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Unlikely Disciples – Amazing Grace

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Mark 3:13–19; Luke 6:12–16

Following and serving Jesus is not reserved for the most talented, qualified, and experienced believers. What He is looking for are people who are willing, available, and faithful. He will take care of everything else.


I have read that Longfellow could write a few rhyming lines on a piece of paper and influence a generation; we call that poetic genius. Rembrandt could paint on a canvas, and it would become a masterpiece; we call that artistic brilliance.

But no master on earth compares to the mastery of Jesus, who takes sinners and transforms them into disciples; we call that that amazing grace.

In our last Wisdom Journey, we looked at the first four disciples chosen by Jesus. Next in Luke’s list, here in chapter 6, verse 14, is Philip. Let me introduce him by giving you another key principle at work here: The Lord chose His disciples, not because of their impressive abilities, but because of their availability.

I can remember growing up where my mother drummed this principle into the hearts of her four sons: availability is the greatest ability. No disciple proves this any better than Philip.

Philip shows up in four brief scenes recorded in four chapters of the Gospel of John (1:43-46; 6:5-7; 12:20-22; 14:8-10). Had you met him, he would have been a rather unimpressive man. He came from the same small town as Peter and Andrew, more than likely attending the same synagogue.[1]

He was a quiet thinker—a planner—who played it safe in life. There is one scene where Jesus specifically tests Philip. A hungry multitude of 5,000 men, plus women and children, need to eat. Jesus turns to Philip in John 6 and asks him, “‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’ [Jesus] said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do” (verses 5-6).

Philip starts calculating: “Let’s see, 5,000 men, plus women and children . . . food per person, money per person.” He does the math and then says to Jesus in verse 7, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” Two hundred denarii was equivalent to someone’s annual salary. Philip says, “We don’t have that much money! There’s no way we can feed this crowd.”

Right about then, Andrew shows up and says, “Hey, I found a little boy who is willing to donate his lunch; he’s got—let’s see—fives little pieces of barley bread and two little pickled fish.” Philip is probably thinking, Andrew, you’re out of your mind! That will never work!

It’s almost as if Jesus aims this miracle of feeding the 5,000 directly at the heart of Philip. Jesus is going to teach him that it is not what you can calculate; it is not how much you have in the bank; it is how much you give your Master—and then let Him take care of the rest.

What a lesson to learn. And don’t miss the fact that Jesus chose Philip—a facts-and-figures guy, an organized thinker—to be one of His disciples.

According to historical sources, Philip went on to pioneer the gospel outreach in modern-day Turkey, leading multitudes to Christ before he was stoned to death as a martyr for his faith.[2]

With that, Luke’s Gospel mentions Bartholomew, which means “son of Tolmai.” This is the name given by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But the Gospel of John calls him Nathanael; so, his full name would have been Nathanael Bartholomew or Nathaniel, the son of Tolmai.

Now if you thought there was not much to read about Philip, there is even less in the Bible about Nathanael. We are given only one interaction involving Nathanael, and that is when he meets Jesus for the first time.

We begin in John 1:45:

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

So, Philip finds his friend Nathanael, evidently sitting under a fig tree; and Philip tells him they have found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Note Nathanael’s reply here in verse 46: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In other words, “Nothing important comes out of that village.”

But as he stands before Jesus, the Lord says to him in verse 48, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” Nathanael is blown away. He responds to the omniscient Lord in verse 49, saying, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

I love this guy! He makes up his mind in two seconds: If Jesus saw me under that fig tree, He’s got to be the Son of God—and that would make Him the King of Israel! Evidently, Nathanael spoke his mind—and made up his mind—quickly.

By the way, we know of no other family member who came along with Nathanael; it seems like he was the only one from his family to follow Christ. Maybe you are the first person in your entire family to follow Christ. Keep in mind that this did not handicap Nathanael’s impact for Christ. Historical traditions record that he reached into northern Iran and even southern Russia with the gospel, leaving behind a spiritual legacy of faithfulness to Christ.

Next in Luke’s list of the twelve is Matthew. He’s already shown up earlier in our Wisdom Journey through the Gospels. Matthew, or Levi, was considered a traitor to his people because he was a tax collector, on the payroll of the Roman Empire.

He had effectively abandoned his people, extorting more from them than what Rome required; and he had grown wealthy because of it. I am convinced the other disciples would have wondered if Jesus made a mistake in calling Matthew.

But here is another key principle to keep in mind: Jesus did not call qualified people; He called people and then qualified them to serve Him.

The Lord will so radically change this man’s heart, that Matthew will eventually write the Gospel of Matthew, primarily to reach the nation of Israel he had abandoned earlier in life. He will write to them that Jesus Christ is indeed their Messiah.

Now, let me introduce you to the disciple named Thomas. In John 11:16, he is called “the Twin.” Evidently, he had a twin sibling we know nothing about. What we do know is that through the centuries Thomas has acquired an unflattering nickname: “Doubting Thomas.” Indeed, that name is still being applied to him after 2,000 years. Yes, he seemed to be somewhat melancholy; yes, he was quick to believe the worst; yes, he collapsed in despair and did not initially believe that Jesus had risen from the grave.[3]

But let me tell you, I think Thomas deserves another nickname, and it is not “Doubting Thomas”; it is “Daring Thomas.” Thomas was actually the first disciple to say he was willing to die with Christ. Jesus had decided to go and visit the grave of Lazarus, and the other disciples were reluctant because they knew the Jewish leaders were planning to kill Him. Thomas spoke up, in John 11:16 and said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” “If He’s going to die, I want to die with Him.” What an amazing statement of courage and love that was.

Let me give you another key principle, and here it is: Jesus did not choose disciples who would never disappoint Him; He showed His disciples that He would never disappoint them.

By the way, if the Lord did not permit those who disappointed Him to be His disciples, I would not be one of them today—and neither would you.

History records that Thomas took the gospel all the way to India, where he served the Lord before being martyred for his faith. I have visited the city of Chennai, where Thomas was supposedly buried. And to this day, as one writer has noted, many churches in southern India trace their roots back to the fearless and faithful ministry of Thomas.[4]

[1] G. Campbell Morgan, The Great Physician (Fleming Revell, 1937), 4.

[2] The traditions concerning the disciples in the years following Jesus’ earthly ministry are summarized in William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles (Living Books, 1973) and John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men (W Publishing Group, 2002).

[3] Ibid., 33.

[4] MacArthur, 164.

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