Several years ago, I was working as a sign maker, and a local lady came in asking for a sign for a church she was starting. I got out a piece of paper to take notes on what she had in mind. After describing her logo ideas and church name, she said, “And at the bottom, I want it to say, ‘Pastor: Apostle Jenny Richmond.’” I looked up, and she was smiling with all her teeth. “That’s me!” she said.
I was a fairly new Christian at that point, and this interaction raised a lot of questions in my mind, like, “I thought the role of apostle was limited to the first century. Is it true we can have apostles today?” and “If so, how does one get appointed to be an apostle?” and, finally, “Are girls allowed to be apostles?” Instead of asking Ms. Jenny my Bible questions in that moment, I tucked them away in my heart to study them at a later point.
Ms. Jenny, I’m sorry the best response I had for you in that moment was to smile back. I’ve lost touch with you, and the church you started is no longer there, so if you remember me, will you please reach out? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter.
Since that day I met Ms. Jenny, I have studied. And if you’ve ever had questions about apostles in the church today, be sure to stick around till the end, because the Bible is going to provide us with a test we can give to anyone who claims to be an apostle in the twenty-first century.
The word apostle comes from the Greek word apostolos, which commonly means, “one who is sent.” That’s why in Acts 14:14, Barnabas is referred to an apostle alongside Paul. If you know your New Testament, you know Barnabas was not an official apostle in the church. But he was, in this context, one who had been sent out to preach the gospel. It’s similar to the words deacon and pastor. Deacon simply means servant, and pastor means shepherd. Yes, there are the general senses of servants and shepherds, but the New Testament also speaks of official roles that people are appointed to called deacon and pastor. In the same way, what we’re interested in studying in this article is not the generic idea of someone who is sent, but the official role God gave to the church called apostle, which is what Ms. Jenny was talking about and anyone else today who claims to be an apostle in the church.
The first time the Twelve are referred to as apostles is in Matthew 10, which is when Jesus equipped them with miraculous gifts and—are you ready for this?—sent them to preach the gospel of the kingdom to Israel. These were men Jesus had hand-picked and chosen for this work. Luke explains it this way:
And when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostlesLuke 6:13
Ephesians 4 says that God gave apostles to the church in order to equip Christians for ministry and to edify the body of Christ. One of the ways the apostles in the New Testament equipped the church was through the authority of Christ. Jesus told the apostles:
All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He [the Holy Spirit] will take of Mine and declare it to you.John 16:15
Jesus’ task wasn’t finished on earth, but He was about to ascend back to the Father in a few weeks. So Jesus gave His authority to the apostles through the Holy Spirit. He had told them:
Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.Matthew 18:18 NASB
Notice how many of the letters of the New Testament begin:
- Romans begins, “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God…”
- Ephesians starts with, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus…”
- Peter begins his first letter with, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion…”
This is just a sample. The apostles were given God’s authority in His church in the New Testament. What they wrote by the Holy Spirit became holy Scripture to equip and edify the church. This is important to remember when someone claims to be an apostle today. It’s not simply that they were sent by someone, but they are also claiming to have apostolic authority in the church. To believe you are an official apostle is to believe you have prophetic authority to direct the church, add to the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit, and perform the works of the apostles (which plays an important part of the test we can give to so-called apostles today—keep reading to see the test God provides!).
A few years after Jesus chose the Twelve, there were still just the original twelve apostles, meaning Jesus, for whatever reason1, did not add to this number throughout His ministry. However, one of them named Judas betrayed Jesus, which led to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. When worldly grief set in, instead of repenting, Judas ended his own life. After the resurrection of Jesus, before ascending to the Father, Jesus gathered the remaining eleven apostles to commission them to be His witnesses and make disciples of all nations. Not long afterward, they were assembled together, and, according to prophecy, it was time for them to appoint another apostle to take Judas’ place. This would become only the second time an apostle was appointed officially. On that occasion, Peter said:
For it is written in the Book of Psalms: Let his [Judas’] dwelling place be desolate, And let no one live in it’; and, Let another take his office.’ Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.Acts 1:20–22
They then put forth two candidates: Barsabas and Matthias. They cast lots and asked the Lord Himself to make the final decision (vv. 23–26).
Jesus was not on the earth to hand-pick Judas’ replacement, so the apostles did it. Jesus had already told them, “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven,” and that the Spirit would guide them into all truth after Jesus left the earth (see John 16:13). So this occasion of replacing Judas was not just a fulfillment of prophecy, but also the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, this didn’t occur simply because the eleven remaining apostles wanted a more appealing number than eleven, even though twelve (in my opinion) is a really good number. No, this was God’s will.
When the eleven apostles were involved in replacing Judas—when they were appointing a new apostle—they understood that whoever was chosen must meet certain criteria, as this man would be fulfilling what God originally assigned to Judas. The criteria put forward in Acts 1 was:
- He had to be male (v. 21). The word here is not the general word for human, but it’s the word for a man.
- He must have accompanied Jesus during His physical, earthly ministry (v. 21).
- He must have been an eyewitness of the resurrection (v. 22).
- He had to be chosen by the Lord Himself (vv. 24–26).
This moment in the upper room in Acts 1 is the only case in the Scriptures where disciples were involved in any way in officially appointing someone to apostleship (although the Lord did the actual appointing). But Matthias was not the last apostle appointed in the New Testament. Later, we are introduced to Saul, a Pharisee bent on destroying God’s church. In Acts 9, he was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, and Jesus appeared to him. Jesus’ post-death appearance convinced Saul of the truth and led him down the path of becoming a disciple of Jesus.
Later on, Saul (who also went by the name Paul) was known as an official apostle in the church. How did that happen? The Lord Himself chose him as He did the original Twelve and Matthias.
Here’s how Paul himself explained it in the introduction to his letter to the Galatians:
Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)…Galatians 1:1
Originally, my question was, “Can we have apostles in the church today?” While studying the Bible, I realized the best way to begin answering that question was to discover the answer to “How did people receive apostleship in the church of the New Testament?”
Before we get into that, in case you didn’t know, I’ve written a book on the Holy Spirit called Clouded by Emotion. It goes into detail on this topic, as well as twelve more. Check it out here.
Jesus hand-picked the original apostles while He was on the earth, and then also appearing to Saul to appoint him as “one born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:8). After Jesus left the earth, when men got involved, the prospective apostle must have met certain qualifications, as we saw earlier. Now, equipped with that answer, we approach the question about whether or not we can have apostles today. So, we ask, who on earth today meets those qualifications set forth by the Holy Spirit? Who is both alive today and has also walked with Jesus in the first century while He healed in Galilee and Jerusalem? No one. Who on earth today walked with Jesus after His resurrection? No one. Therefore, no one meets the qualifications for the church to appoint him to apostleship today, and it would be sinful and utterly foolish to say to God, “Your requirements are clear in the Scripture, but they aren’t important to us. We will go ahead and appoint apostles anyway.” But that is what so many in the religious world are trying to do, from Roman Catholicism to some in Protestantism to the Latter-day Saints, and to various so-called non-denominational churches. There are many groups claiming to have apostolic succession today. But such claims go against what the Holy Spirit has revealed in His Scriptures.
Have you come across people like Ms. Jenny? Have you met religious leaders today who claim to be apostles? I know of many people who even have the title “apostle” as part of their name on social media. Did you know the New Testament actually tells us to test people who claim to be apostles? (We have already seen what the Bible says about this, so we’re not actually trying to gain knowledge ourselves with this test.) By using this test, we are hoping that the person claiming to be an apostle will receive the Holy Spirit’s correction and repent.
False apostleship is not new. In fact, there were even people in New Testament times who pretended to be apostles, as Paul had to deal with in his letters to the Corinthians.
But what I do, I will also continue to do, that I may cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we [that is, the real apostles of Jesus] are in the things of which they boast. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.2 Corinthians 11:12–15
The church in Corinth was at risk because people who were not apostles were claiming to be apostles. The same was true of the church of Ephesus.
I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.Revelation 2:2
The church was at risk, and they didn’t sit back and allow false teachers to sway them. They tested those who claimed to be apostles. And since the same threat is prevalent today—specifically, there are those who claim to be apostles who are not—Jesus would charge us to do the same: test them. If someone gets angry with you simply because you want to follow these instructions, that should be your first red flag. In a moment, we will see the specific test the Holy Spirit provides. Remember: true apostles in the church had the authority of the Holy Spirit. And if someone claims to be an apostle today, they’re claiming to be able to add to Scripture and direct the church worldwide beyond what is written. Can you see how dangerous that would be if someone thought they were an apostle when they truly were not?
As sincere as they may seem or even believe themselves to be, when men or women claim to be apostles today, they are deceitful workers, ministers of Satan. That’s not my judgment. Since no one on earth today can meet the qualifications of an apostle given in the Scriptures, God judges them.
For those who claim to be apostles today, give them the Scriptures’ test. To prove his apostleship, Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians:
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.2 Corinthians 12:12 NASB
What are the signs, wonders, and miracles of a true apostle? Here are some of them:
- The miraculous ability to speak in tongues that non-believers can understand (Acts 2:4–11)
- Healing various diseases (including paralysis) on the spot with immediate, undeniable results (Acts 3:6-10; 5:15; 9:33-34; 14:8-10; 28:8-9)
- Raising the dead (Acts 9:40; 20:9-10)
- Striking men blind (Acts 13:9–11)
- Exorcising spirits (Acts 16:18)
- Surviving deadly snakebites (Acts 28:3–6)
- Having seen the Lord Jesus after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 9:1)
The Holy Spirit says if a person is a true apostle, then God has equipped him with these gifts and signs. Can anyone today pass the test? Heal paralysis? Raise the dead? No. We are not talking about modern-day so-called “faith healers” who supposedly help with internal pain in private religious assemblies. No, we’re talking about the things the New Testament apostles did in public court squares among non-believers and enemies of the gospel to convince them that Jesus is the Christ.
All of the apostles have died on earth, having gone to paradise without appointing successors. The first example of this is in Acts 12, where the apostle James was slain by Herod. From that point forward, the number of apostles was only decreasing. There is absolutely no reason to believe there is apostolic succession in the church. The writings of the New Testament cover about fifty years after James’ death, and no successor of James was ever appointed. We have no apostles of the church on earth today.
If false apostles today, indeed, are sincere, they will follow the example of Saul of Tarsus, who said of himself while he was in error: “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1). You can be sincere, but still be wrong. Let’s all test ourselves with the Scriptures.
- In the gospel accounts, as well as the book of Revelation, Jesus relates their apostolic position to judges over the tribes of Israel. Jesus’ reason for sticking with the number twelve during His ministry is likely related to this fact. ↩︎