Category Archives: Bible study

What is an apostle?

He gave some to be apostles…” (Ephesians 4:11)

Recently we took a brief look at Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus-commonly known as the “pastoral epistles”-and saw how contrary to popular belief these men were not pastors (not in the modern sense of the word) but apostles. This begs the question, what is an apostle? From superhuman Christian to a relic of bygone ages, concepts of apostleship abound in the Christian world.

To start with, the basic meaning of the word apostle is “sent one.” An apostle, therfore, is one who is sent by another. Interestingly enough, the New Testament reveals four different orders of apostles. Let’s consider these now, beginning with  

The Lord Jesus Christ, the first apostle.

The writer to the Hebrews refers to Jesus as “the apostle… of our confession” (Heb. 3:1). The Lord Jesus was the original apostle of God, sent by our Father into the world for the salvation of man and the bringing back into play of God’s eternal purpose. As an apostle, as in every other way, there is none like Christ. He is pre-eminent in His apostleship. After Him, we have

The twelve apostles of the Lamb.

When Jesus began to travel and teach as a rabbi he gathered twelve men to himself who then spent the better part of three or four years following the Lord wherever he went. They became learners, or disciples, of Jesus. At the end of that time, after the Lord was crucified and had risen from the dead, he appeared to them and said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). With this sending the disciples became apostles. The apostleship of the twelve is unique and not to be compared with the many sent ones who would follow in their stead, as evidenced by the vision of the New Jerusalem given to John in Revelation 21:14, where he saw inscribed on the foundation of the city the names of these twelve men and none other.

However, contrary to the belief of some, apostleship did not end with the deaths of the twelve. The idea that the first century was marked off as some special apostolic “age” after which there would cease to be apostles, prophets, miracles, signs and wonders forms the teaching commonly known as cessationism. Cessationism is a man-made doctrine that holds no water when held up to the light of scripture. One simple proof of this can be seen in Revelation 2:2. Here the Lord commends the church at Ephesus for testing those who claimed to be apostles but were not. If the only genuine apostles to exist in the first century were the twelve disciples of Jesus then such a test would be ridiculously unneccesary, for all you would need to know is whether or not such a one claiming to be an apostle was in fact Peter, James, John, or one of the others. No actual testing would be required. But there were indeed other apostles besides the twelve, starting with

Paul and Barnabas, the apostles of the Spirit.

Acts 13:1-4-“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.”

Here we have another unique set of circumstances. Barnabas and Saul had been living and teaching in the church at Antioch for some time. When they and a few of the other leading brothers were together ministering to the Lord the Holy Spirit witnessed to each of their spirits in such a profound way that all present knew the Lord’s intention for these two. They were called by the Lord, they had been trained and prepared for their ministry through years of experience in the church life, and now the Holy Spirit was signifiying that the time was right. So they left for foreign fields, “sent out by the Holy Spirit.”   As the Father had sent the Son so the Son had sent the twelve, but now we see the Spirit doing the sending. This is a new and different kind of sending, and therefore a different order, so to speak, of apostleship.  

What is the fourth order of apostleship revealed in the New Testament, the kind which is still being carried on by the Lord to this day? We find mention of it in 2 Corinthians 8:23, where Paul is speaking of Titus and the other brothers who often accompanied him on his travels and shared in his labors. Here it is we find

The apostles of the churches.

Little is known about the young men who travelled and labored with Paul on his journeys. We know of Barnabas and Silas, his co-workers for journeys one and two. What we are left to piece together is the story behind men such as Timothy, Titus, Gaius, Aristarchus, Secundus, Epaphras, and others. Paul himself refers to them as “partners… fellow workers… apostles of the churches, the glory of Christ.” But who were they? They were young men who grew up in the church life of their respective cities. Young men who burned with a passion for Christ and God’s eternal purpose, who over time showed evidence of being gifted by the Lord for a certain kind of work, namely that of apostleship. Eventually each of these men were recognized by both Paul and their fellow brothers and sisters in the church as being chosen by God for His work, and the churches sent them to join Paul on his journeys.

These are the kinds of apostles who have never in any generation been absent from the pages of church history. There were a good number of them in the first century, and it is possible their ranks were even populated by women such as Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). The Lord has continued giving such brothers and sisters as gifts to His church, and their contribution to the building up of the Body of Christ is beyond value.

Having established all this, you might now be wondering, what is the mark of an apostle? How can I, like the church in Ephesus, know whether a man or woman is truly an apostle? To answer this I refer you to consider both

The sign and the seal of apostleship.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:12 of the signs of a true apostle. Most people take this passage to mean Paul is saying a true apostle will perform signs and wonders and mighty works. While this may certainly be the case, such signs may also be counterfeited or done by those who are not themselves apostles (such as Philip or Stephen). The real emphasis in this verse seems to be on “utmost patience.” An apostle, therefore, is one who draws from a seemingly endless source, whose well runs deep in Christ and is incredibly difficult to dry up. In the words of Watchman Nee, “endurance is the greatest proof of spiritual power, and it is one of the signs of an apostle. It is the ability to endure steadfastly under continuous pressure that tests the reality of an apostolic call.”

Paul was certainly an example of this kind of steadfast endurance. So much more the Lord Jesus. An uncanny ability to go to the cross, despite the pressure, the pain, the persecution, the ridicule, or the hardship is one sure test of an apostolic claim. Does a man bear suffering well? Does he in one way or another bear in his body and in his being the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ?

More convincing than the signs is the seal of an apostle. This is something Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 9:1,2 when speaking of the church in Corinth. Two things are of note in this passage. First, Paul says “if to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you…” This seems to imply that one who is really an apostle is not necessarily an apostle in every setting. For instance, Paul was sent out by the Spirit from the church at Antioch where he made his home. In Antioch Paul may have been a gifted teacher, even a prophet according to the scripture, but to the saints in Antioch Paul was just a brother. He was simply brother Paul. A good brother, yes, but just a brother nonetheless. There was nothing of the superstar mentality that permeates so much of western Christianity today. Paul was not the resident priest of the Antioch church, he had no special status, he worked a job like everyone else, and though men respected him for the measure of Christ he possessed, no one was afraid of him or looked to him in any way that puffed him up and set him apart from others. Again, Paul was just a brother.

There are many men today who claim to be apostles or who view themselves and wish to be viewed by others as apostles based simply on some gifting they think they have from the Lord. Very little witness is given to this by other brothers and sisters, often based upon the fact that there are no other brothers and sisters present to give such a witness! Years of tested, proven experience in the local church life precede any development or recognition of apostleship. This is the Lord’s way, the only safe way to guarantee that the man who is sent out to minister (not the man who simply goes out of his own accord) is no threat but rather a help to the Lord’s people. This is a very vital element that is missing in most circles today. “Apostles” form vast networks, connect with people online, build charitable organizations and speak at conferences but have no local church life in which they are nothing more than just another brother. This is a great need in the Body of Christ today.

To get back to my point, the other thing Paul mentions in this passage from 1 Corinthians 9 that is worthy of note is found in his reference to the Corinthian believers themselves as “the seal (or proof) of my apostleship in the Lord.” Here we have something that cannot be denied. Basically Paul is saying that the proof of apostleship-the proof that one has been called, prepared, and sent of the Lord by his own local church to build up God’s House elsewhere-is in the churches raised up through a man’s ministry. In other words, an apostle raises up churches, plain and simple. Real flesh and blood churches, that is.Visible, locatable assemblies that can be visited and have letters written to them. Organic churches that exist apart from the supporting structures of human organization, institution, and headship. And also, churches that go on living and moving and being after the apostle has left town.

If a man or woman can do this, there’s a good chance he or she is an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This principle of an apostle raising up a church and then leaving it to the headship of the Lord is all throughout the New Testament. The reasons for it are many, the examples more than evident. Even the Lord Jesus Himself said to the twelve, who would form the nucleus of the first church in Jerusalem, “it is good for you that I go away.” Every true apostle will have this same sentiment in his heart toward those he is working with to build up as the House of the Lord. It is good for every church that the apostle goes away so the members of that church can develop into a real priesthood of believers and learn how to know and follow the Lord on her own with no man, minister or “pastor” doing the work for her. Shepherding will abound in the organic expression of the church, just not in the modern official sense we see so prevailing in Protestant Christianity.

Well, perhaps that is enough to say for now on this subject. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed considering this issue the last few days. How we need apostles in the church! How we need men and women who are called and sent of God-broken, meek, well-trained servants who are thrust forth into His harvest field for the raising up of the testimony of Jesus Christ as Head over all things! May the Lord give us more such men, and may the expression of the church they raise up be of a higher quality and a deeper reality than anything any of us have yet seen! 


The pastoral epistles: fact or fiction?

For as long as I can remember I’ve heard 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus referred to as the “pastoral epistles.” I even had a class in Bible college by the same name. The assumption is that Timothy and Titus were pastors according to the modern conception. Most people accept this without any thought, as if it were automatically true. In reality, though, this is a classic case of our tendency as humans to read into the scripture our own present traditions and practices. Or, as Richard Hanson has said,

“It is a universal tendency in the Christian religion, as in many other religions, to give a theological interpretation to institutions which have developed gradually through a period of time for the sake of practical usefulness, and then read that interpretation back into the earliest periods and infancy of those institutions, attaching them to an age when in fact nobody imagined that they had such a meaning.”

Our modern conception of a pastor is basically of a guy (or gal) who functions as resident priest of a local congregation of Christians. The Protestant pastorate is basically a reformed version of the Roman Catholic priesthood with more of an emphasis on the preaching of scripture than the administering of sacraments. The modern “pastor” is a local brother who preaches the sermon on Sunday and usually gets paid a salary to perform the duties of the clergy, such as visitations, church administration, ect.

The strongest evidence against the view that Timothy and Titus were the equivalent of the modern-day pastor is the fact that both these brothers, like Paul, were itinerant. That is, they were travelling workers who moved about regularly from place to place planting and building up churches. Timothy and Titus were not pastors, they were apostles. As such, they were constantly on the go. Listen to what bishop Lightfoot has to say on this subject:

“It is the conception of a later age which represents Timothy as bishop of Ephesus, and Titus as bishop of Crete. Paul’s own language implies that the position which they held was temporary. In both cases their term of office is drawing to a close when the apostle writes.”

So if Timothy wasn’t the “pastor” of the church at Ephesus, who was? The obvious answer, which we do-it-by-the-book, Bible-believing evangelicals love to overlook, is simply this: nobody. The office of the pastor, as it is widely regarded and practiced throughout Christendom today, is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. Look long and hard, but nowhere will you find a single example of a first-century believer occupying such a role in the local church.

But please, dear reader, before you throw stones, allow me to say that I am all for leadership, authority, and pastors. But I am for them in their truly biblical, “organic” sense, that is all. To describe what I mean by that is not the point of this particular post, however. All I’m saying for now is that to label Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus as “pastoral epistles” is a mis-leading, and it stems from the way we read and interpret scripture through the lens of our present traditions and practices. Let us pray for the Lord to give us light that we may see these writings and the story they tell in their original meaning. No doubt a revolution awaits us in that direction.  

 


New blog

Greetings all!

Take a minute to check out my new blog at Reconstructing the First Century Story. The content of this blog will deal exclusively with exploring various elements of century one, blending New Testament scripture with related Jewish and Roman history in an attempt to set forth in one free-flowing narrative the entire story of the first century churches. Away with chapters and verses, I say! Give us the Story, the whole Story, and nothing but the Story!

If that interests you, mosey on over and have a look. 🙂

 


The apostles’ teaching

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” (Acts 2:42)

What was the teaching of the apostles to which the early churches devoted themselves? Perhaps the best definition given to us in scripture is found in 1 John 1:1-4:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowhsip with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that your joy may be complete!”

Does it get any more beautiful than that? Can’t you just picture John, along with Peter and the other apostles, saying this to the newly baptized church in Jerusalem the morning following Pentecost? What an introduction to their new journey! What an awe-inspiring vision and insight into the meaning, the way, and the goal of the Christian life!

At any rate, this is the closest thing to a definition of the apostles’ doctrine, or teaching, that we find anywhere in scripture. Not a combination of verses drawn from the Bible to form complex theological systems of belief, but the simple proclamation of this glorious Person, the Lord Jesus Christ!

This Christ who existed from the beginning, whose fellowship we have experienced in practical, tangible ways; this Christ who is eternal life, who was with the Father and was made manifest to us, this Christ we proclaim to you! We proclaim Him so that you too may have fellowship with us, for our fellowship is with the Father and the Son! Enter into this fellowship of the Godhead with us and your joy, like ours, will also be complete!

Amen!


Reversing the fall of man

Tonight I was reading Genesis 3, the story of Eve’s temptation by the serpent. After Eve ate of the fruit and gave to her husband to do the same, scripture says “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

Fast forward to Luke 24. Here we have the record of two disciples of  Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It is the evening of the third day after the Lord was crucified and they are very sad. You probably know the story. Jesus shows up walking beside them incognito and asks them what they’re so down about. They reply, “are you not from around here?” as if to say, how in the world could you not know what is going on? (This is funny, because in reality Jesus is the only person in the world at this point in time who really does know what is going on!) So beginning with Moses the Lord takes them all the way through the Old Testament, showing them how it all pointed to Him and was foretelling His suffering and subsequent glory.

As they come near the village the two disciples try to convince the Lord to stay with them for the evening. At first he refuses, then agrees. Once inside they sit down at the table to have some food. As soon as he breaks the bread and gives it so them scripture says “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

Doesn’t this sound just like Genesis 3? Only now men’s eyes are being opened not to see their naked sinfulness but to see Christ! What can this mean but that the Lord Jesus Christ has reversed the fall of man with all its devastating effects?

Praise the Lord! There is now a new creation in Jesus Christ. The old things of sin, guilt, and fear have passed away, and all things have become new!


When the word in your mouth is truth

There’s a story in the Old Testament of the prophet Elijah going to the house of a widow in the town of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24). While he is staying at the house the widow’s son becomes sick and dies. The woman basically cries out against Elijah, who takes the boy up to his room and cries out to God. The boy returns to life. Elijah brings the boy back to his mother and she says, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Now I know your word is true, she said. When? After the boy was brought back from death unto life. This story simply goes to show that the evidence of truth is life… real, spiritual, resurrection life.

Most people look for truth in the realm of arguments and reason and proof-texting. “Such-and-such is true because so-and-so said it is!” But even in the field of evangelical Christianity this kind of view is sorely lacking. You can take all the “truth” there is in the Bible and unload it on a person and kill them dead on the spot. If you don’t believe me, ask Paul. I’m only alluding to what he said in 2 Corinthians 3:6:

“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Moses brought truth down from the moutain, but the people weren’t up to par so three thousand of them died on the spot. Now don’t get me wrong-the problem, as Paul says, was not with the law but with them-but hear what I’m saying. The law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. During the inaguration of the ministry of condemnation 3000 people died, but on the opening day of the ministry of the Spirit (Acts 2) 3000 people were made alive!   

My point is, it is not just truth we need in a purely academic or textual sense. We need truth in the Spirit. If you’re not convinced of this then go on Facebook and read certain people’s status updates, or go to certain churches on Sunday morning and listen to the guy behind the pulpit. Brothers and sisters every day are using the scripture like a sword to slice one another up, all in the name of standing for the truth!

Hopefully you get what I’m saying. The evidence, or outcome of truth is spiritual life. When the word in your mouth is truth, and that truth is more than a mere theory to you but something that is wrought into your very being, then you will impart something of spiritual life to those you come in contact with. This is the meaning of the story in 1 Kings, and it is the essence of the ministry of the Spirit which Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians.

May the Lord make every one of us, through whatever means necessary, ministers of the Spirit of life!


Seeing the ground of the church in Revelation 2-3

Where in the New Testament do you see a Christian leaving the church he is part of to go and join another? Or where do you see a brother getting fed up with the shallow teaching he receives in the assembly and going off to “start” his own church just down the road?

Even in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, where the Lord gives a message to each of the seven churches, when do you ever see the Lord advising someone to leave his church and find a better one?

The principle of one city, one church is consistent throughout the opening chapters of Revelation. Here again we see nothing other than “the church… at such-and-such a place.” The Lord is speaking to all His followers who live in each town. And man, some of these churches had problems! The church at Ephesus had left her first love for the Lord; the church in Pergamum had some who held the “teaching of Balaam,” and the “teaching of the Nicolaitans”, leading God’s people astray from Christ; the church in Thyatira was tolerating the presence of false teachers who encouraged people toward a lifestyle of sexual immorality; the church in Sardis had digressed into a form of godliness which denied the real power and life of God-their life was largely one of outward formality lacking any true inward life; and the church in Laodicea was full of spiritual pride and complacency!

Strikingly absent in any of these cases, however, is the Lord telling anyone they should leave their church and find a better one. Nor does he say, “You who are overcomers, separate yourselves from such wicked doctrines and practices, and form a separate assembly so you can get it right!”

You see, in the first century, if you were a follower of the Lord Jesus and you lived in Thessalonica, you were part of the church in Thessalonica. You lived and gathered and fellowshipped with the other believers in town on a regular basis. To be “in Christ” and “in the church” were practically one and the same thing. The same goes for any other town. What about bigger cities with more people, you might ask? Well, if you were a believer in Jerusalem, for instance, where there was a larger number of disciples, perhaps you wouldn’t see all the saints regularly, or perhaps you wouldn’t know them all very well, simply by virtue of the fact that there were so many (and obviously there would be many different meeting places of the church throughout the city, mostly in the believers’ homes). But still the church was uniquely one. There were large gatherings for all to hear the apostles speak in Solomon’s Porch, and there was a wonderful inter-mingling between the saints for the breaking of bread and prayers in their varioius houses. The home gatherings were not along the lines of most “house churches” today, however (many of which are not built on the ground of the church and operate separately from other local believers). Rather, there was a consciousness of unity even though there were separate meeting places. And they were all just “the church” in their city. Nothing more, nothing less.

At least, this is the ideal which found expression for a while. 🙂

The point is, nowhere in the first century among any of the churches, whether large or small, do you find any example of Christians leaving one church to “go to” another. The whole thought is simply foreign to the New Testament. What a beautiful standard we have left to us by our early brothers and sisters!

No, things were not perfect. The more I study the New Testament the less I romanticize the experience of first century believers. There were parties, there were developing factions, and there were problems galore. Nowhere did it take long for the human element to creep in and spoil the show. But, overall, the expression of the church which we see in the pages of scripture is one of aspiring toward this ideal of the one Body of Christ in undivided local expression. The House of God built firmly on the ground of locality, with all believers living and meeting as one new man. 

Could it ever be that way again, here in Christian America? I won’t dare to venture an answer to that question, though it seems unlikely to me. But well within the range of possibility, and even proven experience, is for a representative group of believers-like those Jews whose spirits were stirred by the proclamation of Cyrus to return to Jerusalem-to go back, reclaim the original ground, sift through the rubble until they find the foundation of their faith, and begin the task of rebuilding the House of God on its proper ground, which is the local church.

I realize that with all this talk about the church I’m running the risk of gross misunderstanding. I’m also well aware of how this stuff can be taken wrongly, misconstrued, or twisted. I’m not trying to present anything legalistic here. I’m not saying you should get a map, mark out the city lines, then set up some airtight organizational entity based upon geography. All I’m trying to do is present the Lord’s own view, as best as it can be discerned from the example of scripture, to which those who have the hunger may repair. This is such a wonderful, liberating thing. The reality of God’s people all being one in Christ! As much as He has made us one with Himself He’s also made us one with each other! That we can all hold to our personal convictions over things, allowing each other the same grace to differ over non-essential items of belief and practice, and yet still come together as brothers and sisters enjoying the same salvation and the same rich Lord! 

In the first century, believers gathered upon this ground. Paul poured out his life to preserve this unity of the Spirit. The fact that we see no example in scripture of a Christian being advised to leave one church for another for whatever reason, but rather to hold the ground and minister Christ as an overcomer, is setting forth a very high standard for our own conduct. It may be possible to leave a denomination, a sect, or a “group” (and at certain points commendable), but it is not possible to leave the local church, not if you have really seen what the church is. Find some saints who are captured by this vision and gather upon this ground and you’ll have found a group of people who are in this thing together for the long haul. Such a testimony is rare, very rare, in our day, yet I say the world we’re living in is in dire need of it!