Apostleship in the New Testament

What are we to do with ministers in our day who say they are apostles? Many are simply self professed men seeking to draw disciples after themselves and whose doctrine is highly problematic at best, completely heretical. These men are not merely false apostles, but perhaps even false disciples of Christ.

But what of the people who seem to be, from all outward appearances anyway, “sane” individuals – Christian ministers who have excellent and sound theology but still insist that there are apostles today and.. wait for it.. actually believe they are apostles themselves?

I am thinking of men like C.J. Mahaney (of Sovereign Grace Ministries) in the USA and of Terry Virgo (of New Frontiers Ministries) in the United Kingdom. These are highly respected men who have served the cause of Christ faithfully for decades and have established a huge network of pastors and churches under them who look to them for leadership and guidance, both locally in their home nation and overseas.

What do we do with these men? I have to admit that my initial impulse was to reject completely the idea of apostles being alive today. However, I have enough respect for these men to at least allow them to define what they mean when they use the term. Therefore, I think the first thing we need to do is take a deep breath and allow them to explain themselves.

After hearing their explanation, I have to say that I became a good deal more comfortable. I do not believe they are using the term “apostle” in the same extreme way that others do who make the claim, but are actually seeking to be biblical.

I must say right up front that I am not personally “under” either one of these men or look to either of them as “my apostle.” Though I have met both of these men, I feel fairly sure they would not remember meeting me. On both occasions, as I recall, I had only brief discussions with them. I have no cause or agenda here to seek to promote either their ministries or their idea; I simply wish to try to understand their position biblically. Here are some words from blog posts made by Terry Virgo on the subject:

I believe that when Jesus ascended he gave gifts to his church. Exalted to the right hand of God, he received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and poured out not only the Pentecostal blessing described in Acts 2:33 but also gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) to help equip his church and bring it to maturity.

These variously named gifts obviously differ in their function and relevance. It doesn’t say ‘he ascended and gave priests’ or ‘he ascended and gave clergymen’. He gave diverse and distinct gifts. The evangelist differs from the prophet. The apostle differs from the pastor. Otherwise these titles are redundant – a waste of space.

If the inspired Scriptures distinguish between varieties of ministries and clearly imply that we need this diversity of gifting to bring about God’s ultimate intention, why do so many Bible-believing Christians and churches ignore the obvious implications?

For instance, the apostles of the New Testament had a distinct task from the evangelists or pastors, and it wasn’t, as so many of our evangelical brothers suggest, simply to write Scriptures! The apostle Barnabas (Acts 14:14) wrote no Scripture nor did most of the Twelve, while Luke, nowhere described as an apostle, wrote much of the New Testament.

What was the work of an apostle? Surely he was pre-eminently a church founder, giving clear identity to the new communities of believers that began to multiply around the Mediterranean as described in the book of Acts. Perhaps Paul’s most succinct description of himself as an apostle is found in 1 Corinthians 3:10 where he claimed to be ‘a wise master builder’ who had laid the foundation of the Corinthian church…

What is an Apostle?
Clearly the Scriptures imply that there are a number of different categories of apostle. Jesus is the apostle of our confession (Heb. 3:1). The word means ‘sent one’ (Greek – apostolos) and Jesus repeatedly referred to His unique awareness of being sent by the Father. He is the apostle par excellence.

Next come the Twelve, again unique in their calling and role. Jesus, during His earthly ministry, personally called and commissioned them naming them apostles.

Third, we are told that after His ascension Jesus gave the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to His church (Eph. 4:11).

Some have insisted that apostles must have been witnesses to the resurrection and clearly Matthias, in replacing Judas and recovering and completing the Twelve, was.

However, the apostles of the ascended Christ represent a different category since their appointment follows not the resurrection but the ascension! Barnabas, for instance, is called an apostle in Acts 14:14, though there is no reference to his having seen the Lord following His resurrection, nor does his call to apostleship have any reference to a resurrection appearance and occurred several years after the ascension.

There were also ‘apostles (or messengers – Greek apostolos) of the churches’ – see Philippians 2:25 and 2 Corinthians 8:23, but to quote Rengsdorf in his authoritative work ‘Paul and Barnabas are obviously apostles of Christ, not of the Christians at Antioch’ (TDNT).

Our first step is to recognise, therefore, that there were apostles beyond the Twelve commissioned by the ascended Christ. Established teachers such as Campbell Morgan have argued that Paul simply replaced Judas and thereby preserved the Twelve. This, of course, does not bear close scrutiny and raises the question not only of Barnabas but also of James and others…

(James, though not one of the original twelve is called an apostle in Galatians 1:19, where Paul wrote, “But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”)

Standing on the Reformers’ shoulders
Historically the early Reformers, who wrote their commentaries on the Scriptures, were correctly hostile to the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession with the concept of infallible authority usually associated with that claim.

Subsequently, commentators have usually written their commentaries and made their observations while standing on the shoulders of those writers and have taken that same stance, so that even the wonderful and rightfully respected and honoured John Stott states unequivocally in his most recent book The Living Church, ‘…we must insist that there are no apostles in the church today’ (page 24). He then goes on to argue, ‘If there were, we would have to add their teaching to that of the New Testament’ (page 25). This perspective draws attention to the fact that apostles are seen essentially as Scripture-writers, whereas manifestly several apostles mentioned in the New Testament were not, as indeed several prophets in the Old Testament were not.

Also, there is no Biblical argument that apostles were themselves always infallible. Peter had to be corrected by Paul regarding his inconsistency because in Paul’s view he “stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11) regarding his practice in connection with the place of the law in the New Testament church. Also, the apostle Barnabas ‘was carried away by their hypocrisy’ (Gal. 2:13).

So, in arguing for the role of the apostle today, I am not arguing for more Scripture-writing or that any one should be regarded as an infallible leader who cannot himself be withstood or corrected, as indeed Peter was by Paul…

What about world mission?
In consigning the role of the apostle exclusively to the early church, we are left without one of the key factors in world mission, the vital function that apostles fulfilled.

Some argue today that we don’t have apostles we have ‘missionaries’ but the word ‘missionary’ obscures rather than clarifies, since it does not honour Biblical definitions or categories. A modern missionary may be an agricultural worker, a nurse, a school teacher, a Bible translator, or a literature distributor (all very worthwhile and wonderful ministries). Some missionaries may, in reality, be evangelists or apostles but the term is vague and unhelpful since it has come to indicate any one who works overseas.

Historically some have established ‘mission stations’ rather than churches. We need Biblical definitions and Biblical practices. It is vital that these categories are clarified for the sake of world mission. It is not merely an academic matter…

Obviously, Terry Virgo has more to say on the subject, but I thought this would be a good starting point for us to at least begin to think through the issue and perhaps even analyse our traditions to see if they hold up to biblical scrutiny. Personally, I have to say that I feel a great deal more comfortable knowing even this much about Virgo’s view. The word “apostle” has been used in all sorts of ways, many of them extreme, but I sense no such thing here as Virgo is defining the term.

12 thoughts on “Apostleship in the New Testament

  1. Very stimulating article Pastor John.
    I can see why certain folks would be very edgy about some of the above, but as someone who became a Christian in a church that holds to and practices this I find it the most natural thing in the world..or should I say Word…
    Ephesians 4:11 etc show clearly that these are grace gifts to the church…until…when?…unity of faith etc. mmmm?
    1 Corinthians 13:10 When the ‘perfect has come’? has it come yet…I must say I haven’t noticed 🙂

  2. Obviously there are many questions raised by this issue, and Pastor John will no doubt be ready to answer them all. 🙂

  3. Pastor John,
    Like you i have been wary of people who claim such titles. Terry makes a good argument, but i have seen many more just as good from the traditional standpoint. He said that the reformers were hostile to any sort of Roman Catholic apostolic succession, but what happened in the second and third centuries? Were there apostles then? Plus with the C.Peter Wagner’s and Fred Price’s of the world claiming these title’s makes me leary. How would you know if God gave you that gift? Is it because you have founded church’s? You sure could have alot of apostles running around.

  4. James,

    In Revelation 2, Jesus addresses the Church at Ephesus and commends them by saying, “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.” There are definitely some people to be leary of and the Lord welcomed the testing of apostolic claims.

    Rather than testing individual claims in our day, I think all I am wishing to do here is to allow my thinking to be shaped by the Scriptures and not my tradition and in this particular area, I have to admit, it seems difficult to do so. Traditions are strong.

    However, I must recognize that “suspicion” is not a gift of the Spirit.. and taking the time to try to understand these two men I mention has made me at least give the concept a second look.

    At this point, I am willing to allow for the idea of apostles today IF we take great pains to say what we DO NOT MEAN by the term as well as what we do.

  5. I believe the 5 fold ministries are still operating in the church today but am always uneasy with those who call attention to themselves and their office. John, you mention Revelation 2:2, “those who call themselves apostles and are not” but also 2:9 states, “They say they are Jews, but they are not” and 2:20, “that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet” and 3:9, “those liars who say they are Jews but are not.” The common denominator here is declaring or saying something about themselves. Those who have the need to emphasize their office or title (calling themselves something) are perhaps more into themselves than the work they are called to. Did any of the NT writers sign their letters as “Apostle” whoever? No! When servants of the Lord start putting titles to their names, “Apostle So & So,” and “Evangelist Whoever,” or “Bishop What’s His name,” I feel the need to put as much distance between them and myself as possible.

    Paul instructed Timothy to do the work of an evangelist, not to title himself as such or make sure people acknowledged his office in the Church. “As for you, be calm and cool and steady, accept and suffer unflinchingly every hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fully perform all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:5)

    I think we should recognize and honor those who are fulfilling the call of God on their lives but be leery of those who call attention to themselves or demand submission to their perceived spiritual office.

  6. Hi Loddie,

    You wrote, “Did any of the NT writers sign their letters as “Apostle” whoever? No!”

    Actually Loddie, the letters of the ancient world would start the way we usually end ours today, by stating who it is who is writing.

    Paul often started his letters by telling people he was Christ’s apostle:

    Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…

    1 Cor 1: 1 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes..

    2 Cor 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother

    Gal 1: 1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead

    Eph 1: 1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God..

    Col 1: 1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…

    1 Tim 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope

    2 Tim 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus

    Titus 1:1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect

    Peter did the same thing:

    1 Peter 1:1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect..

    2 Peter 1:1 Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ..

  7. John, I have no problem with a person declaring what he believes is the calling of God on his life which the scriptures you quote are about. It is when a name is preceded with a title that troubles me. I was in the military and rank was stated first and then the last name when addressing a fellow soldier. The purpose of rank is authority, who gives the orders and who carries them out. Having been a former Catholic I know first hand about titles to names.

    I believe God gives authority in his Church for the purpose of serving and leading and not for ruling over the body. Those who must have titles preceding their names are more about being served and acknowledged than about serving their fellow man. What I am referring to was addressed by Jesus in Matthew 23. In particular notice what Jesus says about titles with names.

    ““Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’ “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant.”

    Titles called attention to oneself which is contrary to the Spirit of Christ. Perhaps my first post was muddled as to what I was intending to say. For that I do apologize.

  8. The Following verses suggest that Apostles were someone who was appointed, who performed signs and wonders and mighty deeds.

    Also, that Apostles were a finite group who were like Jesus, they knew Him, did miracles and were martyrs.

    If you take a closer look at how Paul used the word Apostle you will notice a trend, and John was the last one.

    1 Cor 4:9
    9 For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.

    1 Cor 9:1
    1 Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

    2 Cor 12:12
    12 Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds

  9. Troy,

    I dont quite see all you do in the texts you cite. Clearly there was the original twelve, but scripture allows for a second category of apostles, as the post shows (James and Barnabas being examples). Do you deny their apostleship?

    You say “John was the last one” – where is that in the texts you cite?

  10. No, I do not deny their apostleship.

    I’m saying that there is no “second category” they are part of the only apostles there were.

    The verses I show point to the fact that Paul was affirming who the apostles were and what made them apostles.

    “God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death”

    “Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?”

    “For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord”

    “Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you”

    “in signs and wonders and mighty deeds”

    Also, scripture labels all the apostles and names them, if there were more John the apostle, since he is the oldest one or one of the others would have named them.

    You can’t play word games and apply a meaning to the word apostle that no one in the bible gives it. Especially when Paul gives such clear guild lines as to who were the apostles.

    Which so called apostle that were not named in scripture has done any signs and wonders and mighty deeds and saw Jesus and were also martyrs?

  11. Also, on a side note the Greek word as per Strongs is:

    Strongs: G00652

    652 ἀπόστολος [A)PO/STOLOS] {apóstolos} ap-os’-tol-os
    from 649; a delegate; specially, an ambassador of the Gospel; officially a commissioner of Christ (“apostle”) (with miraculous powers):–apostle, messenger, he that is sent.
    See Greek 649.

    This supports my thoughts.

  12. Is not this tendency on the part of these two ministers to affirm the ongoing office of apostle related to their subscription to some form of charismatic theology and practice, albeit balanced with a solid dose of Calvinist theology? You ask what to do with them, my desire would be to see those of more consistently Reformed persuasion whom they consider peers to come alongside them behind the scenes and help them understand the Word more perfectly on this issue. Mahaney has certainly been a blessing to me through a couple of his books, and would love to see his ministry more conformed to a confessional Reformed doctrine and practice.

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