I’m studying Matthew chapter ten at the moment, so you’ll get a few blogs on this topic in the next little while. What stuck me yesterday was the extraordinary effect this small group of simple country folk had on world history. Twelve very ordinary, uneducated manual workers from around a small insignificant village in Galilee eventually turned the world upside down!
There was nothing special or spectacular about them, but once infused with their mission, there was nothing stopping them from giving their lives for their cause. They would be shocked to know that their names have become the most common names for males in the Western world. How many do you know named John, Pete, Tom, Andy, Jim, Bart, or Phil?!
The twelve were just common working men. Some were married, some were single. What made them special was that Jesus, God in human form, trained them over three years into an amazing team of spiritual warriors. He then gave them the most extraordinary task imaginable, an impossible task: calling the entire planet into the liberation of the Kingdom of God. Many wonder how the 12 apostles did it, but that’s for another blog. Here I want to simply explain where they went to and how they eventually died.
The New Testament describes the fate of only two of the apostles: Judas, who betrayed Jesus and then went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-5), and James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, who was executed by Herod about 44AD (Acts 12:2). To find out what happened to the other ten we have to go to church history and legend, sort out the facts from fiction, and make an educated guess.
How Did the Apostles Die?
Once they realised that the Good News of the Kingdom was not just for the Jews, (Acts 10:1-11:18), the apostles went far and wide as ambassadors of the message of the risen Christ. They suffered greatly for their faith and in most cases met violent deaths on account of their bold witness. Here is a summary of their amazing lives:
- Peter was executed in Rome around about 66 AD during the persecution under Emperor Nero. Peter was crucified upside down at his request since he did not feel he was worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.
- Andrew went to the lands that are now Russia. Christians there claim him as the first to bring the gospel to their land. He also preached in modern-day Turkey and in Greece, where he is said to have been crucified.
- Thomas was probably most active in the area east of Syria. Tradition has him preaching as far east as the Pakistan coast and South India. The ancient Marthoma Christians of South India revere him as their founder. They claim that he died there when pierced through with the spears of four soldiers.
- We think Philip had a powerful ministry in Carthage in North Africa and then in Turkey, where he converted the wife of a Roman proconsul. In retaliation the proconsul had Philip arrested and cruelly put to death.
- Matthew ministered in Persia and Ethiopia. Some of the oldest reports say he was not martyred, while others say he was stabbed to death in Ethiopia.
- Bartholomew had widespread missionary travels attributed to him to India with Thomas, back to Armenia, and also to Ethiopia and Southern Arabia. There are various accounts of how he met his death as a martyr for the gospel.
- The second James was the son of Alpheus and is one of at least three people called James referred to in the New Testament. There is some confusion as to which is which, but this James is reckoned to have ministered in Syria. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that he was stoned and then clubbed to death.
- Simon, so the story goes, ministered in Persia, and was killed after refusing to sacrifice to the sun god.
- Matthias was the apostle chosen to replace Judas. Tradition sends him to Syria with Andrew and to death by burning.
- Tradition says John was the only one of the apostles to have died a natural death from old age. He was the leader of the church in the Ephesus area and is said to have taken care of Mary the mother of Jesus in his home. He was eventually exiled to the island of Patmos. There he is credited with writing the book of Revelation.