The number of disciples signifies a mission to Israel. In Jewish texts from Jesus' day, twelve often symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel. Although Jesus had many disciples, he apparently selected a core group of twelve (as in Mk 3:16; 1 Cor 15:5) to make a statement similar to that of the Qumran community with its twelve officers (F. Bruce 1969:75; E. Sanders 1985:104): Jesus' disciples were the leaders of the true remnant of God's people (Mt 19:28). Thus many scholars point out that the church built on this foundation of the twelve leaders of Israel's remnant represents the true heir of God's ancient promises.
The text explicitly tells us that Jesus was interested not only in proclaiming the kingdom but also in demonstrating it. In the Bible, God worked miracles most often in times of revival, times when he had raised up servants committed to his cause and full of faith. Often these servants trained others. Elijah trained Elisha and also apparently led a revival of wilderness prophets (see 2 Kings 2:3-18); Samuel also was training a prophetic movement that had not existed when God first began calling him (1 Sam 3:1; 19:20-24). We should be praying for a revival of laborers for the harvest today (Mt 9:38).
Both Jesus' proclamation and practical acts of compassion go beyond what many Christians call ministry today. Our communities are ravaged by demonic forces, violence, injustice and all kinds of human pain, while the church often remains irrelevant except to the few who venture through our doors. To follow Jesus' model of ministry, more Christians must stop simply going to church and learn rather to become the church among our communities in evangelism and ministry to social needs. (If we do not know where to begin on the latter, staff with local social services organizations may be more than happy to provide advice.)
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.