The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, and these four marks are crucial and inseparable to its identity. They are the inherency of its nature which exist in tandem. The apostolicity of the Church, (which is the succession of bishops stretching all the back to the Apostles through the laying on of hands) however, is what sets it apart and shows it has the authority that it has on matters of faith and morals. Those outside of the Church would deny this authority, and deny the presence of an apostolic succession being present within Church History or Scripture and therefore feel comfortable in relying on their own authority on matters of interpretation. If the Church truly was not apostolic in nature then many of its claims truly could be quite false, and would make its claims of authority unearned and easily challengeable. But it is the apostolicity of the Church which acts as bulwark against other claims of authority, and which marks the Catholic Church as the true Church.
The Apostles had a process by which they would establish men into an office of the Church by the act of laying on of hands. Not only was this action symbolic, but it innately was the God-ordained way by which authority could be transferred to another. The Apostles had this ability within their authority because their authority came from Christ:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. – John 20: 21-22
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal. – Luke 9:1-2
“You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel – Luke 22:28-30
And of course:
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
They were able to act in similar capacities for bestowment of authority as Christ did, because they were sent out in the same capacity as Christ was sent by the Father, as He clearly stated in John 20. A very good example of the extent of their authority can been seen with the ordination of Matthias:
‘His office let another take.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles. – Acts 1:21-26
As Christ was able to instate a man to the office of an Apostle, so the Apostles are able to as well, through the God-given authority bestowed into their office and with the guidance of the Spirit. And we see them acting out other capacities of their authoritative office of the episcopate all throughout Acts:
And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. – Acts 6:5-6
Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” - Acts 8:17-19
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. – Acts 13:2-4
And we see this carried on and kept in St. Paul’s ministry as well:
Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. -1 Timothy 4:14
Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. -1 Timothy 5:22
For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. -2 Timothy 1:6
As can be objectively observed within the New Testament there is clearly an office by which one can be ordained into by the laying on of hands by an authoritative representative of the Church, or at least a means by which the Spirit interacts with administering acts within the Church. And Paul clearly is not referencing in any which way that this succession that he speaks of would end with Timothy, for St. Paul even mentions those that Timothy would endow with responsibility and authority as well, which in turn means that the successors of Timothy would also have the same powers within their position to ordain others.
This line of succession was established so to be kept as a tradition within the Church as a way by which the Faithful would know who to look to for matters where authority on faith and morals were needed. But how do we know this? Well, we must look where the Apostles received the notion of lines of succession having to stem in an unbroken manner from their ministries as being necessary for the Faith.
Moses said to the Lord, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd.” And the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; cause him to stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation.” And Moses did as the Lord commanded him – Numbers 27:15-22
And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands upon him; so the people of Israel obeyed him, and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Deuteronomy 34:9
This is where the Lord established the tradition of succession, by Divine command no less. This tradition within the Hebrew faith was known as semikhah. The term semikhah comes from the Hebrew root סמכ (smk) which means to "rely on", or "to be authorized". The quite literal translation of semikhah would be "leaning/relying [of the hands]". The first verse of the Mishna Tractate, which is a written collection of Jewish oral traditions, indicates the Jews understood God’s revelation, as received by Moses on Mount Sinai, as having been passed down from Moses in an uninterrupted succession by the laying on of hands which bestowed his authority starting with Joshua and then on to those after him (Deut 34:9, Num 27:18-21), along with the elders, the prophets, and the great Sanhedrin (Acts 15:21). The scribes and Pharisees therefore participated in this authoritative line, and thus, because of this position that they held, their teaching warranted a respect and adherence.
Jesus Himself recognized the position of authority that the Scribes and Pharisees had, despite their hypocrisies, when He said:
“The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” - Matthew 23:2-3
The ancient formula for semikhah was "Yoreh Yoreh. Yadin Yadin". ("May he decide? He may decide! May he judge? He may judge!"); and in the early days of the rabbinical form of Judaism any ordained Rabbi could in turn ordain his students. Classical semikhah was performed and bestowed by a court of three judges (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:3) and later on within the life of the tradition the presence of at least one who had already attained this status himself became required. We see this reflected in the Church in that only he who has the office of the episcopate (bishop) can ordain another into the office of presbyter (priest) or bishop since he who is performing the laying on of hands is a bishop.
So, as we know from Deut 34:9, 1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 1:6, Acts 8:17-19; 13:2-4, as cited above, the laying on of hands both bestowed the Spirit and the authority up to the extent of the amount of authority of the one laying his hands. It was because of the semikhah tradition, which was how the Jewish people knew who to listen to by the simple distinction of if a teacher had received the laying on of hands or not, is why they reacted to Christ the way that they did in Matthew 7:28-29:
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
From not knowing Him to be the second person of God the Trinity and thus being the One who instituted the semikhah the Jews present perceived that He was merely a man that was not a part of the successive line of Moses, and so they concluded that he was teaching outside of the established authority, which is why there astonished. This is why Christ received such backlash for his ministry because they could not see who He truly was, which is why they came up with varying answers based on their own interpretations on the identity of Christ (Matt 16:13-15). But as we addressed already, Christ never denied the already established authority through the semikhah (Matt 23: 2-3), but He did wish to fulfill and elevate it in His Church with the full guidance of the Holy Spirit so that the new semikhah would include a protection of His New Covenant insofar that the Church would be guided into all Truth (John 16:13). And as we saw in Acts and in 1 & 2 Timothy, the Apostles acted in accordance with this newly elevated and blessed tradition and taught others to do the same.
Many, for some reason, downplay the Early Church and their positions on matters of the Faith. They ignore this era of the Church either actively or by ignorance. Today there are many varying interpretations of Scripture outside of the Catholic Church and many claw at Scripture trying to figure what is and what isn't the correct way to interpret passages. It should be to the Early Church, those closest to the Apostles in the life of the Church, that we should be able to look to see what direct effects and perceptions of the teachings of the Apostles were. In doing so on this topic we will see here that the early Faithful recognized the importance, existence, and necessity of apostolic succession as well.
St. Cyprian of Carthage:
“[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with [the heretic] Novatian, she was not with [Pope] Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop [of Rome], Fabian, by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way” (Letters 69 :3 [A.D. 253]).
“[The apostles] founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive Church, [founded] by the apostles, from which they all [spring]. In this way, all are primitive, and all are apostolic, while they are all proved to be one in unity [...]
But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origin] in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter” (Demurrer Against the Heretics 20, 32 [A.D. 200]).
St. Augustine of Hippo:
“[T]here are many other things which most properly can keep me in [the Catholic Church’s] bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15–17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here” (Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 4:5 [A.D. 397]).
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about” (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).
“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul—that church which has the tradition and the faith with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition [...] The true knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere” (ibid.,3:3:2, 4:33:8).
“When I had come to Rome, I [visited] Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus [died], Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord” (Memoirs, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4:22 [A.D. 180]).
St. Pope Clement I:
“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).
These are the established and Divinely designed standards set by God starting with Moses, carried on by the Apostles, kept by the Early Church, and remain persisting to present day by which the Faithful may use to determine where the authority on Faith and Morals can be found and where the Truth lies in factuality. It is truly visible and not hidden beneath a bush. The True Church is visibly Apostolic.