The Old Yields to the New

I still have dreams about missionary enrichment conferences (ME). They were some of the best times of my childhood life. My parents took me with them to Pennsylvania every summer for one to two weeks of conferences. Well, they went to the conferences. I had other things to keep me busy.

The kids whose parents attended this conference every year, like me, were the “staff” kids. There was a rotation of kids whose parents who only came every 3-4 years because their parents were on furlough from the mission field. So, each year we had a different set of friends, yet also the same core.

We had so much fun exploring the college campus the conference was hosted at. It was an old nunnery, and the buildings were mysterious and old and catholicy. We had about a week of planned activities with supervision and lessons, but there was enough margin that we could get into lots of trouble. Endless games of Risk, Dutch Blitz and Monopoly could quickly devolve into high jinks that involved underwear up flag poles, ringing the Vesper bell in the middle of the night and unloading a gigantic fire extinguisher in a dorm laundry room. (I deny knowing anything about that last bit, mister fireman.)

When I’d arrive at the beginning of the new ME, I’d think nostalgically about the past year. I did not think it could top the previous year. But as I met the new kids, and greeted the old, we created new memories and photographs, and it would become the new “best year.” I learned that each new year was like the old years, but not. They kept getting better!

The old is good, but it must make way for something better.

In our passage in Mark today, Jesus is at a crossroads. His personal ministry has reached full capacity. Physically, he cannot reach more people than he already has. He only has the one body, and it has reached the limit. He decides to delegate. He shares his message and authority with others to expand his reach.

However, Jesus has a choice on how to do this.

Jesus takes his cue from Jewish history and imbues the delegating event with symbolism from past years. Why did Jesus use Jewish symbols to establish his chosen delegates? Was he like me? Nostalgic for old memories and the old way of doing things? No. He said himself that it was impossible to squeeze the new into the old (Mark 2:21-22). In choosing twelve Jewish men on a mountain, Jesus was fulfilling God’s promises made to Israel, the old covenant. He is not continuing the old. He is concluding it. The new will retire the old.

Let’s read how Jesus delegates his authority in Mark 3:13-20. See if you can spot the Jewish symbolism.

And [Jesus] goes to the mountain, and he summons the ones he wanted to himself. And they came to him.

And he formed twelve, who he also named “apostles,” in order that they might be with him and that he might send them to preach and to have the right to cast out demons.

So, he formed the twelve.

And he renamed Simon, Peter. Then, he renamed James of Zebedee and John his brother, “Boanerges”, which means “sons of thunder.”

There was also Andrew and Phillip and Bartholomew and Matthew and Thomas and James Alphaeus and Thaddaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.

Mountains and Twelve Jewish Men are symbolic to Israel.

For those in Mark’s audience with even a passing familiarity of Jewish history, the symbols in this story are obvious. The Old Testament tells us that Moses ascended a mountain to receive God’s covenant written on stone tablets amidst the thunder (Exodus 20:18-21). He also chose twelve men from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to scout the land of Canaan (Numbers 13).

Here, Jesus also ascends a mountain, chooses twelve Jewish men and references a stone and thunder. He renames Simon, Peter, which is the same word for stone in Greek. And, he nicknames James and John, “the Sons of Thunder”. Although Jesus ascends a mountain like Moses, Jesus is placing himself in God’s role in this story. He chooses those he willed to be his Twelve. He renames the stone and thunder. He determines their purpose.

Further, in choosing twelve Jewish men on a mountain top, Jesus is fulfilling a specific prophecy to Israel. Even though the twelve tribes descended from the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel) were scattered, exiled, repatriated into other countries, and were dissolved, God promised that he would restore them and would fulfill his promises to them. In Ezekiel 37:18-23, God tells Israel that he will recover and unify the tribes of Israel under one king “on the mountains of Israel.” At that time, he promises to save them from their sins.

In bringing twelve Jewish men together, Jesus is designating them as a symbol of the restored twelve tribes of Israel. He is declaring that he is the king of God’s people. Now is the time for salvation.

The significance of the Twelve diminishes as the gospel spreads to Gentiles.

The twelve apostles are chosen and sent by Jesus to preach the good news that God’s king had come. The twelve are eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They bear witness to Israel that the promised Messiah has arrived, and that all of God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus.

In Acts 1, the number twelve holds an important symbolic meaning as the Jewish believers begin to spread the good news of Jesus into all the world. A large group of disciples are awaiting Pentecost in Jerusalem, and they decide to choose another man to replace Judas Iscariot to complete the number. Twelve was significant to their Jewish audience. But when James, one of those “thunderous” brothers, is executed 10-15 years later (Acts 12:2), he is not replaced as Judas Iscariot was.

The Twelve were the focus of the early rise of the church, but after Acts 6:2, their part was complete. As Jesus before them, they realized the limitations of physicality in the face of an expanding ministry. They designated servants, or deacons, to delegate and share the authority given to them by Jesus. The Twelve are not mentioned as a group again after this.

Twelve was no longer an important symbolic number to the Gentiles, neither were the patriarchal promises to the twelve sons of Israel. The appointment of Twelve Jewish males is not for the new age that Jesus began, but a passe symbol of Old Israel. The new family of God, the church, includes both Jews and Gentiles, both men and women, and it is not founded on twelve men, but on one man – the Son of God.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

 2 Corinthians 5:17

What have you been taught about the twelve apostles? Do you believe their number and sex carry significance for the church?

The appointment of Twelve Jewish males is not for the new age that Jesus began, but a passe symbol of Old Israel. The new family of God, the church, includes both Jews and Gentiles, both men and women, and it is not founded on twelve men, but on one man – the Son of God.

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