Answering the question, “What is an apostle” is an important one for two reasons: first, some claim that apostles exist today. Teachers like Lou Engle, Todd White, Bill Johnson, and C. Peter Wagner all claim to be apostles. Even Sovereign Grace Ministries claimed their leaders were apostles until they changed their position in 2010.
Second, many people expect God to work in their lives today in the same way he worked in the lives of the New Testament apostles, not recognizing the unique function these men served. You will find people quoting John 16:13, for example, and claiming that this is a promise to all Christians, or referencing experiences of Peter and Paul as defense of extraordinary experiences today.
So what is an apostle?
A key place to begin is in Acts 1:21–26, where the disciples were choosing a replacement for Judas after his suicide. In making that decision, Peter articulates a key requirement for this replacement.
An Apostle Was an Eyewitness of the Resurrected Christ
First, Peter asserts that the replacement apostle must be someone who was an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ:
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.Acts 1:21–22
The apostles were the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20), and so it was important that they had been with Jesus himself and, in particular, seen him resurrected from the dead.
Even the apostle Paul met this criterion, though in a unique fashion. Paul affirms this qualification when he states in 1 Corinthians 9:1,
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?
Paul defended his apostleship on the very basis of the qualification that he had personally seen the resurrected Christ. Of course, his eyewitness of Christ was unique—he saw the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–9), and thus he described his apostleship as “untimely” since unlike the other apostles, Paul saw Jesus after he had already ascended into heaven. Notice how Paul affirms this qualification of apostleship in 1 Corinthians 15:7–8:
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
An Apostle Was Directly Called by Christ
A second requirement for an apostle is that he be directly appointed by Jesus himself. The original apostles were, of course, directly chosen by Jesus:
Mark 3:13–19 (ESV)
And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve.Mark 3:13–16
Even Matthias was appointed by Christ, indicated by the fact that after the apostles prayed, they cast lots as a means by which Christ could indicate his choice (Acts 1:23–26). Thus Matthias was “numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26) and included among the full number of the twelve (Acts 6:2).
Likewise, the apostle Paul was directly called and appointed by Christ himself. On the road to Damascus, Christ called to Paul, “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what to do” (Acts 9:6), and Paul received those instructions from Christ through Ananias in Damascus. Christ told Ananias, “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
Paul later confirms his calling in several places:
- Romans 1:1 – “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”
- Romans 1:5 – “. . . through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”
- Galatians 1:1–2 – “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.”
- 1 Timothy 2:7 – “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.”
This calling of apostles then continued and manifested itself in additional revelation given to them for the purpose of founding the church. To those whom he appointed Christ gave revelation by his Spirit to be passed on to the churches, eventually inscripturated in the books of the New Testament.
This is precisely what Jesus meant when he said to his apostles in John 16:13,
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.John 16:13
This was not a promise given to all Christians—it was a promise given specifically to the apostles. Jesus promised that the Spirit would continue to give his apostles the truth necessary to found the church, truth that was inscripturated in the inspired Word. In this promise, Jesus was preauthenticating the apostles’ writing in the New Testament Scriptures.
And this is exactly what the apostolic authors of Scripture claim throughout the New Testament. The apostle Peter says that the apostles “made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:16)—the phrase “made known” is a technical word that refers to imparting new divine revelation from the Lord (cf. Luke 2:15). Peter places apostolic teaching right alongside Old Testament Scripture when he states,
This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets [OT Scripture] and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles [NT Scripture].2 Peter 3:1–2
Later in 2 Peter 3, Peter refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture (3:15–16). In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul refers to Luke’s writings as Scripture. Paul calls his own writings “a command of the Lord” (1 Cor 14:37-38) and “the Word of God” (1 Thess 2:13).
Apostles called and appointed by Christ spoke his authoritative truth on his behalf and inscripturated it in the New Testament. To obey the apostles is to obey Christ, and to ignore them is to ignore their Master. Now that the canon of Scripture is closed and the church has been founded, direct apostolic revelation has ceased.
An Apostle Demonstrated “Signs of a True Apostle.”
A third qualification for an apostle was that he demonstrated what Paul calls in 2 Corinthians 12:12 “signs of a true apostle.”
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.2 Corinthians 12:12
As is true of all miracles in Scripture, these “mighty works” were signs that confirmed and accredited the ministry of those whom God called to be his representatives. In the Old Testament, this was true of Moses and the prophets, the final example of this being John the Baptist as he paved the way for Christ, Jesus himself was confirmed by miraculous signs, and this was also true of the apostles. As the author of Hebrews states,
How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.Heb 2:3–4
We see many examples of these signs in the book of Acts. The miracles did not exist for their own sake; rather, they were for the purpose of confirming the ministry of the apostles as they delivered the teachings of Christ during the foundational period of the church:
Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles.Acts 5:12
It is important to recognize this specific function of miracles in confirming apostleship—this was the purpose of miracles during this period and why they no longer continued after the foundation of the church and death of the apostles. Like with the gift of direct revelation from Christ, miracles ceased once the complete canon of Scripture was finished, the church had been founded, and the apostles died.
Who Are Apostles?
On the basis of these biblical qualifications, then, who are apostles?
Certainly the Twelve (including Matthias; Acts 1:26) and Paul were apostles, as we have seen, and there is a case to be made that these alone were apostles. However, a few more candidates in the NT may present themselves as meeting these qualifications, including Barnabas (Acts 14:14), James (Gal 1:19), Timothy, and Silas (1 Thess 2:6).
However, what the qualifications listed above clearly indicate is that no one is an apostle today. No one today can claim to have been personally appointed by Christ, to have seen the risen Christ, and to have performed the confirming works of an apostle.
And as also stated above, we must be clear that all of these qualifications go together; in other words, just as there is no one today who meets all of the qualifications of an apostle, so there is no one today who continues to be “guided into all truth” as the apostles were, and there is no one today who performs the signs of an apostle. Direct revelation and healings were for the purpose of confirming apostolic authority as Christ’s representatives, and once the New Testament was completed, these gifts ceased.
Today we do not need apostles, we do not need further apostolic revelation, and we do not need confirming signs because we have something more sure (2 Peter 1:19), the inscripturated Word of God.