Matthew 19 is a full chapter in the New Testament. It contains Jesus’ commitment to marriage (v.1–12), his profound love and promise to children (v.13–15), and his famous statement that it is near-impossible for the wealthy to enter the kingdom (v.23,24). The chapter concludes with this remarkable dialogue between Jesus and his disciples:
Then Peter said to him, “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?” Jesus replied, “I assure you that when the world is made new, and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.
The question for us is, why did Jesus say twelve and not eleven thrones? If you know the story of the disciples, you will undoubtedly know that Judas betrayed Jesus. Judas, like all the other disciples, had a strong misconception about what the Messiah would do. In the mind of Judas, Jesus was a political revolutionary who would destroy Rome and usher in a utopia. His motivation in selling Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver was a move motivated to initiate that change in power. Jesus would not put up a fight and die on the cross of a criminal. Judas, full of remorse, committed suicide before witnessing the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom–one of Resurrection and Hope that transcends earthly power.
We all struggle to see the big picture of Jesus’ ministry. No doubt, Judas imagined himself sitting on a throne as Jesus spoke the above words. Did Jesus not know of Judas’ ensuing betrayal? Is the 12th throne for Judas’ replacement Matthias? Or what about the Apostle Paul? Or Is Jesus using symbolism?
The prayer of Jesus in the gospel of John sheds some light on whether Jesus knew of Judas’ betrayal. During the prayer, Jesus says, “During my time here, I protected them (the disciples) by the power of the name you gave me. I guarded them so that not one was lost, except the one headed for destruction, as the Scriptures foretold.” The identification of the “one headed for destruction” in this context is Judas. Although there are times when Jesus seems to willingly limit his knowledge (Luke 2:52, Matt 24:36), he seems fully aware that Judas was headed towards a self-destructive end.
What about Matthias or the Apostle Paul? Could they be the twelfth person? If Peter asks, “What will we get?” couldn’t we include those in the future who follow Jesus? First, Peter is not asking rhetorically, but concerning the actual disciples following Jesus. While between the rich young ruler who refused to sell his possessions and to “those who seem least important now,” the dialogue moves from the specific to the general, Jesus’ immediate answer is directed towards the twelve disciples–Judas included. While two types of individuals are contrasted–those who genuinely seek eternal life and those who don’t–there must be some significance to the twelve men in the crowd.
So why twelve? Jesus made a statement by selecting twelve disciples. Like the twelve tribes, the twelve disciples were to be the location of God’s redemptive action. An ever-expanding, reconstitution of God’s people, with Christ as king, is at the heart of God’s kingdom. The greedy and power-hungry Judas, like the rich young ruler, is presented with an opportunity to remain in that kingdom. The narrative of Redemption, from Genesis to Revelation, includes God allowing humanity to participate in his royal-like love for creation. God offers the throne of vice-regency to humankind with the risk of being rejected. Although the sin of Judas’ unbelief prevented him from seeing the inauguration of God’s kingdom, he is still allowed the opportunity to imagine the eternal reward awaiting those who follow Jesus. Sadly, Judas, who longed for a great political revolution, missed out on the most important qualifier of the journey from the now to the not-yet. “Many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”
If Jesus had said eleven instead of twelve thrones, he would have admitted that somehow the betrayal of Judas interrupted the perfection of that kingdom. The twelve’s significance was that they would all participate in the events that established the church-betrayal included.