Acts 1 and the issue of “12” apostles

By Eric Johnson

When faithful Latter-day Saints are asked about their church’s authority, they will very often point to Ephesians 2:20, which says, “And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” According to Mormonism, the “Great Apostasy” caused the ancient church to lose its authority.

The Mormon leadership maintains that before the ancient church fell into apostasy, the apostles spoke with authority and did things the way God intended. On page 90 in the church manual Gospel Principles, it reads,

“The New Testament shows that this Church organization was intended to continue. For example, the death of Judas left only eleven Apostles. Soon after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the eleven Apostles met together to choose someone to take the place of Judas. Through revelation from the Holy Ghost, they chose Matthias. (See Acts 1:23-26.) Jesus had set a pattern for twelve Apostles to govern the Church. It seemed clear that the organization was to continue as He had established it.”

In Acts 1:20, two Old Testament passages are quoted—Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8—to show why these apostles believed that it was necessary for “another” to take the place of Judas. According to Christian commentator Richard N. Longnecker,

“The twelvefold witness was required if early Jewish Christianity was to represent itself to the Jewish nation as the culmination of Israel’s hope and the true people of Israel’s Messiah. The ‘remnant theology’ of Late Judaism made it mandatory that any group that presented itself as the ‘righteous remnant’ of the nation, and had the responsibility of calling the nation to repentance and permeating it for God’s glory, must represent itself as the true Israel, not only in its proclamation, but also in it symbolism.” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 9 (John/Acts), p. 265).

To be effective in their future evangelistic endeavors with their primary Jewish audience, the apostles believed that having twelve leaders would be vital for the gospel’s acceptance.

According Acts 1:21, the person to replace Judas needed to have been a Christ follower from the very beginning of the ministry who had also experienced Jesus’s resurrection. While there were at least 500 witnesses to this event (1 Corinthians 15:6), not all of the candidates were with Jesus from the beginning, which would have severely limited how many would have been eligible. Two names were proposed: Barsabbas and Matthias. The apostles prayed to the “Lord,” a direct reference to Jesus, the second member of the Trinity; the apostles apparently were asking their Messiah to choose the new apostle just as He had chosen them. When they cast the lots, Matthias was picked. This type of practice was not unusual during that time in the decision-making process of Israel. Even Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.”

Some have suggested that the apostle Paul ought to have been the rightful heir to this apostolic spot since we never hear anything more about Matthias (or Barsabbas, for that matter). However, Paul wasn’t even a Christian at this point, and even if he had been, he was not with the ministry from the beginning, a sure disqualifier. He did claim to have apostleship status (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1), but it definitely was a different type from that held by the Twelve.

The event of Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit came soon after, as described in Acts 2:1-12. During the next four decades, more apostles died. Possibly only John remained alive when the destruction of Jerusalem took place in AD 70. The first apostle to be killed was James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John; his head was cut off by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2) in AD 44. While the dates of the martyrdoms of the other disciples must be determined solely by tradition, James’s death is ascertained by scripture. If twelve was the necessary number necessary for church authority, shouldn’t an election for a new apostle have been a priority?

I have heard it described by one Mormon how the apostles couldn’t get together to vote on new candidates because the Christians were scattered due to the persecution. While persecution did take place, the gospel was certainly being sent forth in an organized way that was apparently allowed by the authorities in the government. Consider the three missionary journeys that Paul made throughout the Roman world. The disciples had chances to get together. In fact, it was just a few years after the death of James when the apostles met at the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15). If twelve was the necessary number for the apostolic office, then this would have been the perfect opportunity for them to replace James and anyone else who had been killed.

According to Mormonism, having eleven, nine, or five apostles in the early church was not an option. As mentioned above, the Gospel Principles manual stated how twelve men were needed if “the organization was to continue as He had established it.” If there were not twelve apostles on the earth—why, the early church didn’t even bother to nominate new apostles, which seems to not in disagreement with a church that taught in the importance of having twelve at a time!—how could this church have any authority left in the first place?

It ought to be pointed out that while Jesus had twelve apostles, the Mormon Church today has a total of fifteen! According to an LDS website,

“The Church is led by 15 apostles. The most senior apostle is the president of the Church, and he selects two other apostles as counselors. These three function as the First Presidency, which is the highest governing body of the Church. Twelve others form the Quorum of the Twelve — the second-highest governing body of the Church”

What rationale can the LDS Church give for needing 15 “apostles” today?

As far as why James was not replaced in an apostolic election, there are several possibilities:

1)      The apostles did fill James’s position (maybe somebody like Paul?), but this event was not mentioned in the record of Acts.

2)      The apostles didn’t feel the need to fill James’s position.

3)      The apostles were disobedient and did not fill James’ position.

The first scenario doesn’t make sense since Luke had described Matthias’s installation in detail. Since Luke was so thorough in his writing, why would he have stopped with just one apostolic replacement? For the second possibility, the Mormon must wonder why the Twelve would have neglected bringing in new men, especially if “God wanted Apostles to lead His children at all times.” If the LDS position is correct, then the apostles would have known that their negligence would have caused the church to cease! This understanding and not doing anything about it would not be very Christ-like. And if the third choice is true, shouldn’t the church be considered to be in “apostasy” as early as AD 44 when James was not replaced?

For some reason, the early church apostles did not fill the hole created by the death of James (and the other apostles as well). Longnecker says that the event described in Acts 1 was a one-time event based on “Judas’s defection and not simply the fact of his death that required his replacement.” He wrote:

“According to Acts 1:21-22, the task of the twelve apostles was unique: to be guarantors of the gospel tradition because of their companionship with Jesus in his earthly ministry and to be witnesses to the reality of his resurrection because they had seen the risen Christ. Thus when James the son of Zebedee was executed….the church took no action to replace him. He had faithfully functioned as a guarantor of the gospel tradition and as a witness to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection for some fifteen years; and now, as the church was growing, that ministry was not to be repeated.” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 9 (John/Acts), p. 267).

Mormons cannot hold to Longnecker’s position if they insist that their apostles are needed in these “latter days.” As they argue, there were twelve apostles back in biblical times, so there ought to be twelve (or fifteen?) apostles today. But why? If the Mormon Church has authority bestowed upon it by God because it is the “restored” organization that began in 1830, then a better explanation needs to be offered to explain why the early church didn’t replace those deceased apostles after Judas.

For a look at other historical issues related to Mormonism, please click here.