WHAT IS AN APOSTLE?
written by Dr. Andrew Corbett
THE EARLIEST UNDERSTANDING OF APOSTLE
Our understanding of what an apostle in New Testament times was has been based largely on what we know of Paul the apostle. The current definitions and descriptions of what an apostle was has been based largely on insufficient scholarship if it has only been drawn on the example of Paul the apostle and his ministry. An examination of the ministry of the New Testament apostle is integral to our investigation of the early Church’s New Testament leadership structure. Therefore we need to re-evaluate our understanding of what a New Testament apostle was by ensuring that we are limiting our apostolic paradigm to just Paul the apostle. For this to be achieved we will examine the background to Christ’s commissioning of the first apostles, and their subsequent development from that point. While we have established that the Jewish Synagogue structure appears to have influenced the structure of the New Testament Church, it is argued by some that the commissioning of the first apostles by Christ was a parallel to the Jewish Law’s provision of a Saliah. These men were commissioned messengers charged to represent their sponsor in some matter. One noted scholar, Dr. Schmithals, however, vigorously rejects the Jewish institution of the Saliah as the origin of the concept of the New Testament Apostle. Despite this, there can be no doubt that the apostles were representatives of Christ, sent by Him, and charged to represent Him in some matter.
(i) THE INFLUENCE OF THE MISSIONARY MANDATE
Christ first commissioned His disciples to be missionaries (emissaries on a mission to convert people through the preaching of the Kingdom of God). Historically, Judaism was divinely intentioned to be a ‘missionary’ religion, yet it was by and large exclusive (not open to outsiders being added to their number). Christ scolded the Pharisees’ attempts at proselytisation (missionary activity) when He said –
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”
Matthew 23:15 (NIV)
Therefore, the Church’s earliest understanding of its missionary mandate was not yet appreciated. The original mission may have been understood to convince all Jews that Christ was their Messiah and that He had achieved their salvation. Even though Christ had told them to go into all the world to preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15), they may have thought that this was to exclusively reach the dispersed Jews (the Diaspora, or Dispersion). We surmise this by the reluctance of the apostles to leave Jerusalem, and statements found in the New Testament that seem to support this.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
Romans 1:16 (NIV)
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia
First Peter 1:1 (NKJV)
Added to this is that we have already established the influence of Judaism over the early Church, where there was no ‘evangelist’, or ‘missionary-scribe’. These factors combined to reduce the early Church’s initial revelation of evangelism for the world.
(ii) FROM DISCIPLE TO GOVERNOR
The first apostles had witnessed Christ focus His ministry on the Jews, almost to the point of apparently excluding Gentiles. They possibly failed to appreciate that they were being discipled for the task of world evangelisation. Their first role as ‘apostles’ was as ‘disciples’. They were followers of the Chief Apostle.
Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.
Hebrews 3:1 (NIV)
Before the apostles were to be released into their governing ministries, they were first grounded as disciples. This required that they had a humble, servant’s heart. They came under Christ’s strict discipline and often felt the sting of His loving rebukes (Mark 8:33; Mat.26:40; Mark 16:14). They were grounded in the Word of God, and taught how to approach God in prayer (Mat. 6:6-18). They learnt how to walk with Christ daily and emulate His character (Acts 4:13).
As disciples, followers, of Christ they were sent by Him to preach the message of the Kingdom (Mat. 10:7). The foundational ministry of all apostles can be summed up as: following and proclaiming Christ. No matter how scholarly we attempt to become when defining what an apostle was, we must not lose sight of this most simple starting point. Eventually the apostles would go on to govern the burgeoning Church. But this could only happen because they had learnt to follow and proclaim Christ first. Paul supported his own apostolic calling on the basis that he encountered Christ and had continued to walk with Him (1Cor. 15:8; 1Cor. 11:1).
After the Ascension, the apostles were told to wait for the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8 [NIV] “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”). They appear to have continued as proclaimers shortly after this happened. When there was an influx of new converts, they became the governors or overseers of the Church. To enable them to adequately govern the Church they requested that the Church free them to study God’s Word and pray rather than go house to house meeting individual needs (Acts 6:4 [NIV] “and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word”). The apostles recognised that Christ had called them to be overseers, or governors of the Church.
(iii) APOSTOLIC CHARISMA
Since they were firstly disciples (disciplined followers), we see that character comes before charisma in those that Christ appointed as apostles. But this is not to suggest that character alone was sufficient for those called to be apostles. They also had an added dimension to their ministry that would separate them from the other ministries that Christ would eventually gift His Church with. We must add this further dimension to our foundational understanding of what an apostle was: this is the miraculous authority given to the apostles.
Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits…They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
Mark 6:7, 12-13 (NIV)
The first apostles displayed so much charismatic power that the observing population were in awe of the miraculous signs and wonders they performed (Acts 2:43). Their unquestioned power to perform miracles caused a great reluctance on the part of the unchurched community to associate with the Church (Acts 5:12-13). Later on Paul regarded the ‘charisma dimension’ as one of the distinguishing marks of a true apostle.
The things that mark an apostle–signs, wonders and miracles–were done among you with great perseverance.
Second Corinthians 12:12 (NIV)
(iv) TO GROUND-BREAKER
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?
First Corinthians 12:29 (NIV)
While some Christians are called to preach, and some are even called to preach in a pioneer or cross-cultural sense (such as missionaries), not all are given the gift of apostleship. It is wrong to assume that the modern concept of a cross-cultural missionary is the functional equivalent of a Biblical apostle. Care must be taken to also not diminish the important ministry of the apostle to that of a preacher or missionary. Dispensational scholar, Professor Everett F. Harrison (of Fuller Theological Seminary), criticizes the cheap modern adaptation of the term apostle when he says-
“…warrant is lacking for making the ‘apostle’ the equivalent of ‘missionary.’ In the practice of the modern church, prominent pioneer missionaries are often called apostles, but this is only an accommodation of language. In the apostolic age one who held this rank was more than a preacher (2Tim. 1:11).”
His former colleague at Fuller Theological Seminary, Professor C. Peter Wagner, makes a similar point in his book Churchquake.
Our English word “missionary” comes from the Latin missionarius, which means a person sent into an area to do religious work. This gives it a close affinity with the concept of “apostle” as a sent one. The gift of missionary is the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to minister whatever other spiritual gift they have in a second culture. Peter had the gift of apostle, but not the gift of missionary. Paul had the gift of apostle and the gift of missionary.
Wagner might be drawing a long bow by trying to assert that not all apostles are missionaries. The statement assumes that a missionary is necessarily a cross-cultural minister, and an apostle is not. The apostolic mandate to go into all the nations, and to the ends of the world, seems to indicate that Christ expected His first apostles to each be cross-cultural. To appeal to the statement that Peter was an apostle to the Jews only, may tend to ignore that it was Peter who first ministered apostolically to the Samaritans (Acts 8) and the Gentile house of Cornelius (Acts 10). Whether Peter and the other apostles realised it or not, Christ expected them to evangelise cross-culturally.
The revelation that the apostle was a ground breaking minister took several years for the first apostles to understand. Eventually they would plant churches in North Africa, India, and Europe.
(v) THE APOSTLE’S MISSIONARY PERSPECTIVE
The revelation that the apostles were called to the nations was still not immediately realised. Yet their changing role was about to be fundamentally changed by Christ’s commissioning of Saul of Tarsus to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15 [NIV] “But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel’”).
In the apostolic ministry of Paul, we see a greater revelation of what Christ had intended the apostle to be. Although Paul initially went to the Jews first, he later abandoned this approach and concentrated on reaching the Gentiles.
Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”
Acts 13:46 (NIV)
We can see that the ministry of the apostle developed to the point of appreciation that the apostle was to be a “ground breaker”.
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.
Romans 15:20 (NIV)
This was pre-empted in their training under Christ’s ministry when He sent them ahead of Himself.
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Luke 9:1-2 (NIV)
(vi) THE EARLY APOSTOLIC FUNCTION
The apostle’s ministry was much more than that of our modern concept of a missionary. He was not merely a cross-cultural preacher to the unconverted. And he was also more than a governor. Dr. Bill Hamon has identified six main functions of the first century apostles. These include-
(i) Taking the gospel to unreached areas (Rom. 15:20, NIV)
(ii) Planting churches upon the foundation of Christ and helping established churches return to this scriptural foundation (1Cor. 3:10, 11; Gal. 1:6-10; 3:13; Rev. 2:15)
(iii) Appointing and training the initial leaders of a church (Acts 14:21-23; Titus 1:5)
(iv) Dealing with specific problems, false doctrines or sins (1Cor. 1:1 – 16:24; Acts 15)
(v) Promoting unity in the Body of Christ and networking churches (Eph. 4:1-16; Acts 11:27-30; Rom. 15:25-27; 1Cor. 16:1-4; 2Cor. 8:9)
(vi) Demonstrating and imparting the supernatural dimension of the kingdom of God (2Cor. 12:12; Acts 4:33; 8:4-20; 10:44-46; 19:16; 2Tim 1:6-7).
The term “apostle” comes from the Greek word apostolos, which literally means ‘one sent forth’. According to Coombs the term “is first found in maritime language, referring to a cargo ship or fleet being sent out. Early usage of this term carried the twofold sense of an express commission and being sent overseas.” Coombs cites Kittel, the author of The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, who says that term apostle carries the meaning of an official envoy that is commissioned with the full authority of the sender.
It is upon this basis that we begin to see that the ministry of the apostle was more than just that of a preacher, missionary, or church-planter. It was a ministry of ambassadorial authority. Yet the apostle’s role and function was still being developed throughout the early years of the Church. Part of that development is described in Acts 6. This was a critical phase in both the development of the Church and the ministry of the apostle. It was a crossroads where the Church could have stalled with a limited structure, and understanding, of leadership. For this reason we need to examine the establishment of deacons within the Church as a vital layer in the structure of the early Church’s leadership.
© 2001 Andrew Corbett, Tasmania, Australia
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