Often in any discussion on the gifts of the Spirit and whether they are still active today (Cessationism vs Continuationism), the topic of Apostles comes up and whether the gift/office is still active today in the Church. Detractors of the Continuationist position will often quip that ‘if there were modern-day apostles, they would be world famous!’ – though I’m not sure why. Even the original Twelve weren’t “world famous” in the sense that they mean. But I digress. This isn't a question of practice, or opinion, but to examine the Scriptures to see what they say about the gift.
Scripture gives us an indication that this gift, or role, wasn’t just for the original Twelve, and it also says how long we should expect the gifts (all of them) to be in operation within the Church. Paul writes about this to the Ephesus church in his letter:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (emphasis mine)
This is sometimes called the “Five Fold Ministry”. Compare this with 1 Cor 13:8-12, which parallels this thought using sightly different words about coming to maturity and being fully grown, and of seeing Jesus “face to face”. To put it simply, these gifts don’t end until we meet Jesus face to face, either in death or at The Resurrection, which makes complete sense if these five major roles are to “to equip the saints” and for “building up the body of Christ”.
So if these five gifts are for the continued benefit of the whole Church body, then it makes sense that we should see others who possess them, and the apostolic gift is often the most controversial one (along with prophet). So let's see how many apostles there were in the pages of the New Testament:
When they arrived, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying:
James the son of Alphaeus,
Simon the Zealot,
and Judas the son of James.
Then they cast lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias. So he was numbered with the 11 apostles.
That's 12 so far.
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and singled out for God’s good news
Now we have 13.
Some contend that Paul was the true replacement for Judas, but even if he was (which I don’t believe) and there were no more than twelve apostles, then we wouldn’t see any others – but we do. So let's continue counting:
James, the half brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church—Galatians 1:19
Barnabas – Acts 14:14
Apollos – 1 Corinthians 4:6-9 ("...us apostles..." v.9)
Timothy and Silvanus – 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2:7
Epaphroditus – Philippians 2:25. While some Bibles translate the word as “messenger”, the Greek word apostolon is actually “apostle” (as in other places – see endnote).
Two unnamed apostles – 2 Corinthians 8:23 Again, this is translating apostolon as "messenger" rather than “apostle”.
This should make around 21 apostles now, including the Twelve and Paul. (22 if you count Judas as an original apostle before his betrayal).
There are then potentially two more in Romans 16:7, Andronicus and Junias, who are called "prominent among the apostles". Scholars debate the meaning of the phrase here as whether that means they were "prominent apostles" or that the apostles considered them "prominent" in their work.
If we include them, it makes the count 23 so far. And if we include Jesus, "the apostle and high priest of our confession" (Hebrews 3:1), then we have 24 apostles mentioned throughout the NT (or 25 if we include Judas in the count).
Now, obviously the initial Twelve were special in their calling as they were the ones Jesus specifically chose to start everything with. Especially considering that in Revelation 21:14 they are mentioned as being the foundations of the new city (ie. the Church), and these are the ones that even Paul called "super-apostles" in 2 Corinthians 11:5! So that should give some idea to their special status amongst the Church.
The previously mentioned verse in Revelation is where we can see a distinction between the Twelve Apostles, and the other apostles mentioned in the New Testament, as they are called "the twelve apostles of the Lamb". These are the ones whom Jesus personally chose and taught, and who travelled and lived with him everyday. All of the other apostles came post-resurrection, sent out and chosen by the Church, and thus are gifted apostles in the Ephesian 4 “five fold ministry” sense, but are just not "of the Lamb" like the original Twelve were.
I hope this makes sense and will act as a springboard into your own personal further study on this topic about the gift of being an apostle. I intend to follow up on this with a post about what the apostolic gift should look like, practically.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment below.
As mentioned above in the list of apostles mentioned in the New Testament, a couple of times the Greek word “apostolos” is translated simply as “messenger” instead of as “apostle” like the other instances. Now, I don’t know why the translators chose to only render it as “messenger” in those two places (Philippians 2:25 and 2 Cor 8:23).
Here is Strong's Greek definition of the word:
g0652. ἀπόστολος apostolos; from 649; a delegate; specially, an ambassador of the Gospel [cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20]; officially a commissioner of Christ (“apostle”) (with miraculous powers): — apostle, messenger, he that is sent.
Interestingly as a final note, this is the same word used by Jesus in John 13, which doesn't get translated as “Apostle”, but rather “messenger” as well:
Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger (Gk. apostolos) greater than the one who sent him.
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