Category Archives: cross

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! 


In all our affliction He too is afflicted

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve experienced a spontaneous rise of worship in my heart towards the Lord. Yesterday was one of those days.

My son was playing in the dining room. While he was playing I saw him dive on the floor for a toy and then shoot up at just the right angle to clip his head on the table. He paused for a split second and grabbed his head where it hit. I heard the slightest whimper, then saw him try to stand up. Instead he reached for his head again and I could tell he was trying his hardest not to cry. Immediately my heart leapt in his direction. It was all I could do to not cry myself. I quickly went over to him and rubbed his head, telling him to do the same whenever he bumped it like that and it would feel better. He smiled at me through his pain. It was such a heartwarming moment.

Unexpectedly, I received a wonderful insight into the Lord in that same moment. It came like a flash as I felt my own heart’s reaction toward my son’s pain. I saw the heart of the Father towards humanity, so willing to rush out and embrace us in our pain. A scripture from the Old Testament came to mind, speaking of Israel of old, which says something to the effect of, “in all their affliction He too was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9). You see, we are so quick to think of God as aloof and indifferent, somehow removed from our sorrow and suffering. But the whole essence of the incarnation is that God chose to identify with us in our humanity. Rather than remain apart, He chose to come to us and embrace us in our pain, even sharing our sorrow with us. I can’t think of a lovelier Lord than this. To think that He saw us, like I saw my son, and immediately His heart was overflown with such compassion and pity for our hurt that He could think of nothing else but to run to us and share our sorrow that He might forever take it away. What a wonderful Father! What a glorious Lord!

Anyway, it was a precious moment for me, both as a father to my son and a son to my Father. I sat down on the couch with this sudden realization and all I could think to say was “Oh Lord, you are good.” It was something more than a rote declaration; it ascended from the depths of my spirit as a response to what I saw of the Lord in that moment. It was true worship. And I couldn’t do the experience justice with a thousand words. All I can say is I pray the whole world will come to know God as I saw Him in my son yesterday.

Who will be the greatest?

It’s funny how my kids will sometimes argue and fight over who gets to sit by daddy. Sometimes when I come to the dinner table and sit by one of them, that one will look at the other and say, “see, daddy is setting by meeee.”

Funny, yes. But frustrating, too. Tonight when this happened it made me think of the disciples of Jesus. James and John once came to Jesus (or their mother did, depending on which gospel you read) and asked to be granted the prime place of honor next to the Lord in His kingdom (see Mark 10:35-39 or Matthew 20:20-28). Apparently the other disciples caught wind of this campaign and did not take very kindly to it. Jesus simply asked if they were able to endure the same kind of suffering he was in order to gain such honor. Of course they said yes.

This vying for spiritual position reminds me of the way I once prayed: “I want to be closer to you than anybody else, Lord.” “Lord, even if everyone else turns away from you, I won’t” (I borrowed that one from Peter). Then there was the quote by that guy who said to D.L. Moody, “The world has yet to see what God can do though a man who is fully given to him,” to which both Moody and I responded, “I will be that man” (emphasis upon the “I”).

All this kind of praying just seems silly to me anymore. I’m fairly certain it’s a mark of spiritual immaturity. Like the disciples arguing over who would be the greatest in the kingdom, or my kids fighting and gloating over who gets to sit next to daddy.

The person who has really faced life and become honest about him or herself is more like the man Peter became after the cross. Such a man is not so sure of himself anymore. In love with the Lord, yes, but not so quick to broadcast his selfless devotion and superior allegiance to the Master. A man who has truly experienced the cross is more confident in God’s love for him than he is in his love for God.

There is nothing wrong with aspring to be great, dont get me wrong. When the disciples argued about who would be the greatest, Jesus did not condemn them for their ambition. He simply corrected their notions of what true greatness really is. Greatness comes not by being on top but by being on the bottom. Not by ruling but by serving. Not through strength but through weakness. So we should all strive to be great. Just get your definition right. 🙂

Embracing the cross

Life is full of sorrow, but the good news of Jesus Christ is that God has redeemed even the seemingly pointless sufferings of our lives and made them servant to His purpose. When we choose to embrace the cross then our suffering, like that of our Lord’s, is transformed into something altogether life-giving and healing.

Last night and today my thoughts have fallen toward the Lord Jesus on the cross. What a horrible injustice, from a human perspective, the cross of Christ was! And yet such horrible injustice, in the hands of God, worked itself out unto the salvation of the world! Not only did the Lord redeem my life and yours through His cross, He redeemed all the suffering of fallen humanity. Now there is redemption for our suffering!

It is inevitable that every person will suffer a great deal in his or her life. Existence in this broken world is full of heartache, loneliness, sorrow, and loss. No one is exempt. For many people this alone becomes the cause of their greatest doubts over even the existence of God. I know I have faced it. What reality could there really be beyond this veil of flesh when you take into account all the seemingly random, pointless sufferings that people go through? It just doesn’t add up.

But here is where the cross becomes such a precious thing in the experience of a believer. When we find the hand of the Lord in our suffering-not causing it, not inflicting it upon us for some “higher purpose” mind you-but simply there present, ready to transform it, or rather us through it, into something beautiful, then we are actually delivered through our pain into a life that death itself cannot touch… the resurrection life of the Lord Himself, which passes through the hands of death and through death destroys death and its power over people. What a glorious mystery!

Our response to suffering will make us like one of the two thieves who hung beside the Lord Jesus on the cross. Read the record and you will see that in the beginning they both despised their lot and reviled the Lord in their suffering. Neither one of them had anything good to say about the Lord or about their predicament. Bitterness and resentment was the order of the day. But the Lord Jesus was so different. He was calm, reposed-suffering in agony, yes-yet submitting Himself, not to its ill effects, but to the hand of His Father. At some point the one thief to his side must have beheld something in the Lord that changed his entire outlook. He saw Christ bearing a cross He Himself did not deserve to bear, and doing it with such outstanding grace. He wondered at such a Person. And in the light of such a One he became convinced of his sin, and repented. Then he embraced the cross, saying “Lord, remember me.”

The thief on the other hand, however, embraced no such change. He did not see the Lord in his suffering, rather he saw only punishment, only one more reason to be angry, bitter and spiteful. Our attitude in suffering, when we refuse to embrace the cross, is like his. Our suffering works nothing for us but pain. And in bitterness we resent our past, the people around us, and above all the Lord. Our only looking toward him is to say, “if you are really God and you really care about me, you would bring an end to this suffering of mine.” And when outward deliverance does not come, resentment consumes us and we become hard and closed off toward any kind of inward transformation.

So to go back to what I said in the beginning, when we embrace the cross then our suffering, like that of our Lord’s, is transformed into something altogether life-giving and healing, both for us and for other people. But it all hinges upon our willingness to accept the cross. God is not the author of sin, and He is not the facilitator of our sufferings in life. The world we live in is broken, time and chance happens to us all, and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. Some things just happen. It can all seem very pointless and random at times, don’t I know it. But the secret is what is going on inside of us. Which thief will we be? In whose path will we follow? One sees only suffering and pain and nothing more, and his end is resentment, bitterness, and reviling. The other sees the hand of God. He sees the Lord Jesus, and he wonders at such a life to the point of embracing His cross. In the end, though there is still suffering, there is the transformation of that life into something healed, whole, and complete. This is what the Lord wants for each and every one of us. May He somehow, by His grace, make it so.

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!

Concluding thoughts on the ground of the church

So for a few posts now we have looked at the ground of the church. I hope it’s been of some benefit to you. We’ve seen how the ground of the church is tied to the practical display of our unity in Christ. I have yet to find a truly diverse group of believers who share a common life in Christ and regularly come together who do not gather upon this ground. Without the restriction laid upon us by this revelation of the local church, it is only natural that we will gravitate toward those believers who share our own personal tastes, doctrines, and dispositions. 

In Corinth, for instance, where the situation was so explosive it might have resulted in numerous congregations spread throughout the city-some based upon a certain man’s ministry, some based upon the exercise of spiritual gifts, and so forth-what did Paul do to help remedy the saints’ outlook? He pointed them to Christ and the cross, and gave them a wonderful presentation of the great diversity of the Body of the Lord. Simply because we are different, or because we emphasize different aspects of the divine revelation, is no reason to separate. We still must come together as the church in our city. Otherwise the testimony of the Lord will be lost. The walls will be thrown down, the holy stones scattered, the vessels of the Lord all carried away to Babylon, and in the absence of the House of God we will all go to building synagogues.

To conclude this series, then, I’d like to refer back again to another post I wrote a year or so ago entitled The local church: A history of change. Be sure to take a look at it before you go. Share some thoughts of your own while you’re at it. If you’re one of those who senses the Lord’s call to rebuild, let me say that the ground is all-important. The temple can only be built on that spot which the Lord has chosen to give a true expression of Himself. And while all Christians will respond to Paul’s inquiry-“Is Christ divided?”-with an emphatic “no”, not all seem to understand how that translates practically.

Oh Lord Jesus, do a work in our day and age that is beyond all that we are able to ask or think! Stir our spirits and give us a heart like David, who refused to lie down on his own bed until he had secured a dwelling place for You to rest Yourself. Show us Your plan and Your purpose to re-take this earth for Yourself, and how wonderfully bound up with that plan is the coming together of brothers and sisters for fellowship! Break down any wall that divides us and make us one with each other as You, Lord, are one with your Father. May it be practical and may it be real, that the world may believe and have life through Your name!

Praying (all the way) through Psalm 139

I think if we’re honest we all have to admit that certain portions of the Old Testament are hard to swallow. Ever since it dawned upon me that God is good, and that Jesus Christ is the full and perfect expression of the Father, I have had to take a new look at the Old Testament writings. To go into everything that entails could easily span a whole volume’s worth of blogging material, but for this post let it suffice to say that I read and pray the scripture with a different mindset than I once did.

For instance, today I was reading Psalm 139. This psalm is beautiful in every respect, one might say, until you come to the final few verses. Here the writer begins to call down curses upon his enemies-“men of blood” who speak against God “with malicious intent” and take His name in vain. David is no holds barred here. “Kill them” is his prayer to God. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I just don’t see how such a mindset could ever hope to square with the words of Jesus, who said, “You have heard it said to hate your enemies, but I say that you should love them.” I trust you get my point!

But today I realized a new way to read and pray scriptures like this. I’m coming off a particulary difficult week, personally. Among other things, I’ve had a very heightened awareness of my sinfulness. And if you’re like me, the reason you hate your sin so much is because you like it!  It seems so much to be a part of you, even one with you, just like Paul describes in Romans 7 (read it for yourself). So I’ve been very humbled this week, even to the point of giving up. But I realize that these things in my flesh are common to all men. However it manifests in each person-whether your partiucular weakness is anger, lying, lust, or whatever-it’s a burden we all bear. And these things are enemies to God and His purpose. “The flesh and Spirit are at war with each other,” as Paul would say, for their desires are conflicting.

So when I came to the end of Psalm 139 today I suddenly had an instinct to direct it toward the Lord as a prayer against myself, or, I should say, the enemy within my own self. “Oh Lord, from this wickedness in my flesh, this man of blood who is hostile toward You and toward all men-deliver me! Slay this vile beast! This old man who masquerades as me, whom the enemy would have me identify with so as to come under his power and condemnation-away with him! I hate that part of me that stands in opposition to you, O Lord, and I side with you against myself!” 

Approaching the scriptures in this way allows me to take those otherwise difficult passages of holy Writ and touch the Lord through them.  While I may not be able to say amen to David’s wish that certain people would die a horrible death (except on a bad day maybe ;)), I certainly can and do identify with every man’s longing to be free from the control of sin which indwells our bodies. In the words of Paul-“O wretched man that I am!  Thank God that through Jesus Christ our Lord He has delivered me from this body of death!”