The Great Crowd & the Twelve Apostles | Mark 3:7-19

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.

And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Mark 3:7-21 ESV

After the great flood, Noah sinned via fruit and proved himself to be no greater than Adam. And though the world restarted under his singular lineage, the incident at Babel resulted in the formation of nations and languages and the scattering of humanity across the earth. From this scattered people, God called out one man, Abraham, and promised to make him into a great nation that would also bless all the nations. Abraham died without seeing this promise fulfilled yet was given a single son through whom the blessing would arrive. That son, Isaac, went on to father Jacob, who then fathered twelve sons. Through these twelve grandsons of Abraham, the man of faith’s descendants began to blossom into the great nation that God promised. Consider Exodus 1:1-7:

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household. Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

From one man to twelve and from twelve to a multitude, a mighty nation. In our present text, Jesus, the seed of Abraham, is pressed by a great crowd of Abraham’s descendants, hoping to touch Him and be healed. However, Jesus came to proclaim the good news of His arriving kingdom, a holy and mighty nation; therefore, He establishes His own patriarchs through whom the mustard seed would become a tree.


With both the Pharisees and the Herodians now looking to destroy Him, Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. Jesus’ move away from the regular places of commerce did not dissuade His popularity with the crowds. Like John before Him, people came from all over to be near Jesus, which must have only infuriated our Lord’s enemies even more. He purposely made access to Himself more difficult, yet His fame only grew greater. He was amassing the celebrity status that they coveted.

Yet Jesus’ fame was not necessarily beneficial, as the text goes on to explain:

And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him.

The crowds were so numerous and so desperate to touch Jesus that He needed to have a boat ready at all times to take Him into the sea and away from the masses. Their longing for Jesus was creating a scenario of physical endangerment for Christ. The situation was only stoked by the unclean spirits, who are interestingly the first in the Gospel to agree with Mark’s initial statement of Jesus’ identity, as they bowed before Him and cried out, You are the Son of God. Such scenes certainly must have increased people’s obsession with Jesus, which was no doubt the intent. If the demons could not resist Christ, they would expose Him, making it more and more difficult for Him to fulfill His mission of preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. Therefore, he strictly ordered them not to make him known.

This is an intriguing passage because many would (and sadly have) sell their souls for a moment of fame and celebrity, yet popularity was a threat to Jesus’ ministry. The crowds (and as Mark will show, even the disciples) did not understand Jesus’ work as the Christ. Many longed for Him to bring physical deliverance from Rome, while many more longed for Him to bring physical deliverance from sickness. Their idea of the Christ was little more than a glorified genie. They wanted what Jesus could do, not Jesus Himself. “Sadly,” writes Sproul, “it is clear that the overwhelming desire of the crowds was not for Jesus’ message but for His healing touch; they were seeking to be relieved of their pain and suffering. In other words, they were more concerned with their bodies than their souls.”[1]

Lest we place ourselves on the moral high ground, we tend to do the same. Writing about specifically the American interpretations of Jesus, Stephen Nichols notes:

For some Americans, Jesus is the consummate best friend and lover. For others, he is strong and mighty, ready for the defense of the weak. For others still, he’s a guru, a wise and enlightened sage. For American Roman Catholics, he first the Savior on the cross, bloodied and suffering. For American Protestants, he is first, largely due to the prominence of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ (1941), nearly angelic, soft and beloved by children. For countercultural rebels, he’s a crazed malcontent, hurling the establishment–in the form of money changers– from the temple. For the inimitable Johnny Cash, he’s “The Greatest Cowboy of them all.” Jesus, like most cultural heroes, is malleable. And his given shape has much more to say about the shapers than it does of him.[2]

The two most common today seem to be that Jesus was a wise teacher and a social revolutionary (the latter has been displayed in memes using Jesus’ cleansing of the temple to justify rioting). But any attempt to use Jesus for our own desires is an imitation of these crowds, who did not want Jesus or His kingdom, only His miracles.


With His fame increasingly, Jesus actively chooses to scale down. And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve… As we have noted before, Jesus had more disciples than the twelve listed here, yet He was looking for an even more intimate group, a smaller circle to keep about Him, to be with Him.

Because we are inundated with the philosophy that bigger is always better, Jesus’ pull away from popularity and toward only a handful of men seems like foolishness. God, however, often delights in the gradual, humble, and small. Throughout Scripture, He often moves “slowly” for our own good. For example, in Exodus 23:29-30, God told the Israelites that they would not drive the Canaanites out of the Promise Land in a year because they did not yet have the numbers to fill the land. Thus, the work of the Canaanites would have been unused, and wild animals would increase in the land. Their gradual conquest gave them the time to grow large enough to properly inhabit Canaan. While before the crowds, Jesus’ ministry was distributed widely but shallowly, so He knew that the kingdom would be better served by deeply focusing upon a select few.

Indeed, notice His purpose in selecting the twelve: so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. They were to be near Christ, while also going out as ambassadors of Christ. While the twelve certainly had a special office as Apostles in forming the very beginning of the church, they are also a pattern for each of us still as disciples of Christ. Indeed, Sproul notes that “this is a microcosmic look at what Jesus does for the whole kingdom of God– he calls those whom He wants.” He then notes that ekklesia, the Greek word for church, literally means the called-out ones.

Simply put, the invisible church, the true church, is composed of those who are called by God not only outwardly but inwardly by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus calls someone to discipleship, He is calling that person to Himself, to belong to Him, and to learn from Him and of Him.[3]

This call to be with Christ involves great cost, much of which has been hidden for some time here in the West. Matthew needed to leave behind his tax booth. The fishermen left behind their boats and nets. We may need to leave behind former habits and pastimes. Yet if we lose everything in order to gain Christ, the exchange rate is unbelievably generous to us. In Philippians 3:8-11, Paul wrote,

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

To know and be with Christ, even participating in His sufferings, was worth the loss of all things, even his own life. Indeed, in the following verse, he goes on to say, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (v. 12). If we are disciples of Jesus, it is because He has chosen us and made us his own, sealing our place with Him and with the Father by His own blood. The Maker tasted death in order to rescue His creations from the death that our sins rightly earned. By this, He healed far more than our physical afflictions; instead, He struck a deathblow to our cold, stony and rebellious hearts. How then can we not long to be with this greater David, our Savior and King? How can we not answer His call, saying “command me, Lord.”

Of course, Jesus is not here physically with us as He was with the twelve apostles. How then are we able to be with Him? The answer from many today is a kind of mystical experience in which Jesus’ presence through the Spirit is felt, that we should commune with Him so closely that we are constantly in His presence. Unfortunately, that approach has led to much mushy theology at best and downright heresy at worst. One popular example is Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling devotionals that take are written as if Jesus Himself were speaking to the reader. The largest problem with this, at best, confusing style is that Jesus has already spoken His perfect and complete Word, and we do not need anything more. We do indeed possess the Holy Spirit, yet He illuminates our hearts to understand the Scriptures, just as He inspired the penning of them in the first place. As the Preacher warned, “Beware of anything beyond these” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Communion with Christ is now found in His Word, which we then respond to by prayer.

Also like the apostles, we too are called to Christ to be sent out to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul calls us “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” We are heralds of the King, proclaiming His message to all who will listen. But what is the appeal of God that Paul spoke of? “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Our is a ministry of reconciliation, first and foremost of calling the lost to be reconciled to God as Jesus’ representatives, as His body here on earth. Of course, as people are reconciled to God and transformed into the bride of Christ, we will also be reconciled to one another. We glimpse such a process within the twelve. Matthew, as we have seen, was a tax collector, which meant that he had essentially sold his Jewish identity in order to earn the profit of Rome. Another one of the twelve was Simon the Zealot.

What, you may ask, is a Zealot? Well, in Jesus’ time, there were four main sects of Judaism. We are most familiar with the Pharisees because they were the most orthodox. Because they were so close to the truth, Jesus wrestled with them the most. The Sadducees were the liberal elites of Jewish society, denying the reality of much of the faith. The Essenes were an apocalyptic cult that denied marriage and lived in the wilderness like what we now call monks. Finally, the Zealots were radical revolutionaries who desired to overthrow Roman rule like Maccabean revolt did of the Seleucid rule a couple hundred years before. Simon evidently was a Zealot before he became one of Jesus’ disciples. As an extremely nationalistic freedom fighter, Simon should have had a natural hatred for Matthew, and Matthew should have a fear of Simon. Yet here they both were, grouped together as fellow disciples and apostles of Christ.

Our present-day needs ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation ministry no less than they did in Jesus’ day. Because the world only knows enmity with God, the systems of the world can never truly unite humans, or if unity is made, it is a united rebellion against God like at Babel. Matthew and Simon fittingly represent the twin impulses of our day in response the chaos and turmoil of the world. Like Matthew, we can sell our souls in exchange for the security and profit of joining the overlords of progress. Can you not imagine Matthew convincing himself that working for Rome was the way of the future, that Israel being its own nation was a futile cause, that he was getting on the right side of history? Or like Simon, we can become nationalistic[4] rebels, believing that the war can be won by strength, courage, and devotion to one’s country. The gospel calls us to leave aside both and cling only to Christ. The great problem of so-called identify politics today is that, while claiming to celebrate diversity, it entrenches people in their differences, grouping them into factions. Christ calls us to take up Him as our identity, making this our fundamental point of unity. Like the apostles, we must preach the reality and the goodness of Jesus, especially in our culture that is increasingly hostile to His name.


There is, of course, a name at the end of the twelve that is notably different from the rest: Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. Some would say that Mark is using the literary device known as dramatic irony here, which is when the reader is given information that the characters do not know. Yet in John 6:70-71 we read:

Jesus answered [his disciples], “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

Judas, therefore, did not accidently slip into their number, nor did Jesus make a miscalculation in choosing him as one of His closest disciples. He selected Judas, knowing that his betrayal would be the catalyst for Jesus’ crucifixion. By electing Judas, Jesus was electing the cross. He was making ready the path to His bloody sacrificial atonement for our sins.

Just as the cross hangs over each further interaction that Jesus will have with the scribes and Pharisees because they had begun plotting to destroy Him, so too is each scene with His disciples now a lurking reminder that one of the twelve would be instrumental in His death. The amount of attention that Mark will give to the disciples discovering some of the depths of Jesus’ identity as the Christ only adds sorrow to the unfolding tragedy.

Although Judas walked with the Lord, listened to His words and repeated them to others, and witnessed the very power of God come to earth, he remained in his sin. Judas is a sobering testament that mere proximity to Jesus and His people does not save anyone. Despite his time with Jesus, Judas evidently never really knew Him. John 12:1-8 shows Judas continued state of unrepentance even right before Jesus’ death:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

Here we learn that throughout Jesus’ ministry Judas was stealing from ministerial moneybag, meaning that he likely saw his relationship with Jesus as an opportunity for fame and easy gain. But what is most telling of Judas’ unconverted heart is that he viewed the ointment which cost a year’s wages was wasted on Jesus. Like the great crowds that nearly crushed Jesus in order to be healed, Judas wanted Jesus to serve his purpose rather than the other way around. For all the time that he was with Jesus, he never saw Christ’s infinite value.

Brothers and sisters, the blessings of belonging to Christ and His church are too numerous to mention them all, but the chief and greatest is knowing Christ. He is the great treasure within the field. While selling all that you have to buy the field appears foolish, the surpassing value of the treasure makes all previous loss into a worthwhile investment. Do not trust in your proximity to Christ or to His people. Do not trust in your familiarity with Scripture and the things of Christianity. Trust only in Christ. Know and love Christ more and more, not primarily for what He may do for you but for who He is.

[1] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expository Commentary, 52.

[2] Stephen J. Nichols, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ, 10.

[3] Sproul, Mark, 55.

[4] Nationalism is a murky term that I use hesitantly, but I intend it here as a negative version of patriotism.

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