A Fresh Look at Jesus’ Twelve as Primal Groups

Let’s take a fresh look at Jesus’ Twelve
as Primal Groups.

I was watching Monday Night Football with Travis Twyman, pastor at the Inland Vineyard, and his family in the Fall of 2015. Travis is a bright thinker who thinks from Scripture. In a few sentences, he mentioned how he was stirred to think about primal groups.

I was hooked!

I began to bombard him with questions. We discussed primal groups during the rest of the game (I’m not sure who won!) The first few sentences brought “conversion” to my previous thinking and experience in discipling for decades. This added dimension to what I already partially did as I met with men in disciple-making has exciting potential.

Why do I believe primal groups are such essential building blocks to multiply catalytic koinonia in community, both in number and in depth?

I have been discipling for years through small, temporarily closed bands of people centered around Scripture. We trust our indwelling Trainer to give insight and LifeChange. But there’s more…much more. I’m in the early process of working this out more fully, so please come alongside and experiment with me. Learn how to develop healthy primal groups to train others for healthy LifeChange as communities birth other groups. A fresh look at  Jesus’ Twelve as primal groups should change how we develop disciples of Jesus in the 21st century.

Three Groups of Four

Following are the four lists of the Twelve in the New Testament to lay groundwork for looking at primal groups in our 21st century setting. We will look at the Biblical information, then at some anecdotal suggestions. I have drawn heavily from William Barclay’s The Master’s Men, and excellent, short compilation by a man with a masterful grasp of language.

The reason for this in-depth dive is practical ministry. I believe Jesus is the best model for both character and for ministry. So how did Jesus disciple? We know about His Twelve. Was there perhaps more undergirding why Jesus gathered these twelve? In the first century, growth happened through oikos, basically extended family. Today we might use the term affinity relationships, whether they are work or play, family or church related.

Digging deeper into a fresh look at Jesus’ Twelve

As we piece together a bit of their background from scattered Scriptures and early Christian documents, it seems that Jesus’ Twelve Disciples also had close affinity with the others in three “primal groups” of four each, even as they were also part of the larger group of twelve. Notice from the list, each has an “anchor” as the first person in each group (although within the group of four the order differs).

Peter certainly operated as “first among equals” in the Twelve. Philip invited Bartholomew (Nathanael). Both/And. And these very ordinary men turned the world upside down. For our purposes, I want to highlight their oikos relationships with one another, that is, their natural connections, which accelerates quick bonding. If this intrigues you, William Barclay’s The Master’s Men is helpful for further study.

The first LifeChange primal group has four very familiar names.

Peter and Andrew, James and John. Both sets were brothers and were partners (koinonia) together in a fishing enterprise out of Capernaum. Additionally, James and John were also first-cousins of Jesus. Their mom, Salome, was His mother’s sister. John, the one who rested his head on Jesus at the Last Supper, was apparently Jesus’ favorite. What a suggestive study this makes for primal LifeChange groups grown around natural affinities.

The second primal group for LifeChange is also an interesting study.

Each seems to have complementary strengths they bring to the whole.

Philip haled from the same home town Andrew and Peter, Bethsaida. This connection is probably why Jesus sought Philip and called him to follow (John 1:43-44).

Nathanael, called Bartholomew in the lists, was the first person Philip invited to “come and see” Jesus, indicating a previous relationship (John 1:45).

Matthew is also called Levi, the son of Alphaeus. Jesus specifically invited him from his job as a tax collector to join.

Thomas is included with these other three in all four lists. We know nothing about his call. Outside the lists, only John’s Gospel mentions his actions, four times. Thomas is the one who could not live with unanswered questions. Every group needs one who does not accept pat answers!

We know very little about the third primal training group.

Perhaps the fervent patriotism of the Zealots was the affinity between these four.

  1. James, the son of Alphaeus was probably the brother of Levi, also called the son of Alphaeus in the second group (Mark 2:13-17).William Barclay conjectures that James could possibly be the link in this oikos affinity group since he is first in the 3rd primal group in each of the lists. He may have even had Zealot tendencies himself.

  2. Thaddeus/Judas, the Son of James is second in each of the three groups of four. William Barclay believes there is “considerable evidence” could also have been a zealot.

  3. Simon the Zealot came from the 1st century Jewish radical group called the Zealots.

  4. Judas Iscariot held the common purse for Jesus. He probably also belonged to the Zealots since he tried to force Jesus to act and start a rebellion. He is last in the first three lists and excluded in Acts since he had taken his life.

Fluidity of groups

Even though I sketched out the possibility of three groups of four, let’s think more fluidity than fixed groups. Groups morph based on need, the most effective group being the smallest group that provides all the skills to accomplish the task.

For instance, read through the Gospels and notice how often the three, Peter, James and John, are mentioned together in special times with Jesus. Matthew 17:1, the Mount of Transfiguration; Mark 5:37, raising from the dead of the twelve year old girl; Matthew 26:40, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Also, John and Andrew are linked together as disciples of John the Baptist, and were catalysts for inviting the other three mentioned in John chapter one.

When the Seventy were sent out two by two, each group of four possibly split into two.

What’s the point of a fresh look at Jesus’ Twelve?

This lens provides a solid, broad-based foundation from which to experiment and discover how we can become a vital part of a primal group. This builds in-depth LifeChange and also reproduce other disciples in groups. Although the expert Discipler, Jesus, focused on multiple groups of four, I would suggest each of us begin with one LifeChange primal training group of 3-5 others. “Focus on the few to reach the many.”

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