineage comes to light when we compare Mark 15:40 with John 19:25. Both verses mentioned two other Marys who were standing by the cross of Jesus with Mary the Lord’s mother. Mark 15: 40 mentions “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses.” John 19: 25 names [Jesus’s] mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Jesus’s mother’s sister (“Mary the wife of Clopas”) and “Mary the mother of James the Less” are the same person. (“Clopas” may have been another name for Alphaeus, or James’s mother might have remarried after his father died). This would have made James the Less Jesus’s cousin. We don’t know. Scripture doesn’t expressly tell us.
Simon the Zealot
The next name given in Luke 6: 15 is “Simon called the Zealot.” In Matthew 10:4 and Mark 3 18, he is called “Simon the Canaanite.” That is not a reference to the land of Canaan or the village of Cana. It comes from the Hebrew root ganna, which means “to be zealous.”
The term in Jesus’ day signified a well-known and widely feared outlaw political sect, and Simon had apparently been a member of that sect.
The Zealots hated the Romans, and their goal was to overthrow the Roman occupation. They advanced their agenda primarily through terrorism and surreptitious acts of violence. They believed only God Himself had the right to rule over the Jews. And therefore, they believed they were doing God’s work by assassinating Roman soldiers, political leaders, and anyone else who opposed them.
The Zealots were hoping for a Messiah who would lead them in overthrowing the Romans and restore the Kingdom to Israel with in Solomonic glory.
The Romans might torture them and kill them, but they could not quench their passion. Many historians believe that when the Romans sacked Jerusalem under Titus Vespasian in AD 70, that terrible holocaust was largely precipitated by the Zealots. So, the Zealots’ blind hatred of Rome and everything Roman, ultimately provoked the destruction of their own city. The spirit of their movement was an insane and self-destructive fanaticism.
When Jesus did not overthrow Rome, but instead talked of dying, some might have expected Simon to be the betrayer — a man of such deep passion, zeal, and political conviction, that he would align himself with terrorists. But that was before he met Jesus.
Of course, as one of the 12, Simon also had to associate with Matthew, who was at the opposite end of the political spectrum, collecting taxes for the Roman government. At one point in his life, Simon would probably have gladly killed Matthew. In the end they became spiritual brothers, working side by side for the same cause—the spread of the gospel—and worshipping the same Lord. The fiery enthusiasm he once had for Israel was now expressed in his devotion to Christ.
Several early sources say that after the destruction of Jerusalem, Simon took the gospel north and preached in the British Isles. All accounts say he was killed for preaching the gospel. This man who was once willing to kill and be killed for the political agenda within the confines of Judea found a more fruitful cause for which to give his life.
Judas, Son of James
The last name on the list of faithful disciples is “Judas, the son of James.” The name Judas in and of itself is a fine name. It means “Jehovah leads.” But because of the treachery of Judas Iscariot, the name Judas will forever have negative connotation. When the apostle John mentions him, he calls him “Judas (not Iscariot)” (John 14: 22). It is suggested that Judas Thaddaeus became known as Jude after early translators of the NT from Greek into English sought to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot and subsequently abbreviated his forename.
Judas, the Son of James, had three names. In Matthew 10: 3, he is called Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus. Judas was probably the name given to him at birth. Lebbaeus and Thaddaeus were essentially nicknames. Thaddaeus means “breast child”. Perhaps he was the youngest in his family and therefore the baby among several siblings. His other name, Lebbaeus, is similar. It is from a Hebrew root that refers to the heart—literally, “heart child.”
Both names suggest he had a tender, childlike heart. It is interesting to think of such a gentle soul in the same group as Simon the Zealot. But the Lord can use both kinds. Zealots make great preachers. But so do the tender-hearted, compassionate, gentle, sweet-spirited souls like Lebbaeus Thaddaeus. Together they contribute to a very complex and intriguing group of 12 apostles with at least one of every imaginable personality.
The New Testament records one incident involving Judas Lebbaeus Thaddaeus. To see it, we return to the Apostle John’s description of Jesus’s upper room discourse. In John 14: 21, Jesus says, “He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
Then John adds, “Judas (not Iscariot), said to him,’ Lord how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?’” (v. 22). His question is full of gentleness and meekness and devoid of any sort of pride. He couldn’t believe that Jesus would manifest himself to the ragtag group of 11, and not to the whole world.
Jesus gave him a marvelous answer, and the answer was as tender as the question. “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14: 23). Christ would manifest himself to anyone who loves him.
Most of the early tradition regarding Lebbaeus Thaddaeus suggests that a few years after Pentecost, he took the Gospel north, to Edessa, a royal city in Mesopotamia, in the region of Turkey today. There are numerous ancient accounts of how there he healed the King of Edessa, a man named Abgar. In the 4th century, Eusebius, the historian, said the archives at Edessa (now destroyed) contained full records of Thaddaeus’s visit and the healing of Abgar.
The traditional apostolic symbol of Judas Lebbaeus Thaddaeus is a club, because tradition says he was clubbed to death for his faith. According to tradition, Jude suffered martyrdom about 65 AD in Beirut, in the Roman province of Syria during the 1st century in Lebanon together with the apostle Simon the Zealot, with whom he is usually connected.
Thus, this tender-hearted soul followed his Lord faithfully to the end. His testimony was as powerful and as far reaching as that of the better known and more outspoken disciples. He, like them, is proof of how God uses perfectly ordinary people in remarkable ways.
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Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur