There are those who call themselves apostles in our times. How do we know if they are real or false ones? How do we test them?
Notice Christ’s word of approval to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:2, “and thou hast tried those who them who say that themselves are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars”. It is needful to test any who make this claim. But how to do it?
Apparently here has never been any shortage of false apostles or prophets. In the church at Corinth, there were those who were undermining Paul, and calling into question his apostleship, to promote themselves. He writes in 2 Cor. 11:13, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And it is not wonderful, for Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light [messenger of truth]. It is no great thing therefore if his ministers also transform themselves as ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works”.
The apostles were foundational in establishing Christianity, they had been with Jesus and were witnesses of the resurrection.
Association with Christ. In Mark 3:13, we get the call of the apostles in a very definite way. “And he goes up into the mountain, and calls whom he himself would, and they went to him. And he appointed twelve that they might be with him, and that he might send them to preach, and to have power to heal diseases, and to cast out demons.” [Emphasis mine.] Note that they were sovereignly chosen – they were not volunteers. Note also that being with Christ preceded any expression of service.
In Acts 1:21-22, the eleven apostles knew that there had to be a replacement for Judas Iscariot who had died. They knew instinctively that a critical qualification for an apostle was that he had been with the Lord here, and that he had to be a witness of his resurrection. They also knew that in the matter of gifts, it is the Lord’s matter. “It is necessary therefore, that of the men who have assembled with us all the time in which the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day in which he was taken up from us, one of these should be a witness with us of his resurrection”. The Holy Spirit having not yet come, they used the Old Testament method of casting lots - the choice was to be God’s.
An alert reader will tell me that the apostle Paul did not fit the specification – he had not been with Christ in the time of His ministry. As so often is the case, “the exception proves the rule”, meaning, when we study the apparent exception, it only verifies the pattern that we have discovered. He saw an ascended Christ. The Lord appeared to Paul in no uncertain terms, and this was witnessed by others. Then privately the Lord gave him a revelation as to the truth of the church as the body of Christ – the vehicle for the expression of Christ here in His absence - united by the Holy Spirit to Him, the head in heaven. This and the truth of the gospel of the glory and other truths were revealed to Paul, along with the suffering for His name. Furthermore, Peter tells us that Paul’s writings were Scripture.
Is there apostolic succession? Scripture speaks of no such thing. Paul in leaving Ephesus, called over the elders to him and “committed them to God and the word of his grace”. If there were to be more apostles, this statement would have been out of place. He knew that there were to be no more apostles. The apostles were the last bulwarks against the flood of error that was coming in. He knew that the church would be the subject of attack from within and without. See Acts 20:28-32. After his departure grievous wolves coming in, and men rising up from within and speaking perverted things to attract followers. The apostle Peter also, when speaking of his imminent departure, wanted believers to be able to recall what he had given them. If there were to be more apostles, this would be impudence. The apostles were the last guarantee of truth. We now have “the Scriptures of truth”.
The foundation laid by Christ and the apostles. In Hebrews 3:1 we have the Lord spoken of as “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession”, i.e. the Christian faith. This was very meaningful to the Hebrew converts. It spoke of the role of Jesus as combining those of Moses and Aaron, men who announced the mind of God for the period of law. Moses as the “apostle” of the law, set out the doctrine and the ordinances pertaining to that system of worship and conduct. It also was a foundational service. He had been alone with God to receive the pattern. So the Lord Jesus had done this as the Apostle, but he delegated such service to others whom he chose.
In Ephesians 2:20, we are told that we are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the corner-stone, in whom all the building fitted together increases to a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit”.
Now that the foundation has been laid by Christ and His apostles and prophets, there is no re-laying of the foundation.
Other considerations. Establishing or “planting” churches - to use a modern term – does not make a person an apostle. In my Bible, the title of Ecclesiastes is: “Ecclesiastes; or, The Preacher”. The footnote to ‘Preacher’ in Eccl. 1:1 is: “Strictly, ‘a former of assemblies [churches]’”. So it is obvious that forming churches is not confined to the service of an apostle; it is also service of a preacher. I accept that there were other apostles beyond the twelve and Paul – see Romans 16:7, and elsewhere.
The signs of an apostle are set out in 2 Cor. 12:12; “The signs indeed of the apostle were wrought among you in all endurance, signs, and wonders, and works of power”. Note that suffering was the first sign of an apostle.
Paul had demonstrated these things at Corinth. But works of power alone are not the evidence of an apostle. The Lord will say to some who prophesied, cast out demons and performed works of power in His name, “I never knew you. Depart from me, workers of lawlessness”, Matthew 7:21-23.
In summary, this was not meant to be a treatise on apostles, but rather that we may be equipped to test the claims of those who claim such a gift. The apostles were foundational to Christianity. Such a foundation has not to be re-laid. An apostle was one who had been a witness with Christ from the beginning, and had witnessed His resurrection. Paul saw an ascended Christ in glory. The apostles did not speak of any successors; Paul committed the Ephesians “to God and the word of His grace”. These we have to the end. Timothy was to entrust things “to faithful men, such as shall be competent to instruct others also” – 2 Tim. 2:2.
Let us ask the Lord’s help to be “faithful men”.
MM February 2010