Are there apostles in the 21st century?

Billy Graham


Spencer D Gear

Why is it that some Christians are so strong in their opposition to the gift of apostle as one of the gifts of the Spirit for people in today’s church? I interacted on a student bulletin board (on the Internet) with students who were cessationists. They used verses such as Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 to prove their views. They believe that the gift of apostleship ceased with Christ’s apostles. [See Appendices 1 & 2 at the end of this article for a sample of this interaction.]


I. Signs of an Apostle: 2 Corinthians 12:12 [1]

“The signs of a true [3] apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (NASB) [4]

A.   Are miracles the signs of the original apostles

Cessationists have used 2 Cor. 12:12 to argue for miracles to cease when the original 12 apostles of Jesus Christ died.

Why is this not valid here? Paul’s chief argument is not to distinguish between average Christians (who don’t perform miracles) and apostles who see miracles happen in their ministries. Examine the context of “false apostles” in 2 Cor. 11:13. Here in chapter 12, Paul is attempting to show (in 12:12) that he is “a true representative of Christ in distinction from others who are ‘false apostles’ (2 Cor. 11:13)” (Grudem, 1994, p. 362). In 2 Cor. 11:14-15, Paul shows that these false apostles are servants of Satan himself who “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.”

So, the issue Paul is addressing is genuine Christian apostles vs. apostles who are pretenders (i.e. satanically inspired apostles).

B.  What is 2 Corinthians 12:12 saying?

It is doubtful that Paul is saying that the “signs of an apostle” mean the miraculous, based on the Greek grammar. [5] What it is saying is that the miracles were performed, along with the signs of an apostle. The phrase, “‘signs of a true apostle’ must refer to something different, something that was  accompanied by (done ‘with’) signs and wonders” (Grudem, 1994, p. 363, emphasis in original). The word for “sign” (s?meion) in the Greek often refers to miracles but it has a much broader application where the non-miraculous are also called “signs.”

Examples (based on Grudem, 1994, n17, p.363) include:

  • Paul’s handwritten signature was a sign (2 Thess. 3:17);
  • Circumcision was a sign of Abraham’s imputed righteousness (Rom. 4:11);
  • Judas’s kiss was a “sign” to the Jewish leaders (Matt. 26:48);
  • In the Old Testament Greek Septuagint (LXX), the rainbow was a “sign” of the covenant (Gen. 9:12);
  • Eating the unleavened bread during Passover every year was a “sign” of the Lord’s deliverance (Ex. 13:9 LXX).
  • There’s a writing from the Early Church that describes Rahab’s scarlet cord as a “sign” that the spies told her to hang in her window (I Clement 12:7).

So, in 2 Cor. 12:12, what are the “signs” of an apostle? They are probably “best understood as everything that characterized Paul’s apostolic mission and showed him to be a true apostle. We need not guess at what these signs were, for elsewhere in  2 Corinthians Paul tells what marked him as a true apostle” (Grudem, 1994, p.363. The following list of characteristics of a “true apostle” in 2 Corinthians (based on Grudem, 1994, pp. 363-364) are:

  1. Spiritual power in conflict with evil (10:3-4, 8-11; 13:2-4, 10);
  2. Jealous care for the welfare of the churches (11:1-6);
  3. True knowledge of Jesus and his gospel plan (11:6);
  4. Self-support (selflessness) (11:7-11);
  5. Not taking advantage of churches; not striking people physically (11:20-21);
  6. Suffering and hardship endured for Christ (11:23-29);
  7. Being caught up into heaven (12:1-6);
  8. Contentment and faith to endure a thorn in the flesh (12:7-9);
  9. Gaining strength out of weakness (12:10).

Further evidence that these “signs” were not miracles is found in the fact that they were described as “performed among you with perseverance” (12:12), or “with utmost patience” (ESV). This is hardly a way to describe miracles that normally happen very quickly, but “it would make much sense to say that Paul’s Christlike endurance of hardship for the sake of the Corinthians was performed ‘in all patience'” (Grudem, 1994, p. 364).

Nowhere in the list above from 2 Corinthians does Paul indicate that he proves his genuine apostleship by the miracles in his ministry. What distinguishes these “false apostles” is  not humility,  not selflessness,  not generosity,  not by seeking the well being of others,  not by spiritual power in physical weakness,  but by confidence in their own strength. When Paul acted with Christlike character among them, he was showing the genuine signs of a true apostle (Grudem, 1994, p. 364).

But there’s a dilemma. Why did Paul have to mention anything about “signs and wonders and miracles”?  Paul seems to be adding one more factor to the signs of his genuine apostleship. Yes, there were miracles that confirmed the truth of Paul’s message, in addition to all of these other signs.

There’s another reason why miracles do not prove anyone to be an apostle.  That reason comes from other New Testament evidence, which makes it clear that there were others, besides the apostles, who were gifted by God to perform miracles. A few examples include:

a. Stephen (Acts 6:8);
b. Philip (Acts 8:6-7);
c. Christians in some churches of Galatia (Gal. 3:5);
d. Those who have been given the gifts of “miracles” (I Cor. 12:10, 28).

These examples make it clear that “miracles” are not the exclusive right to the apostles in the first century church. In fact, I Cor. 12:28 is clear to state that the gifts of “miracles” and “healings” (ESV) are distinguished from the gift of “apostles.” Even though Mark 16:17-18 is not in the earliest of New Testament Greek manuscripts, it does represent a “strand of tradition within the early church” (Grudem, 1994, p. 365). It reads:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (ESV).

Here the power of miracles is assumed to be given as a gift from God to all Christians. Even if this does not appear in the New Testament, those who wrote it were not convinced that the working of miracles was the exclusive gift of the original apostles.

To the charge by cessationists that miracles in the early church were associated with apostles and their close associates, a similar argument could be made for churches being founded only by the original apostles or their close associates. In the New Testament, apostles and associates did missionary work. What about evangelism? “These analogies show the inadequacy of the argument: the New Testament primarily shows how the church should seek to act, not how it should not seek to act” (Grudem, 1994, p. 365, emphasis in original).

II. Other Scriptures

A.  What about Ephesians 4:11?

This verse states, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the  pastors and teachers . . .” (ESV), or to include the Greek particles,  tous men and  tous de, “And he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” (NASB). [7]

Some object to the teaching of the cessation of the gift of apostleship, by pointing to this verse, claiming that the teaching of the “fivefold ministry” is that the risen Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers as gifts to the church throughout history — when and as Christ determined. This view is that the gift of apostle is still given to the contemporary church. Is this a valid perspective?

Commenting on this verse, Hendriksen (1967) states that “apostles, in the restricted sense of the term, are the Twelve and Paul. There are the charter-witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, clothed with life-long and church-wide authority over life and doctrine, but introduced here . . . in order to stress the  service they render” (p. 196, emphasis in original). By this type of comment, is Hendriksen saying that apostles are not given as gifts to the contemporary church? This was his “strictest sense” description. However, he believes the Scripture teaches another view that encompasses a “broader” understanding of apostleship. It is this latter view that would apply in the twenty-first century?

He speaks of the strict sense including only the “the Twelve and Paul” and in “that fullest, deepest sense a man is an apostle  for life and  wherever he goes. He is clothed with  the authority of the One who sent him, and that authority concerns both  doctrine and life” (1957, p. 50). However, there is “the broadest sense” of an apostle that is not limited to the Twelve and Paul. The Greek,  apostolos, is

a term derived from a verb which means  to send, to send away on a commission to dispatch: apostello. . . In its widest meaning it refers to any gospel-messenger, anyone who is sent on a spiritual mission, anyone who in that capacity represents his Sender and brings the message of salvation. Thus used, Barnabas, Epaphroditus, Apollos, Silvanus and Timothy are all called ‘apostles’ (Acts 14:14; I Cor. 4:6, 9; Phil. 2:25; I Thess. 2:6, cf. 1:1; and see also I Cor. 15:7). They represent God’s cause, though in doing so they may also represent certain definite churches whose ‘apostles’ they are called (cf. II Cor. 8:23). Thus Paul and Barnabas represent the church of Antioch (Acts 13:1, 2), and Epaphroditus is Philippi’s ‘apostle’ (Phil. 2:25). Under this broader connotation some would include also Andronicus, Junius (Rom. 16:7), and James, the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:19), but the exact meaning of the passages in which, together with the term ‘apostles,’ these men are mentioned is disputed” (Hendriksen, 1957, pp. 49-50).

Therefore, in its “broadest sense,” it seems reasonable that God would continue to dispatch gospel-messengers, commissioned by the Christ, the Giver of gifts, throughout the history of the church. Surely there is a need for pioneer gospel-messengers wherever Christ’s message has not penetrated!

What does the Scripture say?

1.  Not so, say the cessationists

    John Stott acknowledges that “the word ‘apostle’ has three main meanings in the New Testament” (1979, p. 160). These are/were:

  1. Every believer being a servant and a sent-one, apostle (as in John 13:16);
  2. “Apostles of the churches” who were “messengers sent out by a church either as missionaries or on some other errand” [see 2 Cor. 8:23; cf. Phil. 2:25] (p. 160).
  3. The “apostles of Christ” who were

a very small and distinctive group, consisting of the Twelve (including Matthias who replaced Judas), Paul, James the Lord’s brother, and possibly one or two others. They were personally chosen and authorized by Jesus, and had to be eyewitnesses of the risen Lord [Acts 1:21, 22; 10:40-41; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8-9]. It must be in this sense that Paul is using the word ‘apostles’ here, for he puts them at the top of his list, as he does also in 1 Corinthians 12:28 (‘first apostles’), and this is how he has so far used the word in this letter, referring to himself (1:1) and to his fellow apostles as the foundation of the church and the organs of revelation (2:20; 3:5-6) [6]. We should not hesitate, therefore, to say that  in this sense there are no apostles today (Stott, 1979, p. 160).

Why is it that this ministry gift of apostles in Eph. 4:11 has to be given the restrictive, “distinctive group” label by Stott? It is hardly surprising that he would conclude that this type of “distinctive group” of apostles ceased being given by Christ with their death. He has so narrowly defined the gift and its operation to be restricted to the church of Christ’s immediate apostles. He has not shown me in context of Eph. 4 that this is the correct understanding of the gift of apostleship.

In fact, the context of Eph. 4:11 indicates that a broader, continuing gift is what is indicated. I am referring to:

  • When Christ ascended “he gave gifts to men” (4:8);
  • The purposes of these five ministry gifts were:
  1. “To equip the saints for the work of ministry” (4:12);
  2. “For building up the body of Christ” (4:12);
  3. “Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (4:13);
  4. “To mature manhood” (4:13);
  5. “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (4:14);
  6. “We are to grow up in every way into him” (4:15);
  7. “When each part is working properly” (4:16).

If the gift of apostles ceased with the death of Christ’s immediate apostles, so did the other gifts mentioned in Eph. 4:11 — prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers. This is hardly a sustainable position in today’s church, where evangelists and pastor-teachers are very evident. So are apostles and prophets if one does not define them away with presuppositions.

I am convinced that these purposes of the ministry gifts are as valid now as they have ever been. They are needed in every generation of the church.. In fact, this list of purposes is what the contemporary church needs so desperately.

We need to grow up as believers to be able to counter the onslaught of false doctrine that is invading the church. I am not just speaking of the heretical doctrines of a John Shelby Spong or those of the Jesus Seminar (Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, etc.). In my own ministry experience, I have heard supposed evangelical pastors teach, “Jesus was not God when he was on  earth,” or, “It is God’s will for all of his children to be healed from all sicknesses. Afterall, ‘by his stripes we are healed.'” I have heard preaches duck and weave about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. The Uniting Church in Australia (an amalgamation of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational) in July 2003 endorsed the ordination of practising homosexuals. Cloud in the pulpit leads to fog in the pew.

Gordon Fee agrees:

Here [in Eph. 4:11] he elaborates on the role of these ministries for the carrying out of the imperative in vv. 1-3. The return to ‘each one’ takes place in our passage in v. 12, in the form of ‘the saints’ who have been ‘equipped’ by the ministries he lists. These ministries empower the whole body to carry out its ministry” (1994, p. 706, emphasis added).

Since all Christians are gifted by God, “the body [of Christ] does not consist of one member but of many” (I Cor. 12:14), there will always be a continuing need for ministry gifts that “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). Why should the five-fold ministry gifts be stripped of the apostle and the prophet after the death of first-century apostles and prophets?

The following context of Eph. 4:11 indicates the continuing need for these ministry gifts in the church of every era.

John MacArthur Jr. takes a similar line to Stott. He acknowledges two uses of “apostles” in the New Testament: (a) The Twelve (including Matthias) and Paul, and (b)

A more general sense of other men in the early church, such as Barnabas (Acts 14:4), Silas and Timothy (1 Thess. 2:6), and a few other outstanding leaders (Rom. 16:7; 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25. The false apostles spoken of in 2 Cor. 11:13 no doubt counterfeited this class of apostleship, since the others were limited to thirteen and were well known. The true apostles of the second group were called ‘messengers (apostoloi) of the churches’ (2 Cor. 8:23), whereas the thirteen were apostles of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1; etc.) (MacArthur, 1986, p. 141).

MacArthur concludes that “apostles in both groups were authenticated ‘by signs and wonders and miracles’ (2 Cor. 12:12), but neither group was self-perpetuating. Nor is there any New Testament record of an apostle in either group being replaced when he died” (1986, p. 141).

This is begging the question. A better question would be: Why would Christ find it necessary to  replace apostles, if the gift of apostleship is a timeless one, given as Christ sees the need, until the consummation?

Why would the gift cease?  Why is there no longer an apostolic ministry needed by which God’s gifted apostles are “messengers of the churches” as in 2 Cor. 8:23? It seems as though cessationist presuppositions are driving the conclusion, that leads MacArthur to state that “both apostles and prophets have passed from the scene (Eph. 2:20), but the foundation they laid is that on which all of Christ’s church has been built” (1986, p. 142).

2.  What would an apostle look like?

Since the broader definition of an apostle is a God-sent messenger of the churches, what would be his or her job description? In Eph. 2:20 and 3:5, Paul stated that he himself manifested the gifts as apostle and prophet.

An examination of the gifts of apostles, prophets and evangelists in the New Testament indicates that these gifts were, generally, itinerant ministries among the early churches.

a.  These itinerant workers “founded churches by evangelizing and built them up through prophetic utterances. There can be little question that this is the understanding of the term ‘apostle’ in Paul’s letters” [see I Cor. 9:1-2; 2 Cor. 10:15-18; and Rom. 15:17-20]” (Fee, 1994, p. 707).

b.  Therefore, it can be concluded that an apostle, as a general rule, would be a pioneering church planter anywhere in the world, whose ministry also involved equipping other believers for their work of ministry.

B.   I Corinthians  12:28

The verse reads, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” “Appointed” (etheto, aorist, indicative, middle of tithemi) indicates an action in the past (aorist indicative indicates the past tense action) that God appointed for himself (middle voice).

There are several surprising features about this verse (stated by Fee, 1987, pp. 618-620):

1. The sentence begins with the emphatic, “And some God appointed in the church.” God is responsible for this diversity in the church.

2. The mix of gifts in this verse is amazing because Paul begins with three types of persons (apostles, prophets, teachers) and then mixes in some of the  charismata from vv. 8-10, miracles and gifts of healings, before adding the sixth and seventh items of “helps” and “administration” (gifts of service that are not mentioned again in the New Testament), and then follows the  charisma of “tongues.”

3. Here we have what looks like personal ministries, charismata and deeds of service in combination.

What one is to make of this mix is not certain. At best we can say that the first three emphasize the persons who exercise these ministries, while the final five emphasize the ministry itself. . . The first three items are not be be thought of as ‘offices’ held by certain ‘persons’ in the local church, but rather as ‘ministries’ that find expression in various persons; likewise the following ‘gifts’ are not expressed in the church apart from persons. . . Why, then, does Paul rank the first three? That is more difficult to answer, but it is almost certainly related to his own conviction as to the role these three ministries play in the church. It is not so much that one is more important than the other, nor that this is necessarily their order of authority, but that one has precedence over the other in the founding and building up of the local assembly (Fee, 1987, p. 619).

Here is seems to be Gordon Fee’s view that the apostles, prophets and teachers are necessary for the founding of a local assembly. Surely this didn’t apply just to the Corinthian church, but to other churches as well! The tense of the verb, “appointed,” does not solve the issue as the other gifts in the list (e.g. teachers, helps and administration) surely are not restricted to the first century church. They are clearly being given to the contemporary church. Why, then, should the other gifts, including apostles, be limited to the first century if the others aren’t’

C.   Howard Snyder’s view on the gift of apostle

Although he wrote the following material over 25 years ago, Howard Snyder (1977), a church renewal leader, has successfully cut through some of the excesses and presuppositions of both camps — charismatic and non-charismatic advocates. He admits:

“Fortunately, we are beginning to see a new emphasis among both Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals on the fact that spiritual gifts must be understood in their biblical context, that is, as part of God’s plan for the normal functioning of the Christian community.

“The basic question is not whether specific spiritual gifts such as those of apostle, prophet or tongues-speaking, are valid today. The question is whether the Spirit still ‘gives gifts to men,’ and the answer is yes. Precisely which gifts he gives in any particular age is God’s prerogative, and we should not prejudge God. Interpretations as to specific gifts may vary. But we have no biblical warrant to restrict the charismata to the early church nor to ban any specific gift today. Arguments against gifts generally arise from secondary, not biblical considerations and fear of excesses or abuses.

“My own study of the Church in the New Testament convinces me that we can understand God’s plan for the Church only as we give proper attention to spiritual gifts. This is no strange doctrine but something the early church understood very well. In Ephesians spiritual gifts form the connecting link between Paul’s statement of God’s cosmic plan for the Church and his description of normal local church lift: ‘There is one body and one Spirit. . . But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. . . It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers’ (Eph. 4:4, 7, 11). . .

“The life and growth of the early church can be seen best as a community of Spirit-filled Christians exercising their spiritual gifts” (Snyder, 1977, p. 77).

Snyder affirms the unique foundational role of the Twelve, plus Paul (1977, p. 87) and asks, “Did apostleship continue beyond the New Testament?” (p. 87). He answers:

Because of the obvious uniqueness of the original apostles, some have argued that apostles no longer exist today. But this conclusion runs counter to biblical evidence and makes too sharp a break between the original apostles and the church leaders who followed them (p. 87).

What, then is the function (job description) of  apostolos in the New Testament, a word that “occurs eighty-one times” (Snyder, 1977, p. 87)? Snyder considers that there are three meanings of “apostles”:

1. There were the 12 apostles especially chosen by Jesus, a word that “occurs with this meaning seven times in the Gospels, as well as in Acts 1:2 and possibly Jude 17” (p. 87).

2. Snyder considers apostles and leaders in the first century church.

Apostles designates the principal leaders of the early church in the book of Acts. . . Beginning with Acts 8, we can no longer be sure that  apostles refers only to the Twelve. Gradually the meaning of the term seems to expand to include other emerging leaders (p. 87).

These “emerging leaders” included Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14), James, Jesus’ brother (Gal. 1:19), Apollos (1 Cor. 4:9) and Silas (1 Thess. 2:7). Andronicus and Junias (Rom. 16:7), “the latter possibly a woman, seem also to have been considered apostles” (p. 87).

In the book of Acts, apostles in the broader sense of general church leaders — not necessarily restricted to the Twelve — appears twenty-four times. The identity of the ‘apostles and elders’ in Acts 15 is not specified, and we have no solid grounds for assuming  apostles here means the Twelve only, especially considering the prominence of James at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:13) . . . Note also the general, unspecified references in 1 Corinthians 9:5; 15:7. . . Apostles seemingly has a broader meaning than the Twelve also in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. Paul says the risen Jesus appeared first to Peter, ‘then to the Twelve,’ and later ‘to James, then to all the apostles’ (Snyder, 1977, p. 88; n19, p. 199).

3. Apostles is used in the New Testament “in a still broader sense as referring to messengers or missionaries” (Snyder, 1977, p. 88). Examples are found in John 13:16; 2 Cor. 8:23 (the ESV translates apostolos as “messengers”) and Phil. 2:25.

Against this background, Snyder concluded that

we have no warrant for restricting the meaning here [I Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 4:11] to the original Twelve. Surely we can recognize a unique, unrepeatable apostleship in that first group of apostles. But already in Paul’s day there were other apostles. What Paul is indicating is not the original Twelve, but rather the function of apostle which God has given as a permanent aspect of the charismatic nature of the Church. Nothing in Paul’s treatment of spiritual gifts suggests that he was describing a pattern for the early church only. Quite the opposite. For Paul  the Church is a growing, grace-filled body, and apostles are a permanent part of that body’s life.

It cannot be successfully maintained, therefore, that the apostolic ministry passed away with the death of the original Twelve. Nor is there biblical evidence, conversely, that the apostolic ministry was transmitted formally and hierarchically down through the history of the church. Rather,  Scripture teaches that the Spirit continually and charismatically gives to the Church the function of the apostle” (Snyder, 1977, p. 88, emphasis added).

The function of apostles

Snyder’s view is that:

  1. They were general leaders of the church;
  2. Their place and authority were recognised throughout the church;
  3. This was so, because of “the general conviction that the Spirit of God has raised them up” (1977, pp. 88-89). <>Their
    “authority is based in their being raised up by God and in their faithfulness to revealed truth, that is, the Bible. Their authority is contingent upon their faithfulness as witnesses; ceasing to witness faithfully to the truth of God’s revelation, they cease to have authority.”Apostles today, then, are the Church’s general leaders, whose who have responsibility for the general oversight of the Church” (p. 89).
  4. “It makes little difference biblically whether apostles today are called bishops, superintendents, moderators, presidents or what have you” (p. 89).
  5. The apostle is a person, not an official with an office.”Apostleship is a  function, a gift. God has not established the office of apostle, prophet, evangelist and so forth. This would be to think in static, institutional terms. Rather, ‘his gifts were that some should be apostles, prophets, evangelists.'” The gift from God is persons, not offices.” (p. 89)


I cannot agree with Snyder’s teaching that the gift of the person of an apostle coincides with general church leaders today, as the thrust of this paper provides evidence to the contrary. I endorse his teaching that the gift of apostles continues in the contemporary church. The use of priority in biblical terminology seems to suggest that pioneer, church planting messengers (apostles) or missionaries are closer to the biblical understanding of being an apostle: “God has appointed in the church first apostles . . .” (ESV, I Cor. 12:28) and “he gave some as apostles [mentioned first]. . .” (NASB, Eph. 4:11). However, the purpose of these five ministry gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12, ESV), is a strong indicator that these gifts should be functioning in association with every church. It could be that the apostle eminated from a local church and had a wider ministry of church planting, based in that local church. These are only suggestions based on the evidence considered in this paper.

I am supportive of Fee’s (1994) view that, apart from I Cor. 9:5 and 15:7-11,

There is no other evidence of any kind that Paul thought of a local church as having some among it called ‘apostles,’ who were responsible for its affairs. . . There is no place in Paul where there is a direct connection between the Spirit and apostleship. His apostleship is received ‘from Christ’ (Rom. 1:4-5 and ‘by the will of God’ (I Cor. 1:1); it is never suggested to be a ‘charism’ of the Holy Spirit” (p. 192).

Fee acknowledges that “in Eph. 3:5, the mystery of the gospel is revealed to the apostles and prophets by the Spirit; but that is a different thing from being designated or ‘anointed’ for this ministry by the Spirit” (1994, n406, p. 192).

There is support in I Cor. 12:28 and Eph. 4:11 for the gift of apostle having to do  with function and  not with office. The function is that of an equipper of the saints who helps to bring people to maturity and unity in Christ. These ministry gifts help believers to grow up in the Lord.

F. Greek verbs and the continuation of apostles

I know that English grammar is not a favourite subject for today’s English students and it was not so for their parents either. When I teach New Testament Greek, I have to precede the first lessons with a review of fundamental English grammar before Greek grammar can be introduced. This is a shame and a tragic statement about the deficiencies in our Australian educational system. Some trendies would challenge my old-fashioned and fundamental view.

It’s time for an investigation into the “aorist-loving” Greek language.

1.  The dilemma

If we use English translations to determine the validity or otherwise of the gift of apostle, this is what we discover:

a. I Cor. 12:28, in an English translation, states: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, . .” (ESV). “Has appointed” is an example of the English perfect tense –”an action completed, or perfect, in past time” (Thomson & Foreman, 1985, p. 26).

b. Eph. 4:7 in English, “. . . and he gave gifts to men” (ESV). “Gave” is an example of the simple past tense in English.

c. Eph. 4:11 in English, “And he gave the apostles. . .” (ESV). Again, “gave” is the simple past tense.

The English grammar affirms that God appointed and gave the gift of apostle in the  past, but these verbs, in English, when associated with the gift of apostle indicate actions by God & Christ  in the past. This sounds like clear support of the cessationist argument that this gift was given at a time in the past (with Christ’s immediate 12 apostles and Paul) and that they have ceased.

These are examples of the dangers of exegeting the Scriptures by use of the English language only.

2. Greek is an aorist-loving language

One of my former Greek teachers used to say (and the quote may not be original with him) that “Greek was an aorist-loving language.” And it is.

a.  Aorist as punctiliar action

The aorist tense is so pervasive in the Greek New Testament that Dana & Mantey speak of the aorist as “the most prevalent and most important of the Greek tenses,” adding that “it is also the most peculiar to Greek idiom.” Why? “The fundamental significance of the aorist is to denote action simply as occurring, without reference to its progress. . . The aorist signifies nothing as to completeness, but simply presents the action as attained. It states the fact of the action or event without regard to its duration. . . The aorist may be represented by a dot (l )” (1955, p. 193, 179).

When we come to deal with the issue of apostles today or not-for-today, we have to examine the use of the aorist tense. The three verbs translated in English with a past action (perfect and simple past) in I Cor. 12:28 and Eph. 4:7, 11, are all aorist tenses in the indicative mood. The indicative mood “is the mood of  certainty.” Dana & Mantey go on to say that with the Greek verb, two elements are involved, “time  of action and kind of action,” but “time is but a minor consideration in the Greek tenses ” (1955, p. 177, emphasis in original).

b. Aorist indicative as simple past action

But there is one exception where the aorist tense has a past tense function, and that is with the indicative mood. The aorist tense generally indicates “action simply as occurring, without reference to its progress.” However, “its time relations” are “found only in the indicative [mood], where it is used as past [tense]” (Dana & Mantey, 1955, p. 193). Machen lends support: “The tense which in the indicative is used as the simple past tense is called the aorist” (1923, p. 65; also Moule, 1959, p. 10).

This should solve the problem permanently regarding when the gift of apostle is given. The three verses here considered (I Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:7,11) all use verbs in the aorist indicative. It was simple action in the past. It happened in the past with no indication of its continuation — end of story.

In relation to his interpretation of Eph. 4:11, Wayne Grudem affirms this view, stating that this verse

“Talks about a one-time event in the past (note the aorist  kai edoken, ‘and he gave‘), when Christ ascended into heaven (vv. 8-10) and then at Pentecost poured out initial giftings on the church, giving the church apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers (or pastors and teachers). Whether or not Christ would later give more people for each of these offices  cannot be decided from this verse alone, but must be decided based on other New Testament teachings on the nature of these offices and whether they were expected to continue. In fact, we see that there were many prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers established by Christ throughout all of the early churches, but there was only one more apostle given after this initial time (Paul, ‘last of all,’ in unusual circumstances on the Damascus Road) [Grudem, 1994, n9, p. 911, emphasis in original].

Grudem acknowledges that

“The word  apostle can be used in a broad or narrow sense. In a broad sense, it just means ‘messenger’ or ‘pioneer missionary.’  But in a narrow sense, the most common sense in the New Testament, it refers to a specific office, ‘apostle of Jesus Christ'” (1994, p. 911).

c.  A warning

But the solution is not that simple because of these factors:

(1) The Greek tenses major on the kind of action, rather than the time of action. A. T. Robertson warns: “The caution must be once more repeated that in these subdivisions of the aorist indicative we have only one tense and one root-idea (punctiliar action). The variations noted are incidental and do not change at all this fundamental idea” (1934, p. 835).

(2) The gift of apostle that God/Jesus “gave” (Eph. 4:7, 11) or “has appointed” (I Cor. 12:28) could be a gnomic aorist, “a universal or timeless aorist and probably represents the original timelessness of the aorist indicative” (Robertson, 1934, p. 836). Because there is no Greek tense to represent punctiliar action in the present time, the aorist idiom would be appropriate in the “so-called Dramatic Aorist [which] is possibly the oldest use of the tense” (Robertson, 1934, p. 841).

(3) The Greek aorist states an undefined punctiliar action and if we want to use it in the present time, we still use the aorist and often translate it with the simple English past or perfect tenses. But we must never lose sight of the fact that the root-idea of the aorist is point-action of fact. Timeless (gnomic) or dramatic aorists could still be actions of fact in the present time and apply to I Cor. 12:28 and Eph. 4:7, 11.

(4) This leads Robertson to say that in translating the aorist tense into English,

the Greek aorist indicative, as can be readily seen, is not the exact equivalent of any tense in any other language. It has nuances all its own, many of them difficult or well-nigh impossible to reproduce in English. Here, as everywhere, one needs to keep a sharp line between the Greek idiom and its translation into English. We merely do the best that we can in English to translate in one way or another the total result of word ( Aktionsart), context and tense. Certainly one cannot say that the English translations have been successful with the Greek aorist. . . Burton puts it clearly thus: ‘The Greek employs the aorist, leaving the context to suggest the order; the English usually suggests the order by the use of the pluperfect.’ . . . The Greek aorist and the English past do not exactly correspond, nor do the Greek perfect and the English perfect. The Greek aorist covers much more ground than the English past. . . From the Greek point of view the aorist is true to its own genius.  The aorist in Greek is so rich in meaning that the English labours and groans to express it. As a matter of fact the Greek aorist is translatable into almost every English tense except the imperfect, but that fact indicates no confusion in the Greek” (Robertson, 1934, pp. 847-848, emphasis added).

d. A conclusion

The Greek aorist indicative, as in I Cor. 12:28 and Eph. 4:7, 11, could be translated as simple past tenses in the English  (as in the ESV) and this would indicate that the gift of apostle has ceased.However, a broader understanding of apostle (as shown above) and the use of the gnomic (timeless) or dramatic (expressing what has just taken place) aorists should be a pointer to God’s continuing gift of apostles. Since Greek uses the aorist, leaving the context to suggest the order of action, Eph. 4:11-14 shows that the five ministry gifts, including apostles, are needed “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith . . . to mature manhood. . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.”

This will be a continuing ministry until Christ returns. To say that it’s okay for evangelists and pastor-teachers to continue throughout the church age, and that apostles and prophets are excluded, makes one’s agenda obvious.

“When Niccolo Paganini willed his finely crafted and lovingly used violin to the city of Genoa, he demanded that it never be played again.  It was a gift designated for preservation, but not destined for service.
“On the other hand, when the resurrected Christ willed his spiritual gifts to the children of God, he commanded that they be used.  They were gifts not designated for preservation, but destined for service” (Green, 1982, p.352)

The gifts of apostles are not given by the risen Christ to be defined away or annihilated, but they are destined for service.  May we never silence God’s gracious gifts to us — the body of Christ.  Paul, to the Corinthians, wrote: “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them as he chose” (I Cor. 12:18).  May we never snuff out the gifted members of the body that God chose!

God arranged the members in the body, each one of them as he chose (I Cor. 12:18)

Appendix I

On a theological forum on the www, I interacted with a few people on the continuation or cessation of the gift of apostle.  Bill (not his real name) responded to one of my postings.

Bill wrote: “I wonder how can a dictionary define apostolos as meaning ‘having miraculous powers.’  Surely the definition has to do with ‘being sent’,  ‘messenger’, etc. And surely the attribution of miraculous powers is nothing but the personal interpretation and imposition of the dictionary editor, no?”

My response: Any language relies on basic dictionary definitions, based on etymology (study of historical & linguistic change) and various usages. Here in Greek, we depend on lexicons such as Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich, and Thayer; word studies such as Colin Brown’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. None of them is infallible.

We may disagree with some of their conclusions regarding the meaning of words, but these scholars have done the hard slog in carving out basic understanding of words.

Take an example like John 13:16 (ESV): “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant ( doulos = bondservant/slave) is not greater than his master ( kurios = lord), nor is a messenger ( apostolos = sent one, delegate) greater than the one who sent him”

How do we know that  doulos means bondservant/slave,  kurios as lord, and apostolos as messenger, sent one or delegate? Scholars who have dedicated themselves to the task of finding the meaning of Greek words have arrived at definitions that have generally been accepted. However, these meanings must be open to challenge, but we need to have good reasons to go in another direction.

Concerning “apostolos,” Thayer’s lexicon gives the basic meaning of “a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders” (1962, p. 68). He referred me on to Bishop J. B. Lightfoot’s application of the term in a section, “the name and office of an Apostle” (Lightfoot, 1957, pp. 92-101). In his final paragraph, Lightfoot stated: “Ancient writers for the most part allowed themselves very considerable latitude in the use of the title [apostle]” (p. 101). For anyone wanting a developed word study on the meaning of “apostolos,” this extended treatment by Lightfoot is well worth the read and study.

Bill stated: “Surely the attribution of miraculous powers is nothing but the personal interpretation and imposition of the dictionary editor, no?”

My response:

What do you say of 2 Cor. 12:12 (ESV), “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works”? These are hardly “the personal interpretation and imposition of the dictionary editor” but the signs and wonders that Paul, a true apostle, performed among them. They are “the signs of a true apostle” according to the Apostle Paul. Could anything be clearer? Why should such signs not be associated with true apostles of today (e.g. Eph. 4:11; I Cor. 12:18, 28)?

[For a view, which I support, by Jack Deere, on why the miraculous gifts continue, see: “Were Miracles Meant to Be Temporary?”.  For a contrary view by Richard Mayhue, see, “Who Surprised Whom? The Holy Spirit or Jack Deere?” There is a more balanced perspective (than Mayhue’s criticism) in “Questions Cessationists Should Ask: A Biblical Examination of Cessationism”]

Appendix 2

I responded to another student, James (not his real name):

My response:  I have no axe to grind. Because I am committed to the inerrant Scripture and historical-grammatical hermeneutics, I want to hear what the Scriptures say. If it can be clearly and definitively shown from the Word that the gift of apostle refers only to those who have been with Jesus and have witnessed his resurrection and that gift has ceased, I willingly submit to the Word. To this point, I have not been shown by my study of the Word or from the comments on this Forum, that this qualification is what definitively determines the continuing gift of apostle —  if such exists today.  In fact, I find it unusual that Paul, in writing to the Corinthians and Ephesians, many years after the resurrection of Christ, would continue to affirm the giving of the gift of apostleship if such a gift  ceased with those who physically saw the resurrected Christ.

We know that there were more than 12 apostles.

1. Paul and his associates were apostles: 1 Thess. 2:6, “Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though  we could have made demands  as apostles of Christ.” These apostles (the “we”) could possibly be referring to Silvanus and Timothy as well (1 Thess. 1:1).

2. Paul did not meet the qualifications you are stating and yet was appointed as such (see Acts 9:5-6; 26:15-18). He defends his apostleship in I Cor. 9:1-3.

3. In Acts 14:14, both Barnabas and Paul are called apostles.

4. Gal. 1:19 seems to indicate that our Lord’s brother, James, was an apostle. We know from I Cor. 15:7-9 that the resurrected Christ appeared to James. In James 1:1 he calls himself a “slave/servant —  doulos.”

5. There’s the possibility that Andronicus and Junias (Rom. 16:7) could be “among the apostles.” This is only one interpretation through the years of exegesis.

6. Epaphroditus, in Phil. 2:25 is called an “apostle” ( apostolos), but the ESV, NIV, KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, etc. translate as “messenger.”

In total, this makes approx. 18 identified as apostles. This could be reduced in number if we exclude Timothy (cf. 1 Thess. 2:2, 6).

James wrote: “It might have something to do with the qualifications of the office. Although there may be many excellent characteristics of an apostle, there was one special requirement laid upon the 11 for the selection of Judas’ replacement.  Anyone can be an apostle who has seen the LORD Jesus Christ and had walked with Him.”

My response: As this point in my Christian pilgrimage, I am not able to accept your premise that “anyone can be an apostle who has seen the Lord Jesus Christ and had walked with Him.” Acts ch. 1, in context, makes it very clear that this was a qualification for a choice of a replacement for Judas. Acts 1:21-22 (ESV), “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, [22] 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.”

Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:1-3), asks a question, “Am I not an apostle?” With the particle “ou” he expects a positive answer. Here he seems to give two qualifications for apostleship:

(a) First, he had seen the Lord (9:1). There’s a volume of literature debating whether this “seeing” was actual or a revelatory vision.

(b) Second, the establishment of churches in new areas (“for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord”, 9:2) See also I Cor. 3:6, 10; 4:15; 2 Cor. 10:13-16.

I fully accept the statement of the foundational role of apostles and prophets, as in Eph. 2:20, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” However, I am yet to be convinced that the ministry gift of “apostles” has ceased. At this point, I am of the view espoused by F. F. Bruce (1961) — see below.

Second Cor. 11:13 makes it clear that there were false apostles in Paul’s day at Corinth. If such gifts are still given today, we should also expect the false to manifest as well as the genuine.

Have I missed something? Where does it say in Scripture that all apostles (given as gifts by the resurrected and ascended Lord) must meet these same qualifications?

How can the resurrected and ascended Lord continue to give gifts of apostles (Eph. 4:7-11; cf. I Cor. 12:27-30) who are required to have lived and walked with him and to have witnessed his resurrection,  after his resurrection and ascension? Paul is giving superfluous instructions to Corinth and Ephesus if such gifts are no longer possible — yet he includes them among gifts that continue.

James wrote: “So when I Cor 11 and Ephesians 4 were written had the authors seen the living Lord? Were there apostles still living who [were] eye-witnesses to the gospel? Is this a valid requirement today?”

My response:  Or is your premise invalid that all apostles had to be eye-witnesses to the resurrection (what do you mean by “eye-witnesses to the gospel” as I am an eye-witness to the gospel today)?

F. F. Bruce considers your premise invalid. In his comments on Eph. 1:1 (“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ”) he stated that:

The term ‘apostle’ (Gk. apostolos), as used of Christians in the New Testament has two meanings, a wider and a narrower. In the wider sense it is used of Christian missionaries in general (e.g. of Timothy and Silvanus in 1 Thess. 2:6, or of Barnabas in Acts 14:14), or of ‘messengers of the churches’ (as in 2 Cor. 8:23). But in the narrower sense, in which Paul uses it of himself here and elsewhere, it is confined to those who have received their commission directly and independently from Christ, apart from any mediation — that is to say, to Paul and to the Twelve” (1961, p. 25).

James wrote:  “If not, then perhaps this is an historic office only.”

My response: Perhaps! But I have not seen a definitive interpretation of Scripture that convinces me, but I am open to such.

James wrote: “Can you think of a third option?”

My response: Most certainly! Your interpretation could be wrong, and so could mine be!!

Appendix 3

James wrote again [I did not respond as he was not reasoning from the Scriptures, but quoting his favourite cessationist authors]:

“I will make a scholarly reply in one long posting even tho I fear it will overwhelm you. We have a tendency to not read material that opposes our view holding the mind in check while we dream up a convincing reply.”

Here goes:

[I] John F. Walvoord, “The Person of the Holy Spirit. Part 8 The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Believer,” Bibliotheca Sacra 99, no. 393 (Jan 42): 26ff

Walvoord writes about the office of apostleship. He notes that the word apostle, a translation of the Greek “apostolos,” means literally, a delegate, messenger, or one sent forth with orders (See Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, in loco).

Walvoord gives the following list of qualifications:

(1) They were chosen directly by the Lord Himself, as in the case of Barnabas by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 10.1,2; Mk. 3.13,14; Lk. 6.13; Acts 9.6,15; 13.2; 22.10,14, 15; Rom. 1.1).
(2) They were endued with sign gifts, miraculous powers which were the divine credentials of their office (Mt. 10.1; Acts 5.15,16; 16.16-18; 28.8,9).
(3) Their relation to the kingdom was that of heralds, announcing to Israel only (Mt. 10.5,6) the kingdom as at hand (Mt. 4.17, note), and manifesting kingdom powers (Mt. 10.7,8).
(4) To one of them, Peter, the keys of the kingdom of heaven, viewed as the sphere of Christian profession, as in Mt. 13., were given (Mt. 16.19).
(5) Their future relation to the kingdom will be that of judges over the twelve tribes (Mt. 19.28).
(6) Consequent upon the rejection of the kingdom, and the revelation of the mystery hid in God (Mt. 16.18; Eph. 3.1-12), the Church, the apostolic office was invested with a new enduement, the baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.1-4); a new power, that of imparting the Spirit to Jewish-Christian believers; a new relation, that of foundation stones of the new temple (Eph. 2.20-22); and a new function, that of preaching the glad tidings of salvation through a crucified and risen Lord to Jew and Gentile alike.
(7) The indispensable qualification of an apostle was that he should have been an eye-witness of the resurrection (Acts 1.22; 1 Cor. 9.1).”

[II] O. Palmer Robertson, “Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing,” Westminster Theological Journal 38 (Fall 1975): 43-53.

Robertson writes, “In the case of the founding office of apostle it has fulfilled its function as covenantal sign for the Old and New Covenant people of God. Once having fulfilled that role, it has no further function among the people of God” (p. 53).

[III] John A. Witmer, Review of “Understanding the Miraculous Gifts in the Scripture,” by Edward N. Gross, Christian News, February 2, 1987, pp. 13-15 in Bibliotheca Sacra 144, no. 576 (Oct 87) p. 464.

Gross does not deny that miracles occur today. He recognizes that our God is a miracle-working God” (p. 14). Gross’s own experience as a missionary in Africa taught him that. But, he insists, there is a difference between the occurrences of miracles and the gift of performing miracles. The former are not the effect of the latter. His second argument deals with the unique office of apostle and the “signs of an apostle.” These signs are the powers given only to the Apostles. The miraculous gifts, as sign gifts, are bestowed only through the Apostles. When the last apostle died, the miraculous sign gifts also disappeared.

[IV] Alan Askins, “Paul’s Defense of His Apostolic Authority to the Galatians,” Conservative Theological Journal 2, no. 6 (September 1998): 304ff.

First, Paul claimed to be an apostle given divine authority and sent on a divine mission. Second, the office of apostle was created with a practical purpose in mind, not for self-exaltation or ceremony. Apostles were not high churchmen, but lowly instruments chosen to carry a message. K. H. Rengstorf writes:

An objective element, the message, thus becomes the content of the apostolate. Full and obedient dedication to the task is demanded. Action accompanies speech in demonstration of authentic commissioning. The works are not a subject of boasting or evaluation but of a joy that expresses a complete ignoring of the person and absorption in the task. (TDNT p.72)

The office of apostle was never intended to be perpetual in the Church. It was a unique position, in a unique time, serving a unique purpose.

[V] John H. Fish III, “Brethren Tradition or New Testament Church Truth,” Emmaus Journal 2, no. 2 (Winter 1993): 123.

“The leadership of the apostles as those directly appointed by Christ was immediate and continued without change throughout their lifetime. Because the gift and office of apostle was temporary there was of necessity a transition to the period when the apostles were no longer alive.”

[VI] James L. Boyer, “The Office of the Prophet in New Testament Times,” Grace Journal 1, no. 1 (Spring 1960): 20.

“Take the office of apostle for example. There are no apostles today. They were the authoritative general leaders of the church in the New Testament. That office has ceased to exist. Its function is carried on in the congregational government of the churches. But the pronouncements of churches are not authoritative decrees to be put up alongside the Scriptures.”

[VII] : 53.

“Today there is no need for a sign to show that God is moving from the single nation of Israel to all the nations. That movement has become an accomplished fact. As in the case of the founding office of apostle, so the particularly transitional gift of tongues has fulfilled its function as covenantal sign for the Old and New Covenant people of God. Once having fulfilled that role, it has no further function among the people of God.”

“Hope you made it through them” [ says James].


1. I was helped in clarifying my understanding of the gift of apostleship by Wayne Grudem (1994, pp. 362-365).

2.  I am an Australian, retired as a counsellor and then a counselling manager, PhD in New Testament (University of Pretoria, South Africa, 2015), and an active Christian apologist.

3. The word, “true,” is not in the original text, which simply reads, “the signs of an apostle.” The RSV, NRSV, ESV and the NASB have added “true” and the RV has added “truly” to give the sense. Paul is contrasting his ministry with that of false apostles in 2 Cor. 11:13.

4. Unless otherwise stated, the translation used is the NASB:  The New American Standard Bible.

5. In the Greek of this verse, “the signs” [of an apostle] is in the nominative case while “signs and wonders and miracles” is in the dative. Therefore, the “signs and wonders and miracles” cannot be in apposition to “signs” of an apostle. This means that ” the signs of an apostle” cannot be described as “signs and wonders and miracles.” For that to be the situation, “the signs” [of an apostle] would have to be in the  same case as “signs and wonders and miracles.” The NIV translates incorrectly as ” The things that mark an apostle — signs, wonders and miracles . . .” This translation violates the grammar just described. The KJV also does not accurately translate the grammar with the translation, “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.” The RSV, NRSV, ESV and NASB give a more precise translation. For example, the ESV translates 2 Cor. 12:12 as, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” I am indebted to Grudem (1994, n. 16, p. 363) for alerting me to this distinction.

6. Stott writes Eph. 3:26 (1979, p. 160), but there are only 21 verses in Eph. 3. I presume he means Eph. 3:5-6 and I have inserted these two verses here in Stott’s quote.

7. In the NASB, “as” is not in the Greek manuscripts, but is inserted to clarify the meaning. The NIV accommodates this Greek idiom of separating one thought from another in a series, by translating as: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.”


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Committed to “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15)



Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear.This document last updated at Date: 11 October 2015.