The Gospel accounts of Ss. Matthew, Mark and Luke as well as the passage from the Acts of the Apostles to be read at this coming Sunday’s Mass list the twelve apostles with amazing similarity. St. John, although he never uses the title “apostle,” does refer three times in his celebrated passage on the Eucharist to the “Twelve.” Throughout his writing he also makes mention by name of nine of the twelve apostles. This fairly accurate accounting from the ancient world is very significant. Recall that the four evangelists were putting pen to paper at least a generation after the death of Christ. Jesus probably died in 29AD but the sacred authors were not at their desks until anytime from 65AD until close to 90AD. The handing down of these almost identical names for fifty or sixty years among the disparate cultures of the Mediterranean world is, at first hearing, astounding. Yet perhaps their revered memory is not so astounding when one realizes that the Twelve Apostles are an integral part of essential Christianity.
The Apostles, that is, the Twelve, were deliberately selected by Jesus Christ himself. They traveled back and forth together between Galilee and Judea for the better part of three years. These men were often given a more profound instruction by Jesus than the crowds or even the other disciples received. Their confession of Jesus as Messiah, vocalized by St. Peter, was a turning point in Gospel history. They alone witnessed Jesus’ final hours in the upper room. It was the Twelve who reassembled after the death of Jesus, carefully restoring their ranks with the election of Matthias. It was the Twelve who were instructed to reunite in Galilee to witness Christ’s return to his Father. All of this was recorded lastingly in Christian memory and certainly serves today as a clear indication of the framework in ministry that Jesus Christ intended to succeed him after his Ascension into heavenly glory.
The twelve apostles undeniably constituted an early hierarchy within the Christian community. And this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with salvation history as developed within the Jewish nation. The twelve tribes of Israel, evolving from the twelve sons of Jacob, constituted the people of God. These were God’s Chosen People through whom God would make known the eternal destiny of all mankind. The twelve tribes were God’s instrument of salvation, God’s vehicle for revealing himself to the nations. Their role in the old dispensation clearly prepared the way for the twelve apostles’ role in the new dispensation. The number twelve clearly indicates continuity with the past — with all that Israel endured and enjoyed — but it also signifies progress toward with future -- through all the fresh revelations entrusted to the Twelve by Jesus Christ himself. God’s ancient instruments – the twelve tribes — anticipated God’s new instruments — the twelve apostles. The fact that the memory of the Twelve, in fact, their very names, endured even as the early Church spread throughout the Mediterrean world confirms their lasting importance.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus offers up what has come to be called his “high priestly prayer,” a prayer addressed to the Father in heaven but spoken in the presence of the Twelve gathered in the upper room. In this prayer Jesus speaks touchingly of these men who have shared his journeys, his insights, and his anguish for the past three years. Jesus tenderly relishes the nearness, the intimacy, the familiarity, that has been established between the master and his twelve friends. He boasts that this familiarity is truly a fulfillment of the Father’s plan: “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” Jesus delights in his friends’ comprehension of their mission: Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me.” Jesus’ confidence is evident. God chose these men; Jesus instructed these men; now the full Gospel message is happily appreciated by these men.
Although Jesus is indeed the universal savior of all mankind, at the last supper Christ nonetheless offers an exclusive prayer for his Twelve close friends and selected emissaries: I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them.” The mission of the Twelve continues today broadly in all the offices of the Church but especially in the Church’s bishops uniquely commissioned to spread the Gospel to every generation of believers.