Tuesday, December 3, 2013


by Lyndon Unger
I have heard it said before that the lack of modern day apostles is a large part of the reason for the struggles of the North American church, and I’ve also heard it said that the presence of modern day apostles are a large part of the reason for the struggles of the North American church. I don’t think both positions can be correct, unless they’re working with different definitions of the word “apostle”.
So what exactly is an apostle? Some suggest that a church planter is an apostle.  Some people suggest that they are an apostle.  Some people suggest that nobody after the first century could possibly be an apostle.  Some people suggest that everyone is, in some way, an apostle.  Before you toss your hands up in the air and reach for a painkiller, let’s take a quick, but thorough look at the Biblical usage of the term “apostle”:
Apostle(Not even close partner…)

An apostle = A messenger
  • The term can have two senses
    • Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father…”
      • The idea here is that there are apostles of regular men, but Paul is an apostle of Christ (Gal. 1:1).
    • It can be used in the general sense of “messenger”.
      • In this sense, Barnabas is called an apostle (Acts 14:14)
      • In this sense, Titus and the other brothers are “apostles” of/to the various churches (2 Cor. 8:23)
      • In this sense, Jesus is called an apostle (Heb. 3:1)
    • It can also be a technical term that refers to only those messengers personally sent by the incarnate Christ.
      • Paul clearly doesn’t apply his apostolic title to anyone else in his epistolary openings:
        •  Paul the apostle, Sosthenes the brother (1 Cor. 1:1).
        •  Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother (2 Cor. 1:1).
        •  “Paul, an apostle…and all the brothers who are with me…” (Gal. 1:1)
        •  Paul & Timothy are servants of Christ (Phil. 1:1).
        •  Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother (Col. 1:1).
        •  Paul simply names himself, Silvanus and Timothy (1 & 2 Thess. 1:1).
        •  Paul the apostle, Timothy the brother (Philemon 1:1).
        • All other letters have Paul alone as an apostle .
  • The Biblical criteria for apostleship:
    • 1. People who have witnessed the entire earthly ministry of Jesus.
    • 2. People who have witnessed the resurrection.
      • So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)
    • 3. Miraculous verification.
      • The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” (2 Cor. 12:12)
      Resurrection(unless you were part of this group of folks, namely witnesses of the risen Christ, you’re not an apostle like they were…)
  • Who were apostles:
    • There were 13 apostles; men commissioned directly by God incarnate as his messengers.
      • There were 12 that were sent to the 12 tribes of the Jews.
      • There was 1 that was sent to the Gentiles; Paul.
        • Paul was made an apostle to the Gentiles in Acts 9:15.
        •  Paul understood and supported that the 12 were sent to the Jews and the 12 understood and supported that Paul was sent to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:7-9).
  • Was Junia(s) an apostle in Romans 16:7?
    • No.  Junia was well known/famous “among the apostles”, meaning “in the sphere of the apostles” or ‘to the apostles”, not “as one of the apostles”.
    • For an exhaustive treatment of this issue, consult the following journal articles (for those of you who really want to hammer through this question):
      • M. H. Burer and D. B. Wallace, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7,” NTS 47 (2001): 76-91.
      • Heath, Curtis R. “A Female Apostle?: A Note Re-examining the Work of Burer and Wallace Concerning epishmoV with en in the Dative,” Concordia Journal, (October 2002), 437-440
  • Are there currently any apostles on the earth?
    • Not in the sense of “holding the office of apostle” like Paul or the 12.  Once one is clear on the definition of “apostle”, one cannot call anyone an apostle in the same sense of Paul or the 12.
  • Is there a difference between the office of apostle and the gift of apostle?
    • No.  Arguments that attempt to separate the office from the gift (arguing from Eph. 4:11) betray a misunderstanding of the different usages of the term “apostle” in the NT and garner support from texts that use the term in the general sense of “messenger” (i.e. Acts 14:14 or 2 Cor. 8:23).
    • I cannot find a compelling reason to doubt that the office of apostle was the gift in Eph. 4:11 (or 1 Cor. 12:28-29); God gave the specific apostles to the church for the purpose of founding the church (Eph. 2:20), and the church isn’t continually being founded in each successive generation.
  • What about what some call the 5-fold ministry in Ephesians 4:11 or 1 Corinthians 12:28-29?
  • Again, arguments that try to argue for modern apostles betray a misunderstanding of the different usage of apostle in the NT.
  • If the apostles had to be witnesses of Jesus earthly ministry and resurrection, as well as be verified by miraculous signs and wonders, then the only way for someone to be an apostle (in the specific sense) is to be 2,000 years old.
    • There are apostles all over the place in the general sense of “messenger” (in that sense, I’m an apostle too), but I’ve never once heard of someone who calls themselves an “apostle” in order to insinuate the same level of divine authority as this fellow.
    • As a general rule; “doctrines” that are built on a single verse of scripture (like Eph. 4:11, which is the only passage I’ve ever seen used to defend the concept of the “five-fold ministry”) are highly suspicious.
  • What was the relation of prophets and apostles?
    • Jesus paralleled prophets and apostles in Luke 11:49, and they’re spoken of in parallel language in Eph. 2:20, 3:5; 2 Pet. 3:2; and Rev. 18:20.
    • Both prophets and apostles speak for God, but only the apostles were messengers of Christ that were personally sent by him.
      • The big difference is Jesus.
      • In the NT, you have prophets who are not apostles (i.e. Agabus), but no apostles who are not prophets.
So, if someone calls themselves an “apostle” and is not a miraculously verified witness of both Christ’s earthly ministry and resurrection, then they’re basically using the term as synonymous with the term “Christian”.  If someone is not a miraculously verified witness of both Christ’s earthly ministry and resurrection but they call themselves an “apostle” because they’re planting churches, then they’re basically using the term as synonymous with the term “pastor”.
I hope that gives some food for thought and clears up the terminology confusion for you as much as it did for me!

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