God is a God of works. Our Lord said, “My Father worketh even until now.” And He has a definite purpose, toward the realization of which He directs all His works. He is the God “who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.” But God does not do everything directly by Himself. He works through His servants. Among the servants of God the Apostles are the most important ones. It will do us good if we look into the Word of God to know what it has to teach on the matter of the Apostles.
The First Apostles
In the fulness of time God sent forth His Son into the world to do His Work. He is known as the Christ of God, i.e. “the Anointed One.” The term “Son” relates to His Person; the name “Christ” relates to His Office. He was the Son of God, but He was sent to be the Christ of God. “Christ” is the ministerial name of the Son of God. Our Lord did not come to the earth or to the Cross on His own initiative; He was anointed and set apart for the Work by God. He was not self-appointed, but sent. Frequently throughout the Gospel of John we find Him referring to God, not as “God,” or “the Father,” but as “the One Who sent me.” He took the place of a sent one. If that is true in the case of the Son of God, how much more should it apply to His servants? If even the Son was not expected to take any initiative in God’s Work, is it likely that we are expected to do so? The first principle to note in the Work of God is that all His workers are sent ones. If there is no Divine commission, there can be no Divine Work.
Scripture has a special name for a sent one, i.e. an apostle. The meaning of the Greek word is “the sent one.” The Lord Himself is the first Apostle because He is the first one specially sent of God: hence the Word refers to Him as “the Apostle” (Heb. 3.1).
While our Lord fulfilled His Apostolic Ministry on earth, He was all the time aware that His life in the flesh was limited; so even as He pursued the Work committed to Him by the Father, He was preparing a group of men to continue it after His departure. These men were also termed apostles. They were not volunteers; they were sent ones. We cannot overemphasize this fact that all Divine Work is by commission, not by choice.
From amongst whom did our Lord choose these apostles? They were chosen from amongst His disciples. All those sent out by the Lord were already disciples. Not all disciples are necessarily apostles, but all apostles are necessarily disciples; not all disciples are chosen for the Work, but those who are chosen are always selected from amongst the disciples of the Lord. An apostle then must have two callings; in the first place he must be called to be a disciple and in the second place he must be called to be an apostle. His first calling is from amongst the children of the world to be a follower of the Lord: his second calling is from amongst the followers of the Lord to be a sent one of the Lord.
Those apostles chosen by our Lord during His earthly ministry occupy a special place in Scripture, and they also occupy a special place in the purpose of God, because they were with the Son of God while He lived in the flesh. They were not just called apostles, they were called “the Twelve Apostles.” They occupied a special place in the Word of God, and they occupy a special place in the plan of God. Our Lord told Peter that one day they should “sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22.30). “The Apostle” has His throne, and “the Twelve Apostles” are going to have their thrones too. This is a privilege not granted to other apostles. When Judas lost his office and God led the remaining eleven to choose one to make up the number, we read that they cast lots and the lot fell upon Matthias, “and he was numbered with the eleven Apostles” (Acts 1.26). In the next chapter we find the Holy Spirit inspiring the writer of the Acts to say, “Peter, standing up with the eleven” (Acts 2.14), which shows that the Holy Spirit recognized Matthias to be one of the Twelve. Here we see that the number of these apostles was fixed; God did not want more than twelve, nor would He have less. In the Book of Revelation we find that the ultimate position which they occupy is again a special one—“And the wall of the city had twelve foundations and in them the names of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21.14). Even in the new heaven and the new earth the Twelve enjoy a place of peculiar privilege, which is relegated to no other workers for God.
The Apostles in Scripture Days
The Lord as an apostle was unique, the Twelve, as apostles, were also unique; but neither “the Apostle” nor “the Twelve Apostles” could abide on the earth forever. When our Lord departed, He left the Twelve to continue His Work; now that the Twelve have departed, who are here to carry it on?
The Lord has gone, but the Spirit has come. The Holy Spirit is come to bear all responsibility for the Work of God on earth. The Son was working for the Father; the Spirit is working for the Son. The Son came to accomplish the Will of the Father: the Spirit has come to accomplish the Will of the Son. The Son came to glorify the Father: the Spirit has come to glorify the Son. The Father appointed Christ to be “the Apostle”: the Son while on earth appointed “the Twelve” to be Apostles. Now the Son has returned to the Father, and the Spirit is on earth appointing men to be apostles. The apostles appointed by the Holy Spirit cannot join the ranks of those appointed by the Son, but they are apostles for all that. The apostles we read of in the fourth chapter of Ephesians are clearly not the original Twelve, for those were appointed when the Lord was still on earth, whilst these date their appointment to apostleship after the ascension of the Lord; they were the gifts of the Lord Jesus to His Church after His glorification. The Apostles then were the personal followers of the Lord Jesus, but the apostles now are ministers for the building up of the Body of Christ. We must differentiate clearly between the Apostles who were witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ (Acts 1.22,26), and the apostles who are ministers for the edifying of the Body of Christ, for the Body of Christ was not in existence before the Cross. There is no doubt that later on the Twelve received the Ephesian commission, but the Twelve, as the Twelve, were quite distinct from the apostles mentioned in Ephesians. It is evident then that God has other apostles besides the original Twelve.
Immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit we see the Twelve Apostles carrying on the work. Until the twelfth chapter of Acts they are seen as the chief workers; but with the opening of the thirteenth chapter we see the Holy Spirit beginning to manifest Himself as the Agent of Christ and the Lord of the Church. In that chapter we are told that in Antioch, when certain prophets and teachers were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Separate me now Barnabas and Saul for the Work to which I have called them” (Acts 13.2, Darby). Now is the time that the Spirit begins to send men forth. At this point two new workers were commissioned by the Holy Ghost.
After these two were sent out by the Spirit how were they designated? When Barnabas and Paul were working in Iconium, “the multitude of the city was divided; and part held with the Jews, and part with the apostles” (Acts 14.4). The two sent forth in the previous chapter are in this chapter referred to as “apostles,” and in the same chapter (verse 14), the designation “the apostles” is used in apposition to “Paul and Barnabas,” which proves conclusively that the two men commissioned by the Holy Spirit were also apostles.
They were not among the Twelve, but they were apostles nevertheless.
Who then are apostles? Apostles are God’s workmen, sent out by the Holy Spirit to do the Work to which He has called them. The responsibility of the Work is in their hands. Broadly speaking, all believers are responsible for the Work of God, but apostles are a group of people specially set apart for the Work. In a peculiar sense the responsibility of the Work is upon them.
Now we see the teaching of the Scriptures as touching apostles. God appointed His Son to be “the Apostle”: Christ appointed His disciples to be “the Twelve Apostles”: and the Holy Spirit appointed a group of men (apart from the Twelve) to be the Body-building apostles. The first Apostle is unique: there is only one; the Twelve Apostles are also in a class by themselves: there are only twelve; but there is another order of apostles, chosen by the Holy Spirit, and as long as the building up of the Church goes on and the Holy Ghost’s presence on earth continues, the choosing and sending forth of this order of apostles will continue too.
In the Word of God we find numerous other apostles besides Barnabas and Paul. There are many belonging to the new order chosen and sent forth by the Spirit of God. In 1 Cor. 4.9, we read: “God hath set forth us the apostles last.” To whom do the words “us the apostles” refer? The pronoun “us” implies that there was at least one other apostle besides the writer. If we study the context, we note that Apollos was with Paul when he wrote (verse 6), and Sosthenes was a joint writer with Paul of the Epistle. So it seems clear that the “us” here refers either to Apollos or to Sosthenes, or to both. It follows then that either or both of these two must have been apostles.
Rom. 16.7: “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles.” The clause “who are of note among the apostles” does not mean that they were regarded as notable by the apostles, but rather that among the apostles they were notable ones. Here you have not only another two apostles, but another two notable apostles.
1 Thess. 2.6: “We might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ.” The “we” here refers clearly to the writers of the Thessalonian letter, i.e. Paul, Silvanus and Timothy (1.1), which indicates that Paul’s two young fellow-workers were also apostles.
1 Cor. 15.5-7: “He was seen of Cephas, then of the Twelve; after that, he was seen of about five hundred brethren at once; . . . after that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.” Besides the Twelve Apostles there was a group known as “all the apostles.” It is obvious, then, that apart from the Twelve, there were other apostles.
Paul never claimed that he was the last apostle and that after him there were no others. Let us read carefully what he said: “Last of all he was seen of me also ... for I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15.8,9). Notice how Paul used the words “last” and “least.” He did not say that he was the last apostle, he only said he was the least apostle. If he were the last, there could be no more after him, but he was only the least.
In the Book of Revelation it is said of the Ephesian church: “Thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” (2.2). It seems clear from this verse that the early churches expected to have other apostles apart from the original Twelve, because, when the Book of Revelation was written, John was the only survivor of the Twelve, and by that time even Paul had already been martyred. If there were to be only twelve apostles, and John was the only one left, then no one would have been foolish enough to pose as an apostle, and no one foolish enough to be deceived; and where would have been the need to “try” them? If John were the only apostle, then testing would be simple indeed! If any one was not John, he was not an apostle!