There is a common teaching that God intended that there would be only 12 apostles. When Judas killed himself, Peter and the church chose Matthias to take his place, but later God overruled them and chose Paul. Then how come the New Testament names other men—and a woman—as apostles?
In order to believe the teaching that the appointment of Matthias was a mistake, it is necessary to believe that
- Peter acted impulsively, having been misled in his prayer and meditation on the Word as described in Acts 1.
- After Peter and the entire assembly prayed, the Holy Spirit allowed them to make a fundamental error and start the whole church on the wrong foot.
- When Paul started off two lists of “ministry gifts” with apostle in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28, he described an office that would cease to exist within a generation.
Apostles of the Lamb
As for there being only 12 apostles, it appears that these teachers have been misled by careless reading of Revelation 21:14, which refers to the 12 apostles of the Lamb. If there were only 12 apostles, why would John have needed that phrase?
Jesus called his inner circle of 12 disciples and eventually designated them as apostles. Even after Judas betrayed him, Luke 22:14 refers to 12 apostles in the upper room—graciously still including Judas in that number.
If Judas hadn’t killed himself, Jesus could have restored him as he restored Peter, but his death reduced the number of apostles to 11. Jesus had promised in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 that they would judge the 12 tribes of Israel.
And so Peter was absolutely correct that the church needed a replacement for Judas who, like Judas, had been with Jesus from the beginning. Acts 1:25-26 describes the choice of Matthias as the 12th apostle of the Lamb by the age-old and respected means of seeking God’s will by casting lots.
Matthias is never again mentioned by name, but he is actively present in every reference to the ministry of the apostles in Jerusalem for the rest of the book of Acts. These men not only taught the early church from their own experience. They also honed the stories that they would pass on to the generation of church leaders that they trained. These are the stories that eventually became the written gospels.
Other New Testament apostles
Acts 13:1 names five prophets and teachers at the church of Antioch, beginning with Barnabas and ending with Saul (of Tarsus). God commanded the church to separate Barnabas and Saul for special ministry. The two began a church-planting mission, and we learn that Saul was also known as Paul.
When they were in Iconium, Acts 14:14 starts, “When the apostles, Barnabas and Paul. . .” So Barnabas is named as apostle—not only in the same verse as Paul, but first in order. He was the appointed leader of the journey. So much for the notion that Paul was God’s designated replacement for Judas!
Implicitly or explicitly we find these other people identified as apostles
- Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus. In Luke 24:10 the women who had seen the risen Lord told the apostles. In Luke 24:13, “two of them” (of the apostles) set out for Emmaus.
- Andronicus and Junia. (Junia, by the way, is a woman’s name.) Romans 16:7
- Apollos, included in “us” in 1 Corinthians 4:9
- James. 1 Corinthians 15:7 (Jesus appeared to James and then all the apostles; Paul must have considered James an apostle, or he would not have needed the word “all.” Paul names James as apostle even more explicitly in Galatians 1:19.
- Epaphroditus. In Philippians 2:25, the English might be “messenger,” but the Greek is apostolos.
- Silas and Timothy. Compare 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2:6
2 Corinthians 8:19, 23 speak of “brethren,” not named, who was chosen by the churches as messengers. Paul and Barnabas were chosen by the church at Antioch by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to undertake their first missionary journey and identified in Scripture as apostles when they began their ministry. Might not similar sending by other churches be Paul’s working definition of “apostle”?
That would explain Paul’s reference to false apostles in 2 Corinthians 11:13. The existence of a counterfeit indicates the existence of something real. If God provided for only 12 apostles, it would have been impossible for anyone to falsely insinuate themselves into the class of apostle.
Why it matters today
The office of apostle did not pass away with the early church. Paul twice puts it at the head of the list of leaders that God ordained for the church. Here is the list from Ephesians 4:
- Apostle. Several are named in Scripture, but many believe that the office passed away with the early church.
- Prophet. Several are named in Scripture, but many believe that the office passed away with the early church.
- Evangelist. Only Philip is designated evangelist, but the modern church acknowledges countless leaders as evangelists.
- Pastor. This word designates a human church leader only here. Scripture does not identify a single pastor by name, and yet every congregation in the major denominations has at least one ordained leader identified as the pastor.
- Teacher. Actually, Ephesians 4:11 does not say, “some pastors, and some teachers.” It says “and some pastors and teachers.” It blurs the distinction between pastors and teachers. The New Testament names some teachers, but in modern churches, “teacher” often refers to unordained Sunday school teachers as distinct from the clergy.
Paul clearly intended these five offices as a description of the church’s spiritual leadership, appointed by Christ. In I Timothy 3:1, he identifies the office of bishop (or elder or presbyter) as something a man can aspire to. That would be a job description of professional administrative leadership.
We should certainly hope that all of the people who seek professional leadership in the church have been given as spiritual leaders to the church. Two millennia of sorry history amply show that many remarkably unspiritual people have risen to very influential administrative positions and done great damage to the church.
But I would like to leave you with a very different distinction between spiritual offices as given to the church by Christ and professional offices sought and earned by human initiative.
An apostle I knew
I was once part of a small inner city church, whose designated pastor was named Heber. He was painfully shy and socialized with members of the congregation with great and obvious difficulty. He was not an especially strong preacher, either.
Heber’s greatest strength was his vision for what a small inner city church could accomplish in its neighborhood. I remember standing outside of the church talking with someone who had been a member far longer than I when a van drove by with a very distinctive logo.
My friend said that Heber had started that ministry at the church. When it became to big for the church to run, he spun it off to an independent ministry and started something new. He had started more than one of the city’s ministries as a ministry of the church, grown it, and given it its independence.
Meanwhile, because Heber was so shy and awkward around people, no one in the congregation went to him for any kind of counseling, to request prayer, or any person to person ministry. For that, they went to George, the custodian. He always stopped what he was doing and warmly gave them his full attention. People left his presence feeling better than before.
Professionally George was the custodian and Heber was the pastor. Spiritually George was a pastor and Heber was an apostle.
Your congregation, if the Spirit of God moves in it at all, has apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers sitting in the congregation during worship services and performing their ministries throughout the week. You call one or more of your professional, ordained staff the pastor. He or she might indeed be a pastor by spiritual calling. Or just as likely, one of the other four ministry offices.