In our series on “hidden figures,” we have highlighted several biblical examples of characters not prominent in Scripture, yet vital to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Some were very obscure, only mentioned once. But I doubt any figures are more “hidden” than the two in our text for this study: “Joseph called Barsabbas” and “Matthias.” Very hidden indeed.
These two names appear only here in scripture and there is very little information concerning them. Yet what we are told provides enough material for them to serve as examples for disciples of Jesus Christ. I hope to accomplish this in our brief study today.
The Context of the Situation
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“‘Let another take his office.’”
They were probably still fearful as they huddled together in the upper room with other disciples of Jesus, both men and women.
They were probably anticipating what the kingdom of God was going to look like, and we know they were rather perplexed about its arrival. What they did know is that Jesus had risen and that was enough to keep them submissively waiting for what the Lord had promised (1:4).
As they contemplated the arrival of the Holy Spirit (did they have any inkling that it would be around the Feast of Pentecost?) Peter realised that, if they were going to disciple the nations, they needed a replacement for Judas. It seems that Peter figured this out by contemplating Scripture, specifically Psalms 69:28 and 109:8.
As an important aside, we see here Peter beginning to fulfil the calling he had received from the Lord Jesus (John 21). He was shepherding the flock of God, providing necessary leadership through application of God’s word. I love his faithfulness, and I love the obedient, supportive response of those whom he was leading. This is a wonderful model of church governance. We should pay careful attention here.
Peter made the biblical argument that Judas must be replaced. The text of Psalm 109:8 alludes to this, and we should respect the fidelity of Peter and his fellow disciples for their faithfulness to an obscure text. Obedience was still the very best way to show that they believed.
When I say “fellow disciples,” I am including not only the ten other disciples but also the other 110 believers in the upper room. The decision being made would be a congregational one, spearheaded by a church leader. The replacement would have apostolic authority with accountability to the congregation. This is the model of elder-led congregationalism: mutual accountability (see for example Galatians 1:1–9).
Peter explained the requirements for a replacement but, before we look at these, we should pause to consider why it was necessary to have a twelfth apostle.
First, doubtless to share the load. The apostles had a huge job and, in about a month, it was going to be even more huge as, in one day, the church would mushroom to 3,000-plus members.
Second, and in some ways most significantly, the number twelve is important in God’s redemptive scheme.
Under the old covenant, the twelve tribes of Israel fulfilled an important role, identifying those who were God’s people. God founded the nation of Israel on twelve sons of Jacob. The twelve tribes of Israel would become synonymous with the people of God. Likewise, under the new covenant, the church is the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16) and the twelve apostles are foundational for this new “nation” of God (Ephesians 2:20; see also Luke 22:28–30; Revelation 21:12–14).
The phrase “the Twelve” became synonymous with these foundational leaders of the church (Mark 3:16; 4:10; Acts 6:2; 1 Corinthians 15:5). Therefore, this was not merely about ticking an administrative box, but rather this selection of a replacement was necessary for a healthy completion of foundational leaders of the new covenant church. It was necessary, in the words of Paul, to the Corinthians, for things in the church to be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
The Criteria of the Selection
Peter delineated the criteria by which the twelfth disciple was to be selected, and it was fairly simple.
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias.
First, the replacement was required to be a male. The word translated “man” (v. 21) is not generic but gender specific.
Second, the man had to have accompanied Jesus (and, by extension, the Twelve) from Jesus’ baptism (the commencement of his public ministry) until his ascension (vv. 21b–22a). That is, the man would have been present with Jesus and the other disciples from Mark 1 through Acts 1:6–11.
This was presumably necessary to ensure that the Twelve were all on the same page concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ, whom they uniquely represented.
Third, the second criteria assumes the man would have been a witness of the risen Lord. The phrase in v. 22—“one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection”—indicates the additional criteria that the selected brother would have: a requirement to evangelise, to witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what God’s appointed sent ones (apostles) were to do. There was to be a group of twelve men giving credible witness that the Messiah they had lived with for three years had lived a sinless life, died an agonising death, had been buried in a borrowed tomb, and had risen from the dead three days later—just as he had said he would.
In a sense, every Christian since has had the same assignment: to give witness that Jesus Christ lives—by transformed minds, loyalties, loves, lifestyles, declared by our lips.
In summary, the criteria were all about having a credible profession of faith.
It is interesting that the criteria (at least what is recorded here) say nothing about particular giftings. Being a committed and credible witness of the risen Lord was the fundamental standard. We should bear this in mind as we look for those to serve the body of Christ.
Two brothers in Christ in the upper room met these criteria: “Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus” and “Matthias.” Now, how was a choice made between them? I doubt they campaigned for the position, but I would guess they were asked if they would serve in this way. So, while the congregation gave concerted and no doubt prayerful consideration to God’s appointment, so these brothers would have joined them at the throne of grace.
The Choice by the Sovereign
And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
These two men, having met the prescribed apostolic criteria, were therefore equally qualified. But only one could fill the position. The choice was necessarily and unmistakably God’s prerogative. But the congregation needed to know whom he chose. So they cast lots.
The lot figured significantly in a number of old covenant situations, such as when Abraham and Lot parted ways in Genesis 13. In Leviticus 16, the lot was used to decide between the scapegoat and the goat to be offered as a sin offering on the Day of Atonement. The lot was used to determine land inheritance when Israel settled the Promised Land, as well as in other cases. Proverbs 16:33 and 18:18 teach us that the lot was a means to settle disputes and that the selection of a lot was under God’s sovereign control. How the lot system worked is conjectured, but it may have involved something like drawing straws. However, in this case, small stones were likely put in a bag, one being painted white. By selecting that one, the choice was apparent. Regardless, by “choosing lots,” the parties involved viewed the matter as settled.
Here, “the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven disciples.” He was God’s gift to the church, in fulfilment of the meaning of his name.
God chose one man over another, but there is no indication there was any difference in qualification. Rather, in God’s wisdom, Matthias was the one most suited for this task.
I wonder how Barsabbas felt. I wonder how he responded. I don’t know, but I assume that he responded well. After all, if you had walked with Jesus, listened to his words, witnessed his person and his works, saw him after his resurrection, and faithfully waited upon him after his ascension, I assume you would humbly respond to God’s sovereign will. Perhaps he even rejoiced over Matthias’s privilege. I seriously doubt he pulled a Donald Trump and demanded a recount! In fact, we read in the opening verse of the next chapter that God’s people remained together “of one accord” (KJV).
In the hidden counsels of God, he often chooses to hide us from prominence while lifting others. That is okay for he knows what is best for us; he knows what is best for his church.
Envy will rot your soul. It will rot the soul of a local church. Be grateful for your lot in life. After all, it is God’s lot for us.
So much for our consideration of the one who was not selected, but what about Matthias who was selected? Strangely, though this man was scripturally and even exceptionally qualified to be an apostle, the Bible remains silent on his ministry. He is never mentioned in Scripture sharing. It is a curious silence, which is worth hearing.
The Conundrum of the Silence
Perhaps, like me, you are curious about what happened to Matthias, and about how the Lord used him. Ultimately, we do not know. Truly, Matthias was and remains a very hidden figure. Considering that he was one of the Twelve (6:2), this silence might seem a real conundrum.
One might conclude that the selection of Matthias, as mentioned before, was merely a procedural, administrative, even legalistic ticking of the box. After all, this account takes up several verses and yet, after v. 26, we never read of Matthias again. Some even explain his invisibility by arguing that his selection was a mistake. I believe such conclusions are wrong. It should be noted that, outside of the Gospels, we never again read of any of the Twelve, except for Peter, James, and John (though some might argue that the James who led the Jerusalem church and wrote the epistle so-named was James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve, and that the writer of Jude might have been his brother). But silence does not mean insignificance.
I often advise those teaching God’s word to be careful to not focus on the space between words but on the words of the text itself. It can be a dangerous thing to argue from silence. But here we can make some biblical applications from the silence concerning Matthias (as well as the silence concerning Barsabbas).
Again, and very importantly, silence does not equal insignificance. The kingdom of God advances through both aggressiveness (Matthew 11:12) as well as through silent faithfulness, what some call a “faithful presence” (Matthew 13:31–33).
For example, small churches that no one has heard of outside their communities have a significant impact on the growth of the kingdom. Faithful disciple makers in a local church advance the kingdom of God.
Be faithful to bloom where you are planted. Beware the temptation to seek to be first. Jesus had to confront this tendency in his disciples, on more than one occasion (Luke 9:46; 22:24)!
Remember that this side of the grave is not the only place to receive rewards. In Revelation 21:12–14, we read of the foundation stones engraved with the names of the twelve apostles, which would include Matthias! Let us learn to be grateful to serve the Lord with the gifts and opportunities he provides and keep our eyes on Jesus Christ with whom we will spend eternity. That, brothers and sisters, is reward enough. May God give us grace to live joyfully even though we may be very hidden figures.