Books: Twelve Ordinary Men

Today our small group at church finally reached the end of the book by John MacArthur that we’ve been studying for nearly a year. It’s not that it’s that long a book. To begin with, we decided to spend two weeks on each chapter, to have time for more discussion. Then there were the weeks we didn’t meet because of holidays. Other weeks we met, but half the group was missing due to illness or travel, and by spoken or unspoken agreement we just spent the hour talking about what was going on in our lives.

At some point I think most of us just got somewhat tired of it. The subject is certainly a good one: what were the twelve men who were Jesus’ first disciples really like, as individuals? And what can we learn from his choice of them, and from their lives both before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection? But the details given in Scripture are very few, in some cases little more than a name. Yet MacArthur takes these scanty references and develops a portrait of each man’s personality.

At least, he develops what he thinks each man was like. He may be right, but he writes with more confidence in his analysis than I think is warranted. For instance, he describes a pattern of behavior, and points to an example of it in the Gospels. The problem is that that example is the only one there is! It could be an example of the man’s typical behavior – or it could have been remembered and written about precisely because it was somewhat unusual.

Some of the points MacArthur makes are good ones, but he tends to repeat himself a good deal. In the introduction he explains that the material in the book is based on sermons he has taught over the years, and I can understand that in preaching he would repeat important points he had  made in previous sermons, or even repeat the same point for emphasis within a sermon. But in the format of a book, to repeat the same point so many times is annoying at best, and suggests a lack of respect for readers’ ability to comprehend the material.

The point hammered at the most is the one made in the title of the book, that these twelve men were very ordinary from a human perspective. They were not religious leaders or scholars, and they had few of the characteristics one might expect God would require in the men He would use to establish His church on earth. They were men of little faith to start with, frequently failing Jesus and usually misunderstanding his purpose. Yet precisely because of that, Jesus chose them, so that it would be clear that the work was done by God’s power and not by human ability.

It is intended both as a comfort to us, that God can use us also in spite of our lack of abilities and our shortcomings in faith and understanding. It is also intended as a caution to those who might think of their character and abilities as an asset to God. I suppose it’s a lesson I need to keep in mind, both at the times when I am most aware of my failings, and when I am inclined to congratulate myself on something I think I have done well for God.

I think it’s also good to keep in mind, however, that human abilities are not completely irrelevant in what God does in and through us. It is true that God can do far more through someone who is humble and willing to serve, no matter what his abilities, than through someone of great abilities whose pride gets in the way. But if the abilities we have are given by God, to be used in His service, then they do have a place and a purpose, and continually discounting them does not help disciples to learn to use them well for their Master.

Someone on worldmagblog told me that MacArthur’s strength is in his sermons, and perhaps sometime I’ll consider downloading one. But as our small group considers what to study next, we all agreed not to find another book by MacArthur.


One Response to Books: Twelve Ordinary Men

  1. Peter L says:

    He needed a whole book to tell us this? MacArthur is a good writer, especially when dealing with doctrinal issues. A good book of his is The Gospel According to Jesus. But yes, his sermons are better.

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