What an important question! I am so glad you asked. Much of how we look at church history probably starts with how we look at the apostles, and their number. But before I can answer the question, I think it is important to sort of set the problem forthrightly.
Judas is, of course, where historically the problem starts. He was selected by our Lord, like all the other apostles, but he was chosen, the Lord knowing full well that he would fail his office with his betrayal of the Lord. It is an interesting place where the foreknowledge and predestination of God bumps up with the free will of man (Judas) and yet they somehow work together to accomplish the sovereign will of God. When Judas failed in the office to which Jesus had selected him, he left a vacancy that the early church duly noted.
The early church—many scholars point out, the church not yet filled with the Spirit—desired to follow the scriptures. Peter quotes Psalm 109:8, “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.” So, after praying, the church decided on two candidates for apostles, two of the very finest examples of Christians that they had seen, namely Barsabus and Matthias. Not sure what God had in mind, they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias, who became the thirteenth apostle, or, if you will, the apostle to fill the place of Judas. The scripture says in Acts that Matthias was numbered with the eleven apostles.
All seems to go along well with this action for several years until we come to Saul of Tarsus, the apostle born out of time. There are three repetitive accounts of Saul’s conversion in Acts, a signal, I think, of God’s making it a really important account. He is singularly mentioned as being the apostle sent to the Gentiles, something that you and I ought to be grateful for, for if we were able to trace it, our spiritual father in the gospel is most likely Paul.
You will observe now that there is a potential problem. The church appointed one apostle, Matthias. The Lord appointed the other eleven, and Judas. Now there is another apostle, Paul, making a total of fourteen apostles, thirteen if Judas is removed. So, you say the church must have had thirteen apostles, and maybe that is no big deal.
But to the student of scripture, it is a big deal because of a verse in Revelation. The apostle John has a vision which he later writes down as Revelation, and in it, he says, ”And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:14). Do you see the problem? What happened to the thirteenth apostle?
Revelation was the last written book of the Bible, and with it, the Canon closed. If John the apostle saw only twelve apostles, then there must be but twelve apostles. The implications of there being only twelve apostles is staggering to the church. It is obvious from a study of what happened that Jesus appointed thirteen apostles and one was Judas. If we assume that the twelve apostles John speaks about in Revelation are the ones which Jesus personally appointed, what becomes of Matthias?
Matthias was evidently a very good man, but not an apostle. The church met together, and prayed, and selected two men for God to choose to elect the apostle. Peter correctly read the scripture, that another should take his office, but Peter and the church made a mistake by assuming that it was their place to fill the office. I believe, and many leaders with me, that this first church council, if you will, set the historically bad precedent of doing the wrong thing. They certainly were not acting with the filling of the Holy Spirit, for that filling had not yet come.
I do notice the church was never remonstrated for their error, if error it was. But neither do we ever hear of Matthias again, and that leaves us to speculate in both directions. Was he used of God to perform his office? There is no credible evidence that he was, or that he wasn’t. We simply do not know.
It seems evident that Christ must pick the apostle, and that he did so exactly thirteen times, closing the office of the apostle forever, if we are to believe the verse at the end of Revelation. Matthias, the only “apostle” picked by the church, apparently does not attain to that high office at all. That in no way is meant to suggest he was not worthy of great leadership; it is merely pointing out the obvious—the Lord picked all the other apostles, and Paul, being born, as it were, out of time, nevertheless was the one God had intended all along.
Now, the ramifications for the church are not good. In many ways this was the first church council, and it ended, if not disastrously, at least with its first big blunder. I reflect on the advantage the church had while Jesus was yet with them, and I see their blundering reflecting a church working without the Holy Spirit, and arriving at an improper solution. Rather than picking two worthy men, and letting God use the lot to select the one to fill the office, shouldn’t they have come to God on their knees, and asked him to reveal his choice? Their mistake was in assuming that it had to be one of these two men.
It is obvious, further, that John’s vision of twelve apostles seen at the end of the age as foundations of the new Jerusalem meant that Jesus had completed the office of apostleship with Paul, and that it was not meant to be added to. It seemed like a small question to ask. How many apostles were there? Yet, the study of just how many there were opens many doctrines to examine and reflect on. I do not think I need point out the obvious—Protestants and Catholics have been long divided over this very issue. I would point out though, that if the office of apostles was meant to be kept open, why is it that John speaks just of twelve? Yet, others, not of my persuasion, might well point out to me that the office that Matthias took was allowed to stand. So it is, that one of the great dividers of the church began—with the first church council ever to meet. Did they make a mistake, or not?
Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Psalm 109:8