THE MEANING OF APOSTLESHIP
Since the meaning of the word “apostle” is “the sent one,” the meaning of apostleship is quite plain, that is, the office of the sent one. Apostles are not primarily men of special gifts; they are men of special commission. Everyone who is sent of God is an apostle. Many called of God are not as gifted as Paul, but if they have received a commission from God, they are just as truly apostles as he was. The apostles were gifted men, but their apostleship was not based upon their gifts; it was based upon their commission. Of course, God will not send anyone who is unequipped, but equipment does not constitute apostleship. If God cared to send out a man totally unequipped, that man would be as much an apostle as a fully equipped one, since apostleship is not based on human qualification but on divine commission. It is futile for anyone to assume the office of an apostle simply because he thinks he has the needed gifts or ability. It takes more than mere gift and ability to constitute men apostles; it takes nothing less than God Himself, God’s will, and God’s call. No man can attain to apostleship through natural or other qualifications; God must make him an apostle if he is ever to be one. Whether or not a man is going to be of any spiritual worth, and his work serve any spiritual end, depends upon the sending of God. “A man sent of God” should be the main characteristic of our entering upon His service, and of all our subsequent movements.
Let us turn to the Scriptures. In Luke 11:49 we read, “I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute.” From Genesis to Malachi we do not come across anyone who was explicitly called an apostle; yet the men here referred to as apostles lived between the time of Abel and Zachariah (v. 51). Therefore, it is clear that even in Old Testament times God had His apostles.
Our Lord said, “A slave is not greater than his master, nor the apostle [Greek] greater than the one who sends him” (John 13:16). Here we have a definition of the term “apostle.” It implies being sent out—that is all; and that is everything. However good human intention may be, it can never take the place of divine commission. Today those who have been sent out by the Lord to preach the gospel and to establish churches call themselves missionaries, not apostles; but the word “missionary” means the very same thing as “apostle,” that is, “the sent one.” It is the Latin form of the Greek equivalent, apostolos. Since the meaning of the two words is exactly the same, I fail to see the reason why the true sent ones of today prefer to call themselves missionaries rather than apostles.
APOSTLES AND THE MINISTRY
“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Therefore the Scripture says, ‘Having ascended to the height, He led captive those taken captive and gave gifts to men.’ (Now this, ‘He ascended,’ what is it except that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended, He is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some1 as apostles and some as prophets and some as evangelists and some as shepherds and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints unto the work of the ministry, unto the building up of the Body of Christ, until we all arrive at the oneness of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, at a full-grown man, at the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:7-13).
There are many ministries connected with the service of God, but He has chosen a number of men for a special ministry—the ministry of the Word for the building up of the Body of Christ. Since that ministry is different from others, we refer to it as “the ministry.” This ministry is entrusted to a group of people of whom the apostles are chief. It is neither a one-man ministry, nor an “all-men” ministry, but a ministry based upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit and an experimental knowledge of the Lord.
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds and teachers are our Lord’s gifts to His Church to serve in the ministry. Strictly speaking, shepherds and teachers are one gift, not two, because teaching and shepherding are closely related. In enumerating the gifts, apostles, prophets, and evangelists are all mentioned separately, while shepherds and teachers are linked together. Furthermore, the first three are each prefixed by the word “some,” whereas the word “some” is attached to shepherds and teachers unitedly, thus—“some as apostles,” “some as prophets,” “some as evangelists,” and “some as shepherds and teachers,” not “some as shepherds and some as teachers.” The fact that the word “some” is used only four times in this list indicates that there are only four classes of persons in question. Shepherds and teachers are two in one.
(The Normal Christian Church Life, Chapter 1, by Watchman Nee)