How Many Disciples?

Who were Jesus’ disciples and how many were there? I thought I’d take a moment to share a couple of things that may shed some interesting light on these questions. The first is found in the same passage we considered last week—the healing of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5:21-43.

We remember that Jesus selected the town of Capernaum as His ministry headquarters. Peter had a home there and to this day the ruins contain what is thought to be the oldest known church building (was this Peter’s house?). Jairus was a local synagogue ruler, which means he had significant influence among religious leaders in the area. Most scholars believe that this synagogue was either in or near—you guessed it—Capernaum. Why is that important?

The ancient Near Eastern culture practiced something called social reciprocity. In other words, if a person helped you, then you were expected to help that person. So, when Jairus came to Jesus to ask for His help, he was knowingly putting himself in a position where he would feel obligated to help Jesus too. Think of the number of religious professionals who opposed Jesus? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was one place where Jesus had someone with influence on His side?

While I am certain Jesus’ choice to heal Jairus’ daughter was motivated by compassion and not political expediency, I also have a hunch that this healing carried a longer-lasting benefit for our Lord’s ministry. But the synagogue ruler was not Jesus’ only friend in a high place.

Consider also the benefit that would come from healing the Centurion’s servant in Luke 7. This is the Centurion assigned to—you guessed it—Capernaum! This Roman military leader, who had a soft-heart for the Jewish way, was now beholding to Jesus. Luke 13:31 reveals that Herod was looking to kill Jesus and historical records indicate that Capernaum was not in Herod’s jurisdiction. If Herod wanted to get to Jesus when He was “home,” he’d have to go through the Centurion and his troops to do it. Interesting, eh?

Did Jairus and the Centurion become disciples? I don’t know. Based on what they saw and experienced it is certainly possible. But this question leads us to my second observation about the number of Jesus’ disciples.

Something in Mark 14:12-17 stood out to me. Mark 14:13 says that Jesus sent two disciples to prepare the Upper Room for their Seder meal. Verse 17 mentions the moment when Jesus arrived with the twelve. Were the two disciples who prepared the room from the twelve? Did they get done early and return to the group or did Jesus have a larger pool of disciples to choose from?  

In Acts 1:21-22, the disciples choose a replacement for Judas from “one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.” Many of them were likely part of the 70 or 72 that He sent out in Luke 10.  

Here is my hunch: I think many of Jesus’ disciples could be found within the triangle of Capernaum, Korazin and Bethsaida. These men and women stayed home while Jesus traveled. As He traveled, our Lord made other disciples along the way, other men and women who believed and sought to carry His yoke—sought to follow the Torah according to their Rabbi’s interpretation.

Mark 14 records the start of the Passover, one of three required celebrations. All Jewish men were expected to attend and so Jesus’ disciples would certainly have been there. Remember the crowd that greeted Him as He entered Jerusalem on a donkey? I wonder what percentage of the crowd were already His disciples? Acts 1:15 reveals that there were at least 120 and 1 Corinthians 15:6 says that the resurrected Jesus “appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time” (and those 500 were just the ones who could make it to that moment).

So, there was the group known as The Twelve, who were also appointed apostles. There were disciples who sought to follow Jesus’ teaching. And there were large crowds who admired Jesus and liked to travel with Him (Luke 14:25-33).

Jesus accepted the help that would come from friends in high places and He sought out friendships with the lowest and the least. What barriers limit the scope of our love for others? Jesus challenged those who admired Him to become His disciples but didn’t force anyone to cross that line. What invitation is Jesus making to you today? What keeps you from acting on it?