“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ….” (1 Peter 1:1).
Over the years, I’ve concluded that “apostle” is a greatly abused term. For the most part, we’ve turned it into an honorific title. The office of apostle looms large in some movements, with prophet as a close second. Such movements seek to bring local congregations under the authority of various “apostles.” These are usually celebrated ministers whose cult of personality has drawn a large following. It is thought that without one of these “apostles” revival will not come.
In churches which have an episcopal form of church government, bishops are the descendants of the apostles. Again, these are exalted ministers who oversee multiple pastors or priests and their local fellowships. In some cases, bishops become quite wealthy and wield a good deal of socio-political power besides their ecclesiastical authority. Whether this is for good or ill, the Lord knows.
In other circles, apostles are equivalent with church planters. When someone comments they are a church planter, an audible hush sometimes follows. Church planting is seen as a mighty work for mighty ministers. People seem to put church planters in a separate category from the rest of us mortal, church-goers. They must be spiritual since everywhere they go fellowships flower and grow.
But hold the phone. Let’s consider what Paul said to the Corinthians: “For I think God has displayed us, the apostles, in last place, like men condemned to die: We have become a spectacle to the world and to angels and to men…. Up to the present hour we are both hungry and thirsty; we are poorly clothed, roughly treated, homeless; we labor, working with our own hands…. Even now, we are like the world’s garbage, like the dirt everyone scrapes off their sandals” (1 Cor. 4:9-13).
Paul contrasted apostles with ministers who had large followings, collected large tithes, and were admired by Christians far and wide. Paul chided the Corinthians for devoting themselves to such ministers. Yet these sound a lot more like the “apostles” of today than the ones Paul described as “the world’s garbage.”
Apostle means “one sent.” That’s all. The way we trot out the word, you’d think it means something like, “The greatest, most impressive, most spiritual leader ever.” But an apostle is just someone Jesus has sent–like a messenger boy. As portrayed in the New Testament, apostles have the least say over what they do, where they go, or how they minister. They are just sent. Where or why is entirely up to the Master.
New Testament apostles are esteemed because they became the least and lived as servants of everyone (Mark 10:43-45). We honor them because of their nearness to Jesus–not physical nearness but that they followed the Lamb wherever He goes (Rev. 14:4). If we acknowledge modern apostles, this is the test: The Spirit of Jesus Christ crucified must indelibly mark their lives (Gal. 6:17).
Apostleship is ultimately summed up in the person of Christ: “Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest” (Heb. 3:1). Jesus was “one sent” from the Father. He did not choose His ministry. He said, “Not my will but Yours be done” and gave up everything–even His body–for the cause of the One who sent Him. Anyone not holding to the crucified Christ is more apostate than apostle, however good their PR may be.