Part 4 - Dead or Alive: The role of the apostle today

by Josh Blake

Having explained briefly the major theological perspectives in the West in our last post, let’s take a look at the scriptures to challenge our assumptions and contribute to the conversation. Full disclosure, I believe the gift of apostleship still continues today and is meant as a service to the Bride rather than a hierarchical leadership role. Understanding there are objections to this view, I will interact with a few for clarity. We hope this post may encourage that position for the gospel among people from every tribe, tongue, and nation until there is #NoPlaceLeft for the foundation-laying role of an apostle (Romans 15:23).


Given the fact that Jesus gave the gifts to the church – including apostleship – for the express purpose of attaining full maturity, and that there is no explicit mention of the gift having ceased or the church already having attained full maturity, it seems reasonable with simple exegesis that the gift has not ceased. [1] An apostle, or “sent one,” is first a faithful, disciple-­‐maker in their locale. Once faithfulness is demonstrated locally, they are then “entrusted with the Gospel” as an ambassador on behalf of Jesus, and His church, to do the work of the Gospel in establishing new kingdom outposts – or churches -­‐ among previously un-­‐evangelized peoples (Galatians 2:6-­‐10 [HCBS]).

One can conclude that more apostles, other than The Twelve, existed and exercised apostolic functions outside of the writing and speaking of God’s word -­‐ namely proclaiming the Gospel and starting new churches. Paul viewed Apollos, Epaphroditus and others as apostles, so it is clear that other apostles did exist during the early church, and they were involved in Gospel proclamation and church planting. [2] Andrew Wilson articulates how, contrary to popular belief, Paul did indeed view Apollos as an apostle in his writing of 1 Corinthians 3‐4.38.


The apostle is a sent one, given a specific task, focused on the proclamation of the Gospel and establishment of new churches in previously un‐evangelized areas – commonly called an itinerant missionary. [3] The apostle differs from The Twelve in a few distinct ways. Based on Acts 1:22-­‐23, it is evident that one must have walked with Jesus since His baptism and witnessed His resurrection to be considered one of The Twelve. [4] By these standards, Paul himself does not qualify as one of The Twelve, for he did not walk with Jesus from baptism to ascension. [5] Paul seems to play more of a transitional apostle role in the storyline of the New Testament. It is as if he can relate to The Twelve in having seen the resurrected Christ and yet can relate to other apostles, then and now, in fulfilling a primary task of gospel proclamation and church planting in previously unreached areas. Paul makes a case for his apostleship based on the existence of the Corinthian church itself. [6] It seems that fruit born in the starting of a new church is more of a sign of a true apostle than simply having seen the resurrected Christ.  


Along with identifying true apostles, Paul also identifies false apostles. When differentiating between true and false apostles in 2 Corinthians 10‐12, Paul outlines the signs of an apostle. Nowhere in the list does he argue for having witnessed the resurrected Christ as the sign of a true apostle. Paul also refers to others as apostles in the New Testament: Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:6 [HCSB]), Silas and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:7 [HCSB]), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25 [HCSB]), Apollos (1 Corinthians 4:9 [HCSB]), Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7 [HCSB]). According to the criteria in Acts 1:22-­‐23, none of these apostles could have been part of The Twelve.


Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, and The Twelve, were all men of proven character and faithfulness in Gospel work before being sent as apostles. Luke does not expressly identify Paul, having been called by Jesus to reach the Gentiles, as an apostle until he is sent from Antioch (Acts 13:1-­‐3 [HCSB]). There is an eight to ten year period where Paul is sharing the gospel, making disciples, and planting churches before he is officially identified as an apostle. [7] 


Barnabas is identified as part of the church at Jerusalem as early as Acts 4 but is not expressly named an apostle until his sending from Antioch in Acts 13. Prior to being sent, he is clearly focused on gospel proclamation, disciple making, and church strengthening. 


Timothy seemingly comes to Christ, via his mother and grandmother, after Paul’s initial missionary efforts in Galatia. Timothy gains a reputation as an effective disciple-­‐maker in Galatia, his home context, and is not identified as an apostle until he joins Paul and Silas’ apostolic team. 


Apollos arrives in Ephesus but is not identified as an apostle until he is sent for work in Corinth. Even in Jesus’ ministry, The Twelve were disciples first before Jesus called them apostles. Therefore, it seems the gift of apostleship has to do with being sent out by Jesus, or by the church, to accomplish a specific task after having developed as a faithful disciple-­‐maker in one’s own locale.


There is a case, based on the observations of the apostles above, that apostles are first faithful disciple makers. They have a proven track record of bearing fruit in their own locale prior to being sent elsewhere. It seems that they also, at the very least, display the characteristics of an elder, or qualified leader, in the example of Paul and Barnabas teaching at Antioch. Based on the five gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-­‐13 and the storyline of Acts, the apostle is the only gift that is officially sent out, or in other words, not localized. [8]


The apostle is only mentioned in the context of “on the go,” itinerant missionary endeavors.45 If Jesus is going to send a team of people to represent Him, His will, and His work in a new place, then it would make logical sense that He is going to send those who have proven to be faithful servants in the work of gospel proclamation, disciple-­‐making, and church formation locally. These are the kinds of messengers a king can entrust with the work of advancing into new ground: those who have demonstrated faithfulness in character, competence, and fruit. [9]


Objections


Objection: The criteria for being an apostle is clearly outlined in Acts 1:22-­‐23 as (1) having seen Jesus after his resurrection with one’s own eyes, and (2) having been specifically commissioned by Christ as his apostle. Paul supports this in 1 Corinthians 9:1-­‐2 and 1 Corinthians 15:7-­‐9 as necessary conditions for the apostolic office.


Response: Paul does indeed include that in defending his own apostleship. However, he is not applying this broadly as necessary for all apostles. As Wilson argues, in response to JB Lightfoot, Paul is specifically addressing his own apostleship in the eyes of his opponents. [10] He articulates this clearly stating, “In context, Paul is not saying that either of these things are necessary conditions for all apostleship; he may or may not believe that, but it is not what he is saying here. Rather, he is saying that between them, they constitute sufficient conditions for his apostleship.” [11] There is not sufficient evidence to declare that in 1 Corinthians 9:1-­‐2 Paul was making a case for necessary conditions for all apostleship.


Further, in 1 Corinthians 9:2 he appeals to them on account of their own existence, “If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” From this we can see that others clearly doubted Paul’s apostleship. However, the Corinthians could not because he led them to the Lord and started the church. Thus, it seems that his apostleship is deemed authentic and valid on the premise of fruit, not only on having seen the resurrected Jesus.


As it relates to 1 Corinthians 15:7-­‐9, Paul is making a distinction as the last one to have seen the resurrected Jesus among those who had seen Him. He calls himself the least of the apostles, but not necessarily the last apostle. He is basing his premise of being least on the fact that he persecuted the church, not on being the last to have seen Jesus.


Objection: No leaders throughout church history have self-identified as apostles.


Response: Neither did the true apostles in Scripture. The one doing the sending is usually the one to initially apply the term. This is then supported by the “sent one’s” fruitfulness and the testimony of others around them. Others have looked at Christian leaders throughout history to identify spiritual gifting in a similar manner. For example, Neil Cole defines St. Patrick of Ireland and John Wesley as apostle-­‐types. [11]  Self-appointed apostles are dangerous, no doubt, but if Scripture, one’s fruitfulness, and the testimony of church leaders are in agreement, then one can reasonably conclude that some are gifted as apostles.


Objection: What about the signs of the apostles and accompanying miracles (2 Corinthians 12:11-­‐13)?


Response: In the passage, Paul makes a clear distinction between the “signs of an apostle” and wonders and miracles. Macarthur suggests that miracles are a sign of true apostleship. Miracles follow apostles in the New Testament, no doubt, but miracles are not limited to the apostles. There are cases of people like Philip (Acts 8:6 [HCSB]) and Stephen (Acts 6:8 [HCSB]) who perform great miracles in Acts yet are not called apostles. Also, Paul speaks about the signs of an apostle elsewhere and places greater emphasis on things like being patient as a mother nursing her infant (1 Thessalonians 2:7 [HCSB]), not being a burden on the churches but working with their own hands (1 Thessalonians 2:9 [HCSB]), their seal of apostleship being the church itself (1 Corinthians 9:2 [HCBS]), and the exemplary character and fruit to be imitated (1 Corinthians 4:1-­‐6 [HCSB]). It seems that the early church could discern apostles based on: their proclamation of the Gospel, the miracles that followed proclamation, the fruit as a result of gospel proclamation in disciples and churches, the character and humility of the apostle, fatherly and motherly care, and ultimately, the willingness to suffer to see Christ formed in the new churches.


Objection: Is using the term “apostle” helpful? [12]


Response: John Piper argues that using the term is unhelpful and confusing in the modern context. Given the abuse of the term, and ill motive in seeking power and authority, it is wise to either use a similar term, or for true apostles not to self-­‐identify as such. Terms could include missionary, field worker, or master builder. If one is apostolically gifted, then allow for their church leaders to affirm the gift prior to self-­‐identifying. However, it is worth noting that if our goal as the global church is to be Word driven, Word saturated, and radically obedient to the Great Commission, then we ought to make an extreme and sacrificial effort to redefine the term biblically toward the day when the church is indeed biblically literate in what it means to be “called as an apostle.”


Objections: If apostles do exist today, do they have authority to produce Scripture?


Response: Clearly they do not. The Twelve had this authority based on their personal association with Jesus while He walked the earth and their eyewitness account of the resurrection. The canon has been closed. Those who are deemed apostles today cannot produce writing or speech that competes with Scripture. Any so-called apostles who do produce writing or speech they deem to be on par with the authority of Scripture should be considered with a critical mind and discerning spirit against the truths of Scripture. It would be wise to examine these so-called apostles among a plurality of trusted elders.


  1. Neil Cole, Primal Fire: Reigniting the Church with the Five Gifts of Jesus, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2014), 61.

  2. Rudolf Schnackenburg, "Apostles before and during Paul's Time," (Apostolic History and the Gospel (1970)), 302.

  3. Andrew Wilson, "Apostle Apollos," (Journal of the Evangelical Theology Society 56 (2013)), 333.

  4. Schnackenburg, 302.

  5. Cole, 60.

  6. Wilson, 333.

  7. Schnackenburg, 298.

  8. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 67.

  9. Cole, 140.

  10. Schnackenburg, 294.

  11. Alan Hirsch, Mike Breen, and Tim Catchim, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st century Church, (San Francisco: Jossey-­‐Bass, 2012), Loc 3273.

  12. Wilson, 332.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Cole, 138.

  15. Piper, John. "Were Apostles Unique and Unrepeatable Messengers of Christ?" Desiring God. March 05, 1990. Accessed July 24, 2017. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/were-­‐apostles-­‐unique-­‐and-­‐unrepeatable-­‐ messengers-­‐of-­‐christ.

Part 1 - Dead or Alive: The role of the apostle today

Part 2 - Dead or Alive: The role of the apostle today (Background and Definition)

Part 3 - Dead or Alive: The role of the apostle today (Theological Positions)

Part 4 - Dead or Alive: The role of the apostle today (Biblical Foundation)

Part 5 - Dead or Alive: The role of the apostle today (Contemporary Integration)

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