Bible Subjects

How the Church Exploded with Believers in the New Testament Using Small Groups?

How the Church Exploded with Believers in The New Testament Using Small Groups?

Social studies on groups reveal that people socialize and work more efficiently in small groups than in large groups. Let us compare these studies with the New Testament and see how Christ and later Paul concentrated their efforts into starting the first Christian church. Beginning with the group of twelve disciples, Christ used both the four- and two-man group concept in His ministry.  Then there is the question of how Christ developed the large group of seventy or seventy-two disciples.  In addition, it would be an advantage for us to know how long the twelve disciples stayed together as a group, and how and when they formed other groups.  We shall also look at how Paul makes use of the two- and four-man group in the book of Acts.  Comparisons need to be made between how Christ and Paul used small groups, because they laid down the structural model and foundation of the local church.

The Twelve Disciples

In comparing views of current literature on group size with the size of groups Christ worked with, we find that there are many similarities.  First, during Christ´s three and half years of ministry, He spent more time with small groups of disciples than He did with large groups.  There are only four occasions where He encounters the large-group situation and that is only for a short while like one or two days.  There was the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-8:1), Sermon by the Sea (Matt 13:1-53), Feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44), and Feeding of the 4,000 (Matt 15:32-39).  Christ concentrated mainly on the small-group concept during His three-and-half-year ministry.  The maximum He chose for His first group was twelve.  The gospel of Luke says, “and when it was day, He called His disciples to Him; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles.” (Luke 6:13).  It is interesting to note that the plural pronoun “from them” would imply that there were more than twelve disciples present to choose from, but twelve became the intimate small group Christ associ­ated Himself with most often.  Another reason for choosing twelve disciples was, as in the Old Testament the twelve patriarchs stood as representatives of Israel, so the twelve apostles stood as representatives of the gospel church.[1]  This choice may be more of a symbolic nature, but it was also the maximum number of men Christ could work with, train, and socialize with in a close relationship, referring to the maximum communication lines in our previous study.

In reading the book Desire of Ages, we discover that the group of twelve was broken down into even smaller groups. ”John and James, Andrew and Peter, with Philip, Nathanael, and Matthew, had been more closely connected with Him than the others, and had witnessed more of His miracles.  Peter, James and John stood in still nearer relationship to Him. . . .  John pressed into still closer intimacy with Jesus.”[2]  From this information it can be seen that the group of twelve was broken down to a group of eight including Christ.  From our knowledge of social group behavior, we understand that this is a wise choice because the figure eight was the ideal number of persons to be associated with in a group, having time to learn and know one another.

There was one disciple I have left out from the twelve, and that is Judas Iscariot. Judas was probably the only one of the twelve not a native of Galilee.[3]  Judas Iscariot was the only one, apart from Christ, who probably came from the tribe of Judah.  He was not called by Christ to be in the group of twelve, but the disciples brought him into the group, which made the total number of thirteen.[4]  This is an odd number and does not bring solidarity to the group, according to our previous group sociological findings.  Christ may have planned to have only twelve in the group which included himself, but due to other circumstances Judas was included.  The group of twelve was divided into three groups of four, and then into two´s.  Judas was the odd man out and was most probably included in the last remaining group, which was not present with Christ all of the time.

The Group of Four Disciples

The group of twelve disciples was divided into three groups of four.  The first group of four included Christ Himself, and this was the first group formed when Christ began His ministry.  He (John) and his brother James had been among the first group who had left all for His service.[5]  So the first group consisted of Christ, Peter, James, and John.[6]  The next group of four consisted of Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew and Matthew (Mark 3:18).  It is interesting to note that at the head of one of the groups into which the apostles were divided stands the name Philip.[7]  Therefore, each group had a group leader.  The third group, if taking the disciples in order, consisted of Thomas, James, Simon and Judas the brother of James (Mark 3:18.19).  So there were a total of three groups of four persons in the large group of twelve.

These groups of four would be the ideal group for problem-solving, organizing, and supporting one another.  For example, the first group of four is also mentioned in other parts of the Gospel of Matthew.

Matt 17:1 says, “after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves.”   A vision of Elijah and Moses together with Christ was given to this first group on the Mount of Transfiguration, so as to strengthen and encourage the other disciples after the resurrection.  In like manner, Christ chose the same group to accompany Him in the Garden of Gethsemane just before the crucifixion.  Matt 26:36, 37 says, “Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, sit here while I go and pray over there.  And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee.”  Here Christ needed the support and sympathy of the inner group.  However, in the middle of the night they were overcome by sleep and therefore could not give Him the encouragement He needed so badly.  The four-man group is the main group used for support, intimate relationships, problem-solving, organizing, sharing, praying, and giving sympathy.  The task of the inner group is helping one another in crisis as Christ needed from the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, or having a special revelation from Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, so as to strengthen the faith of the other disciples after the resurrection.

The Groups of Two Disciples

The smallest of all groups is the dyad. John pressed into a closer intimacy with Jesus.[8] As previously revealed, the dyad has a deeper relationship than all the other small groups.  Whether they are of the same sex or not, they have time to talk, share, help, support, and perform cognitive tasks.  Maybe this is one of the reasons why Christ divided the disciples into two´s when sending them to the surrounding towns doing local mission work.  The sole responsibility of the work lay on the dyads´ shoulders.  They could not avoid the work and be passive as they might have been in the larger-group situation of twelve.  At this point, Christ was using the methods of group dynamics, person-to-person teaching, and personal responsibility.  The individual in a small group performs more efficiently at cognitive tasks than the individual in a large group.

Furthermore, the dyad method of group dynamics helped to balance the wide variety of personalities in the group of Christs disciples. “The apostles differed widely in habits and disposition.  There were the publican, Levi-Matthew, and the fiery zealot Simon, the uncompromising hater of the authority of Rome; the generous, impulsive Peter, and the mean spirited Judas; Thomas, truehearted, yet  timid and fearful, Philip, slow of heart, and inclined to doubt, and the ambitious, outspoken sons of Zebedee, with their brethren.”[9] Christ divided these disciples up into two´s so that they could supplement each other´s characters and make up for what they each were lacking.  For example, John the son of thunder, with his strong temperament, teamed up with Jesus of a mild nature to counterbal­ance his own character.  There was also Nathanael: He was a man of intensely earnest nature, one whose faith took hold upon unseen realities.  Yet with Philip . . . the divine teacher bore patiently with his unbelief and dullness.[10]  These two disciples were friends before their call to discipleship because they supplemented each other´s character, and therefore were a good team for service in the door-to-door evangelistic work.  Christ sent them two by two into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. (Luke 10:1). These disciples obeyed and went to their duty, because by personal contact and association, Christ trained them for His service.[11]

It was first by showing them practically, and then teaching them individually, that Christ received results from the training of His disciples. If He had preached to them as pastors do today from the pulpit, and taught them without personal contact, Christ would probably have had the same results: attempting unsuccessfully to encourage the membership to engage in mission work in the local church.

The Seventy or Seventy-two Disciples

The first encounter with evangelistic results from Christ´s work, and from the disci­ples, was the further addition of seventy disciples.  The NRSV Bible states, “The Lord appointed seventy.” (Luke 10:1).  The NIV Bible states, “The Lord appointed seventy-two.” (Luke 10:1).  Which version of the Bible is correct on this point?  The manuscript tradition is evenly balanced between those that read seventy and those that read seventy-two.[12]  If we apply the methods of group social behavior and Christ´s maximum of twelve disciples existing in the largest group, then we have six groups of twelve disciples, which make seventy-two.  Therefore, the principles of group dynamics would choose the manuscript tradition (Western type) stating seventy-two disciples.  Where did they come from, and how did they get there?  These disciples had been with Christ for some time, in training for their work. When the twelve were sent out on their first separate mission, other disciples accompa­nied Jesus on His journey through Galilee.  Thus, they had the privilege of intimate association with Him, and direct personal instruction.[13]  It is most likely that these seventy-two disciples came from the area of Galilee, because they were of the same cultural background as the other twelve disciples.  Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that if the six groups of two disciples, from the twelve, had friends and relatives in Galilee, then each dyad would be responsible in forming one group of twelve, copying the master model.

It was not only the work of each group of two disciples, to preach, heal, and drive out demons, but they had to form relationships in groups wherever they went.  While still being attached to their own circle of twelve, these dyads may have formed three inner groups of four, making twelve-men groups in the close vicinity around Galilee.  These disciples who formed the smallest group of two were the workers on the front line of battle.  They had individual responsibilities, and they carried them out, as opposed to Christ sending the twelve out together, because then the negative effects of social group dynamics would take place.

600 % Increase within 1 year and 3 months

The appointment of the twelve was in the summer of A.D. 29, and the last time they are mentioned is at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15: before splitting up on missionary tours in approximately A.D. 49.[14]  So they may have stayed together as a group for around twenty years.  Having said that, we must take into account that not much is mentioned about them from the book of Acts 6:2 to Acts 15.  Therefore, the minimum number of years they may have stayed together as a group could be about two to three years. How long did it take before starting other groups in their close vicinity?  In Luke 6:12-16, there is the appointment of the twelve disciples in the summer of A.D. 29.[15]  According to this text, these disciples were chosen from other disciples.  Christ did not choose the other disciples, because He could foresee that they were not fully committed to the cause, and therefore they would leave Him when He made it plain to them that His kingdom was a spiritual kingdom and not an earthly one (John 6:66).

So from the time the twelve were appointed, how long did they wait before organizing other groups of twelve?  From the summer of A.D. 29 to the spring of A.D. 30, Christ taught His disciples in a period of nine months. Then in the spring of A.D. 30 Christ sent His disciples out two by two on their first mission tour.[16]  From the spring to autumn in A.D. 30, Christ appointed another seventy-two disciples to go out two by two.[17]  The time taken was one year and three months from the time they were officially formed as a group to the appointing of the seventy-two.  This is 600% increase within one year and three months.  However, when applying these figures to our present situation, we must take into account that the Jews were already a people believing in the Scriptures, and therefore knew most of the doctrines.  People living in the world today do not know most of the Bible and its doctrines.  Therefore, it would take a longer period of time to instruct a group of twelve before harvesting the results.

The Two- and Four-man Groups in the Book of Acts

On the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, thousands of Jews attended the feast from the Diaspora. When Peter stood up to preach, and three thousand persons were converted in one day, one would conclude that it was a great sermon.  However, the conversions that took place on the Day of Pentecost were the results of sowing, the harvest of Christ´s work, revealing the power of His teaching.[18] So although the Holy Spirit worked through Peter´s sermon, the preparation for conversion was wrought through Christ´s preparatory work and teaching. Studies in group dynamics tell us that the individual effort of person-to-person instruction such as Christ performed will result, in most cases, in the individual´s taking the responsibility upon himself in making a decision for Christ and witnessing for Him.

Now let us look at the Pauline method of small-group evangelism and see if there are any similarities to Christ´s method.  Paul and Barnabas were chosen by the Holy Spirit to perform a special work of evangelism in Asia Minor and Macedonia (Acts 13:2).  Here is the dyad at work, that is, two people who supplement each others character and have much in common in spreading the gospel.  Then on their second missionary journey, they separate because of a contention.  Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed . . . and he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:39-41).  When they did split up, they followed the two-man principle of small groups.  They could have chosen otherwise; when Barnabas went with Mark, Paul could have traveled alone, but he did not.  Later, Timothy joined Paul and Silas, making their party a threesome, which was an odd number. However, we learn that Dr. Luke joined them also on the second missionary journey, making theirs into a four-man group.

By the use of the pronouns “we” and “us” in the narrative of Paul´s missionary journey, the author (Luke) reveals that he was with Paul on his second missionary journey from Troas to Philippi, on his third journey from Philippi back to Jerusalem, and on the voyage from Caesarea to Rome. He joined Paul in sending greetings from Rome to the Colossian believers (Col 4:14).[19]  Even when the brethren sent Paul away from Berea, Silas and Timothy remained there as a dyad, to build up the church, and supported each other (Acts 17:14).  Also, when Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth, he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla. (Acts 18:1-3).  Paul and Luke stayed with them for some time, making a group of four people.  Here they began the church in Corinth with a four-member group, starting in Priscilla and Aquila´s house (Rom 16:3-5).  Although there is no mention of twelve-man groups in Paul´s method of evangelism, there is a contact he made with a twelve-man group, the disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-7).  Nevertheless, Paul did practice the four- and two-member groups on his missionary travels. This is how the foundations of the church were built up: on a structured approach similar to the practice of Christ during His ministry on earth.


Christ began the Christian church with 12 disciples. He further divided the group of 12 into groups of 4 and groups of 2. Christ used this method because he saw that the value of socialization and personal work involvement lies with people being divided into small groups. Hence, by dividing the 12 disciples the figure increased to 72 disciples and this figure multiplied in the years that followed. Paul himself used the small group concept on his missionary journeys throughout Minor Asia.  Ellen G. White states in her book The Acts of the Apostles, “The organization of the church at Jerusalem was to serve as a model for the organization of churches in every other place where messengers of the truth should win converts to the gospel.”[20] It was by the use of small groups that Christ was able to start, develop and expand the Christian church during the first century.



[1] Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1911), 19.

[2] Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1940), 292.

[3] Matthew, SDA Bible Commentary, ed.  F. D. Nichol (Washington, DC: Review & Herald, 1980), 5:597.

[4] White, Desire of Ages, 293, 294.

[5] Ibid., 548.

[6] Ibid., 292.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 296.

[10] Ibid., 293.

[11] White, Acts of the Apostles, 17.

[12] R. Alan Culpepper, ALuke, New Interpreter`s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995),

9:218, 219.

[13] White, Desire of Ages, 488.

[14] Chronology of the Acts and Pauline Epistles, SDA Bible Commentary, ed.  F. D. Nichol (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1953-80), 6:100.

[15] A Harmony of the Gospels, SDA Bible Commentary, 5:197.

[16] Ibid., 198.

[17] Ibid., 199.

[18] White, Acts of the Apostles, 45.

[19] SDA Bible Dictionary (1979), s.v.  “Luke.”

[20] White, Acts of the Apostles, 91.


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