In the earliest church, shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ, leadership was charismatic rather than appointed. In other words, people emerged as leaders because they were particularly close to Jesus while He was on earth and/or the church sensed a special working of God in their lives (see Acts 1:15-26 for example). Over time these charismatic leaders became known by the titles apostle and prophet.
According to Luke 11:47-50, the ancestors of the scribes and Pharisees killed the (Old Testament) prophets (verses 47-48), just as the scribes and Pharisees would kill the “prophets and apostles” that God sent to them (verses 49-50). So both apostles and prophets in the New Testament are the successors of the Old Testament prophets (see also Eph 2:19-22). The apostles and prophets together were agents of God’s revelation to the fledgling church. As such, they naturally became the leaders of the first generation of believers in Christ.
The root meaning of “apostle” concerns one who is “dispatched for a specific purpose,” a messenger or ambassador of some kind. The status of such an “apostle” depends on the status of the one who sends him or her (John 13:16). The “apostle” can be simply a messenger between ordinary individuals. But when the “apostle” is sent by a king or by God, his or her status becomes extraordinary. It is as if the sender is present in the person of the one sent. The title “apostle” is rare in Greek outside the uniquely Christian context.
In the New Testament, therefore, the apostle is highly honored by other believers as a special envoy direct from God. In the fullest sense, Jesus is the ultimate apostle (Heb. 3:1-2), in Him the definitive revelation of God has taken place (Heb. 1:1-3). All other apostles derive their authority from Him. These became the pre-eminent leaders of the church after the ascension of Christ. Although the term originally applied to the twelve disciples alone (Matt. 10:2; Mark 3:14; Luke 22:14, cf. Acts 1:26), the body of apostles eventually extended beyond the twelve to include Paul (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:1, etc.), Barnabas (Acts 14:14; 15:2), James (brother of Jesus– Gal. 1:19) and others (Rom. 16:7).
The office of apostle required some sort of direct calling from the New Testament Jesus, in Paul’s case a call to reach out to the Gentiles (Acts. 9:15; Eph. 3:1, 8). Powerful leaders of the second generation, such as Apollos and Timothy, who did not have a direct call from Jesus, are not called apostles (1 Cor. 3:3-9; 2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 3:2). So the office seems to have been limited to the first generation of Jesus’ followers (1 Cor. 15:8). The duties of the office centered on traveling from place to place proclaiming what the apostle had experienced with Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1, 5; Eph. 3:5). In the process apostles would found and administer new churches (1 Cor. 15:10-11; Eph. 2:20). They would appoint elders to head up those churches but would retain an authoritative role over them.
The Greek root of “prophet” is a compound word, combining a Greek word for “speaking” with the prefix “pro” which is ambiguous in meaning. It can mean “speaking openly” or publically, much like preaching. But it can also mean “speaking ahead of time” or “in advance.”
We see New Testament prophets at work in the Book of Acts (Acts 11:27-30; 15:30-32; 21:10-14). Their messages were accepted as authoritative by the church and an obedient response was expected, so prophets had a significant leadership role in the earliest church. At the same time the church struggled in one case with just how to apply the prophetic message to a specific situation (Acts 21:12-14).
It is interesting that although Paul speaks prophetically to the churches (1 Cor. 14:6), he never calls himself a “prophet.” This suggests that the designation “apostle” includes the gifts and activities of the prophet and more (2 Cor. 12:1-7: Eph. 3:3-7). Apostles and prophets are equal when it comes to being the objects of direct revelation. But the apostle’s authority is even greater than the prophet because of the special commission of leadership and the unique relationship in time to the first-century Christ-event. The apostles were more directive while the prophets led by influence.
With the close of the first Christian century the office of apostle seems to have died out and prophets have become increasingly rare. Well before then, charismatic leadership was increasingly replaced with appointed leadership. We’ll look more at that in my next blog.