original word: ἀπόστολος, ου, ὁ
part of speech: noun, masculine
phonetic spelling: (ap-os’-tol-os)
definition: a messenger, one sent on a mission, an apostle
usage: a messenger, envoy, delegate, one commissioned by another to represent him in some way, especially a man sent out by Jesus Christ Himself to preach the Gospel; an apostle.
I recently was posed a question in conversation with a friend regarding whether apostles as we know them biblically exist today. This is not a new question by any means, and there is a vast body of research to answer this question in more than one way. If we are to explore this area of inquiry, we will be wise to review how the scriptures use not only the word apostle but various forms of the word as well. After all, we are not taught that revelation comes from the reasoning of man. Revelation of the scriptures comes through the working of the Holy Spirit as we study those very words. Let us ask him to do just that. Let us seek revelation of what the biblical apostles were, what their function was and what their office was. Perhaps an understanding of those elements will lead us to an understanding of whether such people can exist today in such an office and with such a function.
Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house.
Here we see two apostolic references to help us understand what an apostle is. The first reference is to the Lord himself, and it should be no mystery why Jesus is called an apostle. He was not only sent but commissioned by the Father to represent his kingdom to the world. He was certainly a messenger on a mission. Importantly, Jesus came to earth with authority and not just as a visitor with a platform to share. The Father granted the Son power to do things that would evidence his being sent by God. This power and authority were not hidden by the Lord but were displayed in word and deed. The picture we have is of someone who proclaims to be sent by a higher authority and walks in a manner to show that his proclamation is true. Jesus did not appear with a badge or an identification card to prove that He was sent by the Father. He appeared with the manifestation of the Father’s power to prove his origin and office.
The second reference here is to Moses, and that is a comparison used to show the faithfulness of Jesus in carrying out his Father’s mission. This reference poses a new question, which is whether apostles of God existed not after but before the period recorded in New Testament writings. If the faithfulness of Jesus Christ as an apostle is mirrored in the faithfulness of Moses, it would not be out of the question to conclude that Moses occupied the same kind of office or position. A reading of scripture clearly indicates that Moses was appointed by God for specific functions, such as leading his people out of Egyptian captivity. Moses may not be referred to as an apostle in scripture, but he certainly was a messenger to Israel [Acts 6:13-14]. Yet, the writer of Hebrews equates the faithfulness of Moses [Num. 12:7] to the faithfulness of Jesus in his office of apostle. Supposing that God placed some in that office prior to Jesus and the apostles Jesus appointed, it also may not be a stretch to conclude that some are appointed as apostles now.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
As Paul explains to the Gentiles of Rome how the Jews have rejected the gospel of Christ, he says two interesting things. The first thing he mentions is that no one can call on a God of whom he or she has not heard. Paul is driving home a basic principal that the message of the gospel is not something to be held tightly but is something to be shared freely. When he says that none can preach unless they are sent, he uses the verb form of apostle to discuss that principal in a specific context. He is talking about what he himself does. He is a messenger assigned by God (the Son) to share the good news. Now, we are not talking about the everyday Christians who have a responsibility to share their faith, but we are speaking about one who is assigned by God to preach the good news. This is an important distinction to be made, and we will learn later that this is rooted in a specific gifting. What is similar here to the prior passage is that this exposition about the necessity of apostles being sent to preach the gospel also references an Old Testament figure.
The second interesting thing Paul mentions is the cry of Isaiah asking God who will believe “what he has heard from us.” That reference from Isaiah 53 is part of his prophecy concerning the coming of Messiah and what He will endure. These words of Isaiah quoted by Paul were not God’s words but Isaiah’s words as he cried out to God. What is interesting is that Isaiah uses the word us instead of the word them, as if he is also one of those assigned to bring the good news. That choice of words seems to place Isaiah in the same company as Paul, who quotes him when speaking of the importance of the apostles bringing their message for others to hear. In fact, Isaiah’s prophecy was indeed the good news, a message of the salvation that Jesus Christ would bring Israel. Both Isaiah and Paul were speaking of the same thing, and their words indicate that they were fulfilling similar functions. In his operation in the prophetic Isaiah was delivering the message of good news to Jews who may not hear it, just as Paul had experienced.
1 Cor. 12:27-31
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
The beginning of this first letter from Paul to the Corinthian church is one instance in which he specifically identifies himself as an apostle, a personally chosen representative of Jesus Christ by the will of God. Later in the letter he discusses spiritual gifts assigned to the members of the church. This hierarchy that he lists indicates that some gifts are higher than others. However, these gifts all fall within a certain group or set. If we place the apostolic gifting aside and review the other gifts listed, we would not question whether these exist today. We likely know individuals with a prophetic gifting or a teaching gifting, individuals who have laid hands on others and healed them. Likewise, I doubt anyone would question whether the gifts of administration and helping exist today. If that is the case, if we know individuals who exhibit gifts within this set or class in this day and age, we must ask ourselves why we would question whether one of those gifts is for this time without questioning whether all of them are.
The word first as used here has been used elsewhere in scripture to indicate both something that is first in time [Matt. 10:2] and something that is first in importance or dignity [Mark 6:21]. Given Paul’s instruction to the church here to seek the higher gifts, this seems to indicate that this hierarchy is not about time but about importance. If that is the case, and we are unsure whether the apostolic gifting exists today, we certainly must question why the first in this hierarchy of gifts would have been in operation only for a certain time. Not only that, Paul is speaking to new believers about critical aspects of their faith. If there were to be no more apostles after the original twelve, we also must question why Paul is telling the members of the church to pursue a gifting that is not available to them. Given the specificity of Paul’s letters to the early churches, the distinctions he makes regarding doctrinal issues that can be easily misunderstood and misapplied, one might expect him to be clear that the office of apostle no longer can be attained, if that indeed is the case. Judging by his other writings, it is difficult to accept that he would leave out such a critical point.
2 Cor. 8:22-23
And we have sent with them our brother whom we have often proved diligent in many things, but now much more diligent, because of the great confidence which we have in you. If anyone inquires about Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker concerning you. Or if our brethren are inquired about, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ.
Here, Paul is talking about Titus and two other brothers who Titus will bring with him when he visits the church in Corinth. Paul is clear to say that Titus has elected to visit the church on his own accord [v. 17]. Titus is not being sent out to the church by anyone. However, Paul does not say the same thing about the brothers who will be accompanying Titus. The first one has been appointed by the churches to minister with Titus and Paul [v. 19]. The word used in that verse seems to indicate that a vote was taken to make that determination. The church body or a governing portion of that body selected this first brother to do what the apostle Paul was doing. In fact, this brother was renowned among the churches for his ability to preach the gospel [v. 18]. This second brother is actually called a messenger by Paul, and he uses the same word he uses when he calls himself an apostle. Paul refers to himself multiple times as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and he says that this second brother is a messenger of the churches, who are the glory of Christ. The parallels there cannot escape us.
What is compelling from this passage and also from Paul’s letter to Titus himself is that the apostle Paul did not work alone in his mission. He had men who could be considered disciples of his who could replicate his work in places where he could not be. As Paul provides his vote of confidence concerning these three men, we know that they went to the church under his authority. Paul even describes Titus as his partner and fellow worker even though he never refers to Titus as an apostle. If we are to make a distinction between Paul and these three other men, it is that Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ as he was literally called by Christ in the book of Acts and sent by him more than once to do the work he was doing. He calls himself an apostle of Christ because Christ literally told him where to go and what his message should be. We do not know from Scripture that any of the other three men had that experience and were called directly by the Lord. This, however, is not the only sign of a true apostle. Paul tells us of other signs that should accompany one assigned by God to this office.
2 Cor. 12:12
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.
Anyone can proclaim that he or she is an apostle of God, but that proclamation is empty without evidence. Here, Paul substantiates his position as an apostle by reminding the church in Corinth of the evidence that he occupies that office. We know from the book of Acts that Paul indeed walked in the supernatural. Although not recorded, his letter to the Corinthian church seems to indicate that he performed miracles before them as well. When he did not behave as they expected by visiting them or paying a certain level of attention that he paid to other churches, they questioned his office. Paul’s response was to direct them to the proof that he operates in that which is not of any physical kingdom but which is of God’s spiritual kingdom. He is teaching the church that anyone who claims to be sent by God himself will naturally operate in the supernatural because that is how God himself operates. The one who was sent by God is sent under the authority and power of God, and that will be evident.
These signs and wonders distinguish the person who is a child of God and bringing the good news to others as any good Christian should do, and the one who has been called by God as an apostle. This is not to say that someone who is not an apostle cannot operate in the miraculous. For example, healing is a gifting separate from the apostolic office. One can perform miracles without being an apostle, but one cannot be an apostle without operating in the miraculous. This begs the question of our modern day self-professed apostles to show the evidence of their occupying that office. Just as the church in Corinth was taught to use these signs and wonders as a measuring rod to determine whether Paul carried the apostolic gifting, we should do the same. If the office of apostle still exists today, there does not appear to be any mention in the scriptures of that office operating any differently than it operated during the time of Paul. Thus, the evidence should be the same.
What we can determine from this preliminary review of the biblical apostle is that there exists a gifting, in fact the first gifting, which is that of an assignment of apostle by God. Paul urges at least one of his audiences to seek this as well as other giftings. While he refers to other brothers as messengers sent on behalf of the church, he is clear to refer to himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ as he was sent directly by the Lord on his mission. The evidence of this is his moving in the miraculous by exhibiting powerful signs and wonders. Paul refers to this evidence as the signs of a true apostle. Judging by these criteria, it would appear that even in the Old Testament some occupied an office similar to that of apostle as they were sent directly by God and operated in the supernatural. Not only do they meet these criteria, but both Isaiah [Isa.53] and Moses [Deut. 18] spoke about the good news of the gospel, which was the work of the New Testament apostles.
If any among you believes that he or she has been gifted with an assignment to the office of apostle of God, consider what the scriptures say about that office and compare yourself accordingly. If any among you have been told by another that he or she occupies that office, search for the supernatural evidence we are taught should follow him or her. There are many ministries today that practice in the “fivefold”, of which the office of apostle is one. There also are individuals who hold themselves out as occupants of that position in the Church. It should be our desire for the body to operate correctly, and if we have questions regarding whether this office indeed exists today, it is our duty to seek the knowledge and wisdom from God that will bring us to the correct conclusion. Let us pray for the Church to be guided correctly on the issue that she would operate in the fullness of what God has made available to her.