Luke 6:13 records, “[Jesus] called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles….” Where are these apostles today? Depends on who you ask. These original twelve apostles called by Jesus have been gone for centuries, but the religious world is certainly not without people calling themselves “apostles” today. For some, the office of an apostle is still an important part of the leadership within their church. Others, though, believe no apostle has walked the earth since the apostle John died in about 100 A.D. So what does the Bible say? Are there apostles today?
WHAT IS AN APOSTLE?
To provide a biblical answer to this question, it’s first important to understand the Bible terminology. With only a few exceptions, the term apostle carries a precise definition to designate a special office in the Lord’s church. Literally, the word means delegate or ambassador. In the Bible, the writers of the New Testament apply the term to the select group of disciples commissioned by Christ himself. In this term is the idea that those sent, the apostles, carry with them the authority of the sender, Christ.
The Scriptures identify these men called by Christ to be his apostles. Initially, there were twelve: Simon Peter, Andrew, John, James, Philip, Bartholomew (Nathanael), Thomas, Matthew (Levi), Simon the Zealot, Judas (Thaddaeus, Lebbaeus), James (the Less), and Judas Iscariot (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:13-16). Later, in fulfillment of prophecy, Matthias was selected to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26) and, later still, Paul was called by Christ to preach to the Gentiles (Romans 1:1; 11:13). Each of them, including Matthias and Paul, were selected and appointed to their positions by the Lord to do his work.
FUNCTIONS OF THE APOSTLES
Having been called by Christ, the apostles were commissioned by the Lord to serve a specific function in the church. In some of his last words to the apostles, Jesus gave this commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19, 20). The passage identifies two specific functions of the apostles: 1) to establish the gospel throughout the world (teaching, baptizing, etc…) and 2) to lay the doctrinal foundation of the church, teaching the commandments of Christ. According to Christ, the apostles had been placed in this office to fulfill a specific and important calling.
Other passages further clarify the extent of their ministry. Jesus declared to the apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). In this way, the apostles were truly delegates and ambassadors for Christ. They provided the groundwork for the church in the absence of the Lord’s physical presence. Like Moses gave the Law to the Jews, the apostles gave the new Law to Christians. Emphasizing this authority in the apostles’ teachings, the apostle Paul said in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” Their work was to establish the legitimacy of the gospel in the world and relay the teachings of Christ that would become the foundation of His church. Recognizing the authority of this office, it is said that the early Church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine…” (Acts 2:42). In this way, the apostles’ teachings truly constitute an essential element of the foundation of the church, with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19, 20).
Although Jesus had thousands of disciples only a few were ever chosen to be apostles. Why? This may be, in part, because only a few men were ever qualified to be apostles. The work of an apostle was a special work reserved only for a few unique individuals. The Scriptures never fully describe the qualities the Lord must have required in these men, but one important qualification is explained in Acts 1. Fulfilling prophecy, the apostles determined to select an individual to take the place vacated by Judas Iscariot. In the content of this narrative, one distinctive quality of an apostle is explained. Peter said in Acts 1:21, 22: “Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” According to Peter, the man that would fill the place left by Judas must be one who had been with Jesus through his entire ministry, from the baptism of John until the Lord’s ascension.
Other passages carry the same idea about this qualification of an apostle. In sending out the original twelve, Jesus said, “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (John 15:27). In confirming the credentials of the apostles, Peter remarks, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (1 Peter 2:16). What about the apostle Paul? Though chosen several years after the life of Christ, Paul explains that his knowledge of the gospel was not second hand – just like the other Twelve. He says in Galatians 1:11-12, “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The implication is that through the providence of God Paul received the teachings of Christ from Christ, and like the other apostles, he was called and appointed directly by the Lord. An apostle was not just any pious, spiritually motivated man – he was one who had been with the Lord, called and installed by Christ to lay the foundation of his church.
ARE THERE APOSTLES TODAY?
Although we may find many men and women in the world today declaring themselves to be apostles, everything in the Scriptures indicates that this office in the church is no longer maintained. The above discussion on the functions and qualification of the apostles makes this apparent – their functions have been fulfilled and there are none qualified to hold the office.
A biblical apostle was one selected to be a witness for Christ as they had been in the presence of the Lord, they had received instruction firsthand from the Lord, and every apostle in the New Testament church was appointed directly by Christ. Outside of the men named in the Scriptures, only a few people of the first century would have been qualified, and certainly no one today could meet the scriptural standard.
Provided that there could be no one today qualified to be an apostle, it should come as no surprise that their functions have been fulfilled. Their responsibility was to legitimize the gospel throughout the world, and provide the world with the commands of Christ, laying the foundation of the church. By the time the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, part of this commission was accomplished. He says in Colossians 1:5-6: “…the gospel…has come to you, as it has also in all the world….” Although preaching the gospel through the world is a continuing task, the work of proving the credibility of the gospel (through miraculous signs and wonders, Acts 2:22; 4:33) on an international level was achieved in the first generation of the church through these men. For this reason, Jude exhorted the church to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Like Jesus lived and legitimized himself in just one generation, the apostles also legitimized the gospel and the church in just one generation.
The doctrinal foundation of the church is also complete. With the writing of Revelation in about 96 A.D. the Bible was finished and the teachings of the apostles that defined Christ’s church were fully revealed. Just like Jesus fulfilled his work in laying the foundation of the church and went on to be with the Father, the apostles also have done their work and have now gone on, leaving the church to grow on the foundation they left behind.
While the apostles served a vital role in building the Lord’s church through the first century, their presence in the church survives through their work and words recorded in the Bible, not through those who claim apostleship today. In the words of the apostle Paul, “such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13).
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.