The title of this post probably makes it clear that by “signs and wonders” I’m sort of picking off various topics that have something to do with sign gifts. Yes, it’s a bit random in terms of approach, but I’m setting the stage for future blogging. It will make sense down the road.
As to our subject, this may seem like a silly question, but it isn’t. There’s considerable contemporary talk about whether there are modern-day apostles or whether it’s even advisable to use the word. Personally, with respect to the latter question, I don’t think it’s advisable due to the confusion it creates (or could create). Why I say that will become clear in this post. In regard to the former question, we actually could use it today if (a) we had our definitions straight – i.e., aligned with Scripture – and (b) enough people were biblically literate so as to parse accurately what is being claimed and what isn’t. Given the challenge of the first and the unlikelihood of the second, I think it’s best to avoid the term.
Why do I sound so pessimistic? Well, the next time someone calls themselves an apostle, ask what they mean—in particular, ask them which kind of apostle they’re claiming to be.
Yes, you read that correctly. There’s more than one kind of apostle in the New Testament.
A simple search of the Greek lemma translated “apostle” (ἀπόστολος / apostolos) is a good place to start. If you do that, some things will become clear – and some things will start to rock your world. You’ll discover that there’s variety as to what the term means in context. Let’s take a look at the data.
The original 12
This is the easy category. Several passages provide us a list of the 12 disciples of Jesus and attribute the word “apostle” to them: Matt 10:2; Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13. The 12 are referenced as ”apostles” outside the gospels, too (Rev 21:14).
The group is unique in that these 12 were called directly by Jesus, traveled with him, and were taught directly by him. They were set apart from others who might have followed Jesus around, listening to him, by virtue of their calling, and by virtue of the fact they were explicitly referred to as “the twelve”—and there was no ambiguity as to who “the twelve” were (e.g., Matt 26:20; Mark 3:16; 6:7; 11:11; 14:17; Luke 22:3; John 6:67).
When the number fell from 12 to 11 because of Judas’ betrayal and death, the original disciples / apostles felt compelled to restore the number to 12 (Acts 1:15-26). This is likely due to the parallelism with the 12 tribes (cf. Rev 21:12, 14). The criteria for inclusion in the 12 are worth noting. According to Acts 1:21-22, candidates: (a) had accompanied the other 11 since the time of Jesus’ baptism, and (b) had been a witness to the resurrected Christ before his ascension.
Clearly, no one calling themselves an apostle today or claiming an apostolic ministry today fits this description.
At least one role of the original 12 is also of interest due to its uniqueness. The original 12 apostles ministered in the original Jerusalem church, which was Jewish in ethnic orientation. The incident involving Paul and Barnabas (the “Jerusalem Council”) shows that they held authority over the ministry of Paul and Barnabas outside Jerusalem (Acts 15:2, 6, 22-23). The original 12 were considered the keepers of right doctrine. Questions had arisen in the wake of Peter’s vision and ministry to the Gentile, Cornelius (Acts 10) and Paul’s ministry to Gentiles thereafter. Part of the rationale for their doctrinal oversight derived from the fact that they had been eyewitnesses and first-person hearers of what Jesus taught. Again, without those credentials, this role would not be expected–there would be no reason to presume that authority.
After the Jerusalem council, Paul went on to start many churches whose congregations were mixed (inclusive of Jew and Gentile). There is no hint that the original 12 had any sort of ruling authority over those churches. Even Paul couldn’t actually claim that, as he appointed leaders in those churches. For sure if doctrinal problems arose, Paul would take steps to correct that (and Paul’s own authority for having that status had been validated by the original 12 at the Jerusalem council).
Consequently, there is little merit to the idea that someone could claim “apostle status” today and wield authority over other churches. The question would be as follows: If you were not at the level of the original 12, on what basis would you assume their mantle–their authority? I see no coherent, scriptural argument for that. That idea comes with conflating the term “apostle” in other passages with the 12, which (as we will see) the New Testament explicitly refuses to do, and even denies.
The “other apostles” outside the original 12 who had seen the risen Christ
The key passage here is 1 Corinthians 15:1-9
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
There are several very interesting items in this passage. Some of them might even surprise readers. The wording is curious in places. Let’s take the passage apart by noting the interesting phrases:
First, the risen Christ “appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve” – This makes it sound like Peter was distinct from the 12, or not part of the 12. But we know those notions are incorrect from numerous statements in the New Testament. The statement seems to be a reference to Luke 24:34, where the two men on the road to Emmaus return to Jerusalem after their own encounter with the risen Jesus and proclaim to the eleven apostles [curious in itself since Peter would be among the eleven to whom they were excitedly speaking]: “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” They then proceed to tell of their encounter.1 Keeping in mind Judas was absent, the wording “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” seems incongruous. Shouldn’t the wording have been “”appeared to Cephas, then to the ELEVEN” (even including Peter)? In my view, the likely reference of the wording in 1 Cor 15:5 is that Paul refers to the relative order of things: the risen Jesus appeared to Peter, and then later to the REST of the apostles. I think “the twelve” here is meant to restrict the wording to “the original apostles.” The number “12” telegraphs that.
Per the discussion above, we have a discrete group of apostles corresponding to the original disciples (the Eleven, Peter inclusive). But now look at what follows: Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” Here we have a group of “apostles” who are NOT the original 12 — and neither is Paul included in their number, for Paul distinguishes himself in the next line: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Paul’s wording raises a question: was he including himself in with “all the apostles” or did he view himself as a lesser apostle — but still an apostle — with respect to those other apostles? So do we now have two groups or three? In order to consider this, we need to consider some other passages, such as 1 Cor 9:5:
5 Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?
Paul here makes it clear (again) that there were the original 12 apostles and apostles who were not the original 12. The “brothers of the Lord” (plural) line is interesting, because of what Paul writes in Gal 1:19: “But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.” This means that James, one of the biological brothers of Jesus, was considered an apostle — but he was not one of the original 12, nor would he have met the criteria of Acts 1:21-22 for filling Judas’ vacancy, for he had not “accompanied the other 11 since the time of Jesus’ baptism.” Taking this to 1 Cor 15:5, it would seem that Jesus’ other brothers (or maybe just James and Jude) were called apostles. So there is a clear second group by virtue of this association. Joining the Lord’s brothers in this second group were “all the apostles” mentioned in 1 Cor 15:7. It also seems to me these passages reinforce the idea this second group was connected to the Jerusalem church.
But did Paul consider himself (and others who ministered with him) a third group with lesser status? That is possible. The inclusion of James (who was not one of the original 12) with these other apostles suggests (but does not prove) that this second group had spent time with Jesus prior to the crucifixion and resurrection. James’ inclusion, as well as the chronology of Acts, also suggests that these other apostles were headquartered in Jerusalem. Paul had not spent time with Jesus before the cross, nor was his ministry part of the Jerusalem church. He was an outsider, being called to preach to the Gentiles. Paul also puts himself down (is it merely self-deprecating rhetoric?) as the “least of the apostles” in his wording. Lastly, as we will see in a moment, Paul refers to other ministry partners — including Gentiles — as apostles.
Given the data, my thought is that what we have here is three groups, but the two groups outside the 12 were the same in purpose and status. What I mean is that the two groups who were not the 12 did not have the status of the 12, but they mutually had the endorsement of the 12. The original 12 certainly endorsed the ministry of James and other apostles who worked in the church at Jerusalem. And we know from Acts 15 that they (along with James) endorsed the work of Paul to the Gentiles. They considered him an apostle.
Paul’s wording in 1 Cor 9:5-6 also makes it clear that he considered himself — and Barnabas — an apostle. That is, he was placing himself and his partner into the “apostle equation” with respect to marriage and consideration of ministry support. Barnabas is actually referred to as an apostle in Acts 14:4. The text describes how the people at Iconium hearing the gospel either sided with the Jews or “the apostles” — i.e., Paul and Barnabas, who were preaching to them, and who were the objects of the Jews’ opposition. Acts 14:4 makes this identification sure by explicitly calling Barnabas (and Paul) an apostle: “But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd. . . .”
This episode helps us understand why people outside the original 12 and the Jerusalem church could rightly be called apostles. In Acts 13:2-3 Paul and Barnabas had been commissioned and sent by the Holy Spirit to preach to the Gentiles. That calling touched off Paul’s missionary journey, the first of several. Paul and Barnabas were apostles — essentially what we would call missionaries today. “Apostle” is a noun (apostolos) whose related verb form (apostellō) means “to send.”2 The noun apostolos (“apostle”) “refers to persons who are dispatched for a specific purpose. . . . messengers, envoys.”3 Paul was also accompanied on missionary work by Silas (also known as Silvanus). We see this in 1 Thess 2:6 where Paul, speaking of himself, Timothy, and Silvanus (cf. 1 Thess 1:1) says: “Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.” According to the book of Acts, it was Silas who, worked with Paul and Timothy at Thessalonica (Acts 15:40; Acts 17). This is why scholars consider Silas and Silvanus to be names for the same person:
“Silas, Silvanus (sī´luhs, sil-vay«nuhs), generally regarded as alternate names for the same person, a leader in the early church and an associate of Paul. The Letters of Paul and 1 Peter refer to him as Silvanus (a Latinization), but Acts prefers Silas (either a Semitic or a shortened Greek form).”4
This last category is as straightforward as the first. There were those people in the early church who took the label “apostle” but who were false teachers, spreading a different gospel and otherwise leading believers astray (2 Cor 11:5, 13; 12:11). In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul refers to these individuals as pseudapostolos (pseudo-apostles; i.e., false apostles). He referred to them earlier (sarcastically) as “super apostles” (hyperlian apostolōn). They were pretenders:
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. (2 Co 11:13–14)
It is important to note here that, while Paul had encountered the risen Christ, as did other apostles who were not in the original 12, there are no scriptural data that suggest Timothy, Barnabas, or Silas ever encountered the risen Christ. As such, this is clear proof that encountering Jesus did not qualify someone to be an apostle. One could be called an apostle without that event. Why? Because of what these apostles actually were: To use the more familiar term, they were missionaries. They planted churches, taught believers, and exercised leadership and oversight of those churches (not just any churches). Then they repeated the process after appointing leaders in those churches (1 Tim 3, Titus 1). And note that those appointed leaders had different titles than “apostles” — because they weren’t sent anywhere.
The “missionary” meaning of “apostle” would have been true for other “apostles” that are so-called in the New Testament that, we presume, in light of Paul’s familiarity with them and their work: Junia / Julia and Adronicus (Rom 16:7), Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25), and others, possibly including Titus (2 Cor 8:23?). Given the terminology, we can presume that this individuals had been sent to either start a church or help a church. As such, they did leadership tasks: teaching, preaching, evangelism, discipleship, etc. That’s what church leaders did and do.
Another realization is that, if an apostle had any authority at all, it was over a church under their immediate care. There is no evidence that apostles could claim authority over churches they had not started, or in which they had not exercised leadership ministry. The only conceivable authority at that level was the original 12, who were (obviously) in the Jerusalem church and whom (also obviously) had higher status as original disciples of Jesus. There is no evidence that others appointed by the original 12 in Jerusalem had authority over churches started by Paul. One cannot appeal to the Jerusalem council for that idea since the original 12 apostles who were still alive were in that church. They had that authority. It is possible James did as well since he was the blood brother of Jesus. What they thought would naturally have carried tremendous authority. But after those individuals — whose status was unique due to knowing the pre-crucifixion Jesus — everyone else’s authority was of a different nature.
An oft-neglected observation reinforces this “non-authority” idea. The churches in the book of Revelation were not started by the original 12. We aren’t told in Scripture who started those churches. The apostle John was chosen by Jesus to write to those churches, but the authority basis for what he wrote to them was the risen Jesus. Unlike Paul’s language to churches he started, John never asserts any authority over these churches, not does he appeal to Jerusalem’s apostles or anyone else for their governance. The authority is the Lord’s and no one else’s.
Lastly, there’s no sense at all in the New Testament usage of the term that suggests an apostle is someone who merely exercises authoritative oversight — and does little in the way of evangelism, discipleship, teaching, etc. Apostles weren’t executive VPs. They weren’t distant sages that observed the boots on the ground work of ministry from afar. They did the work of the ministry, showing others how to fulfill the Great Commission by example.
These few thoughts are important note in light of modern apostolic claims to regional authority. That idea is absent in the New Testament. One cannot appeal to Ephesians 4 in this regard and, in light of the preceding discussion, it should be clear why:
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The text says God’s plan was to give the fledgling church “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” That he did. He gave the original Jerusalem church apostles. He called Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles. Others apostles (missionaries – we’re talking about planting churches here in Gentile territory) were commissioned (sent) to help Paul (Barnabas, Silas, etc.).
Here’s my point: it’s one thing for believers today to use the term “apostle” from this passage when they mean missionaries who plant churches or who planted their church. They have rightful authority in those places. But it is quite another to lift this term from Eph 4:11 and claim authority over churches in a city, county, state, or larger region. Every office in Eph 4:11ff. can (and did) function on a local church level. There is no warrant to read anything else into the passage. Paul began the chapter addressing the Ephesian believers (“you”; Eph 4:1). We have no warrant to say Paul started referring to the universal church at v. 11 and beyond, as though Jesus was appointing regional or worldwide apostles over collective groups of local churches. Ephesians 4 has each local church in view and its own leadership. It is not focused on appointing a small, elite group for exercising authority over many churches. And it certainly doesn’t suggest apostolic succession (as though “apostles” outside the 12 inherit the office from the 12). It’s incoherent to presume that everything else in the epistle that Paul wants readers to believe first had a religious oligarchy in mind and then, secondarily, individual local churches. Ephesians 4:11-16 is written to a local church and is for local churches everywhere as local churches.
So, when you meet someone whose title is “apostle” you might ask them what they mean. If they are leaders in a local church they started or with whom they were sent to labor, the title isn’t unwarranted. That said, in our day and age the title can cause confusion due to misunderstanding or abuse. We need therefore need to be cautious with its use.
- Bock notes that this passage has drawn attention because of John 20. He writes, “Upon arriving in Jerusalem, they find the Eleven gathered together (ἀθροίζω, athroizō). . . . The reference to the Eleven, a collective term for the remaining apostles, raises the issue of Luke’s relationship to John 20:19–29. If all Eleven were at the gathering noted by Luke, then why was Thomas not convinced until a week later (John 20:24–29)? John implies that Thomas is not at the first gathering. The now-exposed Judas is absent for reasons that Acts 1:15–26 will make clear.” Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53 (vol. 2; Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1921. ↩
- William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (=BDAG; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 120. ↩
- BDAG, 122. ↩
- Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 951. ↩