What is an Apostle and Why Does It Matter?

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Luke 9:28-36

Have you ever tried to bargain with God?
Bargaining with God sounds a little bit like this: “God, if you reveal yourself to me by helping me get this promotion, I will know that you’re real and I’ll believe in you.”

Or: “God, if you’re real, then make her fall in love with me—then I’ll believe in you.”

Or even: “God, get me to work on time today, and I’ll believe in you.”

We have all tried to bargain with God at some point. What happened when you tried to do this? Probably one of two things: God was incredibly gracious and either (1) did what you asked (but you likely attributed this to luck or natural happenstance), or (2) chose not to give you what you asked for (and you were likely left to wonder if he actually existed).

Nevertheless, there is no reason for us to wonder whether he exists.
Scripture tells us that God has chosen to build his church on the eyewitness testimony of his apostles—not on the direct verification of his existence to bargaining human beings. This means that as we hear the testimony of the apostles—which, in written form, compose the New Testament—and this testimony is confirmed by the Holy Spirit that lives within us, we come to believe in the Triune God.

We might balk at this. “If God actually appeared to me or answered my specific prayer,” we might argue, “I would actually know that he was real—Holy Spirit or no Holy Spirit.”

If we think about this for a moment, however, we will find that this isn’t quite true. After all, Jesus appeared to some of the most religious, well educated, and well-meaning people, and was misunderstood (and mistreated) by all. Why should we think our response would be any different?

Furthermore, as many scholars have pointed out, one must understand the character of God before examining his existence. If you are going to argue for the existence of something, you must first understand what that something is. Without understanding that a unicorn is a horse with a horn, you cannot disprove (or prove) its existence.

Thankfully, the Bible overflows with descriptions of God’s character. In fact, God’s very choice to build his church on the testimony of the apostles says something about his character. To understand why this matters, however, we must first understand what an apostle is.

First, the word “apostle” is one of the most abused words in the contemporary Christian’s vocabulary.

“He’s a modern-day apostle,” we often say when referring to people whom we believe to have unique insights about the Christian life. The Bible, however, has a very different definition of “apostle”, which we can read in Acts 1:12-26.

During the time of his earthly ministry, Jesus called and commissioned twelve apostles. One of these apostles, as foretold by scripture, betrayed him and then committed suicide. So, also according to the scriptures, the remaining eleven apostles recognized that a new apostle needed to be appointed. Here are the criteria they list for the qualification of an apostle:

  • An apostle must be “one of the men who have accompanied [the apostles] during all the time the Lord Jesus went in and out among [them], beginning with the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from [them]” and they must also be “a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
  • An apostle must be chosen by Christ himself (hence the reason why the apostles pray for God to select this apostle in Acts 1:24-26).

Apart from these twelve, two other individuals are commonly referred to as apostles. The first is James, Jesus’ brother. During Jesus’ time on earth, James was not a believer. Though he was an eyewitness to all that Christ did, he, like the rest of his family, believed that Jesus must have been crazy (Mark 3:21). After Christ’s death, however, James became a firm believer, and apostle, of Christ.

Paul is also a unique case because it is doubtful that he had contact with Jesus during his time on earth. However, Paul is referred to as an apostle because Christ revealed himself to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). In Acts 9 we find that God has chosen Paul to be a vessel that will “bear [God’s] name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” We also learn that God will “show [Paul] how many things he must suffer for [God’s] name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16). So Paul, too, fits the bill of an apostle.

Through the Nicene Creed, we learn that “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” This means that the length, breadth, height, and depth of our beliefs as Christians are circumscribed completely by the testimony of the apostles. We cannot add or subtract one thing from this testimony. If we do, our beliefs will no longer be Christian.

If you even hear a pastor, a teacher, a church, or any Christian authority claim that God has given them a special doctrinal teaching unique only to them, you should run. As the Christian church is an apostolic church, it means that everything that needs to be known about God has already been witnessed by the apostles, whose witness, in turn, has been recorded as the New Testament. Groups who claim to possess knowledge that no one else in the church knows are not Christian; they are a cult.

Peter testifies to this in 2 Peter 1:13-21, where he explains that the apostles do not “follow cleverly devised myths” but instead “were made eyewitnesses of his majesty.” In 2 Peter 1:20 he emphasizes that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” There is no such thing as secret teaching or post-biblical revelation when it comes to Christian doctrine.

This is because the apostles witnessed every aspect of Christ’s ministry. Peter, John, and James even traveled up the mountain with Christ in Luke 9:28-36. Here, they witnessed many things: Christ’s face was changed, and his clothes became dazzling white (it is interesting to note that the word used here for “dazzling” is the same word used of lightning). A cloud descended upon them, and they saw Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus.

When we hear “Moses” and “cloud,” our minds should immediately think back to Exodus. During the Exodus, God led the Israelites through the desert—in the shape of a cloud. When we read that Moses appeared and the cloud descended on the apostles on the mountain, we know that the God of Israel was present.

Elijah, one of the first great prophets, was also present. During his lifetime, Elijah was led by the Spirit of God. Elijah’s appearance, then, indicated that the God of the prophets was present.

Most importantly, however, the apostles witnessed that Christ himself made the decision to go to Jerusalem, knowing that he would offer himself as a sacrifice. Through this experience, we learn that Jesus was not the victim of violence or circumstance; Jerusalem’s response to his presence does not take him by surprise. The crucifixion occurred by his own volition.

When we read the Bible, we find that the Old Testament is filled with prophesies about the coming Messiah, and that the New Testament is filled with the eyewitness testimonies of his followers. This is how the two connect and this is why in 2 Peter 1:19, Peter tells us, “The message of the prophets has been confirmed beyond a doubt.”

This is why we should not ask God to reveal himself to us in the way we want, confirming his existence through his willingness to submit to our selfish negotiations. This request limits our understanding of God to the idea of him that we like best, rather than allowing him to express his true character.

Does this mean that we should not ask God to reveal himself? Not at all! Even John the Baptist came to Jesus with his doubts (Matthew 11:2-6). The key is to respect God by accepting the way he has chosen to reveal himself. Instead of praying for the signs we want, we should pray to understand the signs he has given.
We should pray that God will reveal the truth of the apostles’ testimony to us—and we should continue to pray until he does. In fact, in 2 Peter 1:19, Peter refers to this testimony (and the testimony of the prophets) as “a lamp shining in dark places” and suggests that we would “do well to pay attention to [it].”

In other words, even if the truth of the testimony has not yet been confirmed to our hearts, we should believe it; it is a light in a dark world. We should believe this truth before the Holy Spirit verifies it. Then we should believe this truth because the Holy Spirit has verified it. Like Jesus told Thomas in John 20:29, those who believe without seeing (or without receiving verification from the Holy Spirit) are most blessed.

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2 Responses to What is an Apostle and Why Does It Matter?

  1. Beth Gearhart says:

    I wonder about 1st Corinthians 12:28-30 which says Apostles are listed as part of the church? “Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church: first are apostles, second are prophets, third are teachers, then those who do miracles, those who have the gift of healing, those who can help others, those who have the gift of leadership, those who speak in unknown languages.”
    I assume an apostle would claim he was personally called by Christ like Paul? I concur with your teaching and think this title of Apostle is abused, however please explain the above stated scriptures.

    • Pastor Foley says:

      That’s an excellent question, Beth, and certainly good Christians disagree on the answer. I will share with you my own perspective, but I would hasten to note that it is simply that: my perspective, certainly informed by my overall study of Scripture, but not in any way “apostolic” in the sense in which I have used the term in this post!

      My perspective is that the difference in the way Christ looks at the church and the way we look at the church is that we tend to see the church as consisting only of those who are presently alive (and usually those who are around us), whereas for Christ his body spans all ages and places. As such, we (wrongly, in my view) do not see the biblical apostles as apostles for our day, and yet they are–they are apostles for all time. They are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of in Hebrews. Just because we do not pray to saints does not mean they are no longer in the body. In fact, the Apostles Creed proclaims that we believe in the communion of saints. This means that all who have ever composed the church continue to compose it today. In the Nicene Creed we affirm our belief in one church. There are not two churches–one for the living and one for the dead. There is only one church, and it is holy and apostolic. So the apostles are always first, as in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, because the body of Christ is for all time built upon their witness. It is a living witness, and it is our receiving it as such that ensures our communion with them and with all of the great cloud of witnesses.

      There are good Christians who believe that God supplies apostles for every age and place, and I respect their view. I do not agree with it, since I believe it misstates the unique role of the apostles in scripture as eyewitnesses and also downplays the significance and relevance of the unrepeatable witness they made. The early church affirmed the continuing, repeatable role for prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, leaders, and speakers of unknown languages, but it did not continue to use the title “apostle” to refer to those in exalted positions of leadership. I do not think this was an oversight or an apostasy on their part. I believe it was appropriate recognition that a small group of people, apostles, were granted to walk with Christ and to serve as eyewitnesses to what he did. Their testimony composes the scripture and witnesses to its veracity. They are not superhumans, nor are they to be venerated or prayed to. But their testimony does continue to form the foundation of every part of the body of Christ in all ages and places.

      Hope that helps.

      Warmly in Christ,
      Your brother Eric Foley

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