This will be the first of a series of postings dealing with the various functions, frequently mistakenly labeled “offices”, served by different folks at different times in the New Testament church. They were simply jobs that needed to be done, for which the Lord, by the Holy Spirit, assigned responsibility “as he pleased.” A good introduction to the subject would be for you to review chapters 6, 7, and 8 of Citizens of the Kingdom, which deal with a distinctly different approach to “leadership” in the New Testament church from the one that is common in the 20-21st century corporate structures that carry the name of “churches.”
Notice from the outset, that except when referring to a specific, named individual, every function is plural. Notice also that different people appear to have served different functions at different times. This should make it clear that IN NO CASE was any of these viewed as a lifetime position, assignment, title, office, or rank. Remember that Jesus himself had strictly forbidden that (Mt.23:1-12).
I choose to deal with these functions in alphabetical order, in order to avoid any appearance of hierarchical classification.
We will begin with apostles: generally the first persons from whom a new group would have heard about the Lord Jesus and his Kingdom.
Apostolos is one of those words that, through the centuries, has acquired a somewhat mystical aura that never existed in its linguistic etymology. Classically, it referred to anyone sent anywhere for any purpose! This could be the ambassador or envoy of some royal personage, the commander of a military (usually naval) force, an export license for a business, or a slave sent on an errand. The verb, apostello, was similarly inclusive: simply, “to send.” In the New Testament, it was used of everything from Jesus “sending” the Holy Spirit, to his promise to return [“send back”] the donkey he borrowed on Palm Sunday! (So much for “status”!)
The synoptic gospels refer to the 12 original disciples as “apostles”, usually in the context of Jesus’ sending them out as his representatives. “Ambassadors” or “envoys” would be a logical choice here, given that the burden of Jesus’ message concerned the Kingdom he had come to establish (See word studies 19, 20, and 21.) This may have been the thought behind Peter’s eagerness (note that this was his own idea, before Pentecost) to replace Judas as a “witness to Jesus’ resurrection.” The group took this action on their own: Jesus had told them simply to wait for the Holy Spirit. And while they were not scolded for the choice of Matthias as an “apostle”, we never hear of him again.
As the church took root and grew, understandably, the experience of the men who had spent those three years walking and working with Jesus was respected. After all, they had “been there, done that.” But it was not long before the work – and the authority – needed to be shared more widely. Some of the original 12 may have filled multiple roles: we do not know, for example, if the “Philip” chosen as a “deacon” in Ac.6 (see previous post), the “apostle” of that name (Mt.10:3, Jn.14), and the “evangelist” who went first to Samaria and then to Gaza (Ac.8), are the same person, or two, or three. It was not an uncommon name. “Elders” (see next post) shared the mediator role with “apostles” at the Jerusalem Conference (Ac.15), and Paul and Barnabas (Ac.13:3), Judas and Silas (Ac.15:27 and 32) are also included with that label in Luke’s account. In various epistles, Paul adds Andronicus and Junia (Rom.16:7), Epaphroditus (Phil.2:25), Titus and other brethren (II Cor.8:23), and Tychicus (II Tim.4:12). The same word is applied to all, though translators reluctant to use “apostle” for any but those traditionally so labeled have changed it to “messenger” in some cases.
So – what makes a person an “apostle”? Paul speaks of a number of things which he labels “signs of an apostle”: endurance, signs and wonders [demonstrations of the power of God] (II Cor.12:12), having seen Jesus, and the conversion of a brotherhood (I Cor.9:1-2), Jesus’ appearance to him despite his former career as a persecutor (I Cor.15:7-9), and his (Paul’s) choice neither to flatter nor dominate them, his self-giving and self-support. He notes in I Cor.9:5-13 that as an apostle, he had a right to take along a wife on his travels as Peter and the others did, and to expect support, but he deliberately failed to claim those rights, as evidence that he was not working for his own gain. He had some rather caustic things to say about “false apostles” who had no such scruples (II Cor.11:5-13.)
Apostles, one of God’s gifts to the church (Eph.4:11), are usually itinerant, but they are not independent or free-lancers! Notice how Peter (Ac.10), following the explicit instructions of the Spirit in his visit to Cornelius, nevertheless took along other brethren as witnesses (10:23 and 11:2), and carefully reported back to the others in Jerusalem. Likewise, Paul and Barnabas (Ac.12:25 and 14:26) and later Paul and Silas (18:22) reported back to the church at Antioch, from which they had been sent out. Paul writes in Gal.2:7-9 about his own checking out of his message and activity with those who had served as apostles for longer than he.
The work of an apostle is likewise quite varied. It includes evangelizing (the many “missionary journeys”), strengthening and encouraging the young congregations (Ac.14:22, 16:40, 18:11, 20:1), correcting errors (Galatians and Corinthians), teaching (Ac.15:35, 18:11, Timothy and Titus), and moderating/mediating disputes (Ac.15, and much of both Corinthian letters).
Perhaps the best description of the work of a faithful apostle can be found in Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders (Ac.20:17-35). He reminds them of his behavior among them: refraining from pulling rank, teaching publicly and in homes, completing his assignment from the Lord Jesus to bear testimony to the grace of God, urging them to conform their lives to God’s plan, and setting an example of doing honest work in order to care for the weak.
It is hard to read such a statement, and then accept the ideas advanced by those who insist that there is no longer any need for apostles! There is no such nonsense in the New Testament! Faithful apostolic teaching will continue to be needed until the Lord comes!
Even Jesus himself is called an “apostle” (Heb.3:1), and he spoke often of having been “sent” by the Father with an assignment to fulfill. This is sprinkled like a refrain throughout the gospel of John. Paul, in most of his letters, describes his task as having been “sent by Jesus, according to the will of God.” Others were chosen and sent by the Holy Spirit through the agency of a gathered congregation.
When was the last time you enjoyed a prayer meeting like the one described in Ac.13:1-3? Dare we assume that the Spirit has not spoken, just because we have not heard him? Or must we admit that maybe we just weren’t listening?
We impoverish ourselves if we refuse to continue that pattern.