The Incomparable Role of the Apostles
Part III of V
In detailing peculiarities concerning the apostles of Christ and their work, the previous part (Part II) began examining the special commission received by the apostles. The Apostolic Commission is always discernable due to the three distinct factors involved in the commission: (1) the order to “go,” or an equivalent such as “I send you.” (2) The directive to preach or make known the gospel. (3) The promise of miraculous power to aid the apostles in completing the task assigned to them. Having previously examined the commissioning of the twelve, consider now the appointment of Saul of Tarsus.
The Commission of Saul
In relating how the resurrected Christ appeared “to all the apostles,” Paul acknowledges, “and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:7-8). The conversion of Saul is detailed three times in the New Testament, viz. Acts 9:1-19, 22:1-21, 26:12-20. The evidence of Paul receiving the exact same Apostolic Commission as the other apostles is beyond dispute or refutation. The three distinct ear marks relating to the Apostolic Commission as delivered to the twelve are clearly discernable in the conversion accounts of Saul of Tarsus:
(1) The Lord called him, saying, “for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you…I am sending you” (Acts 26:16-17). Christ later commanded him, “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). The sending of Paul to the Gentiles fulfilled the words spoken by Christ to Ananias: “he is a chosen vessel of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Ananias recounted these words to Saul, saying, “For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15).
2) Paul was chosen by the Lord to bear His “name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Christ told Saul, “for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness…” (Acts 26:16). The apostles were all eye witnesses of the resurrected Christ, and now Saul received his orders, being sent by Christ to the Jews and to the Gentiles, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18). Paul, like the other apostles, would preach the gospel, testifying to the resurrection of Christ and teaching all men what they must do in order to obtain remission of sins and to be at peace with God.
(3) Ananias told Saul that he was to be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17; cf. Acts 2:4). In recounting the events of his conversion to king Agrippa, Paul related how Christ said to him, “for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you” (Acts 26:16-17, emp. added). The promise, “I will appear to you,” is equivalent to the statements made by Christ to the other apostles wherein He promised “I will come to you” (John 14:18) and “lo, I am with you” (Matthew 28:20). Surprisingly, Adam Clarke captured the full essence of the apostolic promise to Saul, commenting: “Here Christ gives him to understand that he should have farther communications from himself; and this may refer either to those interpositions of Divine Providence by which he was so often rescued from destruction, or to those encouragements which he received in dreams, visions, trances, etc., or to that general inspiration under which he was enabled to apprehend and reveal the secret things of God, for the edification of the Church. To all of which may be added that astonishing power by which he was so often enabled to work miracles for the confirmation of the truth” (Adam Clarke's Commentary, Acts 26:16). In receiving the identical Apostolic Commission as the other apostles, Paul received the corresponding promise of inspiration and miraculous confirmation to prove the gospel he preached was from heaven and not from man.
It is unequivocal that the same three dynamics are mentioned in accordance with the Apostolic Commission in every instance. Since no one today can perform miracles to sustain their claim of satisfying the Great Commission, it becomes evident that the apostles alone received this divine directive. The uniqueness of their work required a unique commission, and none but the apostles received this special commission. This explains why preachers today – even in the church of Christ – all possess varying views on a host of biblical topics. There is no consensus of truth among uninspired men.
Not possessing inspiration, preachers today change their opinions with maturity, increased depth of study, or listening to another’s perspective and ability to correlate passages of Scripture. After preaching the same erroneous concepts for many, many years, sincere preachers will often change their views and begin preaching their current analysis of the truth. This is a clear indication that, in their previous errors, they had not fulfilled the “Great Commission” by preaching the truth to all nations, but had been false teachers, and therefore would, of necessity, need to repent, beginning once more to go into all the world; however, this process would repeat itself over and over as the sincere preacher continued learning from God’s word all the days of his life. The apostles and inspired prophets were not characterized by such shenanigans.
This reveals the foolishness associated with binding the Apostolic Commission upon those not adequately supplied through supernatural attendance to guarantee the veracity of ALL the things they say. And since no two uninspired men have ever been found who believe every verse and every topic of the Bible alike, who today can claim they are completing the Lord’s instructions as given to the apostles? We now encourage people to study and obey the apostles’ doctrine found in the inspired book; not simply to obey uninspired preachers who will believe and teach one thing today, and then begin teaching differently tomorrow after learning something new through the night.
Furthermore, it should be carefully noted that not one Christian is ever commanded by the apostles to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” as preachers continually instruct the church today. This explains why Matthew 28:19-20 and Mark 16:15-16 are always quoted when preachers attempt to bind the commission upon the church in general; but these passages do not address the church. Matthew and Mark record the special instructions or orders which Christ gave the chosen apostles prior to the establishment of the church, and these orders are never repeated as instructions for the church.
The contemporary pulpit has effectively removed any distinction between the apostles and ordinary Christians, but distinctions prevailed in the infant church. Consider the case of Ananias: Ananias was called by Christ (Acts 9:10), but not to serve as an ambassador of Christ to all the world. Ananias was ordered to “go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul” (Acts 9:11). Saul was the “chosen instrument” of the Lord, “to bear [His] name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15; cf. 22:12-15), not Ananias. Ananias never received the special commission given to the ambassadors of Christ; nor has any other Christian been so ordered or commissioned by Jesus.
Cornelius and his household received the “same gift” of the Spirit (Acts 11:15-17) as that “poured forth” upon the apostles (Acts 2:4, 33). By this, some have suggested that Cornelius possessed the same authority as the apostles; but this supposition is baseless and without merit unless evidence can be presented which shows Cornelius and his household were commissioned to perform the same work as that assigned to the apostles. The same Spirit worked in all who possessed supernatural powers (1 Corinthians 12:4), but the distinctive services and functions of the earliest Christians demonstrates a uniqueness concerning the apostles.
In cataloguing the various positions of work in the church, Paul specifically mentions “evangelists” (Ephesians 4:11). That the apostle and the evangelist do not perform the same task is clearly evident from the Scriptures. The evangelist is commonly located in a particular area (1 Timothy 1:3; Acts 21:8), and although the evangelist is ordered to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2), he is not ordered into compliance with the Apostolic Commission which sent the apostles “into all the world” (Mark 16:15).
As an evangelist, Timothy was stationed at the church in Ephesus and Paul urged him to remain there (1 Timothy 1:3). Paul ordered Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). From this it is obvious that those in the early church were not under the allusion that every Christian was ordered to “preach the gospel to all creation.” Timothy was fulfilling his ministry by remaining as the evangelist in the church at Ephesus.
The apostles were ordered by Christ to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). They accomplished this task (Colossians 1:23; cf. Romans 16:26). When Paul instructs Timothy to preach, he clearly draws a distinction between the preaching of the apostles and that performed by the evangelist. Paul ordered Timothy, “And the things which you have heard from me [the apostle] in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
The evangelist simply repeats the message of the gospel proclaimed by the apostles, teaching men to believe in Christ and to obey the apostles’ doctrine (cf. 2 Timothy 1:13). The evangelist in the infant church accomplished this by the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed through an apostle’s hands (2 Timothy 1:6-7; cf. 1:13-14). The evangelist in the post-miraculous church must be a man of the book, carefully learning the precious truths of the gospel as recorded in the inspired word of God.
An evangelist is distinct from the apostles, and from elders, and from deacons, and – in the case of the infant church – from prophets. Each designated position has a special task to fulfill, but none of the lesser grades is equal to the work assigned to the apostles of Jesus Christ. The apostles continue to function in their role as ambassadors, representing the kingdom of heaven and making disciples of all nations by extending the terms of peace which are now recorded in the New Testament. The work of the evangelist is not commensurate with the work of the apostles, and it is a mistake to regard them as under the same orders.
The office of bishop or pastor is distinct still from the apostles and the evangelists. Those appointed as elders serve as the overseers or shepherds for the local church (Acts 14:23; cf. Acts 20:17; 1 Peter 5:1-3). Again, it is plain from these facts that the elders have not been commanded to go into all the world. The elder is a family man (1 Timothy 4-5), not a touring herald. He is responsible for “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9; cf. Acts 15:1-6; 16:4). The scope of the bishop’s work is confined to the local church (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; James 5:14).
The office of deacon is also filled by family men (1 Timothy 3:12). Their duties, like the bishops, are in affiliation with the local church (Philippians 1:1). The meaningful service of the deacon in the local church is honorable (1 Timothy 3:13). This would not be true if the deacon was skipping out on the order of Christ to “go into all the world.”
Older women are not commanded by the apostles to “preach the gospel to all creation,” but they are ordered to teach the younger women “to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored” (Titus 2:3-5). In view of the tremendous loss of young women that the church has suffered in the past half century due to homes broken by divorce and through the willful abandonment of Christianity by our youth, perhaps local evangelists should stop quoting the Great Commission given to the apostles and begin quoting Titus 2:3-5 which instructs older women in their proper place of service in the church.
The word of God has been shamefully dishonored by too many daughters who have not been properly instructed by older women, and the taproot cause in many cases just may be the wrong emphasis emanating from the pulpit. It is rare indeed to find “older women” in the church dedicated to the task specifically assigned to them by the apostle of Christ.
A woman married to an unbelieving husband also received instructions from an apostle, not to go into all the world and preach, and neither by engaging preaching at home, but “they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior” (1 Peter 3:1-2). These are the instructions given to Christian women in the church, but they are vastly different from the orders given to the apostles in the Apostolic Commission.
Paul even details the required service or duties of slaves who become Christians. In stark contradistinction to what they would hear from the pulpit today concerning the command to “Go into all the world and preach,” Paul instructed slaves to “be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (Titus 2:9-10). Since the “doctrine of God” may be adorned by one who does not “go into all the world,” are we absolutely certain that the Great Commission is a directive for every Christian?
In way of example, the runaway slave, Onesimus, became a Christian at the hands of Paul. Instead of ordering him to “make disciples of all nations” as commonly commanded to those becoming Christians today, Paul directed Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, also a Christian. Although Paul desired the personal service of Onesimus while imprisoned, he refused to keep him, but sent him, not “into all the world,” but back to Philemon. Incidentally, Paul also mentioned that Philemon allowed the church to meet in his home. Neither Philemon nor Onesimus labored as itinerate preachers under the Apostolic Commission. These men were simply Christians living at home – one as a free man and one as a slave – assembling for worship with the local church (see Philemon).
When James warned Christians, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1), should we believe the Holy Spirit intended what James wrote? The attempts made by our brethren today to soften this warning so as not to contradict the Great Commission demonstrates that many of our preachers simply do not believe the plain spoken language of the Bible. Regarding the warning, “Let not many of you become teachers,” Jackson says, “That seems strange inasmuch as the Lord’s people are charged with being teachers (cf. Mt. 28:19-20). The point is not to discourage teaching, but to demonstrate the seriousness of this role and the ‘heavier judgment’ that goes with the responsibility” (2011, A New Testament Commentary, 522).
This particular analysis by one of our esteemed brethren “seems strange” in view of what James literally writes to Christians. It should be remembered that the Great Commission was spoken only to the apostles. There is no contradiction in the statement of James because the instructions are not given to the same people. The apostles were commanded to preach the gospel to all the world; but ordinary Christians were duly warned against all becoming teachers as clearly presented by James.
That all Christians are not commanded to teach is clear from the Scriptures. The appointment of bishops was only from men who were “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), clearly rejecting Christian men who were not teachers. Paul says elders “who work hard at preaching and teaching” were to be considered worthy of “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17). What about those who did not “work hard at preaching and teaching”? Their honor would not be doubled, but they would still be honored singularly for their work as bishops or overseers.
This could not be true if the bishops were actually under the constraints of the Great Commission but were not participating in “preaching and teaching” – that would be sin. Furthermore, if all Christians are commanded to preach, why would elders alone receive double honor for simply doing what all have been ordered to do? These are valid questions which have no plausible answer if all Christians are commanded alike under the Great Commission.
Regarding deacons, no qualification of teaching is enjoined upon them, nor is there any promise of special honor for those who do. That not all in the church are commanded to teach clearly harmonizes with the warning given by James. If all Christians are ordered to teach under the constraints of the Great Commission, there could be no such thing as a “stricter judgment,” for all would be judged the same as teachers under the Great Commission.
However, those choosing to become teachers as evangelists or bishops will incur a stricter judgment than a Christian who does not become a teacher. Jackson is right on the mark regarding “the seriousness of this role and the ‘weightier judgment’ that goes with the responsibility,” but he errs in claiming “the Lord’s people are charged with being teachers” under the constraints of the Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. The warning by James is not difficult to understand unless one has been deceived into believing the Great Commission is bound upon every Christian.
The appointment of seven men to oversee the work of administering food in the Jerusalem church also confirms the apostles as the only ones ordered to preach to all people as directed by Christ’s commission. When the Hellenistic complaint arose, “the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word’” (Acts 6:2-4).
If all Christians were ordered the same as the apostles, the seven could have offered the same argument of refusal, saying, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” In fact, every Christian could make the same appeal to avoid every undesirable work of the church. However, the Apostolic Commission was unique to the twelve at this time (Paul would receive his orders in the near future). This episode reveals that ordinary Christians were not under compulsion to preach to all the world as the apostles were specifically commissioned to do.
The incident where Paul refused John, called Mark, to be part of his second missionary journey indicates the same. If Christ literally ordered every man to “go,” by what authority could Paul initiate refusal? John Mark could have simply responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (cf. Acts 5:29).
While some volunteered to travel with the apostles, and others “full of the Holy Spirit” operated separate from the apostles under authority from a local congregation (cf. Acts 11:22-24; 15:39), there is absolutely no indication from Scripture that these labored under obligation of the Apostolic Commission, and this explains why the apostles were still needed where others had preached (Acts 8:4-17; 19:1-6). The Holy Spirit given through the apostles hands was simply an extension of the apostles’ special work as ambassadors (Mark 16:15-20).
If the “Go ye” of Mark 16:15 (KJV) really means “Go me” (as often mischaracterized by sincere but gravely misinformed preachers today – most of whom have never preached outside their home state and certainly not outside the country), then the local church would be non-existent as every Christian (both male and female, young and old) would be required to travel the world preaching “to every creature.”
Recognizing the inability of the majority of Christians to even attempt to comply with the directives of the original Commission, preachers sometime soften or water down the impact by telling the church to “go into your world and preach.” This most certainly is not what Christ ordered the apostles to do, and reveals the insincerity and disrespect with which some preachers handle the truth.
In literal fulfillment of the Apostolic Commission, the apostles often preached “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20), even to the assembled church (Acts 20:7-12). Since women are restricted from preaching to the assembled church (1 Timothy 2:11-15), it should be evident that the Great Commission which entails “preaching everywhere” and to “every creature” is limited only to the apostles who were all men.
The Apostolic Commission was never intended to be bound upon every Christian by having the church interpret “Go ye” as meaning “Go me.” This is an embarrassingly misplaced directive that is far too often heard emanating from pulpits of the church of Christ. The literal fulfillment of such by every Christian would terminate the existence of the local church with elders and deacons as described on the pages of the New Testament. If all Christians are ordered under the Great Commission, should we commence church discipline upon all those who are sinning by not preaching and teaching?
The Scriptures clearly reveal the work of the church, and one of those activities is evangelism (2 Timothy 4:5); however, the work of the local evangelist is not the same as the work of an apostle, and neither is the work of an elder the same as that of the evangelist or the apostle (cf. Ephesians 4:11). Wise are those men who recognize the complexities involved in each function, thus limiting their personal activities to the work they most enjoy performing and/or are appointed unto.
The work of the apostles was unique to their appointment, and although every Christian has a duty to perform, it is not equal to the Apostolic Commission that belongs to the inimitable ambassadors of Christ. The chosen apostles were commissioned by Christ to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” They continue their work of converting the lost today through the inspired written word as evangelists, pastors and teachers remind people that they “ought to remember the words that were spoken by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17). The apostles received a special commission.
4. The Apostles had Special Needs.
The work of the apostles, being peculiar to them, meant they had special or distinct needs that were also peculiar to them. Christ commissioned the apostles to reveal and confirm the truth of the scheme of human redemption. Paul emphasized the fact that he was an apostle, “not sent from men, nor the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:1). He stressed that the gospel he preached “is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). He informed the church at Ephesus “that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery” (Ephesians 3:3).
Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel. He didn’t sit at the feet of others in order to learn the things he preached, nor did he sit and study the written New Testament to acquire his knowledge. No preacher today can make the claim that Paul did in these previous statements; in fact, Paul is literally defending his apostleship as a position of uniqueness even among the other apostles who lived, ate, and drank with the Lord, hearing the teachings of Jesus first hand. Nothing of this sort characterized the apostle Paul; he received the entirety of his message by divine revelation.
Christ charged the apostles with the duty of revealing and confirming the precepts of the New Covenant to all mankind. The gospel of Christ represented a new and previously unknown way of worship. Judaism had been the approved form of worship for the Jews for fifteen hundred years. In order to complete the difficult task of transitioning the Jews from Judaism and the Gentiles out of Paganism, Christ promised the apostles a special assistant to supply their every need. The promises of the Holy Spirit in John chapters 14-16 are given solely to the apostles to aid their work as ambassadors. The misapplication of these chapters by applying the specific promises to all Christians in general rather than limiting them to the apostles is a source of great confusion and widespread error; even within the church.
As ambassadors for Christ, the apostles needed the pure and unadulterated law of Christ to proclaim to all nations. To satisfy this special need, the apostles were promised: “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13); and again, “But 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 14:26). The Holy Spirit would guarantee that the gospel preached by the apostles was the message spoken and sent by Christ. The apostles had lived with Christ for more than three years, and Christ reaffirmed the relationship, stating, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).
The apostles were appointed as witnesses “because,” as He said to them, “you have been with Me from the beginning” (15:27). This statement distinguishes the apostles from all others, for as eye-witnesses, they would rehearse the things they had seen and heard from Christ. Only two men, Joseph and Matthias, out of a 120 disciples, were qualified to occupy the ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside (Acts 1:21-23).
During the conversion of the first Gentiles to Christ, the apostle Peter was summoned to the house of Cornelius who explained to Peter why he was urgently called. In concluding his description of the previous days’ events, Cornelius stated, “And so I have sent to you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (Acts 10:33; cf. Matthew 28:19-20, emp. added). Peter was an inspired spokesman operating under the Apostolic Commission.
The whole world needed the gospel, but the apostles were specifically called and commissioned to the task of revealing and confirming all the things they received from the Lord, making disciples of all the nations and teaching those disciples to observe all that Christ had commanded them [i.e. apostles]. The church and all faithful preachers today still observe the doctrine that Christ commanded the apostles to teach, and that doctrine appears in the organization of the church beginning in Acts 2. Again, is it not significant that the church is never instructed by the apostles to observe the Great Commission? We must be more prudent in allowing the Bible to interpret itself.
Peter explained the unique position of the apostles to the household of Cornelius, stating, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He should become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:38-42, emp. added). The apostles were under orders to preach to all nations, because they were witnesses.
The household of Cornelius heard the gospel and they were commanded to be baptized in water, but there is no evidence that they were commanded “to go into all the world” as the apostles were obligated under the Apostolic Commission. This is a significant point that has never been mentioned from the pulpit, classroom, or from commentaries researched. Even though Cornelius and those with him received the “same gift” of the Holy Spirit as the apostles had received on Pentecost (Acts 11:15-17), they were not commissioned as ambassadors to represent Christ in all the world as were the apostles.
The special needs of the apostles were satisfied by the reception of the Holy Spirit. The oral preaching of the gospel required these men to speak foreign languages, but this need was met immediately on the day of Pentecost as “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Like the miraculous provision supplied to the infant nation of Israel dwelling in the wilderness, Christ equipped His chosen apostles with miraculous power to reveal, confirm, and establish the truth during the infancy of the church. The inspired written record now contains the truth that guides the mature church in all her generations. The apostles continue to function as ambassadors today through the inspired written word.
5. The Apostles Received Special Credentials.
To certify the apostles as true ambassadors for the kingdom of Christ, they were given special credentials. No one is allowed to serve as an ambassador who does not possess the proper credentials. A citizen of the United States may very well visit London, England, and while there may go down to No.10 Downing Street, but what will the outcome be if business is attempted in the name of the U.S. Government? Without proper credentials, would this citizen be accepted as an official ambassador? This illustrates why Christians in general and preachers in particular are not ambassadors today.
Before ascending into heaven, Christ ordered His chosen apostles “to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). The apostles received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost to qualify them for their appointed work as ambassadors. These men were literally Christ’s embassy, clothed with all authority to represent the government of heaven here on earth. This is why Paul explained, “…the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Corinthians 14:37).
The apostles are unique in the church. Even among Christians living during the miraculous age of the infant church, the apostles could easily distinguish themselves from all others. Paul emphasized to the Corinthian church, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Corinthians 12:12). These attending miraculous demonstrations were their credentials as ambassadors. The apostles possessed the inimitable ability to perform every miraculous manifestation available in the infant church, and the apostles alone possessed the power to bestow the Holy Spirit upon a baptized believer through the laying on of hands (cf. Acts 8:4-24).
The writer of Hebrews affirms the unique role of the apostles in revealing and confirming the gospel to all others, even detailing the proper order of the truth being spoken first by Christ, then by those who heard Him (i.e. chosen apostles), and finally confirmed by them (apostles) to “us” (Christians). Carefully consider the statement in full:
“For this reason we must pay close attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Hebrews 2:1-4).
The apostles were commissioned to bear witness of Christ along with the Holy Spirit (see John 15:26-27). The joint testimony was established as truth by the exhibition of their credentials as ambassadors. The Hebrews’ writer indicates God bore witness to these inspired spokesmen in two distinct ways (note the word “both” in v. 4). The first was by their personal ability to perform every particular miraculous manifestation available; the second way was by their incomparable capacity to distribute the Holy Spirit. These two unmatched traits were “the signs of a true apostle,” serving as the credentials which certified the apostles as Christ’s ambassadors.
Paul argued for the equality of his apostleship on the very ground that he possessed the special credentials which proved one to be an apostle. The Corinthians had received the Holy Spirit through Paul’s hands, thus his declaration, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1-2). Paul had evinced his apostolic qualifications, proving himself an ambassador for Christ. While false apostles were present in the church (2 Corinthians 11:13), Paul proved by the miraculous powers he possessed that he was not “inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Corinthians 12:11).
The Epistle to the Galatians also includes an appeal by Paul to his special credentials as an ambassador for Christ. The churches of Galatia were coming under pressure by Judaizing teachers who were insisting that the Galatians needed to be circumcised and to keep the law (Mosaic Law). Paul countered this claim by insisting that any Christian who accepted the claim of these false teachers would fall from grace (5:4). However, Paul did more than just talk about the binding nature of his authority as an apostle.
Paul reminded the Galatians that they did not receive the Spirit from the false teachers, but only in association with the gospel preached by “he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you” (3:1-5), referring to himself as an apostle of Christ (cf. 1:11-2:9). The ability to perform signs, wonders, and miracles, coupled with the unique power to distribute the Holy Spirit (as affirmed in the Hebrews letter and witnessed several times in the Scriptures, e.g., Acts 8:14-19; Acts 19:1-6; 2 Timothy 1:6-7) were the “signs of a true apostle.”
“The Spirit is indispensable, for in the Spirit (Pentecost) the apostles receive assurance of Christ’s presence and power and also a standard of what is to be done as the apostles dedicate themselves to God’s will and aim at faith in the hearers rather than personal achievement as preachers or healers. The accompanying works are displays of Christ’s power which validates the divine message as fact and not just theory” (Kittel, 1985).
The wisdom of God afforded Christ’s ambassadors unequaled credentials, authenticating the apostles as representatives endowed with plenary authority to speak on behalf of the kingdom of heaven. No one possesses these credentials today, therefore it is certain that there are no ambassadors empowered to alter what has been revealed and confirmed as gospel truth. The inspired New Testament now represents the binding authority of the apostles to which all mankind must adhere if the salvation offered by God is to be attained, maintained, and finally obtained. The apostles received special credentials.
The apostles were chosen, trained, and commissioned by Christ differently than all others. In discussing the significance of the apostles, Spicq stated, “It is to them alone that the Lord speaks confidentially at the last supper (Luke 22:14); he places his testament in their hands; they are his heirs (John 13:17); he will remain with them always (Matthew 28:20)” (1994, pp. 189-90, fn).
Because of the uniqueness of their position in the church, the apostles were equipped with special credentials whereby they could easily differentiate themselves. If the so-called “Great Commission” passages do not pertain exclusively to the apostles, where are the orders that detail and direct them in their special role as apostles? Luke records that “He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen” (Acts 1:2), and Peter later explains how “He became visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He ordered us to preach to the people…” (Acts 10:40-42). If the passages of the Great Commission are not the orders given “to the apostles whom He had chosen,” where are the special orders that these men were laboring under as ambassadors for Christ?
Significant is the fact that on the pages of the New Testament it is only the apostles who are present when the “Great Commission” is given. One may as well claim to be delivering the children of Israel from bondage in accordance with the instructions given Moses in Exodus 3, or to build an ark as ordered Noah in Genesis 6, or to go to Nineveh as Jonah was commanded in Jonah 1:1-2 as to claim observance of the “Great Commission” given to the apostles. Those making such a crass claim in the days of the infant church were labeled “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13; cf. Revelation 2:2). If every Christian has been “sent” into all the world, what constitutes a “false apostle” (i.e. “false one sent forth”) in the church?
A dreadful mistake has been made by preachers today claiming the special orders given to the apostles are for all Christians to obey. Those touting such should also willingly forsake all that they possess in order to comply with Jesus’ command to leave employment, family, and all worldly considerations behind in order to “follow” Him, leaving “everything behind” (Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:27-28; cf. Mark 10:28-30). These particular orders were given to the very same men who were further instructed to “preach the gospel to all creation,” whereby Peter, Andrew, James and John literally became “fishers of men” as promised by Jesus in their initial call.
The reality is, only a small number of Christians (including preachers) ever forsake home to live life as an itinerant missionary; and most of those still settle (make a home) in only one location, never traveling throughout the world as the apostles were ordered to do. If we have all been sent on the same mission by Christ, then every Christian is entitled to wear the name “apostle,” i.e., “one sent forth.” However, Paul affirms that we are not all apostles (1 Corinthians 12:29); therefore we are not all “ones sent forth with orders.”
An exegetical error has infiltrated the church regarding the Apostolic Commission and must be corrected or else denominational status will be the result. Teaching correctly the necessary steps of primary obedience is not enough to save the lost. The church must know God, know the promises of God, know sin and its eternal consequences, know the cross, know the empty tomb, know the authority of Christ, know the authority of His apostles, know the apostles’ doctrine, know the organization of the church, know how to worship acceptably, know how to conduct one’s self properly, and know our individual place in the activities of the church.
The apostles were appointed to teach these things (Acts 26:14-18; cf. 1 Timothy 2:5-7); the church is appointed to listen to the apostles (2 Peter 3:2; Jude 17). The apostles never taught all Christians to obey the Apostolic Commission as preachers command today; in fact, they never instructed one Christian to obey the Commission. May God bless the reading and careful study of His word as we seek to more fully comprehend the role of the apostles and the actual instructions they bound upon the church as ambassadors of Christ.
References: (For Parts I, II, III)
Clarke, Adam (n. d.), Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon).
Jackson, Wayne (2011), A New Testament Commentary (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier
Kittel, G. et al. (1985), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Lipscomb, David (1954), 2 Corinthians and Galatians (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Rodkinson, Michael Levi (1898), New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud (New York: New Talmud
Shedd, William (2003), Dogmatic Theology, Ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P. & R.
Soncino Babylonian Talmud (n. d.), trans. I. Epstein, [On-line],
Spicq, Ceslas (1994), Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 3 Volumes (Peabody, MA:
Swanson, James (1997), Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek
(Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.).
Thayer J. H. (1958), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T.
The American Heritage College Dictionary (2004), 4th Ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company).
Vine, W. E. (1996), Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers).