Jesus’ calling of the twelve disciples was intentional, not haphazard. He spent an entire night in prayer, specifically to ask for His Father’s guidance (Luke 6:12, 13). He selected twelve disciples who were different from each other and from their Leader in so many ways. How did such a diverse group become united in their love for Jesus, for one another, and in their commitment to accomplishing His mission?
Who were they?
McKinsey & Company report that “the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.”1 What is true in the corporate world has been seen in the church.
“The apostles differed widely in habits and disposition. . . . These [the disciples] were brought together, with their different faults, all with inherited and cultivated tendencies to evil; but in and through Christ they were to dwell in the family of God, learning to become one in faith, in doctrine, in spirit. They would have their tests, their grievances, their differences of opinion; but while Christ was abiding in the heart, there could be no dissension. His love would lead to love for one another; the lessons of the Master would lead to the harmonizing of all differences, bringing the disciples into unity, till they would be of one mind and one judgment. Christ is the great center, and they would approach one another just in proportion as they approached the center.”2
The disciples had differences that threatened to divide their loyalty and destroy their unity.
Leadership differences. Peter quickly emerged as the leader of the group.3 While all, at one time or another, argued who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God, by asking to be at the right and left hand of Jesus, James and John more visibly aspired to leadership positions of prominence (Mark 10:35–41).
Personality differences. James and John were called “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), often quick-tempered (Luke 9:54) and demanding (Mark 10:35). Peter was impulsive; he often spoke or acted impetuously (Matt. 26:35; John 18:10). Thomas was introspective and often skeptical (John 11:16; 14:1–6; 20:24–29). Andrew was warm and winsome (John 1:40–42).
Political differences. Simon the Zealot hated Rome and wanted to conquer by force and bring about the kingdom of God (Matt. 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:14–16; Acts 1:1–13).4 In contrast, having compromised himself with Rome, Matthew was a tax collector who worked for the Romans (Matt. 9:9).5
Prominence differences. Peter spoke more than any other disciple, and Jesus spoke to no other disciple as much as He did to Peter.6 James and John, along with Peter, were considered the “inner circle” of Jesus (Matt. 17:1–13). John called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7, 20; see also John 13:23; 19:26). Other than their names, we know very little about the remaining disciples.
Racial differences. Philip may have been partially Greek, but the others were pure-blooded Jews.7 Perhaps because of his heritage, the Greeks specifically sought Philip when they wanted to see Jesus (John 12:20–26).8
Socioeconomic differences. Matthew was most likely affluent because he was a tax collector.9 Peter, James, John, and Andrew could have been middle-class fishermen because they owned their own boats, and Peter owned his own home.
Theological differences. All the disciples misunderstood the mission of Jesus, believing that His kingdom was going to be established on Earth. Here we see marked differences between Jesus and His disciples, between the Leader and His followers.
How did it happen?
How, then, did this diverse group of people come to work together and love each other? Three events made the difference.
The cross of Calvary. Just before the Last Supper, the disciples argued over who would be the greatest. In response, Jesus prayed for them and their unity (John 17). “That union and love might exist among His disciples was the burden of our Saviour’s last prayer for them prior to His crucifixion. . . . The severest trials awaited them, but Jesus saw that their greatest danger would be from a spirit of bitterness and division.”10
Their unity was of utmost importance to Jesus because He knew that if they were united, the power of God would be unstoppable. Jesus modeled for us the importance of praying for the unity of the church and its leaders.
The upper room. Jesus’ prayer for unity was accompanied by a love seen anew through the lens of the cross. “ ‘A new commandment I give unto you.’ . . . John 13:34. At the time when these words were spoken, the disciples could not understand them; but after they had witnessed the sufferings of Christ, after His crucifixion and resurrection, and ascension to heaven, and after the Holy Spirit had rested on them at Pentecost, they had a clearer conception of the love of God and of the nature of that love which they must have for one another.”11
The vision of the sheet. As pivotal as the upper room was, Peter’s vision of the sheet was to prove equally transformational (Acts 10). “The time had come for an entirely new phase of work to be entered upon by the church of Christ. The door that many of the Jewish converts had closed against the Gentiles was now to be thrown open. And the Gentiles who accepted the gospel were to be regarded as on an equality with the Jewish disciples, without the necessity of observing the rite of circumcision.”12
Familiarity was disrupted by diversity, inequality was replaced by equality, closed doors gave way to open doors—and the world was turned upside down. As the “sons of thunder” matured in discipleship, James gave his life out of love for Jesus, the first apostle to be killed (Acts 12:2), and John earned a new nickname—the ‘Apostle of Love’ ” (1 John 4:16) 13.
Lessons to learn
Now that we have seen how the transformation of the disciples happened, what lessons can we learn?
Accept one another. The disciples came to appreciate and love one another, even for their differences. The more time they spent with Jesus and one another, the more their appreciation of one another continued to grow. Throughout their time with Jesus and following His ascension, the disciples saw their diversity as a gift from God. They saw each of the others as uniquely created by God, and it was in that uniqueness that they could minister to various people and groups, as seen in the book of Acts. If they were a homogeneous lot, they would not have been as effective in reaching Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the world (Acts 1:8).
Even when disagreements arose, as shown in Acts 15, they came together, listening to one another and the voice of God. This is an important lesson for the church: our diversity is not a hindrance but an advantage in taking the gospel to the world.
Learn from one another. The disciples also learned from one another. So often, we think of them learning from Jesus, but just by spending time together, they learned from one another as well. While Jesus specifically taught lessons to the disciples, learning also took place in the informal moments of life. One can imagine that the disciples learned a great deal from one another as they were sitting around the fire and discussing what they had seen, heard, and experienced in proclaiming the gospel.
So often, when we talk about diversity in the church, we concentrate on accepting one another, but we need to go beyond just mere acceptance. Everyone can learn something from others.
Unity in action
The authors of this article have observed, through extensive travel to local churches, some healthy churches that, through prayer, Scripture study, and intentionality, have found ways to appreciate and celebrate diverse ideas and personalities.
These churches have demonstrated that unity in the church is based upon the commonality of being brothers and sisters in Christ. They prove that there can be unity in diversity, alignment does not always involve agreement, and disagreement is not synonymous with division. “Christ prayed that His disciples might be one, even as He and His Father are one. In what does this unity consist? That oneness does not consist in everyone having the same disposition, the very same temperament, that makes all run in the very same channel.”14 These churches can leverage their diversity in a way that more effectively reaches their community for the kingdom of God, just as the disciples did.
Make a difference
The disciples, enhanced by their diversity, could preach and minister more effectively in a pluralistic world. If we follow their example, as diverse as we may be, driven by our love for Jesus, united by His presence, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, our diversity can make a vast difference in our world for the kingdom of God.
- Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle, Kevin Dolan, Vivian Hunt, and Sara Prince, "Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters," McKinsey, May 19, 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters#/.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 296.
- Peter is always listed first in the list of the disciples. He was the one who spoke on behalf of the disciples and declared Jesus “ ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ ” (Matt. 16:13–20, NIV; see also Mark 8:27–30).
- See Alexander Balmain Bruce, The Training of the Twelve; or, Passages out of the Gospels, Exhibiting the Twelve Disciples of Jesus Under Discipline for the Apostleship (New York, NY: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1889), 34.
- “Since the Jews considered themselves victims of Roman oppression, Jewish tax collectors who overtaxed their fellow countrymen were especially despised. Jews viewed such favor for Rome as betrayal and equal to treason against God. Rabbinic sources consistently align Jewish tax collectors with robbers.” Jeffrey E. Miller, “Tax Collector,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- John McArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 39.
- “Philip is a Greek name meaning ‘lover of horses.’ ” McArthur, 119.
- Philip is specifically mentioned in John 1:43–51; 12:21, 22; 6:5–7; 14:8, 9.
- See Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1–10.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 236.
- Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 547.
- White, The Acts of the Apostles, 136.
- “Why Did Jesus Refer to James and John as the Sons of Thunder?,” Got Questions, last updated January 4, 2022, https://www.gotquestions.org/sons-of-thunder.html.
- Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 15 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 2017), 149.