(Icon of the ordination of St. Nicholas)
It’s common for discussions about Apostolic Succession to focus on quotations from early Church Fathers, such as St. Clement of Rome and St. Irenaeus of Lyons. While the early patristic witness is important when discussing the ecclesiology of the post-apostolic church, it’s possible to turn to the texts of the New Testament itself in order to see a highly developed theology of Apostolic Succession. The New Testament theology of Apostolic Succession is rooted foundationally in Jesus’ ministry, which, as He testifies in the Gospel of John, He received from the Father. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus constantly speaks about His ministry as coming from the Father. All that He has comes from the Father, all that He says is from the Father, even His doctrine has come from the Father. We see in the Gospel a portrayal of Jesus doing what has been given to Him from the Father and exercising His ministry by the Father’s authorization. This ministry is priestly in nature. Everything from His teaching, to His healing, to when He feeds the people, portrays the priestly nature of His ministry when looked at in light of the Old Testament priesthood. Having come to carry out a priestly ministry of His own, Jesus also passes on His priestly authority to the disciples. Particularly, we see Jesus passing on the teaching of the Faith and the Sacraments to the disciples, and the ministry of the disciples being cast in a priestly light. Both the priestly ministries of Jesus and His disciples are intimately connected to the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ priestly ordination occurs during His baptism when the Spirit descends upon Him, and Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit will give all that is His to them, and He invests them with priestly authority through the breathing of the Holy Spirit. From here we can turn to the writings of St. Paul to see how he too has received the faith and the sacraments, according to his own testimony in 1 Corinthians. Moving forward to the letters to Timothy, we see St. Paul speaking about guarding what was entrusted to him and he instructs Timothy to likewise guard what he has entrusted to him. Carrying on the succession, St. Paul exhorts Timothy to entrust what he has received to worthy men. All of this is connected by St. Paul though ordination and the activity of the Holy Spirit.
What can be seen in all of this is that the Apostles exercise a priestly ministry which has been given to them through the consecration of the Holy Spirit. The main content of this Spirit-anointed ministry is the proclamation of the faith and the celebration of the sacraments. Having received the faith and the sacraments, the Apostles pass on their priestly ministry through Spirit-anointed ordination, exhorting their successors to guard what was given to them and to carry on this succession themselves by entrusting it to other worthy men. Adding this all up together, we can see that the doctrine of Apostolic Succession articulated by the early Church Fathers wasn’t their own ecclesiological innovation. The early Church Fathers are a testimony that the ministerial succession beginning with the Father, through Jesus, to the Apostles, was entrusted to faithful successors, who in turn followed the Scriptural pattern laid out for them. Ultimately, the patristic doctrine of Apostolic Succession is nothing else than the biblical doctrine of Apostolic Succession.
The Father’s Sending of Jesus in the Gospel of John:
Foundational to the New Testament theology of Apostolic Succession is the theology of Jesus as being sent by the Father. As early as John 13:17, we see Jesus saying that God “sent” His Son. As John’s Gospel progresses, we see Jesus connect the Father sending Him with carrying out the Father’s will, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work” (John 4:34). Jesus further develops this theology in John 5:17-47. There Jesus testifies that He only does the work of the Father (5:19-21), that the Father has given authority to Him (5:22), and that He only does the will of the Father (5:30). Further on Jesus even declares that everything He teaches has been given to Him by the Father, “My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me” (John 7:16). As He nears His Passion, Jesus goes so far to say that He only speaks what the Father has given Him to speak, “Whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak” (John 12:50). Jesus speaks about His ministry in terms of doing what He has received from the Father, a point He makes clear in Matthew 11:27, “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father.” According to all this, we can see that Jesus’ ministry is portrayed as a heavenly ordination whereby the Father commits His will, words, works, authority, and even doctrine to Jesus. Jesus receives His ministry from the Father and carries it out on behalf of the Father. Jesus’ ministry is therefore defined in terms of receiving and representing; Jesus receives from the Father and represents the Father in His ministry.
The Priestly Ministry of Christ:
The priestly imagery beings early on in the Gospels with the baptism of Jesus. The baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit evoke the imagery of ritual washing and anointing, both of which were a part of the priestly ordination ritual in Exodus 29 (Exodus 29:4;7). The priestly dimension of the baptism of Jesus is likewise connected to its position in the Gospel of Luke. Whereas the genealogy of Jesus occurs at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, in Luke’s Gospel it follows the baptism of Jesus. This is because the genealogy serves to showcase Jesus’ priestly credentials. The genealogy begins by noting that Jesus began His ministry when He was thirty years old (Luke 3:23). This echoes Numbers 4:3 which stipulates that the Kohathite branch of the Levites were to begin their service in the Tabernacle at the age of 30. The genealogy follows the baptism of Jesus because ministerial succession was fundamental in Israel; priests had to be from the line of Levi. Jesus’ priestly credentials, however, are not Levitical, rather they reach all the way back to the prototypical priest of all creation, Adam (Luke 3:38).
Seeing that the beginning of Jesus’ ministry bears the imagery of priestly ordination, we should expect to see the continuing marks of priesthood in Jesus’ ministry throughout the Gospels. One of the central features of Jesus’ ministry is His teaching. As a teacher of Israel, Jesus is carrying out a priestly role since it was a priestly duty to teach Israel the Law, “And that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by the hand of Moses” (Leviticus 10:11). Jesus likewise performs a priestly role when He inspects those who are ritually unclean and pronounces them clean (such as the lepers and the woman with an issue of blood) since it was a priest’s job to inspect the ritually unclean and to pronounce cleanliness (Leviticus 13-15). His pronouncement of forgiveness of sins likewise plays a priestly role as it was the priests of Israel who mediated the forgiveness and cleansing of sins through their sacrificial roles.
Speaking of sacrifice, the central role, indisputably, of the priest the offering of the necessary sacrifices on Israel’s behalf (Leviticus 1-7). Jesus’ ministry is depicted as fulfilling the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement begins with the presentation of two goats, one for a sin offering and one to be a scapegoat. The scapegoat is sent into the wilderness while the goat for the sin offering is offered on behalf of all the people of Israel. Jesus fulfills both these roles. While His baptism is, on one hand, an ordination it is also connected to the sending out of the scapegoat. The imagery of John the Baptist, who comes from a priestly lineage, placing his hands on Jesus during the baptism followed by Jesus going off into the wilderness evokes the imagery of the scapegoat. Jesus’ ministry begins the Day of Atonement ritual and His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension complete the Atonement. Details from the Gospel of John directly connect Jesus’ death and resurrection with the Day of Atonement ritual. John 19:40 relates how Jesus is wrapped in linen cloths before He is placed in the tomb, this echoes the linen vestments of the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:4). The account of Jesus’ resurrection in John 20 presents the empty tomb as the Holy of Holies. The two angels sitting at the head and the feet of where Jesus laid allude to the golden cherubim flanking the ends of the mercy seat (Exodus 25:17-22). The fact that the linen cloths are left behind in the tomb echoes the vestment changing of the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:23). As the ritual of the Day of Atonement ends with the high priest entering the Holy of Holies for a second time to offer the sacrifices for Israel (Leviticus 16:24) so Jesus’ ascension into the Heavenly Holy of Holies as the Great High Priest completes His atoning sacrifice (Hebrews 8-10). Just as the high priest entered the Holy of Holies in a cloud of incense (Leviticus 16:12-15) in order to sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the mercy seat for the purification of Israel, so too did Jesus ascend on a cloud (Acts 1:9) to the heavens to present His blood in the Holy Place for our purification (Hebrews 9:11-14).
What we can see is Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, forgiving sins, and the sacrificial offering of His own Body and Blood are set within a priestly context in the New Testament.
Jesus Delivering All Things to the Disciples:
The chain of succession begins with the relationship between the Father and the Son and it carried on with the relationship between Jesus and His disciples, particularly through the gift of the Holy Spirit. During His High Priestly prayer, Jesus speaks about the coming of the Holy Spirit and what the Holy Spirit will do when He comes. Jesus says that He will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples (John 16:7); just as the Father sent the Son, so now the Son will send the Spirit. The climax of Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit reveals that the Spirit will lead them into all truth and will give all that is Jesus’ to them, “When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore, I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-15). Just as Jesus did nothing on His own authority, but only what was given to Him to do, so too the Spirit will do nothing on His own authority, but will do all that He is given to do. This ministry of the Spirit is about taking what the Father has given the Son and giving it to the disciples. The approaching Apostolic ministry will be the ministry of the Spirit giving the ministry of Jesus to the disciples. The succession that began with the Father giving all things to the Son continues with the Son giving all things to His disciples in the Spirit.
The Priestly Ministry of the Disciples:
Just as the Gospels portray Jesus’ ministry within a priestly context, so too do the Gospels portray the disciples as priestly. The first priestly association in Matthew’s Gospel occurs during Jesus’ second discourse in Matthew 10. When He speaks about the need for the disciples to have a greater love for God than for the members of their own household, this echoes the events of Exodus 32. When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the Law, seeing that the people of Israel have turned to idolatry, he calls out, “Whoever is on the Lord’s side, come to me” (Exodus 32:26). The text continues with the response of the Levites, “So all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. He said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel: Let every man put his sword on his side and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbour’” (Exodus 32:26-27). The priestly Levites had a greater love for God than for family and so Jesus exhorts His priestly disciples to have the same devotion.
The next priestly association is found in Matthew 12 when Jesus disputes with the Pharisees over picking grain on the Sabbath. One of the justifications that Jesus gives is the fact that the priests of Israel work on the Sabbath in order to fulfill their services to the temple (Matthew 12:5). He then says to the Pharisees, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6). The inference is the Jesus Himself is the greater temple, thereby making the service of His disciples a priestly service.
A final example can be found in the institution of the Eucharist in the Gospel of Luke. The details show that Jesus first takes from the bread and then gives it to His disciples (Luke 22:19). He commands His disciples to do this in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19). The remembrance dimension is more properly conceived as a memorial, and that the disciples are to celebrate the Eucharist as a memorial. The offering of bread as a memorial alludes to Leviticus 2 which describes the grain memorial offering. The first portion of bread is placed on the altar as an offering to the Lord, then “the rest of the grain offering shall be Aaron’s and his sons” (Leviticus 2:3). The fact that Jesus took the first portion of bread signifies His Divine identity, while the rest of the bread being given to the disciples signifies their priestly status.
Jesus Conferring the Priestly Ministry on the Disciples:
Not only do the Gospels depict Jesus’ and the disciple’s ministries in priestly imagery, but they also directly show Jesus passing on His priestly ministry to them; even consecrating them directly in a priestly fashion. As the ministry of the disciples begins in Matthew 10, Jesus equips the disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out the same works that He Himself has begun in Israel. The presence of the Spirit isn’t directly stated but can be inferred through cross-examining a few texts. In the parallel text in Luke, it says that Jesus, “gave them power over unclean spirits” (Luke 6:7). Power over unclean spirits comes from the Holy Spirit since it’s after the Spirit descends on Him that Jesus goes into the wilderness to overcome the devil, as well as Jesus Himself says that He casts out demons by the power of the Spirit (Matthew 12:27). Alongside the power over the unclean spirits, Jesus also commissions His disciples to preach the Kingdom of Heaven, heal the sick, cleanse lepers, and to raise the dead (Matthew 10:7). As we’ve seen already, the offices of teaching and healing are directly linked to the priestly office. The exhortation to raise from the dead is also priestly. In Leviticus, to be unclean is to be in a state of ritual death. Many of the cleanliness laws are directly related to death or to the loss of blood (an image of dying). To be declared clean by the priest and restored to the communal life of Israel was to undergo a symbolic resurrection; having been ritually dead and cut off from the people and now being restored to health and the life among the people. What we see in the initial commissioning of the disciples is a minor priestly ordination and the passing on of Jesus’ priestly ministry to the disciples.
Another instance where Jesus directly passes on His priestly ministry to the disciples is found in Matthew 13. Since Jesus has started to speak to the crowds in parables, the disciples approach Jesus and ask Him why He speaks in parables (Matthew 13:10). In response, Jesus says to them, “to you, it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11). The fact that Jesus is giving the secrets of the kingdom to the disciples means that He is passing on His teaching authority to them. Since the central proclamation of Jesus is the Kingdom of Heaven, the disciples are given the meaning of Jesus’ Kingdom proclamation so that they too might preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Alongside the proclamation of the Kingdom, Jesus also passes on the sacramental ministry to the disciples. This is seen clearly in Matthew 14:13-21. The parallels between this text and the Institution of the Eucharist are quite obvious; both texts feature Jesus receiving the food, blessing, breaking, and giving it to His disciples. The parallel reveals that Matthew 14:13-21 possesses a Eucharistic dimension. When the disciples make it known to Jesus that the crowds need something to eat, Jesus says to His disciples, “you give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). The disciples then present Jesus with the loaves and the fish, and after He has blessed and broken the food, He then gives it to His disciples so that they can feed the crowds. Jesus passes on the Eucharistic responsibility to the disciples by commanding them to feed the crowds.
As Jesus passes on His Kingdom proclamation and Eucharistic feeding ministries to the disciples, He also directly anoints them with the Holy Spirit and grants them priestly authority over sin. In John 20:22-23, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon His disciples and grants them the authority to bind and loose sins. As we have already seen, the authority to cleanse and purify sins is a part of the priestly office. The connection between the Spirit and the authority over sins goes back again to the ordination rite of Aaron and his sons in Exodus, where they are ordained by being anointed with oil. Anointing with oil is an image of being given the gift of the Holy Spirit, as is seen in 1 Samuel 16:13 where Samuel anoints David with oil and immediately after David is filled with the Holy Spirit. What we see in John 20:22-23 is, therefore, a priestly ordination and passing on of priestly authority by Jesus to His disciples.
Alongside the Gospel depictions of the Gospel proclamation and sacramental ministry being passed onto the disciples, St. Paul also testifies that both of these were delivered to him in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 St. Paul says, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,” and then he continues by articulating a proto-creed confessing the central Gospel proclamation of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. When he discusses the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11, he also says, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23), and he continues by recounting the institution of the Eucharist. Both the Gospel proclamation and the sacramental ministry has been delivered to St. Paul, just as Jesus delivers both these to His disciples in the Gospels.
Apostolic Succession in the Pastoral Letters:
Having demonstrated the Jesus receives His ministry and authority from the Father, then delivers the same ministry and authority to the disciples by the Holy Spirit, and that this ministry is particularly priestly in nature (characterized by the proclamation of the Kingdom and the celebration of the Eucharist), we can now move onto the pastoral letters of St. Paul and see how he articulates Apostolic Succession.
The clearest expression of a theology of Apostolic Succession is found in St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The letter begins with St. Paul encouraging Timothy to rekindle the gift given to him through the ordination he received from St. Paul’s own hands, “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6). St. Paul explains what this gift was in his first letter to Timothy, “attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Timothy 4:13-14). In light of what St. Paul says in 1 Timothy, we can see that the gift that was given to Timothy was his ecclesiastical ministry. Timothy has received his ministry through his ordination by St. Paul and the elders of the Church, and this ministry is carried out through the liturgical reading of Scripture, preaching, and teaching.
Turning back to 2 Timothy, St. Paul encourages Timothy not to be ashamed to preach the Gospel. Preaching the Gospel is one of the duties of Timothy’s ecclesiastical ministry that was given to him at his ordination. St. Paul writes that he too was appointed to preach the Gospel and declares that this Gospel was entrusted to him, “I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 1:12). Just as he has written that he has received the faith and the sacraments in 1 Corinthians, so too here St. Paul confesses that the Gospel he preaches has been entrusted to him. The ministerial character of being entrusted with the Gospel is revealed immediately after when he exhorts Timothy to guard what has been entrusted to him, “guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us” (1 Timothy 1:14). By connecting the passing on of the Gospel with the Holy Spirit, St. Paul is talking about Timothy’s ordination, since ordination is carried out by the laying on of hands and the consecration of the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul spoke about when he addressed the elders in Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Adding this all up, the proclamation and teaching of the Gospel were given to Timothy through the imposition of hands and consecration by the Holy Spirit. Having been ordained to the ecclesiastical ministry through the imposition of hands and the consecration of the Spirit, Timothy is charged to carry out this ministry and to guard what was entrusted to him, just as St. Paul was entrusted with this ministry and guarded it.
What has been seen so far is that St. Paul has received and been entrusted with his ministry and has likewise entrusted to the same ministry to Timothy through ordination. St. Paul also commands Timothy to ensure the continuation of the succession by entrusting the same ministry to other worthy men, “what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2 – more detailed instructions about who qualifies to be entrusted with this ministry are given to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:1-7). Since the same authority and ministry of St. Paul has been entrusted to Timothy, so now Timothy must ensure that this ministry will be entrusted to other faithful men.
The Pauline theology of Apostolic Succession found in his two letters to Timothy is articulated as entrusting what has been entrusted. St. Paul has been entrusted with the Gospel (and the Eucharist; 1 Corinthians 11:23) as part of his ministry. Having been involved in the ordination of Timothy, St. Paul has entrusted the Gospel and the ecclesiastical ministry to Timothy through the consecration of the Holy Spirit. Timothy was thus appointed as a minister of the Church by the Holy Spirit through the imposition of hands and was thereby entrusted with the same ministry by the Holy Spirit. As a Spirit-anointed minister of the Church, Timothy is to find other worthy men and entrust the same ministry to them as was entrusted to him. Since this is the Scriptural mandate regarding ordination, it follows that the successors of Timothy were also to follow the same Pauline guidelines in entrusting the ministry they received to worthy successors.
Weaving together the individual threads, we find a coherent and robust theology of Apostolic Succession in the New Testament. Apostolic Succession begins with the Father delivering all things to His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus receives everything from the Father and carries out His received ministry as a Spirit consecrated priest. Throughout His ministry, Jesus passes on His priestly ministry to His disciples, promising that the Spirit will take what is His and give it to them; climaxing with their priestly ordination as Jesus breathes the Spirit upon them and grants them priestly authority. This Apostolic priestly ministry is characterized by the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the Eucharist, both of which St. Paul says were delivered to him. As St. Paul was entrusted with his ministry, so he entrusts his ministry to Timothy by the laying on of hands and the consecration of the Holy Spirit. As a Spirit-anointed minister, Timothy is exhorted to entrust the same ministry to other worthy men.
Throughout the pages of the New Testament, we find the connections between ordination, the Holy Spirit, priestly ministry, and the passing on of the priestly ministry through Spirit consecrated ordination. It begins with Jesus’ ordination through the descent of the Holy Spirit, continues through the disciple’s ordination through Jesus’ breathing of the Holy Spirit, and moves forward through the laying on of hands and consecration by the Holy Spirit from the Apostles to their successors, with the explicit command to continue the succession. Apostolic Succession, therefore, was not an invention of the post-apostolic fathers. The doctrine of Apostolic Succession found in early Church Fathers such as St. Clement of Rome and St. Irenaeus of Lyons is historical confirmation that the command of St. Paul to Timothy was heeded; that worthy men were entrusted with the ecclesiastical ministry and that they too guarded what was entrusted to them and entrusted it to other worthy men.