John MacArthur. Twelve Ordinary Men: How the Master Shaped His Disciples for Greatness, and What He Wants to Do with You. W, 2002. See here to purchase the book.
John MacArthur is a pastor and author as well as the President of Master’s Seminary. Twelve Ordinary Men is a profile of each of the twelve disciples. MacArthur looks at everything that the New Testament says about the disciples and draws conclusions about their character from that. He also considers various ancient Christian traditions about what happened to them.
Here are some thoughts and observations:
A. MacArthur paints a coherent picture of each disciple, pulling together the various things that the New Testament says about them. To use an example, Thomas was willing to go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus (John 11:16), but he also doubted that Jesus rose from the dead (John 20). In addition, shortly before Jesus’s death, Thomas said he did not know where Jesus was going and wondered how the disciples could know the way (John 14:5). What do all of these statements have in common? Some think that the common theme was that Thomas was a dunce, or that Thomas had his moments of faith and his moments of doubt. More plausibly, MacArthur proposes that Thomas was a pessimist, yet a pessimist who wanted to be with Jesus.
B. MacArthur continually says that the disciples demonstrate that God uses the weak things of the world for God’s glory (I Corinthians 1:27). Yet, MacArthur also thinks that the disciples had natural talents that God used. Peter, for instance, was an apt leader because he was curious and unafraid to ask questions, rushed to be in the middle of things, and boldly got in the forefront and talked. God refined Peter’s character yet used who Peter basically was. MacArthur does not think that everyone has to be like Peter, though. He notes that Andrew quietly brought individual people to Jesus. James the Less and Judas (not Iscariot) were perfectly willing to stay in the background, yet God used them to do great things, just as God used the other disciples.
C. In a few cases, MacArthur tries to work with what little details the New Testament provides. Based on details in the New Testament, MacArthur explores the possibility that James the Less was Matthew’s brother, or Jesus’s nephew. MacArthur acknowledges that these are mere possibilities and is not dogmatic about them. Some details were puzzling: is John 19:25 suggesting that Mary’s sister was also named Mary? What was particularly interesting about James the Less was that his mother and others in his family were followers of Jesus.
D. There were cases in which MacArthur illuminated the Scriptures, or at least offered plausible proposals and interpretations. Why did the Samaritans in the Gospel of Luke have a problem with the disciples passing through Samaritan territory to get to Jerusalem? According to MacArthur, the Samaritans disliked that Jews were going to Jerusalem to worship, when the Samaritans believed that God’s legitimate sanctuary was at Mount Gerizim. How was Jesus responding to the question from Judas (not Iscariot) about why Jesus shows himself to the disciples and not the whole world (John 14:22)? Jesus’s response was that the Father and Jesus appear to anyone who loves him.
E. On pages 98-99, MacArthur contrasts Paul with John. Paul, according to MacArthur, acknowledges that believers struggle with sin (Romans 7), whereas John presents things in black and white: believers obey the commandments, love, do not practice sin, walk in the light, etc. MacArthur states: “From reading John, one might think that righteousness comes so easily and naturally to the Christian that every failure would be enough to shatter our assurance completely. That is why when I read heavy doses of John, I sometimes have to turn to Paul’s epistles just to find some breathing space.” That is a telling statement, since MacArthur’s writings have challenged my own spiritual assurance in the past. Apparently, MacArthur has a similar struggle, at times, and feels a need for breathing space as he reads and processes Scripture.
F. Some of MacArthur’s harmonizations of Scripture are fairly plausible, whereas others are not so much. MacArthur tries to harmonize the different accounts of Jesus’s calling of the disciples. He says that Jesus called them when they were disciples of John, then called them to deeper levels of service, then chose them among other disciples to go out and preach the message of the Kingdom. That makes a degree of sense, for Peter in Luke 5 obviously already knew Jesus. MacArthur’s attempt to reconcile the different accounts of Judas Iscariot’s death was a bit of a stretch, though. What MacArthur seems to be saying is that the priests bought Judas a field with the money that Judas returned to them, and Judas hung himself then collapsed there (cp. Matthew 27:8; Acts 1:19).
G. MacArthur says that Judas left before Jesus and the disciples ate the last supper. This is a significant topic because it is relevant to debates about closed versus open communion. Did Judas partake of communion with the other disciples? For MacArthur, there was no way that Jesus would allow Judas, a greedy, hateful man who had opened himself to Satanic influence, to partake of the holy sacrament of communion. Looking at the Gospels, MacArthur’s interpretation makes sense if one wants to compare John with Matthew and Mark. John lacks a communion service, but it does depict Judas leaving right after Jesus confronts him about the impending betrayal (John 13:21-29). Matthew and Mark depict the last supper occurring after Jesus confronts Judas (Matthew 26:21-29; Mark 14:18-25), so, when one juxtaposes the three passages, it is plausible that Judas left after the confrontation and before the last supper. In Luke 22:15-22, however, Judas appears to be still at the table after Jesus consecrates the bread and the wine, which would imply that he did partake of communion.
H. MacArthur presents an intriguing, albeit distressing, picture of Judas. Judas followed Jesus out of a desire for money and power and was preoccupied with that, even though Jesus continually showed him kindness and spoke spiritual truths to him. Judas was even able to hide his wickedness and to blend in with the other disciples. MacArthur’s picture of Judas was extensive, yet missing a significant element. Why did Jesus make Judas the treasurer (John 12:6; 13:29), when he knew that Judas was a thief? MacArthur does not say. Ellen G. White, a founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, proposed that Jesus was trying to ween Judas from greed by placing Judas in charge of helping the poor.
I. MacArthur assumes that Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew. According to MacArthur, Matthew was so knowledgeable about the Old Testament because he studied the Scriptures on his own, since, as a hated tax-collector, he could not hear them read at the synagogues. How plausible is it that Matthew would have his own copy of the Torah, though, when Torah scrolls were expensive and rare? And not only the Torah, but different versions of it, including the proto-MT and the Septuagint? Perhaps that could have happened eventually, since the Scriptures were read in churches and Matthew could have had access to them that way, but I wonder if Matthew, during the lifetime of Jesus, could have had his own copy of the Torah. MacArthur says that Matthew was a lower-level tax collector, so he was not as well-paid as a chief tax collector. Could Matthew still have afforded a Torah scroll, or attained a copy of that and variants through his extensive economic contacts?
J. MacArthur seems to assume that the Old Testament directly predicted Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, even though there are challenges that can be made to this position. John 13:19 applies Psalm 41:9 to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus: “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (KJV). The problem with applying Psalm 41 to Jesus is that the Psalmist confesses sin against God in Psalm 41:4. Jesus, according to Christian teaching, never sinned. MacArthur should have wrestled with this question, at least briefly, since he goes deeply into Old Testament background throughout this book.
K. There is not a whole lot of application in this book, but that is all right with me, for constructing a bunch of artificial rules would make the book look, well, artificial. The book is a compelling picture, though, of how a loving and righteous God mentors and uses different kinds of people, as well as the importance of valuing God’s purposes rather than simply how God can meet one’s own needs.