THE APOSTLES IN SCRIPTURE DAYS
The Lord as an apostle was unique, and the twelve, as apostles, were also unique; but neither the Apostle nor the twelve apostles could abide on 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; nevertheless, they are apostles. The apostles we read of in Ephesians 4 are clearly not the original twelve, for those were appointed when the Lord was still on earth, while 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 Acts 12 they are seen as the chief workers; but with the opening of chapter thirteen 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, “Set apart for Me now Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Now is the time that the Spirit begins to send men forth. At this point two new workers were commissioned by the Holy Spirit.
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 some were with the Jews and some 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 (v. 14), the designation “the apostles” is used in apposition to “Barnabas and Paul,” which proves conclusively that the two men commissioned by the Holy Spirit were also apostles. They were not among the twelve; nevertheless, they were apostles.
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 particular 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 Spirit’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 Corinthians 4:9 we read, “God has 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 (v. 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.
Romans 16:7: “Greet 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 we have not only another two apostles, but another two notable apostles.
First Thessalonians 2:6: “We could have stood on our authority as apostles of Christ.” The “we” here refers clearly to the writers of the Thessalonian letter, that is, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy (1:1), which indicates that Paul’s two young fellow workers were also apostles.
First Corinthians 15:5-7: “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve; then He appeared to over five hundred brothers at one time,…then He appeared to James, then to 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 appeared to me also…for I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit 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: “You have tried those who call themselves apostles and are not, and have found them to be false” (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! Anyone who was not John was not an apostle!
(The Normal Christian Church Life, Chapter 1, by Watchman Nee)