You are driving down the road one Saturday while flipping from one radio station to another. One boisterous voice catches your attention. After a few minutes you discover that you are listening to the Christian radio broadcast of Apostle John, a man who claims to perform miracles, get messages from God, and who wants you to send him an offering.
The next Monday at work you spend some time talking to one of your fellow employees and discover that he is a Mormon. You are curious and ask numerous questions about his beliefs and practices. You make a mental note when he mentions that the Mormon Church presently has twelve apostles.
On Wednesday evening, you attend services at your Baptist church. A missionary has come in to present his field to the church. In the middle of his presentation, he makes a claim that catches your ear. He says that the missionaries of today are basically continuing the work of the apostles.
He continues his argument. They are not the Twelve who followed Christ when He walked the earth, but they are fulfilling the central work of the apostles when they go to new fields and start churches. This is what Paul did and he was an apostle. In fact, there are several men who are called apostles in the New Testament who were not part of the original Twelve. The name means “sent one” and can be used of those who are sent out by the Lord for a specific mission—thus, missionaries.
Now, you are really confused. You thought that the office of apostle had died out about the time the New Testament was completed. But now, in five days time, you have heard from three different claims of apostleship. What are you to believe? Do we still have apostles today? Has the office continued? And, if it has, who has the right to claim apostleship?
The purpose of this article is to give a biblical answer to these and other questions about apostles today and in the Bible. We will begin with a survey of those who were called apostles in the New Testament.
New Testament Apostles:
The apostles played a crucial role in the ministry of Christ and in the establishment of the early churches. God set in the church “first apostles” (1Corinthians 12:28). This word (found only in the new Testament) occurs in one form or another 83 times from Matthew through Revelation. The word apostle means sent one and it refers to those sent out by Jesus Christ for the special work to which He called them.
But who is called an apostle in the New Testament? Is it a word that was often used in a common way and that can be used of God’s servants today? Here are the facts. There were at least nineteen men who were called apostles in the New Testament. The nineteen are as follows:
- The original Twelve
- Matthias, the replacement for Judas
- Paul, as the least of the apostles (1Corinthians 15:9)
- Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7 - Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles…”)
- Barnabas, in one place with Paul (Acts 14:14 – “Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul…”)
- James, the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:19)
- Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our profession (Hebrews 3:1)
There were, as you can see, men besides the Twelve who were called apostles. However, it may not be as common as some think.
Andronicus and Junia were probably not called apostles in Romans 16:7. This is the only verse where these two men are mentioned. They are said to be Paul’s kinsmen and fellowprisoners and were “of note among the apostles.” Does this mean, as some say, that they were noteworthy apostles? Someone could be “of note” among the apostles without being an apostle. It could mean that the apostles had noted them as significant servants of the Lord. Also, if they were apostles of note, they were some of the more important apostles. But this is the only verse of the Bible where these two men are ever mentioned. Certainly, they are not being called apostles here.
That still leaves seventeen apostles. Of these, Matthias was chosen to replace the fallen Judas. None of the other apostles fell in this way and there is no record of any others being replaced at death. If death required the apostle to be replaced, we should have seen a replacement chosen for James after his death in Acts 12:2. But no such record exists. The Twelve were never continued as any form of ruling body despite the claims of Mormons and others.
Paul is clearly an apostle, but he is an exception to the rule for apostles. He declares himself “the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle” (1Corinthians 15:9). And, whereas the Twelve were called specifically to minister to the Jews, Paul identifies himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13). Notice, he is not an apostle to the Gentiles but the apostle to the Gentiles—showing him to be the only apostle chosen specifically for the Gentiles. Paul had the same calling and authority in reaching the Gentiles as the Twelve had in reaching the Jews (see Galatians 2:7-8).
That still leaves Barnabas, James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus Himself. These men were not of the Twelve or a special apostle to the Gentiles like Paul. Therefore, it is possible to look on apostleship as a work and not just an office. But the biblical usage of the word in this way is very rare—not the common thing some would make us to believe.
Jesus is, of course, in a class by Himself. But Barnabas and James had a very high position of authority in the New Testament church. James probably wrote the book of James and Barnabas introduced Paul to the twelve apostles. These men were not apostles simply because they were sent by God. They had authority with God in the early church and worked on a level field with the other apostles. The title of apostle is not being used in some watered-down, generic sense. These men did the works of an apostle and had the authority of the apostles.
Not Apostles and Apostles:
In 1Corinthians 12:29 Paul asked, “Are all apostles?” If we can call missionaries apostles because apostle means sent one and missionaries are sent ones, then practically every servant of God is an apostle. But to use the word in this weakened form minimizes what God did with the apostles of the New Testament. It causes a confusion of understanding. And, despite what some are claiming, the Bible does not use the word in such a common way.
It will not even work to make a distinction big Apostle and little apostle. If someone is an apostle, they must have the New Testament authority and power of an apostle. The office of apostle carried great weight and those who use this title are in effect, if not in actuality, claiming this authority. We need to be careful about using such a title even when we mean well in doing so.
A Unique Calling:
The apostles were unique in several regards. In order to understand the singular position they held in the early church, we need to consider their special calling, their special qualifications, and their special confirmation from God.
Special Calling. Luke 6:12-13 tells us that Jesus prayed all night and then called unto him his disciples and “of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles.” These men were already disciples. There were other disciples who were never called to be apostles. But these twelve were given a special office as representatives of the Master. Their position was exalted to the point that they will to sit on the thrones of the twelve tribes of Israel in the time of the kingdom (Matthew 19:28).
Paul was also given a very special, though separate, calling. He often reminded those to whom he ministered that he was “called to be an apostle” (Romans 1:1) and that this calling was “not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father” (Galatians 1:1). In Romans 11:13, he said, “For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office.”
This was not a basic calling to preach but a calling to represent God on earth in a special way. The apostles could remit or retain sins (John 20:22-23). What they bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18). They spoke the word of God and confirmed those words with signs following (Mark 16:17-20). We must be careful not to minimize their power and authority by giving the title to men who were not meant to have it.
Special Qualifications: The qualifications of the apostles are given in Acts 1:21-22. They must have been with Jesus during His earthly ministry (v.21), been baptized by John the Baptist (v.22), and been eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ (v.22).
Paul was given an exemption on the first requirements but greatly emphasized his having been an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ – “And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time” (1Corinthians 15:8). But Paul admitted to being the least of the apostles in qualifications (1Corinthians 15:9). What does this say about those who claim to be apostles without any of the qualifications or signs of an apostle?
Special Confirmation: What established the claims of apostleship in the eyes of the people? Paul warned of many “false apostles” (2Corinthians 11:13). How could someone tell the false apostle from the true apostle? Paul helps us again. He spent a lot of time in 2Corinthians confirming his apostleship and then sums it up in 12:12 – “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.”
A genuine apostle had the signs of an apostle so that the people would know who they were. These signs included wonders and mighty deeds. Paul did many “mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Romans 15:19). In other words, he performed many miracles that confirmed his calling. They could therefore rest assured that he was indeed the apostle to the Gentiles. The other apostles also performed miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:12). When the sick came to be healed of them, “they were healed every one” (Acts 5:16).
Now I ask you again, Are all apostles? Even Paul’s apostleship was “out of due time “ (1Corinthians 15:8). Even Paul got on after the boat was loaded, but God had a special purpose for him. There may be men and women today who are doing some of the duties of an apostle. They are sent by God to do a specific work. But that does not give them the office of an apostle. We need to avoid calling people apostles in any particular sense. To do so causes confusion. It does not fit our day and age and it does not conform to the Holy Scriptures.