Apostles and Prophets in the Church Today
There are few who would question that Apostolic and Prophetic ministry was alive and well in the New Testament church and that its purpose was clear. Indeed, both the authority and ministry of the Apostle and Prophet are seen to be foundational to the church’s ministry and growth.
In my early years of ministry, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was a strongly held view that these gifts, along with all things ‘charismatic’ had come to an end at the close of the New Testament period. This was a position that had been clearly articulated by B.B.Warfield and continued as the status quo among those of the reformed persuasion. Indeed, there are many within the reformed school that remain convinced of this ‘cessationist view’, and feel that those who have been influenced by the charismatic movement of the late 1960’s
Life in the Spirit was forged on the anvil of this contentious issue. It was the beginning of a time when many matters were being examined by those who were still holding to their reformed convictions, but who, nevertheless were seeing the Holy Spirit at work, restoring gifts and ministries to all sections of the church. Through an honest and open study of scripture many came to the conviction that, not only did the scriptures not state that these gifts and ministries had passed away, but that they were again flourishing within the church
Before we address the role of Apostles and Prophets in today’s church we need to identify their role within the Scriptures.
Let’s us therefore begin with the role of the Prophets. We obviously see a strong prophetic ministry in the Old Testament. There are men who are titled Prophets. Some seemed to be full time in the ‘job’ where others seemed to carry one message to God’s people or even to another nation before continuing their chosen means of employment. Compare Jonah and Amos, say to Jeremiah, Isaiah and Samuel. In the New Testament we see prophecy or those that prophesy described in three ways. Firstly, prophesy is described as a gift of the Spirit (1Cor 12:14). Rather than indicating that this gift is distributed sparsely, Paul suggests that ‘all may prophesy’ (1 Co 14:31). Secondly, there appears to be those that excel in this gift. Take for example Acts 21:9, which states, Philip had ‘four unmarried daughters who prophesied’. The text suggests that they prophesied frequently or regularly. Lastly, we see that there were those who stood in the office of Prophet and are listed by Paul alongside Apostles, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers, as those who themselves are given as ‘gifts’ to the church by the risen Christ (Eph 4:11). Although few are mentioned by name, such as those who helped form the leadership in the church at Antioch (Acts 13), the most notable exception is Agabus (Acts 21:10).
With regard to Apostleship, there seems to be similar demarcations. Jesus is described in Hebrews 3:1 as our ‘Apostle and High Priest’. However special place appears to be made of ‘the twelve’. Interestingly this term of reference appears to be used even when all twelve are not present. Furthermore, in John’s revelation, we discover that the names of ‘the twelve’ are written on the foundations of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:14). Later we see that it is the teaching of ‘the twelve’ along with Paul, that appears to be referred to as part of the foundation on which the New Testament Church is built (Eph 2:20). Lastly, we do see a number of others later bearing the title Apostle, including Barnabas (Ac 14:14), and Timothy and Silvanus (1 Thess 1:1; 2:6). Their function, like ‘the twelve’, was to proclaim the Gospel in new places and to establish churches as master-builders (1 Co 3:10).Nowhere in Scripture do we see that the ministry of the apostle was intended to die out with these early witnesses of the resurrected Christ, as many cessasionsists have argued. Furthermore, there is no indication that their ministry was limited to the writing of Scripture, again as some have suggested. Indeed it is worth noting that only three of ‘the twelve’ actually made contributions to the New Testament canon.
With regard to the function of these offices in the contemporary church, I do think it is important to see the prophetic ministry as distinct and different in the New Testament from the Old. I would argue that all the New Testament gifts are NEW. Let me state briefly what I mean. In Matthew 11:11, Jesus speaks of John the Baptist as the greatest of all from the past, yet even the most insignificant person in the Kingdom is greater than he is! Christ brought in a New Covenant which is ‘far better’ than anything that came before. Now in Ephesians Chapter 4 we discover that these ‘gifts’ are given by the ascended Christ! They are not then some kind of ‘carry-over’ from the old order, they are not salvaged from the old system, they are new. I am convinced that the prophetic gift mentioned in the lists in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, should function alongside the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, their purpose being to encourage the body and help the church (1 Co 12:7). All the gifts are there to function together in the body and are given by the Spirit individually as He sees fit. I do not consider any as the initial evidence of being baptised in the Spirit or being Spirit filled. There are of course a number of gifts, all useful. However Paul, though he says he wished all spoke in tongues, he would rather they prophesied (1 Co 14:5). This I believe is in no way intended to be a dismissal of tongues; rather it is Paul’s stated preference that the church pursues that which will edify others.
When we consider the ‘Ephesians 4 ministries’ it seems we are looking at people with a designated gifting or ministry that function as part of a leadership team (Acts 13). Some exercise this ministry in the local church and others within a wider sphere of influence and authority (1 Cor 9:1-3; 2 Cor2:17), such as Paul and the members of his Apostolic Team. The responsibility then of these leaders is to equip the church, and prepare God’s people to serve. Again, looking at this passage in Ephesians 4:11, you will see that the only parameters to the longevity of these gifts and their operation in the church is in the context of the task for which they have been assigned, namely, ’until we all come to maturity, to the full stature of Christ’. This process will undoubtedly be required for as long as the church is functioning and experiencing growth, winning the lost and discipling them as followers of the Lord Jesus.
In the New Testament the Apostle seems to carry the greater authority, particularly in the churches they have planted. It was their responsibility to appoint the Elders to lead the work as they moved on.
Though Paul speaks of his authority, he also speaks of his sphere, or boundaries of God’s plan (2 Cor 10:13), implying there are limits set for him to operate in under the guidance of the Spirit. It is important to state that the ministry of the Apostle and indeed of the Prophet carries a measure of authority. This is particularly seen in church planting, teaching and preaching roles, as well as being evidenced by ,’those things which accompany this ministry’, these being signs, wonders and miracles (2 Cor 12:11ff). However as we describe any of these ministries or gifts, (suggest a comma here) we need always to see them in the light of the servant role which characterises the ministry of the Lord himself and the realisation that our only power and success come from God.