Open Matthew 10:1.
Appointing twelve leaders would have had special significance in Jesus’ culture. Israel found their identity in the twelve tribes descended from Jacob. But Israel had been scattered all over the ancient world “like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). The king felt an urgency to gather such a great harvest. He instructed his followers to entreat the harvest owner to appoint workers (9:38). Then he commissioned them: twelve Jewish men entrusted with the authority of the king, foundation stones for re-forming Israel.
Why did Israel need to be re-established? The kingdom had fallen apart. The disintegration began when Solomon died and the nation split in two. The northern tribes largely lost their identity when Assyria invaded and took their land. After Judah’s exile to Babylon, 1 Chronicles recorded the families that returned, but for some tribes there were very few names or none at. The Chronicler yearned for the restoration of “all Israel” — a phrase he used 47 times. Since some tribes had died out, how could there ever be twelve tribes again?
Remember Ezekiel prophesying to dry bones? The dry bones were “the whole house of Israel” (Ezekiel 37:11). Ezekiel declared God would resurrect all twelve tribes — the northern tribes destroyed by Assyria and the southern tribe of Judah — restored as one nation under one king (37:15-22). Jesus is that king, and the twelve officials he appointed to his government represent the re-establishment of the people of God who are re-formed in him.
In first century Palestine, appointing twelve would have been understood as laying the foundation for the restored kingdom of God. In common with other Pharisees, Paul hoped for the reconstitution of Israel’s twelve tribes (Acts 26:5-8). The Essenes at Qumran also appointed twelve leaders, since they saw themselves as the true Israel (1QS Col. viii:1).
But why was the restoration of Israel so crucial? God’s election of Abraham’s family was never the goal in itself: it was always the heavenly sovereign’s plan to bless the nations by bringing them back under his governance. From the moment he formed Israel as a nation, they were his representatives to the nations (Exodus 19:5-6), a light to the nations to restore all the earth (Isaiah 49:6). The restoration of Israel from the hands of the nations was the first step towards restoring God’s kingship over the nations. In his earthly ministry, Jesus proclaimed the restoration of Israel as God’s representative kingdom, so that ultimately the whole earth could be restored as God’s kingdom.
It’s all about the authority being given to Jesus as king of God’s kingdom. Authority is given because it comes from God. Matthew has already told us that the crowds were amazed that God had given authority to Jesus to restore his people: “They glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (9:8). The Jerusalem leaders were suspicious of this claim: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23). The resurrection validated Jesus’ authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18).
So how did Jesus use the authority given to him? Matthew describes it with the same summary statement he used at the start of Jesus’ ministry:
|4 23 He went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.||9 35 Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.|
Jesus used the authority given to him to restore the people of God. He announced the wonderful news of the restoration of God’s government, and he used his regal authority to restore his people.
It is precisely the authority Jesus received that he gave to his followers. He empowered them to restore his people as well:
Matthew 10:1 (my translation)
Summoning his twelve students, he gave them authority to drive out unclean spirits, and to heal every disease and every affliction.
Initially, the king limits his twelve emissaries to restoring Israel: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans,” Jesus said (10:5). But after his resurrection, “all authority in heaven and on earth is given to” King Jesus, so he sends his servants to “all nations” (28:18-19). The authority given to King Jesus he gives to others beyond the twelve (Luke 10:19; John 1:12; 2 Corinthians 13:10; Revelation 2:26). Ultimately, he reconstitutes not only Israel, but all of humanity in himself.
The restoration of humanity therefore rests on the foundation of the twelve apostles appointed with Jesus’ authority, which itself rests on the Old Testament prophetic narrative that proclaimed Messiah Jesus as the cornerstone of God’s project. In this way, the earth is restored as the temple/palace of the heavenly king who finally lives among his people as he always intended (compare Ephesians 2:20-21).
His regal power is at work in us, and he is doing far more than anyone imagined. God is the Father not only of Abraham’s family, but of every family in heaven and on earth. All the people of the earth will honour our heavenly sovereign through the authority given to Messiah Jesus, throughout all generations, forever and ever (compare Ephesians 3:14-21).
That’s a goal worth living and dying for.
What others are saying
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (London: SPCK, 1996), 300:
The very existence of the twelve speaks, of course, of the reconstitution of Israel; Israel had not had twelve visible tribes since the Assyrian invasion in 734 bc, and for Jesus to give twelve followers a place of prominence, let alone to make comments about them sitting on thrones judging the twelve tribes [Matthew 19:28], indicates pretty clearly that he was thinking in terms of the eschatological restoration of Israel.
David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 264:
Jesus’s choice of twelve disciples is intended to correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel (19:28), who are currently without godly leaders (9:36). Matthew presents these twelve disciples as Israel’s new leaders (19:28; 21:33–44; D. Turner 2002). The authority of the kingdom is a crucial theme in Matthew (7:28–29; 8:9; 9:6–8; 21:23–27; 28:18; cf. 12:22–29). The disciples are here given authority over evil spirits and disease, the same domains encountered previously by Jesus’s authority (4:23–24; 9:35).
John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 438:
As the nation was descended from twelve patriarchs, so its scattered remains are now reminded by Christ of their origin, that they may entertain a fixed hope of being restored. Although the kingdom of God was not in so flourishing a state in Judea, as to preserve the nation entire, but, on the contrary, that people, which already had miserably fallen, deserved doubly to die on account of ingratitude in despising the grace which had been offered to them, yet this did not prevent a new nation from afterwards springing up. At a future period, God extended far beyond Zion the sceptre of the power of his Son, and caused rivers to flow from that fountain, to water abundantly the four quarters of the world. Then God assembled his Israel from every direction, and united into one body not only the scattered and torn members, but men who had formerly been entirely alienated from the people of God.
[previous: Jesus our shepherd]