Foundation Stones: The 12 Apostles and the Mission of the Church

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness … These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:1, 5–8)

The scene: Jesus looks out on a vast crowd of people and sees in them sheep without a shepherd and God’s harvest ready to be brought in.

In response to the need, Jesus tells his followers to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.

Now, they can clearly see the need, and they clearly are first in line — as Jesus’s followers — to begin meeting it. But as we saw last week, Jesus impresses the need to be given authority by the One whose fields these are, as well as the need to be equipped for the work.

The Church Mobilized

This is the set-up for one of the most important moments in the history of Jesus’s people — that is, of the church. The Greek word translated “church,” ekklesia, literally means an assembly of citizens who gather for the purpose of governing and acting as a citizenry.

In this sense the church is the kingdom of heaven on earth: we are the citizens of the kingdom, here and now, bringing the governance of this kingdom to the earth around us.

As we saw last week, up until this moment Jesus had been the one living contact point between God, the kingdom of God, and human beings. But he never intended to remain alone in this work.

In the very beginning, Genesis 1 tells us, God created the heavens and the earth, and he created humankind in his own image — bearing the glory of God in this world and acting as his regents, bringing his rule and governance to the earth.

Humanity “fell short of the glory of God,” as Paul tells us in Romans 3:23, but God’s desire has always been to restore us to the place of glory and regency — of shining and reigning.

So here, at the beginning of Matthew 10, he begins the work of “sending laborers into the harvest” by calling his twelve disciples to himself and commissioning them as apostles — literally “sent ones,” messengers given the authority and power to spread the word of the kingdom.

Twelve Out of Many

The twelve were not Jesus’s only disciples. In ancient Israel, a disciple was one who chose to follow a teacher and emulate both his lifestyle and teachings. Any good rabbi in Jesus’s world had disciples, and Jesus had quite a few.

Some were more devoted than others, of course. At times he was followed by hundreds and even thousands of people, but only a few really walked closely with him, and only a few consistently emerge in the gospel story as faithful and committed to him.

These few include twelve men and a handful of women, the latter of whom, against every convention of the day, traveled with Jesus and the other disciples and sat at his feet to learn from him.

So Jesus had many disciples, many followers, many who believed in him — or at least were exploring belief in him. But out of the many, he called twelve to serve as a special extension of his own ministry. He called twelve to be apostles.

The Twelve Apostles

Matthew lists out these twelve in verses 2–4:

First, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.

Some of these names, of course, are very familiar to us. Peter, James, and John; Andrew and “Doubting Thomas”; and Matthew himself — there are stories told about these individuals, or they wrote parts of the New Testament, and so we feel like we know them.

Others are nearly strangers to us. Although they must have known Jesus well and served him faithfully, Thaddeus (or Judas-not-Iscariot), Bartholomew, and James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot and Philip — most of them are little more than names to us now.

Of course, out of the original twelve, the only one who rivals Peter and John for prominence is Judas Iscariot. We know him from the start as the traitor, but Jesus’s other disciples did not. To them, he was one of them — and one who was so committed, so much a part of the heart of Jesus’s community, that he was commissioned to go out and bring in the harvest.

The twelve have a special place in the history of the church. Even those apostles whose writings or actions have not followed them were laying a foundation for the future — or rather, Jesus was laying a foundation through them. Their witness and work were unique.

In another sense, however, they weren’t unique. They were among the first human beings to carry and release kingdom-of-God authority in the earth, and in that sense, they were only the beginning.

Preach the Gospel, Heal the Sick, Cast Out Demons

The ministry of Jesus and his apostles was distinct from the earlier, forerunning ministry of John the Baptist in one prominent way: whereas John announced that the kingdom had arrived, Jesus and his apostles demonstrated the power of that kingdom.

They not only preached the coming of the King, they enacted his authority in the earth. And that authority showed itself in one primary and multifaceted way: by reversing the effects of the curse, breaking the oppression of evil powers, and restoring human beings to fellowship with God.

It was, to put it briefly, a reconciling and restoring authority.

Jesus’s commission to the apostles is a furtherance of his own work:

  • Preach the good news of the kingdom (that is — God is here and his kingdom has returned to the earth, and you are invited to become a citizen through faith in him);
  • Heal the sick (that is — reverse the effects of the curse on the human body);
  • Cast out demons (that is — break the power of rival spirits and set people free from their oppressive grip).

A work like this can’t be done without the authorization and empowering of God, but in a very real way, that is what the kingdom of God is all about. With the kingdom come to earth — with in fact the King himself come to earth, Yahweh incarnate walking in our midst and bringing the unbridled glory and essence of God into contact with humanity — the Genesis goal for humanity is realized.

We can be set free, and we can set others free. We can be restored and reconciled, and we can bring restoration and reconciliation to others.

We were made in the image of God. That image was marred through the fall into sin and death. With the coming of Jesus, it can be restored, through the working of his power and grace.

That is why Jesus came, and it’s why he called and commissioned the twelve apostles. As they went out into the world, the mission of the church — the kingdom of God on earth — had begun.

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Like what you’re reading? Visit rachelstarrthomson.com to get a free ebook on the Lord’s Prayer and keep up with the rest of the series on the gospel of Matthew.

This is Part 137 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

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Photo by Ethan Dow on Unsplash

Originally published at rachelstarrthomson.com on October 10, 2018.

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I am an author, blogger, speaker, and disciple of Jesus Christ. I blog on the kingdom of God at rachelstarrthomson.com.

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Rachel Starr Thomson

Rachel Starr Thomson

I am an author, blogger, speaker, and disciple of Jesus Christ. I blog on the kingdom of God at rachelstarrthomson.com.

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