Today after church a family approached me and asked a question that I get from time to time: do Apostles still exist in the church today? I offered a few thoughts in response but then just sent them the following text from two sermons I preached in 2007 on this topic. You'll notice that my own view develops from one sermon to the next, and now, five years later, my view has continued to develop in the direction I suggest in the final five paragraphs.
If you're really interested in this subject, I created a chart which organizes all of the uses of the word "apostle" by those to whom it refers. I don't think I can paste that into this blog--I'm not that tech savvy--so if you want a copy of that, just contact me and I'll gladly e-mail you the PDF.
With that, here is the text of two portions of two sermons:
From November 11, 2007 (you can listen to the messages here).
From November 11, 2007 (you can listen to the messages here).
The first gift or office that Paul mentions here is that of apostles. The Greek word for apostle, which is simply pronounced apostolos, means “messenger or one who is sent,” usually with the implication “one who is sent in an official capacity.” So, an apostle is an official representative or an envoy or an ambassador of something of the sort. The word was used widely in the culture at that time, so it’s not unique to the church, but again it was almost always used to designate one who represented another in an official capacity.
Now, one of the major questions in our day about the office of “apostles” is this: Does the office of apostle still exist, or was this office reserved only for the twelve? And by the twelve, I mean those who were appointed by Jesus in Luke 6:12-16 and called “apostles,” minus Judas plus Paul. Many of you are aware, I’m sure, that in Acts 1 the eleven apostles appointed a man named Matthias to take the place of Judas. But in my view, which is not just my view, the eleven apostles got ahead of God with this appointment, and in fact Paul was God’s choice to replace Judas. I’m not going to take the time to defend my view here but if you want to follow up on that with me feel free to write me a note or something.
Does the office of apostle still exist today, or was this office reserved only for the twelve? The word apostolos is used 84 times in the New Testament, and it overwhelmingly refers to offices that do not continue to exist. Seventy–four times it specifically refers to the twelve apostles, and once in Hebrews 3:1 it refers to Jesus as “the apostle and high priest of our confession.” These 75 texts represent almost 88% of the uses of the word, which is of course the overwhelming majority.
However, there are four texts which apply the term “apostle” to five people who were not of the twelve, namely, Barnabas, Epaphroditus, probably Silas, and two unnamed brothers. I’ve listed the passages for you on the power point so that you can look them up for yourselves (Acts 14:14, Philippians 2:25, 1 Thessalonians 2:6, and 2 Corinthians 8:23). The reason I say “probably Silas” is because he’s not directly mentioned in these texts but in 1 Thessalonians 2:6 Paul writes, “Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.”
And the question is, To whom is Paul referring when he says “we”? If Paul is referencing his visit to Thessalonica described in Acts 17:1-9, then he’s probably referring to Silas because Silas was there with him. But even if he’s not referring to Silas it’s clear that he’s referring to someone who was not of the twelve because none of the other eleven apostles were there with him in Thessalonica. Be that as it may, there are four passages that clearly refer to five people who were called apostles but were not of the twelve.
In addition to these four passages, there are seven other passages that use the term “apostle” in such a way that it is unclear if they refer exclusively to the twelve or if they include some beyond the twelve. Again I have listed these texts for you on the power point so that you can look them up for yourselves (Luke 11:49;1 Corinthians 12:28, 29; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Ephesians 4:11; Revelation 2:2, and 18:20). The presence of these seven ambiguous passages, combined with the four clear passages, cause me to conclude that the term “apostle” was used in a broader sense than the twelve, even while the twelve were alive. Were there only one such passage, I would probably consider it an anomaly, but that there are four clear passages and seven ambiguous passages seems to me to make a pretty strong case that the office of apostle did extend beyond the twelve and that it might still exist today.
Now, I’m not saying that the office of apostle does still exist to this day, but I think the evidence I’ve just summarized lends credibility to those who argue for that idea. I can imagine them asking, If the term was applied in a broader sense than the twelve even when the twelve were alive, why not after they had died? And if the Bible never clearly says that the office of apostle was given only to the twelve, then why should we limit how Jesus chooses to structure his church by our foregone conclusions? And those are good questions.
But even if we allow for the possibility that the office of apostle exists today—and just for the record, the jury’s still out on this question for me—it is clear from the Scripture that we should not apply the term lightly, and here’s why. Drawing from the first four passages I listed for you on the power point we can say that an apostle who is not of the twelve is characterized by at least four traits:
(a) he is personally involved in missionary endeavors or bold evangelistic efforts in a leadership capacity—I get this from looking at what the five non-twelve apostles did in all these passages;
(b) he has been well-tested “and found earnest in many matters” (2 Corinthians 8:22). No one was appointed an apostle on a whim—it took much time and much testing of theology, character, lifestyle, and fruitfulness;
(c) he is well-known and respected among a wide-circle of the church (2 Corinthians 8:18); and
(d) he has been appointed by the church to such an office (2 Corinthians 8:19). No one in the Bible was a self-appointed apostle, as are many of the people who are calling themselves apostles today.
Furthermore, even if there are modern-day apostles, several key factors will forever distinguish the office of the twelve from any other:
(a) Jesus Christ directly appointed the twelve, eleven of them while He was in the flesh and one of them, Paul, by direct and visible revelation on the road to Damascus.
(b) With the exception of Paul, the twelve participated with Jesus in his earthly ministry. As the apostle John said in 1 John 1:1, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” And even though Paul did not participate with Jesus in his earthly ministry, his relationship to Christ is still unique in that he received direct revelation about the gospel from Christ in a way that others did not, and will not. You can read about those revelations in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 and Galatians 1:11-24.
(c) The apostles, or those closely associated to them, wrote the New Testament. Thus, the teaching of the twelve apostles was authoritative in a way that is forever unique to them. No one, however great a teacher he be, will ever parallel the teaching of the twelve, and especially those whose writings were gathered into what we now call the New Testament.
All to say, even if there are modern day apostles they’re not even in the same league as the twelve and they never will be. And if there are modern day apostles that’ll be just fine with them because they will be much more concerned with the state of the gospel in the world and their own humility of heart and their own obedience to Jesus and their own fruitfulness in live and ministry than they are with having a particular title conferred upon them. The attitude of any apostle, if they exist today, would be something like this: “Call me what you will, that doesn’t matter to me—I just want to fight the fight of faith for the glory of God and the building up of the church. I just want to do the work of ministry, I’m not after fame or accolades or titles.” In other words, the heart of a true apostle is the heart of humility. The heart of a true apostle acknowledges with joy the fact that the only reason they’ve been called and gifted and named is for the glory of Christ who gifted them and the equipping of the whole church. The heart of a true apostle is to serve and not to be served. The heart of a true apostle is to marvel with much gratefulness that they have any part whatsoever in the glorious plan of God to raise up the church until she reaches the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
From November 18, 2007
Last week I gave you some details about the uses of the word apostle in the New Testament, and I was slightly off on a couple of my numbers. So, I very carefully checked my work this week and I prepared a handout for you on the uses of all the words in Ephesians 4:11 so that you can look into these things for yourselves and check my work. You should have received that on the way in this morning, if you didn’t please let me know and I’ll make sure that gets into your hands.
The reason I took the time to go into some detail about apostles, and that I’m taking even more time this morning, is because we have been talking about the unity of the church, both in terms of this local body of Christ and in terms of the broader body of Christ in this city and around the world. And in our time this question of whether or not there are still apostles is a serious one and the way we answer it has many implications. There are several prominent movements within the larger body of Christ today that are teaching that the office of apostle still exists today, and they’re appointing apostles and calling on others in the body of Christ to submit to them.
In fact, last year, when I was still on staff at Bethlehem Baptist Church, we received a letter from a man in the Twin Cities who proclaimed himself to be one of the apostles of the Twin Cities and he said that in order for God’s blessing to come upon the city, the churches in the area would need submit to his leadership—can you imagine that, telling John Piper he has to submit to your leadership when you don’t even know him? And this isn’t just an issue in the larger Twin Cities, there are pastors in this very city who hold to this same basic view, namely, that the way to invite the blessing of God on a city is to put the proper authority structures in place, which includes apostles. Therefore, it’s important for us, as a church that values the unity of the broader body of Christ, to know where we stand on this issue and to know how to defend our position biblically to those who don’t agree with us.
If you remember from last week I said that there are four passages in the Bible that call five people apostles who were not one of the twelve apostles—and I was accurate in saying that by the way! And I said that since there are five different people who were not of the twelve but were still called apostles, we have to at least leave the door open to the possibility that the office of apostle exists today. Well, I spent a little time this week reading and thinking about those four passages and I want you to know that my view of what those passages are teaching is shifting.
You’ll probably remember that the word apostle means “one who has been sent in an official capacity”—and apostle is a “sent one.” The word was used this way in the broader culture in Paul’s day, and it was used that way in the Bible as well. But I’m beginning to think that there may be in the Bible two different ways this word used—one which refers to the twelve apostles who hold a very unique and everlasting office in the church to which no one else will ever attain, and the other which refers to those who had been sent on a mission by the church, who after their mission was complete would no longer be called apostles. In other words, I think the Bible calls some people apostles in a very official and permanent way, and it calls other people apostles in an official but temporary way.
Let me take you to just one text to show you what I mean, Philippians 2:25-26. Now, before I read the text let me point something out here: do you see in the middle of these verses where Paul calls Epaphroditus “your messenger”? The word for “messenger” in the Greek text is apostolos—“your apostolos, your apostle. So when I get to that part of the verse I’m going to read it that way. Verse 25: “I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger [apostle] and minister to my need for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.”
Now, what’s going on here? The church in Philippi had sent Epaphroditus to Paul to minister to his need, and in that capacity they called him an apostle. But I’m sure that they did not confer on him the office of apostle, rather they were simply describing his task—he sent by the church on a mission. And when Epaphroditus returned to the church I’m sure they would not have continued to refer to him as the apostle Epaphroditus, but simply as brother because his mission was complete. When you look at the other three passages that call four other people apostles you find much the same thing: it’s not so much that an office was conferred upon them as their activity was being described.
So, I want you to know that as your pastor I’m leaning away from the view that there are still apostles today in the sense that I don’t think there are people who hold the office of apostle. I think there are people all over the world right this moment who have been sent on missions by the church, and I see no biblical reason why these people could not be called apostles. But in these cases the word is simply describing their activity, it’s not conferring an office upon them. In the near future I’m going to prepare a more formal statement on what I think about this issue and why, and when that’s done I’ll make sure to make copies of it available for everyone in the church.