Apostles and prophets

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.”
-1 Corinthians 12:27-31 [53-57 A.D.]

“You should receive every apostle who comes to you the same way you would receive the Lord.”
-The Instruction of the Twelve Apostles [70-110 A.D.]

It seems to me that, for some time now, parts of the church might have misunderstood what apostles really are. When we in the Protestant tradition hear “apostle,” we automatically think “the Twelve,” lumping the Apostle Paul into that number (Matthias doesn’t count, apparently). And, even though we pay lip service to the Twelve, only six actually really count — Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Matthew, sometimes Andrew, with Thomas being the one everyone likes to hate on (but when’s the last time Bartholomew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Philip, or Thaddeus have been held up in sermons as exemplars of piety?).

Who does the New Testament say are apostles? For starters:

  • the Twelve (including Matthias)
  • Paul (Romans 11:13, Galatians 2:8)
  • Barnabas (Acts 14:14)
  • Andronicus and Junia (a woman!) (Romans 16:7)
  • Silas (1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2:6)
  • Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:4-6, 3:22, 4:6, 4:9)
  • Timothy (1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2:6)

Hold on there! That’s 18 people! Surely this count can’t be correct. And look how wild things get when you take Church tradition into account!

  • St. Irenaeus (died c. 202)
  • St. Denis (died c. 250)
  • St. Saturnius (died c. 257)
  • St. Gregory the Illuminator (c. 257 – c. 331)
  • St. Martin of Tours (316-397)
  • St. Frumentius (died c. 383)
  • St. Patrick (373-463)
  • St. Ninian (4th-5th cent.)
  • St. Severinus (c. 410-482)
  • St. Remigius (c. 437-533)
  • St. Columba (521-597)
  • St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604)
  • St. Hubert (c. 656-727)
  • St. Willibrord (c. 658-739)
  • St. Boniface (680-755)
  • St. Vergilius (c. 700-784)
  • St. Ansgar (801-864)
  • Saints Cyril and Methodius (c. 827-869 and c. 815-885, respectively)
  • St. Adalbert (d. 981)
  • St. Anastasius (954-1044)

(Note: this is an incomplete list, having left out all the apostles after the Great Schism in 1054)

Why are all these people, who served well after the Twelve were commissioned, called apostles? The simple answer is that they were sent out. (That is, in fact, what the word apostle means.) These people had been sent out, — some by Jesus, some by Jesus’ bride — to make God’s glory known among the nations.

So why does Paul call apostleship the greatest spiritual gift? It’s not because there were 12 guys who had a corner on the market, and that apostleship was valuable because there was such a limited supply. No: it’s because the Spirit giving people apostleship means that He makes them missionaries — people whose whole lives are devoted to illuminating the world with the light of God’s glory.

So, next time a traveling evangelist comes through your town and needs a place to worship, and the next time a missionary speaks at your church with his/her hours-long slideshow, don’t make fun of them or dismiss them offhand; listen to the wisdom of the church: “receive every apostle who comes to you the same way you would receive the Lord.”

(This is part one of a two-part post. Read part two here.)

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One response to “Apostles and prophets

  1. Pingback: Apostles and prophets, part 2 | Ex Libris

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