During his time on earth as an itinerant Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth trained several students. He selected a group of twelve of them for whom he had special plans, calling them “apostles” (from the Greek word apostolos), a word denoting emissaries or people sent out (Lk 6:12-16).
The number of apostles is the same as the number of tribes of Israel, giving a hint about what their mission might include. At the Last Supper, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus told them, “I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk 22:29-30).
The kingdom of God is a present reality that continues to expand as we await Jesus’ return. Theologians call this vision of the kingdom an “inaugurated eschatology.”
Jesus, as the archangel Gabriel had announced before his birth, would occupy the throne of David over Israel (Lk 1:26-33). The apostles, ruling under Jesus, would judge the twelve tribes of Israel, which implies that there would be a restored nation of Israel for them to judge. That was exciting news for them. Like other Jews, they looked forward to the restoration that the prophets had foreseen in passages like Ezekiel 37.
The apostles, naturally, wanted to learn more. So, forty days after the resurrection of Jesus, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Ac 1:6). Was this a misguided question, as has often been suggested? Notice Jesus did not say that a restoration would not occur (vv 7-8). Instead, he told the apostles that he could not reveal the time required to complete the restoration. He also promised an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, an event the prophets had said would mark the beginning of restoration (Isa 32:9-20; Joel 2:28-3:1).
After the ascension of Jesus, the eleven remaining apostles (Judas having defected) moved quickly to return their number to twelve by adding Matthias to their ranks (Ac 1:15-26). After all, if they were going to judge the twelve tribes, there should be twelve of them. At that point, they anticipated their reign would begin soon.
Were the apostles correct in their anticipation? To consider this question, we should remember that Jesus had announced during his earthly ministry that the Kingdom of God had broken into the world with his arrival as King. For example, he told a group of Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:21). On the other hand, the kingdom would only be fully realized after he departed and returned (Lk 19:11-12). So the kingdom of God—according to the Gospels—is a present reality that continues to expand as we await Jesus’ return. Theologians call this vision of the kingdom an “inaugurated eschatology.”
It is illuminating to view the reign of the Twelve in terms of inaugurated eschatology.(1) The future kingship of the resurrected apostles is implied in Mt 19:28, which pictures the Twelve governing under Jesus after his return. In the first century, the Twelve presided over the beginning of a restoration of Israel. This small but fast-growing movement began on Pentecost with the baptism of three thousand Jews in Jerusalem
who responded to their proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 2).
In a world dominated by the Roman Empire, the Twelve had no authority over an earthly territory. Following the teaching and example of Jesus, they were to be rulers of a different kind. The Master showed them how leaders in his kingdom were servants (Lk 22:24-27). They might carry swords to protect themselves while traveling (vv 35-38), but they would not be launching an armed uprising to overthrow the government or conquer territory (vv 49-51). Instead, they would give their lives for those whom they served (Jn 15:12-13).
The Twelve faced opposition from both outside their movement and within it. To combat resistance and judge the twelve tribes, they did not wield physical weapons. Instead, they employed prophetic speech empowered by the Holy Spirit.
In this, they again followed the example of Jesus at the Last Supper. Guided by the Spirit, Jesus knew that his betrayer was among those at the meal (Lk 22:21). “For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined,” he stated, “but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (v 22). Jesus exercised grace by not identifying his betrayer, giving Judas one last opportunity to repent and abandon his plans. At the same time, he made it clear that there would be severe consequences if Judas went ahead with his scheme.
In an early challenge faced by the Twelve, two believers named Ananias and Sapphira falsely claimed to donate the entire proceeds from the sale of a piece of property (Ac 5:1-2). Recognizing a Satanic attack on the integrity of the group, Peter rebuked the couple for their duplicity (vv 3-11). They were given an opportunity to confess their wrongdoing, but both were struck dead when they failed to do so. In this case, Peter, like Jesus, exercised judgment through prophetic speech.
A second challenge occurred when the Gospel spread to Samaria, and a magician named Simon was baptized in response to the preaching of Philip (Ac 8:4-13). When Simon offered money to the apostles for the ability to confer the Spirit by laying on of hands, Peter rebuked him, making clear that his sorcery had no place in the kingdom (vv 14-24). Thus, through prophetic speech, Peter squelched another threat to their movement.
Armed with this understanding, we can see how the Twelve began to fulfill their roles as kings over a restoration of Israel in their lifetime, under the authority of their High King. In particular, they judged the tribes with Spirit-empowered prophetic speech.
The Master models for us how leaders in his kingdom are servants (Lk 22:24-27).
As the book of Acts records, God led the Twelve to add Gentile believers to their Israelite kingdom. Paul, an additional apostle, was a leader in this effort. Along with the Twelve, he exercised prophetic judgment in directing his congregations (1 Co 5) and encouraged disciples to grow in servant leadership (1 Co 6). As believers, we can prepare now for further opportunities to serve alongside the resurrected apostles on a renewed earth when Jesus returns (Rev 2:26-27; 5:10).
(1) David H. Wenkel does so in his book The Kingship of the Twelve Apostles in Luke-Acts, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, the main resource for this article.
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