Are there apostles today?

Are there apostles today? November 6, 2013

I am nearing the end of my series on Strange Fire.  It may feel interminable for some, but believe me when I get the bit between my teeth, sometimes I keep at it a lot longer than I will have done on this!

Today I turn to an argument that MacArthur uses against the charismatic movement. He takes some of the odd things some people say and do about the idea of apostles today and rightly rejects that. But again he fails to interact with more responsible groups who do believe in apostles today.  His argument against the charismatic view is simple:

Argument: Since there are no apostles today, charismatics are really closet cessationists

First, I really must point out that many charismatics do indeed believe that there are no modern apostles. But there are a number who believe that a non-authoritative form of apostles do indeed exist today. It is important, I believe, to recognise that there is a real spectrum of opinions on all matters charismatic in the church today.

Anyway, here is MacArthur’s argument:

 “First, it would be impossible for any contemporary Christian to meet the biblical qualifications required for someone to be considered an apostle. The New Testament articulates at least three necessary criteria: (1) an apostle had to be a physical eyewitness of the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:22; 10:39–41; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:7–8); (2) an apostle had to be personally appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ (Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13; Acts 1:2, 24; 10:41; Gal. 1:1); and (3) an apostle had to be able to authenticate his apostolic appointment with miracu- lous signs (Matt. 10:1–2; Acts 1:5–8; 2:43; 4:33; 5:12; 8:14; 2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:3–4).

Those qualifications alone conclusively demonstrate that there are no apostles in the church today. No living person has seen the risen Christ with his or her own eyes; no one is able to perform miraculous signs like those done by the apostles in the book of Acts (cf. Acts 3:3–11; 5:15–16; 9:36–42; 20:6–12; 28:1–6); and—in spite of presumptuous claims to the contrary— no one in the modern church has been personally and directly appointed as an apostle by the Lord Jesus. Of course, there are some charismatics who claim to have seen visions of the resurrected Lord. Not only are such claims highly suspect and impossible to verify, they simply do not meet the apostolic criteria—since an apostle had to see the resurrected Christ in the flesh with his own eyes.” John MacArthur, Strange Fire, page 92

in 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul states he was the last person to whom the resurrected Christ personally and physically appeared.  However, he himself acknowledges the existence of others called apostles. I argue that those apostles didn’t meet the criteria of the Twelve, and yet performed a similar function in the church (minus the authoritative Scripture writing.)

I think we must be clear that the Bible distinguishes several classes of apostles, who vary somewhat in their role and the extent of their authority.

The Great Apostle:  Jesus himself is clearly in a class of his own, and was the One sent from his Father as representative on earth. He has no representative or replacement, but does send workers as a gift to the Church (Ephesians 4).

The Twelve: These seem unique as the apostles of Jesus’ earthly ministry. There was indeed a finality to them, and there seemed to be something special about the number.  Judas was replaced, but there is no hint that anybody else was ever included in this number after that.  Note that their role clearly was NOT just to write Scripture. If so most of them failed in this task.  Their role was instead to make disciples, which they fulfilled by planting churches. Some of them did write Scripture and/or lend their authority to others writing Scripture. But it does not seem to be the case that they always spoke with authority, or were considered infallible. So for example, Paul who was never viewed as one of the Twelve felt at liberty to rebuke Peter.

Paul: He deserves a class all on his own. Interestingly, he seems to share some of the characteristics of the Twelve, and some of the next group.  He is in many ways an archetype of the church planting apostle, often referred to today by the latin translation of this world apostollos: missionary.  Oddly people are happy to refer to people today as missionaries, but not by the Greek equivalent, apostles!

Apostles of the Risen Christ This lesser group, are those that Jesus appointed after he had risen from the dead (Ephesians 4).  The Twelve were called Apostles during Jesus’ ministry, so many believe that they do not form part off this broader group. Many would probably correctly argue that Paul was the first of this group, as well as in a sense being the last of the tighter group whcih really consisted of the Twelve plus Paul.

The NT calls the following people apostles (in addition to the Twelve and Paul):

  • Barnabas (Acts 14:14)
  • James in Acts 15:21 where he seems to act as the temporary leader of the Apostles despite not being one of the Twelve. See also Galatians 1:19
  • Timothy (Colossians 1:1)
  • Silas (Compare 1 Thess 1:1 and 1 Thess 2:6)
  • Paul’s team of brothers (2 Corinthians 8:23) Note that the same word is translated “messengers” here in the ESV.
  • Andronicus and Junia Romans 16:7
  • Epaphroditus (Philipians 2:25)
  • Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1)
  • Apollos (1 Corinthians 4:9)
  • The “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 12:11)

What did apostles do in the NT? They planted churches, laying a firm foundation. It is this foundation laying work in individual churches that many charismatics believe apostles do today. They act in a fatherly way pastoring pastors, and excecrising informal leadership that goes beyond their local church, and is dependent on a clearly recognised anointing on them. Charismatics believe that God has always given his church these apostolic figures, even though many of them would never want to use the name of themselves.

MacArthur argues that the foundation laying was for the universal Church:

“Paul explained that his read- ers were part of God’s household, “having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20). That passage equates the apostles with the church’s foundation. It means nothing if it doesn’t decisively limit apostleship to the earliest stages of church history. After all, a foundation is not something that can be rebuilt during every phase of construction. The foundation is unique, and it is always laid first, with the rest of the structure resting firmly above it.” Strange Fire, p 96

We would acknowledge that there is no need for such foundation laying of the universal church, but that individual bodies of believers do indeed need a derivative foundation to be laid in them. Indeed apostles today are simply pointing us back to apostolic doctrine. But a book doesn’t build a foundation, a person does.

In conclusion, some of us charismatics believe that this passage should be taken literally, including its description of when apostles stop.  Just like in 1 Corinthians 13, we believe the Bible DOES teach cessationism, just that it also determines when that cessation will occur, and that date is still some way off it would appear! Perhaps some see us as a little bit simple and lacking the sophistication needed to see that these passages are not meant to be taken at face value. We would rather simply try and follow them as they seem to us to be clearly written:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evange- lists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

Eph 4:11-13

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  • Good post. Yes, we are all cessationists . . . the gifts will cease, not when the foundation is finished, but when we see completion of the whole building! When “the perfect” or “the complete” comes and we see “face to face” and “know fully, just like we are fully known.”

  • Si_Hollett

    I believe certainly-not-Charismatic Calvin considered Luther a ‘rare exception’ to the ceasing of the office of Apostle. Can’t find the reference where (memory of Michael Reeves’ talks on Calvin, which have been taken off Theology Network and I loaned out my copy of Unquenchable Fire, grr).

  • Nick Uva

    Who can say that Christ has never appeared to anyone since the first century and commissioned him for some work?

    I would also agree with Adrian that people need the input so to speak of apostolic and prophetic grace in their individual lives.

  • Alan Molineaux

    Are you not concerned that by mentioning Junia (female) as an Apostle you might get excluded by Pastor MacArthur and his gang for reasons other than you being charismatic.

    Couldn’t resist it. : )

    Hope you are well.

  • Interesting discussion here. I’ve been doing some articles myself on my blog about the reason why apostles still exists. Just some brief thoughts on the 3 points MacArthur raises and how this box is so tight, tighter than the NT.

    (1) an apostle had to be a physical eyewitness of the resurrected Christ

    This argument usually hangs on a particular reading of Acts 1:21-22 – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection. But this is actually stating what they will do – testify/witness to the resurrection of Christ. In a sense, we don’t really know if folks like Barnabas “physically” saw the resurrected Christ.

    (2) an apostle had to be personally appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ

    I’ve just been re-reading Acts these days and this is what I noticed about Matthias. He doesn’t fit this criteria. He was chosen by the other 11, through the casting of lots. Now some will freak out about the idea of casting lots (and I’m not advocating it). But the Jews believed the Lord was in charge of the lots (i.e. Prov 16:33). So, Matthias doesn’t fit this criteria. And we’re not sure about James, at least as far as we can tell (though maybe someone would want to infer that Jesus appointed James when he appeared to James).

    (3) an apostle had to be able to authenticate his apostolic appointment with miracu- lous signs

    Again, what about Barnabas and James here. I’m not sure we can conclude they were used in “miraculous signs”. Not to mention that many continue to improperly assess 2 Cor 12:12 – The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.

    If you’ll notice, “signs” is being used in 2 different ways here. In the first instance, Paul is speaking of the true signs of an apostles, which included that of suffering. The super-apostles trying to infect Corinth were boasting and had never suffered. Paul said he was a true apostle, and the confirming sign was he’s suffered for the gospel. Then, in the second instance, Paul says he came with “signs and wonders and mighty works”.

    In the end, I think the stringent boxes formed by many cessationists (and even some continuationists, like Grudem) miss out on a vital aspect of the ministry of Christ. Christ was the great apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher. He empowers certain folks, giving them as gifts to the church to work these out, all because he wants an apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding and teaching community of followers. We are to be the full Christ in the full world.


  • Yadda Yadda Yadda

    More blindness from blind charismatics. Anyone who claims they are an apostle is deceived and a liar. There were but thirteen apostles who met all three criteria of being an apostle of God, and that was the Twelve and Paul. There are no more apostles. Only wolves in sheep’s clothing seeking to accumulate authority for themselves and deceive other believers into following them and honoring them will claim that they are apostles or that new apostles continue to exist in modern society.

    Know that there is a price to be paid for teaching heresy; a very serious price that will be meted out by God in the next life. For those who call themselves apostles and teach falsely and exalt themselves, they will be lucky just to enter into heaven, if they enter into heaven. And if they do, many of them may suffer loss as their works are burned up as worthless, rather than standing against the fire.

    As for those who believe in the words of such false people, they will be led astray and who knows, perhaps they will be dragged down into hell through lukewarm living and Christian complacency the same as their false apostle leaders.

    As for Martin Luther himself, as someone else mentioned, he was no more than a mere evangelist, a preacher and teacher. He received his revelation from God’s Word, from the prophets, and he revealed it to others who were kept in darkness by the evils of the Church of Rome. He was NOT an apostle, but no more than a priest preacher who took a stand for the true Word of God and the truth.

    As for that nonsense label “Cessationist”, there is nothing except the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, or Satan’s deceptions. Nothing except truth or lies. The gifts of the Holy Spirit have never ceased, and continue to this very day. But being an apostle was not merely a gift, it was an office appointment from the Lord Jesus, a spiritual office that is no longer needed as it was a foundation office that has served its purpose.

    You have heard this from a true prophet of God. Not an apostle, for there are no new apostles, but a prophet who speaks the truth.

    • Sabelo Zulu

      100% agreed

    • Jishua

      “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” Revelation 2:2

      What an amazing accomplishment for the Ephesian church to have used their brilliant discernment to recognize that these false apostles were in fact not one of the twelve, or Paul. Such a feat was it that they should be commended for all time in the Word of God

      (Sarcasm, in case you didn’t catch it.).