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Christians around the world joyfully confess “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, AD 381). That is, the sole church (one) that God has set apart (holy) in all times and places (catholic) consists of those whom He has assembled out of the world and into the redemptive reign of the only true Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. But those descriptors hold true only as the church is also “Apostolic,” that is, built up through the ministry and message of Jesus’ Apostles, with the exalted Christ as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). It is the Apostles who have delivered the body of doctrine—revealed by the Holy Spirit, centered on God’s accomplishment of redemption through the work of the incarnate Christ—that defines the church today. For the church to be “Apostolic,” therefore, is to hold to the teaching of the Apostles concerning God and the gospel. But what exactly is an Apostle?
The Identity of the Apostles
The New Testament, and especially Paul, uses the Greek word apostolos (apostle) in at least two senses. Broadly, it means one who is sent on a specific mission as an envoy or representative of the sender. For example, when Titus’ two companions traveled to collect the Corinthian church’s full contribution for the saints in Jerusalem, they arrived as “messengers [apostoloi] of the churches” in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:23). Likewise, the Philippian church dispatched Epaphroditus as their “messenger [apostolos] and minister to [Paul’s] need” (Phil. 2:25). This broad use of the term apostolos may reflect an older Jewish legal concept that the messenger resembles the sender insofar as his activity reflects the sender’s will and authority. As Jesus observed, “A servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger [apostolos] greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16).
In its more focused and familiar sense, the word apostolos designates one who was uniquely commissioned by Christ to bear authoritative witness to His person and work. Originally, Jesus chose twelve for this role (Luke 6:13). After Judas’ betrayal, Matthias was “numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26). After Christ confronted Saul of Tarsus from heaven on the road to Damascus, Saul—later Paul—became “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9).
Others, about whom the New Testament describes no specific appointment by Christ like the examples above, were closely associated with the Apostles and were viewed as functioning within their orbit. This category includes James, the Lord’s brother (1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19), Luke the physician (Col. 4:14), Silas and Timothy (1 Cor. 4:17; 2 Cor. 1:19), Barnabas (1 Cor. 9:5–6), Apollos (1 Cor. 4:6), and perhaps Andronicus and Junias or Junia (Rom. 16:7), among others. The flexibility in how the New Testament uses the term apostolos makes it difficult to determine precisely who among this group were emissaries of churches, close associates of Paul, or official “apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13). Whatever the exact number, Apostles in the sense of the specific Apostolic office were those who had seen the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1) and were appointed by Him to proclaim and to inscribe divinely approved testimony regarding the facts and meaning of His finished work.
The Ministry of the Apostles
The ministry of the Apostles as Christ’s “sent ones” flows out of the deeper reality that Christ Himself is the One “sent” by the Father from heaven to be our incarnate Redeemer (Mark 9:37). In that sense, the author of Hebrews writes, Jesus is “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb. 3:1). Being the divine radiance of His Father’s glory as the eternal Son (1:3), He is the One who as a man has climactically revealed His Father’s identity and will (John 6:38; 14:9).
As those personally called and sent by Jesus, the Apostles derived supernatural power for their ministry from Christ Himself as God’s Messiah. The Apostles exercised Jesus’ authority over demonic forces and physical diseases as they preached the good news of God’s kingdom on earth (Matt. 10:1, 5; Luke 9:1–2). Their signs and wonders reflected Christ’s own miracles (e.g., compare Jesus’ raising of a little girl in Mark 5:41 and Peter’s raising of a woman in Acts 9:40) and so authenticated their announcement of Christ’s redemptive work. Consequently, just as citizens honor another country’s president or king by welcoming his ambassador, those in Israel who received the Apostles and responded in faith to their preaching concerning Christ honored the Father who sent Christ (Matt. 10:40).
Christ’s relationship to His Apostles reached even greater heights after His ascension, when in glorified fellowship with His Father, He poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:33). Sharpened by three years of ministry in Jesus’ physical presence but now endowed with His spiritual presence from heaven, the Apostles and their associates shot from Jerusalem as arrows from Christ’s bow so that the salvation He had won and which they proclaimed might reach the ends of the earth (1:8). These divine messengers did not boast of material prosperity or peddle religious novelties. Rather, despised by the world, they exhibited the death of Jesus in the way they lived and preached so that countless generations of believers might live through Him (2 Cor. 4:8–12). God revealed to the world through the Apostles what Paul calls “the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4)—the divine plan to save Jews and gentiles before visibly displaying the glory of heaven throughout the earth under the cosmic reign of King Jesus (see Eph. 1:9–10; Phil. 2:10–11).
The Finality of the Apostles
Because the Apostles were commissioned as the eyewitnesses of the ministry of Christ (see, e.g., John 1:14; 15:27; Acts 1:21–22) and because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, their interpretation of His person and work in Scripture is infallible and all-sufficient. Their writings reveal the holy “tradition” (2 Thess. 2:15) to which all Christians must hold fast. Their doctrine makes up “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3; see 1 Cor. 11:23; 15:3–4). Christ’s redemptive work on earth is finished (see John 19:30), and that finality correlates to a final Apostolic word from God concerning the meaning of that work in the New Testament. The inescapable conclusion from this connection is that while the inscripturated words of the Apostles abide forever (1 Peter 1:25), the office of Apostle has ceased.
Paul vividly verifies the once-for-all character of the Apostolic office by declaring that the church is now being built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). Just as the foundation of a house is laid only once, so no more Apostolic testimony or new prophetic revelation is forthcoming. Instead, the Apostolic message—on par with Old Testament revelation (see, for example, 2 Peter 3:2, 16)—now provides the unshakable bedrock upon which God is fitting Christians together like “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5) to build a spiritual house in which sacrifices of praise ascend to heaven and glorify His name. Therefore, Christians should be wary of anyone today who claims the mantle of “apostle,” lest the sufficiency of the church’s foundation be threatened and God be robbed of His glory.
Lessons from the Apostles
Even though there are no Apostles today, Christians are still called to be “Apostolic” in at least three ways. First and foremost, believers should cherish the binding authority of the Apostles’ witness enshrined in the New Testament, along with all Old Testament revelation (see Luke 24:44–45). As we hold our Bibles in hand, we should marvel that we possess a revelation of Christ “which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5). The Apostles’ doctrine concerning God and His gospel is what unites the church in every age and lacks nothing that is necessary for living in eternal fellowship with God. We can be thankful that “in these last days” (Heb. 1:2) God has spoken in His Son by the power of the Spirit through the Apostles.
Second, Christians should not be surprised when they face the same worldly opposition as the Apostles did in their day. Recall how those in Corinth and beyond mocked the Apostle Paul as weak (2 Cor. 10:10), a fool (11:16), and even deceitful (12:16). To the worldly wise and powerful, Paul and his ilk were “like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13). Our increasingly secular culture often similarly scoffs at followers of Christ today. Our response should emulate that of Paul, who did not boast in his own religious or worldly accomplishments but rejoiced that his sufferings for the faith showed that he belonged to the world of heaven, to the school of the Spirit, and to the triumphal procession of Christ’s victory over sin and death (1 Cor. 2:12–13; 2 Cor. 2:14).
Third and finally, “Apostolic” Christians who prize the Scriptures in this fallen world should exhibit a Christlike boldness in living for God’s glory. Though we are not tasked with the same foundation-laying mission as the Apostles, all Christians are called to carry out the Great Commission according to their station in God’s kingdom. Thankfully, the same Christ who promised to be with the Apostles “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20) through the Spirit is with us today, and nothing can thwart His saving purpose. The living God who laid the church’s one foundation through Christ and His Apostles will complete it on the day of Christ, and none shall prevail against it (16:18).