Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Apostles 4

... continued from Tuesday
So we come back to the question of who the twelfth apostle should have been.  Some Christians believe that the early church got it wrong when they picked Matthias.  They take this story in Acts 1 as a description of what happened but not a prescription for what should have happened.  They think Paul should have been Judas' replacement.

Obviously the temptation here comes from our love of Paul and the fact that we have thirteen books in the New Testament with his name on them. Meanwhile, we have never heard of Matthias before this point in Acts and we never hear from him again. But we should be cautious. Acts gives us no reason to think that the criteria the early church used was wrong in replacing Judas, that is, picking someone who had been with Jesus since John's baptism.

As we'll see later in the chapter, the purpose of Acts was not merely to tell us what happened.  Acts is told with a theology and a point of view.  In the thinking of Acts, Paul is not as prominent as we tend to think he is in our circles today.  In Acts, Paul is certainly an apostle (e.g., 14:4, 14), along with his missionary partner Barnabas.  But he is not one of the apostles.  He is not one of the Twelve.

So if we want Paul to be the true twelfth apostle, we have to disagree with the thinking of Acts.  You could of course argue that God has hinted at this idea by putting thirteen of Paul's letters in the New Testament while none from Matthias.  In fact we only have two from Peter and one from James. You could argue that by putting Paul's letters in the New Testament, God has shown us who truly won Paul's debates with Jerusalem in the early church.  At the time, Paul may have seemed to be on the edges, someone on the periphery of Christianity. But we see him today as he was--at the center of what God was doing.

Paul himself has a broader understanding of what an apostle is.  We've already quoted him in 1 Corinthians 9:1 where he implicitly defines an apostle as someone who has witnessed Jesus' resurrection. When he recounts the resurrection appearances of Jesus to various people in 1 Corinthians 15, he starts his list with the Twelve but then proceeds to mention James (the Lord's brother) and "all the apostles" (15:7). He includes himself among this latter group of apostles.

So for Paul, the apostles were a group of individuals to whom Jesus appeared after he rose from the dead and whom Jesus sent (commissioned) to go out as witnesses of the resurrection.  He includes Jesus' own brother James in this category.  He included Barnabas in this category (cf. 1 Cor. 9:6).  Presumably he included the husband-wife pair Andronicus and Junia in this category, whom he mentions in Romans 16:7. It doesn't even seem controversial to him that a woman could be a prominent apostle.

Paul considers himself to be the last of this sort of apostle.  We do find some in the church today who are given the title apostle by others.  It is a great honor and recognizes in someone high gifts of charisma and anointed leadership of the highest caliber. The idea probably also draws from passages like 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul says that God has placed apostles in the church.

But Paul was not writing 1 Corinthians to us today. He was writing people who lived in Corinth two thousand years ago, back when there still were some of these apostles around, including himself. Both by the criteria of Paul and of Acts, there are no longer any apostles of this sort living.  Paul was the last (1 Cor. 15:8).

That is not to say that there could not be individuals who are sent to witness to the living Christ on an entirely different level than your average missionary.  Billy Graham comes to mind. And God certainly does raise up individuals from time to time whose spiritual authority is so astounding that it rivals that of whole denominations and church structures.  But no matter how great, such individuals will never be an apostle of the sort Peter and Paul were.

1 comment:

James D said...

There are some other interesting illustrations of what Paul meant by "apostle" at 2Cor 8.23 and Php 2.25. It's clear in those cases that he meant something very different from what he lampoons as "super-apostles" in Galatians — so much so, in fact, that the KJV renders those two instances as "messenger".