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The subject of what an apostle is and what qualifications are required is very controversial today. It is the prevalent view among evangelicals today that the office of apostle has ceased. However, there are a number of Bible-believing churches that still operate the office of apostle. I will argue that the office is appropriate for the Church today.
The Original Twelve
The original twelve apostles are listed in a number of places in the Gospels, for example Matthew 10:2-5.
- 'Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.'
The word apostle actually means one who is sent out or messenger. In the very next verse, we read that Jesus sent them out, to preach the gospel and heal the sick. For this reason, it is taken that one cannot be an apostle, unless specifically sent out personally by Jesus. however, the passage does not teach this, but only says it is the case for this particular episode and these particular apostles. But if we make a rule that apostles were only those personally sent by Jesus, we have to do some theological contortions when we look at other apostles in the New Testament.
After the death of Judas, and after the Ascension of Jesus, the remaining eleven apostles chose a replacement for Judas. Their reasoning for this was quoting from psalms 'Let another take his office.' They then set out the criteria for the new apostle.
- 'Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.' (Acts 1:21,22)
Some evangelicals have made two assumptions from this passage. The first is that all apostles should be eye-witnesses of Jesus, having been with Him for His entire ministry. Yet, the position of Paul disproves this. Paul was not an eye-witness, but was specifically appointed and sent, as we will see.
The second corollory that some people draw is that the eleven apostles made a mistake in appointing Matthias, and that they should have waited for Paul.
It would seem more sensible to suppose that the eleven were correct in requiring a replacement for Judas, and that their choice of someone who had been with their ministry all along was for pragmatic reasons, rather than theological.
That Paul was an apostle is well established. He was sent by Jesus Himself. Paul's epistles frequently make mention of his apostleship in their introductions.
- 'Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)' (Galatians 1:1)
It is Paul's very apostleship which demonstrates that the traditional view of apostleship is not as one would expect.
Nevertheless, there is something rather special about Paul and the original eleven, in that they were directly sent out by Jesus Himself. Yet there are other apostles of whom this cannot be said.
James, the brother of Jesus
James son of Zebedee, who was numbered among the original twelve, was the first to be martyred. But another James is later seen to be leading the church in Jerusalem. This James would appear to be one of the brothers of Jesus, and the same one who wrote the eponymous epistle. It was he with whom Paul describes a meeting, thus emphasising his apostleship. 'But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.' (Galatians 1:19)
Barnabas is described as an apostle with Paul in Acts 14:14.
Timothy and Silas
Paul's letter 1 Thessalonians is written jointly by Paul, Timothy and Silas (1 Thessalonians 1:1). In 1 Thessalonians 2:6, the collective writers describe themselves as apostles. So this means that Silas and Timothy were counted as apostles.
Andronicus and Junio
These two are described as outstanding among the apostles, in Romans 16:7. Some suggest that this means they were outstandingly well known to the apostles. But I prefer the plainer, more obvious reading.
In Philippians 2:25, Epaphroditus is described as a messenger. What our English translations frequently miss is that the very same word apostolon is used.
Has apostleship ceased?
There are those Christians who believe that all the supernatural ministries of the New Testament came to an end when the canon of scripture was complete. This is an honourable position, but not one that I share. The view, known as cessationism, is based on a particular interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:10 - 'But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away'. The Greek word for perfect has the meaning of complete, that is fullfilling its designed role. A perfect toaster may not look pretty and you might have to push the levers to get the toast out, but it is perfect, it makes toast. The assumption is that perfect is referencing scripture in 1 Corinthians 13:10 as being complete. If read in context it is more likely it is the the kingdom to come that is complete or perfect.
If we allow that gifts of the Spirit, such as tongues and prophecy, exist today, then some Christians are puzzled by where to draw a line between ministries available today and those not. For example, the five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4:11; apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. There are some Christians who separate the first two ministries as no longer available. Those convinced of the currency of tongues and prophecy have a tendency to draw a line after the first ministry. But an increasing number of Christians are realising that no line should be drawn at all. There is no justification from the passage for supposing that some ministries are available today and some not. Therefore, we can conclude that apostleship is a ministry available today.
Clearly, such apostles are not in the same category as Paul and the eleven, who were sent directly by Jesus. In the same way modern day apostles are not in the same category as biblical prophets. Biblical prophets spoke the inspired words of scripture, but NT prophets' words were to be weighed.
Modern apostles are likely to be those, whose ministry covers a wide area, probably including the respect of many churches, rather as William Bagshawe was described as 'The Apostle of the Peak' in the biography by John Brentnall.
The idea that the ministry of an apostle may still be open today is controversial. It should be noted that many Christians would disagree with such a notion, for completely honourable reasons.
There are other Christians, however, who would say that although we cannot accept the sort of apostles who wrote scripture, believing the canon of scripture to be completely closed, there would seem to be a strong biblical case for apostles of the same nature as Barnabas, Timothy and Silas.
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