The office of apostle is a critical work of the New Testament church. It is listed first in the "gifts" given to the church (Ephesians 4:11), and the church is described as being "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:19-21). However, despite their importance, many people have questions about the apostles: Who were they? What did they do? Do we have apostles today? These questions and others will be explored in this article.
Christ's Ambassadors - The Apostles
As we observed in our study of the work of the church, Jesus provided the universal church with certain "gifts" to aid the completion of her work (Ephesians 4:7-16). The blessings derived from these gifts originate in these offices' wise charter, which when properly understood and staffed, provides crucial assistance that the church desparately needs:
"And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians4:11-13)
The first in this list of spiritual offices is that of apostle. The original word for apostle was a generic Greek word (apostolos) that meant ambassador, or "a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders" (Thayer's Greek Lexicon, 676). Consequently, the same Greek word could be used commonly. For example, as Thayer notes, the Old Testament prophet, Ahijah, was an "apostle", or messenger sent with a message for Jereboam's wife (I Kings 14:6, Alexandrian LXX). In Philippians 2:25, Epaphroditus was declared to be an "apostle", or messenger, sent to Paul by the church of Philippi. Finally, Jesus Himself is declared be the "Apostle and High Priest of our confession", sent by God (Hebrews 3:1; 1:1-2). So, the word, apostle, should not always be understood with a specialized, narrow connotation, related to an office of the church. However, the word is most often used in the Bible in a special sense, as a chosen, spiritual ambassador representing Christ. It is this specialized, spiritual office that we seek to understand by examining a few Bible passages on the subject.
"Who Were the Apostles?"
From Luke 6:13-16, we learn that Jesus, during His earthly ministry, chose twelve men to be His apostles. According to Matthew 9:9; 10:1-5; Mark 2:14; 3:13-19; Luke 5:27-29; 6:12-16; Acts 1:13-26; and I Corinthians 15:7-10, the complete list of Jesus' apostles consists of:
- Simon, who was called Peter
- Andrew, Peter's brother
- James the son of Zebedee
- John, James' brother
- Matthew, the tax collector, also called Levi son of Alphaeus
- James the son of Alphaeus
- Thaddaeus (or, Lebbaeus Thaddeaeus), also known as Judas the son of James
- Simon the Canaanite and Zealot
- Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and fell by his sin
- Matthias, who replaced Judas
- Paul, who was originally called Saul
What Was the Work of the Apostles?
The nature and work of their office is best described by Jesus in His commission to them:
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." (Matthew 28:19-20)
"... you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8)
From Mark's parallel account, we learn that the apostles did just that.
"And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following." (Mark 16:20)
And with great power the apostles gave witness to the ressurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. (Acts 4:33)
In the early days of the church, the apostles served as the primary means of inspired communication and direction from the Lord to His people:
But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them ... "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. (Acts 2:14, 38-43)
The apostles were not just a possible source of spiritual truth and knowledge. They were the only source of revelation. To be out of fellowship with their teaching was to be separated from God. The apostles' doctrine was the final word from God.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life -- the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us -- that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (I John 1:1-4
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. ... We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (I John 4:1, 6)
For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. ... Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant. (I Corinthians 14:33-38)
In addition to providing spiritual nourishment in the form of inspired teaching and preaching, the apostles also performed extrordinary miracles to confirm the divine source of their message. On other occasions, they were the focal point of miraculous events. A compendium from Scriptures of such miraculous (and possibly miraculous) events are provided here for reference:
- Acts 1:26-2:4 - All the apostles spoke in unlearned, foreign languages.
- Acts 3:1-11 - Peter and John instantly healed a crippled man, unable to walk from birth.
- Acts 4:23-31 - Room was shaken and people were filled with Holy Spirit after apostles' persecution, release, and prayer.
- Acts 5:1-11 - Peter sentenced Ananias and Sapphira to be miraculously struck dead.
- Acts 5:12-16 - Sick people healed by Peter's shadow passing over them. Multitudes of sick and demon-possessed were healed.
- Acts 5:17-21 - All the apostles were freed from prison by an angel, who instructed them to go preach again.
- Acts 8:14-25 - Peter and John bestowed miraculous powers to others by laying their hands on them.
- Acts 9:32-35 - Bedridden and paralyzed man was instantly healed by Peter.
- Acts 9:36-43 - Peter raised Dorcas from the dead
- Acts 10:44-48 - Peter preached to the first Gentile converts, who began speaking in foreign languages, while Peter was preaching.
- Acts 12:5-19 - Peter was freed from prison by an angel.
- Acts 13:8-12 - Paul condemned and struck Elymans blind.
- Acts 14:8-11 - Paul instantly healed a crippled man, who had never walked.
- Acts 14:19-20 - Paul "curiously" survived being stoned to death.
- Acts 16:16-24 - Paul casts out a demon of a fortune-teller.
- Acts 16:25-30 - An earthquake opened all the doors and released all the chains in a prison, where Paul was kept.
- Acts 9:1-9, 15-16; 16:6-10; 18:9-10; 20:22-23; 22:17-21 - Paul received visions from the Lord and the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 19:1-6 - Paul laid hands on people, imparting the Holy Spirit, by which they spoke foreign languages.
- Acts 19:11-12 - "unusual miracles by the hand of Paul". For example, handkerchiefs that he touched could be used to heal people and cast out demons.
- Acts 19:13-17 - A demon openly recognizes Jesus and Paul, when unsanctioned people attempt to cast out the demon.
- Acts 19:7-12 - Paul raised Eutychus from the dead, after he fell out of a third story window.
- Acts 27:23-26, 44 - Paul received a message and prophecy from an angel.
- Acts 28:3-6 - Paul was bit by a deadly, venemous viper, which did not even cause him to swell.
- Acts 28:7-10 - Paul healed Publius' father and many other sick people.
- II Corinthians 11:22-33 - Paul "curiously" survived an enormous amount of persecution.
- II Corinthians 12:1-6 - Paul (presumably) was carried to "Paradise" in a vision.
- Romans 15:18-19; II Corinthians 12:11-12 - Paul worked the signs of an apostle" among the Corinthians and other churches.
- II TImothy 1:6 - Paul bestowed a spiritual gift (prophecy? I Timothy 4:14) on Timothy by laying his hands upon him.
Lastly, as Christ's ambassadors, the apostles provided direction and organization for the church:
Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. (Acts 4:34-35)
However, the primary nature of their work was always spiritual, and when the work of benevolence became too distracting, additional roles were created:
Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:1-4)
"What Were the Qualification of Apostles?"
Many people today teach and preach the gospel of Christ. So, what made the apostles unique? First, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Please note these comforting words that Jesus offered to His apostles, before He sent them on their first mission:
"You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you." (Matthew 10:18-20)
Later, Jesus promised the apostles that after His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, they would soon be given the Holy Spirit, who would lead them into "all truth":
"These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you." (John 14:25-26)
"However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come." (John 16:13)
Later in the Bible narrative, we read that the apostles did indeed claim to have received the Holy Spirit, Who had provided them with "all truth" (I Corinthians 2:10-16; II Peter 1:2-3). Amazingly, we also learn that if we read what they wrote, the New Testament of the Bible, we can gain the same knowledge and understanding that they had (II Timothy 3:14-17; Ephesians 3:3-5). Not surprisingly, this requires diligent study and a sincere love for the truth (II Timothy 2:15; Matthew 5:6; II Thessalonians 2:9-12). The apostles represented Christ by speaking for Him in His place and by His authority. It was through this inspiration that the apostles were able to serve as ambassadors for Christ, proclaiming His will in His stead, "binding" and "loosening" tenets of the Christian faith (John 13:20; Matthew 16:19; 18:18). They made Jesus' will known on all essential spiritual subjects through infallible inspiration (II Peter 1:2-4); therefore, the apostles are very distinct when compared to today's fallible preachers and teachers, who gain their understanding not by inspiration, but through study of the apostles' inspired writings - the Bible.
Furthermore, the apostles were specifically and directly chosen by Jesus Himself to serve as eye-witnesses (Luke 6:13-16; Acts 1:23-26). Consequently, the apostles were also required to be witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Of course, all Christians can in a sense teach the gospel about Christ, but none today can bear witness as the apostles did. They were to be "eye-witnesses" of Jesus. They could personally attest of His miracles, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. It is in this special sense that the Bible speaks of the apostles as "witnesses" for Christ (Luke 24:45-48; Acts 1:8; 21-26; I John 1:1-4; II Peter 1:16-21).
In addition to Christ's specific selection, it was these two qualities which made the apostles unique and defines their role and office. They represented, and still represent, the will of Jesus on all matters, in addition to providing eye-witness testimony to His miracles and resurrection.
"Do We still Have Apostles Today?"
"Do we still have apostles today?" Well, yes and no. Yes, the Bible teaches that there are apostles today, but no, apostleship is not an office that continues to be filled by modern people. It was generally not an office that was left for another to fulfill. In fact the Bible teaches that the same twelve apostles are still apostles today:
"Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matthew 19:27-28)
We can note two important points from this passage: First, the number of thrones was limited to twelve, just as there were twelve tribes of Israel. Second, the reign of the apostles was in conjunction with Christ's reign! Their reign began with His reign and would continue for the duration of His reign. Therefore, the same apostles reign today that reigned during the delivery of the New Testament. Furthermore, please observe that no one can today fulfill the other qualities of an apostle: Jesus' personal selection, Holy Spirit inspiration, and eye-witness of Christ's ministry and resurrection. Therefore, there are no modern apostles - only those who have reigned since ancient days.
In apparent contradiction, the Bible mentions a total of fourteen men who served as apostles. How can this be reconciled?
In addition to the original twelve, the thirteenth apostle, Matthias, filled the office of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. From Acts 1:15-26, we learn that Judas "fell by transgression ... from this ministry and apostleship", and Matthias was appointed to the vacant office. Therefore, the thirteen apostles actually represented twelve, because Judas was no longer an apostle after his fatal sin. Please notice that the office did not become vacant because he died, but it was because of his falling by unrepented transgression. This harmonizes with the above passage from Matthew, which teaches that death did not remove the apostles from their office. Their reign was in conjunction with Christ's rule.
The second "exception" is the apostle Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament. However, his position as the thirteenth reigning apostle can be reconciled by more closely examining Jesus' description in Matthew, "upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel". A light survey of the the Old Testament will reveal that Israel's tribes eventually numbered thirteen, although they began with twelve sons! Generally, each of the tribes of Israel was called by one of the twelve sons of Israel (Jacob), who fathered the respective tribe. However, the tribe belonging to Israel's son, Joseph, was split into two more tribes, named after Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Mansseh (Genesis 48:1-6). They were numbered with Israel's sons as his sons (Genesis 48:6). Apparently, Joseph was blessed with a "double portion" of sorts (Genesis 48:21-22). In spite of their being thirteen tribes, the tribes of Israel continued to be called the "twelve" after the twelve original sons of Israel (Genesis 49:22-28; Exodus 24:4). Likewise, the office left vacant by Judas was split into two offices, which were filled by Matthias and Paul. This spiritual figure is enforced by Jesus, Who linked their reign upon twelve thrones to the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:27-28). Therefore, there were and are twelve apostles - figuratively: Twelve appointed originally, but the twelfth office was split into two, just as the twelve original tribes of Israel were eventually numbered as thirteen. If that figure seems strange, please consider that the entire statement is figurative. The apostles' reign was ultimately over spiritual Israel, not physical Israel, since the apostles were sent to all nations in all the earth (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 9:3, 6).
The sure and ancient end of appointing modern apostles is confirmed by the last apostle, Paul, writing of the different witnesses and apostles who saw Jesus after His resurrection:
"After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time." (I Corinthians 15:7-8)
Just as the youngest child in a family may be born "unexpectedly" and several years after their older siblings, so the apostle Paul was like "one born out of due time". However, if many more apostles were appointed after Paul, then the image of this verse would be meaningless. Please notice, it was the subject of apostleship to which he was referring because he continues the discussion of apostleship in the next verse ("least of the apostles"). Therefore, figuratively speaking, there were only twelve apostles (thirteen literally), who were appointed by Jesus and remain so even today.
Exceptions, Misunderstandings, and Other Confusion
, and was sometimes used in a general sense to refer to any ambassador representing an ordinary organization, men, or group of people (for example, "one sent" by a local church - Acts 13:1-4; 14:14).
The spiritual office of apostle is a vital office that demands a Biblical understanding. Some people believe that there are modern apostles, while others dismiss the authority of the ancient apostles. Both of these beliefs constitute critical dangers for us. Those who believe in modern apostles subject themselves to the authority of men, who may be perverting the true gospel, jeopardizing their own souls and the souls of their followers (Galatians 1:6-8). Others fail to heed the writings of the Bible, because of their failure to understand the authority of the true apostles. This may lead them to dismiss the importance of the Bible pattern, because of their failure to appreciate the position of the apostles who recorded it (Luke 10:16). Therefore, we must be careful to understand the nature of the apostles, so that we may properly understand God's will for us and appreciate the authority of God that is behind the writings of the apostles.
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