The apostolic succession means that the bishops of the Catholic church today were ordained by bishops before them and this succession can be traced going back 2000 years to the apostles who were the first ones to lay hands on people and ordain them. Since the Catholic church can directly trace her history and leaders back to the earliest Christians and back to the apostles themselves, it is called the one, Holy Catholic and Apostolic church and the true church founded by Jesus Christ himself.
The authority given to the apostles
In John 20:21-23, Jesus said when commissioning his apostles: “As the father has sent me, so I send you” and the word here to send in Greek means to send with the same authority. So Christ literally gave his divine authority to the apostles and he spent his whole ministry teaching them and training them and equipping them to take his place. When he ascended into heaven, they were going to run the church. They were going to teach and preach. They were going to save souls. They were going to reconcile people back to God and they received Christ’s authority to do that. But most of all, they were going to run and be in charge of the church. This is especially found in Matthew 18:15-18, where Jesus gave the apostles the power to bind and loose, which are priestly terms of authority. He gave a special authority to way Peter who received the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:18-19). This is why, while all Christians have authority in some way, it is only the apostles who were first to lead the church with authority. 1 Corinthians 12:28 says (and Ephesians as well) that the apostles were first and then prophets and then priests, presbyters and teachers, etc. The text obviously goes down the line of people who are appointed in the church in specific offices. The apostles offices are so foundational that Jesus said in Luke 10:16, he who listens to you, listens to me and he who rejects you, rejects me and the one who sent me. So if you listen to the authority of the apostles and you listen to Paul and you listen to Peter, then you listen to Christ. And if you reject them, you reject Christ.
There is no making up your own church. There is no making up your own denomination. There’s no blazing your own trail, ordaining yourself. You have to be ordained by the apostles themselves.
The laying of hands by the first bishops, the apostles
All throughout the New Testament, we see the apostles operating and acting with this authority and passing it on to other men.
In Acts 1:15-26, since Judas had committed suicide, the apostles chose another man to take his place. Acts 1:20 says that when a habitation goes desolate, meaning when one leaves, let another take his office. The word here for office is Bishopric. And in fact, that’s how the king James version renders it. The word office is a form of the Greek word episcopy, referring to what we use today as Bishop. So the apostles were bishops and when Judas left, they elected another Bishop to the office of the Bishopric or the office of the apostleship (Acts 1:15-26). They elected Matthias and laid hands on him to pass on that authority; he was elected to become an apostle and a Bishop. So even from the earliest days of Christianity, we see the apostles passing on that authority.
Even Paul who wasn’t, one of the 12 apostles, became an apostle because he had hands laid on him and he himself laid hands on other men as well to pass on that authority. In Acts 13:2-3, he is ordaining Timothy, who goes and ordains others as well.
Moreover, in Acts 6:6, seven deacons are ordained to the deaconate, and they have the hands laid on them.
Note that the laying on of hands is used in different ways in the Bible. Sometimes it is used for healing, like when Jesus laid hands on people and healed them. Other times, like in Acts 8, it is for giving people the Holy Spirit, such as it is done in the sacrament of confirmation. And in other times, like in Acts 6, it is for ordaining people to the deaconate and in other passages to the Bishopric.
To summarize, throughout the early church the authority that the apostles had, was passed on not only to other bishops, but to priests and deacons as well. This has come down in one continuous line down through the Catholic bishops, priests in deacons and to today.
The post-apostolic age (right after the apostles died) was very rich in examples of apostolic succession. In fact, the first criterion to judge the belonging to the true church was the presence of the three offices (bishop, priest and deacon) that Jesus Christ established and that were passed directly from the apostles. For instance, heretics such as Ponticus or Sabellius, who claimed to have Gnosticism ideologies as true teachings, were discerned in the early church, based on the fact that they could not prove any apostolic succession for their leadership and could not trace any lineage back to the time of Christ. Here are some examples on how the earliest Christians in the first three centuries took the apostolic succession as the main criterion to prove that they represent the true church:
- Saint Ignatius of Antioch was a Catholic Bishop in Antioch and lived in the first century. He knew the apostle John. He says: “Take care to do everything in harmony with God, with the presiding Bishop, who is in the place of God, and with the Presbyter who are in the place of the council of the apostles (presbyter being priests) and with the deacons who are most dear to me”. So he is talking about the three offices bishops, priests and deacons and about the bishops having the authority given from God himself. Just as in Luke 10:16, St. Ignatius again says: “when you submit to your Bishop, you do so as you would, Jesus Christ. And it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men, but as Jesus Christ.” It is clear form his accounts that when we submit to the bishops in the authority that Christ gave us in the church, we were submitting to Christ himself because Christ guides us and leads us through the church that he gave us, and through the authority that he established.
- Likewise Irenaeus in the 180 talks about Polycarp who also knew the apostle John and was ordained and instructed by the apostles themselves. He says Polycarp was not only ordained and instructed by the apostles and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also by the apostles in Asia, appointed Bishop of the church in Smyrna. Irenaeus goes on to say that he knew Polycarp, he learned from Polycarp, and then Irenaeus became bishop of Lyon. So we can once again conclude that from the very earliest stages, the Bishopric had been passed on from man to man in different places around the world. Everywhere the apostles established churches, they also ordained bishops to run those churches and to pass on Christ’s authority. They ordained priests and deacons to help them. Irenaeus goes on to say that we can actually enumerate all of our bishops back to the time of the apostles. He states that we can trace the lineage of the greatest and most ancient and well-known church in the whole world, the church of Rome founded and organized by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. He talks about how Peter was the first Pope, then Linus, then Cletus, then Clement, then Aristos etc. In fact, Clement is mentioned in the first book of Timothy. It is this church of superior origin (i.e. with a tradition coming down from the apostles themselves) that has a preeminence over all other churches in his day already and to which all churches must agree.
- Lastly Augustine says, in the fifth century, that he was Catholic and he chose to remain in the Catholic church because of the succession of priests and bishops that could be traced back to the time of the apostles and of the sure knowledge that could be traced back to Jesus himself.
The full deposit of faith that Jesus established with the apostles was passed on faithfully to other men and so on down to today in the Catholic church. And even though the Catholic church has had bad periods and even corrupt popes, Jesus promised to lead and guide the church into all truth, not some truth, all truth, by the Holy Spirit and the gates of hell will not prevail against it because Jesus is the one ultimately in charge of his church. He guides it and he would be with her until the end of time (Matthew 28:19).