Some surprising names are on this list. Everybody is surprised to see Judas Iscariot here. There are many explanations for Jesus choosing Judas. The one I like best is that Judas had a potential that could have run either way. He could have become a famous apostle. He became an infamous traitor. Is it not possible that the world's worst gangster had also the potential to have become a saint instead? Is it not true that the world's great saints could have chosen instead to be criminals? Potential for greatness is capable of cutting either way. After Jesus chose Judas, Judas chose which path he would take. If you have great talent, or energy, remember that it offers for you two potentials one inspiring and one frightening.
More surprising than the name of Judas is to find here Matthew and Simon the Canaanite. When Judas was chosen nobody thought he would turn out to be a traitor. When Matthew was chosen everybody thought he was already a traitor. Matthew was a publican, a tax collector for the Roman government. He was a collaborator with the enemy.
During World War II, a Norwegian military officer made a secret trip to see Hitler. Shortly after, Hitler invaded Norway, met half-hearted resistance, and set up a puppet government. He put that officer at its head. His name was Quisling. That name so stood for betrayal that it entered the language and you can find it today in the dictionary as a synonym for traitor. Matthew was regarded as a quisling.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum was Simon the Canaanite, whom Luke calls the Zealot. The Zealots were a political party who wanted to arm the people and mount a rebellion against Rome. Simon was as far to the right as Matthew was to the left. They were as far apart as a Communist and a fascist, yet Jesus thought He could use both of them - on the same team!
Let's be sure that ours is a church you can belong to no matter your political affiliation. Some churches today would not welcome you if you hold certain political views! Whatever your politics, you can be a Christian.
In Judas and Matthew and Simon we learn that Jesus saw the potential in people that others could not see. James, the son of Alphaeus, is a good example. The Bible calls him James the Less, not because he was less important than that other James, the brother of John. He was called James the Less because he was short of stature. "Little Jim," Jesus called him, or "Shorty."
Can't you picture someone saying, "But he doesn't look like an apostle!" Some surely thought an apostle must have a commanding and striking appearance. That's important to presidential candidates. King Saul's early success lay in the fact that he looked like a king. As it turned out, looks were deceiving. Jesus saw in James, Judas, Simon, and Matthew the potential that others could not see.
Not only are there surprising names on the list. Jesus surprisingly changed three of their names, giving them nicknames.
Nicknames are interesting. Sometimes they are given because they do not fit. A large person will sometimes be called "Tiny." Most often, they are given because they do fit.
Jesus called Simon "Peter," which means "rock." He did not seem much like a rock. He was changeable and undependable. But Jesus knew what he was going to become. Some of our hardest rocks were once liquid. Granite was once molten, but it hardened into a very strong substance. So did Simon Peter. When Jesus gave him that nickname it shows that Jesus saw the potential in him that others could not see.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, He nicknamed the "Sons of Thunder." If He had called them "Lightning" it would have been easy to understand. They wanted to call down fire from Heaven on an unbelieving village that rejected Christ. Lightning kills. Thunder never kills; it only warns.
But Jesus saw what lay ahead. He knew that this James would be the first of the twelve to lay down his life for Him. That death would be a warning of worse persecution to come. The other of the Sons of Thunder, John, would be the last of the twelve to die. Before he died, he would write the greatest book of warning in the New Testament, the book of Revelation. Yes, in these two brothers Jesus saw the potential that others missed.
In us He sees the potential that others miss. I suppose colleges have quit selecting the boy and girl most likely to succeed. They were fooled too often. It would be interesting to know the potential your parents saw in you, the potential your friends see in you, the potential you see in yourself. What an interesting comparison that would make. Christ sees great spiritual potential in you. Will you try to be aware of that? And sensitive to that?
A column of marble lay for fifty years in the workyard of the cathedral at Florence. It had been poorly blocked at the quarry. More than that, the sculptor Duccio had started to use it, made a deep cut in the middle, and abandoned it. Over those fifty years, many sculptors came by to measure that piece of stone, but all said it was useless. The gouge ran too deep. But when Michelangelo measured that stone he saw in it a potential that others missed. He saw imprisoned in that stone a David. Today that statue of David is regarded as the most beautiful on earth. From all over the world men and women come to Florence to see it. Michelangelo saw in the rejected stone the potential others missed.
In the early days of the Civil War when things were going badly for the Union, President Lincoln wrote to General McClellan: "If you are not planning to do anything with the Army, will you lend it to me for a while?" God is saying to you, "If you are not planning to do anything with your life, will you lend it to me for a while?"
Christ did more than see the hidden potential in men. He helped them realize that potential. By calling Simon a "rock" He helped him to become more dependable. He tried more and more to live up to the name Jesus had given him. When James and John were called the Sons of Thunder, it had a subtle but certain effect on their lives. We all tend to be like the image we think others have of us. We live up to that image - or we live down to it.
Call the prettiest girl ugly, do it often enough and convincingly enough, and she will become ugly. Her mouth will drop and twist, her brow will wrinkle, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take a bright child, convince him he is stupid, and he will be. Jesus knew that. That's why He gave nicknames to some of the twelve.
Even in the Old Testament you find God changing men's names. Abram He called "Abraham; which means "father of many nations." A man conducts himself differently when he believes that that is his destiny! God changed Jacob's name to Israel. The "el" in Israel is the name of God. He gave Jacob His own name. A person conducts himself differently when he wears the name of his God. Isn't that part of what is behind our name, Christian? Did not Christ want us to be conscious of our vocation as the Christlike ones?
If you were a Rockefeller or a Roosevelt, would there be a kind of obligation to live up to such a name? Wouldn't it put a certain responsibility on you? But ours is a higher obligation. We wear the name of Christ!
If a man has gained a reputation for expertise in some field, he works to keep it. I am not a poet. I can compose any kind of doggerel and put it out. A poet who has a reputation cannot do that. He has to be careful what goes out under his name. A great composer can't just sit down at the piano and play Chopsticks.
As Christians we have a reputation to uphold. We can't get out of it by refusing the name. It is a name the Lord gives us. None of us decided to name ourselves Christian. Peter didn't say, "Lord, I hate my name. Call me Rocky." No, the Lord changed his name and the Lord changed yours. When He did He put you under obligation to try to live up to it.
We need also to see that Christ used them as they were. Even before any of these twelve had reached their potential Christ used them. While they were becoming what they could be He used them. He did not wait until they were mature.
In the Southwest, the Indians used to eat the yucca plant. I have eaten yucca, and I know how it got its name. The interesting thing is that they ate all parts of the plant. They ate the bud. They ate the flower. They ate the fruit. So God uses us in all stages of our development.
That has so impressed some people that they have misapplied a passage of Scripture. How many times we hear quoted, "A little child shall lead them." Unfortunately, that is not the meaning of that passage. But we all have seen children and young people used of God. Indeed, through every stage of life God has some work for you to do. Even when you are old and your energies are spent, God will use you in some way.
In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of various fields of service and adds, "till we all come . . . unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." That won't happen until we get to Heaven. But while we are growing spiritually, while we are maturing spiritually, even then He wants us to serve Him.
Nobody would have guessed that God could use the woman at Jacob's well. Women did not have a public role in that day. And she was a sinful woman, an ostracized woman. Yet she met Christ and then ran into the village to lead others to Him. Nobody would have picked her for an evangelist. Yet she led more people to Christ during the days of His flesh than any other person recorded in the Bible. Perhaps nobody has picked you for greatness - except God.
That call to service is so often ignored, and so often put off. Our Christianity is too often like Averell Harriman's French. Harriman once said, "My French is excellent, all except the verbs." Our Christianity may be lacking in verbs!
John Greenleaf Whittier was thinking of unrequited love when he wrote: "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these - 'It might have been.'" But sadder than unrequited love is unfilled potential. Thomas Gray wrote of that in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:
Full many a gem of purest ray sereneEveryone has a vivid picture of some life of unfulfilled potential. For me, the picture is of a church custodian I once knew. He started out to be a concert organist, but lacked the money to go on. So he took a job as a letter carrier for the post office. Then he retired and took a job as church custodian. But he'd stop in his duties to play the organ. He wore a gambler's green eye shade to protect his eyes from the glare. He'd sit there in a dark and empty church, in his coveralls and his green eye shade and play Bach, flawlessly, on the church organ. Hearing him, one thought of Whittier's line: "It might have been. It might have been."
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Saddest of all is to see the unfilled spiritual potential of life. We think of the unfulfilled potential of Judas, Diotrephes, King Saul, and a dozen others.
Harold Bell Wright, the novelist, said that he always kept before him a picture of Christ. He said that he wrote the best chapters in his books while looking into the face of the Son of God. So do we write the best chapters in the book of life when we are "looking unto Jesus."
Visitors to Haiti usually try to see the massive citadel built by King Henri Christopher almost 200 years ago. On a mountaintop high above the Carribbean stands this massive fort. Twenty thousand men died carrying up the stones to build it and the cannons to defend it. But the invasion never came, no shot was ever fired. That citadel has stood there for two centuries and never been used.
Is that going to be the story of your life?