The Apostles Enthroned

Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles, June 30, 2019
I Corinthians 4:9-16; Matthew 9:36-10:18

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

What is it about the apostles that we’re missing?

This question occurred to me as I pondered today’s feast, which is the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. Most of the time, we think of these apostles as those twelve men who followed Jesus and that He sent out to preach the Gospel to all nations. And that’s true.

But if we think of these twelve as simply kind of traveling salesmen whose task was to pass on information and get people to join the Church, then we are missing what the Scripture says about them, most especially what we will be seeing from them in the life of the age to come.

That the apostles have a prominent place in the Kingdom fulfilled probably does not occur to us too often. We think of them as heroes who spread the word, performed miracles and then were martyred, and now occupy a place that is basically a kind of “hall of fame” for the best Christians. But that is not what the Scripture says about them.

First, though, we should ask who exactly they are. We get a list in today’s Gospel from Matthew chapter 9: “The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus who is called Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”

Now, it should be noted that some of these apostles are given other names elsewhere, so don’t get too confused. But I wanted to direct your attention to that last name: “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” We all know what happened to Judas, and Matthew gives a “spoiler” here, as this list is many chapters before the betrayal of Christ by Judas. What is clear, though, is that Judas is cast out from the Twelve by his own actions.

If the Twelve were just itinerant evangelists, that would be a loss but not really that big of a deal. But they’re not, which is why Peter decides in Acts chapter 1 to replace him. So they pray and draw lots, and Matthias is chosen to take Judas’s place. But if you keep reading to Acts 9, you will see a rather direct intervention by God Himself, choosing Saul who becomes known as Paul.

Now, is Paul really now one of the Twelve? We could point to the fact that he labored more than the rest (1 Cor. 15:10), that he was a “chosen vessel” of God (Acts 9:15), etc. But the fact that it is Paul who becomes one of the Twelve is confirmed by the Church in her iconography.

When the Twelve Apostles are shown together in icons, in almost any context, Paul is put there and not Matthias. That does not mean that Matthias is not a saint or not an apostles. He is certainly both. But the Church has received St. Paul as one of the Twelve and indeed, along with St. Peter, he is one of the two foremost and chiefs of the Twelve.

So now that we know who the Twelve are, what did I mean about them having a much bigger role than we usually give them in our thoughts?

First, we have to note Jesus’ final commission to the apostles which appears at the ends of the Gospels and also at the beginning of Acts. In that commission, He says that “all power in heaven and on earth” has been given to Him. This does not just mean that He is God, though of course He is.

Rather, He is referencing the belief that God put various angels in charge of the nations of the world. Many of them rebelled against Him, and so they were cast out from the divine council (Col. 2:15). And so the authority they had been given is now returned to Christ. That’s why in the Great Commission Jesus then says “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”

So when Jesus sends out the Twelve, it is actually part of the programme of reclaiming the kingdoms of this world for Christ. And the Twelve will actually become part of the authority structure of the renewed creation, enthroned to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.

Never heard that before? It’s in Matthew 19:28. Jesus says: “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

This would have surprised no one in the first century, because they remembered the vision from Daniel in which there are many thrones in God’s presence at the Last Judgment: “I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire” (Daniel 7:9).

Who will be seated on those thrones? It will be the apostles. But it’s not just the apostles.

Hebrews 2:5 notes that it is not to angels that the world to come has been subjected. It is to redeemed humanity. St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 6:2-3 that the saints will judge the world, even judging angels. He says that redeemed humanity is seated on Christ’s throne with Him in the heavens (Eph. 2:6).

And if you read Revelation 20:4, you will see that the martyrs and all the saints are seated on thrones and reign with Christ throughout the ages.

This language of the apostles and the saints reigning with Christ in the age to come is all over the Bible if you read it closely, and this is the primary image the Scriptures give us of what it means for us to become sons of God, part of God’s own family. If you are God’s family, then you are gathered with Him at the table, seated with Him on thrones in His presence, reigning and judging the world together with Him.

So when we look at the Twelve Apostles, we should know that we are looking not just at heroes who spread the faith and are admired for their work. We are looking at future kings who will reign with Christ over the nations.

Their work is so critical and foundational to the fulfilled Kingdom of God that Revelation 21:14, in its vision of the heavenly Jerusalem that is to come, notes this: “Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” So when we say that the Church is built on the apostles (as Paul does in Ephesians 2:20), we do not mean only that they are like founders who got things going. There is a permanent, eschatological reality in which the apostles are built into the foundation of the Kingdom of God.

And thus, we too, may participate in these same mystical realities. We cannot in this life understand all of what this means, but we can have a vision of these Twelve and of our standing alongside them and even being enthroned alongside them—alongside Christ—and find inspiration in that.

We are sometimes tempted to think of salvation as a kind of personal struggle for holiness, and that is true on some level. But the bigger picture is rather more glorious and inspiring. We are called to be enthroned in the heavens with Christ, and these twelve men have gone on before us and are even now taking up their places on those twelve thrones. And if we follow them, if we imitate them, then we too shall be like Christ and seated with Him in glory in the heavens.

To the God with Whom the Apostles are enthroned be all glory, honor and worship, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

I would be remiss if I did not mention here this sermon’s debt to multiple themes explored in Fr. Stephen De Young’s blog and podcast The Whole Counsel of God.

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