By Pastor Glenn Pease
Jamie Buckingham is one of the great preachers and authors whose books have sold in the millions. What I like about him is that he makes so many comical blunders in his ministry that he makes other pastors feel less threatened by their human errors. If you sometimes feel like your life is a comedy of errors, you will be relieved to know you are not alone. In one solemn service where he was piously leading his people to a point of silence, he bowed and heard laughter rippling across his congregation. It suddenly dawned on him as his mind replayed what he had just said: "Please bow your eyes and close your heads."
On another occasion he was to officiate at a formal wedding, and he came into the sanctuary directly from the restroom. He did not realize until he was in front of all those people that stuck to his shoe and trailing behind was a eight foot stream of toilet paper. Seldom to never is this fitting for formal occasions, regardless of the beauty of the pattern. Even more embarrassing, if that is possible, was when he put his hand on a casket at the front of the church, and the flimsy stand it was on gave way. It was not the send off he had planned.
Most laughable of all, because it has come close to happening to many pastors, is the time he baptized a very large woman on an Easter morning. She displaced far more water than he had anticipated. The overflow rushed into his waders, and filled them to the brim. When the woman came up, the water went down leaving him stranded in the middle of the baptistery with 400 pounds of water in his boots. He was rooted to the bottom of the baptistery and could not budge. Before an entire Easter congregation he had to lower his suspenders and crawl out of his boots in his underwear.
Have you ever wondered why God chooses the people He chooses, and why He lets the leaders of His people do so many strange, foolish, and embarrassing things? They could be multiplied by the millions you know. Maybe it is just because God loves a good laugh, and the angels never blunder, and so He has to get His enjoyment through men. I do not doubt that God is entertained by the silly mistakes of His people, just as we are by those of our children and grandchildren. But I think there is another reason for why God chooses men who fumble and blow it time after time. I think the reason becomes more and more evident as we study the 12 men that Jesus chose to be His special disciples who would become the 12 Apostles.
You do not have to examine these hand picked men for very long before you realize they were a fallible lot who added their share of blunders and folly to a world already in the flood stages of this stuff. We must assume that these 12 were the creme of the crop, but it seems incredible how soon they begin to exhibit that they are often sour cream. We all know about Judas, of course, and that is a whole issue in itself. The rest of these men are not exactly paragons of virtue, and knights on white horses in shining armor.
The fact is, some feel that the greatest miracle Jesus ever performed was His endurance of these men as they blunder their way through to the point of their final desertion of Him as He goes to the cross. Never did 12 men ever change the course of history like these 12, but never did a noted leader ever have more trouble with His followers than Jesus had with these 12. I do not like to be critical of the judgment of Jesus, but the New Testament evidence forces us to ask, why in the world did Jesus choose this bunch? Did they lie on their resumes, and did Jesus not check them out and call former employers? Did Jesus turn off His deity, and go only by His human feelings in making these choices? These questions are motivated by the New Testament evidence, which reveals to us that which we want to study.
THE NATURE OF THE 12.
If there was anything extraordinary about these men, it is not evident to the naked eye. Jesus was debating theology at 12 years old, but none of the 12 were sharp theologians. They did not understand what Jesus was teaching most of the time, and He was perpetually giving them private tutoring to help them grasp His parables. In Mark 4:13 Jesus said to them, "Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?" Then He went on to explain the parable of the sower. You can detect the frustration in the voice of Jesus. It is the teacher's frustration with students who cannot see the obvious. It is like asking, "When the war of 1812? Or who is buried in Grant's tomb?" The student is puzzled as he searches for an answer. "Magellan made three trips around the world, and on one of them he died. Which one was it?" The teacher begins to lose patients when the student cannot come up with an answer to such questions. How will they ever answer a hard question if they cannot answer these?
The frustration of Jesus grows, as they seem to get stupider with each lesson. In Mark 8 Jesus warns them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and they get into a discussion about bread. In Mark 8:17-18 we read, "Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them, 'Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?'" He goes on to explain again what He means.
Jesus, the greatest teacher who ever lived, and He is stuck with a class of boneheads. But it's hard to feel sorry for Jesus; after all, He chose them to be His students. Most teachers just have to take what they get. Jesus had a choice, and these were the ones He picked. Some people like a challenge, and Jesus was one of them, but we see signs of regret that make us wonder if He would make the same choices if He had to do it over again. In Matt. 15:15-16 Peter says, "Explain the parables to us." Jesus replies, "Are you still so dull?" It is obvious Jesus did not select these 12 on the basis of their school records or IQ. Peter is the leader, and he is about as sharp as a tack after its been run over by a train on the track.
Peter had some high points where he pulled an A, like the time when in Caesarea Philippi he said to Jesus, "You are the Christ the Son of the Living God." That was the best answer he ever gave to a question Jesus asked, and Jesus praised him as never before. But 6 verses later, after Jesus said He must go to Jerusalem and die and rise again, we read this response from Peter that puts him back to nerdsville. Matt. 16:22 says, "Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never Lord!" he said, "This shall never happen to you." With the disappointment of a teacher whose A student has just flunked, Jesus says in verse 23, "Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me..." In John 13 Peter cries out, "No you shall never wash my feet." Jesus has to rebuke him again. Here was the leader of the 12, and he had to be dragged into understanding, kicking, screaming, and resisting all the way.
The others were no better, however, and how Jesus must have envied the Rabbi's who had students who learned rapidly and who obeyed their precepts. But let's not forget they were not assigned to him, and they did not apply. He chose them, and that is the mystery-why? Why these puzzling appointments? They seem like rejects who were the least likely to succeed. Even after all that Jesus taught was fulfilled in the resurrection, these guys were the last to let the evidence penetrate their thick skulls. If you think this is being disrespectful to the noble company of the Apostles, let me point out that I am only reporting what the record reveals. Mark 16:14 reveals our Lords closing remarks to this chosen band. "Later Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were eating; He rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen Him after He had risen."
No wonder Jesus once complained in Mark 9:19, "How long must I put up with you guys?" Jesus could not have had a harder time training His elite band had He chosen them from the hells angels. We haven't even scratched the surface of the negative file on these men. It is thick with blotted records of their self-centeredness. In Mark 9:33-34 we read that when they entered the house in Capernaum Jesus asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road? But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest."
Don't kid yourself that Jesus can't identify with teachers of kids. These men were just like Jr. boys fighting over whose father or brother was the biggest or strongest. Two of them, James and John, even cooked up a scheme by which their mother was to help them get the right and left hand seats next to Jesus when He was king. The other disciples were so angry at this, mainly because they did not think of it first.
Jesus had to spend a great deal of His time and energy dealing with discipline problems. A lot of His teaching was just to get this elite class of His to grow up and act like men instead of the brat brigade. As with every new idea, there is a period where the bugs have to be worked out. Jesus was building His church on the foundation of these chosen men, and talk about bugs! It is hard to believe He ever shaped these men into a team that would turn the world upside down. You would think Jesus would have learned a lesson from the Old Testament. God chose the Jews to be His special people, and what a lemon of a choice. Sure, He was able to make lemonade and accomplish His purpose, and bring the Messiah into the world as the seed of Abraham, but what a job. They were so rebellious, stiff-necked, and slow to learn. God was rebuking and judging them most of the time. And yet after all this history Jesus turns around and starts the New Israel, then new people of God with 12 guys who do not look like a greatly improved product over the 12 sons of Jacob that God used to start the old people of God.
Are we to conclude that even God does not learn from history, and is, therefore, condemned to repeat it? Let's face it, there is a lot of mystery as to why Jesus would chose these particular men. Even more so, since we know He had other options. These 12 were not the only men who qualified to be one of the 12. Peter in Acts 1 tells us the requirements to be one of the 12. They had to be men who were with Jesus from the beginning, from the baptism of John until Jesus ascended to heaven. There were more than the 12 who could fill these requirements. They proposed two men, Joseph and Matthias, and Matthias won by the drawing of lots. The point is, here were two men who qualified to be of the 12, but they were not chosen. 12 was the cut off number even though Jesus could have had at least 14, and no doubt many more.
The 12 was obviously a symbolic number that Jesus insisted on maintaining. He later sent out 70 to preach, heal, and cast out demons. All of the 70 probably could have qualified to be an Apostle, but the number 12 was not to be tampered with. It was to be no more or no less. When Judas was dead they voted in another to bring the 11 back up to 12, for 12 was the sacred number. Commentators are in agreement that Jesus was clearly saying that He was the new king of a New Israel. The 12 tribes failed to fulfill God's purpose to be a blessing to all the families of the world. His 12 would not fail, but would fulfill the promise of God, and they have.
Jesus and His 12 were a public symbol that He was the Messiah, and His 12 disciples were the beginning of the New Israel. The number 12 was not to be changed either in the Old Testament or the New. Jacob had 12 sons, but he also had two grandsons by Joseph named Ephraim and Manasseh, and these two were counted as one tribe. But this would make for 13, and in order to keep it at 12 the Levites were not counted, for they had no land. But if they were counted the two grandsons would not be, for it always had to be an even 12. This important symbolism would be shattered if Jesus had appointed 11 or 13, or any other number but 12. This number is maintained all through the Bible right to the very end where we read in Rev. 21 that the New Jerusalem has 12 gates, and on them the names of the 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 foundations with the names of the 12 Apostles.
There is perfect and precise consistency on this number 12. It is so easy to be orderly with numbers. Precision and accuracy is characteristic of the mathematical sciences, but this does not mean that the 12 men themselves can be tied together in such a neat package. There is no way to avoid loose ends and complexity when you are dealing with men and so we are back to the mystery of the issue we are seeking to understand. Why did Jesus chose these particular 12 men when a blind man can see they are such fallible specimens of humanity. If he had other choices, why did He choose them, and why does He go on all through history choosing to use instruments which are so weak and inadequate, and who blunder as often as they bless? We are questioning the choices of God and His Son. As someone said, "How odd of God to choose the Jews, "And another mystery is why did He choose the 12?
We have asked the question enough times. Now we must start trying to answer it. First of all, we need to see that the Bible reveals that the God of perfection deliberately chooses imperfect instruments to accomplish His purpose. For one thing, if He is going to use men then He really has no choice but to use imperfect instruments. That is all there is, and even God has to settle for less than perfection in all except His Son. His options are not the good or the bad, but the bad and the less bad. God is infinite but His choices are not. Even He has to live within the limits of the reality that is. He does not have the choice to use just perfect people and ideal instruments, and so He does just what we do, He uses what is. But God goes further yet, and He even deliberately chooses to use less than the best of what is available.
There were peoples in the world who were better than Israel. The Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, not to mention the Greeks or the Romans, would have been better choices. They had more power, and more in the way of civilization and arts, and we could go on and on about their superiority to Israel. God did not choose Israel because she was the best choice. She was a nothing; a zip, and a zero with the rim off. God even calls her an abandoned baby left in her blood to die. Yet god chose her, not for what she could do for God, but what God could do for her, and with her.
The same is true for Christ's choice of the 12. They were not the best men in the world. They were extraordinarily ordinary. Jesus does just as the Father did in the Old Testament. It is God's way, and Paul described it so clearly in I Cor. 1:27-28, "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him."
God deliberately uses inferior tools to build His kingdom so that the beauty of all He creates can be attributed to Him and His wisdom and not to the cleverness of men. It is sheer folly to praise Israel for anything she has done, or to praise the church, for that matter, for its turning the world upside down, and changing the course of history. The glory does not belong to the 12, or the 70, or the 120 at Pentecost, or to the millions of Christian servants through the centuries. The glory is God's alone, and all praise is to the Lamb who by the fallible instruments of men has succeeded in building a universal empire greater than any ever seen, and one that will go on forever.
The amazing good news in all this is, you don't have to worry about being qualified to be used of God. If you lack self-esteem and feel ungifted and inadequate, do not fret, for that makes you just the sort of person God can use if you surrender your inadequacy to Him. He specializes in using people who are not fit for the job. The reason is simple, for when God does a beautiful thing through such an inadequate channel both the channel and those who see it cannot fail to recognize the grace of God.
I have a suspicion that the greatest untapped resource in this world for the kingdom of God is the mass of ordinary Christians who feel unqualified to do just about anything. They feel unable to teach, and incapable of witnessing, and unprepared to achieve any task for the kingdom. They become pew potatoes because they think the Lord of perfection will take none but the best. Give of your best to the Master is a song we sing, and we look at our best and say its second and third rate, and He deserves better, so we let only the gifted people do the job. This misses the whole point that God's strength is made perfect in weakness.
Job said, "I abhor myself."
Moses said, "Pick somebody else, I'm no good at speaking."
Isaiah said, "I am a man of unclean lips."
David cried out, "My sin is ever before me."
Peter said, "Depart from me, for I am a wicked man."
Paul said, "The evil which I would not, that I do."
If you want to find dirt on God's elect, and the elite among the elect, take a shovel for you will find plenty. Why does God use such vessels of clay? Because, that is His strategy. He wants to show a fallen, lost, and sinful humanity that anybody can be used for the glory of God. Don't ever use your weakness and inadequacy as an excuse for not being a more useful Christian. It won't hold water. If you surrender who and what you are to Him, He can do wonders through you just as He did through the 12. It is possible that you will make even fewer blunders than they did. Jesus chose the 12, not for what they were, but for what they could become. It was their potential that made them His choice. What is your potential for being a disciple? Certainly you can be used just as well as these puzzling appointments.