By Mike Willis
On more than one occasion, I have used apostolic example to authorize conduct that I was engaged in only to have the one who objected to the conduct to respond, “But, you’re not an apostle.” On one occasion, I was refuting false doctrine and referred to a religious group by name and a denominational friend objected. On another occasion, I referred to the unscriptural practices of a local church and a Christian used the same objection. Perhaps you have had someone object to conduct that is clearly identical with that of an apostle to which someone objected, saying, “You’re not an apostle.”
One recently wrote an article in a bulletin mailed all over the United States and posted on the World Wide Web (I say this to indicate that its influence is not confined to the local church of which he is a member) condemning his brethren saying that they were “some new sort of apostle that a local church is supposed to support while he trots around the country taking care of everyone else’s business! Some may think that such activity is preaching but it does not meet the criteria the New Testament gives for a genuine evangelist.” Mailing a paper all over the United States in which preaching is done condemning activities of brethren outside the local church seems to violate the very rules of autonomy the author condemns others for violating. Is this author “taking care of everyone else’s business”? Is he some “new sort of apostle” that a local church should support while he sends out bulletins all over the country taking care of everyone else’s business? I have purposely withheld the name of the brother to focus our attention of the issue before us. We want to know just what kind of work the apostles were allowed to do that ordinary preachers cannot perform.
In this study, we intend to establish what the biblical role of an apostle was, what his qualifications were, and what role was exclusively given to the apostles.
The Word Apostle
The word “apostle” is used 83 times in 80 verses of Scripture in the New Testament. The word is translated from apostolos which is defined as “a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders” (Thayer 68). The word is derived from the verb apostello which has the entymological meaning of “to send.” The noun is used especially of “persons sent with commission” and reflects the Hebrew usage of shaluach that is used to describe someone who is sent with a commission. There are several uses of the word “apostle” in the New Testament that reflects this etymological sense, rather than its technical sense, as mentioned below. Barnabas is designated an apostle (Acts 14:4), some think that Andronicus and Junia are described as apostles (Rom. 16:7; a better explanation is that they are known and honored by the Twelve), and the word apostolos is used to describe “messengers” of churches (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25).
The term apostolos is used in a specific, technical definition to refer to “the twelve disciples whom Christ selected, out of the multitude of his adherents, to be his constant companions and the heralds to proclaim to men the kingdom of God” (Thayer 68).
The list of the apostles is given in four places: Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13. From this comparison of the lists, we can identify the Twelve.
That Jesus chose Twelve is no accident. This corresponds to the Twelve Tribes of Israel and is so used in the book of Revelation (21:14).
The Qualifications of the Apostles
The qualifications of the Apostles demonstrates that this office was not a perpetual office to be filled in each succeeding generation of the church. Here are the qualifications given in Scripture:
1. The apostles were hand chosen by the Lord Jesus. Jesus spent the night in prayer before selecting the Twelve (Luke 6:12). The next morning he personally chose from among the thousands of his disciples, these Twelve who became known as his apostles. When Paul defended his apostleship, he specifically argued that he also was hand-picked by Christ saying, “Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;)” (Gal. 1:1). He stated that he was “called to be an apostle” (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:1). The record in Acts 1 of the selection of Matthias emphasizes God’s choice of Matthias through the lot.
2. The apostles companied with Jesus during his earthly ministry. When the Twelve were originally selected, they were selected from among Jesus’ disciples and forsook all to follow Jesus (see Matt. 4:19-20; Mark 2:14). When Judas was replaced, one of the qualifications given for those to be considered as an apostle was this: “Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
3. The apostles were eyewitnesses of the resurrection. The second qualification given for an apostle was that he be a “witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:22).
The qualifications of the apostles makes evident that the office of the apostle was not a perpetual office in the church. The concept that the apostles had powers that were passed down from one generation to another via an unbroken chain of succession is shown to be false. There are no living apostles today, the concepts of Pentecostals, Catholics, Mormons, and any other religious group to the contrary notwithstanding.
The Function of the Twelve
What was the function of the Twelve? That they had a fundamental role in the early church is evident from several Scriptures. The church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). In listing the various roles that men have in the church, Paul began with the apostles (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). The New Jerusalem of Revelation is described as having twelve foundations on which are inscribed the names of the apostles (Rev. 21:14). What was their unique role and function:
1. They were eyewitnesses of the resurrection. Jesus spoke to the Apostles just before his ascension saying, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). No one could be considered as a replacement for Judas unless he had witnessed the resurrection (Acts 1:22). The Apostles gave witness to the resurrection (Acts 4:33). To be qualified to be an apostle, one had to be an eyewitness of the resurrection; one of the functions of the apostle was to give his eyewitness testimony.
2. They were the mouthpiece of the Lord to reveal his new will. In Jesus’ final evening with the Twelve, he expressed his intention to send to them the Holy Spirit who would reveal to them God’s divine will:
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (John 14:26).
But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning (John 15:26-27).
I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come (John 16:12-13).
In their role as spokesmen for God, they were placed beside the prophets of the Old Testament (2 Pet. 3:2, 15-16; Eph. 3:3-5). What was revealed through them became known as the “apostles’ doctrine” and was the revelation given for the church (Acts 2:42). What they revealed was the Lord’s commandments (1 Cor. 14:37). Jesus said, “He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me” (Luke 10:16). As agents of the Lord, his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), what they spoke had all of the legislative, binding authority of the Lord himself. They were his ambassadors in the same sense as were the prophets of the Old Testament. One who resisted their inspired teaching resisted the teaching of the Lord.
This revelation was given “once for all” (Jude 3). The revelation given to mankind through the Apostles is not on-going. It is complete and final. There are no living Apostles revealing new revelation for this age, the claims of modern Roman Catholics and Mormons to the contrary notwithstanding.
3. They were men qualified to confirm their newly revealed message with miracles. Luke records that “many wonders and signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43; 5:12). This is the “great power” alluded to with which the Apostles gave their witness to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4:33). These were the “signs of an apostle” that Paul spoke of (2 Cor. 12:12; cf. Rom. 15:18-19). The miracles that the Apostles performed were God’s verification that their message was true. Mark said, “And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” (Mark 16:20; Heb. 2:3-4).
4. The Apostles were uniquely endowed with power to transfer miraculous gifts to other disciples through the laying on of their hands. Luke’s record of the conversion of the Samaritans proves this. The evangelist Philip left Jerusalem to go to Samaria where he performed miracles, confirming the message of his gospel. After several were converted, the Apostles sent Peter and John to check on the work at Samaria. The Scriptures record:
Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money . . . (Acts 8:14-18).
Simon the sorcerer saw what many people never see: “that through laying on of the apostles’ hands, the Holy Ghost was given.” This is confirmed by other Scriptures. Paul longed to travel to Rome “that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established” (Rom. 1:11). Timothy’s gift was imparted to him by the laying on of Paul’s hands (2 Tim. 1:6); the Ephesians received gifts through the laying on of Paul’s hands (Acts 19:6).
The Apostles’ Role in the Church at Jerusalem
The role of the apostles in the local church at Jerusalem is not spelled out in explicit detail. That they had a prominent role is indicated by several things: (a) the benevolent funds were laid at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:35, 37; 5:2; 6:6); (b) Barnabas’ bringing Saul to the apostles when he wished to identify with the Jerusalem church (Acts 9:27); (c) the leadership role the apostles had in the selection of the seven to serve tables (Acts 6:1-6); (d) the prominence of the apostles in the Jerusalem conference, even though elders were in place (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 33; 16:4). Because of their role in revealing divine truth and their activity in the local church, they naturally had a leading role in the church at Jerusalem. As soon as elders were appointed, the role of oversight of the local congregation at Jerusalem would have shifted to them (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28).
Misunderstanding the Apostles’ Role
Through the centuries of church history, various religious groups have misunderstood the role of the Apostles in one way or another. The Roman Catholics have taught that Peter was the head of the apostles in asserting their claims about the papacy, but what is perhaps more important is their belief that some special spiritual powers were conveyed from one person to another through a chain of apostolic succession. The priest can administer baptism, the mass, and excommunication because of the power conveyed to him that ordinary men do not have.
Because of the misunderstandings that men have about the role of the Apostles, we need to continue this study to see some things that the Apostles did that were not unique to Apostles.
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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 5 p1 March 2, 2000