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Peter, James, and John

All of the apostles were chosen by the Lord for a reason. All of them shared in the ministry and apostleship, even Judas (Acts 1:25). Despite this equality, the gospel accounts reveal that on three different occasions, Jesus chose three of His apostles, separated them from the rest, and allowed them to see things that they were not permitted to tell the others.

Peter, James, and John seem to have formed an inner-circle within the Twelve. Why were these three men singled out? What was special about them? To address this question, we will first consider the occasions on which they were singled out, then we will consider the validity of some possible explanations.

1. The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56). The first time these three men were singled out was when Jesus raised a girl from the dead. This miracle occurred during a time when Jesus’ popularity had grown to the point that it was becoming a burden. Everywhere Jesus went multitudes were waiting for Him, pressing in on Him.

This miracle is the last in a series recorded in Mark’s gospel. These miracles emphasize the Lord’s power over various things: the calming of the sea (Mark 4:35-41) showed the Lord’s power over nature, the casting out of demons (Mark 5:1-20) showed His power over demons, the healing of the woman (Mark 5:25-34) showed His power over disease, and the raising of the little girl (Mark 5:35-43) showed His power over death.

Although there may have been other instances, the Bible only records three times that Jesus raised one from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17), and Lazarus (John 11:38-44). The raising of Jairus’ daughter is the only occasion that was private; the other two miracles were performed in the open before many people. When word came from Jairus’ home that his daughter was dead, Jesus told him not to be afraid. He then “permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John” (Mark 5:37). When they arrived at the house, a group of people were in the home weeping and wailing loudly. Jesus put them all out of the house (v. 40), and then He, the mother and father, and the three disciples entered the room where the child was lying and He raised her from the dead.

2. The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-10, Luke 9:27-36). About a week after Peter made the good confession, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain and was transfigured before them. He underwent a change in His appearance. “His face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2), and “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:2). For a brief moment, these three men were allowed to see the proof of Peter’s confession – that Jesus was indeed the divine Son of God.

Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus about His death (Luke 9:31). In his fear and confusion, Peter suggested honoring all three men equally by building three tabernacles for them. God spoke out of the cloud, telling Peter, James, and John to listen to His Son. After the event, Jesus commanded them not to speak of it until after He had risen from the dead.

3. The Prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42). On the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus led His band of disciples to Gethsemane to pray while Judas came with the mob to arrest Him. Upon entering the garden, He told the eight to wait while He took Peter, James, and John further into the garden with Him. In this private moment, Jesus changed His appearance yet again. He began to be troubled and deeply distressed, and He confessed, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch” (Mark 14:34).  

On the Mount of Transfiguration, these three men were allowed to see the deity of Jesus in His radiant glory (Luke 9:32). In the Garden of Gethsemane, they were allowed to see the humanity of Jesus in His sorrow and agony. It was during this time that Jesus gained strength for the coming trial through prayer, and was allowed to strengthen the three for the trial they would also face.

In addition to these three occasions, Peter and John were the two disciples who were sent into Jerusalem to prepare the Passover (Luke 22:8), and these three, joined by Andrew, privately asked the questions that prompted the Lord’s teaching on the destruction of Jerusalem (Mark 13:3). In the book of Acts, Peter and John are found together on significant occasions. They healed a lame man in the Temple, which resulted in the preaching of the second recorded sermon (Acts 3). They were the first two apostles who were arrested and commanded not to preach in the name of Jesus (Acts 4). And, when the gospel was accepted by the Samaritans, Peter and John were the two apostles who traveled to them so that they could receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-15).


Possible Explanations For the Singling Out of Peter, James, and John

Scholars and commentators have offered several suggestions as to why these three men were singled out and chosen to see the great blessings that they witnessed.

1. They Were the Lord’s Closest Friends. I imagine that most everyone has a small circle of people that they are closer to than the rest of their friends and family. Some have suggested that Peter, James, and John were the Lord’s closest friends. This suggestion is attractive, and perhaps something this simple could provide the answer to our question, but there are some problems with the theory.

First, although the Gospel of John does not record any of these incidents involving Peter, James, and John, it does present the idea that John alone enjoyed a relationship with the Lord that was not shared among any of the other apostles. In his gospel, John refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7). On two of these occasions John is mentioned with Peter (John 20:2, 21:7), and yet Peter is designated simply by his name, while John is identified as the disciple whom Jesus loved. If the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) make the argument that Peter, James, and John were the Lord’s closest friends, then John’s Gospel can be said to make the argument that John alone was the Lord’s closest friend.  

Second, there is no indication that Jesus ever played “favorites” with His band of disciples. He indicated that all of them were His friends if they kept His commandments (John 15:13-15). Even Judas is called His close, “familiar friend” through the voice of prophecy (Psalm 41:9).

2. Each Occasion Needed A Limited Number of Witnesses. Part of the work of an apostle was to be an eyewitness of the works and teachings of Jesus (Acts 1:21-22). The three events witnessed by Peter, James, and John were significant and taught important lessons about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. Someone needed to see these things. However, these particular events were private in nature, and on these occasions Jesus used the fewest number of witnesses that were permitted under the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15).

When Jesus raised the girl from the dead, there was a great multitude thronging Him as He traveled to the house. These parents did not need a multitude gathered in and around their house as they underwent this emotional turmoil. Jesus only took three disciples with him into the room. Afterwards, He strictly commanded them not to tell anyone what had happened. At the transfiguration, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after He rose from the dead. On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus spent much time preparing the disciples for His departure. However, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus needed a private moment in which to express His sorrow and to pray for strength.  

3. They Had Advanced Beyond the Other Disciples. Jesus taught that those who proved to be faithful with little would be blessed with more (Matthew 25:21, 23, 29). Based on this teaching, some suggest that Peter, James, and John were advanced to “higher studies” because they had shown greater progress than the others. They weren’t singled out by the Lord as much as they themselves had risen above the others in their faith and understanding.

I see something different in the training of the twelve. There were many times when the Lord rebuked the disciples as a group for their lack of faith. There are even occasions in which Peter, James, and John were singled out and rebuked for their lack of faith (Matthew 14:31, Luke 9:54-56). The Scriptures do not indicate that Peter, James, and John were more advanced in their faith than the other disciples.

4. To Better Equip Them For Their Future Roles And Responsibilities. There is no doubt that these experiences had a great impact upon the lives of Peter, James, and John. Perhaps the answer to our question is found in what these men did after these events.

Peter is the only one of the original twelve apostles who raised anyone from the dead (Acts 9:36-43). (Paul raised Eutychus (Acts 20:9-12), but Paul was not one of the original twelve. We must also remember that the book of Acts does not claim to record every miracle performed by every apostle. Perhaps other people were raised from the dead by the apostles, but these are the only two occasions that are recorded in Scripture.) The scene in the upper room where Peter raised Dorcas from the dead is similar to the time that Peter witnessed Jesus raising the little girl from the dead. Like Jesus, Peter put all the people out of the room before the woman was brought back to life.

On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus told Peter that he had been singled out by Satan to be sifted as wheat (Luke 22:31). Peter needed to prepare himself for this trial. He was taken into Gethsemane, shown the seriousness of the hour, and admonished repeatedly to watch and pray that he enter not into temptation. His spirit was willing, but Jesus knew that his flesh was weak. Peter needed Gethsemane as much as did the Lord.

Peter was not the first Pope, but he did play a prominent role in the establishment and growth of the church. He took the lead in preaching the Gospel for the first time (Acts 2), and was the first to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 10).

John was the last living apostle. He had to do the work of an apostle “alone” for many years after the death of his brother James, as well as the rest of the apostles. There is a sense of loneliness that is experienced by the last living member of any close group of people. The experiences witnessed by John gave him a unique, firsthand knowledge of the Lord’s deity and humanity (John 1:14, 1 John 1:1-4), and would provide the basis for a faith that would have to stand alone for many years.  

Not much is known about James after our Lord’s ascension. He is singled out only one time in the book of Acts – he was the first apostle to be martyred (Acts 12:2). All three of the events that James witnessed with Peter and John have something to do with death. At the raising of Jairus’ daughter, James saw that Jesus is victorious over death. At the transfiguration, James saw that Jesus would be glorified in His death. In Gethsemane, James saw the Lord willingly surrender to His death. Perhaps these events helped James when he had to face his own death. The faith that he showed at his death would have been a great example to the other apostles (who would be martyred themselves, with the exception of his brother John) as well as to the church as it continued to undergo persecution.

Conclusion. The fact is that we do not know for sure why Peter, James, and John were singled out on these occasions. We do not know what made them merit the privilege of witnessing these great events. We can study and speculate, but the Scriptures do not give a clear answer to this question.

It is important that we respect the fact that God has not supplied an answer to this question. There are a great number of questions that are of interest to man which are not answered in Scripture. When we have studied and learn that the Bible does not provide an answer, we must accept this fact and move on. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). While there is nothing wrong with asking questions and searching the Scriptures for answers, it is a dangerous thing for us to shipwreck our faith in search for answers which do not exist. The “things which are revealed” form the basis for our faith (Romans 10:17). The things which are not revealed are not necessary for our faith and service to God. 

While this study cannot answer our question, it does provide a reminder of some important lessons for us as followers of Christ. Jesus has power over death. There will come a day in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth (John 5:28-29). Jesus was glorified on the mountain and He suffered in the garden, proving that He is both the Son of God and the Son of Man. Indeed, “in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

While Peter, James, and John were not more important than the other apostles, we need to appreciate them for the roles that they played in establishing the church, spreading the gospel, strengthening their brethren, and confronting the error that existed in their day.