Mark 3:13-19. The Twelve go up the mountain.

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve- designating them apostles- that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder); Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

1) Why does Jesus go up onto a mountain, and why does Mark record this fact?

2) What is an apostle?

3) Why does Jesus call 12 apostles rather than 21, or 7?

4) Are there apostles today?


1) We read that Jesus went up onto a mountain. Is this just incidental detail, to give us a mental image and help us “get into the scene”? Or is there a deeper significance? Mark is very economical with words, and therefore very sparse with detail. There is very little in his Gospel which does not carry theological freight.

Mountains have a long and distinguished history in the Bible. The Garden of Eden was on the top of a mountain. From Eden, four rivers went out to water a vast area. On the mountain, God met with Adam. On the mountain, Heaven and Earth were joined. This is a consistent factor in Biblical geography.

If I look at a map of the world, then in order to understand it, I must enter in to the language it uses. I can’t interpret the map literally, or else I end up believing that the earth is flat, that some countries are yellow, some green, some red, and some purple, and that if I climb Scafell Pike, I’ll be able to see a small black triangle and the number “978” carefully inscribed at the summit. So it is with a Biblical cosmology. The type of map depends on the information it wishes to convey. A world map is usually meant to convey geo-political information, so boundaries are marked between nation states, and empires are colour-coded. An OS walkers’ map is meant to tell walkers where they are and how to get to where they want to be, so the contours are marked and the shape and length of the paths are drawn as accurately as possible. But we understand that there are symbols for youth hostels, campsites, sites of battles, tumuli, and so on which are not literal depictions of the things symbolised.

We read the Bible, and see that it describes the earth as having four corners. We are not supposed to use this information for navigation. The Bible describes heaven as being above- and again, we are not supposed to suppose that we can build a tower to reach God. But we are made, psychologically, to equate physical height with authority and power, and, ultimately, with God himself. Why else did the ancients build ziggurats upon which to sacrifice, if not to bring them closer to their gods? Why else was the tower of Babel built? And when it was built, God himself “came down” to see the tower- not “came up” or “came along” (Gen 11:5).

Mountains are natural towers, reaching up into the heavens. And when God comes down to earth, he comes to rest on (or above) the tops of mountains. It is so at Eden, and it is so again at Sinai. Israel is encamped at the foot of the mountain, and Moses goes up to the top of the mountain to speak with God. This mountain is not like Eden. In Eden, Adam and God spoke together freely. At Sinai, God cannot speak with his people face-to-face. Instead, there is thunder and lightening, and fire on the top of the mountain. The people are forbidden from going up on it at all, and only the mediator, Moses, may ascend all the way up. After the fall, when God comes down to a sinful world, he reacts against it explosively.

In later years, when Elijah meets with God, he goes up a mountain to do so. And when an Israelite in later years wishes to meet with God, where must he go? He must go to Jerusalem, the city on a hill. The Bible often speaks of “going up” to Jerusalem, even though Jerusalem was not at the highest physical elevation of all the hills in Israel. Theologically- because God’s house was built there- even if you were travelling downhill to Jerusalem, you were still going up.

So Jesus here goes up a mountain. But he does not go up the mountain as a servant of God, seeking to speak with God, as did Moses and Elijah. Rather, he went up the mountain, and then turned and called others up to speak with him! In the Hebrew mindset, Jesus is taking the place of Yahweh. He calls his servants up to meet with him, and he commands them and sends them out to do his bidding. The picture is of complete authority- Jesus does not call people to him, and see whether they come, then ask them if they’d be able to do a favour for him. Jesus calls those he wants. And those he wants come, and he appoints them to do his work. The idea that they might say “No” is inconceivable.

2) An apostle is literally a “sent one”. The idea is of a personal messenger, a representative, an ambassador. If a king had pressing duties at home, but also needed to be present somewhere abroad to meet with other kings and make agreements with them, then he could appoint an apostle to be abroad for him. The apostle would have all the authority of the king. If he signed a treaty, it would be as if the king had signed it. If he declared war, then war would be declared. Our Queen sends ambassadors to other nations- and they are identified with her. If another nation mistreats the ambassador, it shows disrespect for the Queen. If the ambassador misbehaves, it brings dishonour on the Queen. Apostles are plenipotentiary ambassadors. The apostles appointed here (and Paul, appointed “out of time”), will speak with Jesus’ voice. If they command the church to do something, then the church must either obey, or be disobedient to Jesus. Jesus appoints apostles here, and he gives them his personal authority. They are “apostles of Jesus Christ”. We read in the NT of men appointed as “apostles of the church”, meaning that their churches appoint them as delegates, giving them the authority to speak for that church where they are sent.

We are told several things about these twelve: They are going to be with Jesus. They are going to drive out demons. They are going to preach. Jesus’ work is their work, and they do it by his authority- in his name. A policeman can arrest somebody “in the name of the law”, and by this, he means that his authority to arrest them is derived from the law. He acts as the law commands. If the criminal objects to being arrested, then his quarrel is not just with the policeman, but with the law. And on the other hand, the policeman can only arrest lawbreakers. The law gives him no authority to arrest innocent men and women. So it is with the apostles. They are given authority to act in Jesus’ name, with his authority- and this means that they can do the work which until now has been his alone. They can preach, and drive out Satan.

We see this identification not only in v14-15, but in v20. Jesus is rushed off his feet- the crowds press around him constantly, and he has been so busy that he hasn’t even had time to grab a bite to eat. But it isn’t only Jesus who hasn’t eaten. His apostles are engaged with his work. When he is too busy to eat, so now are they. They can’t leave Jesus to deal with the crowds while some of them slip off to get a sandwich. They are apostles. Jesus’ authority is now their authority, and Jesus’ work is also their work.

3) Jesus, on the mountain, calls to him those he has chosen, to be his apostles. He chose 12 men. We might ask why twelve men, and not any other number. We might (in a mindlessly egalitarian age) ask why twelve men, and not six men and six women.

Back in Israel’s history, we have seen the number twelve before. Jacob (also known as Israel) had twelve sons. These twelve sons were the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. They were (under Jacob, Isaac, Abraham and God himself) the fathers of the nation. Israel was built upon the foundation of these twelve brothers.

If we go back to beginning of Mark’s Gospel, we see that John the Baptist was preaching repentance at a particular place- at the Jordan river, towards the South. He was baptising people there, at the gateway into the land, the place where the Jordan had originally been crossed. And he was calling out a new Israel, beginning to gather a people who were repentant, a people who longed to be part of the new covenant promises made to Jeremiah about a people who would all be forgiven and would all know the Lord.

The twelveness of the apostles is again part of the new Israel theme. These men were (under Jesus himself) founders of the new Israel, the church. Paul can write to the Ephesians that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, creating in himself one new man out of the two, and that consequently, the Ephesian Gentiles are no longer foreigners, but fellow citizens and members of God’s household, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the head cornerstone” (Eph 2:14-22).

4) Given this imagery, it seems clear that the apostles are a once-for-all gift to the church. They are a foundation, and the thing with foundations is that they are only laid once, at the beginning of the work. God isn’t a cowboy builder, giving a foundation after the walls have started going up. This is the natural conclusion drawn from both the role and the symbolism of the Twelve.

Firstly, given the role of the Twelve- their position of authoritative representatives of Jesus Christ- then if there were still apostles walking the earth, this would be something massively important for all Christians. These men would speak with all Jesus’ authority! They would be Popes and then some. What they said as apostles would be binding on every single Christian on the planet. If they were to pronounce upon matters of doctrine, then their words would be of equal authority to Scripture. If they were to write down their thoughts, then we should bind them together with the letters of Peter, Paul and John, as equal in authority with them. Can we even imagine a man who could be accepted by all churches across the globe as having this sort of authority?

That authority can only be given by Jesus, personally. There are many men today who call themselves apostles, but do we treat their claims seriously? Are we to give them the authority which the churches of the New Testament accorded to the Twelve? The answer seems obvious to me. I once had a postcard from an “apostle” through my door, when I was staying in America. He was inviting me to come to a conference on wealth and prosperity at which he was speaking. Had he really been an apostle, surely I should have gone. But my hair needed a wash, so I didn’t.

Secondly, the symbolism of there being twelve apostles and twelve tribes- twelve men called as founding leaders of the people who were obedient to Jesus, as there were twelve men called as founding fathers of Israel, the people who served Yahweh- is ruined if we allow that there have actually been many many more apostles since these men, perhaps hundreds or thousands. We can see this at the start of the book of Acts. Judas, one of the twelve, has apostatised. Since there have to be 12 apostles there at the inception of the NT church, and given the scriptural support for the idea of replacing the one who has fallen away, Peter says that another man must be appointed to fill Judas’ sandals (Acts 1:15-26). Of all the people there- “about 120”– only certain men are in the running for this position. Peter lays down the one criterion that must be applied. The new apostle must be “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us- one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection”. The apostles are all men who have seen Jesus, bodily, both pre- and post- resurrection. There were very probably present some wise and godly men who worshipped Jesus without having met him before his death- but they are all disqualified. The new apostle must be one of the company that followed Jesus around even at the very beginning, since John’s baptism, and that seems to leave a choice of only two.

Furthermore, who can choose which of these two is to be the apostle? Who has the authority to appoint somebody to be a personal representative of Jesus Christ? Obvious answer- only the Lord himself. And so the company of believers there, although it is clear to them that only two of the group are potential apostles, do not take it upon themselves to choose between the two. Instead, they draw lots- acknowledging that this is not a decision which they have authority to take. And this is the only replacement of an apostle of which we read. When James is killed by Herod (Acts 4:2), he is not replaced. By that point, his job has been completed. Judged by these criteria, it is not possible for apostles to be walking the earth today.

Some people will no doubt spot an apparent flaw in this scheme. Paul was appointed an apostle of Jesus Christ, just as these 12 were. But Paul was called after Jesus had died. He may or may not have met the Lord occasionally, but he certainly wasn’t of the company that followed Jesus around from the beginning. And Paul was an extra apostle, added on to the original twelve. So why can’t more apostles still be added today?

Two reasons…

Firstly, an apostle must still be personally appointed by Jesus, and be a witness to the resurrection (Acts 1:22). So unless modern apostles are also claiming that Jesus has appeared to them, really and physically, to appoint them, then I would be quite happy to throw the claim out with no further hearing. Paul was personally appointed by Jesus Christ. Although he may not have known the Lord Jesus before the resurrection, Paul did meet with him afterwards. Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, and Jesus there appointed Paul as an apostle.

Secondly, Paul is an unusual case. He says so himself (“Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” 1 Corinthians 15:7-8). Paul is aware that his calling, though genuine, is unusual. It is not normal for an apostle to be called from the ranks of men who did not know Jesus personally in the flesh. He was called later than the 12, and so was an odd apostle.

It is also not normal for a 13th apostle to be called. There might be room in the symbolism for one more- remember that you can actually count 13 tribes of Israel in the OT- Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Asher, Gad, Issachar, Zebulun, Naphtali, Dan, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh, Joseph’s two sons each making up a tribe in their own right- but this is a little tenuous, and isn’t even hinted at in the New Testament. Paul nowhere says in defence of his apostleship “Aha, and just as there was an extra tribe of Israel, so I am the 13th apostle.

As we are aware, Paul’s claim to apostleship was hotly contested by many in the NT churches, and this is why Paul has to argue fiercely for the genuineness of his apostleship to the Galatians and Corinthians (“Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my workmanship in the Lord?” 1 Corinthians 9:1. Note there that Paul’s argues that he is an apostle from the fact that he has seen Jesus, and the fact that he is a foundation for the church). The men who opposed his claims well understood what was at stake. If Paul is an apostle, then they should obey him, no question. We can see then that they have an ulterior motive. Paul is the man who seems most active and capable in contending for the truth and stopping their various heresies. So they’ll try to cast doubt on his authority, try to rank him beneath the twelve.  And Paul is having none of it. Yet despite the dangers of playing into the hands of his enemies, he still refers to himself as “one born out of time”.

However, if there have been hundreds of apostles since the death of John, then Paul is not unusual after all. He wouldn’t need to mention the abnormality of his appointment, since it wouldn’t be anything to remark upon.

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