There are at least two major religious bodies today who claim apostleship or apostolic like authority for individuals in their religion. The Mormons plainly state that they have living apostles in The Quorum of the Twelve. These, they claim, have apostolic authority just as the apostles of the New Testament. The Catholic church doesn’t claim to have any modern day apostles, per se, but they believe strongly in the principle of apostolic succession which more or less states that they have individuals who are on par with the twelve apostles in the persons of their arch-bishops. There are also a litany of denominational preachers (mostly pentecostal in nature) who claim to be apostles with the same authority Jesus personally gave the twelve. These justify their claims by going to Ephesians 4:11 and saying that God gave some to be “apostles.” Ought we to believe that God has given us apostles today? If so, in what mold ought these apostles to be considered?
The word “apostle” simply means “one who is sent.” There is nothing extraordinary about this word in the Greek language. It was a word used in ancient literature to describe anyone who was sent on a particular mission. The New Testament describes more than just the twelve as apostles. The writer of the book of Hebrews calls Jesus an Apostle (Hebrews 3:1). Barnabas also was called an apostle in Acts 14:4 because he was one of the men sent specifically by the church at Antioch to go to the gentiles (see Acts 13:2-4). But there is also within the New Testament, a specialized sense in which this word is used. As we have come to know, it primarily refers to the office that was held by the twelve apostles given to them specifically by Jesus himself.
Jesus selected the twelve apostles specifically to be eye-witnesses of his life. We find a listing of these men in Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, and Luke 6:13-16. Matthew and Luke specifically use the word “apostle” to describe these men. In the book of Acts also, Luke refers to them as the “apostles whom [Jesus] had chosen” (Acts 1:2) and repeats the list of the now eleven men in Acts 1:13. Acts 1:8 declares Jesus’ specific purpose for these men. He says, “you shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” The job of the apostles was to testify as eye-witnesses that Jesus was who he claimed to be (see John 21:24 and Acts 8:25).
That this was the primary reason Jesus selected the apostles can be seen in the qualifications for the successor of Judas. We read this story in Acts 1:15-26. We learn from this that when it came to selecting a new apostle, some qualifications had to be met. Peter states in Acts 1:21,22, “Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.” Notice first that Peter chose from among men that had accompanied them at all times during Jesus ministry. Second, they had to witness Jesus’ life from the baptism of John until the day that Jesus ascended into heaven. Finally, the one who qualified would be appointed or ordained a witness of Jesus’ resurrection. We read in Acts 1 that not just one, but two men qualified, Joseph and Matthias. However, the apostles only chose one of those two to fulfill the office of apostle. This information clearly demonstrates that even among those that qualified, not all were selected and shows that the apostleship was a special office that could not be filled by just anyone. Significantly, after Matthias’ appointment, we don’t find any other examples of succession of apostles, though we do find at least one apostle being killed, James (Acts 12:2). After this point, the apostles, as a body of decision makers, begin to fade out and elders begin playing the permanent role of decision making in the church (see Acts 14:23, Acts 15:6, Acts 20:17, Acts 21:18). Why would this be if there were continual successions of apostles to lead and guide the church?
The twelve apostles of Jesus not only served as the leaders of the early church, they also were given special abilities by Jesus in order to carry the gospel to the whole of creation. We note that they were the first individuals who were baptized in the Holy Spirit according to Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:4, 5. This promise was fulfilled in Acts 2:1-4 when the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. That Jesus was the one who administered this baptism is clear from John’s prophecy regarding the Messiah in Matthew 3:11 and parallels. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was not administered by any other.
The apostles also had the unique ability to lay their hands on believers so that they could receive the ability to do miracles. In Acts 8, Philip went into Samaria preaching the gospel. Many believed because they saw the signs that Philip perform (Acts 8:6) and they were baptized (Acts 8:12). But they themselves could do no miracle until the apostles Peter and John came and laid their hands on them (Acts 8:14-17). Simon saw this phenomenon and rightly concluded that it was due to the laying on of hands that these miracles were happening. So he offered money for the ability. It wasn’t the ability to do miracles that he was after; it was the ability to lay his hands on someone else so that they might do miracles. This is clear in the words that Simon uses in Acts 8:19. But this ability wasn’t for him, nor was it for anyone else. We know this because not even Philip could lay his hands on individuals so that they could receive the ability to do the miraculous. It was an ability unique to the apostles and when the apostles died, the ability to lay hands on others so that they might do the miraculous was also ended.
The apostles were also given the ability to do special signs which only they could demonstrate. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:12 “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.” What were the signs of an apostle? Laying on hands was one, but there were more. Evidently, only the Apostles had the ability to do most or all of the miraculous gifts that God had provided for the early church. These miraculous gifts are listed in different places throughout scripture, but they included: prophesying, speaking in tongues, interpreting, special knowledge, special faith, revelation, special prayers, special songs, special wisdom, healing, miracles, and special discernment (see 1 Corinthians 12:8-10). These gifts were distributed among the brethren, but only the apostles, evidently, had all or most all of these special abilities.
Why did they have these abilities? What was their purpose? This takes us to Ephesians 4:11 and the question that started our entire study of apostles. Paul states in that verse, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers,” but notice that he gives the explanation for why these offices were created and why the gifts that Jesus gave were given (Ephesians 4:7-9). Verse 12-15 say:
“For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”
The purpose of the miracles was to establish the early church to the point where they could be self sustaining and be a full-grown entity that is capable of surviving without such miraculous aid. The “unity of the faith” was key to being able to accomplish this. Without the revelation of God’s will for the church, they would not be able to continue to sustain themselves as God’s church. Hence, the miraculous gifts were necessary to both reveal to God’s people what God desired for them to do as well as to prove that the message that was spoken was, in fact, God’s message (see Mark 16:20, John 20:30,31 and Hebrews 2:3, 4). There were others besides the apostles who could perform miraculous gifts, yes, but as we’ve noted the apostles were the unique distribution point from which these unique abilities were propagated. Without them, there could be no exercise of the miraculous.
The implication of this is that today we don’t have apostles, at least, in the same sense that these men were specially chosen by Jesus for this particular function in the church. To have such an apostle would mean that they would have the same abilities as these apostles had and the one’s who make such a modern day claim simply don’t have those abilities. This isn’t to say that one can’t be an apostle in the ordinary sense of the word of one who has been sent for a particular job or mission. Certainly we can have apostles in that sense, but that’s clearly not the same as the function and role that the twelve apostles fulfilled in the New Testament.
Moreover, there is no need to have modern day apostles in the same vein as the twelve. The work that the apostles were given to do was accomplished and that work stands before us today in the pages of the New Testament. One might argue and say that all other roles in Ephesians 4:11 wouldn’t be necessary either. Such an argument doesn’t hold true because it is the whole of the individuals in Ephesians 4:11 that were given to accomplish what God desired, not each individual role. Moreover, in saying such, one assumes that the role of the twelve apostles can only be fulfilled while they are alive. Such isn’t the case. The apostles are still fulfilling the function that God gave them to do, even though they, as individuals, have passed on. We still have apostles today in the sense that the influence of these men continues to live.
There are, however, other roles mentioned in this passage which require living individuals in order for these roles to continue to be fulfilled as God would have them. Individuals may still fulfill the role of pastor, teacher, and evangelist today without, of course, the direct aid of miraculous gifts. The bottom line is that just because some roles in Ephesians 4:11 are no longer miraculously filled today doesn’t mean that other roles couldn’t be filled in a non-miraculous way. Remember the various miraculous gifts that were listed from 1 Corinthians 12:8-10? Some of those gifts were knowledge, faith, interpreting, singing, and praying. Can those gifts be practiced today in a non-miraculous way? Absolutely they can, though some of those gifts were uniquely miraculous. So also in the roles that God designed for the church. Some of those roles were uniquely miraculous. Others, however, could be exercised either miraculously or non-miraculously. Hence, we ought not to conclude from Ephesians 4:11 that we must either have all of these roles today or none of them. The role of apostle was designed to end on earth, but have lasting consequences whereas other roles were designed to continue on earth perpetually in the church.
Having studied the various different aspects of what it meant to be an apostle, one can truly understand why we don’t have special apostles today like the twelve. Their role was important, necessary, consequential, yet fulfilled in the men that directly witnessed the life of Christ during His earthly ministry. Paul too was a witness of the resurrected Jesus’ and received the gospel directly from Jesus according to Galatians 1:10-12. He was as much an apostle as the others in that regard and so he is no exception to the rule, but merely one who was “born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:28). But once again, the miraculous nature of his apostleship testifies as to its temporal nature. Today the influence of the twelve continues to live on, though, there is no apostolic succession. Their work abides and cannot be improved upon; we have everything we need revealed for us in scripture. Indeed, what would a so called modern day apostle do to improve upon their work? Let us be satisfied with the pattern God has left for the church and not seek to innovate based upon our own perceived inadequacies.