Many Renewalists believe apostles do exist. But should there be restrictions? An old-fashioned Bible study to answer the question. (I have updated this post,)
Paul wrote that God gave “some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11, NET). If the latter three gifts are still going strong, why not the first two? After all, their purpose is seen in vv. 12-13:
12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Eph. 4:12-13, NIV)
Christ is distributing those five gifts to build up his temple, the church, until the building “project” is completed. The job is not done yet.
Who are the apostles? Are there different levels of them with differing authority and commissioning?
The New Testament indicates that it is important to divide apostleship into various classes or groups. What are they?
Jesus is called the apostle and high priest of our faith (Heb. 3:1), but since his status is beyond anyone’s reach, let’s look only at how the term applies to people in his church.
If you would like to see the verses, you can go to biblegateway.com and type in the references.
1.. The twelve apostles
They are the first group, in a class by themselves.
Let’s quote from the Gospel of Luke, which stands in for the parallel passages.
12 And so it happened in those days that he went up to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called for his disciples and selected from them twelve, whom he also called apostles: 14 Peter, whom he nicknamed Peter, and Andrew his brother and James and John, and Philip and Bartholomew 15 and Matthew and Thomas and James, son of Alphaeus and 16 Judas, son of James, and Simon called the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16, my translation)
I have already written an article about the different lists of names in Matthew, Mark and Luke and Acts and the meaning of their names:
In Luke’s account, this passage appears early in Jesus’s ministry and movement. He had already called Peter, James, and John, three business partners, and probably Peter’s brother Andrew (Luke 5:1-11). Many disciples were already following him (Luke 6:13). From them he selected the twelve.
The twelve apostles correspond to the names of twelve tribes of Israel, just by virtue of the same number and leadership capacity (Num. 1-2, 26; cf. Acts 26:7). They shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). Their names will be written on the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14).
This special gift, filled only by the twelve, can never be replicated. Not even Paul the apostle could be numbered among the twelve because Peter said:
Therefore we must [select] from men who went with us all the time when the Lord Jesus went in and out as our head, beginning with the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, a witness with us of his resurrection—to become one of us” (Acts 1:21-22, my translation).
So what qualifies Judas’s replacement is that he must have known Jesus’s ministry first hand, as an eyewitness from the very beginning, all the way back to John’s baptism of Jesus—very far back indeed! Luke also makes much of his researching those who knew Jesus from the very beginning (Luke 1:2; Acts 1:1).
Paul was never with Jesus from the very beginning. Therefore, even Paul, who fought so diligently to be recognized as an apostle (Gal. 2:6), recognized this distance by calling himself abnormally born (1 Cor. 15:8). He even referenced the twelve, almost automatically, for he had just named Cephas (Peter), so he seemed to have placed the twelve in a special category, all together, especially including Peter (1 Cor. 15:5).
2.. Other apostles
The evidence for these other apostles comes mostly comes from Paul’s writings, and his definition of apostles is very broad. In 1 Cor. 12:28 Paul wrote that “God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, leadership, different kinds of tongues” (my translation). This is open to people because the entire context of 1 Corinthians 12 is about the Spirit distributing the gifts.
Paul also writes, saying Jesus appeared:
He appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles … (1 Cor. 15:5-7, NIV, emphasis added)
The term apostles here includes the twelve, of course, but the these two passages also opens the door to other kinds, because of how easily Paul shifts to other gifts in his quick list in 1 Cor. 12:28. So some Bible interpreters believe there is another level “below” the twelve. They are the apostles of Christ and then the apostles of the churches.
Apostles of Christ
So some see even a further division here: the apostles of the churches.
Paul: though it may be shocking to some readers, it was argued in the first section that Paul could not be numbered among the twelve, because he never followed Jesus from John’s baptism to his ascension, though this does not mean Paul considered himself inferior to any influential person in Jerusalem, not even Peter, in the least (Gal. 2:6). Paul considered himself an apostle of Christ, called by Christ himself (note his greetings in his letters, like 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1).
James: the Lord’s brother was an apostle of Christ. After spending fifteen days with Peter, Paul wrote: “I saw no other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19, my translation). In other words, James was numbered among the apostles of Christ in Jerusalem.
The brothers of the Lord: Paul seems to put the Lord’s other brothers with the apostles and Cephas / Peter (1 Cor. 9:5). However, in his epistle, Jude says he was James’s brother (1), but he seems to set himself outside of the apostleship, when he reminds his readers of what the apostles of the Lord Jesus foretold (17), but he maybe he was not excluding himself. It is unclear (to me, at least).
Barnabas: he was called an apostle of Christ (Acts 14:4), though the record never says he received his commission from a post-resurrection appearance, unless he was one of the five hundred, a possibility that cannot be excluded, since he was an early and generous disciple (Acts 4:36-37; 14:14; 1 Cor. 9:6). The twelve apostles marked him out from the rest (Acts 4:36).
Silas: he was probably an apostle of Christ, since Paul says, “even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority…” (1 Thess. 2:6-7, NIV); “we” would include Silas (1 Thess. 1:1). Since Silas and Judas were sent by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:27), they may have lived in Jerusalem for a long time and may have seen the risen Christ with the more-than-five hundred (1 Cor. 15:6), but this is not unknown to us. But Silas went on missionary journeys with Peter (1 Peter 5:12) and Paul (Acts 15:18). His title was also a prophet (Acts 15:32), and he helped Peter write his epistle, which would give him extra-authority and endorsement from Peter himself.
Apollos: he was possibly an apostle of Christ (1 Cor. 4:6, 9), though he was probably not part of the more-than-five hundred since he may have been so far afield in Alexandria (Acts 18:24). Paul refers to himself and Apollos in v. 4 and then says “we apostles” in v. 9. If those verses are interpreted accurately, then Paul considered Apollos to be an apostle. But he could be moved to the so-called “church apostles” (see below), since the categories cannot be so tidily defined.
Timothy: he may possibly be considered an apostle, since Paul names him in 1 Thess. 1:1 and then he went on mission trips with Paul and may be included in Paul’s statement in 1 Thess. 2:6, which says “as apostles we” […]. But he was more likely part of the so-called church apostles (see below).
The apostles in Rom. 16:7: Paul mentions them without limiting them to the twelve, though they certainly would include the twelve. An example may possibly be Rufus and his mother who may have made it to Rome (Rom. 16:13; cf. Mark 15:21). His father Simon had done such a kindness to Jesus, when Simon had been compelled to carry the cross, that surely Rufus was an early disciple. Surely he was part of the more-than-five hundred to whom Jesus appeared. But since the text is silent about this title belonging to him, we should not make too much of it.
Andronicus and Junia: they were apostles of Christ (Rom. 16:7), because the Greek says they were “noteworthy” or “prominent” among the apostles. This is confirmed by the Greek-speaking church fathers who had no problem in saying Andronicus and Junia (a female name attested about 250 times) and not Junias (a male name never attested). They were not merely “well known to the apostles” (Rom. 16:7).
See Richard Bauckham’s Gospel Women: Studies in the Named Women in the Gospels (Eerdman’s, 2002), pp. 165-88 for an excellent discussion on Junia.
This post shows that the door is open to women being apostles in Paul’s day:
Apostles of the churches
Some see a lower level of apostles, the so-called “apostles of the churches.” We can also call them church apostles. Let’s explore this issue.
They are church apostles who were sent by the more prominent apostles, or the churches recognized their authority and calling. This is a nontechnical sense of the word apostle.
Certain brothers: they were called apostles, but they were called apostles of the churches (2 Cor. 8:23). Though the Greek reads apostles, the major translations say “messengers” (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NET), “representatives” (NIV, NLT), “delegates” (MSG) or simply “are sent” (NCV, CEV). But I like the term “apostles of the churches.”
Titus: He could be a member of the “certain brothers” in the previous paragraph. Paul sent Titus to Corinth to strengthen and handle the reaction to the rebuke of the church, by the apostle, with Paul’s full authority (1 Cor. 16:10-11). He had Paul’s permission authority to appoint elders on Crete (Titus 1:5-9).
Epaphroditus: he was an apostle of / to the Philippians (Phil. 2:25). Though the Greek reads apostle, the major translations have “messenger” (KJV, NKJV, NAS, NIV, NLT, ESV, NET), “sent” (NCV, CEV), “sending” (MSG). And I like the idea of Epaphroditus being an apostle of this particular church because he was sent.
Recall that perhaps Apollos and Timothy could be placed here. The church in Ephesus sent Apollos to Achaia with a letter to welcome him. So he was sent or commissioned. And Timothy was sent by Paul to strengthen the church in Ephesus, even with two letters (1, 2 Timothy) containing Paul’s authority.
Pricilla and Aquila, a husband and wife team, may be placed here, since they traveled and exercised authority, when they taught Apollos (Acts 18:2, 18-26), but their possible apostleship is far from clear. Paul called them his co-workers, but he distinguished them from apostles (Rom. 16:3, 7). They seemed to host churches (1 Cor. 16:19), more than plant them. More likely they were businesspersons and teachers and shepherd (pastors) of sorts. But they may have been apostles of a church and so should be placed in the previous category.
John Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas and helped to plant churches in new territory (Acts 12:25), though he abandoned them (15:37), but his cousin Barnabas believed in him and traveled with him to Cyprus (15:39), Barnabas’s home island (4:36). He associated with Peter and wrote his Gospel based on the lead apostle’s preaching. He made it all the way to Rome. So could John Mark be an apostle-missionary? Perhaps. If so, then the definition is very broad.
Luke functioned as a missionary, when he traveled with Paul, so does this qualify him to be apostolic on some level, or was he just a bystander and recorder? If he is to be considered an apostle, then the definition is really broad.
In Luke 11:49 Jesus proclaimed that the wisdom of God decided to send to the ancient Israelites prophets and apostles. So in this context it clearly means “messengers” or emissaries, not the twelve or the other apostles listed above.
In this entire section, it is easy to see why Paul has a broad definition, which is not precise and tidy enough for restrictive interpreters today! In 1 Cor. 12:28, Paul wrote that God has placed in the church first apostles. This context seems to be generic, and not restricted to the twelve. Everyone in this section could be in the 1 Cor. 12:28 class.
3.. What about seeing the Lord Jesus as a mark of apostleship?
In 1 Cor. 9:1 Paul writes, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (NIV). This indicates that seeing the Lord is a mark of the apostle, though he may be just offering a list of rhetorical questions to establish his authority, without a requirement to see the Lord that everyone must meet to be an apostle.
Please note, however; just because a Renewalist claims to have seen the Lord in a dream or vision does not mean he is an apostle today. Other factors must be considered, as seen in the previous and following points.
4.. What about planting churches in uncharted territory as a mark of an apostle?
In the same passage, Paul wrote a polemical question, “Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you!” (1 Cor. 9:2, NIV). In his day, super-apostles had been claiming they had authority, while Paul was supposed to take a back seat to them (1 Cor. 3:10; 2 Cor. 11:5, 13; 12:11).
In reply, Paul said that he may not have been an apostle to other churches (like the one in Rome), but he was surely an apostle to the Corinthians, in whose city he was the first to plant a church (v. 2; cf. Acts 18:1-18a). Therefore, 1 Cor. 9:2 teaches that this requirement of being an apostle is to be a church planter by breaking brand new territory and is necessary for today, at a minimum.
And so in today’s churches, missionaries might be able to claim to have an apostolic title on some level but see the tenth point for some caution.
5.. What about signs and wonders and miracles?
Signs, wonders, and miracles also mark an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12), and men who were not numbered among the twelve could do them, like the seventy-two (Luke 10:9). Even Philip, who was a deacon and an evangelist, could work them (Acts 8:4-13). Surely other men and women, whose ministries went unrecorded, could also work them (Mark 16:17-18). (Even if you consider those latter verses in Mark as ungenuine, they still reflect the churches’ beliefs.) Maybe some of these believers were part of the more-than-five hundred to whom Jesus had appeared (1 Cor. 15:6). If so, then they could be considered apostles, if they received an additional call from the Lord. But this is speculation from silence, so caution is needed.
See point no. 10 and criterion no. 2 for more discussion.
For those Renewalists today who claim the title of apostle by virtue of their working signs and wonders and miracles, these manifestations of God’s power are not sufficient to establish their claim. Other factors must play a part, as noted in the previous and following points.
6.. What is the conclusion so far?
According to the NT, the twelve are in a class by themselves, and even Paul referenced them by their number, “the twelve,” almost reflexively and automatically, since he had just named Cephas (Peter), as if Cephas were not part of the twelve (1 Cor. 15:6)! Therefore, no one could ever “graduate” to their level, even in the first century, and not even Paul. There is a God-ordained wall, so to speak, between them and the other apostles.
The second group, the apostles of Christ, are those outside of the twelve, and this evidence comes from one verse in Acts (Barnabas in 14:4) and Paul’s passing references in his writings. He seemed to assume a very broad definition, including himself and many others. So let’s not build up a thick wall between them and the next possible class.
Some interpreters see a third class, the apostles of the churches or church apostles. They were commissioned by the churches or by Paul, for example. They represent the nontechnical use of apostle: representatives or messengers or delegates. Examples of this kind of apostle are Titus, Epaphroditus, and Timothy. They may be considered emissaries or “sent ones,” so they may not be apostles in a formal sense.
In 1 Cor. 12:28 Paul wrote that God placed in the church first apostles. “And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers” […] (NIV). This verse seems general and open, not restrictive, because the context of 1 Corinthians 12 is the Spirit distributing gifts as he wills.
It is possible that a fourth class exists, like John Mark and Priscilla and Aquila and even the apostles that “wisdom” sent to the ancient Israelites, but this class is problematic unless one has a very broad definition of the term “apostle.”
To clarify matter, the next two verses seem to narrow down “apostle” to a select group.
7.. Two key verses that restrict apostleship
Eph. 2:20 says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (NIV).
And Eph. 3:4b-5 says, “… the mystery of Christ … has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (NIV).
Do those verses put all of the apostles of the first century in such a high and exclusive class that the apostolic ministry and calling no longer exists today because the foundation had been laid in that century? To answer that, we have to first answer: who should form the foundation?
For sure the twelve are included in the foundation (Matt. 19:28; Rev. 21:14). I would place Paul there because of his abundance of revelations, and other NT authors. Or one could place only the twelve and Paul in the foundation. Some interpreters could also include any of the seventy-two because they were with Jesus early on and were sent out by him. Or interpreters could include others who were with Jesus from near the beginning, like Joanna and Susanna. All women who proclaimed the resurrection right after it happened could be there, for they revealed the mystery of Christ as the glorified Lord.
In any case, the wall of separation between these earliest disciples who were with Jesus at or near the beginning and later apostles like Barnabas or Silas, assuming they were not part of the earliest disciples, is not clear (to me, at least).
Now what about the many other later apostles being foundational apostles, like Titus, Epaphroditus, Timothy and Apollos? I exclude them, because seemingly they did not operate on the same authority and receive the same revelations as the twelve and Paul. But if an interpreter wishes to include all of them in the foundation, then the debate will go on and on, without a resolution in sight. But interpreters may certainly include them.
Personally I see no reason to get into an endless debate on an issue that will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. I say the door is open today at least to the apostle of the churches like Titus and other missionary-church planters in brand-new regions, like Barnabas. But today’s apostles cannot be in the foundation because they were born far too late, though their calling can still be apostolic (an adjective, not a noun).
I believe 1 Cor. 12:28 opens this door to modern apostles, while Eph. 2:20 closes the door to modern apostles having the same authority as the earliest ones. Today’s apostles are excluded from writing Scriptures and laying a new foundation that was settled in the first century.
In any case, Jesus is the chief cornerstone of the foundation, and if modern apostles and prophets were to lay down another foundation, then they would need another cornerstone. Jesus would not accept their invitation! He does not like presumption.
8.. Key summary of the biblical apostleship
Here’s how the NT presents the ministry of apostle:
1.. Jesus is the high priest and apostle of his church
2.. The Twelve form a special class
3.. Apostles of the foundation (e.g. Paul)
4.. Apostles of the churches
The first three are out of reach for anyone today. In the next point, I discuss whether anyone today can be a part of the fourth class or whether they are a fifth class (of sorts), like missionaries.
9.. So, can apostles today write a new set of Scriptures?
No. As noted (no. 7), the foundational apostles shut the door on such claims. Whoever specifically in the first century should be considered foundational is debatable, but this one feature comes out of the above study: they were with Jesus from the beginning or near the beginning or were with those who were with Jesus early on and were specially called, like Paul. Today’s apostles, if we must use the title, are born two thousand years or more too late. Therefore, today’s apostles are not and cannot be foundational apostles. And therefore, the modern apostles are not or cannot be Scripture writers, no matter how many visions they claim.
10.. Are there possible modern-day examples of apostles?
Only if they meet these criteria:
1.. They break new ground (Rom. 15:20). They evangelize in unreached areas and train those to lead and multiply the new local church. When Paul reached Jerusalem, James (the Lord’s brother) and elders only greeted him Evidently, the twelve went out to evangelize and open up new territory. In contrast, taking sheep in a heavily churched area is not breaking new ground. It is not apostolic.
2.. He does apostolic signs (2 Cor. 12:12). Many people claim these signs and wonders. Workings of miracles is open to Christians when the Spirit distributes this gift (1 Cor. 12:10). Even false preachers can do them (Matt 7:22-23). But they have not evangelized in new, unbroken areas, as Paul did in the northern Mediterranean regions. So signs and wonders of themselves are not decisive.
3.. Apostles simply do not administer a large denomination or ministry. This is a later development as the centuries rolled on and moved towards hierarchy.
4.. Signs and wonders may be minimal indicator of apostleship, more often apostles were called to suffer (Matt 10:16-39; Mark 6:8-9; Luke 9:3-4; 10:3-4; 11:49; 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Tim. 1:11-12; Rev. 18:20). Today’s self-styled American apostles seem unwilling to suffer, though the original ones were willing and did.
5. Now for a “not”: apostles do not come after the foundation was laid in an unreached area and claim new apostolic authority. Later, men came to Corinth to lure disciples away from Pau and his foundation and towards themselves (2 Cor. 10:12-16; see Rom 15:20). Paul accused men like these of being super-apostles and then called them false apostles (2 Cor 10:12-16; 11:12-13). This is possibly what the apostles were claiming in the church of Ephesus: […] “you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (Rev. 2:2, NIV). They were boasting and claiming authority, but instead they were asking for money and laying their foundation on top of the first foundation (evidently done by Paul himself). They may have been luring disciples towards themselves, with clever words. Words are cheap.
So maybe only missionaries who break new ground with evangelism, found churches that last, see signs and wonders, are willing to bear the burden of suffering for the Lord can claim the title “apostle” today.
11.. Word of caution
Paul wrote: “We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us …” (2 Cor. 10:13, NIV). Jesus assigned to Paul his apostleship.
In the ministry of Jesus and the early church, the believers just did not self-appoint to this gift. Jesus appointed the twelve and Paul. Paul got the seal of approval from the apostles in Jerusalem and the elders, though he did not need it (Gal. 2:1-10). He brought up their endorsement possibly because others could claim the apostolic mantle by a vision or a word from the Lord. For example, some called themselves “super-apostles,” but Paul debunks them, saying they were masquerading (2 Cor. 11:5, 13; 12:11). Apparently, they were self-appointed.
As noted, the later church in Ephesus tested some who claimed to be apostles, and they were proven false (Rev. 2:2). Apparently, they strutted around and claimed authority they did not receive from the Lord. What they actually did, though, is unknown (to me at least). It is interesting that Paul had written to the Ephesian church and laid out church gifts: God gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors-teachers (Eph. 4:11).
Therefore it is best to test those who claim an apostolic ministry, just as the Ephesians did in John’s time (when he wrote the Revelation). So self-appointment is a bad idea. These “apostles” may not pass the test; they may not even want to go through a test! It is best to allow the Body of Christ to acknowledge apostolic ministry. This ecclesiastical calling and acknowledgement removes self-serving subjectivity, personal ambition, and self-aggrandizement.
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God and his church?
By my observation, the preacher who claims to be an apostle usually is not. I urge caution about following someone who gives himself or herself the title. Just for safety and balance in the church, I believe we should avoid the title. We need to attract, not distract, new converts to our churches and keep the long-time church goers. By not throwing around this title, we will prevent distractions, which happen when churches squabble over the issue.
Be free and mature enough not to use the noun and even the adjective.
Self-denial is mature and humble. Choose this way.
However, let’s not over-generalize because not everyone who claims the title is wrong.
And so, biblically the title apostle does exist today, but it is limited to missionary and pioneering endeavors, as noted under point no. 11.
Craig Keener has an excellent, written three-part (short) series:
At that link, do a word search with “apostle.”