Apostles Then and Apostles Now: Are They the Same?

The title grabbing of Apostle by church leaders in modern day Christianity has been the cause of much confusion and turmoil. Different churches and denominations employ a host of different titles to denote different offices. So is apostle just another title to put in front of someones name? Does it really matter what an apostle was in Jesus time? Or who the apostles were historically? If the role existed back then surely someone should occupy that same role or office in our modern times?  Or perhaps the answer is not so simple. Perhaps we need to be m ore thoughtful about using titles that sound biblical in a way that the Bible does not intend them to be used.

The apostles hold a distinct role in the history of the church. They were eyewitnesses to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. This is the reason why the New Testament contains material written by the apostles and their companions.As Wayne Grudem rightly points out in his Systematic Theology, “It is primarily the apostles who are given the ability from the Holy Spirit to recall accurately the words and deeds of Jesus and interpret them rightly for subsequent generations.” They had the authority to write material that was considered scripture. However, what about Luke, Mark, and Jude? Their writings were included in the canon because of their relationship with the apostles. Therefore we can trace their content back to the apostles’ teachings.

Now, we do not know who wrote Hebrews. However, the author was probably associated with the apostles because of his relationship with Timothy (Hebrews 13:23). A further study on the inclusion of Hebrews shows that many people believed it was written by Paul. However, this view has been challenged. Hebrews was considered Scripture not only because people thought Paul wrote it, but because the early church recognised God’s voice. This is what Grudem meant when he said, “The majestic glory of Christ shines forth from the pages of the epistle to the Hebrews so brightly that no believer who reads it seriously should ever want to question its place in the canon.”

The Role of Apostles in Church History

It is important to remember that the apostles were given the mandate and ability to teach, without error, universally applicable truths for all generations. When Jesus prayed for them he said, “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me… I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world just as I am not of the world… Sanctify them in your truth, your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:8, 14, 17-18). Jesus gave a unique mandate to his apostles.

It is important to remember that the apostles were given the mandate and ability to teach, without error, universally applicable truths for all generations

As already pointed out, “It is primarily the apostles who are given the ability from the Holy Spirit to recall accurately the words and deeds of Jesus and interpret them rightly for subsequent generations.”  It is only through the apostles’ accounts that we can have an accurate understanding of what Jesus accomplished on the cross through his death, resurrection and ascension.  It is only through their account that we have an accurate application of Jesus’ work, life and teachings. As Jesus said, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25). The problem is that when we take this passage and apply it directly to ourselves, we miss the dependency we should be having on the apostolic witness.

The Difference Between the Apostles Then and the Church Now

People ask, ‘Don’t we have the same Spirit?’ Well, none of us actually sat under Jesus’ teachings. Our knowledge of what Jesus did and taught is dependent on the apostolic witness. Therefore our understanding of Jesus’ accomplishments on the cross and its implications are completely dependent on the apostolic witness. The promise was made to the eleven. However Paul appeared later and was given the same mandate. As Ananias said to him, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous one and hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:21). Therefore, the only way to know what the church should teach, believe, and practice is through the apostolic witness. This is what is meant when the creeds and councils speak of the “apostolic church.”

The only way to know what the church should teach, believe, and practice is through the apostolic witness. This is what is meant when the creeds and councils speak of the ‘apostolic church’

This emphasis on the apostles must inform our interpretative grid and how we do church. For the New Testament does not contain mere historical accounts of Jesus’ life. We read accurate interpretations, as well as practical and theological applications of those accounts. The problem is that today many claim the role of the apostle. This is not a matter of misused titles, because many apostles lead with an authority and message that is not found in Jesus’ actual apostles’ writings. We think that we can define the doctrines of the church. But the apostles are the ones who define them.

The Role of the Apostles in the Modern Church

This privilege was given to them by Jesus. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). If we are to continue the work of Jesus Christ, we are to teach the nations to obey all that Jesus commanded the disciples. Even Paul speaks in these terms to Timothy when he says, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Our mandate is to teach what the apostles taught. Praise God that he has given us the New Testament for doing so.

The modern church must go back to the apostolic word of God, rather than running after modern apostles. For the church falls or stands on the word of God

This can never be overemphasised. Paul wrote, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together grows into a holy temple in the Lord”  (Ephesians 2:19-21). The true church of Jesus Christ is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. That foundation is the word they proclaimed and wrote, recorded for us. The modern church must go back to the apostolic word of God, rather than running after modern apostles. For the church falls or stands on the word of God.

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