Twelve men followed Christ, walking beside him every day of his life and gleaning all of the wisdom he had to offer. One betrayed him to death in the last days of his life and ended up committing suicide; the other eleven—along with a new twelfth elected by lots and prayer to the position of Apostle—went on to become the leaders of the church on earth once Jesus returned to heaven.
The lives of the apostles during that of Jesus are no real mystery. They followed him, they listened to him, they spoke well, and when things got dark, they ran. In the end, they came back to worship, but other than the fact that in the book of Acts they prayed constantly for the church and sent out missionaries, little is discussed of their life after that point. The great book Foxe’s Book of Martyrs speaks somewhat of their lives, although of course it deals more with their deaths. While Foxe is not an eyewitness account of most of these deaths, having been written in the 1500s, it is a credible source based on traditions and other writings and has been considered church canon for centuries.
The first of the Twelve to be martyred was James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee—beheaded only fourteen years after the ascension, according to Foxe, although his death is recorded in Acts 12:2. Unless otherwise noted, all facts cited about the fates of the apostles are derived from Foxe.
Doubting Thomas, known for his fears that Jesus was actually a ghost and only believing upon placing his hand inside the wounds on Jesus’ side, travelled as far as the nation of India, where he spread the name of Christ for years before being speared to death by Hindu priests.
A number of apostles met their deaths on a cross, the same way as the Lord whose death and life they proclaimed. The apostle Philip went both to the nation of France and to Turkey before he was crucified; Peter’s brother Andrew perished in Greece, nailed to an x-shaped cross. Perhaps the most prominent of the Twelve was Simon Peter, who survived an attempt by King Herod on his life in the early days of the church when the angel led him out of prison (Acts 12:11, ESV). In the latter days of his life, he was held in prison in Rome, eventually crucified upside down. This was upon his request, to show that he was inferior to Christ.
Initially the Pharisee Saul made a name for himself as the greatest persecutor of the Christian church. Upon seeing the light (Acts 9) he defected the Pharisees to instead become one of the greatest voices of the ancient church, writing half the New Testament and starting churches from end to end of the known world.
Throughout his ministry he endured persecution and even near death for the sake of the gospel—in several cities his message brought people to the point of picking up rocks to stone him, and in Lystra they actually did stone him and suppose “that he was dead” (Acts 14:19, ESV). But as the next verse shows, he was not truly dead, and continued his ministry for years afterward. Because he was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27) Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11) for his trial, and was brought to Rome, where he spent a few years under house arrest. As a citizen of the empire, he was spared the more gruesome methods of Roman execution, instead beheaded just outside the city.
Even the earliest leaders of the church were not spared the hatred of the world as Jesus foretold (John 17:14). Paul himself stated in his letter to the Romans: “For [his] sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36, ESV). The apostles shared in Jesus’ earthly ministry; even so they shared in his death.
None of the men Jesus chose as his closest apostles were particularly unique or special. During his earthly ministry, they failed to see all the signs that he was God, even when they were set out clearly in front of them; at his arrest they fled for their own safety; Peter denied him three times. Yet these everyday men went on to become the greatest instruments God used in building the earliest foundations of his church. Only he could take such human imperfection and build something so great out of it. Even today he calls his people for a similar cause: everyday people called to live and die for his name.