The coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) transformed the apostles of Jesus Christ from a group of ordinary men into some of the most remarkable and dynamic leaders the world has ever known. To appreciate the magnitude of their transformation, we need to take a closer look at the same men before they received God's Spirit.
The four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—provide us with insight into their lives. We see no indication that any of the 12 apostles had an exceptional education or any position of influence. They were common men, regarded as "uneducated and untrained" by the rulers and religious authorities of that time (Acts 4:13).
Matthew was a tax collector, a member of one of the despised professions of his day (Matthew 9:9; Matthew 18:17). Peter, his brother Andrew and two other brothers, James and John, were partners in a modest fishing enterprise (Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-10). Along with Philip, they lived in the town of Bethsaida in the northern province of Galilee (John 1:44). The only special thing about them was that they were disciples—students and followers—of Jesus Christ.
Even more striking is their lack of spiritual comprehension during their time of training. Their minds were still controlled by their fleshly nature. Their thinking and behavior were "carnal"—that is, of the flesh (Romans 8:5-7). Jesus rebuked them for their lack of belief and hardness of heart (Mark 16:14).
Their attitudes and behavior during that time illustrate that even living in the presence of Jesus Christ while He was on earth —personally hearing Him teach and seeing His example—was not sufficient to transform their thinking from carnal to spiritual.
Jesus sternly chastised James and John for their attitude toward some who had rejected Jesus: "But they [the Samaritans] did not receive Him...And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, 'Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?' But He turned and rebuked them, and said, 'You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them'" (Luke 9:53-57). John would later become known as "the apostle of love"—quite a turnaround for a man who had suggested the annihilation of a village!
The disciples were selfish. They argued among themselves as to who would be the greatest (Mark 9:33-34; Luke 22:24). James and John, along with their mother, even tried to finagle Jesus into awarding them the two most prominent positions in His Kingdom (Mark 10:35-37; Matthew 20:20-21).
Like any other people, each of the disciples greatly overestimated his faithfulness and loyalty to Christ. "Jesus said to them, 'All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: "I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered"'...Peter said to Him, 'Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be.' Jesus said to him, 'Assuredly, I say to you that today, even this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.' But he spoke more vehemently, 'If I have to die with You, I will not deny You!' And they all said likewise" (Mark 14:27-31).
As they spoke those words, the disciples believed they would loyally do as they had said. Yet within hours they all abandoned Jesus to suffer alone (Mark 14:50). Peter even cursed and swore that he had never even known Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75; Luke 22:54-62).
After Jesus was resurrected, He appeared to His gathered disciples, except for Thomas, who was not present. Upon hearing about this, Thomas was so skeptical that he commented, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (John 20:25). Jesus later appeared and provided Thomas with the precise proof he requested (John 20:26-29).
Later still, Peter and six of the other apostles decided it was time to resume their former work as fishermen (John 21:2-3). They had actually met with the risen Christ, but their limited perspective still blinded them to the significance of Jesus' sayings and what He intended for them. That same blindness is a part of all human beings until God opens their understanding to see what He really says in His Word.
These were the men Jesus chose to carry His gospel to every nation. As yet they had not received God's Spirit. They were as powerless as any other human being would be to fulfill their intentions and commitments to faithfully serve their Savior. It was impossible for them to be the special servants of Christ on their own strength.
Now we can understand Jesus' remark when His disciples asked Him, "Who then can be saved?" His answer: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:25-26).