Thursday, February 07, 2019

Church Leadership: Paul the Apostle 4

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3. Still, Paul was an apostle. He was what I might call a "second tier" apostle. He was not one of the Twelve and he had not been a disciple of Jesus. Yet the risen Jesus had appeared to him and commissioned him to go as a witness to the risen Lord.

1 Corinthians 15:7-9 is a good place to start to understand what Paul means when he calls himself an apostle. As he talks about resurrection appearances, he first mentions the Twelve. He also mentions some five hundred people to whom Jesus appeared, but he does not call them apostles.

Then in verse 7 he gets to the second layer, the apostles, beginning with James, the brother of Jesus. The way Paul words this group suggests that he saw himself as the last of this layer of apostles. Indeed, he sees himself as unusually late to this group, one "abnormally born" (15:8).

What are the characteristics of this group? Clearly they are sent, since the core notion of an apostle is that of someone sent. In 1 Corinthians 9:1, Paul says, "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" Then he indicates that while other communities of Christians may not consider him sent to them, the Corinthians should know that he is an apostle to them. He has been sent to them.

Acts 4:33 makes it clear what apostles were sent to do. They were sent to testify to the resurrection. Jesus appeared to them risen from the dead. Jesus sent apostles to testify to his risen Lordship.

So the New Testament considers Paul an apostle, but not one of the Twelve apostles. And he is the last of a second group of apostles to whom the risen Christ had appeared. Perhaps there have been individuals since who have claimed to have received a visit from the risen Christ. Perhaps they would have a claim to be called an apostle today. But from Paul's perspective in 1 Corinthians 15:8-9, he would seem to be the last of this group.

We should add here that Paul himself probably did not see himself in a second tier of apostleship. He considered himself among the apostles that included Peter (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:17; perhaps 2 Cor. 11:5). It is rather the book of Acts that does not place him on this highest level. I personally am quite happy to consider his perspective more precise on this issue than the perspective of Acts.

4. Acts 14:14 does call Paul and Barnabas apostles. This is the only instance in Acts where he is called such. All the other instances refer to the Twelve and distinguish Paul from the role. However, it does perhaps suggest that certain individuals in the early church could be called apostles who did not fit in either of the two previous groups. These would be something like a cross between a missionary and a church planter, individuals who were sent on mission to plant churches.

Paul can speak of "messengers" of the churches while using the same word apostolos (2 Cor. 8:23). He refers to Epaphroditus as a "messenger" of the church of Philippi. English translations rightly question whether the word apostle is the best English word to use to translate apostolos in these instances.

5. When it comes to the church today, a key question is the sense of the word apostle in key passages like 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 and Ephesians 4:11. Both speak of various roles that God has appointed within the church. What is important to recognize here is that, especially in 1 Corinthians, Paul probably believed that he was living in the last generation. "The time has been shortened... the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29, 31).

Therefore, it is overwhelmingly likely that Paul was not thinking of the prolonged future when he spoke of apostles in 1 Corinthians 12. He was far more likely speaking of his own day, where the word apostle was used in the ways we mentioned above. There would not be any more apostles of that sort still today.

I personally believe this is also the best way to take the role of apostle in Ephesians 4:11 as well. Ephesians is thinking of the foundations of the church (Eph. 2:20), which by that time were already established. It is only because we find ourselves still here two thousand years later and now want to apply Ephesians to a different time and place that we feel the impulse to assign that role within the church today. This is our impulse to forget that while Ephesians is for us as Scripture, it was not originally written to us.

It would therefore seem that, from a New Testament perspective, there are technically no more apostles of Paul's sort today. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles (e.g., Gal. 2:8). Peter was the apostle to the Jews. There were a number of other apostles to whom Jesus had appeared and whom Jesus had sent to witness to his resurrection and Lordship. The husband-wife couple Andronicus and Junia appear to be two such apostles (Rom. 16:7).

6. Is that the end of the story? I do not think so. The New Testament authors did not realize that Christ would tarry this long. The need for those who are sent to testify to the risen Lord has not disappeared. So we have a need today for those who feel called to go on mission. The Spirit of Christ still sends people out. There are still entrepreneurial church planters today.

We can call them apostles. We can celebrate these missionary church planters today. They do not have the authority of Peter or Paul. They do not write Scripture. Yet the need for apostolic ministers is real and God is sending them in the church today.

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