I am now beginning my twelfth article on this larger series in regards to the five ministry gifts listed in Ephesians 4:11-13 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. You can click here to start at the first article and read through the series if you so desire.
Twelve articles! That’s a lot!
And I suppose that there are at least that many to come, if not more. This is a delicate topic, one with lots of misunderstandings, one with lots of baggage, one with lots of abuses. And, so, I feel the need to slowly walk through some things, slowly work some things out.
Sure, I could have posted a handful of articles, as I have done in the past. But I wanted to take the time to really consider things both biblically and theologically. I don’t mean to split the two, but when I refer to things theological, I am more referring to the conclusions that we come to from our reading and study of Scripture. It’s not always as simple as reading black ink on white paper. We read it through a lens, me included. And so I am trying to faithfully look at various portions of Scripture pertinent to the topic at hand, as well as the theological conclusions of such.
Hence, I’m on my twelfth article so far and plan to put out just as many.
With regards to apostles, I said I would address the issues in this order:
- Apostles in New Testament Scripture.
- Objections to the existence of apostles today.
- What an apostle actually is.
So far, I have finished off the first point – looking at apostles in the New Testament. Whereas, when many people think of apostles, they think of the twelve, or possibly the twelve and Paul, Scripture actually lets us know there were a few other apostles at work in those early years following Christ’s resurrection, ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit of God.
We can definitely confirm that both Barnabas and James were apostles, but I believe there were others alive and well in those early decades – people like Apollos, Silas, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, and probably a few others. It’s not so much that the word ‘apostle’ shows up next to their names (although it does in some cases). Rather, these people functioned in an apostolic ministry, what it meant practically to be an apostle.
If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and squawks like a duck, it seems that it’s a duck. And those people mentioned above definitely lived and walked out the ministry of an apostle.
No, they didn’t write Scripture (though Apollos has sometimes been connected with the letter to the Hebrews). But they functioned very much like the twelve and Paul – helping found, establish, build, train and equip the early church to be faithful to Christ and the gospel. I’ll share more of what it means to be an apostle later, though I am hitting on it here and there. But you can read my two articles about apostles in the New Testament by clicking here and here.
But, the second focus is to move on and look at the objections to apostles today. I believe there are four major objections to the notion that apostles exist today (or post-first century). I shall spend some time over a few articles addressing these objections below:
- Apostles are Scripture writers and we are not to add to Scripture, thus apostles are no longer existing.
- One of the requirements of being an apostle is that the person had a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ. But Jesus no longer makes such appearances, since Paul was the last to receive such. So there can no longer be apostles. Connected to this is the argument that Jesus specifically (i.e. physically) choose His apostles, but that can no longer happen since He is physically seated at the Father’s right hand.
- Apostles are foundation layers (see Ephesians 2:20 ) and a foundation only needs to be laid once. Since the apostles did this in the first century, with that foundation being faithfully recorded in the New Testament Scriptures, we no longer need apostles.
- Apostles are the only ones who performed signs and wonders, with these being the main attestation to their message (especially with the New Testament Scripture not being finalised and canonised). Since these specific signs, wonders, miracles, etc, are no longer performed today, we can easily ascertain that apostles no longer exist today.
There are probably other arguments. But I believe those mentioned above are the four main objections to the idea that apostles (and even prophets) were to no longer exist following the death of John, the apostle, and with the completion of what is now our New Testament canon of Scripture.
I’ll go ahead and make a practical note: It’s much easier to teach that apostles no longer exist. Much, much easier. Even for someone like a Wayne Grudem, who believes all the gifts of the Spirit are still active today, he has created a guard against the idea that apostles exist today, a very tight guard I might add. And I believe it’s with a noble heart – to honour God, to respect His word in the Scripture, and to protect against bad teaching. I mean, we’ve got a lot of abuse from cults and sects and from more Pentecostal and charismatic groups.
But, as I always say, and as some will tire of me saying: I do not believe misuse and abuse should lead us to never utilising the truth. Rather, it should all the more challenge us to be faithful in accordance with the teaching of Scripture and the wisdom of God given to His body.
It’s just like I would never argue that we keep a copy of Scripture away from the ‘untrained’ just because heresy and wrong understanding could come about. It’s tempting, and it was what the Roman Catholic church argued with Martin Luther. But we could never imagine succumbing to that temptation to keep the Scriptures out of people’s hands. We need it. It is bread for the soul, and so much more!
So, being a proponent for apostles today carries its difficulties. I don’t believe it carries it’s Scriptural difficulties, but rather practical difficulties. I find a lot of people claiming to be an apostle, but they look nothing like the great apostle, Jesus. Such has absolutely ruined anybody being open to the present-day charismata activity of the Spirit, much less that apostles might exist. But I also have relationships with a handful of people that I believe truly walk out an apostolic ministry after the pattern of Christ and those first apostles. I’m glad Jesus has brought me into such relationships. It keeps me refreshed when I turn on the tv or click on someone’s website and can only shake my head.
But let’s move on, shall we…
The first objection to consider is the common mistake that apostle = Scripture-writer.
One of the first things that can come to a person’s mind when we state that apostles still exist is that this means we are claiming that we can still add to Scripture. Why? Well, out of that first group of apostles, one of the significant roles that they and their associates had was the recording of the God-breathed New Testament Scriptures. And, for this, we are indebted.
Yet, I believe such thinking is not built from a solid theological understanding of the nature of the apostolic ministry. For starters, most apostles did not write Scripture. Matter of fact, there were only five writers of the New Testament that were apostles – Matthew, John, Paul, Peter and James (though James was not one of the ‘twelve plus Paul’). That means we are missing writings from quite a few of the ‘apostles of the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:14).
Also, we must consider that there were other writers of the New Testament that were not apostles – John Mark, Luke, Jude and possibly the writer of Hebrews (though if Barnabas and/or Apollos wrote it, then an apostle had their hand in it).
The argument then comes that those three or four other writers were very closely associated with the apostles, so they received their stories and teaching from those that were apostles. Not only that, but Jude finds his authority in being the physical brother of Jesus. Because they were closely linked with the apostles, and they would have received their information from them, they were ok to write Scripture.
But we must consider the reality that apostles are not first and foremost called to write Scripture. As I have pointed out, the word apostle means ‘sent one’. All apostles were first and foremost sent with a mission to accomplish. They were each sent out to accomplish it, and thus, they were apostles. The main part of that mission was that they were founding, establishing, building up, strengthening, supporting and teaching the church. And this included people like Apollos, Timothy, Titus and a handful of others.
Sure, those like Paul and Peter and John would have had the greater apostolic measure. I don’t deny such. But what made Paul, Peter and John, or Barnabas, Apollos and James apostles was that they were sent out to equip and train the early church. Many of them had a hand in Scripture writing, and I don’t want to add that on as a little appendix. Again, I am indebted to these men who penned the word of God as recorded in Scripture. But we must not intrinsically equate apostolic ministry with Scripture-writing.
Apostle means ‘sent one’, not ‘New Testament writer’.
What we also don’t usually realise is that not all of God’s revelation was recorded in Scripture. It was never planned that way. Thus, people could still speak forth revelation from God, revelation that was definitely worth paying attention to and reflecting upon, but it still never found its way into the inscriptured New Testament.
This is easy to see in such places as:
- 1 Corinthians 14:26 – Paul lets the Corinthian believers know that, when they gather together, each one has something to bring. One of those things – revelation!
- 1 Timothy 1:18 – Paul reminds Timothy of the prophecies made about him. But here is the interesting thing: Paul tells him that, by them (the prophecies), Timothy can wage good warfare, hold to the faith and a good conscience. Pretty important, maybe even authoritative and revelatory words from God, that never made it into Scripture.
There are other examples: think about Agabus. We only read of two of his prophetic utterances in Acts (11:27-30 and 21:10-14, and lest we think this last case is a ‘wrong’ prophecy from Agabus, as Grudem asserts, we shall consider the words in some article about prophets). I’m pretty certain he was prophesying a lot more than those two times, speaking for the word of God, since he was recognised as a prophet. And how many prophets of the Old Testament were used, but never penned a word – Elijah, Elisha, Nathan, etc. Some of their words were recorded, but not everything.
So I believe we need to really reconsider our understanding of what it means to be an apostle and that it is not simply connecting such a role to the writing of New Testament Scripture (as well as seeing prophets as those who were mainly called to write Old Testament Scripture). That is not the case. Never has been.
Again, I do not want to downplay the role of Scripture. I wish I could address all issues with Scripture, but suffice it to say, I believe it is what we call it – a canon, meaning a measuring stick for our faith and practise of it. Some of those first apostles had a major role in recording the apostolic teaching and testimony. I love it! But that took up only a small percentage of their apostolic ministry. They had other things to get on with in laying a foundation in faithfulness to Christ and the gospel.
One last thing I want to consider, for those interested: In his book, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, Wayne Grudem espouses:
- New Testament apostles are equal to the Old Testament prophets in their authority. Therefore, these two groups are the authoritative recorders of Scripture.
- Subsequently, New Testament prophets have much less authority than New Testament apostles.
Therefore, Grudem gives four possibilities of how to understand the roles of apostles and prophets as spoken of in Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5.
…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone… (Ephesians 2:20)
…which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. (Ephesians 3:5)
His conclusion was to go with the fourth choice he states in his book, which I explain below.
For Grudem, from a New Testament perspective, these two verses in Ephesians teach that apostles and prophets are one joint ministry rather than two distinguishable ministries. Hence, he sees this joint ministry being expressed as such:
‘the apostle-prophets themselves (that is, the apostles who are also prophets).’ (see Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, p46)
Such helps maintain the safe viewpoint that apostles are the authoritative writers of the New Testament just as the prophets of old were the authoritative writers of the Old Testament. Therefore, such can be maintained that apostles no longer exist since we are no longer looking to write Scripture.
But I’ve already put forth the case that apostle does not specifically equal Scripture-writer, for many apostles did not write Scripture and there are some who authored Scripture but were not apostles. Not to mention that a lot of things were spoken, authoritative and revelatory things, that did not get recorded in Scripture.
Grudem goes on to state:
‘After considering these views…it seems best to me to conclude that Ephesians 2:20 has meaning 4, that the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles who are also prophets,” and Ephesians 3:5 should be understood to mean that the mystery of the Gentile inclusion in the church “was not made to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles who are also prophets by the Spirit.”’ (Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, p46)
But such a view only seems contrived to prove one’s point rather than to be solidly and carefully founded in Scripture. For starters, in every other place outside of Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5, apostles and prophets are distinguished from one another. The two main places we see this distinction are Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28-29.
One other major point Grudem brings up to try and prove that apostles and prophets are one group in both Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 is that, in both instances, the definite article ‘the’ is found before the word apostle, but not before prophet. Thus, Paul is referring to one joint authoritative group, mainly apostle-prophets.
Theologian, Edmund Clowney, answers Grudem well in his own work:
‘The absence of the article before ‘prophets’ in Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 indicates, then, not that prophets are identical with apostles, but that they are closely linked with them since they, too, receive and communicate revelation.’ (The Church, p261, italics mine)
Therefore, our conclusion is that apostles and prophets are two distinguishable ministries, yet both working together in an authoritative role within His body. Today, neither apostles nor prophets are called to add to the canon of Scripture, for such is the summation and measuring stick of our faith. But, by His Spirit, God still utilises these ministries in relaying revelation from God. And, of course, such will never contradict the tenor of Scripture.
God has always been communicating revelation outside of Scripture, as I alluded to above. And such revelation, if it is truly revelation, can be considered authoritative. It doesn’t mean we write 4 John or 3 Thessalonians or 1 Brussels. It simply means that, as people speak forth revelation (or what they claim as revelation), we learn to weigh it against Scripture, keep it before the leaders we are connected to, keep it before the wider body we are in relationship with, and pray for discernment.
It doesn’t make it easy. But it makes us move towards becoming the men and women God desires His body to be – hearers of His word. Oh, that we would hear Him speak through His written revelation and through His spoken revelation. And I’m so glad He is committed to not contradicting Himself in either case.
So, apostles are not intrinsically Scripture-writers. I understand the desire to argue such in attempt to honour God and the canon of revelation in Scripture. But I don’t think such arguments fully hold up to biblical and theological scrutiny.
In the next article, I shall consider the argument concerning the claim that all apostles are ‘hand-picked’ by Christ, in a physical sense.