Acts 1:26: Casting Lots?

The eleven apostles, together with many other disciples, were gathered in the upper room after the ascension. At Simon Peter's suggestion the decision was made to replace Judas, who had forfeited his office by his betrayal of Jesus. Unfortunately, the group of disciples contained not one but two qualified candidates, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas. A decision has to be made. They pray. Someone brings out some dice. The dice are thrown and Matthias wins. He is from then on counted as an apostle, one chosen and sent by the Lord. This scenario is difficult for two reasons. First, if this procedure was of God, why isn't church business conducted in this way now? Second, if this method is not to be used now, how could it have been legitimate then? Did Matthias really become the twelfth apostle, or was this the first major postascension failure of the church, a use of worldly methods?

The Eleven certainly had a legitimate concern. Jesus had promised that the Twelve would "sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Lk 22:30). The situation that confronts them in Acts 1:26 is that now, as they await the inauguration of the mission to the world (Luke explains Pentecost more as empowering for mission than as the beginning of the church), there is a vacant spot. The issue was not that Judas had died. James son of Zebedee would also die, but he would not be replaced (Acts 12:2). The apostles believed in the resurrection of the dead, so in their eyes James was still available to take his place on his throne. Instead, the issue with Judas was that by betraying Jesus he had forfeited his place.

Some have suggested that Paul was God's choice as a replacement and that the decision here was premature. That can hardly be the case. First, one qualification was that the person had been with Jesus during his whole earthly ministry (Acts 1:21-22). While many disciples other than the Twelve often followed Jesus, Paul was certainly not one of them. Second, the Twelve were oriented toward the "twelve tribes of Israel"; that is, their focus was and remained the Jewish-Christian mission. Paul was the great apostle to the Gentiles. Third, in his letters Paul never groups himself with the Twelve but rather maintains the uniqueness of his own apostleship (for example, 1 Cor 15:8-9; Gal 1:12, 15). Finally, Paul knows several other apostles, such as James (Gal 1:19) and Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7). Thus, while all of the Twelve were apostles, not all apostles belonged to the Twelve. The Eleven correctly realized that unique qualifications were needed to fill that twelfth spot.

Throughout the Old Testament the lot was the normal means of discerning the divine will when a prophet was not available. It was the means of decision on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:8) and was how the land had been divided (Josh 18:10). Centuries later, when the returning exiles wanted to know God's mind, they still used it (Neh 10:34; 11:1). More important than the historical examples are the instructions of Proverbs, which were understood as divine teaching. How could harmony be preserved when there were two contenders? "Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart" (Prov 18:18). Could the dice really give God's answer? "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (Prov 16:33). In other words, since the decision in Acts was not automatic (two men were fully qualified), those gathered in the upper room had every reason in terms of both biblical precedent and biblical teaching to believe that God would make his will known through the lot. There was nothing incorrect in their procedure.

Why, then, is this the last time that we read about the early church using dice? In the next chapter, with the gathering fully organized (all twelve apostles in place), the Holy Spirit falls. The Spirit was also the Spirit of prophecy, whose departure from Israel had left them with only dice as a means through which God might communicate his will. But now in the wake of the coming of Jesus the Spirit is back, not resting only on a few prophets, but on the whole people of God. Many of them received the gift of prophecy. From this point on Acts records prophetic words that explain decisions (for example, "the Spirit told me," Acts 11:12), indicate people chosen for special roles (Acts 13:2) and apparently lead to consensus (Acts 15:28). In the church empowered by the Spirit, God speaks through that Spirit. It is therefore no wonder that in such a context the lot and similar indirect means of discerning the divine will (such as seeking omens from God like Gideon's fleece) were relegated to history. We who live in a church still filled with that Spirit can continue to be thankful that due to our direct connection with God we no longer have to copy the means that were necessary for the first ten days of the church after Jesus left.