I don’t accept that because Jesus picked twelve men, he was excluding women from church leadership. So, why twelve men? Honestly, I don’t know for sure. My tendency is to look to history for answers. Here’s my guess.
The significance of Twelve Jewish Men
There is more to the Twelve than their role as foundation pillars of the church. (Notice, I do not call them apostles because I don’t wish to confuse the fact that there were more than twelve that were called apostles. So I will distinguish Jesus’ chosen twelve apostles as the Twelve.) To teach that the Twelve were only the founding leaders of the church is to miss their prophesied purpose to Israel.
Although they hold much responsibility in birthing the church, the significance of their number and gender is found looking back to the Old Covenant, not forward to birth of the Church. These men were chosen to mark the END of Israel’s time, and to be an eyewitness to the finale of God’s promise to Israel: the fulfillment of Messiah who will bless the entire world. Hence, there is a gender and numerical symbolism at play. As twelve Jewish males, they were symbolic for the twelve tribes and their patriarchal heads. In this role, their number and gender is not an example for the new church to follow, but indicative of the closure of the Old Covenant.
Twelve men will judge the twelve sons of Israel.
These chosen Twelve men fulfill Isaiah 1:26.
“I will restore your judges as at first.”
Jesus confirms this purpose in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30.
“Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
“…you may…sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
What did they judge about Israel?
Acting as “justice” for Israel involved the transitioning of covenants from the nation of Israel to a global priesthood of believers. As judges, they passed sentence on Israel by initiating the transfer of the Holy Spirit to all nationalities. Their ministry ended Israel’s unique connection to God. Their preaching also warned of coming catastrophes. They watched the signs of the time as Jesus instructed and warned the Jewish people “Judgement was near!”(Matthew 24) For Israel, the final judgement or “the end of the age” was the Roman dispersion of the Jewish people, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
The Twelve may also have a future role in passing sentence on Israel at the final judgement… but I’m not sure what that looks like.
The Twelve are linked to Israel and the fulfillment of the patriarchal Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was designed around promises to men, the service and sacrifices of males, and would be fulfilled by a future coming male Messiah. This is why there were twelve; why they were Jewish and why they were male. This is also why Judas Iscariot was replaced quickly after his suicide. Because twelve was important symbolically to Israel. Yet, when James died 10-15 years later, he was not replaced. It was the end of “times.” The chosen Twelve and their message, “Judgement is near, but Salvation has come for everyone!” concluded the Old Covenant in the transitional period preceding the destruction of the temple in 70 AC and the explosion of Christianity to the Gentiles thereafter.
Twelve was no longer an important symbolic number to the Gentiles, neither were the patriarchal promises to the sons of Israel.
What counts is the new creation. (Galatians 6:15)
The Chosen Twelve condemned/judged/ended the old era of Israel, but their teaching also built the foundation of the Global Church. But in this role, their number, nationality or gender is no longer significant. How can I say this beyond a shadow of a doubt? Because the old was gone, and the new has come. Jesus insists we don’t pour our new wine back into the old wineskins. (Matthew 9) The church is new wine, folks! Patriarchy and male-based religion based on circumcision and exclusion is an old wineskin, and we must burst those weak constraints.
The Chosen Twelve men were tasked with judging Israel. But, “Do you not know,” Paul says, “that the saints will judge the world? Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3). All believers will fulfill this role as judge at the end of our “age.” Our covenant is not only with a chosen few, but with all who will believe. Our sphere of justice is not one nation, but the whole globe. Our temple is a personal and intimate indwelling of the same Spirit, and our priesthood knows no restriction to heritage, nationality or gender.
The example of Twelve Jewish Males is not for the new Church, but a dying symbol of Old Israel.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:17