Apostles today? Part Three – Witnesses of the resurrection?

Apostles today? Part Three – Witnesses of the resurrection? June 28, 2011

The following post is from Fathering Leaders, Motivating Mission by David Devenish, copyright 2011 reproduced with permission from Authentic Media.

Witnesses of the Resurrection?

What then about the claim that to be an apostle someone must have seen Jesus in his resurrection? This assertion is based on 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul is justifying his apostleship to a church that was beginning to question it. Paul there makes a series of four assertions of his apostleship to the Corinthian church: ‘Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?’

Firstly, ‘Am I not free?’ is a reference not just to his apostleship but to his freedom from the Jewish law and also a freedom to conform to aspects of the Jewish law in order to win Jewish people. Secondly, ‘Am I not an apostle?’ must refer to the commissioning that he had asserted on several occasions. He then says, thirdly, ‘Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ It is hard to argue from this that this is the necessary proof for all time of somebody having the gift and ministry of an apostle. There were others who also saw Jesus’ resurrection but were not called apostles, for example, ‘five hundred brethren at once’. His last statement refers to the fruit of his apostleship. In this context he states that even though he may not be an apostle to others, he must be an apostle to the Corinthians because he founded their church. Surely if the main qualification was that he had seen the resurrected Jesus then he would be an apostle to all. As Gordon Fee points out,

‘Since others who saw the Risen Lord did not become apostles, what most likely legitimized his apostleship was the accompanying commissioning. Although he does not say so here, in Galatians 1:16 the revelation of the Son of God is accompanied by its purpose, “that I might preach him among the Gentiles”.’27

Gordon Fee goes on to add:

Can anything be said in our day about ‘apostles’? Given the two criteria expressed here [seeing the risen Christ and having effectively planted churches], one would have to allow that apostles do not exist in the sense that Paul defines his own ministry. But it should also be noted that this might be too narrow a view, based strictly on Paul’s own personal experience. His more functional understanding of apostleship would certainly have its modern counterpart in those who found and lead churches in unevangelized areas. Only when ‘apostle’ is used in a non-Pauline sense of ‘guarantors of the traditions’ would usage be narrowed to the first century.28

This is really the point. Evangelicals who believe, as I do, that apostles exist today, strongly affirm that the canon of Scripture is complete and establishes the full truth that God has revealed to us, but are also convinced that the ministry of church planting and laying good foundations in churches and the authority (as we will see later) to oversee those churches needs to continue – subject, of course, to the overriding authority of Scripture.

Furthermore, Ephesians 4 is not the only scripture which speaks of the apostle alongside other gifts in relation to the life of the church. Paul gives several lists of spiritual gifts. Sometimes these are the gifts to the church of a person or ministry or office, as in Ephesians 4; sometimes they are charismatic gifts of particular supernatural abilities, as in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 – ‘To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom . . .’ etc. In some cases, however, Paul mixes the two. For example, after he has explained the charismatic gifts in the context of the one body of Christ, he goes on to say that God has appointed certain people as gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, etc. He then raises a question in relation to both categories of gift: Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all work miracles? It would be strange if Paul listed apostles alongside all the other gifts in this context, if it was clearly understood that the only apostles were those who had witnessed the resurrection. Gordon Fee comments:

For Paul this is both a ‘functional’ and ‘positional/official’ term. In keeping with the other members on this list, it is primarily ‘functional’ here, probably anticipating the concern for the ‘building up’ of the body that is already hinted at in verse 7 and was stressed in chapter 14. Most likely with this word he is reflecting on his own ministry in the church; the plural is in deference to others who would have the same ministry in other churches.29

Flexible Usage in the New Testament

Another basis for my belief in the continuing ministry of apostles is that the term ‘apostle’ is used more flexibly in the New Testament than is sometimes taken into account. Those who justify the continuation of apostles today often see three different ways in which the term is used in the New Testament – three categories of apostle, if you like:

1. Jesus Christ himself is described as ‘the apostle and high priest whom we confess’.30 He was the Messiah, the One supremely sent to accomplish our redemption from sin and the restoration of everything lost through the fall and its effect on the whole of creation.

2. The twelve – the apostles of the resurrection and foundational to the whole church throughout history, whose names are symbolically on the foundations of the eschatological New Jerusalem.

3. The apostles of the ascended Christ, according to Ephesians 4:11, given (alongside other leadership gifts) to equip the church until it comes to maturity and unity. Terry Virgo helpfully clarifies the distinction from category 2 above: ‘They were not witnesses of His resurrection but gifts of His ascension.’31

C.K. Barrett extends this concept to ‘at least eight persons or groups of persons denoted with varying degrees of propriety, by the term “apostles” and probably all giving it somewhat different meaning’.32 Barrett’s categories include:

  • the original group called the ‘twelve’ founder members of the church in Jerusalem
  • the ‘pillars’ Peter, John and James (not one of the twelve)
  • Peter’s work away from Jerusalem – moving an understanding of apostleship for Peter in a Pauline direction
  • John similarly
  • those sent out by the Jerusalem leaders (the equivalent of the ‘agents’ of non-Christian Jewish leaders), with whom Paul had some problems 33
  • Paul himself
  • those in the Pauline circle, e.g. Barnabas, Apollos, Andronicus, Junias
  • the ‘apostles’ of the churches34

Of these categories, the penultimate one is of particular importance in our argument, as it includes Apollos and Barnabas, both of whom are described as ‘apostles’, but neither of whom is recorded as having seen the risen Lord; indeed it would have been impossible in the case of Apollos, who was in Corinth and Asia Minor, and most unlikely in the case of Barnabas. So there were apostles that we know about in Scripture who were neither part of the twelve nor a special addition with special qualifications, like Paul.

Furthermore, the fact that the word ‘apostle’ was used in Judaism and more widely in Greek (as we will see in the next chapter) can take away the ‘mystique’ of the word as applied to only a few. If, for example, we translated the term by the modern words ‘envoy’ or ‘messenger’, would that not help us? Sometimes the word apostolos is translated ‘messenger’ or ‘representative’. This is often explained as being a totally different category, but I would argue that it illustrates the flexibility with which the word is used to describe an office which is very important for the church – in all ages. Although I think his use of the term ‘prophetic’ is confusing, I believe Herbert Lockyer gives the correct slant on this when he says,

‘The apostolate, then, was not a limited circle of officials holding a well-defined position of authority in the church, but a large class of men who discharged one – and that the highest – of the functions of the prophetic ministry (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11).’35

Given all these varied references to apostles in the New Testament churches, it is not justifiable, in my view, to deny the validity of apostolic ministry today. As Dave Harvey of Sovereign Grace Ministries, an apostolic network in the USA, expresses it:

Many evangelicals today resonate with the conviction and logic of O. Palmer Robertson, who said, ‘Nothing in scripture explicitly indicates that the apostolate ever would come to an end. Yet it is generally recognized that no one in the church today functions with the authority of the original apostles . . .’ To paraphrase this common perspective, present-day apostles may be unpopular, but they are not unscriptural. While Sovereign Grace Ministries heartily agrees that ‘no one in the church today functions with the authority of the original apostles,’ let us not hastily extrapolate on Dr Robertson’s phrase to conclude that no one today functions as an apostle of any kind. Such a conclusion inflicts considerable harm on attempts to build the church and preach the gospel.36



27 Gordon Fee, NICNT: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), p. 395.

28  Fee, Corinthians, NICNT, p. 397.

29  Fee, Corinthians, p. 620.

30    Heb. 3:1.

31 Newfrontiers Magazine, Issue 04: September–November 2003, p. 8.

32  Barrett, Signs, p. 72.

33   Gal. 2:12.

34   2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25.

35    Herbert Lockyer, All the Apostles of the Bible (Zondervan, 1972), p. 183.

36    Dave Harvey, Polity – Serving and Leading the Local Church (Sovereign Grace Ministries, 2004), pp. 17–18.



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