Twelve Jewish Men: Why the First Twelve Disciples were Male

Since Jesus initially chose twelve men to serve as his disciples, some believe that only men may hold positions of leadership in the church today.

This belief is incorrect.

This viewpoint neglects the fact that Jesus chose only twelve Jewish men to be his disciples. Anyone insisting that only men should teach, preach and lead in the church should also insist that all of these men be Jewish. In general, however, the church does not exclude Gentile men from any form of ministry. Inconsistently, though, many in the church continue to exclude women.

If Jesus’ selection of twelve Jewish men was not meant to be an enduring pattern for church leadership, why did he do it? Matthew’s gospel explains: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel'” (Matthew 10:5-6, NRSV).

Later in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul reiterates the idea that Jesus’ message first had to be preached to the Jews: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (i.e. Gentile)” (Romans 1:16 NRSV).

Jesus’ mission “to the Jew first” was a fulfilment of the Messianic prophesy found in the book of Ezekiel:

I, the Sovereign Lord, tell you that I myself will look for my sheep and take care of them in the same way as shepherds take care of their sheep that were scattered and are brought together again…

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will find them a place to rest. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken. I will look for those that are lost, bring back those that wander off, bandage those that are hurt, and heal those that are sick…

I will give them a king like my servant David to be their one shepherd, and he will take care of them. I, the Lord, will be their God, and a king like my servant David will be their ruler. I have spoken. I will make a covenant with them that guarantees their security. (Ezekiel 34:11-25, GNT)

God, in Christ, came to search for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Jesus, a descendant of David, is the Good Shepherd who will be their King and make a new covenant with them. In going first to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, Jesus was showing the world that the promised Messiah had come.

The following passages from the New Testament confirm that Jesus was the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy:

  • Israel will be saved by “the Shepherd who does what is right” (Ezekiel 34:16): I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11, NIV).
  • The Good Shepherd will be God himself (Ezekiel 34:11): Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11, NASB).
  • The Good Shepherd would be the King of Israel (Ezekiel 34:23-24): And Pilate wrote a title also, and put it on the cross. And there was written, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:19, ASB).
  • The Good Shepherd would be compared to David (Ezekiel 34:23-24): This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David” (Matthew 1:1, NIV).
  • The Good Shepherd would make a new covenant with Israel (Ezekiel 34:25): And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:20, NASB).

Jesus went first to the lost sheep of the House of Israel to fulfill prophecy, and demonstrate that he was in fact the promised Messiah. While this is understandable, it still does not explain why he specifically chose twelve Jewish men as his messengers. Understanding this requires an examination of the oral traditions of Judaism during the time of Jesus’ ministry. According to these traditions, only Jewish men were permitted to teach in the synagogues. This was not a law found in the Old Testament; it was an oral tradition developed by the Jewish Rabbis.i In choosing Jewish men, Jesus chose messengers who were legally permitted to speak in Jewish places of worship. His selection of twelve Jewish men points to the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the institution of the New. The Old Covenant was given by God through Moses to the 12 tribes of Israel; similarly, the New Covenant was given through Jesus to the 12 apostles of Israel. Once again, Jesus is demonstrating through his actions that he is instituting a New Covenant with Israel in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.

Once Jesus had fulfilled the Old Covenant through his death and resurrection, he no longer limited his ministry to “the House of Israel,” and he no longer limited his messengers to men. In fact, the first people he revealed himself to after his resurrection from the dead were women. He then commissioned them to go and tell the twelve disciples about his miraculous victory over sin and the grave:

After the Sabbath, as Sunday morning was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. Suddenly there was a violent earthquake; an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled the stone away, and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid that they trembled and became like dead men.

The angel spoke to the women. “You must not be afraid,” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised, just as he said. Come here and see the place where he was lying. Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from death, and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him!’ Remember what I have told you.” So they left the tomb in a hurry, afraid and yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Peace be with you.” They came up to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to them. “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:1-10, GNT)

After the Old Covenant had been fulfilled, an angel of God and Jesus himself first chose women to proclaim the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is why the women chosen by God are often referred to as “the apostles to the apostles.” We know three of these women by name: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the Bible tells us that there were “other women with them” (Luke 24:10). No men were present among the group that was first commissioned to proclaim the gospel message.

It was then upon both men and women that the Holy Spirit was poured out in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. This fulfilled the prophesy of Joel, who said that both men and women would be filled with God’s Spirit and proclaim his message:

Afterward I will pour out my Spirit on everyone:
your sons and daughters will proclaim my message;
your old people will have dreams,
and your young people will see visions.
At that time I will pour out my Spirit
even on servants, both men and women. (Joel 2:28-29, GNT)

Pentecost commemorated the day God gave the law through Moses to his people, Israel. Now, it would also be remembered as the day the risen Lord Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his people, the church. Men and women would now be God’s “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). Anyone called by God and gifted by the Spirit to teach, preach or lead should do so.  This includes women and men, Jews and Gentiles.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” (Romans 12:6-8)

(This article has been adapted from Chapter 6 of “The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy”)


i Rabbi Eliezar, 1st century A.D.; as cited in Trombley, C. 2003. Who Said Women Can’t Teach? God’s Vision for Women in Ministry (p. 40). Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos.