Question: "Who were the 70 (or 72) disciples in Luke 10?"
Answer: Luke 10 is the only place where we find the account of Jesus sending a specific 70 (or 72) disciples to prepare the way before Him. The discrepancies in the number (70 or 72) come from differences found in approximately half of the ancient scrolls used in translation. The texts are nearly evenly divided between the numbers, and scholars do not agree on whether the number should be 70 or 72, although such a minor issue is no cause for debate. Since the number 70 is repeated other places in Scripture (Exodus 24:1; Numbers 11:16; Jeremiah 29:10), it may be more likely that the actual number of disciples was 70, with the 2 being a copyist’s error. Whether there were 70 or 72 disciples sent out by Jesus is irrelevant. What is important are the instructions Jesus gave them and the power that came upon them to perform miracles and cast out demons (Luke 10:17).
After appointing the 70 (or 72) disciples, Jesus spoke of the great need for evangelism (Luke 10:1–2). He then commissioned the 70, giving them these instructions:
1) Go (Luke 10:3). This is foundational. The 70 were to divide into pairs and visit all the places where Jesus was about to go.
2) Be wary (Luke 10:3). The 70 were like lambs among wolves, surrounded by danger.
3) Live by faith (Luke 10:4). The 70 were to carry no extra provisions. They carried the message of Jesus and didn’t need to be burdened down with material things.
4) Be focused (Luke 10:4). The 70 were to greet no one along the road and not allow themselves to be sidetracked from the more important mission of evangelism.
5) Extend your blessing (Luke 10:5–6). Whoever housed the 70 were to be blessed, using the common greeting of the day, “Peace to this house.”
6) Be content (Luke 10:7). The 70 were told not to seek better accommodations; they were to stay in the home that first received them.
7) Receive your due (Luke 10:7). The laborer is worthy of his wages (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17–18). Doing evangelistic work is indeed work and is worthy of compensation.
8) Be flexible (Luke 10:7–8). The 70 were to eat whatever their hosts served; as God’s servants, they were not to be finicky.
9) Heal the sick (Luke 10:9). Jesus gave the 70 disciples specific authority to heal diseases and illness. It was as if the Great Physician had 70 interns making house calls. When the 70 returned to Jesus, they jubilantly recounted how they were able not only to heal diseases but to cast out demons as well (verse 17).
10) Proclaim the kingdom (Luke 10:9). The message of the 70 disciples was simple: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” This was a clear-cut call to faith in the King who would soon visit each village.
Jesus then told the 70 (or 72) disciples that they might expect rejection in some villages (Luke 10:10), and He told them how to respond: publicly wipe the dust of that town from their feet (Luke 10:11; cf. 9:5), proclaim the kingdom one more time, and warn them of coming judgment (Luke 10:12).
A similar commissioning had occurred with Jesus’ twelve apostles as the Lord sent them out to cure diseases and cast out demons (Matthew 10:1–42; Luke 9:1–6). The main difference is that Jesus had told the Twelve that they were to preach in Galilee, avoiding Gentile areas and Samaria, but the 70 (or 72) were given no such restriction.
The identities of the 70 disciples are never given in Scripture, and the group is never mentioned again, even during the time of the early church in Acts. It seems their ministry was specific to preparing Jesus’ path to Jerusalem. Various individuals have been suggested as possibly being part of the 70—the unnamed exorcist in Luke 9:49, for example. Two of them may have been Barsabbas (known as Justus) and Matthias (Acts 1:23), since they were chosen by the apostles as possible replacements for Judas (Acts 1:15–18). One of the requirements for apostleship was that the candidate had to “have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21–22). We can also speculate that the 70 were part of the 120 gathered in the upper room on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was first poured out (Acts 1:15).
Since God did not consider it important for us to know the names of the 70 (or 72) disciples He charged with the important task of preparing the way for Jesus, we don’t need to consider it important, either. What Jesus called attention to was not the power He gave them but the fact that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:20). Similarly, while we may get excited about visible miracles and demonstrations of supernatural power, the greatest miracle of all is the fact that unworthy sinners can become righteous children of God (Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21; John 1:12). When our focus moves to ourselves and how God is using us, we are headed in the wrong direction. It is a good reminder that, since their names are unimportant, ours are, too. It is the name of Jesus Christ alone who deserves all attention and glory (1 Corinthians 1:28–29; Philippians 2:9–11). It is enough that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.