You might think it’s a misprint. Everyone knows that Jesus had exactly twelve disciples—so why does the Armenian Church calendar reserve a feast day for the Seventy-two Disciples of Christ? (We’ll observe it this Saturday, October 6.)
In fact, the Seventy-Two Disciples are firmly rooted in Scripture—but only the Gospel of Luke mentions them. They were distinct from “The Twelve”—Christ’s inner circle of companions. The larger group had the character of an “advance team” for Christ’s ministry, its members fanning out into the countryside, preaching in villages and towns—preparing the soil, as it were, for Jesus’ personal arrival in a given locale.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” Christ said as he dispatched the 72 disciples. “So the Lord of the harvest has to send more workers out into the fields.”
He sent them out “as lambs among wolves,” without purse, bag, or sandals. He told them to live simply, but urgently. And the message they were told to convey was equally simple and urgent: “The kingdom of God is coming near you”—so be prepared!
Evidently, their mission went well. Luke lets us listen in as Jesus “debriefed” the 72 after their return. “Lord,” they excitedly explained, “even the demons submit to us in your name!” Jesus was so delighted by the news that he replied, “I seem to see Satan falling like lightning from heaven”—his poetic way (perhaps) of saying: “It looks like the good guys are winning!”
Several ancient authorities went so far as to try to name all 72 disciples. A typical list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the early church, incorporating figures well-known through Scripture (Matthias, Mark, Luke), others who are merely familiar (Timothy, Titus, Tabitha), and some who are truly obscure (Thorus and Zakron). The compilations have dubious historical value, but they suggest that at least some among the 72 went on to lead the early Christian movement during the Apostolic Age.
What happened to the 72 disciples? Luke’s Gospel doesn’t say; but a curious episode in the Gospel of John might offer a clue.
At a contentious moment in his ministry, Christ made the incredible announcement that “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them” (Jn 6:56). We today recognize this as a reference to the mystery of Holy Communion; but Christ’s listeners at the time were deeply scandalized by the assertion. “From this time,” John writes, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
Presumably, the deserting disciples here were among the group of 72—suggesting a bittersweet sequel to the triumphant mission depicted by St. Luke. Some of them were willing to follow Jesus only so far—but no further; they supported him when he was “winning,” but at the first sign of controversy they distanced themselves. It was hardly the last time Jesus would be betrayed by his followers.
Yet for this moment, at least, Jesus could still count on the loyalty of his closest companions. When he asked the Twelve whether they, too, intended to abandon him, Peter spoke up for the others with these touching words:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69).
Peter’s simple expression of trust could be a motto for people throughout history—like our own Armenian forebears—who have stood by our Lord, and followed his teachings, even when to do so brought them grief, ridicule, and persecution.
Read about Christ’s Seventy-Two Disciples at Luke 10:1-24.
—Christopher H. Zakian