I realize that title of this post is a little misleading as it is a question that cannot be answered in a single post. In fact, books have been written on this subject and I would propose that there are still books that need to be written on this subject. Up front I have to say that, as always, I highly recommend Art Katz’s classic Apostolic Foundations when seeking illumination on the apostolic church. So, while I cannot examine the subject in one post, I want to add a few thoughts to the discussion and perhaps even re-direct our common considerations of the apostolic and the prophetic.
I have to admit that recently I have become a little weary of the phrase “Apostolic and Prophetic.” It is probably because the phrase seems to have become yet another buzzword. At the moment it seems like everyone is posturing their ministries to make sure they are “Apostolic” or “Apostolically aligned,” and, while I am not criticizing for that, I have to wonder if we have lost something in the mix.
Most definitions of what is “apostolic” seem to revolve around leadership structures or functions and I believe this is where we go astray. For example, if someone leads a large enough group then they are apostolic or if they can plant another fellowship and send out individuals then they are considered apostolic. I believe it is fair to say that if we examined most of our present teaching and our actions around the words “apostolic and prophetic” it would revolve around authority structures or functions. The question I think we need to ask is what if that is not the essence of the apostolic and the prophetic? What if they are defined by something entirely difficult than a leadership role or a function? What if there is something entirely different to be demonstrated in these gifts that we are missing but is very necessary? Could it be that the very progress of the church is impaired for want of a correct understanding of these terms?
For those of you, like me, that get confused or wearisome of some of the apostolic and prophetic rhetoric, for a moment let’s lay aside all that we have previously known and examine this for a moment and see if God does not open up something entirely different.
First of all, if we consider the New Testament it will become apparent that by defining the apostolic and prophetic just in terms of a leadership structure is to miss the mark. This is not to say that apostolic and prophetic men are not leaders or that leadership should not demonstrate elements of these giftings, but only to make that point that wherever leadership qualifications are described in the New Testament, no mention of giftings is included. This gives us insight into how the early church chose leadership and how they saw the correlation between giftings and leadership. The critical elements of any leadership qualifications in Scripture are character and maturity. What this shows us is that, while we would expect apostolic and prophetic men to be leaders, organizational leadership is based primarily on calling and character over gifting. In other words leaders are selected according to God’s call, their own character, and their maturity and not by virtue of their gifting.
Why is this point significant? It is significant because we find that many places where the apostolic and prophetic discussion is taking place are going to great lengths to make sure their leadership structures are “apostolic and prophetic.” Now, I’m not arguing against that, but questioning the definition of “apostolic and prophetic” and proposing that these are to be characteristics, not merely of leadership, but of the entire body. In many cases the net effect of this is that titles are applied to pre-existing leaders merely so that they fit in this new leadership paradigm.
In other groups, we find the attempt to define the apostolic ministry based on function. As an example, they would say that an apostle is one that goes on missionary journeys, or plants other works. The definitions of what is an apostolic function may vary, but many groups attempt to define the apostle via function. The problem here is that the Scriptures do not seem to define the apostle based on function. To make an analogy, you can show someone a light and say, “that is electricity,” but the light is not the essence of electricity it is merely one function or manifestation of it. In the same way, some times we are attempting to define what is apostolic based on the function or manifestation of a specific individual and missing the essence of the gift.
So what is apostolic? Examining two scriptures in John provides significant insight into the essence of what it truly means to be apostolic. Let’s consider two scriptures:
“There came a man sent from God, whose name was John.” – John 1:16 (AMP)
“And this is eternal life: to know You, the only true and real God, and to know Him, Jesus Christ, Whom You have sent.” – John 17:3 (AMP)
Notice the word “sent” in both these Scriptures. This is the word “apostello” in the Greek. Now we must consider the word apostle from Ephesians 2:20 where Paul describes the church foundation as being built upon the “apostles.” The word there is “apostolos” and its word origin is from “apostello.” In other words, we could alternately translate the word “apostle” into “sent one” or “one who is sent.”
In the passages noted above, John Baptist was clearly described as one sent from God. Did John heal? Did John plant works? Did John even prophesy in the way that we would expect a prophet to prophesy? The answer to all these is no. And yet John is a “sent one.” John shows us that just as the apostle’s essence as an apostle is not necessarily equivalent to his personal function in ministry, so to a prophet is described by his essence and not by his ministry.
In fact a prophet can be a prophet and not even have the gift of prophesy. We do not have room to consider that here, but look at the New Testament and you will see a clear differentiation between the prophet and the gift of prophesy. The prophet can often have the gift, but it is the essence of the prophet that makes him a prophet, not the possession of a gift of prophecy.
So then, the apostle can be defined best as “a sent one” and this definition has great implications for the church. This means an apostle may or may not be an organizational leader. He also may or may not found other churches or ministries. These things are not critical to the definition of an apostle, the critical things is that he is sent. In fact, we find the pinnacle of what is means to be an apostle in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate apostle or “sent one.” He was sent out from God and this sending and issuing from the Father is what made His ministry and effect so dramatic on the earth, and while we do not issue from the Father in the flesh as Jesus did, we are to be sent ones in the Spirit.
An apostle then is one whose very life issues out of the Father. He is one who cannot help telling what he has seen and heard (Acts 4:20). An apostle carries the scent of heaven because he has been sent from heaven. He carries an eternal viewpoint and an eternal urgency because he has been sent out by heaven. The prophet likewise carried the urgency and vision of heaven in the Old Testament and now in the New Testament he carries this joined together with the Apostle. We can clearly see this apostolic foreshadowing in the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6 when God asks, “whom shall I send” and Isaiah answers, “here am I, send me!” We see here the union between the prophetic man and the “sent one.” When the prophetic burden combines with a sending from heaven, we have the distinctive ingredients of what makes an apostolic gift.
Once we free our understanding of what is apostolic and prophetic from the issue of organizational leadership or mere function, we can gain a greater understanding of how this is to operate in the church at large. God does not desire merely leaders that are “apostolic” or missionaries that are “apostolic;” rather He longs for an entire church that is apostolic. God intends that the gift carried by this sent one is to permeate and be manifest, not in leadership only, but also in the church at large. A teacher, evangelist or pastor may be called to lead and qualified by his character and yet the body over which they lead can be apostolic because the essence of the apostolic goes much deeper.
These two foundational gifts, the apostle and the prophet, then are to be pictures to God’s body. They are to carry, in themselves, an intensity concerning the nature of God and the mission of God that is to permeate throughout the entire body. They are to be stewards of His mysteries, carrying them with the gravity and value which they demand, and leading the body in the receiving of these mysteries and the demonstration of them. The apostle is not merely a role God that gave; it is a gift. He desires the church to take the gift and open it.
It has been said that those with the need to put “apostle” or “prophetic” on their business card probably aren’t actually apostolic or prophetic. While I would not want to use that to speak ill of a genuine brother or to insinuate that we never need to recognize those among us that are gifted in this way, that comment makes a critical point that becomes obvious once we have lost the paradigm of describing the apostle or the prophet by virtue of their organizational calling or function in the body.
Once we understand that these gifts are dependent upon a heavenly sending then that sending is something that one is loathe to use as an advertising gimmick or a qualifying title. The title does not qualify them, the fact that they are sent qualifies them and the demonstration that they are sent is the demonstration of the One who inhabits in eternity not a demonstration that they can put on display by their own talent, accomplishments, or volition.
Once an individual has touched the eternal and been sent, they, like Isaiah, are so marked by that sending that they are aware, above all other men, of their own personal insignificance and lack. If they are sent for their own purposes, on their own qualifications, or because of their own successes, they are not “sent ones.” “Sent ones” are sent from Him to His body for His purposes. They are infatuated with Him, not themselves, and are destined to be uncomfortable both in and to this world until Jesus sets His feet on the planet.
They are sent out of the presence of the eternal One that they may represent Him to the people until He comes. Jesus was sent out of the Father and we find the culmination of His sending at the end of Revelation is the Father coming down to earth. Likewise, we are sent by the Spirit that we might point forward to the coming kingdom and the culmination of the sending of the apostolic church will be the return of Jesus. The sending of apostolic men in our day must be seen as a part of the sending of the Son from the Father for the purpose of ultimately preparing the way for the Father to dwell among men on the earth.
In fact, this is part of the apostolic mystery that is demonstrated in Jesus. God desires to rest in men that will be sent that they might prepare the earth to be His dwelling place. The pinnacle of this incarnation is the Godman Jesus, issuing out of the Father both in the flesh and in the spirit. Our flesh is born of human impulse, but our spirit is to issue forth as a new birth from the Father that we might participate in God’s great union of man with Himself and might prepare the earth to be His dwelling place.
There is much that can be written on this, and this is meant only to be a teaser to cause us to consider these things in greater detail. If nothing else, we can walk away with the understanding that we need to describe what is apostolic primarily in terms of a heavenly sending. To define it in terms of organizational leadership or individual ministry function is to miss the meaning of the word.
In the future I am considering using this space to consider this issue more deeply. In the meantime, God wants us to contend with Him until we again see the operation of “sent ones” among the church. We are not to forsake or disparage teaching, pastoring or any other gift in the pursuit of what is apostolic and prophetic, but our essence must be that of “sent ones.” Unless we are ambassadors of another realm that have been sent from another realm, how will we have any message to this place and this time of any eternal authority and how will we declares ourselves to be, as Paul did, citizens of another kingdom?