Must there always be twelve living apostles in the church?

Luke Wayne
2/7/2018

Mormonism claims that the true church was lost shortly after the time of the New Testament and was restored in the 19th century by their founding prophet Joseph Smith. Part of this alleged "restoration" was to establish a hierarchical structure governed by a prophet and a body of twelve apostles. They claim that Christ intended for the church to always be governed by twelve apostles. Mormons claim that the fact that Christianity has gone on for so long without a continuous body of twelve living apostles is evidence of the "great apostasy" and the need for a restoration. The truth is, however, that the New Testament does not establish an office of "twelve apostles" which was to be continuously filled by an endless number of people down through the ages until the end of time. Instead, the twelve apostles were twelve specific people appointed by Christ to fulfill a specific purpose. Their office was not to be infinitely filled by others after them. The twelve men Jesus appointed as His chosen apostles were not merely the first to fill an open office that would be held by countless others. They are still and will always be "The Twelve." There are no others. The church is not meant nor permitted to claim its own continuous line of twelve apostles. There are no more apostles of this sort.

The Unique Apointment of the Twelve

The word "apostle" was not an utterly uncommon word in the ancient world, and it is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament that have nothing to do with the Twelve. Even Jesus Himself is called "the apostle and high priest of our confession," (Hebrews 3:1). This is certainly not numbering Jesus as one of "the Twelve Apostles." So, though the word "apostle," is used of a variety of people for a variety of reasons, the office of the Twelve is a rather particular matter. If we narrow our focus only to the passages that deal directly with "the Twelve Apostles," it is clear that they are twelve specific men rather than an ongoing body of interchangeable appointments.

We see, for example, that Jesus promises the twelve that they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, (Matthew 19:28, Luke 22:30). Likewise, when the Book of Revelation speaks of the coming Kingdom of Christ and the New Jerusalem, we are told how the city itself will honor and commemorate "the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the lamb," (Revelation 21:14). But, if this is an ongoing office filled by different men over the course of each generation, then there are far more than twelve names. When they are all resurrected and are alive together, there would need to be far more than twelve thrones for them all to sit on. No, these are unique honors promised to twelve particular, individual men with a role to play not only at the start of the church but also in the age to come! Just as there is not a new Messiah for each generation but rather one Messiah then, now, and forever, so too there are only twelve men appointed to be foundational, ruling Apostles in this sense of the word. Their office was not to be filled by countless other. It was not an ongoing, nameless role to filled by many chosen men down through the ages. It was a special role filled only by the specific men that Jesus chose once and for all. Twelve names, twelve men sitting on twelve thrones in the age to come. That was Christ's intention.

No More, No Less

Indeed, we see a special concern that the number be exactly twelve, no more and no less. For example, after Judas had betrayed Jesus and then killed himself, and after the Lord Jesus had ascended into Heaven, the Book of Acts lists the eleven remaining Apostles. It then explains:

"At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, 'Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry,' (Acts 1:15-17).

After a brief interlude where the author describes Judas' death, Peter continues:

"For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead be made desolate, And let no one dwell in it’; and, ‘Let another man take his office.’ Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us— beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection," (Acts 1:20-22).

We see several key things here. First, there was no policy of automatically filling the post. They were not replacing Judas simply because the office of every Apostle needed to be filled when a previous Apostle died. On the contrary, Judas was replaced for a very unique reason. There was a prophecy that Judas would fall and that his specific office would be filled by another. He once had a share in their ministry but he had it no longer because of his betrayal of the Lord and so someone needed to take his place. There needed to be exactly twelve apostles. Judas had given up his slot, not merely because he was dead, but rather because he had betrayed the Lord. The idea here is not an ongoing policy of replacing dead apostles with living ones, but a unique situation where one of the Twelve had lost their eternal post and needed to be replaced. Later on in Acts, when the Apostle James dies as a martyr (Acts 12:2), he is not replaced. He died in faithfulness to Christ and still held his office. They were not to keep appointing more than the original twelve, they simply could not have less. Judas lost his post, so he specifically needed to be replaced.

Secondly, we also see that the qualifications for filling the position included being an eyewitness of Jesus' earthly ministry, His resurrection, and His bodily ascension. As we read above, Peter says:

"it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us— beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection," (Acts 1:22).

No member of any future generation could possibly live up to this requirement. The calling was a special, one-time role connected to Jesus' first coming in the flesh.

Finally, we see that, aside from Judas, all the twelve remained the twelve after Jesus' ascension. This means that three of them did not become the new prophet and his two councilors, as Mormon church structure would demand. We don't see, for example, Peter becoming the new prophet and leaving an opening in the twelve that must be filled by another, nor do we see him calling, say, James and John to be his two councilors, thus leaving two more openings. If the Mormon "restored" structure was really the structure of the New Testament Church, then this meeting in the upper room would have been calling four new apostles rather than just one. There would have been several positions to fill once Jesus was gone!

For all these reasons and more, it is clear that the New Testament did not consider the Twelve Apostles to be an ongoing office to be repeatedly filled by others in future generations, nor did it teach the current LDS church structure. The Twelve Apostles were a precise, one-time number of specifically chosen men to fulfill a special role not given to any others.

"The Twelve" and the Earliest Christians

Beyond all of this, it is worth noting that every single reference to the Twelve Apostles in the New Testament or by any of the early church writers always refers clearly to the specific group of the twelve named individuals who served with Jesus throughout His earthly ministry. No other later appointees are ever in mind, nor is there any talk of an ongoing office that is to be filled by various people at various times. They have absolutely no concept of a permanent succession of a body of twelve apostles over all the churches. In fact, the famous second-century "Muratorian fragment" lists books of the New Testaments and then rejects the authority of later books because the number of the Prophets was complete and the time of the Apostles had already passed.1 There were not to be any more Apostles and Prophets in the particular sense that "the twelve" were apostles or the authors of the Old Testament were prophets. Those offices were meant for a particular purpose in laying a specific foundation, and that purpose had already been accomplished. We see this understanding of the Apostles alluded to by pretty much all of the earliest Christian writers. In the first century "Epistle of Clement," written perhaps around the same time as the latter works of John, we read:

"The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both, therefore, came of the will of God in good order. Having therefore received their orders and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and full of faith in the word of God, they went forth with the firm assurance that the Holy Spirit gives, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God was about to come. So, preaching both in the country and in the towns, they appointed their first fruits, when they had tested them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons for the future believers," (1 Clement, Chapter 42).

The very early second-century "Apology of Aristides," gives a similar account, explaining:

"This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven. Thereupon the twelve disciples went forth throughout the known parts of the world, and kept showing his greatness with all modesty and uprightness. And hence also those of the present day who believe that preaching are called Christians, and they are become famous," (Apology of Aristides, Chapter 2).

In both these cases, The Twelve are clearly the specific men that Jesus appointed and who were witnesses of His earthly life and message, and they are a past rather than a present body. Indeed, Clement makes clear that the Apostles appointed bishops and deacons to lead future believers rather than more apostles and prophets. Likewise, Pseudo-Barnabas, writing perhaps as early as the latter part of the first century and certainly no later than 135 AD,2 speaks of:

"those to whom He gave the authority to proclaim the gospel (there were twelve of them as a witness to the tribes, because there are twelve tribes of Israel)," (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 8).

Twelve men over the twelve tribes of Israel, just as we read in the New Testament. Ignatius of Antioch, writing before his death in 108 AD, said:

"Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be unity, both physical and spiritual," (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, Chapter 13).

Again, we see the apostles are the specific men from the time of Jesus no who are no longer alive and local bishops or overseers are the proper authority after them. There is no sign here of some great apostasy or rejection of the Apostles and their authority. Quite the opposite, there is a drumbeat of faithfulness to and utmost regard for the Apostles and their teachings and, as a result, respect for the leadership structure that they appointed: that of local overseers and deacons. Polycarp of Smyrna, another martyr who lived around the same time and who is said to have been a disciple of John, wrote:

"So, then, let us serve Him with fear and all reverence, just as He Himself has commanded, as did the apostles who preached the gospel to us, and the prophets who announced in advance the coming of our Lord," (Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 6).

The apostles and the prophets are past. We are to heed what they preached, but there was no thought of appointing replacements for them any more than there was of appointing a new Messiah to carry on in Jesus' position. There is no sign in these statements of rank apostasy. Rather, what we see is agreement with the New Testament! And I have specifically chosen to limit myself to only the very early writers whose lives overlapped with the Apostles themselves, so these sources are not the result of any later council. Popes did not yet exist. Constantine would not be born for centuries. These diverse early sources written in various places but agreeing together on one message consistent with the Apostolic, New Testament writings are fairly strong confirmation that they believed this because it was the clear meaning of the apostles' own words and of the words of the New Testament.

Conclusion

If someone claims he is restoring a priceless classic muscle car and then, when he has completed his project, presents you with a covered wagon pulled by an ostrich, you have good reason to question his supposed restoration efforts. What he built is not what the thing originally was nor what it was intended to be. The LDS church claims to restore something far more precious, the beloved church of Jesus Christ. But what they present us with, even in its structural details, is something far removed from the church's original structure and alien to the intention of its founder and Lord. Mormon claims about apostles and prophets are utterly unbiblical, completely miss the special role of those that God once called to those unique offices, and actually overthrow the authorities the New Testament actually did establish for the church (i.e. overseers and deacons) by attempting to subject them to manmade authorities utterly opposed to God's established plan in Scripture. So, not only did Joseph Smith get his doctrine completely wrong, he even got the very outward, visible structure of the church wrong in all its details. Joseph Smith did not restore the church of Jesus Christ (which did not need restoring). Instead, he built a rival religion of his own making.

  • 1. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 333
  • 2. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker Publishing Group, 2006) 174