Since we adopted the cell vision, developing groups of 12 has been on of the most significant aspects of our church life. Many hundreds of cell leaders and potential cell leaders have been formed and supported through these groups of 12. It has been thrilling to see the levels of fellowship, pastoral care and practical equipping that have emerged.
At the beginning of his ministry on the earth, Jesus chose 12 men to be the core team that would carry on his work. It was to be a dynamic relationship that would last the rest of their lives. This was not an accident, but a deliberate strategy.
The permanent place that the 12 apostles have in God’s purposes can be seen from the book of Revelation which describes the New Jerusalem – the city of God. This is a picture of God’s people perfected in heaven. John says,
“Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Revelation 21:14
Nothing in our Model of 12 has anything to do with this kind of elevation of the original 12. That was unique to them. Neither does the Model of 12 uphold an erroneous theology that suggests there is some kind of unbroken spiritual or apostolic succession between the groups of 12 we have today and the original 12 of Jesus. We totally reject such authoritarian and sectarian approaches to church life. There are many ways of implementing the vision of Jesus, and the Model of 12 does not have exclusive rights over the Great Commission or the governing of Christ’s church on the earth.
What then are the benefits of the Principle of 12 and what basis does it have in New Testament practice?
The 12, a practical strategy
Jesus chose 12 and trained them to be his successors. This was God’s appointed method of reaching the multitudes and discipling them. Jesus’ choice of 12 establishes a principle for evangelism and discipleship. It points to a practical way that we can respond to his call to gather the multitudes – to brings the crowds of the marketplace (agora) into the gathered fellowship of disciples (ekklesia).
Jesus’ compassion on the multitudes was clearly visible and always led to practical action. He healed their sick, he taught them the truth of the kingdom, he fed them and he called his 12 to reach them.
Matthew 9 shows Jesus being moved with compassion at the sight of the crowds who were attracted to his ministry.
“But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest.'” Matthew 9:36-38
We notice, first, the reason why Jesus was so moved with compassion for the multitudes. Matthew says Jesus saw them as “sheep having no shepherd” and “weary and scattered.” This introduces us to a strange concept – that of a scattered crowd. The crowd was part of the general agora or society of the day. Jesus wanted them to become his ekklesia, a community of disciples gathered to him but they were sheep without a shepherd. The issue was how to gather the lost sheep into the pastoral care of the Good Shepherd. Jesus says that the problem is not with the harvest but with the workers and how to gather in the plentiful harvest.
We focus on the harvest, but Jesus taught us to concentrate on the harvesters. This is a clear indication of Jesus’ call upon the church. We are to train, equip and release workers for the harvest field.
The passage doesn’t stop at this point. Jesus goes much further. Matthew 10:1 is part of the same passage. Look at how Matthew 10 begins.
“And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.” Matthew 10:1
Immediately, Jesus calls his 12 and Matthew records how Jesus gave them power to heal the sick and to cast out demons. Jesus equipped his 12 to preach the gospel of the kingdom.
Jesus left the multitudes to develop his 12
This show us what kind of workers Jesus wants to release into the harvest fields – workers like him. Matthew has shown us how Jesus reached the lost: by teaching, preaching and healing (Matthew 9:35). This now makes sense of the calling of the 12. It was so that he could disciple them at close proximity and train them for their work.
To reach the multitudes Jesus actually turns from them to his 12! We now see clearly the practical reason why Jesus worked with his 12. He chose to equip others so that they could do the work of the kingdom. This implies that he also taught them how to train and raise up others so that the process would continue uninterrupted until the work would be completed.
This clearly and unambiguously establishes the principle of discipleship as the means of the spreading the gospel, the growth of the church and the expansion of the kingdom of God. That is why the cell vision is at heart a discipleship vision. Paul draws on this principle when he writes to Timothy.
“And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” 2 Timothy 2:2
Here we find at least 4 generations of spiritual communication – Paul, then Timothy, followed by those whom Timothy was discipling and, finally, those whom these men would go on to disciple. That is how the multitudes are won for Christ. Beginning with one person who follows this principle, it takes just 10 generations or cycles of discipleship before there are over 1,000 of followers of Jesus!
The continuing strategy of discipleship
Acts shows that all the 3,000 people who were converted on the Day of Pentecost were successfully assimilated into the church. This level of consolidation is almost non-existent today.
“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Acts 2:42
The secret lay in the discipleship methods of Jesus in which the small groups played a crucial role.
“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart.” Acts 2:46
This daily contact was more than just the opportunity for friendship and table fellowship; it was the ideal context for discipleship development.
So Jesus’ method of raising up teams of people, focussing on their discipleship training and releasing them to do the same is clearly established and indisputable. But what about the number 12? Why should we follow Jesus’ practice of raising up 12?
A workable strategy for today
There is no New Testament injunction that states every leader must grow and develop his or her own 12 in the way that Jesus did this. Choosing 12 is not a doctrine, but a strategy. Sociologists tell us that 12 is the optimum number for people to relate to each other and be involved with each other on a regular and personal basis.
The number 12 is the optimum number for a primary group to maximise the small group dynamic for effective relationships. This becomes the foundation for all else that can be achieved through a small group – friendship, nurture, training and discipling. Every person can get to know everyone else in the group at a level of depth and can have personal and intimate knowledge of each other’s character and life experiences. This intimacy is necessary for the effective discipleship and mentoring that the groups of 12 seek to accomplish. Mark records that Jesus’ primary purpose in choosing the 12 was that “they might be with him” and that this would mean he could equip them and send them out to preach the gospel.
“He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach.” Mark 3:14
This means that the number 12 is an effective building block for discipleship. A primary leader can grow his or her 12 and release them to do the same, optimising the small group principle for the purpose of propagating the Christian faith. Therefore, we can say that a model of 12 developed for today is a practical way of implementing the example of Jesus. In this context, it would be a godly goal for everyone who wants to be an effective soul winner and discipler of others to develop and grow his or her own group of 12. Today, as in Jesus’ day, the principle of 12 is an effective model to follow.