“What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2)
These words from the apostle Paul embody the heart of apostolic succession. What was delivered to the apostles during the 40 days of post-resurrection teaching (Acts 1:3) was to be passed on to others who would hold to the faith. A sacrificial understanding of the Cross (propitiation, justification, reconciliation, etc.) in light of the Day of the Lord, resurrection of the body, and kingdom of God (i.e., Jewish eschatology) constituted the substance of the apostolic gospel. Such a theology of the Cross in light of the return of Jesus saturates the New Testament.
So Paul summarized his role as an apostle: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This sacrificial death in light of the coming resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12ff.) is the faith with which the apostles were “entrusted” (cf. 1 Cor. 9:17; 2 Cor. 5:19; Gal. 2:7; 1 Thess. 2:4; 1 Tim. 1:11; Tit. 1:3). The other apostles received it corporately, but Paul received individually (Gal. 1:12), “as to one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8). Paul’s interactions with Timothy thus model apostolic succession: “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.” (1 Tim. 6:20-21). Holding to the faith given to the apostles and passing it on faithfully is what apostolic succession is about.
Understanding apostolic succession in terms of title and position is both confusing and detrimental. Peter’s apostolic authority (Mt. 16:18) was based upon his faith in the messiahship of Jesus (Mt. 16:16). It is faith in the Christ’s death and soon return that drove the apostles, and to this day God anoints and sends out those who “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).