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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