The following post is from Fathering Leaders, Motivating Mission by David Devenish, copyright 2011 reproduced with permission from Authentic Media.
Many years ago, my wife and I were leading a walking holiday in the Lake District (a beautiful region of northern England) with the youth group in our church. We had been joined by a lad, a friend of one of our young people, who had no previous knowledge of Christianity and certainly not of Christian jargon.
We held Bible studies each evening and had been looking at one of Paul’s letters. On one of the walks, this young lad asked to speak privately to me. We walked ahead of the others and I was excited by the prospect of him perhaps asking important questions about the Christian faith or even of my being able to lead him to the Lord. He said he had been trying to follow our Bible studies but had one major question: ‘What is the difference between an epistle and an apostle?’ He said he had become quite confused on this subject! Of course, I hid my disappointment and answered the question. (Praise God – a few weeks later he committed his life to the Lord and is still walking with God today.)
This teenager’s question is akin to one of the explanations often given of why we no longer have apostles today: ‘We have the Epistles, so we do not need Apostles.’ The argument is that one of the prime reasons for Christ appointing the apostles was so that the New Testament could be written, and once it was complete there was no further need for apostolic ministry. Obviously it is true that the final truths of Scripture were committed to the first-generation church and have been preserved for us in what we know as the New Testament. Jesus said to his twelve apostles, ‘When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.’1 While that Scripture by extension means that we can all know the help of the Holy Spirit to understand the truths of Scripture, nevertheless its primary meaning was that the Holy Spirit would lead those original apostles into all truth – all the truth we need now for our instruction, correction and training, and which is contained in the New Testament. However, it must be pointed out that most of the apostles did not contribute to the writing of the New Testament and that a significant part of it was written by Luke, who, although for a time part of Paul’s apostolic team, was never described as an apostle himself. Thus we can see from the outset that being an apostle is not synonymous with being a writer of Scripture.
There are four views of apostles that I want to examine in this chapter. They are as follows:
1. Most of the gifts of the Holy Spirit described in the New Testament ceased after the first century, including the gift of the apostle.
2. The apostles were a very small group of people, comprising the twelve and the apostle Paul. (Some have even argued that the original eleven got it wrong in Acts 1 when they appointed Matthias, and should have waited for Paul.)
3. There were many more apostles in the time of the New Testament, and most spiritual gifts continue today, but not the gift or office of the apostle.
4. All the gifts of the Holy Spirit in New Testament times continue today, including the gift of the apostle.
No Longer Needed?
The first view, that the revelatory and sign gifts have ceased, is based on a particular interpretation of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians: ‘But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.’2 The Greek phrase translated ‘perfection’ (or ‘the perfect’ in some translations) is to teleion, which is an adjective related to the verb teleioo, meaning ‘to bring to an end, to complete’. It also carries the additional meaning ‘to make perfect’ or ‘to be perfect’. God is so described in Matthew 5:48, where it can only mean ‘perfect’. The same word, however, is used in Ephesians 4:13 in the context of the role of the leadership gifts to equip the church, where it is translated ‘mature’. This first view suggests that ‘the perfect’ in 1 Corinthians 13 refers to the full revelation given in the New Testament, and that once this was complete, there was no further need for the partial forms of charismatic revelation manifested in particular revelatory gifts such as prophecy. The classic exposition of this view was made by B.B. Warfield3 and is reflected in much contemporary reformed and dispensationalist theology.
The problem with this view is that it could not have been understood in this way by those to whom Paul was originally writing. Gordon Fee puts it this way: ‘Paul’s distinctions are between “now” and “then”, between what is incomplete (though perfectly appropriate to the church’s present existence) and what is complete (when its final destiny in Christ has been reached and “we see face to face” and “know as we are known”).’4 In other words, ‘the perfect’ is an eschatological reference to the time when Jesus returns and the final purposes of God’s saving work in Christ will have been accomplished. Spiritual gifts will then no longer be necessary for the building up of the church.
Another variant of this first view is that ‘the perfect’ does not refer to the completion of the New Testament but to the maturity of the church which occurred when more regular clergy had arisen and became the norm for established church life. Fee comments very astutely:
It is perhaps an indictment of Western Christianity that we should consider ‘mature’ our rather cerebral and domesticated – but bland – brand of faith, with the concomitant absence of the Spirit in terms of his supernatural gifts! The Spirit, not Western rationalism, marks the turning of the ages, after all; and to deny the Spirit’s manifestations is to deny our present existence to be eschatological, as belonging to the beginning of the time of the End.5
Maturity certainly implies not just ‘regular clergy’ etc. having been established, but the bringing to maturity of the church in every generation as a result of the equipping work of leadership gifts described in Ephesians 4.
A Limited Number of Apostles?
The second view confines the use of the term ‘apostle’ to the twelve and Paul, and regards the appointment of Matthias6 to replace Judas Iscariot as a mistake on the part of the eleven remaining apostles. However, the New Testament nowhere teaches that the eleven were wrong to appoint Matthias and should have waited for Paul. Although the casting of lots was not a normal means of obtaining guidance in the church after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (though it has been employed by some, for example, John Wesley), it could nevertheless be followed in faith at that time, on the basis of scriptures such as Proverbs 16:33. Furthermore, the qualification for being one of the twelve was not only having witnessed Christ’s resurrection, but also having been with Jesus from the beginning of his earthly ministry at the baptism of John until his ascension. It was important that there should be witnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as to his death and resurrection, all of which are now recorded for us in the four gospels. There is no evidence at all that Paul would have qualified for this. All we know of him at this time is that he was being taught at the feet of Gamaliel.7
The New Testament text itself refers to several others as apostles, and for some of these, too, there is no evidence that they witnessed Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. They are as follows:
- Andronicus and Junias.8 ␣
- Apollos.9 ␣
- Epaphroditus (though this reference is usually translated ‘messenger’, a point that we will examine later).11
- James – the half-brother of Jesus.12 ␣
- Silas.13 ␣
- Timothy (though some would argue that Paul specifically excludes Timothy from this role by his reference to him as a brother, but that is a moot point).14
‘All the apostles’ who received a resurrection appearance from Jesus are distinguished from the twelve and Paul.15 The fact that the church had to be on the lookout for false apostles would not have been an issue if the apostolate was restricted to the twelve and Paul.16 The visiting preachers who caused such problems to Paul in Corinth are described somewhat ironically as ‘super-apostles’,17 so it seems that they were taking the title of ‘apostle’ on themselves, relying on self-advertising oratory rather than the humility demonstrated by genuine apostles.18
Some would suggest that the seventy (or seventy two) sent out by Jesus were also apostles. Certainly the Greek verb apostello is used of the commission that Jesus gave the seventy, and there are considerable similarities in the mandates he gave to the twelve and the seventy. Of course, both were also symbolic numbers which would have been clearly understood as such by the people of that time. ‘The twelve’ recalled the twelve sons of Jacob, the forefathers of the twelve tribes of Israel, and were symbolic of Jesus’ formation of a renewed Israel. ‘The seventy’ is doubly symbolic: it was the familiar way in which the Jews of the time referred to the nations of the world, based on the seventy nations of Genesis 10; it would also have reminded them of the occasion in Moses’ time when the Lord put the Spirit on the seventy elders,19 which enabled a wider distribution of responsibility so that Moses would not have to carry it alone. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s commentary notes in relation to ‘all the apostles’ in 1 Corinthians 15 explain that ‘the term here includes many others besides “the Twelve” already enumerated (v5): perhaps the seventy disciples of Luke 10’.20 I am not fully convinced about this argument, but it helpfully illustrates the diversity of views concerning the number of apostles.
Again there is some excellent material available for further study on this point, in particular Herbert Lockyer’s book All the Apostles of the Bible and an excellent essay on the subject by J.B. Lightfoot.21
1 John 16:13.
2 1 Cor. 13:8–10.
3 B.B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (Cornell University Library, 1918).
4 Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence (Hendrickson,1994), p. 208.
5 Fee, Presence, p. 207. See also Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP and Zondervan, 1994), Chapter 30.
6 Acts 1:21–26.
7 Acts 22:3.
8 Rom. 16:7.
9 1 Cor. 4:6–9.
10 Acts 14:14.
11 Phil. 2:25.
12 Gal. 1:18–19.
13 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:6 (apostles – plural).
14 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:6; 2 Cor. 1:1.
15 1 Cor. 15:7.
16 Rev. 2:2; 2 Cor. 11:13.
17 2 Cor. 11:5.
18 Barrett takes the view that ‘super-apostles’ was actually a reference to those described in Galatians 2:9 as ‘pillars’. C.K. Barrett, The Signs of an Apostle (Paternoster Press, 1996), pp. 37–8. Chrysostom, Calvin and Hodge also took this view. In this case the above comments would of course not apply!
19 Num. 11:25.
20 Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, quoting Chrysostom, Commentary (Zondervan, 1870 and 1999).
21 J.B. Lightfoot, Epistle of St Paul to the Galatians (Zondervan,1978), pp. 92–101.