As I came to write this last article on the APEPT, I found myself somewhat nervous, because if the notions of prophets in the modern day are contentious, then apostles ratchet that contentiousness up to a whole new level.
Let me begin by renewing my prayer to God, that only His understanding, His wisdom, will arise from this article. I would prefer by far that this article sink unnoticed into the depths of the internet, to be utterly forgotten by every man and woman, than to have one believer lead astray by my words. May the Lord make it so, in Jesus name.
Who or what is an apostle?
The term apostle derives from New Testament Greek and essentially means something like messenger (lit. one who is sent or sent out). Not just any kind of messenger, though; specifically, an emissary – an authorised messenger. The authorisation is the key to understanding apostles.
Every believer is able to share the good news of Jesus, but apostles bring that message with the full authority of the throne of Christ. The best way I can think of to describe it is to use a parallel with modern citizenship.
I’m a citizen of my nation; I have my birth certificate and passport that testify that I am Australian. When I travel to other countries I remain a citizen of Australia. I am not still in Australia, I’m in other nations and their laws can come to bear against me.
Australia also sends ambassadors to other countries and ambassadors come with the full authority of my country. Where they live, the embassy, is officially foreign soil; it’s actually under my country’s authority. They have diplomatic immunity from certain laws in foreign lands.
Every Christian is a citizen of the Kingdom of God. This is the gospel Jesus preached:
nor shall they say, Lo, here; or lo, there; for lo, the reign of God is within you. Luke 17:21
But an apostle is more than that; each is an ambassador, an emissary of that Kingdom. They come with a level of authority and power that the ordinary citizen is not given. Where they go, the Kingdom goes and where they stand becomes Kingdom ground. Nowadays embassies maintain a small number of soldiers to act as personal security for the ambassador and his staff.
That’s what an apostle is.
He’s got the gospel and the full authority of the Kingdom and the throne of Christ to back him; and the spiritual forces, angelic and demonic, know it. Which is why people like Paul and Peter used to have demons spontaneously manifest around them (e.g. Acts 16:17) and why false religions get very stirred up by their mere presence in a community (e.g. the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19).
Their full authority in Christ is also testified to by the fact that apostles do miracles, performing signs and wonders.
“Truly I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” John 14:12
The signs and wonders which apostles do are also distinctive in their level of understanding of authority. For example, some faithful believers, active in deliverance ministry, point out that without repentance it is not possible to drive off the devil’s influence from a person’s life. If the victim of the Enemy’s influence is unwilling to repent, then the Enemy will not go from their life.
Apostles are not bound by this limitation, just as Jesus was not limited by it either. Paul’s experience with the girl with a spirit of divination in Phillipi (Acts 16: 18) is a good example. Paul rebuked the spirit without the girl’s repentance. Jesus gives His apostles the mission to use His authority to its fullest extent;
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…Matt 28:18
He sends His Apostles
Understanding the apostles as ambassadors with full authority also points us to the only “qualification” of an apostle. Apostles are sent and that sending is by Jesus. We know the twelve disciples were sent out with His power in the Great Commission (Matt 28: 16-20). In the eastern orthodox traditions, the seventy (or seventy-two) disciples sent out (Luke 10) are also accepted as apostles, since they were sent and performed miracles and signs in Jesus authority.
Paul the apostle seems to receive his commission through prophets in Antioch (Acts 13), but we must remember that Paul had already met with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and at that time Jesus sent him: “Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you are to do.” Acts 9: 6.
From my reading of scripture, it seems necessary for an apostle to meet the risen Jesus and receive their commission from Him directly. I believe this is the key. Ambassadorships are conferred directly by the head-of-state. An ambassador (in this case apostle) stands in the presence of the head of state (in this case Christ, seated at the right hand of the Most High) and receives his authority from Him.
From our perspective this is wonderful, because it both limits and empowers the ministry of apostle. Surely hardly anyone receives a visitation by the risen Jesus, so it’s rare. Yet, because of its rarity we can know that any man who has not been so visited is unlikely to be an apostle.
I know I’ve hammered this point in every article I’ve written about the APEPT, but it still bears repeating; these ministries are gifts to the Body of Christ from God. We cannot train someone to them, appoint someone to them or recruit someone for them. God gives and we receive. And never more so than with apostles – Jesus himself does the sending.
A Kingdom at war
Being sent by Jesus also raises the other notable testimony of the ministry of an apostle – direct conflict with the principalities and powers of this world. Apostles mix it up with the Devil and his fallen angels head on, with direct spiritual conflict.
And let me be clear, I don’t mean magic shows conducted in Christian safe-spaces. Stories of flashy, supposed miracles such as “gold dust” or “angels’ feathers” showering down from heaven, deeply trouble me. What’s the point of that? How is the Kingdom advanced like that? Gold dust does not feature in the scriptures as a sign of the Lord.
The only ancient reference that I know of is in the legends of the pagan Greek god Zeus, who supposedly impregnated a maiden by appearing to her as a shower of gold dust.
It is right for Christians to gather before the Lord and pray for deliverance from the enemy. We should always pray for the overturning of Satan and the coming of God’s Kingdom; but apostles go where the enemy thinks he is strong. Apostles take the fight right up to the enemy – and it ain’t fun.
Going by the New Testament, the number one marker of an apostle’s ministry is persecution leading to violence and unjust imprisonment. Of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples only two escaped martyrdom (and one of those two was Judas, who committed suicide). All the other apostles died at the hands of pagans and unbelievers.
When challenged about his qualifications as an apostle, Paul presented a laundry list of hardships and horrors that almost beggars belief. I wrote on Facebook a little while ago: “If you’re called to be an apostle I expect to see unjust imprisonment and brutal violence against you, not silk suits and multi-thousand seat auditoriums.”
So, let’s turn this back to the original prompt for this series: are there apostles now, at this time, in human history? I hope so. I’ve never met a man who seemed to be working in the ministry of apostle, nor seen conclusive evidence.
I have heard some stories from around the world, but it’s so hard to know for sure. My heart’s desire is that there are apostles about in the Body, living and working and dying for our Lord and King; hidden from most human eyes, but noticed by their Master and destined for reward in His day.
That’s where I’m at.
A word about the Apostolic Age
I should take a moment to clarify something – I don’t believe in the existence of the Apostolic Age. I do not believe that once the last of the twelve was dead, that is the gospel author John around 100 A.D., that apostleship just vanished. Here’s some of my reasoning.
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul writes about the preeminence of love in the Christian walk. He tells us that it is greater than tongues, prophecy and knowledge. Then in 1 Cor 13:10 he writes this:
But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part (meaning tongues, prophecy and knowledge) will be done away.
Many people say that the Bible is the perfect thing that has come and point to its completion – in the writing of the Revelation to John – as the marker point for doing away with the things which are in part.
By this reasoning, tongues and prophecy are done away with because we now have the complete Bible, thus marking an end to the Apostolic Age, since the completion of the Bible coincides with the death of the last living member of the twelve, John.
But what has been perfected?
The problem I have with this view is that two verses later, in 1 Cor 13:12, Paul writes:
…Now I know in part, but then (when that which is perfect has come) I shall know just as I also am known
Paul also says that the coming of the perfected thing will let him see face-to-face. Could anyone seriously claim that the Bible lets us know God as well as God knows us? Because that’s the standard Paul sets – to know as we are known, to see God face-to-face. Surely such intimacy can only be in the world to come, when we have been resurrected into heavenly bodies like Christ’s (2 Cor 5).
If we do not yet know God as we are known, nor see Him face-to-face, then that which is perfect cannot have come yet. So, the Bible cannot be the “perfect” thing to which Paul refers. And if the “perfect” thing has not come, then prophecy, tongues and knowledge cannot have passed away.
How many ages?
The Great Commission raises similar issues about timing out the apostolic gifting. Jesus says to the eleven “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matt 28:20. Now if we believe in the Apostolic Age, then the Great Commission could be argued to have ceased in 100 A.D., since that’s the “end of the age”.
The existence of an Apostolic Age would mean that Jesus is no longer with us, since He said He would be with his disciples to the end of the age.
You might say that He is referring to some other age, but since He’s talking to the apostles, whose ministry it is that defines the supposed Apostolic Age, then the most likely meaning of end of the age must surely be the Apostolic Age.
So, for me, to believe in the apostolic age, is to bring into question the Great Commission.
These are some of the thoughts and reasoning that leave me convinced that the fivefold ministry in general, and apostleship in particular, have not passed away, but are still extant.