"Your church is not organized as the early church was. Where are your apostles?" Such was the contention of two Mormon "elders" who came to my door one day. It is not the only time I have heard such a question; there are several denominations that claim to have apostles, especially among the charismatic groups. Such claims cannot go unchallenged.
The word "apostle" refers to a person who is sent as a messenger. It particularly applies to a group of men sent by Jesus Christ to serve as witnesses. When Peter and the other apostles presented the first gospel sermon, Peter stated, "This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses" (Acts 2:32). The witness was not merely testimony about their personal beliefs. These men testified about the events they personally witnessed. "What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life - and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us - what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete" (I John 1:1-4).
Being an eyewitness was a crucial qualification for apostleship. When Judas had to be replaced as an apostle, the remaining apostles looked for men who were present with Jesus. "Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us - beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us--one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22). It was a man's ability to provide eyewitness evidence regarding the resurrection of Jesus that was of primary concern. Peter confirmed this when speaking to Cornelius about his duties, "We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead" (Acts 10:39-41).
This testimony to the reality of Jesus was so important, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to help the apostles accurately recall what they had seen (John 15:26-27). The Holy Spirit also provided the apostles' miraculous powers to confirm their testimony (Acts 4:33). "God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will" (Hebrews 2:4).
It is important to understand that these men were not self-appointed missionaries. They were sent by Jesus Christ himself, hence the name "apostle" (Acts 1:8).
Sometimes people speak of "witnessing for Christ." Technically, we cannot be witnesses. We were not present when Christ walked this earth. We did not see him die. We are not witnesses of his resurrection. We can speak of Christ. We can give evidence of the change in our own lives that came about when we followed the blessed teachings. However, we cannot be witnesses to the events of the first century. We cannot prove that Jesus is the Son of God as the apostles did in the beginning. They were able to offer their personal testimony concerning the things they personally experienced.
The apostles had other duties beyond serving as witnesses to Jesus. They were a part of the foundation of Jesus' church (Ephesians 2:19-20). They brought the early church into existence and taught the disciples how to become Christlike (Christians).
To accomplish this task, Jesus gave them the authority to issue commands on behalf of God. "Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). Most translations do not express this verse as clearly as the New American Standard. Jesus was not saying that the apostles could create any law they desired and God would go along with them. The phrase, "shall have been bound in heaven" is in the past tense in Greek. The things they were to bind on earth were things that have already been bound in heaven. They were not creating laws. They were passing on the laws of God with the authority Jesus granted to them (I Corinthians 14:37).
The apostles were full representatives of Christ to the people. How they were received directly reflects how these people would receive the Lord Jesus. "The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me" (Luke 10:16). The authority they held was not their own, but the delegated authority of the Lord (II Peter 3:1-2). Hence when their teaching was accepted it was accepted as God's own words. "For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe" (I Thessalonians 2:13).
The 27 books of the New Testament are the result of the apostle's work and they form a permanent record of God's teachings (I Peter 1:23-25). This combined work contains everything we need for life and godliness (II Peter 1:3). It equips us for every good work (II Timothy 3:16-17). Once it was handed down, there would be no need for any further revelation. The apostles wrote their testimony so that their joy would be made complete (I John 1:1-4). "Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 3).
Counting the Apostles
Jesus personally selected twelve men to be His apostles. They are named for us in Luke 6:12-16. When Judas committed suicide after betraying the Christ, another apostle was selected to take his place (Acts 1:20-26). When looking for qualified men, the disciples were able to narrow the field down to two men. However, they knew they could only select one; it was important that the number of apostles remain at twelve. Hence, they prayed to Jesus to select the proper replacement and drew lots, confident that it was actually Jesus who was doing the selection.
It wasn't much longer before another apostle died. James was killed by Herod during the early persecution of the church (Acts 12:1-2). Yet, prior to this, Jesus had selected Paul to be His apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:10-16; 22:12-16, 21). From Paul's statement regarding his selection, it appears he did not assume his duties immediately (Galatians 1:15-19).
Men have always questioned whether Paul really was an apostle. His selection came much later than the other men, and Paul was not one of Jesus's disciples while He was here on earth. Paul argued that he did not come to his position because he was trained by other men (Galatians 1:11-12). He points out that the remaining apostles and leaders in the church recognized Paul as an apostle (Galatians 2:6-10). We even have Peter's own testimony of his acceptance of Paul (II Peter 3:15-16).
Paul met the qualifications for apostleship. He was an eyewitness of Jesus's resurrection (I Corinthians 9:1; 15:3-10). He was able to give proof of his apostleship by the signs God gave to accompany him (II Corinthians 12:11-12). Paul considered himself to be the least of the apostles, not because of a lack of ability or authority, but because he had fought the Lord in his past. He felt he wasn't worthy of being called by the Lord, though he deeply appreciated the gift given to him. Hence, Paul could justly claim that he was called to be an apostle by Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 1:1).
Therefore, we read that the church was founded on twelve apostles (Revelation 21:14). Fourteen men held the title of apostle, but essentially there were only twelve at any one time.
Were there not other men who were called apostles? Yes, there were. You must remember that the word "apostle" was not created for this particular office. The office was called by a Greek word that was already in existence - the Greek word for a sent messenger.
For example, we can read in II Corinthians 8:23, "As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker among you; as for our brethren, they are messengers of the churches, a glory to Christ." The word translated as "messenger" in this passage is the word "apostle." Why then was it translated "messenger" instead of "apostle?" Because the verse tells us that Titus and the others who accompanied Paul were sent by the churches. The original twelve were sent by Jesus Christ. The two replacements were also selected by Jesus. But, these men were sent by the churches. Hence, the context dictates that the word is being used in its common sense and not in reference to the office. Similarly, Epaphroditus was the messenger of the Philippian church (Philippians 2:25), even though the word used is that of an apostle.
What about Barnabas in Acts 14:4, 14? We know Paul was sent by Jesus, but here both Barnabas and Paul are referred to as apostles. If you turn back to Acts 13:1-3, you will find that Paul and Barnabas were selected by the Holy Spirit and sent on their mission by the church in Antioch. Both men were sent messengers, but it does not necessarily imply that both men held the office of apostle. There is no evidence that Barnabas was selected by Jesus to be His messenger and witness. We have no evidence that Barnabas was an eyewitness of Jesus. Even though Barnabas is mentioned several times in the Scriptures, there is no other reference to Barnabas being numbered among the apostles. Given the lack of objective evidence, we cannot prove that Barnabas was an apostle of Christ. It is just as likely, yea more likely, that Barnabas was a messenger of the church.
What about Silas and Timothy in I Thessalonians 1:1; 2:5-6? The appropriate question is "Were Silas and Timothy included in Paul's 'we' in I Thessalonians 2:6?" In the same letter, we have Paul making this statement, "Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, . . . For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain" (I Thessalonians 3:1, 5). Observe that Paul used the plural pronoun "we" even though he was talking about only himself. Hence, just because Paul says in I Thessalonians 2:6, "even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority" we cannot necessarily infer that Timothy and Silas were included in that "we." Even though Timothy and Silas are frequently mentioned in the Scriptures, we never find the title "apostle" attached to their names. This lack of evidence greatly contrasts with the frequency with which the twelve are referred to as apostles by themselves and by others.
Then there is the case of Andronicus and Junias in Romans 16:7. "Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me." Translators and commentators acknowledge that the phrase "outstanding among the apostles" could be read in two ways. It could mean that the two mentioned were outstanding apostles or that they were well-known by the apostles. If it is the former, then we are left with the puzzle of why two well-known apostles aren't well-known. This is the only mention of these two in the Scriptures. If any two apostles were to be called well-known, it would be Peter and Paul. Instead, it appears we have a case of two Christians who were well-known to the apostles. The phrase is similar to saying, "Nurse Jones is outstanding among the doctors." The phrase does not imply that Jones was a doctor.
There is one other apostle mentioned in the Bible, though he was not one of the twelve. "Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession" (Hebrews 3:1). Jesus could be called an apostle because He was sent by God, just as Jesus sent the twelve (John 20:20-23). He served as a witness to the Father (John 14:9-11), speaking as an eyewitness (John 6:46).
If Paul could be an apostle after Jesus arose, people wonder why the apostleship cannot continue. First, there remains the problem that the Bible speaks of twelve apostles. Second, no one today can serve as an eyewitness to Jesus. Third, all who were selected as apostles were chosen by Jesus. No method is recorded in the Bible for the training of new apostles. In fact, Paul's argument that he was an apostle rested on the fact that he was not trained or selected by men (Galatians 1:11-12). Fourth, there is a distinct lack of proof that men today are apostles. Where is the evidence of signs which prove apostleship? A notable sign was the ability to pass on the gifts of the Spirit by the laying on of the apostles' hands (Acts 8:18). Paul even showed this ability (II Timothy 1:6). Today we have claims of such an ability, but there has been no proof.
Finally, Paul called himself an apostle born out of due time (I Corinthians 15:8). Think about what this implies. There was a season when apostles were selected. Paul was an unusual case. He was an exception to the rule because he came later than the other apostles. If apostles were to continue to appear, then Paul's case would not have been unusual. He would not have been born out of due time. Obviously, there was a limited season for apostles to be on earth.
God warned us that there would be false apostles. Their deeds would demonstrate them to be false (II Corinthians 14:13-15). When tested, they would be shown as false apostles (Revelation 2:2). When a man falsely claims apostleship, he does so to gain authority with the church. By claiming to be an apostle, he claims the right to teach his own doctrine and that doctrine will necessarily conflict with the proven doctrine already delivered by the apostles (Galatians 1:6-10). Hence, we are warned to test every spirit (I John 4:1). Just because a man claims to be an apostle doesn't make it so.