The Incomparable Role of the Apostles

Part I of V

The apostles of Jesus Christ were carefully selected and appointed to a task unequalled by any other in their day or thereafter.  A failure to comprehend the incomparable role of the apostles and their enduring authority in the church has precipitated the emergence of a plethora of denominational entities, even from the earliest times of Christianity.  Unfortunately, the church of Christ in modern times has not been immune to misunderstandings involving the unique role of the apostles in the church. 

Specific instructions and promises made directly by Christ to the apostles are commonly applied to all Christians in general.  This has become a serious problem as preachers and teachers lift certain statements from a solitary discourse of Jesus spoken directly to the apostles, applying some points to all Christians, while relegating others (e.g. miracles) to the apostles alone.  A careful examination of the role of the apostles will demonstrate that these men were instructed and charged differently than all others.  The church is built on the corner stone that is Christ Jesus, but upon the solid foundation laid by the apostles (Ephesians 2:20; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10).

An apostle is one set apart and dispatched on a particular mission.  Always signified is the person sent with full authority to speak or act in the name of the sender.  The apostle is essentially a person sent by someone to someone else; the purpose spanning a broad spectrum of activities, but affiliated with the work of an envoy, delegate, diplomat, or representative.  The apostle is not “greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16); however, as in the case of Jesus being sent by God (John 17:3; cf. Hebrews 3:1), the apostle may be equal to the sender (cf. Philippians 2:5-6).

The binding authority of the apostle’s message is demonstrated in Christ’s declaration to His chosen apostles: “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (Luke 10:16).  This expresses the work of the apostles as ultimately Christ’s own work.  The attitude or disposition taken toward the apostle is in reality taken toward the sender.  Having been sent by God, Jesus affirms, “He who hates Me hates My Father also” (John 15:23). 

The designation “apostle” is a title of honor.  Paul considered himself unworthy of the title, lamenting, “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).  Although the apostles did not assert any special privileges among those they served (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:2; 11:9), their position represents the hierarchy in the church (Matthew 19:27-28).  In instances where others might have rudely flaunted their illustrious authority, the apostles of Christ proved to be men of great humbleness, expressing tenderness and brotherly compassion by appealing to their Christian kinsmen with warmth and love (cf. Philemon 8-9; 1 Thessalonians 2:6-7). 

To more fully appreciate the uniqueness associated with Christ’s apostles and their extraordinary commission of revealing and confirming the gospel to the world, a brief examination of Old Testament precedence is in order.  The God of revelation is a God of pattern.  By investigating a very similar appointment of one who previously spoke for God, we can learn the method or pattern by which God appoints special envoys, delegates, or representatives. 

The appointment of Moses as God’s spokesman (Exodus 3) establishes the pattern that is followed when special representatives are required by God.  Although Abraham is called a prophet one time in Scripture (Genesis 20:7), in the broader more comprehensive view of the prophet, Moses is considered the first.  God selected Moses as His special envoy to the nation of Israel and to their Egyptian captors, commissioning him to reveal and confirm the Law of God. 

The selection of Moses displays the vital connection between God’s spokesman and the attending miraculous power that provided confirmation that the message delivered was from God and not from mere man.  The principles governing divine revelation and inspiration are clearly set forth in the appointment of Moses.  The unique requirements were 1) a specific call, 2) a specific commission, and 3) specific credentials that would confirm the call, commission, and revelation that came through Moses as God’s prophet. Notice how the Bible connects these three in the appointment process:

1. The Call.  While Moses was tending the flock belonging to his father-in-law, Jethro, he spotted a burning bush that was not being consumed by the flame.  When Moses approached the bush, “God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, ‘Moses, Moses…’” (Exodus 3:4).  God did not call any other man to perform the work He assigned to Moses.  This exclusive call belonged to Moses, and God immediately commissioned him to the appointed task. 

2. The Commission.  “And now, behold, the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them.  Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?’  And He said, ‘Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you:  When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.’  Then Moses said to God, ‘Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?’  And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ And God, furthermore, said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The Lord the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations’” (Exodus 3:9-15).

Moses was commissioned by God to bring the fledgling nation of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.  His orders were clearly enunciated, and God addressed the authority by which Moses should speak, assuring him that the divine presence would accompany him on his journey, promising, “Certainly I will be with you” (3:12).  The task assigned to Moses was far more difficult than anything he could have achieved on his own.  Aware of his special needs, God promised Moses the solution.  The meaning of God’s promise, “Certainly I will be with you,” is revealed in the credentials given to Moses.

3. The Credentials.  Although he received a special call and a distinct commission from the Lord personally, Moses demonstrated a keen awareness of human nature by questioning God sincerely, “What if they will not believe me, or listen to what I say? For they may say, “The Lord has not appeared to you’” (Exodus 4:1).  Because God does not reveal Himself to every man, most simply refuse to believe in the existence of God.  But God has a very powerful way of demonstrating His own existence and the authenticity of all His appointed prophets.  Moses would not be sent on such an important assignment without receiving the proper credentials to validate his claim as spokesman for God.  In answer to Moses’ question, God drew attention to the staff that was in his hand, saying to Moses:

“Throw it on the ground.’ So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail’ – so he stretched out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand – ‘that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.’ And the Lord furthermore said to him, now put your hand into your bosom.’ So he put his hand into his bosom, and when he took it out, behold it was leprous like snow. Then He said, ‘Put your hand into your bosom again.’ So he put his hand into his bosom again; and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. ‘And it shall come about that if they will not believe you or heed the witness of the first sign, they may believe the witness of the last sign. But it shall be that if they will not believe even these two signs or heed what you say, then you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground’” (Exodus 4:3-9).  

The ability to perform miraculous acts was given to Moses as credentials proving his claim to be God’s prophet.  Anyone can claim to speak for God, but God promised miraculous power as a means of distinguishing the true prophet from the false.  The true prophet was an inspired spokesman for God.  This required confirmation to establish the revelation as divine in origin.

Miraculous power served as the credentials to distinguish God’s true prophet from all potential false claims of inspiration.  When Moses was sent on a mission for God, he was supplied with the necessary credentials to validate his claim; these credentials also served to aid Moses in completing the task that he was unable to accomplish without divine assistance.  The special needs of Moses were met by God’s promise to be with him, i.e., miraculous accompaniment. 


What We Must Learn From the Appointment of Moses

The selection of Moses as heaven’s special envoy to Israel and Egypt demonstrates God’s way as one of inspiration, revelation, and confirmation; these three things always go together and with excellent reason: What good would inspiration and revelation be without confirmation?  Upon hearing the revelation, how could one be certain that the words were from God and not just the words of a mere man, or even worse, the words of Satan?  Any man can claim “God told me this.”  As a means to prevent fraud or the suspicion of fraud, inspired revelation from God always included confirmation.  God never expected man to heed the words of another man who simply claimed to speak for God, but confirmation of heavenly origin was always provided.

In 1820, Joseph Smith claimed inspiration and revelation, resulting in the Book of Mormon.  How can one know that the Bible is inspired and the Book of Mormon is uninspired?  The difference is that the inspiration of the Bible is confirmed by miracles, while the claim of Joseph Smith is unconfirmed.  Neither Smith, nor his witnesses, ever offered any proof of inspiration except their own personal testimony.  However, it has always been the procedure of God to provide evidence – undeniable substantiation – of the inspiration of His revelation.  God knew that any man could come along and say, “God told me this” or “I have the Spirit of God.”

Moses knew that the Israelites and Pharaoh would both be foolish to accept his verbal claim without additional proof that God had sent him.  How would they have known whether Moses was telling the truth or not?  But God never intended for Moses to rely solely upon his own voice as proof of his commission.  God answered him, saying, “And it shall come about that if they will not believe you or heed the witness of the first sign, they may believe the witness of the last sign. But it shall be that if they will not believe even these two signs or heed what you say, then you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground” (Exodus 4:8-9).

In this passage note that there are actually two voices speaking: 1) the voice of Moses, and 2) the voice of miracles or signs which would be displayed, proving to the Israelites and Pharaoh in unmistakable terms that Moses was the spokesman for God.  The miracles performed and subsequently recorded in the Bible are God’s evidence of inspiration.  It should also be noted that written revelation began with Moses; as a result, he became God’s first prophet and scribe, recording for all time the revelation given him.  As the first inspired spokesman, the call, commission, and credentials of Moses become the type for the call, commission, and credentials of the apostles in the New Testament. 

The Old Testament contains the background information necessary for a proper understanding of the role of the apostles in the New Testament.  The principles regarding divine revelation and confirmation are found in the examples recorded in the Old Testament.  Examining these cases reveals how miraculous acts of confirmation were provided through the prophet to authenticate the message.  The very nature of prophetic revelation demanded miraculous accompaniment.  If revelation was given without attesting signs, wonders, and miracles, the door would be wide open for every false teacher or charlatan to also claim inspiration (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:19-20).  

God sent Moses as His prophet to deliver the children of Israel from the grip of Egyptian bondage and to present His law to the fledgling nation of Israel.  The message spoken to Pharaoh had its origin confirmed as divine by the miraculous power demonstrated through Moses.  In Moses, we have the first primary prophet; and in connection with him, the pattern of God’s appointment process.  If one is to understand the significant role of the apostles in the church, it is vital that he grasp the basic principles set forth in the call, commission, and credentials given to Moses.  Our God is a God of pattern (Exodus 25:9, 40; Numbers 8:4; cf. Hebrews 8:5).


The Apostles of Jesus Christ

The term “apostle” translates the Greek apostolos, meaning: “a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders” (Thayer, 1958, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).  “Apostolos is simply an objective word to denote a fully accredited representative with a specific commission” (Kittel, 1985, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).  Regarding the special appointment of “apostles” by Christ, the New Testament emphasizes the official status and especially the divine origin and authority of these men as special envoys or emissaries. 

In the Old Testament the saliah was dispatched on missions of extreme importance.  We may recall Eliezer, Abraham’s saliah, sent to Laban and Bethuel to arrange Isaac’s marriage with Rebekah (Genesis 24).  The prophet Ahijah was warned by God concerning the visit of Jeroboam’s wife, who was coming to consult him about her son’s illness. When she arrived, he said, “I am sent (salah) to you with a harsh message” (1 Kings 14:6).

Regarding the Hebrew saliah, noted French Bible expositor, Ceslas Spicq, brilliantly observed, “This person is not a mere envoy but a charge d’ affaires, a person’s authorized representative; his acts are binding upon the ‘sender.’  At this point the principle and the proxy are equivalent: ‘A person’s saliah is as the person himself’” (1994, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol. 1, 189).  

In rabbinical literature, the rabbis considered the priest who offered the sacrifice to be God’s saliah, “doing more than we can do” (Babylonian Talmud, Qiddusin, 23b), and on the Day of Atonement they called the High Priest “the people’s representative before God” (Mishna, Yoma, 1.5; Gittin 3.6). 

The apostles of Christ are comparable to the saliah of the Old Testament.  No one in the church sustains a position of importance remotely equal to that of the apostles.  The Lord sent these men on a mission bearing the weight of eternity.  Through the apostles, the gospel would be revealed and confirmed by the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  It is impossible to understand the church of Christ in the New Testament without appropriate knowledge of the role the apostles sustain to the church. 


Tracy White


References: See Part 3