Apostolic succession is biblical! That’s the point of the title. The rest will be detail, hopefully tying the two phrases together. Please have the bible with you.
First, in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter leads a gathering to select Matthias to take the place or “office” of Judas (Acts 1:12-26). He continues to preach and baptize (chapters 2-3 and following). Wait, why did Peter act with such authority in the selection of Judas’ successor? Why did he lead the apostles in preaching? What’s this authority stuff he seems to have but not explicitly given? This passage in itself is used to support apostolic tradition. We’re going to be a little pickier by looking at Peter and Moses, only two men of the bible.
Catholics believe the pope is the successor of Peter, and we also say he was the first pope, that he first held the office. We reference Matthew 16:18 a lot, and rightly so. But, is that the only verse in the whole bible, in all 73 books that point to the papacy? My answer is no. So now what? What if we were without Matthew 16:18, would we be without a legitimate papacy? No! Before I continue, remember: we profess the office of the pope, the See of Peter because we believe we are being obedient to the command and will of Jesus.
Language: See comes from sede (Latin), means seat, or chair. In Greek we read kathedra. Does kathedra sound familiar? (Yes) There is one cathedral per diocese. The cathedral is the seat of the bishop, the symbol of the bishop’s teaching authority within and of the Church. But again, where did this come from?
Jesus: What does he say about it? Well, have you ever heard of the Seat of Moses? Did I just make that up? Jesus refers to it (Matthew 23:2). He says the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. So what the heck? We’re going to jump to Exodus 18 and then use that to explain what Jesus means in Matthew 23. Beginning in Exodus 18:13, Moses “sits” and judges the people (of Israel) from morning till evening. The people ask him about God. Moses settles disputes between the people; he is their judge (he exercises authority, verses 15-16). He teaches them about God and his statutes (he is teacher). His father-in-law says doing this alone will tire himself and the people, he says it is not good to do it alone.
So Moses has the authority to judge, teach, and decide. This “seat of Moses” (kathedra) he sits on is how he exercises this great authority. It was too much for him alone- he’s only human. What does he do? In obedience to his father-in-law’s advice, he chose trustworthy and God-fearing men (v. 21) out of all Israel (v. 25) to share in his own authority given to him directly by God. In verse 26 these men of Israel rule over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens of people. Is this a primitive form of the diocese? These men who shared in the authority of Moses judged the people of Israel… they each had “little seats” they sat in to exercise the authority to judge, teach, and decide.
Matthew: Back to chapter 23. Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees sit on that seat- they were the modern day men of Israel to judge, teach, and decide. Jesus made it clear, to practice what they preach and not practice what they practice, “for they preach, but do not practice” (verse 3). Jesus here legitimizes the authority of the scribes and Pharisees- their authority is not their own but a share in the authority of Moses. How does this relate to the See of Peter, to apostolic succession and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church?
We know that the law was given through Moses, and grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Jesus fulfills the Law of Moses. Specifically, how does he fulfill the seat of Moses? With the See of Peter! The new law, then, is that of Jesus and his apostles. Peter and the apostles exercise and interpret that law. Just like the “able men of Israel” judged, taught, and decided; the “new men,” the apostles (and modern-day bishops and priests) judge, teach, and decide. They speak for God and instruct his people. Yes, they do not always practice what they preach. We the Christian faithful are still to give our obedience to them just as Jesus told the Jews in the gospel of Matthew to give their obedience to the scribes and Pharisees.
Each bishop, then, shares in the authority of the one See of Peter, in the authority of the one pope. The priests share in the authority of the bishop. The pope oversees the whole Church. The bishops oversee smaller parts of the Church, or dioceses. The priests oversee even smaller groups of people (thousands, hundreds, fifties, tens- Exodus 18:26). Further, the kathedra or sede or seat or See of Peter is represented by the cathedral of each diocese that the bishop sits in and possesses as a symbol and means to exercise his God-given and pope-appointed authority. This authority was not codified or created in the Middle Ages; it was given by God Himself (Jesus) in order to fulfill what Moses practiced.
Can we say that apostolic succession is biblical? Can we say that the See of Peter fulfills the Seat of Moses? Can we say that the pope gives bishops and priests a share in his Jesus-given authority? Is this a hard truth? For Christians, we should embrace the beauty, the goodness, and the truth of God! We should take to heart what he has ordained for us and given to us. The scriptures bear witness to Jesus and his one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. But, the scriptures are not the only source of eternal life (John 5:39-41). The people of the Church bear witness to this great work of God. We, the people of God, should respond and “set fire” to the world and enkindle in the hearts of all people the saving power and love of God.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. -Hebrews 13:20-21