Discipleship: The Twelve are Problematic

A fourth challenge for the student of biblical discipleship is the practicality of the Twelve Apostles as a model for discipleship in our age. Frankly, using the Twelve as a pattern for modern discipleship is problematic at best.

Much of what is written today about discipleship is based on the model that is seen in the training of the Twelve during Christ's earthly ministry. Obviously the Twelve can provide us with a wealth of information and instruction in discipleship, but (as with everything we've mentioned thus far in our study of discipleship), we must be aware of the danger that lies in using them exclusively as our model for discipleship today.

Jesus was training the Twelve as His disciples in order to send them out as his apostles. The Twelve, as disciples, are "apostles in training." It is interesting to note that when we get to the Book of Acts, the Twelve (Matthias having replaced Judas; Acts 1.26), are never once called disciples, but rather apostles. They are not normal disciples and therefore their discipleship process is not the normal model that we see (or should follow) today.

A good case in point is the fact that they physically walked and lived with Jesus for three and a half years; we do not, nor did the majority of disciples in Jesus' day. Also, we must understand the Jewish nature of the ministry of the Twelve (e.g., Gal 2.7-9). They were trained under the Law (Gal 4.4) and were given a mission that centered around the nation of Israel. Even the Great Commission of Matthew 28.18-20 has a certain Jewish aspect to it that is often overlooked and has caused countless errors in Christianity through the ages.

What does this mean for us today? It means that, yes, we can learn a lot about discipleship from Jesus' relationship with Twelve in the Gospels. But, the real lesson from the Twelve is one of leadership development: Jesus was training up Twelve men to become the leaders of his movement in his absence.

Michael J. Wilkins, in his seminal book on discipleship, succinctly explains the practical application of the biblical model of the Twelve when he states (emphasis mine):

Therefore our preliminary observation is that as disciples the Twelve give us an example of how Jesus works with all believers, and as apostles the Twelve give us an example of how Jesus works with leaders of the church. [Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master: Discipleship in the Steps of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 36.]

What do all of these difficulties require of us as we study discipleship? Good hermeneutics! And that will be the subject of my next blog post.